Thursday, January 24, 2013

Food, Climate and Agricultural Policies Linked

Jonathan Latham and Allison Wilson

Understanding of the ‘problem’ of agriculture took a giant step forward in 2007 with publication of the UN IAASTD report. This report, which was as important for agriculture as the IPCC reports have been for the climate, pinpointed a move to ecology-based agriculture as the key to meeting many other fundamental needs such as clean water, safe food and sustainability. What the IAASTD didn’t do, at least directly however, was to focus on politics, especially the obstacles to progress in improving agriculture.

A new report, The Wheel of Life: Food, Climate, Human Rights and the Economy (Sept. 2011), released by the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Foundation, usefully complements this deficit. It does this in part by drawing attention explicitly to some common myths on which support for conventional production-oriented solutions for agriculture are based. Among these myths are that hugely enhanced food production will be required in the future, that biotech (GMO) seeds are needed to solve hunger and mitigate climate change, and that traditional agriculture is wasteful and inefficient.

The Wheel then examines how major current crises—hunger, climate change, and ecological degradation—are deeply interlinked. Despite the evident linkages, however, government and international institutions typically address these issues as if they were disconnected from one another. Thus the IPCC, for example, still has not adequately considered agriculture as a contributor to climate change. The consequence of this disconnect, The Wheel of Life points out, is that many policies do not tackle root causes and therefore negative global trends have tended to intensify.

Confronting global hunger is one example identified in the report. Leaders on each end of the political spectrum uniformly assert that economic growth is needed to address hunger and poverty. Yet economic growth is typically conducted via industrial activities that contribute to climate change, which in turn, negatively impacts the ability to grow food.

Similarly, in addition to their effects on climate change, economic and trade policies can spur growth for a few while undermining the ability of small-scale farmers and rural communities to provide food for local populations. The Wheel of Life suggests these complex interactions help explain why, even though economic growth indicators have risen in many countries over the last decade, hunger rates have increased too, especially within the last several years.

To successfully remedy social injustices, climate change, and agriculture, The Wheel of Life argues that political action is needed that incorporates social and ecological needs. And it notes that while governments dither on climate change and agricultural reform, agribusiness is already positioning its products as the preferred solutions. The strategy proposed by The Wheel of Life is to incorporate civil society input into political and economic discussions. Some countries, such as Germany, already have productive dialogues with civil society, but in the US and Britain, for example, interactions are negligible. To encourage cooperation the report also provides a list of civil society organisations with compatible aims in the areas of climate change, agriculture, environment, human rights, women’s rights, and migration.

The Wheel concludes that lasting solutions to hunger and other major crises of our day must, above all, be guided by fundamentals of ecology.

“Policies and practices must begin with the ecological imperative in order to ensure authentic security and stability on all fronts—food, water, livelihoods and jobs, climate, energy, and economic,” writes report author Debbie Barker, international director at the Center for Food Safety. “In turn this engenders equity, social justice, and diverse cultures.”

Regulators Discover a Hidden Viral Gene in Commercial GMO Crops

by Jonathan Latham and Allison Wilson


How should a regulatory agency announce they have discovered something potentially very important about the safety of products they have been approving for over twenty years?

In the course of analysis to identify potential allergens in GMO crops, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has belatedly discovered that the most common genetic regulatory sequence in commercial GMOs also encodes a significant fragment of a viral gene (Podevin and du Jardin 2012). This finding has serious ramifications for crop biotechnology and its regulation, but possibly even greater ones for consumers and farmers. This is because there are clear indications that this viral gene (called Gene VI) might not be safe for human consumption. It also may disturb the normal functioning of crops, including their natural pest resistance.
Cauliflower Mosaic Virus
Cauliflower Mosaic Virus
What Podevin and du Jardin discovered is that of the 86 different transgenic events (unique insertions of foreign DNA) commercialized to-date in the United States 54 contain portions of Gene VI within them. They include any with a widely used gene regulatory sequence called the CaMV 35S promoter (from the cauliflower mosaic virus; CaMV). Among the affected transgenic events are some of the most widely grown GMOs, including Roundup Ready soybeans (40-3-2) and MON810 maize. They include the controversial NK603 maize recently reported as causing tumors in rats (Seralini et al. 2012).

The researchers themselves concluded that the presence of segments of Gene VI “might result in unintended phenotypic changes”. They reached this conclusion because similar fragments of Gene VI have already been shown to be active on their own (e.g. De Tapia et al. 1993). In other words, the EFSA researchers were unable to rule out a hazard to public health or the environment.
In general, viral genes expressed in plants raise both agronomic and human health concerns (reviewed in Latham and Wilson 2008). This is because many viral genes function to disable their host in order to facilitate pathogen invasion. Often, this is achieved by incapacitating specific anti-pathogen defenses. Incorporating such genes could clearly lead to undesirable and unexpected outcomes in agriculture. Furthermore, viruses that infect plants are often not that different from viruses that infect humans. For example, sometimes the genes of human and plant viruses are interchangeable, while on other occasions inserting plant viral fragments as transgenes has caused the genetically altered plant to become susceptible to an animal virus (Dasgupta et al. 2001). Thus, in various ways, inserting viral genes accidentally into crop plants and the food supply confers a significant potential for harm.

The Choices for Regulators
The original discovery by Podevin and du Jardin (at EFSA) of Gene VI in commercial GMO crops must have presented regulators with sharply divergent procedural alternatives. They could 1) recall all CaMV Gene VI-containing crops (in Europe that would mean revoking importation and planting approvals) or, 2) undertake a retrospective risk assessment of the CaMV promoter and its Gene VI sequences and hope to give it a clean bill of health.

It is easy to see the attraction for EFSA of option two. Recall would be a massive political and financial decision and would also be a huge embarrassment to the regulators themselves. It would leave very few GMO crops on the market and might even mean the end of crop biotechnology.
Regulators, in principle at least, also have a third option to gauge the seriousness of any potential GMO hazard. GMO monitoring, which is required by EU regulations, ought to allow them to find out if deaths, illnesses, or crop failures have been reported by farmers or health officials and can be correlated with the Gene VI sequence. Unfortunately, this particular avenue of enquiry is a scientific dead end. Not one country has carried through on promises to officially and scientifically monitor any hazardous consequences of GMOs (1).

Unsurprisingly, EFSA chose option two. However, their investigation resulted only in the vague and unreassuring conclusion that Gene VI “might result in unintended phenotypic changes” (Podevin and du Jardin 2012). This means literally, that changes of an unknown number, nature, or magnitude may (or may not) occur. It falls well short of the solid scientific reassurance of public safety needed to explain why EFSA has not ordered a recall.

Can the presence of a fragment of virus DNA really be that significant? Below is an independent analysis of Gene VI and its known properties and their safety implications. This analysis clearly illustrates the regulators’ dilemma.

The Many Functions of Gene VI
Gene VI, like most plant viral genes, produces a protein that is multifunctional. It has four (so far) known roles in the viral infection cycle. The first is to participate in the assembly of virus particles. There is no current data to suggest this function has any implications for biosafety. The second known function is to suppress anti-pathogen defenses by inhibiting a general cellular system called RNA silencing (Haas et al. 2008). Thirdly, Gene VI has the highly unusual function of transactivating (described below) the long RNA (the 35S RNA) produced by CaMV (Park et al. 2001). Fourthly, unconnected to these other mechanisms, Gene VI has very recently been shown to make plants highly susceptible to a bacterial pathogen (Love et al. 2012). Gene VI does this by interfering with a common anti-pathogen defense mechanism possessed by plants. These latter three functions of Gene VI (and their risk implications) are explained further below:

1) Gene VI Is an Inhibitor of RNA Silencing
RNA silencing is a mechanism for the control of gene expression at the level of RNA abundance (Bartel 2004). It is also an important antiviral defense mechanism in both plants and animals, and therefore most viruses have evolved genes (like Gene VI) that disable it (Dunoyer and Voinnet 2006).
Cauliflower mosaic virus genome
Gene VI (upper left) precedes the start of the 35S RNA
This attribute of Gene VI raises two obvious biosafety concerns: 1) Gene VI will lead to aberrant gene expression in GMO crop plants, with unknown consequences and, 2) Gene VI will interfere with the ability of plants to defend themselves against viral pathogens. There are numerous experiments showing that, in general, viral proteins that disable gene silencing enhance infection by a wide spectrum of viruses (Latham and Wilson 2008).

2) Gene VI Is a Unique Transactivator of Gene Expression
Multicellular organisms make proteins by a mechanism in which only one protein is produced by each passage of a ribosome along a messenger RNA (mRNA). Once that protein is completed the ribosome dissociates from the mRNA. However, in a CaMV-infected plant cell, or as a transgene, Gene VI intervenes in this process and directs the ribosome to get back on an mRNA (reinitiate) and produce the next protein in line on the mRNA, if there is one. This property of Gene VI enables Cauliflower Mosaic Virus to produce multiple proteins from a single long RNA (the 35S RNA).
Importantly, this function of Gene VI (which is called transactivation) is not limited to the 35S RNA. Gene VI seems able to transactivate any cellular mRNA (Futterer and Hohn 1991; Ryabova et al. 2002). There are likely to be thousands of mRNA molecules having a short or long protein coding sequence following the primary one. These secondary coding sequences could be expressed in cells where Gene VI is expressed. The result will presumably be production of numerous random proteins within cells. The biosafety implications of this are difficult to assess. These proteins could be allergens, plant or human toxins, or they could be harmless. Moreover, the answer will differ for each commercial crop species into which Gene VI has been inserted.

3) Gene VI Interferes with Host Defenses
A very recent finding, not known by Podevin and du Jardin, is that Gene VI has a second mechanism by which it interferes with plant anti-pathogen defenses (Love et al. 2012). It is too early to be sure about the mechanistic details, but the result is to make plants carrying Gene VI more susceptible to certain pathogens, and less susceptible to others. Obviously, this could impact farmers, however the discovery of an entirely new function for gene VI while EFSA’s paper was in press, also makes clear that a full appraisal of all the likely effects of Gene VI is not currently achievable.

Is There a Direct Human Toxicity Issue?
When Gene VI is intentionally expressed in transgenic plants, it causes them to become chlorotic (yellow), to have growth deformities, and to have reduced fertility in a dose-dependent manner (Ziljstra et al 1996). Plants expressing Gene VI also show gene expression abnormalities. These results indicate that, not unexpectedly given its known functions, the protein produced by Gene VI is functioning as a toxin and is harmful to plants (Takahashi et al 1989). Since the known targets of Gene VI activity (ribosomes and gene silencing) are also found in human cells, a reasonable concern is that the protein produced by Gene VI might be a human toxin. This is a question that can only be answered by future experiments.

Is Gene VI Protein Produced in GMO Crops?
Given that expression of Gene VI is likely to cause harm, a crucial issue is whether the actual inserted transgene sequences found in commercial GMO crops will produce any functional protein from the fragment of Gene VI present within the CaMV sequence.

There are two aspects to this question. One is the length of Gene VI accidentally introduced by developers. This appears to vary but most of the 54 approved transgenes contain the same 528 base pairs of the CaMV 35S promoter sequence. This corresponds to approximately the final third of Gene VI. Deleted fragments of Gene VI are active when expressed in plant cells and functions of Gene VI are believed to reside in this final third. Therefore, there is clear potential for unintended effects if this fragment is expressed (e.g. De Tapia et al. 1993; Ryabova et al. 2002; Kobayashi and Hohn 2003).

The second aspect of this question is what quantity of Gene VI could be produced in GMO crops? Once again, this can ultimately only be resolved by direct quantitative experiments. Nevertheless, we can theorize that the amount of Gene VI produced will be specific to each independent insertion event. This is because significant Gene VI expression probably would require specific sequences (such as the presence of a gene promoter and an ATG [a protein start codon]) to precede it and so is likely to be heavily dependent on variables such as the details of the inserted transgenic DNA and where in the plant genome the transgene inserted.

Commercial transgenic crop varieties can also contain superfluous copies of the transgene, including those that are incomplete or rearranged (Wilson et al 2006). These could be important additional sources of Gene VI protein. The decision of regulators to allow such multiple and complex insertion events was always highly questionable, but the realization that the CaMV 35S promoter contains Gene VI sequences provides yet another reason to believe that complex insertion events increase the likelihood of a biosafety problem.

Even direct quantitative measurements of Gene VI protein in individual crop authorizations would not fully resolve the scientific questions, however. No-one knows, for example, what quantity, location or timing of protein production would be of significance for risk assessment, and so answers necessary to perform science-based risk assessment are unlikely to emerge soon.

Big Lessons for Biotechnology
It is perhaps the most basic assumption in all of risk assessment that the developer of a new product provides regulators with accurate information about what is being assessed. Perhaps the next most basic assumption is that regulators independently verify this information. We now know, however, that for over twenty years neither of those simple expectations have been met. Major public universities, biotech multinationals, and government regulators everywhere, seemingly did not appreciate the relatively simple possibility that the DNA constructs they were responsible for encoded a viral gene.

This lapse occurred despite the fact that Gene VI was not truly hidden; the relevant information on the existence of Gene VI has been freely available in the scientific literature since well before the first biotech approval (Franck et al 1980). We ourselves have offered specific warnings that viral sequences could contain unsuspected genes (Latham and Wilson 2008). The inability of risk assessment processes to incorporate longstanding and repeated scientific findings is every bit as worrysome as the failure to intellectually anticipate the possibility of overlapping genes when manipulating viral sequences.

This sense of a generic failure is reinforced by the fact that this is not an isolated event. There exist other examples of commercially approved viral sequences having overlapping genes that were never subjected to risk assessment. These include numerous commercial GMOs containing promoter regions of the closely related virus figwort mosaic virus (FMV) which were not considered by Podevin and du Jardin. Inspection of commercial sequence data shows that the commonly used FMV promoter overlaps its own Gene VI (Richins et al 1987). A third example is the virus-resistant potato NewLeaf Plus (RBMT-22-82). This transgene contains approximately 90% of the P0 gene of potato leaf roll virus. The known function of this gene, whose existence was discovered only after US approval, is to inhibit the anti-pathogen defenses of its host (Pfeffer et al 2002). Fortunately, this potato variety was never actively marketed.

A further key point relates to the biotech industry and their campaign to secure public approval and a permissive regulatory environment. This has led them to repeatedly claim, firstly, that GMO technology is precise and predictable; and secondly, that their own competence and self-interest would prevent them from ever bringing potentially harmful products to the market; and thirdly, to assert that only well studied and fully understood transgenes are commercialized. It is hard to imagine a finding more damaging to these claims than the revelations surrounding Gene VI.

Biotechnology, it is often forgotten, is not just a technology. It is an experiment in the proposition that human institutions can perform adequate risk assessments on novel living organisms. Rather than treat that question as primarily a daunting scientific one, we should for now consider that the primary obstacle will be overcoming the much more mundane trap of human complacency and incompetence. We are not there yet, and therefore this incident will serve to reinforce the demands for GMO labeling in places where it is absent.

What Regulators Should Do Now
This summary of the scientific risk issues shows that a segment of a poorly characterized viral gene never subjected to any risk assessment (until now) was allowed onto the market. This gene is currently present in commercial crops and growing on a large scale. It is also widespread in the food supply.

Even now that EFSA’s own researchers have belatedly considered the risk issues, no one can say whether the public has been harmed, though harm appears a clear scientific possibility. Considered from the perspective of professional and scientific risk assessment, this situation represents a complete and catastrophic system failure.

But the saga of Gene VI is not yet over. There is no certainty that further scientific analysis will resolve the remaining uncertainties, or provide reassurance. Future research may in fact increase the level of concern or uncertainty, and this is a possibility that regulators should weigh heavily in their deliberations.

To return to the original choices before EFSA, these were either to recall all CaMV 35S promoter-containing GMOs, or to perform a retrospective risk assessment. This retrospective risk assessment has now been carried out and the data clearly indicate a potential for significant harm. The only course of action consistent with protecting the public and respecting the science is for EFSA, and other jurisdictions, to order a total recall. This recall should also include GMOs containing the FMV promoter and its own overlapping Gene VI.

1) EFSA regulators might now be regretting their failure to implement meaningful GMO monitoring. It would be a good question for European politicians to ask EFSA and for the board of EFSA to ask the GMO panel, whose job it is to implement monitoring.

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De Tapia M, Himmelbach A, and Hohn T (1993) Molecular dissection of the cauliflower mosaic virus translation transactivator. EMBO J 12: 3305-14.
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Franck A, H Guilley, G Jonard, K Richards and L Hirth (1980) Nucleotide sequence of cauliflower mosaic virus DNA. Cell 2: 285-294.

Futterer J, and T Hohn (1991) Translation of a polycistronic mRNA in presence of the cauliflower mosaic virus transactivator protein. EMBO J. 10: 3887-3896.

Haas G, Azevedo J, Moissiard G, Geldreich A, Himber C, Bureau M, et al. (2008) Nuclear import of CaMV P6 is required for infection and suppression of the RNA silencing factor DRB4. EMBO J 27: 2102-12.

Kobayashi K, and T Hohn (2003) Dissection of Cauliflower Mosaic Virus
Transactivator/Viroplasmin Reveals Distinct Essential Functions in Basic Virus Replication. J. Virol. 77: 8577–8583.

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 A plant viral ‘‘reinitiation’’ factor interacts with the host translational machinery. Cell 106: 723–733.
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Love AJ , C Geri, J Laird, C Carr, BW Yun, GJ Loake et al (2012) Cauliflower mosaic virus Protein P6 Inhibits Signaling Responses to Salicylic Acid and Regulates Innate Immunity. PLoS One. 7(10): e47535.

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Friday, January 18, 2013

Startup Seeks to Shape Future of Urban Agriculture with Fish, Automation and Well Designed Hardware

Startup Seeks to Shape Future of Urban Agriculture with Fish, Automation and Well Designed Hardware

Toshiba creating nuclear reactor for mining Canada Tar Sands

Toshiba Corp. has reportedly designed a nuclear reactor and intends to market it to natural resource developers for mining Tar Sands in Canada and other places.

Nikkei reported this week that the company had completed design of a small 10,000kw reactor and had asked the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for approval to begin construction in the United States, but the process had been delayed in connection with a meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011. The company also planned to seek approval from Canadian authorities.

Sources told The Daily Yomiruri that one natural resource developer had hopes of using the reactor in Alberta by 2020.
“To ensure the reactor’s safety, Toshiba reportedly plans to construct a nuclear reactor building underground, while the building itself will be equipped with an earthquake-absorbing structure,” according to the paper.

The reactor would be used to inject steam about 300 meters underground into the oil sands. A separate pipe would then extract the sand as slurry.

Toshiba’s planned reactor would not need to be refueled for up to 30 years. Additional uses could included turning saltwater into freshwater and powering small communities in frontier areas like northern Alaska.

Ploughshares Fund Program Director Paul Carroll told Raw Story that environmental disasters were still a concern with small nuclear reactors – even one that was 1 percent the size of a 1 million kilowatt power plant — but “the individual accident scenarios are probably orders of magnitude less.”

“I don’t want to say you could have Fukushima in Canada, but I think Fukushima is a really fascinating example because it’s not so much that things failed there, but nature bats last,” he explained. “Here you had an earthquake and then a tsunami, and while some of those safety features worked initially, it basically was overwhelming.”

“What can you imagine might happen up there? When I think Canada, I think, it’s cold. Suppose you had a really long winter and it’s hard to get at this place. Suppose you did have an earthquake, what might that mean?”
 Carroll also questioned the logic of using greener technologies like nuclear power to mine tar sands and produce oil that would eventually result in massive amounts of greenhouse gasses being released into the air.

“It’s a little odd,” he admitted.

Global Grain Stocks Drop Dangerously Low as 2012 Consumption Exceeded Production

By: Janet Larson, Earth Policy Institute
January 17, 2013 - The world produced 2,241 million tons of grain in 2012, down 75 million tons or 3 percent from the 2011 record harvest. The drop was largely because of droughts that devastated several major crops—namely corn in the United States (the world's largest crop) and wheat in Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Australia. Each of these countries also is an important exporter. Global grain consumption fell significantly for the first time since 1995, as high prices dampened use for ethanol production and livestock feed. Still, overall consumption did exceed production. With drought persisting in key producing regions, there is concern that farmers in 2013 will again be unable to produce the surpluses necessary to rebuild lowered global grain reserves.

Corn, wheat, and rice account for most of the world's grain harvest. Whereas rice and most wheat are consumed directly as food, corn is largely used for livestock and poultry feed and for industrial purposes. Climbing demand for corn-intensive meat, milk, and eggs plus the recent increased production of corn-based ethanol have made corn the world's leading grain since 1998. In 2012, the global corn harvest came in at 852 million tons, while 654 million tons of wheat and 466 million tons of rice were produced. Wheat takes up the most land because corn yields are typically much higher, averaging close to 5 tons per hectare globally compared with about 3 tons per hectare for wheat and rice. (One hectare = 2.47 acres.) In the United States, corn yields in the top-producing areas exceed 10 tons per hectare when conditions are favorable.

Nearly half the world's grain is produced in just three countries: China, the United States, and India. China produced an estimated 479 million tons of grain in 2012—its largest harvest ever—compared with 354 million tons in the United States. India harvested 230 million tons. The countries in the European Union together produced 274 million tons. (See data.)

The 2012 U.S. grain harvest was 8 percent smaller than the year before. The heat and drought that gripped nearly two thirds of the contiguous United States during the summer was particularly severe throughout the midwestern Corn Belt. As temperatures soared, so did corn prices, hitting an all-time high of $8.39 a bushel on August 21st. Yields in Iowa, the top corn-producing state, were down 20 percent from 2011. In Illinois, typically the number two producer, yields dropped by 33 percent, ending up at the lowest level since the historic 1988 drought. As of January 2013, each state's farmers have collected more than $1 billion in crop insurance payments.

The total U.S. corn harvest came in at 274 million tons, down from 314 million tons the year before. The drop would have been far worse were it not for strong production in states less affected by dryness or with ample irrigation; in fact, Minnesota and North Dakota had record high output. The result was that some of the trains and barges that normally transport corn out of the Corn Belt reversed routes to bring corn in for meat and ethanol producers. U.S. corn stocks fell to 15 million tons, enough for just 21 days at current consumption levels. Such a low corn-stocks-to-use ratio—unseen before by farmers working the land today—presages further price volatility.

As high corn prices shrank ethanol's profit margins, a number of distilleries suspended operations. U.S. corn use for ethanol dropped to 114 million tons, down from 127 million tons in 2011. About a third of the total U.S. grain harvest went to fuel for cars.

The reduction of corn use for ethanol production and wheat use for feed contributed to an abrupt pause in the growth in global grain consumption, which over the past decade averaged close to 40 million more tons per year. January 2013 estimates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture put 2012 global grain consumption at 2,284 million tons, down 27 million tons from 2011. Even with the drop in use, global grain production fell short of consumption by 43 million tons.

Global grain consumption has exceeded production in 8 of the last 13 years, leading to a drawdown in reserves. Worldwide, carryover grain stocks—the amount left in the bin when the new harvest begins—stand at 423 million tons, enough to cover 68 days of consumption. This is just 6 days more than the low that preceded the 2007–08 grain crisis, when several countries restricted exports and food riots broke out in dozens of countries because of the spike in prices.

Grain prices receded somewhat during the recent recession, only to jump again in 2010 when heat and drought withered wheat in Russia, prompting an export ban. The poor prospects for the 2012 harvest led to the third spike in world market prices in just six years. This time around, even with its 2012 harvest forecast to be smaller than in 2010, Russia announced that it would avoid suspending exports.

Following a record high year in 2011, global grain trade in 2012 dropped back to 2010 levels. The 296 million tons of traded grain made up 13 percent of global consumption. Japan remained the world's largest importer, taking in a net 24 million tons (mostly corn to feed livestock and poultry), equal to 73 percent of what it used. Densely populated South Korea imported 13 million tons of grain, also amounting to 73 percent of its consumption. Feed corn dominated imports in Mexico—the cradle of corn—as well, with 15 million tons of grain imports accounting for 32 percent of its use. In the arid Middle East, Egypt took in 14 million tons of grain, largely wheat for bread, making up 39 percent of its grain consumption. Saudi Arabia's 13 million tons of grain imports, mostly barley for feed, accounted for 87 percent of its use.

China made the list of top 10 net importers for the second year in a row, taking in 8 million tons of grain in 2012, down from 11 million tons in 2011. China's 2012 imports (roughly split between corn, wheat, rice, and barley) amounted to just 2 percent of its domestic consumption, but the country's recent forays into world grain markets following years of self-sufficiency have captured attention because of China's enormous potential appetite. (Soybeans are another story; China takes in 60 percent of world soybean exports.)

Although the United States is by far the world's largest grain exporter, its share of the world market is shrinking. The net 49 million tons of grain the United States shipped out in 2012 was its smallest outflow since 1971. U.S. corn exports of 22 million tons were less than half the quantity of five years prior and just slightly larger than outflows from each of its South American competitors, Argentina and Brazil. For rice, Thailand was edged out of its top exporter position for the first time in three decades when India unloaded stocks accumulated during a four-year ban on non-Basmati exports.

Looking forward, the 2013 winter wheat crop could be in trouble because of droughts in the United States and in the Black Sea region. And while the heart of the Corn Belt has received some precipitation since the baking summer, soil moisture remains low and could possibly hinder spring planting, further tightening the corn situation. This is bad news when strong harvests are needed to rebuild stocks and to help stabilize prices.

Another hindrance to expanding production is the leveling off of yields for a number of key crops, importantly rice in Japan and South Korea and wheat in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. It appears that farmers in some areas have maximized productivity and are now running into biological constraints. On top of that, climate change is heightening the likelihood of weather extremes, like heat waves, droughts, and flooding, that can so easily decimate harvests. Although 70 days' worth of grain stocks once was considered enough to provide food security, a world with growing climate instability requires a larger buffer to protect against food price shocks. Skyrocketing prices hit the poorest among us the hardest, and ultimately they can spark instability that affects everyone.

For further discussion of the world food situation, see Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity by Lester R. Brown (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.), with data, video, and slideshows at

Organic Agriculture as a Strategic Tool for Global Change

"Sample some of the great sessions that happened at the 2012 EcoFarm Conference! We are offering all of the plenary sessions free of charge for a limited time. Click on the session title and a new window will open to play the track."

Listen here:

Dave Henson, Occidental Art and Ecology Center, Occidental, CA
Katherine Dimatteo, Wolf, Dimatteo & Associates, past president of the World Board of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), Ledyard, MA

Sometimes it seems that the world has problems that are spiraling out of control. Debilitating poverty and hunger, severe environmental degradation, economic structures that are not sustainable, climate change, and governments that are not responsive to their citizens’ needs are all staggering challenges to face. We have learned that current economic policies and genetically engineered foods are not the answer to these problems, nor is isolationism or thinking small.

What if we had the solution? What if organic agriculture served as the foundation of a green economy? This would take getting the rest of the world to listen and adopt an ecological model!
While the organic movement is still growing worldwide and has strong grass roots, it has been separated from these bigger issues and suffers from lack of recognition in the global arena.

Positioning organic agriculture to be a real strategic tool for sustainable development, for combating climate change, and for achieving food security has been the goal of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) and is reaching a critical point in preparation for the upcoming United Nations conference on Sustainable Development, Rio + 20, to be held in June 2012.
We can think globally and act locally! We will hear from some of these global thinkers here.

Monday, January 14, 2013

More than 80,000 chemicals are in use today, and most have not been independently tested for safety

Posted: Monday, January 14, 2013, 1:00 AM

In testimony before a Senate subcommittee, Ken Cook spoke passionately about 10 Americans who were found to have more than 200 synthetic chemicals in their blood.

The list included flame retardants, lead, stain removers, and pesticides the federal government had banned three decades ago.

"Their chemical exposures did not come from the air they breathed, the water they drank, or the food they ate," said Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, a national advocacy group.
How did he know?

The 10 Americans were newborns. "Babies are coming into this world pre-polluted with toxic chemicals," he said.

More than 80,000 chemicals are in use today, and most have not been independently tested for safety, regulatory officials say.

Yet we come in contact with many every day - most notably, the bisphenol A in can linings and hard plastics, the flame retardants in couches, the nonstick coatings on cookware, the phthalates in personal care products, and the nonylphenols in detergents, shampoos, and paints.

These five groups of chemicals were selected by Sonya Lunder, senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, as ones that people should be aware of and try to avoid.

They were among the first picked in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's recent effort to assess health risks for 83 of the most worrisome industrial chemicals.

Lunder's basis was that they are chemicals Americans come in contact with daily. You don't have to live near a leaking Superfund site to be exposed. They are in many consumer products, albeit often unlabeled.

Studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others have shown that they are detectable in the blood or urine of many of us.

Plus, much data exist showing their harm. "We have an incredible body of evidence for all these chemicals," she said. "In all cases, we have studies linking human exposure to human health effects."

Lunder and others see these five as symbolic of the government's failure to protect us from potential - or actual - toxins.

"A lot of people presume that because you're buying something on the store shelf . . . someone has vetted that product to make sure it is safe," said Sarah Janssen, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, another advocacy group. "Unfortunately, that's not true."

Some chemicals are regulated through laws governing, say, pesticides or air quality.

But most are regulated through the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA. It has been identified as the only major environmental statute that has not been reauthorized, or revised, since its adoption in the 1970s.

Since 2005, U.S. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D., N.J.) has worked to change that. In 2010, he introduced the first version of the Safe Chemicals Act, which would require companies "to prove their products are safe before they end up in our home and our children's bodies," he said recently by e-mail.

A later version, with 27 cosponsors, passed out of committee in July. He has vowed to keep fighting for a vote in the full Senate.

The American Chemical Council, a trade association representing large chemical manufacturers, declined comment, although it too has called for reform.

"Public confidence in TSCA has diminished, contributing to misperceptions about the safety of chemicals," council president Cal Dooley said in 2011 testimony. But he said the proposed law would cripple innovation in fields from energy to medicine. It would "create an enormous burden on EPA and on manufacturers with little benefit by requiring a minimum data set for all chemicals."

EPA officials declined comment, but in a series of appearances before the Senate subcommittee on the environment, staffers repeatedly said the current law is not protecting Americans.

In July, Jim Jones, acting administrator of EPA's office of chemical safety, said that "with each passing year, the need for TSCA reform grows," noting that it had "fallen behind the rapidly advancing industry it is intended to regulate."

When TSCA was passed, it grandfathered in, "without any evaluation," the 62,000 chemicals in commerce that existed before 1976, Jones said.

He noted that in the 34 years since TSCA was passed, the list of chemicals has grown to 84,000, and EPA has been able to require testing on only about 200 of them.

Also, the agency has regulated or banned only five.

An oft-mentioned case of regulatory failure is that of cancer-causing asbestos. In 1989, "after years of study and nearly unanimous scientific opinion," Jones said, the EPA banned it.

Two years later, a federal court overturned most of the action because the EPA had not chosen the least burdensome control on industry, as required.

The court ruled that old asbestos uses could not be revived. New uses were prohibited. But current uses could remain.

Adam Finkel, executive director of the University of Pennsylvania Program on Regulation, said that Europe leads the U.S. in chemical testing and regulation. There, officials put the onus on the makers to prove a chemical is safe.

Meanwhile, the science keeps outpacing the rules.

"The real issue of TSCA reform is that science is not what it was 30 or 40 years ago," said Linda Birnbaum, head of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

In the past, she said, "we were looking almost exclusively at visible birth defects. We were concerned with cancer."

Researchers are now looking at chemicals' effects - some extremely subtle - on numerous other conditions, including reproductive development and disorders, diabetes, heart problems, asthma, autism . . . even obesity and learning disorders.

Paradigms have evolved so that researchers can study concurrent exposure to more than one chemical, as happens in real life. Toxicology has grown from a descriptive science of what has occurred to a predictive one.

Of the five chemicals identified by Lunder, flame retardants have figured prominently in recent research studies.

In late November, researchers led by Duke University chemist Heather Stapleton showed that a flame retardant removed from children's sleepwear as a suspected carcinogen was still in lots of couches.
More than 40 percent of the 102 couches bought between 1985 and 2010 had the chemical, called tris, according to the study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

That issue also published a study by the Silent Spring Institute, an advocacy group in Massachusetts, that traced the path of toxic flame retardants from couches to household dust to the bodies of children, who often crawl on floors and put fingers in their mouths.

Officials say children's small size and rapid growth may make them more vulnerable to toxins.
The research showed that most homes had levels of at least one flame retardant that exceeded a federal health guideline.

One of the latest health studies of PBDE flame retardants, in November's Environmental Health Perspectives, found that fetal or infant exposure could adversely affect a child's fine-motor coordination, attention span, and IQ.

A Chicago Tribune investigation, published in May, found that many flame retardants do not even provide meaningful protection from fire.

Bisphenol A, another chemical facing scrutiny, held promise because it could be used to make hard, clear plastic and protective liners for canned foods and beverages.

Noting thousands of studies examining its effects, the National Resources Defense Council petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to limit its use as a food additive, which would also preclude its use in packaging.

The FDA denied the petition last year, although many manufacturers have removed it from baby bottles and sippy cups. Some, including Campbell's Soup of Camden, say they plan to shift to alternatives.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Wild-growing GM canola continues to spread in Japan

Attention: open in a new window.
NOTE: Thank you to Akiko Frid for forwarding this report on how citizens are responding to the GM contamination problem in Japan.

Wild-growing GM canola continues to spread in Japan

The non-GM association Aichi Japan conducts regular actions by citizens concerned about imported genetically modified canola [oilseed rape] threatening local biodiversity and food safety. The most recent one was the 12th in the series and it was conducted on the 18th November 2012.

Monsanto's Roundup Ready GM canola and Bayer's Liberty Link GM canola were found growing by the roadside between Yokkaichi port and Matsusaka city in Mie Prefecture, Japan. 44 citizens gathered together and walked along more than 15 kms in order to clean up the unwanted GM canola.

The association members together with concerned consumers, processors of agricultural products and farmers have been doing these clean up operations and finding Canadian GM canola plants growing wild again and again since they first started in 2004. The association has undertaken this activity regularly since 2006.

According to Mr Ishikawa, who is one of the core members of the Non-GM association Aichi, the amount of Liberty Link GM canola has been increasing in recent years. He has been hearing that Canadian farmers use Liberty Link GM canola seeds that are tolerant to a weedkiller Basta (glufosinate) more than Roundup (glyphosate) tolerant one. There have been growing problems in North American farm fields where the wild weed populations becoming tolerant to commonly used chemicals like Roundup.

The 44 citizens carefully pulled up 197 plants from the ground and they tested 101 plants. The test kits are rather expensive for the local citizens group, therefore they did not test all the plants they collected. There were a few plants that were not Canadian canola plants, but which were wild relatives, that tested positive for GMO.

Roundup Ready

Liberty Link

Amount (%)

Canadian canola

18 (19.6%)

43 (46.7%)


Wild relatives

2 (22.2%)

4 (44.4%)

9 (66.6%)


20 (19.8%)

47 (46.5%)

101 (66.3%)

The association usually sends some of the GMO positive samples to be PCR tested [for DNA analysis] in order to double check the result from the simple strip test. They also check a few GMO negative samples by the PCR, since they have been noticing there are some plants with "hidden GMOs". Those are the ones that the test strip would not recognise any GMO proteins, but the PCR test result can be GMO positive. They have found Canadian canola plants with "hidden GMOs" as well as among some wild relatives a few times. The PCR test is very expensive for a local citizens group, so the amont of the samples they can test is very limited.

Japan is the biggest importer of canola seeds in the world, and most of the canola seeds are imported from Canada where GM canola varieties have been cultivated since 1995. The rest is imported from Australia. Bloomberg wrote in October 2012 that Japan's canola imports will probably climb to 2.4 million metric tons in 2012, surpassing the 2.3 million-ton record set in 2010 ( ).

Japanese food companies that have been trying to avoid using GM canola for food production were choosing the Australian canola, however since some areas in Australia started GM canola cultivation, the issue of wild-growing GM canola there also became a reality ( ). Japanese consumers who want to avoid GMO canola are choosing domestic oilseed rape oil, however domestic production of oilseed rape is fairly small. The same is true for domestic soybeans.

Consumers in Japan were among the very first citizens in the world to clearly say No to GMOs as far back as 1996. The government of Japan introduced its GMO food labeling law in 2001, but the law is well-known among the consumers as rather useless since there are many exceptions so the food companies basically do not need to label anything. Consumers are demanding better labelling from the government so that concerned consumers and farmers will be able to avoid buying GMO derived crops and products.

The non-GM association Aichi Japan will continue to conduct regular GM canola clean up operations. Mr Ishikawa who has been participating in these operations since 2004 says that their efforts have been effective in slowing down the further spread of contamination. However, it is necessary to continue this process, otherwise the GM canola will spread faster and wider and contaminate the wild relatives and food crops.

GM canola is growing a lot along national highway no. 23 in Mie Prefecture, where a lot of cars and big trucks pass by, so the citizens who participate in this clean up have to be very careful. The association prepares information materials as well as a guidebook on participating in the activities with pictures of GM canola, Japanese oilseed rape, and wild relatives. They form different groups for the divided up areas and each group has experienced people who are good at finding the plants.

Citizens who participate in the activities cover their own travel costs. The association covers the cost of insurance (since the activity is done by busy roads), the test kits and the materials. In recent years, a concerned [food] oil company that is importing GM canola into the area is cooperating with the citizens in order to clean up the GM canola.

The main issue is that the government has not taking any fundamental measures to minimize and eliminate this problem, especially the issue of the transport of GM seeds. We will continues to act on this issue since it is related to our food security and our food culture, says Mr Ishikawa.

Consumers Union of Japan ( together with many active citizens' organizations are now preparing for the 7th meeting of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which will be held in the Republic of Korea in October 2014 ( There still are several unsolved issues regarding the transboundary movement of Living Modified Organisms (LMOs).

Transportation of GM seeds are making problems even in countries where no such seeds are used or imported. Switzerland has a moratorium against the commercial use of GM crops and GM animals until 2017 since 2005 ( ). However, wild-growing GM canola was found next to the railway tracks ( ). In Japan, the GM canola seeds fall from transport trucks, and in Switzerland, the GM canola seeds fall from goods trains passing through the country.

The Non-GM association Aichi Japan welcomes ideas and opinions on eliminating this problem. The association continues to have dialogues with [food] oil companies, local government, as well as the national government, together with people who care about foods and agriculture in all over Japan.

For further information and details of the GM canola cleaning up activities, please visit Non-GM association Aichi:

Contact: Mr. Ishikawa: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

This report was written by Akiko Frid who participated in the GM canola clean up operation in November 2012 as a concerned citizen.

Growing biofuels can make you ill


By Tim Radford

Producing energy for transport and industry from crops may damage human health as well as leaving less land for growing food.

LONDON, 9 January – Biofuels – the green low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels – could both damage human health and reduce crop yields, British scientists warn in the journal Nature Climate Change. They calculate that widespread introduction of plantations of fast-growing trees for ethanol, diesel and methane production could increase concentrations of ground-level ozone, resulting in millions of tonnes in crop losses and an additional 1,385 deaths per year.

The sums are notional, and the research is intended to highlight a hazard and suggest ways of reducing an already low risk. But it is also a reminder that some kind of cost is imposed with every environmental decision.

To reduce carbon emissions and limit global warming, the European Union plans to produce 10% of fuel for transport and for power generation from biofuels by 2020. This could be met, the researchers say, by the conversion of 72 million hectares of farmland or wasteland into short rotation coppice of poplar, willow and eucalyptus.

These trees all produce a volatile organic compound called isoprene: in the presence of oxides of nitrogen from fertilisers and other sources, and in strong sunlight, this can set up a chain of reactions that increase ground level concentrations of ozone.

Ozone is a more complex form of oxygen. While it is an important component of the stratosphere, where it filters out dangerous ultra-violet sunlight, it is an unwelcome component of pollution at street level. This toxic irritant accounts for an estimated 22,000 premature deaths in Europe right now, and the European Commission’s Clean Air for Europe programme has calculated that pollution control legislation, if implemented, could avoid as many as 5,500 deaths per year.

But the widespread plantations of biofuels intended to limit global warming could raise the risk levels once more. The extra isoprene generated by biofuel plantations on such a scale could add another 1,385 deaths and – by affecting wheat and maize yields – cause annual economic losses to cereal farmers of US$1.5 billion.

Nick Hewitt, professor of atmospheric chemistry at Lancaster University, UK, and one of the authors, had been looking at isoprene levels in oil palm plantations in Malaysia: palm oil is used in food and household products and, increasingly, as a biofuel.

“So this got us thinking about what might happen in Europe,” he says. “We wanted to go beyond thinking about the carbon budget, to think about air quality. When people think about biofuel, they think about it in a positive way: these fuels will reduce our emissions and hence will have a benefit for the climate, which may be correct. But there are reservations about that.”

The Lancaster team suggest that the unwelcome consequences could be mitigated by the choice of coppice trees genetically engineered to reduce isoprene emissions – one genetically modified poplar has already been tested under laboratory conditions – or by the choice of other biofuel crops such as grasses, or by shifting biofuel production away from densely populated areas and highly productive cereal land.- Climate News Network

New study finds antibiotic resistance from GMOs in microbes in rivers

2012 Dec 18;46(24):13448-54. doi: 10.1021/es302760s. Epub 2012 Dec 6.

A Survey of Drug Resistance bla Genes Originating from Synthetic Plasmid Vectors in Six Chinese Rivers.


College of Life Sciences, Sichuan University , Chengdu, Sichuan Province 610064, People's Republic of China.


Antibiotic resistance poses a significant challenge to human health and its rate continues to rise globally. While antibiotic-selectable synthetic plasmid vectors have proved invaluable tools of genetic engineering, this class of artificial recombinant DNA sequences with high expression of antibiotic resistance genes presents an unknown risk beyond the laboratory setting. Contamination of environmental microbes with synthetic plasmid vector-sourced antibiotic resistance genes may represent a yet unrecognized source of antibiotic resistance. In this study, PCR and real-time quantitative PCR were used to investigate the synthetic plasmid vector-originated ampicillin resistance gene, β-lactam antibiotic (blá), in microbes from six Chinese rivers with significant human interactions. Various levels of blá were detected in all six rivers, with the highest levels in the Pearl and Haihe rivers. To validate the blá pollution, environmental plasmids in the river samples were captured by the E. coli transformants from the community plasmid metagenome. The resultant plasmid library of 205 ampicillin-resistant E. coli (transformants) showed a blá-positive rate of 27.3% by PCR. Sequencing results confirmed the synthetic plasmid vector sources. In addition, results of the Kirby-Bauer disc-diffusion test reinforced the ampicillin-resistant functions of the environmental plasmids. The resistance spectrum of transformants from the Pearl and Haihe rivers, in particular, had expanded to the third- and fourth-generation of cephalosporin drugs, while that of other transformants mainly involved first- and second-generation cephalosporins. This study not only reveals environmental contamination of synthetic plasmid vector-sourced blá drug resistance genes in Chinese rivers, but also suggests that synthetic plasmid vectors may represent a source of antibiotic resistance in humans.
[PubMed - in process]

Comment from UC Berkeley microbiologist Dr. Ignacio Chapela:
Paper demonstrating the escape and establishment of transgenic DNA from GMOs in
all rivers tested in China. Salient points:
1. A novel method was used to select and isolate those bacteria from the river
water which contained DNA suspected to derive from GMOs. These were then
carefully studied to demonstrate that the DNA could not have come from other
sources (e.g. mutation/natural selection).
2. Although the numbers varied, and absolute amounts of the transformed bacteria
could not be measured, every river sampled was shown to contain these organisms.
3. The exact origin of the transgenic DNA incorporated into native bacterial
populations was not determined. It could come from intentional releases (such as
agricultural fields) or from unintentional escapes from contained situations
(labs, industrial facilities).
4. These bacteria all have in common the fact that they acquired antibiotic
resistance markers from transgenic origin (the markers were used to select the
bacteria in the first place). Antibiotic resistance in free-living bacteria is
not a good thing for those who may one day want to use antibiotics to fend-off
infections (e.g. patients in hospitals).
5. Nevertheless, the antibiotic resistance is not at all the most important
point of this paper (even when the authors themselves seem to think it is).
Looking for antibiotic resistance was the easiest feasible way to do this work
and it also has the obvious medical implications, but this is only a fraction of
the many other sequences of transgenic DNA which must be expected out there in
the environment, from all kinds of origins, with all kinds of possible
functions. This paper is the equivalent of the proverbial sighting of the
iceberg's tip. A polaroid photo of a small part of what must be a very large and
relevant phenomenon.
6. The question which beggars belief is: why is it that nobody in the "West" has
been able to follow up on such leads, or even suggest doing this kind of work?
One thinks of the work begun at NYU on soils, which attracted so much negative
campaigning, and nary a recognition.
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