ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Are GM Crops Behind the Bee Collapse?

The collapse of bee populations has been in the news lately, but a recent thread has suggested that this may be the result of genetically modified crops. Der Spiegel in Germany reports (March 22): "No one knows what is causing the bees to perish, but some expertsbelieve that the large-scale use of genetically modified plants in the US could be a factor."

How so? GM crops have been created by inserting the gene of a bacterial insecticide - Bt - so that they resist certain pests. But the pollen also contains Bt and bees pick it up. One study found a relationship between the Bt toxin and bee deaths. Der Spiegel says:

The study in question is a small research project conducted at the University of Jena from 2001 to 2004. The researchers examined the effects of pollen from a genetically modified maize variant called "Bt corn" on bees. A gene from a soil bacterium had been inserted into the corn that enabled the plant to produce an agent that is toxic to insect pests. The study concluded that there was no evidence of a "toxic effect of Bt corn on healthy honeybee populations." But when, by sheer chance, the bees used in the experiments were infested with a parasite, something eerie happened. According to the Jena study, a "significantly stronger decline in the number of bees" occurred among the insects that had been fed a highly concentrated Bt poison feed.

According to Hans-Hinrich Kaatz, a professor at the University of Halle in eastern Germany and the director of the study, the bacterial toxin in the genetically modified corn may have "altered the surface of the bee's intestines, sufficiently weakening the bees to allow the parasites to gain entry -- or perhaps it was the other way around. We don't know."

Of course, the concentration of the toxin was ten times higher in the experiments than in normal Bt corn pollen. In addition, the bee feed was administered over a relatively lengthy six-week period.

Kaatz would have preferred to continue studying the phenomenon but lacked the necessary funding. "Those who have the money are not interested in this sort of research," says the professor, "and those who are interested don't have the money."

How Transparency Works

By Samuel Fromartz

I just read three pieces that show the power of transparency in the food system.

First was the op-ed in the Times I missed yesterday on the conditions of sows in the pork industry (should we call it the pig industry?). Nicolette Hahn Niman points out that Smithfield Farm recently decided to stop using gestation cages which "virtually immobilize pigs during their pregnancies in metal stalls so narrow they are unable to turn around."

Getting rid of gestation crates (already on their way out in the European Union) is welcome and long overdue, but more action is needed to end inhumane conditions at America’s hog farms.

Of the 60 million pigs in the United States, over 95 percent are continuously confined in metal buildings, including the almost five million sows in crates. In such setups, feed is automatically delivered to animals who are forced to urinate and defecate where they eat and sleep. Their waste festers in large pits a few feet below their hooves. Intense ammonia and hydrogen sulfide fumes from these pits fill pigs’ lungs and sensitive nostrils. No straw is provided to the animals because that would gum up the works (as it would if you tossed straw into your toilet).

You get the picture. I saw another email on how this sort of knowledge is affecting producers - in this case, in the dairy industry. The source was Dairy Line, a trade publisher for milk producers.

They are concerned that "well-funded activists" are raising questions about rBST, the synthetic growth hormone that pumps up milk production (and reduces the productive lifespan of cows). They blame the activists, but the fact is, consumers are voting for rBST-free milk with their wallets the more they hear about the issue.

As organic milk - which cannot be produced with synthetic hormones and antibiotics - has raised awareness on this issue, other non-organic milk companies have followed suit and are banning rBST (which is not approved for use in Europe).

The email goes onto state that "similar scenarios have developed in other arenas in recent months ... issues that affect poultry and pork production and 'We’re concerned dairy is coming under the same kind of attack,'" the email said.

As consumers learn more, production methods come under greater scrutiny and traditional agriculture feels the heat. It's happening across the food system.

Finally, transparency can effect decisions at the farm. Albert Straus, of California's Straus Family Creamery (an organic milk producer) decided to test his feed for GM contamination. According to Time magazine, he "was alarmed to find that nearly 6% of the organic corn feed he received from suppliers was "contaminated" by genetically modified (GM) organisms.

So Straus and five other natural food producers, including industry leader Whole Foods, announced last week that they would seek a new certification for their products, "non-GMO verified," in the hopes that it will become a voluntary industry standard for GM-free goods. A non-profit group called the Non-GMO Project runs the program, and the testing is conducted by an outside lab called Genetic ID. In a few weeks, Straus expects to become the first food manufacturer in the country to carry the label in addition to his "organic" one.

The bottom line: Transparency changes food production decisions. It is now having a measurable impact on what we eat.


Eat GM Rice, But Don't Grow It

You can eat unapproved genetically modified rice, but don't try to grow it.

So says the USDA, according to a story from Dow Jones reporter Bill Tomson published Monday (subscription required).

The USDA banned planting of Clearfield CL131 rice that was apparently contaminated by an unapproved strain of genetically modified rice. The ban applies to seeds produced in 2005-2007.

Now the USDA is moving toward a food safety assessment for the unapproved rice. "We're still coordinating with the (Food and Drug Administration) to get some sort of determination ... on safety," USDA Under Secretary Bruce Knight said.

In the meantime, there's no prohibition on allowing grain from those seeds into the food supply.

Thomas Sim, a director at USDA's Biotechnology Regulatory Services, told Dow Jones any material "not intended for seed" and "in the channels to be milled" will not be affected by the ban. The rice produced last year from Clearfield CL131 seeds is not distinguishable at the mills.

GMO Seed Sales Halted

A federal judge Monday threw out the USDA's approval of genetically engineered alfalfa and issued a temporary injunction to halt sales of the seed.

The unprecedented ruling follows a hearing last week in the case brought by the Center for Food Safety against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for approving GE alfalfa without conducting the required Environmental Impact Statement.

While Monsanto and its allies claimed that delaying the sale or planting of their GE seed would harm farmers, the judge found otherwise. “Disappointment in the delay to their switch to Roundup Ready alfalfa is not an interest which outweighs the potential environmental harm…” posed by the GE crop, he wrote.

The LA Times reports:

The seeds ... are now in their second season of use. Such genetically engineered seeds are grown in 200,000 of the nation's 23 million acres of alfalfa, widely grown for hay and animal grazing.

The seeds were re-engineered so that alfalfa plants can resist the ill effects of another Monsanto product, a widely used herbicide known by the trade name of Roundup. As a result, some farmers say, they can get greater crop yield and better quality alfalfa.

California is the nation's No. 1 alfalfa producer with about 1 million acres under cultivation. The state's 2004 harvest was worth $853 million.

The ban will remain in effect until the judge considers lifting it or making it permanent. Monsanto is banking on increasing the acreage by convincing federal Judge Charles R. Breyer at an April hearing that farmers can use so-called Roundup Ready alfalfa seeds without contaminating neighboring fields.

The Little-Known (Non-GMO) Rice Mutant

As you probably know, if you've been reading the news or this blog, rice farmers have been scrambling to find seed that's not contaminated with traces of genetically engineered, herbicide-tolerant rice. (The Washington Post looked at the issue Sunday).

There's a curious fact about the current debacle that you probably haven't heard, though, perhaps because journalists don't want to confuse their readers. You know that popular "conventional" variety in which traces of genetic engineering were most recently found? Clearfield 131? Well, it's also a herbicide-tolerant line of rice. It contains a genetic mutation that allows it to tolerate doses of certain chemical herbicides. Scientists created that genetic change by soaking rice in mutation-inducing chemicals. Similar "Clearfield" varieties have been on the market for years, and nobody outside the rice industry paid much attention.

There's really no difference in the potential risks posed by these two kinds of herbicide-tolerance -- one created through genetic engineering and one created by mutation-causing chemicals. So why is one kind exempt from public scrutiny and government regulation, while the other kind sets off trade embargoes? Probably because genetic engineering, unlike chemical mutagenesis, arrived on the scene full of hype and hubris, promising a new creation. Those grand ambitions, as much as anything, provoked the anti-GMO backlash.

- Dan Charles

Genetic Mystery: Contaminated Rice Seed

Editor's note: We welcome Dan Charles, an author and occasional NPR reporter and editor, as a new contributor to Chews Wise.

By Dan Charles

The most mysterious case of genetically engineered guests showing up, uninvited and unwelcome, in farmers’ fields just got more mysterious this week.

There's no genetically engineered rice for sale in the U.S., but tests of conventional rice seed, starting more than a year ago, have found traces of three separate genetically engineered strains.

The latest case, announced by the USDA this week, hit just as farmers began spring planting in Louisiana.

The case shows just how difficult it is to prevent the spread of genes, or seeds, from one field to another. In rice, the cases of contamination have shut down rice exports to Europe and forced seed companies to take two popular rice varieties off the market.

What everybody in the rice industry wants to know is, How how did genetically engineered plants end up in stocks of conventional seeds?

Here's what happened in the latest case.

Samples of a popular rice variety called Clearfield 131 tested positive for a DNA sequence that's commonly used in many genetically engineered varieties. Then inspectors tested for other DNA sequences, ones that are found in the three specific strains of genetically engineered rice that have been approved for sale but not yet on the market. These tests came back negative.

So the gene that's loose in Clearfield 131 appears to be from non-approved line of genetically engineered rice.

As a result, the USDA banned farmers from planting Clearfield 131 -- one of the most popular rice varieties. Planting in some areas was already underway, though. An industry source says at least two fields were planted with the now-banned variety. Those seedlings will presumably have to be destroyed.

Insiders think the contamination probably occurred at an agricultural research station near Crowley, Louisiana, (the “rice capital of America”) operated by Louisiana State University.

This research station conducted field trials, a few years ago, with several different lines of genetically engineered rice. Most of them were products developed by Bayer CropScience, engineered to tolerate doses of the herbicide Liberty, also sold by Bayer.

Simultaneously, this research station was breeding new conventional varieties of rice and growing small harvests of "foundation seed" -- the ultra-pure stocks that seed companies use in growing the seed that they sell to farmers.

The most popular varieties that this research station has released in recent years are called Cheniere and Clearfield 131. These are also the varieties contaminated with traces of genetically modified rice. (Cheniere was pulled from the market last fall.)

Evidently, pollen from the genetically engineered field trials, or a few stray kernels of rice, found a way to cross the few hundred yards that separated these fields. Perhaps harvesting equipment carried the kernels from one field to the other.

Rice pollen doesn't usually travel from one plant to another, but a windstorm might produce a freak instance of cross-pollination. However it happened, the genetically modified material did end up in foundation seed that this research station released to seed companies.

USDA inspectors have been going through the records of this LSU research station, testing every sample of seed that's been stored, trying to figure out where, and when, the genetic contamination happened. Evidently, it happened at least three separate times.

Rice farmers and exporters, at this point, are wishing they'd never heard of genetic engineering. Exports haven’t actually dropped overall; most countries have agreed to accept U.S. rice exports, as long as the industry appears to be making an effort to fix the problem. But the rice industry is worried that will change.

The lesson appears to be that the agricultural system simply isn't able to ensure pristine separation of different genetic lines of grain. Farming is a messy business; grain and pollen get mixed up.

It's been a tough few months for Steven Linscombe, director of the LSU research station in Crowley. Considering the scrutiny he's under, Linscombe has been notably open and willing to discuss exactly what he did in those field trials.

He's learned a few things. Last fall, when I interviewed him for an NPR story on this saga, he said that he'll never again grow genetically engineered rice on the same research farm with conventional foundation seed. Any field trials of genetically engineered rice will take place at a separate location, with separate cultivation and harvesting equipment.
Dan Charles is the author of Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food

Cracking Down on GMO Opponents

Here's a map revealing states that ban local counties from enacting seed legislation. This lobbying move occurred after Mendocino and Marin counties in California successfully legislated bans on GMO seeds in 2004. Agbribusiness got to work to prevent further such actions around the country. Here's a map laying out the activity (in red), from Enviromental Commons.

Environmental commons also details the status of these laws.

Not surprisingly, the laws have been passed in key agriculture states where the planting of GMO corn and soybeans are prevalent. An attempt to pass such a bill failed in California in 2006.


I was speaking to one organic seed company rep recently, who told me they source no corn seed from the Midwest because it's likely contaminated with GMO - that is with genetically modified seed.

I also recently came across this Nation article by Lisa Hamilton, who says that virtually no corn seed in the US is GMO free. But what the article points out is that there are in fact traditional breeding techniques - through mating one plant with another - that could insert a shield to prevent GMO contamination. The only problem is, that method is now patented too.

The issue here is the privatization of seed, which is one major problem I see with sending GMO seeds to the Third World. The farmers there will be tied into the seed and chemical companies, like any addict. They will also need to invest in chemicals and irrigation networks, which only concentrates farming and takes more people off the land and into cities.