Thumbs Up for Engineered Sugar Beets

  • Harvesting sugar beets. (Photo courtesy of the USDA)

A new genetically modified crop will be
growing in farm fields next spring. Sugar beet
farmers have been cleared to plant beets that are
resistant to an herbicide known as Roundup. It will
be the first genetically engineered food crop to be
introduced since the 1990s. Mark Brush has more:

Transcript

A new genetically modified crop will be growing in farm fields next spring. Sugar beet
farmers have been cleared to plant beets that are resistant to an herbicide known as
Roundup. It will be the first genetically engineered food crop to be introduced since the
1990s. Mark Brush has more:



A little more than half of the sugar we use comes from sugar beets. Some beet farmers
are excited about the prospect of a genetically modified beet that won’t be killed by the
herbicide Roundup. So an entire field can be sprayed with Roundup – crops and all – to
kill weeds.


Bill Freese is with the environmental group Center for Food Safety. He says the new
engineered sugar beet is just one more crop that will make us more reliant on pesticides:


“Most of the research being done is on more herbicide resistant crops. So where the
biotechnology industry is taking us is to a world where more and more chemicals will be
sprayed.”


The industry has long maintained that Roundup and similar products don’t pollute
waterways the way other pesticides do. But the widespread use of Roundup has led to
more herbicide resistant weeds – that some people call ‘super-weeds.’


For the Environment Report, I’m Mark Brush.

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Usda to Tighten Biotech Crop Regulations?

The government says genetically engineered crops are safe, but it wants to strengthen biotechnology regulations anyway. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

Transcript

The government says genetically engineered crops are safe, but it wants to strengthen biotechnology
regulations anyway. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


The U.S. Department of Agriculture is proposing stricter regulations for approving genetically
modified crops. The USDA also wants to take a harder look at the possible impact to the
environment posed by the bio-engineered crops. The agency insists that current bio-tech crops are
safe, but indicates the technology is advancing fast. Megan Thomas is a spokesperson for the
USDA.


“The science is continuing to evolve on a daily basis and we want to make sure that our regulations
are able to meet those demands today and in the future.”


Some environmental groups have been calling for more restrictions and testing of genetically
engineered crops. They are skeptical that the USDA will implement the kind of regulations the
environmentalists want, but they say the government’s proposal is a good first step. The USDA is
taking public comment on its proposals until March 23rd.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

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New Lab to Help Farmers Identify Modified Seeds

A new lab in the state of Illinois will help farmers throughout the region keep genetically modified seeds out of conventional crops. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Maria Hickey reports:

Transcript

A new lab in the state of Illinois will help farmers throughout the region keep genetically
modified seeds out of conventional crops. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Maria Hickey
reports:


Marketing corn, soybeans, and other grains to European countries has been more challenging
since genetically modified crops were introduced. That’s partly because of a lack of confidence
among European consumers in bio-tech food products.


To ensure the purity of conventional seeds, the Illinois Department of Agriculture has a new lab
to analyze the genetic make-up of seeds.


Tom Jennings is manager of the state’s division of ag industry regulation. He says the lab will
help ensure farmers get what they expect.


“We want to make sure the label claims that are on seed bags out there, that they’re correct, that
they’re accurate, and that the people, the producers who are using that seed, are assured that what
is in the bag actually meets the label claims that are on the seed labels that are on the bags.”


The lab is able to provide test results within two days and is costing Illinois tax-payers more than
300,000 dollars.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Maria Hickey.

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“Glo-Fish” to Splash Down in Nearby Pet Stores

The public release of a little aquarium fish that glows in the dark is stirring the waters of the genetic engineering debate. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein reports:

Transcript

The public release of a little aquarium fish that glows in the dark is stirring the waters of the genetic
engineering debate. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein reports:


Texas-based Yorktown Technologies calls its creation a Glo-fish. It’s a genetically-modified
zebrafish that glows in ultraviolet light. It’s marketed as an attractive and graceful addition to a fish
tank. The company says because the Glo-fish is tropical, it wouldn’t survive in cold waters like the
Great Lakes if it escaped.


But environmental and consumer groups worry that genetically-modified pets of the future could
threaten the ecological balance. Peter Jenkins is a policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety.
He says the Glo-Fish also raises ethical concerns. He’s calling on the federal government to
regulate them.


“We’re not flat-out opposed to all genetic engineering. If it is to be used, it should be for the
betterment of mankind and for the environment and not for frivolous pets.”


California is the only state that can bar genetically-engineered species. It recently ruled to prohibit
Glo-Fish sales. In all other states, the Glo-Fish will be available in pet stores starting January 5th.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m David Sommerstein.

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Popular Herbicide Breeds Resistance

Some weeds are developing a resistance to one of the most popular crop herbicides. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Johnson reports:

Transcript

Some weeds are developing a resistance to one of the most popular crop herbicides. The
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Johnson reports:


Farmers like the Monsanto Company herbicide “Roundup” because it kills a wide variety of weeds
without harming crops genetically engineered to resist it. But in the past few years, crop
scientists say Roundup’s popularity has created some problems. Through survival of the fittest, a
very small number of weeds that were always resistant to Roundup have reproduced, and in some
areas now flourish. Mark van Gessel is a weed specialist at the University of Delaware. He says
it’s a situation some farmers are stuck with:


“I really don’t have a lot of hope that we are going to be able to reverse this trend. We just have to learn to live with it.”


van Gessel says that means farmers will need to get away from exclusive use of Roundup and
other less common herbicides that contain its active ingredient. So far, weeds resistant to
Roundup have popped up in Delaware, Maryland, and California as well as in Tennessee, Ohio,
and Indiana.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Shawn Johnson.

Biotech Companies Agree to Regional Moratorium

Several biotech companies have agreed not to grow genetically modified crops in Corn Belt states, including Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, parts of Kentucky, parts of Nebraska, and Minnesota. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Natalie Walston reports:

Transcript

Several biotech companies have agreed not to grow genetically modified crops in Corn
Belt states, including Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, parts of Kentucky, parts of
Nebraska, and Minnesota. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Natalie Walston reports:


Twelve biotech companies including Monsanto and Dow agreed to the moratorium. In
states where the corn might contaminate nearby fields planted with crops for human
consumption.


Lisa dry is with the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington, D.C.
She says the companies won’t grow corn and safflower used for medicines.


“This is pharmaceutical production, it is not agricultural or food production. We are
taking every single possible precaution to make sure that it stays in its intended use
channel and does not end up in the food or feed.”


Dry says commercial grocers, exporters, and food processors have been concerned about
the Starlink scandal of 2000, when genetically modified corn approved for animal feed
turned up in 300 varieties of taco shells, tostadas and chips. The biotech companies say
they will grow crops in non-traditional areas such as Hawaii, Arizona, and Puerto Rico.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Natalie Walston.

Cracking Down on the E.L.F.

  • The Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for burning this house under construction near Bloomington, Indiana in 1999. Photo courtesy Herald-Times, by Jeremy Hogan.

The Earth Liberation Front is an underground group that attacks institutions it believes harm the environment. During the past five years, its members have caused approximately $40 million in damages. E.L.F’s most notorious acts of destruction include torching a luxury ski resort, destroying the executive offices of a forest-product company, and setting on fire university labs involved in genetically-modified crop research. For some time, environmentalists and others have debated whether this sort of activity was simply a public protest, or acts of terrorism. But since September 11th, that debate has escalated with increased efforts to label those involved in such attacks as terrorists. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Todd Melby has this report:

Transcript

The Earth Liberation Front is an underground group that attacks institutions it
believes harm the environment. During the past five years, its members have caused
approximately $40 million in damages. E.L.F.’s most notorious acts of destruction include torching a luxury ski resort, destroying the executive offices of a forest-product
company, and setting on fire university labs involved in genetically-modified crop research. For some time, environmentalists and others have debated whether this sort of activity was simply a public protest, or acts of terrorism. But since September 11th, that debate has escalated with increased efforts to label those involved in such attacks as terrorists. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Todd Melby has this report:


On a cold, January night in St. Paul, Minnesota, one or more members of the Earth Liberation Front set fire to a construction trailer parked on the University of Minnesota campus. Flames quickly spread to an adjacent building, causing $40,000 in damages.


(Construction site sounds)


But while the Crop Research Building burst into flames, the real target was the university’s proposed Microbial and Genomics building – a $20 million undertaking.


(Construction sounds go silent)


The attack wasn’t a surprise to Peggy Leppick. She’s a state representative, who chairs the Higher Education Committee in the Minnesota House of Representatives.


“A lot of the research that goes on at the university is fairly obscure and people don’t know about it, but when you build a building that is essentially a monument to genomics and genetic engineering, it becomes a bulls-eye.”


That’s why university officials are asking the Legislature for nearly $4 million to beef up security. They’ve also ratcheted up the rhetoric. University of Minnesota president Mark Yudolf has no qualms about using the word “terrorist” to describe E.L.F. members who’ve attacked his campus more than once.


“People who blow up facilities and buildings and who may try to avoid risking human life, but almost inevitably something can go wrong: that is my definition of a terrorist, yes.”


But attaching labels to actions doesn’t come so easily for others. There’s a fine distinction for some between terrorist and protesters.


“The definition of terrorist is a very political definition.”


Katherine Sikkink is a political science professor at the University of Minnesota.


“In this country, we have words for it. It’s called ‘crime.’ We don’t have to jump to the term ‘terrorism.’ When people destroy property it’s called ‘crime.’ We have police forces that are here to deal with crime and I think they should do it.”


Not surprisingly, Leslie James Pickering, a spokesman with the E.L.F. press office in Portland, Oregon, agrees with Sikkink’s characterization.


“If they were terrorists they would be engaging in violent terrorist actions. What they do is sabotage property. They’ve never harmed anybody. They never will harm anybody because it is against their code.”


That code, Pickering says, ensures that human life will be protected. When E.L.F. activists set fire to a building, they say it’s searched before flames engulf the facility.


“They are vandals. They are arsonists. They are engaging in illegal activity, there’s no question about that, but there is a difference between sabotage and terrorism.”


But that distinction may be lost in the rush to deal with terrorism, both foreign and domestic. The government appears on the verge of adding environmental groups such as E.L.F to its “War on Terrorism.”


A top F.B.I. official has called E.L.F. “the most active eco-terrorist” group in the United States. A Congressional Committee recently subpoenaed Leslie James Pickering’s predecessor in the E.L.F press office to testify. When committee members weren’t satisfied with his answers, they threatened him with contempt of Congress.


And now U.S. Congressman Gil Gutknecht, a Minnesota Republican, is calling for the death penalty if politically-motivated arsons or other actions result in a fatality. Gutknecht also wants the federal government to establish an “eco-terrorism” clearinghouse so law enforcement officials can do a better job of tracking environmental activists involved in illegal activity.


These proposals have drawn the ire of Chuck Samuelson, the executive director of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union.


“September 11 has been a boon for people who are interested in making laws more strict, regulating society and limiting freedom.”


Samuelson says Gutknecht’s death penalty proposal won’t stop politically-motivated murders. And he’s also opposed to a federal clearinghouse that tracks E.L.F. members, saying it’s likely to be secret.


“The question that always comes up is about the privacy rights of people, how that information gets put in, who gets to change that information and who gets to use that information. If it’s secret and is not available to the public, so that you as a reporter couldn’t go see it or do an investigative piece on how they’re doing it, it’s got to scare you.”


Although Samuelson is quick to criticize the government’s proposed crackdown on E.L.F., he’s no defender of the group. He scoffs at the E.L.F. code, saying no matter their ‘no-harm-to-human-life’ intent, it’s only a matter of time before someone is killed.


Professor Sikkink also questions the group’s tactics. While some protest movements have historically engaged in property damage to score political points, she says it comes with a high price tag.


“So these tactics, you know, of destruction of government property are not unheard of, they’ve been around for a long time, but I do think they really run the risk of alienating the people you want to convince.”


Despite the increased pressure on E.L.F to halt the violence, Leslie James Pickering, the group’s spokesman, says he doesn’t expect its members to change its ways anytime soon. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Todd Melby in Minneapolis.

Benefits and Risks of Cloned Cows

Milk production is big business in the upper Midwest. Now, the president of a biotech company in Wisconsin is milking a herd of cloned cows that he says could give the Great Lakes dairy industry a boost, but there are still questions about the health of cloned cows, and whether the milk they produce is safe for human consumption. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Gil Halsted has the story:

Transcript

Milk production is big business in the upper Midwest. Now the president of a biotech company in Wisconsin is milking a herd of cloned cows that he says could give the Great Lakes dairy industry a boost. But there are still questions about the health of cloned cows and whether the milk they produce is safe for human consumption. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Gil Halsted reports:

(Sound of milk splashing into a sink)

Just outside the milking parlor at the Infigen Dairy a steady stream of milk is flowing from a pipe into a sink. It gurgles down the drain into another pipe that leads to a holding tank. Infigen president Michael Bishop says the milk is perfectly safe and nutritious but when the day’s milking is done he’ll get rid of it.

“Right now that milk is worth 15, 16 dollars a hundredweight and we’re dumpin’ it.”

The milk Bishop is dumping comes from 23 cloned cows. He produced them by removing the genetic material from an unfertilized cow egg and then inserting the DNA from the ear of a cow he wanted to reproduce. The result is a herd of cows that looks uncannily identical. There are no regulations requiring Bishop to dump the milk from his herd. But the FDA has asked all owners of cloned livestock to keep food products from their animals off the market until the agency decides whether or not to regulate them. The FDA is waiting for a National Academy of Sciences report on animal cloning due out later this spring before it makes a decision.

FDA spokesperson Stephen Sundlof says even if the report includes no red flags on food products from clones, the agency may require tests on the milk from cloned cows before it goes on the market.

“That would be to look compositionally at milk from cloned animals and compare that to milk from non-cloned animals to see if there was any substantial differences. But other than that we would likely find that those products were in fact identical to normal milk produced by uncloned animals.”

Michael Bishop is confident the milk his cloned cows are producing is perfectly safe for human consumption. In fact he says he’s already run the kind of test Sundlof is talking about comparing the milk of his cloned cows with the milk from cows at a neighboring dairy.

“Nothing new in the cloned cows… but there were variants in the bulk tank of a neighbor dairy, so it really turns out that the food product is more predictable. It’s gonna be the same in a cloned animal.”

But critics of cloning food say there are still lots of unanswered questions. Infigen isn’t the only company cloning dairy cows and several consumer groups are lobbying the FDA to put some strong regulations in place before milk from any of the diaries using the procedure is allowed on supermarket shelves. Joseph Mendelsen is with the Washington-based Center for Food Safety. He says there are a number of potential health problems for cloned cows. For instance they may be more susceptible to mastitis, and may require more use of antibiotics.

“Are there possibly subtle genetic differences that may affect the nutritional quality of the milk? I don’t think those issues have been looked at and they’re certainly not gonna be looked at with the scrutiny I think that consumers expect if we don’t have a mandatory regulatory system looking at cloned animals and the products derived from them.”

Infigen’s Michael Bishop agrees that regulations to insure the quality of the milk may be necessary, and he’s in favor of labeling the milk from cloned cows so consumers can make an informed choice.

“Americans are used to having choices and I believe they should have this choice. Let’s let science prove one way or the other if there’s a difference and then let’s let the marketplace decide if that product is going to be acceptable.”

Critics of cloning all say labeling should be required for food from cloned animals. But they’re even more concerned about the affect clones will have on genetic diversity. John Peck is the executive director of the Wisconsin-based Family Farm Defenders. He says an increase in the number of cows with identical genes will reduce the range of genetic diversity. And that means, he says, that herds of cloned cattle will be even more likely to face problems from disease and viruses.

“If you’re basically engineering in this uniformity, you’re also engineering susceptibility to catastrophic events, which we’ve seen that with other crops that are genetically engineered or hybrids that are vulnerable to one form of blight or rust or something that comes in from afar. The big question then is, who’s gonna pay for that? You know are the consumers gonna foot the bill when a factory farm of two thousand dairy cows all gets wiped out by one virus?”

But Michael Bishop says his cloned cows will not be any more at risk for disease than the original healthy cows they were cloned from. He predicts that once cloning catches on, farmers running large commercial dairies will begin adding clones to their herds to increase their efficiency.

“Because they’ll actually be able to create a more uniform consistent product from cow to cow to cow, and be able to predict how much hay, how much feed, and exactly what the outcome’s gonna be. Is it gonna be thirty thousand, thirty one thousand, thirty two thousand pounds of milk from the inputs they put in.”

Just
how quickly large dairies turn to cloning for economic advantage though depends a lot on whether the FDA decides to impose restrictions on the milk the cloned cows produce.

For Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Gil Halsted.

Commentary – Changing Our Genetic Future

Last week (week of April 3rd) a report released by the National
Academy of Sciences stated that it was not aware of any evidence that genetically modified foods are unsafe to eat. This is just the latest
news concerning this controversial issue. But Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Suzanne Elston wonders if we’re not making the entire issue too complicated: