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More than just a food fight; other news

(Friday, Aug. 5, 2005 -- CropChoice news) --

1. Monsanto files patent for new invention: the pig
2. Scrambling and gambling with the genome
3. India Bt cotton problem also found in China and USA
4. More than just a food fight

1. Monsanto files patent for new invention: the pig
Greenpeace researcher uncovers chilling patent plans

Brian Thomas Fitzgerald
02 August 2005

It's official. Monsanto Corporation is out to own the world's food supply, the dangers of genetic engineering and reduced biodiversity notwithstanding, as they pig-headedly set about hog-tying farmers with their monopoly plans. We've discovered chilling new evidence of this in recent patents that seek to establish ownership rights over pigs and their offspring.

In the crop department, Monsanto is well on their way to dictating what consumers will eat, what farmers will grow, and how much Monsanto will get paid for seeds. In some cases those seeds are designed not to reproduce sowable offspring. http://www.greenpeace.org/international/news/suicide-seeds

In others, a flock of lawyers stand ready to swoop down on farmers who illegally, or even unknowingly, end up with Monsanto's private property growing in their fields. http://www.greenpeace.org/international/news/monsanto-wins-right-to-pollute

One way or another, Monsanto wants to make sure no food is grown that they don't own -- and the record shows they don't care if it's safe for the environment or not. Monsanto has aggressively set out to bulldoze environmental concerns about its genetically engineered (GE) seeds at every regulatory level.

So why stop in the field? Not content to own the pesticide and the herbicide and the crop, they've made a move on the barnyard by filing two patents which would make the corporate giant the sole owner of that famous Monsanto invention: the pig.

The Monsanto Pig (Patent pending)

The patent applications were published in February 2005 at the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) in Geneva. A Greenpeace researcher who monitors patent applications, Christoph Then, uncovered the fact that Monsanto is seeking patents not only on methods of breeding, but on actual breeding herds of pigs as well as the offspring that result.

"If these patents are granted, Monsanto can legally prevent breeders and farmers from breeding pigs whose characteristics are described in the patent claims, or force them to pay royalties," says Then. "It's a first step toward the same kind of corporate control of an animal line that Monsanto is aggressively pursuing with various grain and vegetable lines."

There are more than 160 countries and territories mentioned where the patent is sought including Europe, the Russian Federation, Asia (India, China, Philippines) America (USA, Brazil, Mexico), Australia and New Zealand. WIPO itself can only receive applications, not grant patents. The applications are forwarded to regional patent offices.

The patents are based on simple procedures, but are incredibly broad in their claims.

In one application (WO 2005/015989 to be precise) Monsanto is describing very general methods of crossbreeding and selection, using artificial insemination and other breeding methods which are already in use. The main "invention" is nothing more than a particular combination of these elements designed to speed up the breeding cycle for selected traits, in order to make the animals more commercially profitable. (Monsanto chirps gleefully about lower fat content and higher nutritional value. But we've looked and we couldn't find any "Philanthropic altruism" line item in their annual reports, despite the fact that it's an omnipresent factor in their advertising.)

According to Then, "I couldn't belive this. I've been reviewing patents for 10 years and I had to read this three times. Monsanto isn't just seeking a patent for the method, they are seeking a patent on the actual pigs which are bred from this method. It's an astoundingly broad and dangerous claim."

Good breeding always shows

Take patent application WO 2005/017204. This refers to pigs in which a certain gene sequence related to faster growth is detected. This is a variation on a natural occurring sequence -- Monsanto didn't invent it.

It was first identified in mice and humans. Monsanto wants to use the detection of this gene sequence to screen pig populations, in order to find which animals are likely to produce more pork per pound of feed. (And that will be Monsanto Brand genetically engineered feed grown from Monsanto Brand genetically engineered seed raised in fields sprayed with Monsanto Brand Roundup Ready herbicide and doused with Monsanto Brand pesticides, of course).

But again, Monsanto wants to own not just the selection and breeding method, not just the information about the genetic indicators, but, if you pardon the expression, the whole hog.

Claim 16 asks for a patent on: "A pig offspring produced by a method ..."
Claim 17 asks for a patent on: "A pig herd having an increased frequency of a specific ...gene..."
Claim 23 asks for a patent on: "A pig population produced by the method..."
Claim 30 asks for a patent on: "A swine herd produced by a method..."

This means the pigs, their offspring, and the use of the genetic information for breeding will be entirely owned by Monsanto, Inc. and any replication or infringement of their patent by man or beast will mean royalties or jail for the offending swine.

Not pig fodder

When it comes to profits, pigs are big. Monsanto notes that "The economic impact of the industry in rural America is immense. Annual farm sales typically exceed US$ 11 billion, while the retail value of pork sold to consumers reaches US$ 38 billion each year."

At almost every level of food production, Monsanto is seeking a monopoly position.

The company once earned its money almost exclusively through agrochemicals. But in the last ten years they've spent about US$10 billion buying up seed producers and companies in other sectors of the agricultural business. Their last big acquisition was Seminis, the biggest producer of vegetable seeds in the world.

Monsanto holds extremely broad patents on seeds, most, but not all of them, related to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Monsanto has also claimed patent rights on such non-Monsanto inventions as traditionally bred wheat from India and soy plants from China. Many of these patents apply not only to the use of seeds but all uses of the plants and harvest that result.

The big picture is chilling to anyone who mistrusts Monsanto's record disinterest for environmental safety.

And if you're not worried, you should be: central control of food supply has been a standard ingredient for social and political control throughout history. By creating a monopoly position, Monsanto can force dangerous experiments like the release of GMOs into the environment on an unwilling public. They can ensure that GMOs will be sold and consumed wherever they say they will.

By claiming global monopoly patent rights throughout the entire food chain, Monsanto seeks to make farmers and food producers, and ultimately consumers, entirely dependent and reliant on one single corporate entity for a basic human need. It's the same dependence that Russian peasants had on the Soviet Government following the Russian revolution. The same dependence that French peasants had on Feudal kings during the middle ages. But control of a significant proportion of the global food supply by a single corporation would be unprecedented in human history.

It's time to ensure that doesn't happen.

It's time for a global ban of patents on seeds and farm animals.

It's time to tell Monsanto we've had enough of this hogwash.

2. Scrambling and Gambling with the Genome

By Jeffrey M. Smith, author of Seeds of Deception
Spilling the Beans, July 2005

"With genetic engineering, transferring genes from one species' DNA to another is just like taking a page out of one book and putting it between the pages of another book." This popular analogy is used often by advocates of genetically modified (GM) food. The words on the page are made up of the four letters, or molecules, of the genetic code, which line up in "base pairs" along the DNA. The inserted page represents a gene, whose code produces one or more proteins. The book is made up of chapters, which represent chromosomes -- large sections of DNA.

The analogy makes the process of genetic engineering appear to be as simple and precise as inserting a new page. A groundbreaking report, however, shreds the book analogy. Genome Scrambling ≠ Myth or Reality?, written by three scientists at the UK-based Econexus, reveals that the process of genetic engineering results in widespread mutations -- within the inserted gene, near its insertion, and in hundreds or thousands of locations throughout the genome -- and that these are overlooked by many scientists and regulators. [1]

The report is an extensive review of research that overturns the central arguments by biotech advocates -- that the technology is precise, predictable, and safe, and that current studies are adequate. On the contrary, it demonstrates that GM crops represent a significant gamble to public health and the environment (see http://www.econexus.info/ ).

Gene Insertion Methods Create Mutations, Fragments, and Multiple Copies

There are two popular methods for creating GM crops; both create mutations. The first method uses Agrobacterium -- bacteria that contain circular pieces of DNA called plasmids. One section of this plasmid is designed to create tumors. Under normal conditions, Agrobacterium infects a plant by inserting that tumor-creating portion into the plant's DNA. Genetic engineers, however, replace the tumor-creating section of the plasmid with one or more genes. They then use the altered Agrobacterium to infect a plant's DNA with those foreign genes.

The second method of gene insertion uses a gene gun. Scientists coat thousands of particles of tungsten or gold with gene sequences and then shoot these into thousands of plant cells. Years ago, the sequences that were shot into cells usually included both the genes that were intended for transfer (gene cassette) as well as extraneous DNA from the plasmid used in the creation and propagation of the cassettes in bacteria. This is true for most GM foods currently on the market. These days, many scientists take the added step of eliminating the extraneous, mostly bacterial DNA and coat the particles just with the cassette.

With both methods of gene insertion, scientists speculate that the process triggers a wound response in the plant cell, which helps its DNA integrate the foreign gene. With the gene gun technique, only a few cells out of thousands incorporate the foreign gene.

According to the book analogy, a single, intact, foreign page (gene) is inserted. That's the intention. In reality, most transformed DNA end up with multiple copies of the foreign gene, incomplete genes and/or gene fragments. Sections of the inserted genes are commonly changed, rearranged, or deleted during the insertion process. In addition, extraneous pieces of plasmid DNA sometimes end up interspersed within and around the inserted gene or scattered throughout the genome.

Mutations Near the Site of Insertion

In addition to the changes made in the material that is inserted, the sections of the plantís DNA near the insertion site are almost always messed up in some way. This effect, called insertional mutagenesis or insertion mutation, has been known for years, but it wasn't until 2003 that a large-scale systematic analysis was conducted. Researchers looked at insertions into 112 Arabidopsis thaliana plants -- a species used often in plant research. [2] Although the study may not accurately reflect what happens in edible crop plants, it is the only large study at this point.

Plants were selected that had single copies of the foreign gene, which were inserted using Agrobacterium. Of the 112 plants, 80 (71%) had small mutations near the insertion site. These included deletions of 1-100 base pairs and/or insertions of 1-100 extraneous base pairs. The inserted sequences came from the foreign gene, extraneous parts of the plasmid, or other parts of the plantís DNA.

The remaining 32 plants (29%) had large scale insertions, rearrangements, duplications and/or deletions. In two plants, parts of whole chromosomes had broken off and translocated into another section of the DNA.

Another study using the same plant species also found that a section of DNA at least 40,000 base pairs long had translocated from one chromosome to another. In fact, that long section had duplicated itself, since it was also found intact in its original position. [3] A third study identified a deletion of 75,800 base pairs, which probably contained 13 genes. [4]

The above studies used the Agrobacterium insertion method. There have been astoundingly few studies analyzing insertion mutations resulting from the gene gun method, but the research that has been conducted consistently demonstrate large scale disruptions of the DNA. According to the Econexus report, "The vast majority of the insertion events created via particle bombardment [gene gun] are extremely complex, with multiple copies of transgenic DNA inserted at a single insertion-site."1 They contain large amounts of extraneous DNA, including multiple fragments of the foreign gene and/or small or large fragments of plant DNA interspersed with the inserted genes. In one study, scientists found 155 separate breaks indicating recombinations of the inserted genetic material. [5]According to the Econexus report, in the rare cases where only a single copy of the foreign gene is inserted, they "turn out to contain fragments of superfluous DNA and/or they appear to be associated with large deletions and/or rearrangements of the target plant DNA." 1

One study on gene gun insertion revealed that DNA of an oat plant contained the full sequence of the foreign gene plasmid, a small stretch in which oat DNA was mixed up with foreign plasmid DNA, a partial copy of the plasmid, and another section with oat and plasmid sequences scrambled together. [6] Analysis also indicated that the plantís DNA on either side of the insertion contained rearrangements or deletions. There were also two other insertions elsewhere in the DNA. One included a rearranged section of the plasmid (296 base pairs), scrambled plant DNA on either side, and the deletion of 845 base pairs. The study employed DNA sequence analysis, the most thorough method for evaluating insertion mutations. In practice, it is rarely used. Instead, genetic engineers traditionally rely on the less precise Southern blot test, which picks up only major changes in DNA sequence. When this test had been applied to the oat DNA above, it indicated the presence of only a single intact inserted gene. It failed to identify the other two insertions and all of the mutations and fragments. This means that on the whole, biologists who create GM plants have no idea of the extent to which their creations may produce unintended side effects do to scrambled DNA.

Location, Location, Location

Neither gene insertion method can "aim" the foreign gene into a particular location in the DNA. Furthermore, scientists rarely conduct experiments to find out where exactly the inserted genes end up. But in the real estate of the DNA, location is vital. The functioning of the foreign gene can change dramatically, depending on where in the genome it is located. The side-effects of gene insertion can be significantly influenced by location as well.

Even though only an estimated 1-10% of plant DNA constitutes the genes, Agrobacterium insertions end up inside functioning gene sequences between 35%-58% of the time. (The percentage for gene guns is unknown.) Genes are also inserted in other areas that influence gene expression. In either case, insertions can significantly disrupt the normal functioning of the plant's genes.

(One reason why insertions end up inside genes so often is that in order for the foreign genes to function, they need to be located within the regions of the host DNA that are "active," that allow gene expression. To figure out which inserted genes end up in these portions of the DNA, scientists typically add an antibiotic resistant marker (ARM) gene to the genetic cassette. After insertion, they apply antibiotics to all the cells, killing those that don't have a functioning ARM gene in their DNA. Since the active region of the DNA is also where the plant's functioning genes are located, those that survive this selection process are more likely to have foreign genes lodged inside the host genes.)

Mutations Throughout the DNA

Once genes are inserted into a plant cell's DNA, scientists typically grow the cell into a fully functioning plant using a method called tissue culture. Unfortunately, this artificial method of plant propagation results in widespread mutations throughout the genome. In fact, tissue culture is sometimes used specifically to create mutations in plant DNA. These mutations can influence the crops' height, resistance to disease, oil content, number of seeds, and many other traits. [7][8]

Genetically modified cells that undergo tissue culture can have even more mutations throughout the genome than cultured non-GM cells. It is unclear why gene insertion has this effect, but scientists speculate that it may, in part, come from unsuccessful insertions or insertions of small fragments.

Taken together, the process of gene insertion combined with tissue culture typically results in hundreds or thousands of mutations, including small deletions, substitutions, or insertions in the genetic code. The changes are vast. Two studies suggested that 2-4% of the genome of a GM plant was different than non-GM controls. [9][10] Furthermore, estimates are based on detection methods that miss many mutations such as short deletions and insertions and most base pair substitutions. Thus, the actual degree of gene disruption is probably greater.

These genome-wide mutations are found in every GM plant analyzed. Astoundingly, these types of mutations are not evaluated in commercially released GM food crops.

If the original GM plant is crossed (mated) with other lines over and over, many of these small, genome-wide mutations will get corrected. It is unknown, however, how many mutations still persist in food crops. Furthermore, the propagation of certain species, such as the GM potato that was on the market years ago, probably did not undergo any outcrossing, and it is likely to contain all of the mutations created during insertion and tissue culture.

Mutations Can Have Serious Consequences

Mutations and extraneous insertions carry risk. They can permanently turn genes on or off, alter their function, and/or change the structure or function of the protein that they create. A single mutation can influence many genes simultaneously. Thus, the insertion process might cause the over production of toxins, allergens, carcinogens, or anti-nutrients, reduce the nutritional quality of the crop, or change the way that the plant interacts with its environment. And because of our limited understanding of the DNA, even if we knew which parts of it were disrupted, we wouldnít necessarily know the consequences.

In addition, the insertion of bacterial plasmid DNA into plant DNA creates another serious risk. Similarities in the genetic sequence between the plasmid and the DNA of bacteria found in the gut of humans or animals or in the soil might significantly increase the likelihood of horizontal gene transfer. This means that genes from the plant may transfer into the DNA of the soil or gut bacteria. The only human feeding study on genetic engineering confirmed that the genes inserted into GM soybeans do transfer into the bacteria inside human intestines.

Advocates of biotechnology often defend the safety of their products by claming that modern methods of plant breeding other than genetic engineering are used on a wide scale, have a history of safe use and create comparable mutations. The Econexus report reveals that everything about this argument is pure speculation and is not supported by scientific literature. There is no evidence that these modern methods are used widely, are consistently safe, or create mutations of the same kind or frequency as genetic engineering.

In reality, many biotech scientists are unaware of the massive quantity of mutations that are generated by the GM transformation process (gene insertion and tissue culture). In fact, the regulatory agencies that approve GM foods operate as if the insertion process has no impact on safety. [11][12] They do not require extensive evaluation of the mutations and therefore the extent of these in approved GM food crops has not been identified. The few studies that have been conducted revealed many significant problems. GM varieties contain truncated or multiple fragments of the inserted gene and extraneous or scrambled DNA. One GM corn variety contained a fragment from a gene that was supposed to be inserted into a different GM variety. The protein produced by the foreign genes can also be truncated, altered, or fragmented. And many significant differences between GM and non-GM crops have been observed, which may result from the insertion process. An approved GM squash, for example, contains 68 times less beta-carotene and four times more sodium than non-GM squash. GM soybeans have much higher levels of a potential allergen and anti-nutrient. But GM crops are tested for only a handful of nutrients or known toxins, and therefore the true impact of gene mutations is not known. Furthermore, GM plants are grown in vast amounts. Undetected alterations may result in harm to the environment or human health on an unprecedented scale. With so little known about the impact of gene insertion, and with so much at risk, applying genetic engineering to food and crops is a huge gamble.

Revised Book Analogy

With genome scrambling in mind, let's revise the book analogy as follows:

The DNA is like a large book with the letters consisting of the four molecules that make up the genetic code. Located throughout the book are special one- to two-page passages, called genes, which describe characters called proteins (including enzymes). The book is divided into chapters called chromosomes.

When a single foreign page (gene) is inserted through the process called genetic engineering, the book goes through a profound transformation. There are typos throughout, in hundreds or thousands of places. Letters are switched here and there; words and sentences are scrambled, deleted, repeated or reversed. Long and short passages from one part of the book may be relocated or repeated elsewhere, and bits of text from entirely different books show up from time to time. As you get close to the inserted page, things get really strange. The story becomes indecipherable. The text includes random letters and sections of inserted foreign text, and several pages are missing. The inserted page may actually be multiple identical pages, partial pages, or small bits of text, sections that are misspelled, deleted, inverted, and scrambled. As a result of changes in the story line throughout the book, several characters (proteins) act differently, sometimes switching roles from heroes to villains, or vice versa. It all makes you wonder about the comment made by the biotech advocate as he handed you the volume, "It's just the same old book, only with a single page added."

Spilling the Beans is a monthly column available at http://www.responsibletechnology.org . Publishers and webmasters may offer this article or monthly series to your readers at no charge, by emailing column@responsibletechnology.org. Individuals may read the column each month by subscribing to a free newsletter at http://www.responsibletechnology.org.

[1] Allison Wilson, PhD, Jonathan Latham, PhD, and Ricarda Steinbrecher, PhD
"Genome Scrambling -Myth or Reality? Transformation-Induced Mutations in Transgenic Crop Plants Technical Report - October 2004, www.econexus.info. The references below were cited in this report.

[2] Forsbach A, Shubert D, Lechtenberg B, Gils M, Schmidt R (2003) A comprehensive characterisation of single-copy T-DNA insertions in the Arabidopsis thaliana genome. Plant Mol Biol 52: 161-176.

[3] Tax FE, Vernon DM (2001) T-DNA-associated duplication/translocations in Arabidopsis. Implications for mutant analysis and functional genomics. Plant Physiol 126: 1527-1538.

[4] Kaya H, Sato S, Tabata S, Kobayashi Y, Iwabuchi M, Araki T (2000) hosoba toge toge, a syndrome caused by a large chromosomal deletion associated with a T-DNA insertion in Arabidopsis. Plant Cell Physiol 41(9): 1055-1066.

[5] Svitashev SK, Pawlowski WP, Makarevitch I, Plank DW, Somers DA (2002) Complex transgene locus structures implicate multiple mechanisms for plant transgene rearrangement. Plant J 32: 433-445.

[6] Makarevitch I, Svitashev SK, Somers DA (2003) Complete sequence analysis of transgene loci from plants transformed via microprojectile bombardment. Plant Mol Biol 52: 421-432.

[7] Dennis ES, Brettell RIS, Peacock WJ (1987) A tissue culture induced Adh2 null mutant of maize results from a single base change. Mol Gen Genet 210: 181-183.

[8] Brettell RIS, Dennis ES, Scowcroft WR, Peacock WJ (1986) Molecular analysis of a somaclonal mutant of maize alcohol dehydrogenase. Mol Gen Genet 202:235-239.

[9] Bao PH, Granata S, Castiglione S, Wang G, Giordani C,Cuzzoni E, Damiani G, Bandi C, Datta SK, Datta K, Potrykus I, Callegarin A, Sala F (1996) Evidence for genomic changes in transgenic rice (Oryza sativa L.) recovered from protoplasts. Transgen Res 5: 97-103.

[10] Labra M, Savini C, Bracale M, Pelucchi N, Colombo L, Bardini M, Sala F (2001) Genomic changes in transgenic rice (Oryza sativa L.) plants produced by infecting calli with Agrobacterium tumefaciens. Plant Cell Rep 20: 325-330.

[11] NRC/IOM: Committee on Identifying and Assessing Unintended Effects of Genetically Engineered Foods on Human Health (2004) Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to assessing unintended health effects. The National Academies Press, Washington, DC.

[12] Kessler DA, Taylor MR, Maryanski JH, Flamm EL, Kahl LS (1992) The safety of foods developed by biotechnology. Science 256: 1747-1832.

© Copyright 2005 by Jeffrey M. Smith. Permission is granted to reproduce this in whole or in part.

3. Bt cotton problem found in China and USA too (3/8/2005)

http://www.gmwatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=5566

The recent research from India's Central Institute of Cotton Research showing the Bt protein in Gm cotton is not always enough to kill insects has been presented in some quarters as a problem that is particular to Bt cotton in India http://www.gmwatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=5542 http://www.genecampaign.org/btreportindian.html

But, in fact, the Indian research on Bt cotton isn't the only one to show these Bt expression in cotton boll problems - it is confirmed by a recent Chinese study and a recent US study.

The US study even suggests a mechanism (poor expression of the Bt toxin in tissue with low levels of chlorophyll) which indicates a systemic problem with Bt cotton.

All of which suggests this problem is not just something limited to Indian varieties or to growing conditions in India.

4. More Than Just a Food Fight

By Zack Pelta-Heller
Alternet, 08/04/05
http://www.alternet.org/ts/archives/?date[F]=08&date[Y]=2005&date[d]=04&act=Go/

Fifteen states have passed laws preventing bans on biotech foods. Sounds harmless enough -- but green activist groups are protesting the proposed legislation as an affront to local democracy.

The debate over genetically modified organisms just got a lot hotter in California. Last month, Democratic State Senator Dean Florez introduced an amendment that would effectively remove a community's control over its food supply. Florez's amendment reads, in part, "no ordinance or regulation of any political subdivision may prohibit or in any way attempt to regulate any matter relating to the registration, labeling, sale, storage, transportation, distribution, notification of use, or use of field crops."

It seems harmless enough, couched in legalese as it is. But this controversial overhaul comes in response to three California counties and two cities that banned the raising of genetically engineered crops and livestock. Activist groups like Californians for GE-Free Agriculture ( http://calgefree.org/ ) , _Environmental Commons_ (http://environmentalcommons.org/) , and the _Sierra Club_ ( http://sierraclub.org/ ) are up in arms over the proposed legislation, calling it an affront to local democracy.

It's easy to see why. Since California currently does not have any GMO regulations at the state level, the proposed law will successfully eliminate the only limitations that prevent biotech giants like Monsanto and Syngenta from moving in with their patented GE seeds. Moreover, the bill, known as SB 1056, takes pre-emptive measures to preclude people from raising concerns about GMOs in the future, and in doing so deprives the public of any chance debate on this hot-button issue.

Becky Tarbotton, campaign coordinator for Californians for GE-Free Agriculture, says, "If SB 1056 or a bill with similar pre-emptive language passes in California, it will effectively override the ability of local communities, including farmers, to make decisions about whether or not they want to grow genetically engineered crops."

In addition to an infringement on civil liberties, the fundamental problem that environmental groups have with SB 1056 is that farmers who plant genetically engineered (GE) seeds can't guarantee that their seeds will not contaminate GE-free farms. According to Laurel Hopwood of the Sierra Club, "What's unfortunate for farmers, especially organic farmers, is that pollen can move from place to place, so the spread of GMO gene traits is inevitable." Hopwood adds, "What's different about this form of pollution from any other form of pollution is that it's alive. These new life forms multiply, spread, and cannot be recalled. ... Not only are organic farmers not allowed to call their crop 'organic' when it becomes contaminated, but also farmers can't sell their crops overseas where GMOs are not accepted."

California is the nation's largest agricultural producer, raising hundreds of crops for large-scale export and domestic use. The issue of organic farms losing certification because of GE seed contamination, then, is just the tip of the iceberg. The European Union and other major importers of Californian goods like Japan have strict policies that forbid the purchase or sale of GE crops. Environmentalists fear the economic repercussions of GE seed contamination could be disastrous for the both California agricultural community and the U.S. economy.

Beyond the Golden State

But if you think the debate over local control is just going on in California, think again. Britt Bailey, the director of Environmental Commons, explained that fourteen states have already passed provisions limiting local control, and North Carolina is still considering a similar measure. Bailey says, "When I contacted the Georgia and Oklahoma legislatures, specifically the authors of the seed preemption bills, and asked them why the bills were introduced, the authors responded by saying the bills were in response to the three California counties that had passed initiatives restricting genetically modified organisms."

In March of 2004, Mendocino County in Northern California passed a law prohibiting GE seeds from being planted within the county lines, the first of its kind. Eight months later, four more counties voted on similar bans, but in the face of opposition heavily funded by the biotech industry and promoted by state and national farm groups, only one ban passed. Many more counties in California and across the country are in the process of bringing GMO bans to the voters.

But proponents of these seed preemption bills, in California and elsewhere, believe that seed laws belong uniformly at the state or federal level and shouldn't be in the hands of a patchwork of local restrictions. As Charles Margulis of the Center for Food Safety points out, however, states that oppose local restrictions to GMOs tend to have regulations in place at the state level.

California does not.

On the other side of SB 1056 are groups like the California Farm Bureau Federation ( http://cfbf.com/ ) (CFBF), a non-profit that represents farm interests throughout the state. While spokesman Dave Kranz was unwilling to take an official stance on SB 1056, he says, "Our position has been that we support technology that offers potential for family farmers to be innovative and keep up with market trends."

Like other supporters of this pre-emptive legislation, CFBF feels that farmers ought to have the flexibility to respond to local situations and should not be prevented from raising GE-crops simply because their property falls within a certain county line. "We oppose county-by-county bans on biotech crops just as we would oppose county-by-county bans on organic crops if those were to occur," concludes Kranz.

In an _recent op-ed piece_ ( http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2005/07/20/EDGTRDQ0A11.DTL ) in the San Francisco Chronicle, CFBF President Bill Pauli lays out a clear case for GE foods. "[Californians] are among the most progressive farmers in the United States, and we play a vital role in providing safe and healthy food throughout the world. That's why I can't understand all the misinformation associated with biotechnology, an established practice of modern farming that makes our food more plentiful, longer-lasting and, yes, healthier than ever."

Pauli devotes most of his article to assuring readers that no one (neither people nor animals) has become sick from biotech foods since their inception in the mid-nineties. On the federal level, biotech crops are subject to inspection by the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration. Research has suggested that GE foods have the curative properties and the potential to improve nutrition worldwide. "A 2004 report from the National Academy of Sciences," asserts Pauli, "concluded that foods from biotech crops are as safe as any other foods in your supermarket." The question remains though, after reading Pauli's article, why would he spend so much energy convincing the public that GE foods are safe for consumption?

Is it because consumers fear the possibly toxic effects of herbicides, which can be sprayed at will on the 70 percent of GE crops that are herbicide-resistant? Or perhaps the answer lies in the recent failures of federal regulatory agencies to ensure the safety of biotech crops. Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of The Oakland Institute, exclaims, "The EPA, USDA, and FDA were asleep at the wheel during the StarLink controversy."

The StarLink fiasco (http://www.geo-pie.cornell.edu/issues/starlink.html) resulted in an enormous recall on corn products, heightened concerns over biotech products, and was an economic black eye for the U.S. when Japan and South Korea were forced to turn to China for corn supplies. Since the FDA already determined that genetic engineering is only an extension of agriculture, and that GE foods are not significantly different from traditionally grown foods, their methodology for determining safety seems suspect. Mittal and Margulis of the Center for Food Safety also emphasize that none of the federal regulatory agencies have conducted long-term tests to determine the lasting effects of GE foods on consumers and the environment. Margulis maintains that the studies Pauli mentions in his op-ed are "ludicrous" and broad-ranged. "None of those studies were conducted by independent organizations; none fed animals just GE foods and saw what happened." And, he says, the biotech corporations would prefer it that way.

The End of Local Control?

Concerns over GE food safety aside, the true transgression being perpetrated by SB 1056 is that California legislators are turning a blind eye to public safety and debate in favor of biotech corporations. "By taking away the sovereign powers of communities," Mittal concludes, "legislators are rendering the elected officials in these communities basically impotent." To say nothing of the rights of farmers and citizens that this pre-emptive legislation will strip away. Mittal adds, "The interests of the family farmers are being sold off, while bigger farmers receive subsidies and are therefore more likely to support the bill."

Of course, the debate over local control doesn't center solely on GMOs. Britt Bailey says, "Twenty states have laws restricting local governments from passing tobacco-free ordinances, 40 states have laws removing local control of pesticides, and I think there are 20 or so states with preemptive gun laws."

The result is that when communities raise concerns on these topics at the local level, industry swoops in at the state level to ensure these concerns fall on deaf ears. Ironically, Sen. Florez currently supports a measure to give his district the power to decide whether or not to apply sewage sludge to agricultural land, the same kind of local control prohibited by his seed bill.

While activist groups are calling for labels on products containing GMOs or higher standards for regulatory testing, others have not thrown in the towel yet on the local control debate. Mary Zepernick, a coordinator at the Program on Corporations, Law & Democracy, feels a new take on this fight might be necessary. "We need to reframe these issues as rights-based struggles rather than harms-based. Looking at things that way -- abuse by abuse, corporation by corporation -- will keep these issues mired in the regulatory regime."

Instead, she says, activists should show how the attack on GMO bans are part of a larger attack on communities' ability to stand up to corporations.

Similarly, Britt Bailey and the Environmental Commons want to see a constitutional challenge to the bans on local control. "If we want to secure local authority of issues related to health, safety, and welfare," Bailey argues, "we could build case law by placing the intent of a local authority to govern within the local ordinances and resolutions we develop and pass. This way, if state preemption occurs, a local government has the intent and therefore standing to challenge. We could also choose to amend the constitution."

Such a step might be the only way for farmers to keep locally grown food viable and for the dialogue over GMOs to continue.

Zack Pelta-Heller is a freelance writer living in Astoria, NY. Currently, he's an assistant editor for Dell Magazines.