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NAFTA report calls grain a threat to Mexico; Bean detectives visit Nebraskan; other stories

(Sunday, Nov. 14, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Below are nine items dealing with GMO crops.

1. U.S. genetically modified corn is assailed: NAFTA report calls grain a threat to Mexico; Administration disputes study
2. Report on protecting Mexican crops from modified corn criticized
3. Canada's first GM free zone honored
4. The next Green Revolution: The vote of three counties in a non-swing state may decide the fate of the world
5. One More California county bans genetically engineered organisms
6. Bean detectives visit Nebraskan
7. Using horizontal resistance to breed beans that outperform GMO, commercial crop varieties
8. Biotech wheat plan rejection raises concerns
9. A GM-free world: Leading geneticist exposes the bad science of biotech

1. U.S. Genetically Modified Corn Is Assailed: NAFTA Report Calls Grain a Threat to Mexico; Administration Disputes Study

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 10, 2004; Page A02

A scientific panel of international experts has concluded that the unintended spread of U.S. genetically modified corn in Mexico -- where the species originated and modified plants are not allowed -- poses a potential threat that should be limited or stopped. But the United States yesterday attacked the report and its conclusions as unscientific, and made clear it did not intend to accept the recommendations.

The report, written by a group convened under the North American Free Trade Agreement, rejected the U.S. position that the modified corn is, in effect, no different than conventionally bred corn hybrids. It said that because the Mexican government has never examined or approved the use of transgenic crops, their presence in the country is an inherent problem.

"How would Americans feel if we started getting living transgenic seeds that had been judged to be safe by the Cuban government but not the American government?" asked Norman C. Ellstrand, a University of California at Riverside geneticist and member of the NAFTA-appointed panel. "We would be outraged, and so are many Mexicans. Like us, they have the right to make up their own minds about genetically modified crops."

The Mexican government embraced the NAFTA report and said it expected to implement many of its recommendations.

The report, only the fifth in the treaty organization's history, was requested by Mexican farmers and officials in 2002 after researchers found that some forms of genetically modified corn were present in Mexico and were being naturally spread by cross-pollination. One variety contained genetically modified bacteria that protect the plant from certain insects, and another protects the plant if a particular kind of otherwise deadly weed killer is used on the fields.

Although it remains uncertain how the modified corn got into Mexican fields, the report concluded that the large-scale importation of U.S. corn was the likely cause. The Mexican government distributes massive amounts of U.S. corn for grinding into cornmeal and flour, but some farmers are believed to have planted the corn instead. Once planted, the genetically modified corn spread naturally in fields over the seasons.

Genetically modified corn can be legally used as food in Mexico but cannot be planted and grown, except in small test plots recently approved by the government.

The NAFTA report concluded that the modified corn does not pose a health risk, but it did say that the environmental consequences are less well understood. It also raised the possibility of the spread of potentially more hazardous types of modified corn -- such as varieties grown in the United States to produce pharmaceuticals and industrial products.

"If those types of corn ever made it to Mexico and got planted, then yes, there would be a health and safety problem that would be very hard to solve," Ellstrand said.

The U.S. rejection of the NAFTA report was broad and pointed.

"This report is fundamentally flawed and unscientific; key recommendations are not based on sound science and are contradicted by the report's own scientific findings," the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Trade Representative said in a joint statement. "Implementing many of the report's recommendations would cause economic harm to farmers and consumers of all NAFTA countries and restrict international trade."

The U.S. statement specifically criticized one recommendation -- that all U.S. corn coming into Mexico be milled at or near the border so it cannot be planted. That practice, it says, "would increase the cost of U.S. corn significantly, negatively affecting Mexico's livestock producers and consumers."

The NAFTA report and the U.S. response are also far apart on what constitutes a scientific assessment of the issue. The report included information about the attitudes of Mexican farmers to the genetically modified corn, saying many find it frightening and a threat to their staple food, while American officials said those views have no place in a scientific study.

In support of their formal critique, the U.S. agencies cited the report's conclusion that "scientific investigations and analyses over the past 25 years have shown that the process of transferring a gene from one organism to another does not pose any intrinsic threat over the short or long term, either to health, biodiversity or the environment."

The NAFTA report went on, however, to conclude that the specific characteristics of any newly created organism need to be examined -- making the case that the benefits and dangers of any genetically modified plant can be determined only by testing in the locales where it will be used. In the United States, the EPA, the Agriculture Department and sometimes the Food and Drug Administration must approve genetically modified plants before they can be introduced.

The National Corn Growers Association also sharply criticized the panel's conclusions. "The report needlessly raises concerns where there are none about a technology that is proven safe and already greatly benefits the environment and farmers around the world," NCGA President Leon Corzine said.

A copy of the NAFTA report was leaked last month to the environmental group Greenpeace, which distributed it in Mexico. The report was released Monday.

After the initial release, Mexico's equivalent of the EPA, Semarnat, said in a statement: "There is no doubt that the recommendations in the official document will be beneficial for Mexico and its environment. . . . Semarnat is awaiting the official publication of this report and is confident that the majority of the recommendations made will be implemented."

2. Report on protecting Mexican crops from modified corn criticized

Chicago Tribune, Nov 8 2004

MEXICO CITY - (KRT) - An international agency issued a report Monday recommending controversial measures to protect Mexico's native corn species from U.S. imports of genetically engineered corn, but it was quickly criticized by U.S. officials and industry groups.

The report by the Commission on Environmental Cooperation, an agency established to advise the United States, Canada and Mexico on the environmental impact of free trade, found no evidence of risk to Mexican crops from modified corn being imported now, but warned of potential future threats.

Among the recommendations to assure that the imported corn does not get planted and contaminate Mexico's native corn were milling all U.S. corn upon its arrival in Mexico, better labeling of the imports and extending a moratorium on commercial planting of lab-engineered corn until more safeguards are in place.

"With the current varieties being imported, we haven't found an impact, but they haven't really been studied either," said Chantal Line Carpentier, head of the agency's environment and trade programs. "The concern is for what (engineered corn) varieties are coming down the line."

The report was originally to be released in June, but U.S. officials condemned the science behind the report as faulty and asked for more time to study it. That angered the report's authors, a distinguished group that includes geneticists, ecologists and a former executive of Monsanto, a company that produces modified corn genes.

Some of them accused the Bush administration of trying to bury the report, at least until after last week's presidential election. They also noted that the report could hurt the United States in a pending World Trade Organization suit in which the Bush administration is challenging European bans on importing modified food products.

On Monday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the office of the U.S. special trade representative again condemned the report, saying it is "fundamentally flawed and unscientific" and contradicted the findings of the national science academies of the United States, Mexico and other countries.

"Biotechnology offers the world enormous opportunities to combat hunger and protect the environment," the agencies said in a statement. "Implementing many of the report's recommendations would cause economic harm to farmers and consumers in all NAFTA countries and restrict international trade."

Ricardo Celma, the Mexico representative to the U.S. Grain Council, said that milling the 6 million metric tons of corn expected to be imported this year would cost about $20 million. Up to 50 percent of that corn is genetically modified to make it pest resistant or give it other special traits.

U.S. officials Friday agreed to the release of the report, three weeks after it was leaked to the Greenpeace environmental group and published in the Mexican news media. Officials denied trying to obstruct its release, saying they needed the extra time to "set the record straight on this issue."

Mexico's federal environmental agency welcomed the publication of the report after it was leaked in October. It said it was already carrying out some of the report's recommendations, such as educating small farmers about the risks and benefits.

The study began in 2002 after a team of California scientists claimed to have found U.S. lab-modified genes mysteriously growing in corn in the remote hills of Oaxaca. The government confirmed the genes' presence, but insisted it did not threaten native corn in Mexico, the birthplace of the crop.

"We stand by our report," Carpentier said.

Source: http://www.kansascity.com/mld/kansascity/news/world/10131606.htm

3.Canada's first GM free zone honoured

Powell River honoured for GE free zone
Isabelle Southcott, Peak Reporter
The Powell River Peak, 9 Nov 2004

Powell River has been presented with the provincial agricultural achievement of the year award for being declared the first genetically engineered (GE) free crop zone in Canada.

Julie Bellian, manager of the Open Air Market and organizer of the Powell River Fall Fair, accepted the award on behalf of the community at the BC Association of Agricultural Fairs and Exhibitions annual conference held in Abbotsford last month.

"The fall fair made a presentation describing the success of a coalition of local Powell River groups who succeeded in having the regional district [board] officially declare Powell River Regional District as a genetically engineered free crop zone," she said.


Although Bellian accepted the award she said she did so on behalf of the Powell River Coalition for Safe Food which includes the Powell River chapter of the Council of Canadians, the Powell River Farmers' Institute, the Powell River and District Agricultural Association, Small Planet Whole Foods, the Sierra Club, local farmers and other individuals.

Regional district directors declared the Powell River area as a GE free crop zone on June 24. Being a GE free crop zone means the area is free of propagating, cultivating or raising genetically engineered organisms by people, firms or corporations.

The month before Powell River was declared a GE free crop zone, Percy Schmeiser visited the area to talk about his fight with Monsanto and how genetically engineered crops are affecting Saskatchewan farmers. He is credited with being instrumental in creating awareness about the issue.

As a result of Powell River's success a national campaign has been launched to raise awareness about GE issues, said Bellian. Powell River will also support other agricultural communities and areas to become GE free, she said, noting that other communities will look to Powell River for advice and information on how to proceed in this area.

New local enterprises including seed companies and perma-culture (sustainable organic gardening and farming) have sprung up and are offering workshops and training opportunities.

Future plans for Powell River include a new community garden with a training component as part of the Open Air Market. As well, Powell River's local seed exchange has had an increase in membership this year.

At the fall fair in September, hundreds of people stopped by the Powell River Farmers' Institute booth looking for information on seed saving, said Bellian. "And at least 1,200 pamphlets were given out on GE free information."

4. The Next Green Revolution: The Vote of Three Counties in a Non-Swing State May Decide the Fate of the World

by Andrew Christie
CommonDreams.org, October 23, 2004

On March 2, 2004, voters in Mendocino County, rugged individualists on California's rugged north coast, approved a ballot measure making it the first municipality in the United States to ban the growing of genetically engineered plants and animals.

The proponents of the ban, outspent 7 to 1 by a torrent of corporate biotech money funnelled into the county via a front group for Monsanto, DuPont, Dow Chemical et al to kill the measure, won with 57% of the vote.

A few months later, just north of Mendocino, the Trinity County board of supervisors, not waiting for a ballot measure, followed suit. Three more California counties now have their own versions of Mendocino’s GE crop ban on their November ballots.

It may turn out to be the most important ballot line in the country. To understand why, it helps to know the story of Dr. Ignacio Chapela.

When it comes to the perils of uttering a discouraging word about genetic engineering and the $220 billion industry peddling it, Chapela knows whereof he speaks. Three years ago, the UC Berkeley biotech researcher had the misfortune of leading the team that first discovered and reported transgenic DNA pollution in the maize of southern Mexico, the cradle of the world's seed stock for corn. The spectre of Mexico's multiple corn varieties overwhelmed by a genetically engineered strain would be an international disaster for biodiversity and food security, and Mexico had been assured by the backers of NAFTA that the free-trade flood of GE corn from the US would not create that problem.

Dr. Chapela's revelation therefore was keenly unwelcome in the halls of corporate biotech and by those trying to sell the GE bounty elsewhere in the world. His findings, published in the scientific journal Nature, were instantly and intensely attacked -- his data, methodology and conclusions were slipshod, prejudiced, bad science, etc.

Under industry pressure, Nature published an unprecedented apology for publishing the paper. UC Berkeley, which had just signed a $25-million research & patents deal with Swiss biotech giant Novartis, denied Chapela tenure despite the unanimous recommendation of his department. An investigation by The Guardian of London later uncovered evidence that the attack on Chapela was orchestrated by a Washington p.r. firm that specializes in biotech industry clients.

Five subsequent studies have confirmed what Chapela reported in 2001: Transgenic corn from the US is contaminating the native maize of Mexico. The papers' authors have not been able to get them published anywhere.

When Dr. Chapela came to San Luis Obispo's Unitarian Fellowship Center on October 10 to speak in support of Measure Q, the ban on growing GE crops in the county, he didn't go into the details of his harrowing personal story, but his qualifications -- a resume spanning the biotech industry, government and the groves of academe -- were obvious as he laid out the problem: Genetically engineered crops were seen from the inception of the technology as a huge cash cow waiting to be milked. In the rush to commercialize the science, "we had to look the other way" in terms of the lack of data or risk studies. Now, 25 years down the road, "the green light and blank check" that was issued to biotech to get the product to market in a hurry means the data we should have been collecting isn't there; only about 10 studies on human health and GMO's have been performed, and half of those have discovered reasons for concern -- including malformed organs, tumours, and early death in lab rats. The measures now on the ballots of three counties in California, he said, are needed to buy the time necessary for the research to catch up to GE's runaway engine of commerce.

There were two scientists on the panel from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo's training centre for future farmers and engineers. Speaking after Dr. Chapela, and clearly not yet having found themselves in a position to learn what Chapela has learned about the world and the way it really works, they ignored everything he had said and trotted out their arguments opposed to a crop ban.

First, they tried a magic trick. Dr. Scott Steinmaus instructed audience members who had each been given two ears of corn upon entering to partially peel back the leaves on the ears marked with a minus sign. All discovered the browned, dishevelled tips that are the hallmark of the corn ear worm. Then -- reminding the audience that he had just picked these ears from Cal Poly's fields that morning, and, of course, couldn't say what they’d find -- Steinmaus asked the audience to semi-shuck the "+" -marked ears, from the college’s GE field, which were all found to be be pearly yellow perfection and corn ear worm free. He beamed. (As a kid, when I was assigned the task of shucking and boiling the corn for Sunday dinner, I would flick off the worm, if present, cut off the brown tip with a two-dollar paring knife and drop the corn in the pot. Little did I know that I could one day circumvent this low-tech solution to this vegetable emergency thanks to a $220 billion industry that would also draft me into an experiment that may bequeath to my descendants liver failure or congenital deformities.)

Then Dr. Dan Peterson made the "don’t stop the march of progress" argument, making the analogy to the early days of the automotive industry: Dangerously unsafe early vehicles gradually improved, their defects eliminated through research. We didn’t ban cars; the technology was allowed to advance.

One of the audience members pointed out that a car cannot pass along the characteristics of a bad muffler to other cars. She might well have added that they also can’t transfer bad-muffler traits to other species, nor pass along characteristics that go undetected for a generation or two before triggering unforeseen reactions in combination with viruses that have lain dormant for millions of years, nor cause problems that cannot be corrected -- say, a legacy of birth defects or an unstoppable plague -- even if you recall every defective vehicle you produced.

GE’s defenders at the table opined that they're just biologists, not trained in the social sciences, and were having to learn how to deal with the "emotionalities" around the GE debate. But as the questions from the well-behaved audience mounted, the scientists had no opportunity to practice grappling with emotions; rather, they seemed to have problems with the application of logic.

Dr. Peterson said he was sure corporations would never come to patent and own all the seed stock used to grow the world's food crops. When informed that this is, in fact, Monsanto’s stated business plan, he said he didn’t doubt the reality of a company _intending_ to do so, but doubted they could ever actually achieve it. When pressed as to exactly what would stop a transnational giant with billions of dollars in resources -- with which it is rapidly buying up seed companies -- from achieving that goal, he said he hoped corporations like Monsanto would also be selling non-GE seed from the companies they purchased, even though the point of that exercise is to alter one characteristic of a seed's DNA, patent it, own it, and thereby charge eternally for its use. He affirmed his faith in the marketplace, as many people clearly prefer to buy organic non-GMOs rather than Big Ag’s manipulated product, therefore consumer choice would effectively thwart the corporate plan for 100% penetration of genetically engineered foods. When asked what role consumer choice could have in the matter once GE crops had succeeded in cross-pollinating and contaminating non-GE crops, extinguishing the organic option, he held his hands up in front of his chest and said he was not going to get into a discussion of Monsanto’s business plan because that wasn’t his field.

Peterson and Steinmaus both affirmed that a crop ban was not the way to go because it will not take food products containing genetically engineered ingredients off supermarket shelves, nor label them, nor fund more safety testing. They urged concerned members of the public to instead “call their Congressmen."

On the other side of the table, Dr. Brian Rees gently pointed out that the people of San Luis Obispo are not in a position to prod the federal government into an action it is not inclined to take, nor bring about a national labelling program. "We cannot effect that," but, he suggested, "If you’ve got an oar and some water, you stick your oar in the water and start to row. This is what you can do now."

About two weeks after the Unitarian Centre debate, organic farmer Brian Rich stood on the sidewalk of Higuera Street in downtown San Luis Obispo and watched a protest parade of huge, shiny new tractors and industrial agricultural machinery trundle down the street in a show of "family farmer" solidarity against the GE crop ban. (Talking points: The measure is "poorly written," "unenforceable," "economically devastating" and "restricts farmers' freedom of choice.") None of the giant machines looked like it cost less than $100,000, and all looked like they had rolled out the factory doors of International Harvester and John Deere earlier that day.

A bemused Rich pulled out his cell phone and called the organizers of the SLO GE-Free ballot initiative. "Looks like Monsanto has arrived," he said.

More than 100 million acres of the American midwest are now covered with GE crops. California's massive agricultural sector, still relatively untouched, is the next prize. On November 2, the residents of San Luis Obispo, Butte and Marin Counties will let Big Ag know if that golden prize is nearly in hand or if an anti-corporate Boston Tea Party, 21st-century West Coast division, has commenced. If the latter, then -- as usually happens with things that begin in California -- it will surely spread.

Andrew Christie is chapter coordinator for the Santa Lucia chapter of the Sierra Club in San Luis Obispo.

5. One More California county bans genetically engineered organisms: Defeats of Butte and SLO initiatives will not deter future efforts in others

Californians for GE-Free Agriculture, Nov 4, 2004

Residents in four California Counties - Butte, San Luis Obispo, Marin and Humboldt - went to the polls to vote on initiatives that ban the countywide planting of genetically engineered (GE) crops and other organisms. Marin County successfully passed an initiative with 62% support.

In Humboldt, 35% of voters supported the ban despite the fact that advocates of the measure withdrew their own support of the initiative several weeks ago after discovering legal problems with the language, indicating the likelihood that legislation will pass there in the future. In both San Luis Obispo and Butte, the measures failed to garner majority support, but gathered 41% and 40% of the vote despite being significantly outspent by agribusiness opponents such as the Farm Bureau.

In Mendocino County, the first county to pass a ban in March 2004, the biotechnology industry lobbying organization CropLife spent over $600,000 in a failed attempt to influence the election outcome, six times more than local supporters. The industry changed its tactics after Mendocino, and opposition in Butte and San Luis Obispo funneled through the Farm Bureau and other voices of corporate agribusiness, outspending local supporters 4 or 5 to 1.

Over the past year California has become an epicenter in the global struggle to stop the use of GE in agriculture. In March 2004, voters in Mendocino approved a measure to become the first county in the United States to ban GE crops. In August, the Trinity County Board of Supervisors voted to become the second. Many other counties, including Sonoma, Alameda, and Santa Barbara, are organizing to pass similar measures. Arcata is likely to become the first US city to ban GE crops when the city council votes at a November 3rd meeting.

"We are not the least bit deterred by the losses in San Luis Obispo, Butte and Humboldt counties," stated GE-Free Sonoma Campaign Director Dave Henson. Sonoma County is gathering signatures to qualify for a June 2005 ballot. "This relatively young grassroots movement of family farmers and citizens is just starting to gain momentum."

"Genetic engineering corporations have foisted these crops on farmers and consumers without sufficient testing, regulation, or the ability to prevent contamination" said Renata Brillinger, Director of Californians for GE-Free Agriculture. "This movement of county bans signals the need to pause in the headlong rush towards genetic engineering, and to engage in a statewide democratic debate about the future of this technology in California."

6. Bean detectives visit Nebraskan

Nebraska farmer Vernon Gansebom has spent the better part of the last two years talking to people about how to save his biotech soybean seeds to legally use them next year. Gansebom's efforts to speak to trade groups, generate support among other farmers and talk with seed companies finally got someone's attention. Two private detectives from St. Louis drove to Osmond, Neb., last month to talk to Gansebom.

"They didn't exactly say how they got my name, but they said somebody must have turned me in," Gansebom said. Gansebom is one of about 500 farmers Monsanto will investigate this year, as it does every year, for possibly illegally using the company's patented seeds.

Gansebom, 80, said the private detectives who visited his farm asked him to sign a statement authorizing them to pull his acreage records at the Pierce County Farm Service Agency office. "Actually, I laughed at them right off the bat, I thought it was funny," Gansebom said. "Afterward, it was like 'What the heck?' It was kind of like Gestapo tactics."

Earlier this month Monsanto sent private investigators to Vernon Gansebom's house to make him prove he bought all the soybeans he planted this year. "We used to always plant our own seed, but they've taken that away from us," Gansebom said. "I don't feel right about that."

Source: http://www.gmwatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=4614

7. Using horizontal resistance to breed beans that outperform GMO, commercial crop varieties

(Friday, Nov. 12, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- The article below comes from The New Farm publication.

Beyond GMO … the REAL answer to healthy, disease resistant crops Down in Mexico, two plant scientists, despite lack of funding and support, are staging a true green revolution. By using a strategy called horizontal resistance to breed bean plants with broad genetic resistance to diseases and pests, they are outperforming GMO and commercial crop varieties … without the need for pesticides! This is a must read piece. Be patient with the science and you’ll be richly rewarded.

By Don Lotter, Ph.D.

Posted November 9, 2004, Chapingo, Mexico. Dr. Roberto Garcia opens the trunk of his car and reveals piles of cloth bags of bean seed, labeled with such names as Atimegaya, Hogar, and Huesonapan. “This is how I get the beans from my program to the farmers. I am the extension system as well as the researcher,” says Garcia. This is surprising, considering the impressive data he has shown me on the yields of the disease resistant bean cultivars (field beans, Phaseolus vulgaris) from his 10-year old breeding program. Most successful crop breeding programs like his have an extension system, or at least a full time employee, for getting seed out to farmers.

Garcia, professor at the Colegio de Postgraduados in Chapingo, outside of Mexico City, has no extension system support and no funding for seed dissemination (or for other activities fundamental to a breeding program) because he sits, despite successful results, on the wrong side of an unnecessary chasm that divides two different approaches to plant breeding.

In a society that calls itself democratic, open, and merit-based, it is always surprising, even shocking, to hear about a situation in which a proven technology or a solution to one of society’s problems has been ignored or even suppressed because it didn’t fit into the existing philosophy. Of course, those of us in the organic farming and food movement are all too familiar with such scenarios, but when I hear about it happening, as a scientist, it still pushes me hard.

Garcia’s development of high-yielding bean varieties that need no inputs of pesticides has been accomplished using an approach to plant breeding that literally turns the green revolution approach on its head. His approach is called horizontal or quantitative resistance breeding. (Terminology note: The mainstream plant breeding community uses the term quantitative when referring to this aspect of plant genetics. However, as a gesture of respect to those scientists who have used the term horizontal resistance breeding and who have persevered in establishing it as an indispensable approach to crop improvement, I am keeping the term horizontal.)

Horizontal resistance breeding can be of enormous value to the North American organic and sustainable agriculture community, and could prove to be the basis of the development of many, if not most organic crop lines in the future.

On the other side of the chasm from the horizontal approach to plant breeding sits (with all the money) what is known as vertical or qualitative resistance, dominant for some 100 years over the crop breeding milieu. Vertical disease resistance generally involves one or just a few genes, and the vertical approach to breeding involves the transfer of one or a few genes from plant to plant to bring about desired traits like disease resistance.

This approach to crop development is the basis for the genetic engineering industry, and is heavily invested in a proprietary orientation to crop development (ownership of genes and cultivars).

Garcia has seen his funding pulled by both international and Mexican funding sources, despite developing bean cultivars, via his horizontal resistance breeding program, that have increased yields by 2-5 times that of the existing cultivars in the Mixteca bean growing region of Mexico. The funding cuts came despite the fact that Garcia not only eliminated the need for pesticides, but showing that his new cultivars consistently yield on par or better than the newest “improved” green revolution varieties, all of which need pesticides.

The Mexican agricultural ministry and the international funding agencies are all staffed by mainstream plant breeders, invested in the vertical resistance paradigm, according to Garcia. “They simply refuse to believe that horizontal resistance breeding has any value,” says Garcia.

Garcia’s disease resistant bean data, showing yields of 1,500 to 2,400 kg of beans per hectare, with no pesticides, vs. former yields of 350 to 600 kg per hectare, are not just one year’s data. These are consistent yields from replicated trials, year after year for the past half dozen years. And the yields of the horizontal resistant cultivars are still climbing with each breeding cycle of hand cross-pollinations and screening.

A separate but related horizontal resistance breeding program at the University of Chapingo, under the direction of Dr. Luis Serrano, has achieved the similar levels of bean yields, also showing superior yields to the green revolution varieties.

History of the chasm between vertical and horizontal resistance breeding

The history of the chasm between horizontal resistance breeders and the dominant alternative, vertical resistance breeding, goes back to the first decade of the 20th century, to the discovery of the neglected work of Gregor Mendel. Mendel had discovered that single genes could be inherited as recessive or dominant alleles as part of homologous chromosomes, forming the basis for single gene selection and breeding of organisms for traits based on selected genes. The transfer into crop cultivars of genes with characteristics such as disease resistance or short stature became the focus of crop breeding programs.

The problem is that a majority of the time that a gene for disease resistance was bred into a crop, the disease pathogen would develop new races that were virulent against the newly bred “resistant” cultivar. The breakdown of resistance based on single genes has been a continual problem in crops since vertical resistance breeding began. In wheat, resistance to leaf rust, stem rust, stripe rust (Puccinia spp.) and scab (Fusarium) have broken down one after another. The most recent breakdown of stem rust in wheat was announced in 1999 when a virulent biotype developed on wheat in Uganda, causing concern for wheat crops around the world.

The traits that were of interest to the Mendelian disease resistance breeders were generally for genes with total resistance to disease. However, it was known, even before the discovery of Mendel’s work, that there was a quantitative aspect to disease resistance in plants, and that within populations there could be found plants with anything from zero to near total resistance to a disease and everything in between. This quantitative type of disease resistance was not as spectacular as single gene resistance and receded into the shadows of plant breeding.

In 1963 a South African plant pathologist, J.E. Vanderplank, elucidated these two types of disease resistance, vertical and horizontal, in his classic book Plant Diseases: Epidemics and Control. The terms vertical and horizontal were based on graphical depiction of the two phenomena (Fig. 1).

The vertical resistance system is actually a system of matching co-evolved genes between the plant and the pathogen. Horizontal resistance is polygenic; many genes are involved in the resistance to the disease, thus the terms vertical/qualitative and horizontal/quantitative.

Both vertical and horizontal disease (and insect) resistance are found as integrated mechanisms for defense within a plant population in the wild ­ they are strategies evolved by the plant species to stabilize its relationship with pathogens.

Dr. Raoul Robinson, British/Canadian plant pathologist and author of Return to Resistance, probably the staunchest defender and strongest promoter of horizontal/quantitative resistance breeding of crops, uses various metaphors to describe vertical and horizontal resistance. In my own adaptation of his description, vertical resistance can be likened to a door lock on a house, where the pathogen has to have the key to enter. But the house has other doors through which other races of the pathogen may enter, if they find the plant, in which case vertical resistance breaks down.

Horizontal/quantitative resistance is akin to having unlocked doors on the house, with soldiers in the house to fight off the pathogens when they enter. It is characterized by many genes which can fight off any local races of pathogen. Horizontal resistance, according to Robinson, does not break down, because there is no lock and key gene-for-gene mechanism as with vertical resistance. It can vary from very low levels of resistance to nearly complete, and thus is known as quantitative resistance.

When vertical resistance is isolated by taking a narrow genetic slice of a spectrum of genes from a wild population, and then bred into a crop, as is done in mainstream resistance breeding, the resistance, in isolation, cannot be sustained, and in most cases eventually breaks down. Potato illustrates another case. Early in the 20th century potatoes were bred almost entirely for vertical resistance to late blight, the devastating fungus that hit Ireland in the 1840s. It was found however, that it took the late blight fungus about four years to overcome the vertical resistance while it took eight years to breed the vertical resistance. After that, resistance breeding was largely given up and control of late blight brought about by copper compounds.

Dr. John Niederhauser, working in Toluca, Mexico, discovered that polygenic, quantitative (horizontal) resistance was much more successful and sustainable against late blight of potato. In 1991 he was awarded the World Food Prize for his pioneering work.

The chasm between horizontal and vertical breeding is not all black and white, and many crop breeding programs incorporate quantitative resistance into their regimens. However, most are based substantially on gene transfer and vertical resistance, while horizontal/quantitative resistance remains a minor player. Much of the alienation of the Raoul Robinson-trained horizontal resistance breeders from the mainstream may be due to Robinson´s approach of eliminating vertical resistance from crop lines in resistance breeding programs (described below and outlined in his books Return to Resistance and in Self-Organizing Agroecosystems).

Robinsons’s practice of completely eliminating vertical resistance from parental lines appears to have merit, however. Vanderplank discussed in his book--and Niederhauser further showed--how in potato, vertical resistance to late blight could, over many breeding generations, cause a near complete loss of horizontal resistance to late blight, just as happens when fungicides are consistently applied over many sexual generations. The plant, minus any pressure from late blight, in a sense says “Why do the work to produce these (horizontal resistance) defense mechanisms when there is no late blight attacking me?” When the vertical resistance broke down in this particular variety of potato, called Vertifolia, late blight completely and utterly devastated it, as it now had neither vertical nor horizontal resistance. This Vanderplank called the Vertifolia Effect. It is for this reason that the Robinson school of plant breeding first eliminates vertical resistance from parental lines of crops, as they don’t want any masking of horizontal resistance.

How scientists breed for horizontal/quantitative resistance

The methods used for breeding for horizontal resistance are such a radical departure from conventional plant breeding that the reader is likely to do a double-take when introduced to them. They literally turn the classical plant breeding paradigm on its head. (Note: Not all crops are conducive to horizontal resistance breeding, a subject that Robinson discusses in his book Return to Resistance.)

After collecting as wide a spectrum of crop germplasm as possible, the collected lines are planted, and inoculated with or exposed to two or three of the worst diseases or insect pests for that particular crop. The next step is the controversial one. The surviving plants (the disease and pest inoculations should be designed to be sub-lethal) are then selected for on the basis of susceptibility. This may be completely counterintuitive, but it is one of the most important steps in horizontal resistance breeding. The objective is to completely eliminate any vertical resistance, which is easy to identify because the plants will be completely free of the disease or pest.

In Garcia’s breeding program in Mexico, he selected 71 of the best bean cultivars from the Mixteca region, exposed them to three of the worst bean diseases - bean common mosaic virus (BCMV), the common blight bacterium (Xanthomonas), and the fungus Macrophomina, a soil-borne root pathogen.

He then selected seven of the most diseased lines out of the 71. The seven lines were so diseased that some of them had just one or two pods.

When Drs. Garcia and Robinson were working together at the susceptibility selection stage in the first year of project, they visited the selection site with the field operations manager. Diseased plants were everywhere.

“What a mess!” said the field ops guy. “On the contrary, it’s a beautiful sight!” countered Robinson.

After the initial stage of selection for susceptibility, every subsequent generation is subject to selection for resistance, measured by yield, since disease pressure is intense due to the pathogen inoculations. The common bean is 95% self-pollinated. Therefore, starting with the seven selected susceptible lines, hand cross-pollination was carried out to cross each of the selected lines with the other, an extraordinarily laborious task. The progeny lines (there are some 49 families, including self-pollinations) are grown out and subjected to the same disease screening, this time for resistance. Only 1% to 10% of plants are selected (each family has hundreds of plants, and there is high variability between the plants within those families.) This is known as recurrent mass selection, and the resistance selected for is entirely horizontal/quantitative. With each subsequent generation, all selected lines are crossbred with each other to generate new lines, exposed to the pathogen screening, and 1-10% of plants selected.

On the average there is a 20% increase in yield from the lines selected in each subsequent breeding cycle (Fig. 2). The breeding cycle often takes more than one year, since it involves crosses which yield just a few seeds. Those seeds need to be increased for one or two generations to obtain enough seed for another round of selection.

After the 3rd breeding cycle, the selected cultivars are taken from the university experiment station to the bean growing region, where dozens of bean diseases and insect pests are endemic, and are planted in the most disease and insect pest prone areas that can be found. Therefore, according to Garcia, selection from the 4th cycle onwards was not only for resistance to the inoculated diseases, but also for other pests and diseases as well. This is the great strength of horizontal resistance breeding. Resistance to all locally active pests and diseases is selected for after the 3rd breeding cycle.

Since at least half of the generations occur in the target location of the crop, horizontally resistant crop lines are generally regional and local in their resistance characteristics. Transfer to another region which has a different complex of pests and diseases will give variable results, depending on how much the pests and diseases vary from the original site of selection. Thus, horizontal breeding programs have a local and regional focus. This is a distinct difference from the green revolution approach, which attempts to develop crops that have resistance to a few major diseases and pests for widespread inter-regional use.

Unplanned but later built into Garcia’s breeding program was horizontal resistance to soil borne diseases ­ the classic heavy hitters of so many crops ­ Fusarium, Pythium, and Rhizoctonia. These pathogens hit the research plots during the 4th breeding cycle, nearly wiping out the entire experiment. Garcia then went on to select for resistance to the soil borne diseases, in addition to BCMV and blight. In subsequent years, these pathogens were inoculated to screen for resistance. Garcia now has bean lines that are completely resistant to these soil-borne diseases.

Garcia loses funding because he doesn’t fit into the dominant paradigm

When Garcia’s project, which was funded by the International Development Research Center of Canada, came up for review, the referees who were sent to review his program were all from the CIAT (Centro Internacional de Agricultural Tropical) bean program, a green revolution center. According to Garcia, the scientist referees, who had spent their entire careers developing vertical resistance and gene-transfer type breeding programs, were threatened by his success in breeding high yielding varieties that competed with the green revolution varieties. Either that or, for inability to perceive the benefits of horizontal resistance breeding, they had the program funding ended.

According to Garcia, the basic premise of the vertical resistance breeders’ objections to the horizontal resistance approach is that it is characterized by “Garbage in, garbage out”. They maintain that you simply cannot base a breeding program on crop lines whose original parents were selected for on the basis of susceptibility to disease. It is simply antithetical to them.

This is a perfect example of how philosophical blinders work in science, as the data shows unequivocally it is possible to develop resistance from such parental lines.

Garcia counters this criticism: “We didn’t start with garbage. We started with 71 of the best varieties, out of hundreds, in the Mixteca region. The seven cultivars we selected in the susceptibility stage were susceptible to diseases, but they had good genes.”

When Garcia put together an international conference on bean pathology, his approach to bean improvement, despite data that showed success, was largely ignored. “The mainstream breeders had such an arrogant attitude,” says Garcia, “they declined to even to take a short field trip to look at my trials.”

Dr. Luis Serrano of the University of Chapingo, whose bean horizontal resistance breeding program has achieved very similar results as those of Garcia at Colegio de Postgraduados, has the same things to say about the chasm between his program and the mainstream breeders. His funding was ended by the Mexican government, whose agronomists and geneticists are all mainstream, green revolution types. Serrano now manages his program with his own salary and with the scores of students that come through his classes. The plant breeding and agronomy courses at the university involve dozens of hours of field and fieldhouse work by students to manage the breeding program.

Serrano showed me boxes of envelopes of seeds, 400 bean lines in each of six types of beans ­ black, pink, yellow, tan, white and mottled. He is working on horizontal resistance to the bean’s worst pest in Latin America, the Mexican bean beetle. He also showed me data in which his horizontally resistant bean cultivars are compared in replicated trials to the best green revolution and commercial cultivars. His horizontally resistant cultivars came out well above the others, with yields of 2,000 to 2,400 kg per hectare compared to 1,500 for the commercial and green revolution varieties.

The CIAT bean program web page shows that yields of their improved varieties in commercial plantings in Mexico and Central America range from 800 to 1,500 kg per ha, with low to moderate levels of pesticide inputs.

The entire agricultural extension system in Mexico is, for the most part, set up to promote green revolution and capital intensive type approaches to agriculture. The bean lines that Garcia and Serrano have developed do not interest them.

The inability to patent and make proprietary (to own) the genes and cultivars in a horizontal breeding system, which is polygenic, is likely another reason for the rejection of horizontal resistance breeding by mainstream agriculture. The entire basis of the genetic engineering industry is the ownership and ability to transfer of one or a very few genes from crop to crop and cultivar to cultivar.

Additionally, programs which develop crop lines that don’t need agrichemicals are not going to get much support in an agricultural system that is heavily invested in the use of agrichemicals either.

Other crops are currently the target of horizontal disease and pest resistance breeding at the University of Chapingo ­ mainly onions and, just at its inception, tomatoes. Niederhauser’s former program for potato horizontal resistance apparently continues in Toluca, southwest of Mexico City, and has spawned at least one potato breeding program in the US at Michigan State.

Bean breeders from international centers and universities who I contacted had not heard of the Mexican bean horizontal resistance breeding program. At least one had heard of the Raoul Robinson horizontal resistance approach, but had only cursory knowledge of it.

A student plant breeding club to the rescue

Traditionally, beans are a central part of the diet in Mexico and Central America. Along with corn they form the main food source of the poor. In the category of basic grains, beans are second only to corn in area planted, and are the number one source of farm income in Mexico. The market for beans has grown substantially in recent decades as urban populations swell with migrants from the countryside.

Dr. Roberto Garcia’s horizontal resistant bean yields in the Mixteca bean growing region of Mexico, at the end of the first breeding cycle and the 3rd to the 6th. This year he finishes the 7th cycle and is seeing another increase of 20% in yields, which substantially outperform green revolution varieties, without the use of pesticides. Nutritionists consider beans to be an almost perfect food ­ high in complex carbohydrates and protein. A single serving provides at least half the USDA´s recommended daily allowance of folic acid (very important for pregnant women), 25-30% of recommended iron, as well as magnesium, copper, potassium and zinc. Bean nutritional qualities make them particularly beneficial in the diets of women and children.

With the help of Raoul Robinson, Serrano has developed a rather innovative way of getting his bean lines out into the field all over the country ­ the student breeding club.

Students from farms all over the country come to Serrano’s program, participate in the development of bean cultivars, and when they go home, take many of the cultivars with them, as well as bring local cultivars back to Chapingo for putting into the screening and breeding program.

“Our bean lines have been planted in a dozen states all over Mexico via what is now officially called the Raoul Robinson Breeding Club, and we have collected a very large assortment of bean lines via the students,” says Serrano. “It’s not a perfect extension system, because many times we don’t hear back from the students once they have gone with our beans, but it works at our level of funding.”

“Plus, we are putting out hundreds of students who know the value of horizontal resistance breeding, not just from our telling them, but from firsthand experience. This is good for the future of horizontal resistance breeding.”

To learn more about horizontal resistance

Raoul Robinson's classic text on plant breeding to reduce pesticide use, Return to Resistance, is out of print. In keeping with the principles of participatory plant breeding and democratic information sharing, however, Robinson has recently made several of his works available through the Canadian free e-books site, www.sharebooks.ca. The books carry copyright protection but can be downloaded for personal, non-commercial use.

Included on the site are Return to Resistance in both English and Spanish versions; Self-Organising Agro-Ecosystems, described as the technical companion volume to Return to Resistance; and the Amateur Potato Breeder's Manual. Also available is the Amateur Plant Breeder's Handbook 2004, an expanded, cross-linked version of the glossary of technical terms included in the original print edition of Return to Resistance.

If you just can't give up the pleasures of books in book form, copies of Robinson's books can also be found through on-line second-hand book sites like Abebooks.com or Bookfinder.com.

Source: http://www.newfarm.org/international/pan-am_don/nov04/chapingo.shtml

8. Biotech wheat plan rejection raises concerns

SCOTT A. YATES Washington State Staff Writer - Capital Press cpspokane@comcast.net

SPOKANE -- Rejection of a document aimed at bringing biotech traits to the wheat industry has Duane Grant wondering if U.S. Wheat Associates has the will to build acceptance for the technology.

Biotech point man for the National Association of Wheat Growers, the Rupert, Idaho, farmer also is a member of the Wheat Industry Joint Biotech Committee. He is one of the authors of "The Road Forward: A Strategy for Commercializing Biotech Traits in Wheat While Preserving and Expanding Markets."

The action plan was adopted as policy by NAWG and the Wheat Export Trade and Education Committee. But USW board members, who represent the export arm of the American wheat grower, rejected the document by a wide margin.

The "Road Forward" originally began as a strategy to help Monsanto bring Roundup Ready wheat to the market. When the company indefinitely suspended its introduction, the joint biotech committee reshaped it to respond to biotechnology advances in general.

The long-range plan is clearly an endorsement for bringing biotech developed traits in wheat to the market.

"Biotechnology is the latest tool in the technological toolbox, and most wheat producers are anxious to use it to improve their products and their profitability," states a draft of the document.

The policy emphasizes the protection of domestic and export markets and most of the goals listed involve some element of education aimed at specific areas of the wheat/food chain complex.

One objective calls for in-depth information tailored to wheat buyers and traders to answer concerns and address myths perpetuated by biotech opponents. Another objective targets non-U.S. producers, particular in Canada, to work toward simultaneous commercialization of the first biotech trait in both countries.

Grant is clearly upset by USW's rejection of the "Road Forward", calling it "symptomatic of a lack of commitment on the part of the U.S. Wheat Board" for biotech wheat. He claims the vote is out of step with the growers who contribute funds that support the export organization.

Referring to NAWG's endorsement of the "Road Forward," Grant said it's amazing two boards representing the same people can come to two diametrically opposed positions.

"At the end of the day, I think where we find ourselves as a whe at industry is divided and therefore, sidelined on this technology," he said.

At a recent USW meeting in Denver, Idaho was one of the few states that voted in favor of adopting the "Road Forward." Mark Darington, chairman of the Idaho Wheat Commission, cast the affirmative vote. He's hopeful the policy can be fine-tuned and approved when the group meets again in Reno, Nev., in February.

Dan Debuff, a Montana grower and USW-appointed member of the Wheat Industry Joint Biotech Committee, was the catalyst behind the document's rejection. In an e-mail to the board he said if the policy was approved, it would take away the USW's supervision of the issue and give it to a committee.

"When a committee has any authority above the boards it represents, I believe it is no longer a committee but becomes an entity of its own," he wrote.

Jerry McReynolds, president of the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers, disagrees. He also serves on the joint biotech committee. He said Debuff?s comments were irresponsible.

"Since when does a committee take any authority away from any board," he said, calling it ridiculous to even suggest such a thing.

"All this document does is break it down on who is going to do what, at what time, given specific circumstances," he said, adding that he believes the USW board's "no" vote was an effort to stifle progress over the issue.

"I think it is very unfortunate that this action leaves the wheat industry without a coordinated plan to address some of the concerns and issues that exist," he said.

Nelson Denlinger, vice president of government programs and USW staff adviser to the joint biotech committee, disputes that characterization. He said the board action voting down the "Road Forward" does not rule out continuing to work positively on biotech acceptance.

He said opposition stemmed from concerns around governance, costs, priorities and a structure the board viewed as unnecessary.

"The comments by board members seemed to indicate that they have largely placed their trust in our staff to manage the issue without a new layer of oversight," Denlinger said.

Keith Kisling, an Oklahoma grower and chairman of U.S. Wheat Associates, said the organization isn't against biotech wheat. During visits to four Asian countries last May, Kisling said he and USW staff gave buyers the message to expect the technology in the future.

Instead of shaking their head no, as they have in the past, Kisling said buyers understood.

"They know it is on its way," he said.

Scott Yates is based in Spokane, Wash. His e-mail address is cpspokane@comcast.net.

9. A GM-Free World: Leading Geneticist Exposes the Bad Science of Biotech
Interview: Mae-Wan Ho, Ph.D.
November 2004, Acres U.S.A.

Mae-Wan Ho obtained her B.S. degree in biology in 1964 and her Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1967 from Hong Kong University. She was a postdoctoral fellow in biochemical genetics from 1968 to 1972 at the University of California in San Diego, during which time she won a competitive fellowship of the U.S. National Genetics Foundation. She then became a senior research fellow in Queen Elizabeth College in the United Kingdom, and after that a lecturer in genetics and a reader in biology in the London Open University. In 1999, Ho founded the London-based ISIS — the Institute of Science in Society — to promote her views and those of like-minded scientists. Dr. Ho retired in June 2000 and remains a visiting reader in biology at the Open University and a visiting biophysics professor in Catania University, Sicily. Today, she has close to 300 publications, including 47 experimental works. Dr. Ho has been one of the most influential figures of the last decade in the debate within the scientific community regarding the use of genetically modified organisms. She is a highly consulted scientific figure with many theories relating to her powerful anti-GM stance. She is also a well-known critic of neo-Darwinism and reductionist thought in biology and physics.

ACRES U.S.A. We would like to get your insight and your experience on this genetic engineering, which is kind of a mystery to most people — and I’m afraid in the United States they don’t take it quite as seriously as they do in Europe. So what is your take on this technology?

MAE-WAN HO. Well, I’m a scientist. In fact, I was a geneticist and a molecular geneticist, and I got involved in the genetic engineering debate because I was so disgusted with the quality of the information that was going out to our policymakers, in the first place, and then the public, because I was involved as a scientific advisor to the Third World Network. I was at a conference organized by the Third World Network when they said, “We’re really worried about genetic engineering, and we haven’t got anybody to look at this problem for us.” So that was how I got involved.

ACRES U.S.A. What is genetic engineering, from the layman’s point of view?

HO. Genetic engineering refers to a whole set of techniques in the laboratory in which you take the genetic material from different organisms, from bacteria, from viruses, you join them up together to make new combinations, and then you use laboratory techniques to produce a lot of copies of this new joined-up, engineered genetic material which is completely unnatural. From there, you again use laboratory techniques to introduce these strange combinations of genes into organisms, into the cells of say, maize, or the embryos of cows or sheep or anything, any organism, in order to make genetically modified cells. In the case of plants, you can then regenerate these cells into a whole plant, and you can breed from that and start a sort of transgenic line out of this initial cell that has taken up the foreign genetic material. In the case of cows and sheep, you inject these strange, foreign genes into the embryo or the egg and you hope that some of the egg cells, the genome of the egg cell, have taken up this foreign construct — then it can again be grown into a transgenic animal.

ACRES U.S.A. You said “hope?”

HO. Yes, because this technique is known to be totally unreliable and uncontrollable. You see, even though the genetic engineer can pretty precisely chop up and join up the genetic material in the laboratory, once you try to put it into a cell, then it’s completely out of control — it cannot be controlled in the genome, where this foreign piece of DNA ends up. What’s more, it can become completely scrambled when it actually lands in the genome. So, depending on where and in what form this foreign construct has landed, then you end up with something totally different. This is why even if you start with the same cells, the same construct, the same kind of genetic material joined together, you can end up with completely different organisms. Basically, each transformed cell is actually the cell that has taken up the foreign genetic material.

ACRES U.S.A. Wes Jackson of the Land Institute tells us that if you had a working manual for the corn plant down to the DNA and the rest of it, it would probably fill the shelves of a major library. If it’s that complicated, do we know what we’re doing when we’re doing this?

HO. Oh no, we don’t know at all, and they admit it. It’s only recently that they have gone back and said, “Hey, let’s look at where this genetic material has landed and whether, after it has landed, it tends to stay there.” What they found is that it’s horribly complicated, because they know that when the foreign genetic material “lands” in a cell, it tends to scramble the genome at the site, and then it scrambles itself as well! Some of the scrambling is so bad that they can’t even identify the resulting genome sequence. They can’t tell where the material has landed. This is why a lot of these lines are unstable, but the proprietary company will claim that they have characterized a transgenic line — they have analyzed the foreign insert and say, “It is like this: A, B, C, D, E, F,” the gene order. When, however, government scientists, European government scientists — mainly French and Belgian, so far — have looked at it again, they found that it’s not like that the company’s description at all, that the gene order is more like “E, B, F, D,” and the other bits have disappeared! Furthermore, it hasn’t landed in chromosome #7, next to a certain gene, it actually is in chromosome #5. This is in effect what they have found. French scientists, for example, analyzed five transgenic lines for a transgenic insert, and in five out of five lines they showed that it had changed.

ACRES U.S.A. What is the net effect on human cells and protoplasm when you eat food that’s created that way?

HO. That is a major area of contention. The companies keep saying that this genetically modified DNA is no different from natural DNA. “DNA is DNA is DNA.” Some pro-GM scientists even say that this is the ultimate organic molecule. There are a lot of indications that this genetically modified DNA is completely new, it has never existed in billions of years of evolution, it’s cobbled together from different sources, a lot of viral and bacterial DNA is being used to make it, and it is unstable and has a propensity to jump again — it is designed to jump into genomes and to overcome species barriers. You know, biological species don’t really tend to exchange genes with other species — first of all because there are natural limits to how much they can exchange, since each species has its own space and time in evolutionary history. In the second place, in the laboratory today there is no limit to what you can make. You can even take DNA from organisms that have been dead for hundreds of thousands of years — from a fossil, from a dead fossil — and join it up with organisms that exist today. DNA is actually a very stable molecule. It can actually persist long after the organism is dead. And this, again, is something that people who are regulators haven’t realized — they haven’t come to grips with it at all.

ACRES U.S.A. So, what actually happens when we eat these foods?

HO. As I already mentioned, these modified genetic materials were designed to overcome the natural barriers between species. What happens when we eat ordinary vegetables and animal protein is that the DNA is broken down by our enzymes. Then, our cells also have enzymes for breaking them down further, and ultimately they will be nutrition for the cell. Unfortunately, if you design genetically modified DNA to jump into genomes and to overcome species barriers, then there is a chance that this DNA can avoid enzymatic breakdown and get into other unrelated species. For example, one of the dangers of these organisms is that, as I said previously, they are mainly made up of genetic material belonging to viruses and bacteria. So if these genetic materials meet other viruses and bacteria, they can join up to make new combinations — new viruses and bacteria that cause diseases and resist medical treatment.

ACRES U.S.A. Is that what they mean by the term “recombinant?”

HO. Yes, recombinant — that is, a recombination. Horizontal gene transfer and recombination form the major process for generating new viruses and bacteria that cause diseases.

ACRES U.S.A. It sounds an awful lot like what we’re attempting to do here is to intermarry unlike species at the molecular level. Is that a correct statement?

HO. Yes, yes, absolutely! And there is no barrier whatsoever now because you can do all these things in the laboratory. The other thing that is immediately worrying is that they also use antibiotic-resistant genes. It’s part of the tools of the trade that enable them to select for those cells that have taken up the foreign genes. They put some antibiotic-resistant marker genes next to the foreign genes. Now, these genes can actually pass on — they very often stay in the GM crops that are released into the environment, and the antibiotic-resistant genes — if they get into bacteria that cause disease — would make those infections untreatable.

ACRES U.S.A. Is it a possibility that this procedure has something to do with the prions implicated in Mad Cow disease and things like that?

HO. We don’t know, because there have been so few targeted investigations. But this is the other thing: these DNA can also get into our cells, and the danger of rogue DNA getting into our cells, or the cells of other mammals, is that they often contain very aggressive virus promoters. It’s not easy to get a foreign gene to work in a cell. In order to do that, you really have to give it a very aggressive gene switch — which is called a “promoter” — that says to the cell, “Copy this gene and make a lot of the protein that’s involved. Express this gene at a higher level.” In order to do that they use the promoter from viruses. A virus, as the name implies, has the ability to hijack the cell to make many copies of itself, and that is essentially the basic technology that enables many foreign genes to become aggressive. They put it next to this kind of aggressive viral promoter. Now, if such an aggressive viral promoter gets into an alien cell, and if this promoter should work in that mammalian cell, and if this cell is involved in controlling cell division, then it could make this cell multiply out of control — and that’s cancer by another name.

ACRES U.S.A. It goes into wild proliferation?

HO. Exactly, and this is not merely a theoretical possibility — you’ve heard of gene therapy? Gene therapy is the genetic modification of human cells, and it uses techniques and constructs very similar to those used in the genetic modification of plants and animals. In gene therapy there are two major side effects that people worry about. One of them is cancer, because if it gets into the wrong place, it turns on the wrong genes, and you get cancer. The other concern is the regeneration of live viruses, because in order to make this foreign DNA go into the genome, very often they use what is called a “gene carrier” or a “vector,” which is itself a virus, a disarmed virus. Disarmed or not, a virus can still pick up genes from our genome or from the cell’s genome and turn back into a fully armed virus by recombination. Those are the two major acknowledged dangers, or side effects, of gene therapy. Several years ago a group of scientists in France devised a method where they would genetically modify bone marrow cells outside the patient. They took the patient’s own cells, genetically modified them, and then selected the “good” transformed cells — the cells that have taken up the foreign genes — and then put them into the patient. It was hailed as a great success that avoids the complications I’ve just described. Unfortunately, about a year and a half later, two of the nine successes developed leukemia. So this is the other problem that we have to worry about.

ACRES U.S.A. What about research on the effects of these foods?

HO. There have been so few experiments really addressing food safety, transgenic/GM food safety. Proponents will say, “The Americans have been eating it for maybe a decade now, since 1994, and there is no evidence at all that anybody has died from eating GM food.” But of course, nobody has really been looking, and as you have no labeling, you don’t even know if you have eaten GM food directly. In any case, most of the GM goes into feeding your animals, so at least you’re probably once-removed from direct GM food. However, the Centers for Disease Control’s own study, published in 1999, found that incidences of food-borne illness have risen from twofold to tenfold as compared to a 1994 study. That was when the first GM food (a transgenic tomato — “Flavor Saver” tomato) was grown and became available. Of course, that’s not evidence that these illnesses were caused by GM food — critics could question whether the earlier study was done using a different methodology — but at least this is something worth investigating. Plus, in Britain, we do have scientists such as Árpád Pusztai, he was a senior food scientist in Scotland, and he and his colleagues were supported by the government to do food safety research. They fed GM potato to some young rats, and much to their surprise — because he was actually a supporter of GM foods, or at least he wasn’t hostile — they found that this GM potato affected every organ system of these young rats. They recently released some photographs of the stomach lining and intestinal lining, and it was most dramatic because it increased the thickness of the lining up to two times.

ACRES U.S.A. What’s the significance of that?

HO. We don’t fully know what the significance is, but in the colon, for example, colon cancer is preceded by a state in which the lining increases in thickness — it’s kind of an overgrowth. There are other experiments that have found similar effects, and there are a string of incidences that have not been investigated. For example, recently there have been reports of illnesses in some villages, up to 100 villages, in south of the Philippines that are next to fields of GM maize. In the United States, your fields are very big, and people don’t usually live nearby, but in the Third World, the fields are very small, and people live right next to them. So in the Phillippines, a Norwegian scientist who’s actually a virologist was asked to go and investigate these illnesses. He took samples of blood from 39 of the villagers and found antibodies to the foreign gene expressed in the GM maize grown nearby — and this apparently happened again this growing season. There’s another case in Essel, Germany, in which 12 dairy cows died between 2001 and 2002 after eating transgenic maize — another transgenic maize, not the type that was growing in the Philippines. That case hasn’t been investigated to this day, but this maize has since been withdrawn by Syngenta — it’s Bt176.

ACRES U.S.A. We hear many reports from farmers here who have experienced problems with livestock on GM feeds.

HO. Yes, in the United States there has been a lot of anecdotal evidence that came from farmers and others who noticed that animals tend to avoid GM crops if they have the choice. And experiments on livestock and other laboratory animals showed that if they were forced to eat GM, if they had no choice, then they failed to thrive or they died. Just recently, Monsanto has apparently been asked to release results that they have designated confidential business information showing that the some rats that were fed GM food and yet another strain of GM maize developed abnormalities of the kidneys in the males, signs of anemia in the females, and so on. The results simply were not released to the public.

ACRES U.S.A. The question we have here is whether this technology is safe, but we don’t have answers because the question hasn’t really been asked. We’ve got hundreds of products on the shelves at our grocery stores that are transgenic, and people are not allowed to find out about it, nor do we have information on the results or the consequences.

HO. That’s right, and you also have lots of secret field trials. People don’t even know there is this next generation of GM crops in which they’re growing really dangerous pharmaceuticals. They are kept in secret, and you know this really can’t continue — I think some of your NGOs have been putting pressure on the FDA to tighten the controls on these things, these crops.

ACRES U.S.A. But the pressure is pretty much eclipsed by the amount of money that the Monsanto- types throw into the political arena.

HO. But the interesting thing is that these companies have really withdrawn in a big way from Europe because they know there is no money here. So, for example, in the United Kingdom we started with 159 field trials in year 2001, and today we are down to one field trial.

ACRES U.S.A. For what product?

HO. It’s a GM sweet pea being grown on the grounds of the John Innes Centre, which is a research institute. Nevertheless, even though the European Food Safety Authority and the European Commission have approved various products, both Syngenta and Bayer CropScience have withdrawn from commercializing an approved GM crop.

ACRES U.S.A. This is in spite of the fact that the Codex Alimentarias has approved these things?

HO. No, it’s not the Codex Alimentarias, it’s the European Commission. I have to say that the European Commission in the case of the Bt11 — which is the most recent one — has gone over the debate among the scientific experts. The experts couldn’t agree that it was safe, so the European Commission came in and said, “Well, we will approve it anyway.” This is Syngenta’s Bt11, but after they’d done it, Syngenta announced that they weren’t going to commercialize because there was too much consumer resistance and there’s no market.

ACRES U.S.A. How do you account for consumer resistance being so strong in Europe and so lax in the United States?

HO. Well, I think we have a very good situation in Europe in which scientists work together with civil society. The scientists are very good at providing information to support the grassroots action, and we also have governments working together. It really is a very cooperative process, just getting information out to the public at one end and challenging the regulators at the top at the other. All this has to go on in a very coordinated way, and I think somehow without planning we manage that. So, even though our government is quite pro-GM, we haven’t got any yet in Britain, which is a good thing.

ACRES U.S.A. But the government has been quite pro-GM.

HO. Yes, Tony Blair. So this is really a chance for democracy as well as for science. The scientific information is the baseline — you’ve got to have the politics, the economics, everything — but the baseline is: have you got your scientific evidence right? And if you can’t get it right, you have no basis as a scientist for making a rational decision. To make rational decisions you want to know if this technology is reliable, you want to know if it actually lives up to its promise — are there problems, is it safe? — before you even ask questions about whether it is ethical, economical, and so on.

ACRES U.S.A. On the basis of what we know so far, where is this anti-GM thing going?

HO. We have two dozen scientists across the disciplines, we launched ourselves as an independent science panel last May, and we produced a report called The Case for a GM-Free, Sustainable World, in which we propose that there should be a global ban or withdrawal of all GM crops. We’re not against research — the technology should go back into the laboratory for some proper research, but under carefully contained conditions. Meanwhile, there should be a global, comprehensive shift to all kinds of non-GM sustainable agriculture, because in our report, we not only collected all the evidence of the problems and hazards of GM crops, but we also gathered data on the proven successes of all forms of sustainable agriculture.

ACRES U.S.A. Is that report available?

HO. Yes. It is being published by Vital Health in the United States. As scientists again, we would say take into account all kinds of scientific evidence, and if you really look at all the evidence carefully you know that GM hasn’t lived up to its promise. All the benefits are still “potential.” In fact, a lot of small family farmers who have taken up GM are now completely devastated, especially in Argentina, which is the second largest producer in the world after the United States. You know there is now a very, very strong global uprising against the introduction of GM crops that was brought to a head a couple of years ago, when Zambia refused to accept GM maize as food aid from the United States and opted instead to purchase surplus food from other parts of their country, and now it is doing so well that it is exporting food surpluses to Angola. That has inspired a lot of Third World countries. So the message, basically, is that there is no future in GM crops. Now they are trying to use GM crops to grow pharmaceuticals, and that’s even more dangerous, because some of these pharmaceuticals are immune-suppressive, and some of them are very serious allergens that can kill people. The message to the producers is just to put a stop to this — this is madness!

ACRES U.S.A. People like former President Carter and I think even Norman Borlaug and some of these other people have argued that what we’re doing with genetically modified crops is no different than what the farmers have been doing all along in selecting and breeding and things like that. How would you respond to that?

HO. It’s completely untrue because, as I said before, what you’re doing is joining together bits of DNA, and there is no barrier whatsoever on what you can join. You’re short-circuiting nature altogether, you cross all species barriers, you make artificial constructs that never existed in billions of years of evolution, and you use special methods to introduce these constructs into the genomes of organisms.

ACRES U.S.A. Then that is a bogus argument?

HO. Yes. In fact, GM technology bypasses natural reproduction altogether. You don’t even need reproduction, you see. So to say that this is no different from natural breeding methods is really bending science. It’s either being ignorant or just bending science altogether, and that just won’t do.

ACRES U.S.A. Substituting self-interest for science.

HO. It is particularly disappointing for people who are scientists themselves that: a) they haven’t actually bothered to inform themselves better, and b) that they are accepting bogus arguments of that kind. You know, science is no different from any other form of knowledge. You have to ask, “Is this good science, or bad science? Are you just fooling me?” Scientific evidence is just like any other form of evidence — you have to use your common sense. If you approach it skeptically, in many cases you find out that these people are just having you on.

ACRES U.S.A. Well, we’ve heard the Japanese say that they weren’t in favor of genetically modified foods, and they were going to watch what happened to the American children for about a generation or two before they made up their mind. Would you comment on that?

HO. That’s terrible, isn’t it? Unfortunately, I understand what they mean, but I think that it would be more ethical to say that if GM food is not good for Japanese, then it’s not good for American children. It’s not good enough for Zambia, it’s not good enough for Australia — Australia has now more or less put an indefinite hold on growing GM crops. It’s not good enough for the British because the British have succeeded in putting it off, then it’s not good enough for people in the United States, and it’s urgent for us to stop all of this globally.

The Case for a GM-Free, Sustainable World, is available as a free PDF download at the Independent Science Panel website, , or in book form from Vital Health Publishing, Inc., P.O. Box 152, Ridgefield, Connecticut 06877, e-mail , website . The Institute of Science in Society has a website at .