Archive | Genetic Engineering

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A U.S. Domino for Genetically Engineered Foods

Posted on 17 September 2012 by Jerry

California may be the last chance for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods in the U.S. or the first U.S. governmental entity to require labeling. Unfortunately there has been no progress in the U.S. with a number of labeling bills defeated around the country.  As the birth place of genetic engineering, the U.S. and Canada have the largest adoption of genetically modified foods in the world.

When the U.S. reversed its decades long opposition to allowing other nations to require labels on genetically engineered food (see iamaguardian.com August 2011 posting of “Speed/Slow/Stop….or Label Genetically Modified Foods”) it was clear it would cause labeling dominoes to fall around the world.  We have seen movement in a number of countries including lately the European Union and most recently a committee of the Indian Parliament and separately the Turkish Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock. 

The reality is that when consumers get information, they read it and they act on it.  This is why the opposition to California’s Proposition 37 (Genetically Engineered Foods, Mandatory Labeling Initiative Statute) has put up over $25 million to defeat the proposition. This does not compare favorably to the $2.5 million raised in support of the measure.

If you are judged by the company you keep as a measure of how you should be viewed, the roles of the two sides of the debate are clear.  The proponents number many and have a long history of standing on the side of consumers and their health (see http://www.carighttoknow.org/endorsements/ ).  The antagonists include the largest chemical and food companies.  If you look at this list of opponents what is striking is that many producers on the list are either genetically modifying foods themselves, are the nation’s largest buyers of GE crops or produce products that are only sugar foods which contain nothing but empty calories and pander to the worst eating habits in our nation (http://www.noprop37.com/donors/ ).

Who do you believe has your best health interests at heart, Monsanto, Bayer Crop Science, Cargill, Clorox, and Dow Agro Sciences?  Maybe others have more credibility with you, like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo Inc., Hershey Company, Nestle USA, H.J Heinz, Sara Lee, and the J.M. Smucker Company.   These are the company’s paying the most to defeat a simple labeling requirement.

You should decide for yourself but not be swayed by the avalanche of negative ads that are about to launch in California.  This is simply a labeling requirement, not anything more.  When the antagonists say it is a conspiracy to have a deceptive labeling scheme or a plot to help organic businesses or will cost too much to change labels or will cause a rise in food prices or will be a windfall for trial lawyers or has loopholes for special interests, you should reject these claims. Some of us have read the legislation, are familiar with the genetic engineering of foods in the U.S. and have seen these scare tactics before.  We are only talking about your right to see a label that shows you what is in the food you intend to eat and feed to your family.

Use the following links to obtain more information:

http://www.nature.com/news/companies-set-to-fight-food-label-plan-1.11240

http://www.carighttoknow.org/endorsements/

http://www.noprop37.com/donors/

http://blogs.nature.com/news/2012/08/indian-parliamentary-panel-slams-gm-crops.html

http://mobile.foodnavigator.com/legislation/u-turn-on-gm-in-turkey

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Genetic Engineering Influence Peddling and Profit

Posted on 13 June 2012 by Jerry

The world is full of influence peddlers with countless people on both sides of the transaction. There are the influencers with money, power, and prestige who tempt people around them to take actions which benefit the influencers to the exclusion of everyone else.  There are also those who are waiting to be influenced and act compliantly or at minimum turn a blind eye toward someone else taking advantage of a situation. They view their personal corruption by others as the most direct way for them to progress and prosper.  In their world every issue is a shade of gray rather than black and white.  There is always an argument to justify the most self serving answer of the moment.  These groups view the world as dog-eat-dog and view their personal prosperity and that of their interest group as all that matters.

There are an infinite number of angles that can be worked for personal profit and/or to facilitate influence peddling, too many angles to list and explain.  There are however, notable examples that garner public attention, outcry and deserve further elaboration.  This is certainly true in the areas of greatest opportunity where large amounts of money are being paid and where the corporate and venture capital consensus sees a future bonanza.  This is specifically true in genetic engineering of modified foods and in the field of synthetic biology.

The first example is of a very straight forward phenomenon, the movement of people back and forth between government and the corporations who wish to control government’s actions.  The case in point is that of Michael R. Taylor who was appointed by the Obama administration to be the Deputy Commissioner of Foods at the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) in 2010.  In this capacity, Mr. Taylor, an attorney by trade, is in charge of food safety in the United States.

To illustrate how influence peddlers groom their collaborators we look first at Wikipedia that gives a fairly straight forward description of Mr. Taylor’s background.  The Wikipedia article describes that after law school he went to the FDA as a staff attorney, then to a law firm where he led the firm’s “food and drug law” practice and represented Monsanto for many years.  Then he was appointed as Administrator of Food Safety and Inspection in the Department of Agriculture.  From there he went back to his prior legal practice where he was shortly named at Monsanto as the Vice President for Public Policy.  Then he went into academia as a Research Professor of Health Policy before returning to the government to become a “senior advisor” to the FDA Commissioner.  He held this position for a few years before Obama promoted him to his present position.

Compare this background description with the two press releases issued by the FDA announcing his appointment as senior advisor to the FDA Commissioner in 2009 and the announcement of his appointment as Deputy Commissioner for Foods in 2010.  In the 2009 announcement there is no mention whatsoever of his past affiliation with Monsanto.  In the 2010 document from the FDA there is one mention of Monsanto in the next to last sentence of the press release.

Lest you think these two press releases go out of their way to downplay, if not completely omit, description of Mr. Taylor’s Monsanto connections, you would be completely right.  Among the many WikiLeaks disclosed cables from within the State Department are a number of cables that reveal the full and explicit U.S. government support for U.S. chemical and agriculture business’ genetically modified foods.  It is particularly instructive to learn that the strategic policy of the United States is to support and promulgate genetically modified foods around the world as one of our most important exports.

In addition, we have two examples of descriptions of Mr. Taylor’s appointment to his latest position.  The article in the New York Times mentions his past affiliation with Monsanto only once in passing.  The corresponding article in the Washington Post is much more balanced and provides full disclosure of Mr. Taylor’s past affiliations with Monsanto and his support, while in government, for controversial Monsanto issues like not needing to label milk from cows that were given growth hormones.

Our next example received more public attention but unfortunately it was largely confined to the European Union.  Such is the case of Diána Bánáti who was the unpaid chairwoman of the management board of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the European Union’s top risk assessment body.  She concurrently held the salaried food safety commissioner and chief scientific advisor positions at the Hungarian Ministry of Rural Development.  As reported in the cited article, Ms. Bánáti was asked to resign from both positions when she announced she was being appointed as the executive and scientific director of the Brussels based International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI). 

Previous controversy surrounded Ms. Bânâti when it was discovered that she had not disclosed an earlier appointment to the ILSI’s Board of Directors before her last re-election to the EFSA Board.  After her ILSI Director appointment was disclosed she was forced to give it up so as not to jeopardize her position as EFSA chair.

Her new position was possibly recognition for a job well done at the EFSA.  Within a few weeks of her resignation, the European Food Safety Authority rejected a French Government attempt to ban a genetically modified strain of corn developed by the U.S. based Monsanto Corporation.  The rejection is now slated to go for decision to the European Commission for ratification or rejection.

While not going to work directly for a chemical or agriculture business, her move is a variation of the revolving door that Michael Taylor is using.  The ILSI is an industry funded think tank. Its membership list is a who’s who of the agriculture, food and chemical industries world-wide. 

Our final two examples are in the area of synthetic biology and represent a different gambit to achieve personal profit.  This involves concurrent leadership of non-profit research institutes and venture capital backed private businesses.  One can suspect that this puts a scientist entrepreneur in the position to use government grants and nonprofit status to conduct research in a promising area and then redirect the research into their own startup when they think a scientific breakthrough is eminent.  In at least one of these situations, we see the entrepreneur hedge his bets by having his private company fund the research in his own research institute.  This would appear to be a way to limit argument about who owns the science that is developed.  The entrepreneur sits at the key pivot point and is in a position to choose where, how and with whose money to conduct ongoing breakthrough research.

While this is happening, selected individuals in the scientific community, governmental departments or grant making nonprofit organizations at a minimum turn a blind eye to what may be happening.  This is because they can argue that the research needs to be done no matter how it is accomplished or who benefits.  A cynical assessment is that these people are hoping for future positions in one of the organizations, stock options of the private companies or the favors of the scientist entrepreneur helping them pursue their own future opportunities. 

To see this organizational structure consider J. Craig Venter who on the nonprofit side heads the J. Craig Venter Institute “with more than 300 scientists and staff”.  This Institute was assembled by the merger of several of Craig Venter’s earlier organizations, specifically The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), The Center for Advancement of Genomics, The J. Craig Venter Science Foundation, The Joint Technology Center, and the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives.  On the for profit side, Craig Venter leads Synthetic Genomics, a high tech synthetic biology private startup funded in part by Draper Fisher Jurvetson, BP, the Meteor Group, Biotechonomy LLC and Plenus, S.A. de C.V.

Another example of this dual nonprofit and for profit structure is that assembled by Steven A. Benner.  On the non-profit side, Benner heads The Westheimer Institute of Science and the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution (FAME).  On the profit side, he leads private startup Firebird BioMolecular SCiences LLC.  He sold another private company, EraGen Biosciences, to Luminex.

As a side note, synthetic biology as expressed in earlier posts creates significant risks if you assume there is a potential for release of a synthetically created organism outside the laboratory.  Apparently Firebird Biomolecular Sciences, LLC, agrees.  It posts a disclaimer that reads “All products sold by Firebird Biomolecular Sciences LLC., are for research and development purposes only, and are not for use in humans.  It is the responsibility of the buyer to determine the suitability of the product for any given purpose.  Products should be handled by trained personnel who understand the potential hazards of working with such materials.  Responsibility for accidents arising from the handling and use of Firebird products rests solely with the buyer.”  While approving of the warning, it would be great if it was this easy to insulate one’s company and one’s self from future lawsuits and responsibility.  

As has been observed in previous posts, the world’s largest chemical and agricultural businesses are pushing, with the U.S. government’s help, the adoption of genetically modified foods throughout the world.  At the same time, scientist entrepreneurs looking to benefit from synthetic biology are arguing aggressively and successfully there should be no government oversight or intervention in synthetic biology. 

Citizens around the world must be cynical as they consider what is happening in their governments.  They must examine every appointment to high government position and identify the biases these individuals bring with them.  They must be vigilant about the present positions their governments are taking on issues surrounding our ozone, climate change, nuclear weapons and genetic engineering and synthetic biology.  They must identify influence peddling for what it is and marshal public opinion against it.

Use the following links to obtain more information on these topics:

Michael R. Taylor:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_R._Taylor (Select “search for Michael R. Taylor in Wikipedia.”  You will see a message saying there is no listing for Michael R. Taylor.  Select the first Taylor option offered and you will go to the page)

http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/2009/ucm170842.htm?utm  

http://www.fda.gov/food/newsevents/constituentupdates/ucm197828.htm?utm

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/print/2011/01/us-presses-europe-to-worship-genetically-modified-foods/69633

http://www.rodale.com/genetically-modified-organisms-foods-0

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/14/health/policy/14fda.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/13/AR2010011304402.html

Diána Bánáti:

http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2012/05/european-food-safety-official-re.html

http://www.europeanvoice.com/article/2012/may/eu-rejects-french-gm-ban/74415.aspx

http://phys.org/news/2012-05-eu-food-agency-france-monsanto.html

J. Craig Venter:

http://dnalc.org/view/16830-Biography-39-John-Craig-Venter-1946-.html

http://edge.org/memberbio/j_craig_venter

http://www.syntheticgenomics.com/about/

http://www.syntheticgenomics.com/about/genesis.html

Steven Benner:

http://www.westheimerinstitute.org/about.php

http://www.gtecflorida.com/tech_industry-GTEC_start-ups.aspx

http://www.ffame.org/sbenner.php

http://www.firebirdbio.com/index.html

http://www.firebirdbio.com/AboutUs.html

Presidential Bioethics Panel:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/17/health/17synthetic.html

To see the text of the report from the Presidential Bioethics Panel, select “the report” in the first line of the second paragraph of the NY Times article listed above.

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Roundup (Glyphosate) and Infertility

Posted on 27 April 2012 by Jerry

In a new study the chemical glyphosate, commonly referred to as GLYP, and glyphosate-based products like Monsanto’s Roundup Bioforce®, were found to cause testicular cells in rats to die within 24-48 hours after a dosage that is 10 times below the chemical level in normal agricultural use.  This chemical is used on crops that have been genetically engineered to not be harmed by the herbicide.  In an earlier August 2011 article, “Where there’s toxins, there’s….What?” we identified a study at the University of Sherbrook Hospital Center in Quebec that showed GLYP was found in the blood streams of the women studied.  The unknown of those findings was the physical effects of the exposure in their blood streams.  This new study gives us an indication of some of the long term effects of exposure to this chemical.

The lead French researcher, Gilles-Eric Séralini at the Université de Caen Basse-Normandie, released his report at the same time there were reports of GLYP contamination of ground water in Catalonia, Spain, and GLYP found in human urine samples at 4-20 times the level allowed in drinking water of Berlin City (0.1 micrograms per litre, or 0.1 parts per billion [ppb]).  An article summarizing these findings stated, “American consumers exposed to glyphosate through residual levels in genetically modified (GM) foods are likely to have even higher levels in their system; although no studies appear to have been done.”

Further the article observed, “The concentration of the herbicides used in the experiments ranged from 0.0001% (1ppm) of Roundup Bioforce®, (corresponding to 0.336ppm of pure glyphosate) to agricultural levels of 1% (10,000ppm)….  Further the permitted level of glyphosate residue on food or feed in the U.S. is 400 ppm or 400 times the lowest concentrations tested by Séralini and colleagues.  Thus, the concentrations used in the study are very relevant to human exposure as well as exposure of other animals.  Of particular concern is the scarcity of published data regarding the possible bioaccumulation of this herbicide, leaving us only able to speculate how much is in our bodies….Chronic exposure has not been sufficiently tested, and needs to be investigated.”

In another study also led by Gilles-Eric Séralini at the Université de Caen Basse-Normandie, he and his colleagues tested the effects on human tissue of combined exposure to both glyphosate-based herbicides (like Roundup) and pesticides with the Bt toxins of Cry1Ab and Cry1Ac.  Human embryonic kidney cell line 293 was the human tissue in the experiment.  The study looked at the effects of the combined exposure within a 24 hour period. 

Findings were as follows:

  • Cry1Ab caused cell death from 100 ppm with no effects detected from exposure to Cry1Ac.
  • Roundup, tested alone from 1 to 20,000 ppm, will kill cells from 50 ppm which is far below agricultural dilutions (50% lethal concentration at 57.5 ppm).

The conclusion reached in this research contradicts assertions of the chemical industry over the last 20 years. Unfortunately the dosages administered in a very short time are considered too high to be conclusive.  More prolonged exposure to smaller dosages are required.  The researchers stated however, “In these results, we argue that modified Bt toxins are not inert on nontarget human cells, and that they can present combined side-effects with other residues of pesticides specific to GM plants.”

Use the following link to obtain more information on this story:

http://www.i-sis.org.uk/glyphosate_kills_rat_testis_cells.php

http://www.gmfreecymru.org/pivotal_papers/crucial27.htm

 

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CA Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act

Posted on 28 March 2012 by Jerry

Since the July 5, 2011 reversal of the U.S. position opposing labeling of genetically modified foods internationally (see August 5, 2011 post “Speed/Slow/Stop…or LABEL Genetically Modified Foods”), pressure for mandatory labeling of GM foods in the U.S. has been building.  While there are efforts nationally to produce petitions (see www.justlabelit.org ) and to pass laws to require mandatory labeling, many are not optimistic these efforts will be successful in the near term.  The situation in the State of California may be dramatically different however (see www.carighttoknow.org )

As you probably know California has a history of leading and pioneering in forward looking health and safety issues.  California also has a well developed voter initiative process in which citizens groups can qualify proposed laws for inclusion on the state election ballot once a specific number of voter signatures have been secured.  In the November elections of 2012 California voters will have a unique opportunity to pass ground breaking legislation that requires mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods offered for sale in California.

Called the “California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act” the proposed legislation requires mandatory labeling when a food is:

  • “any genetically engineered raw agricultural commodity”
  • a “processed food that is made with or derived from any genetically engineered ingredient” or
  • any “processed food that is made with or is derived from any ingredient that may be genetically engineered” shall include a conspicuous statement which says “MAY CONTAIN GENETICALLY ENGINEERED INGREDIENT(S)”

While this legislation has elements which do not go far enough, it does represent a landmark step.  An example of an area that could be strengthened is its failure to call for labeling of food from any animal that has not itself been genetically engineered but has been fed or injected with genetically engineered food or any drug that has been produced though means of genetic engineering.  The proposed law also excludes labeling of food solely because it includes one or more genetically engineered processing aids or enzymes.

In any case, this is a ballot initiative you should support with your contributions and votes. Quoting Beyond Animal, Ego and Time, “Successful activists take the progress that is offered and demand more.”  Let us pass this law as written as a beachhead for the rest of the nation.  For voters from other states use this as a template for your own local initiatives. 

Remember, this legislation does not change the food choices you are given in your local store.  It also does not limit the genetic engineering the industy performs.  It merely gives you more information about what you may consume yourself or serve to your family.  It only equips you to make a more informed choice.

 Use the following links to review the actual wording of the voter initiative and visit the websites of organizations driving this issue:

To read the initiative after accessing carighttoknow.org, select “About”, then select “The Initiative”:

http://carighttoknow.com 

www.labelgmos.org

http://justlabelit.org

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Researchers Make Bird Flu (A/H5N1) Highly Contagious

Posted on 23 February 2012 by Jerry

On the periphery of the average person’s awareness is a subdued yet hotly debated topic of the need for secrecy in science, specifically genetic engineering.  Two teams of scientists have taken a particularly deadly bird flu virus (A/H5N1), which does not have a history of being easily transmitted between human beings, and have genetically re-engineered it using five mutations to make it highly contagious between mammals.  The original A/H5N1 virus was highly lethal with a history of killing about 60% of the 600 known cases of people who contracted it since its discovery in 1997.  Fortunately it was not contagious between human beings.  One version of the new genetically engineered virus can be efficiently transmitted as shown between ferrets, which are known as the best animal model for influenza in humans.

As discussed in Chapter 13 of Beyond Animal, Ego and Time, the last ten years has seen significant growth in private and public biofab laboratories that will create laboratory produced genetic material to order.  Today there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of laboratories around the world that will perform this type of mail order service.  There has also been a profusion of hobbyist labs that have been created for less than a $10,000 investment.

Finally, there has been a growing awareness of the potential for terrorists to easily and cheaply utilize widely known genetically engineering techniques to create a deadly biological weapon.  Given the high mortality rate of this genetically engineered bird flu virus, there is fear that it may accidentally escape a laboratory environment and/or that knowledge of how it was created would make it a highly desirable pathogen for use as a biological weapon.

As a result of these fears, the U.S. government, presumably the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), asked the independent National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) to review two research articles, one accepted for publication in Nature and another accepted for publication in Science, to determine if the articles should be limited in terms of details and results.  As a result of this review, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity just issued its report where the board concluded “the NSABB found that there was significant potential for harm in fully publishing these results and that the harm exceeded the benefits of publication, we therefore recommended that the work not be fully communicated in an open forum.”

To indicate how serious scientists view this issue the following are selected comments of concern:

“It is one of the most dangerous viruses you can make,” said Ron Fouchier, an author of the article submitted and accepted by Science magazine.

“Can’t think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one,” said Paul Keim, chair of NSABB.

“It’s just a bad idea for scientists to turn a lethal virus into a lethal and highly contagious virus, and it’s a second bad idea to publish how they did it so others can copy it,” said Thomas V. Inglesby, MD, director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Use the following links for more information of the genetically engineered H5N1 virus controversy:

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v482/n7384/full/482153a.html

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v482/n7384/full/482156a.html

http://www.cidrap.umn.edu/cidrap/content/influenza/avianflu/news/dec2311ferrets-jw.html

http://virology.ws/2011/12/06/ferreting-out-influenza-h5n1/

http://blogs.nature.com/news/2012/02/avian-flu-controversy-comes-to-roost-at-who.html

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