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Report: Human Damage to Earth Worsening Fast

Wed Mar 30, 9:17 AM ET

Science - Reuters

By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent

OSLO (Reuters) - Humans are damaging the planet at an unprecedented 
rate and raising risks of abrupt collapses in nature that could spur 
disease, deforestation or "dead zones" in the seas, an international 
report said on Wednesday.

The study, by 1,360 experts in 95 nations, said a rising human 
population had polluted or over-exploited two thirds of the ecological 
systems on which life depends, ranging from clean air to fresh water, 
in the past 50 years.

"At the heart of this assessment is a stark warning," said the 
45-member board of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

"Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of 
Earth that the ability of the planet's ecosystems to sustain future 
generations can no longer be taken for granted," it said.

Ten to 30 percent of mammal, bird and amphibian species were already 
threatened with extinction, according to the assessment, the biggest 
review of the planet's life support systems.

"Over the past 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly 
and extensively than in any comparable time in human history, largely 
to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber 
and fuel," the report said.

"This has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in 
the diversity of life on earth," it added. More land was changed to 
cropland since 1945, for instance, than in the 18th and 19th centuries 
combined.

GETTING WORSE

"The harmful consequences of this degradation could grow significantly 
worse in the next 50 years," it said. The report was compiled by 
experts, including from U.N. agencies and international scientific and 
development organizations.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the study "shows how human 
activities are causing environmental damage on a massive scale 
throughout the world, and how biodiversity -- the very basis for life 
on earth -- is declining at an alarming rate."

The report said there was evidence that strains on nature could 
trigger abrupt changes like the collapse of cod fisheries off 
Newfoundland in Canada in 1992 after years of over-fishing.

Future changes could bring sudden outbreaks of disease. Warming of the 
Great Lakes in Africa due to climate change, for instance, could create 
conditions for a spread of cholera.

And a build-up of nitrogen from fertilizers washed off farmland into 
seas could spur abrupt blooms of algae that choke fish or create 
oxygen-depleted "dead zones" along coasts.

It said deforestation often led to less rainfall. And at some point, 
lack of rain could suddenly undermine growing conditions for remaining 
forests in a region.

The report said that in 100 years, global warming widely blamed on 
burning of fossil fuels in cars, factories and power plants, might take 
over as the main source of damage. The report mainly looks at other, 
shorter-term risks.

And it estimated that many ecosystems were worth more if used in a way 
that maintains them for future generations.

A wetland in Canada was worth $6,000 a hectare (2.47 acres), as a 
habitat for animals and plants, a filter for pollution, a store for 
water and a site for human recreation, against $2,000 if converted to 
farmland, it said. A Thai mangrove was worth $1,000 a hectare against 
$200 as a shrimp farm.

"Ecosystems and the services they provide are financially significant 
and...to degrade and damage them is tantamount to economic suicide," 
said Klaus Toepfer, head of the U.N. Environment Program.

The study urged changes in consumption, better education, new 
technology and higher prices for exploiting ecosystems.

"Governments should recognize that natural services have costs," A.H. 
Zakri of the U.N. University and a co-chair of the report told Reuters. 
"Protection of natural services is unlikely to be a priority for those 
who see them as free and limitless."

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GM industry puts human gene into rice
By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor
Independent on Sunday, 24 April 2005
http://news.independent.co.uk/world/environment/story.jsp?story=632444

GM industry puts human gene into rice
By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor
24 April 2005

Scientists have begun putting genes from human beings into food crops in a 
dramatic extension of genetic modification. The move, which is causing disgust 
and revulsion among critics, is bound to strengthen accusations that GM 
technology is creating "Frankenstein foods" and drive the controversy 
surrounding it to new heights.

Even before this development, many people, including Prince Charles, have 
opposed the technology on the grounds that it is playing God by creating 
unnatural combinations of living things.

Environmentalists say that no one will want to eat the partially human-derived 
food because it will smack of cannibalism.

But supporters say that the controversial new departure presents no ethical 
problems and could bring environmental benefits.

In the first modification of its kind, Japanese researchers have inserted a 
gene from the human liver into rice to enable it to digest pesticides and 
industrial chemicals. The gene makes an enzyme, code-named CPY2B6, which is 
particularly good at breaking down harmful chemicals in the body.

Present GM crops are modified with genes from bacteria to make them tolerate 
herbicides, so that they are not harmed when fields are sprayed to kill weeds. 
But most of them are only able to deal with a single herbicide, which means 
that it has to be used over and over again, allowing weeds to build up 
resistance to it.

But the researchers at the National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences in 
Tsukuba, north of Tokyo, have found that adding the human touch gave the rice 
immunity to 13 different herbicides. This would mean that weeds could be kept 
down by constantly changing the chemicals used.

Supporting scientists say that the gene could also help to beat pollution.

Professor Richard Meilan of Purdue University in Indiana, who has worked with a 
similar gene from rabbits, says that plants modified with it could "clean up 
toxins" from contaminated land. They might even destroy them so effectively 
that crops grown on the polluted soil could be fit to eat.

But he and other scientists caution that if the gene were to escape to wild 
relatives of the rice it could create particularly vicious superweeds that were 
resistant to a wide range of herbicides.

He adds: "I do not have any ethical issue with using human genes to engineer 
plants", dismissing talk of "Frankenstein foods" as "rubbish". He believes that 
that European opposition to GM crops and food is fuelled by agricultural 
protectionism.

But Sue Mayer, director of GeneWatch UK, said yesterday: "I don't think that 
anyone will want to buy this rice. People have already expressed disgust about 
using human genes, and already feel that their concerns are being ignored by 
the biotech industry. This will just undermine their confidence even more."

Pete Riley, director of the anti-GM pressure group Five Year Freeze, said: "I 
am not surprised by this.

"The industry is capable of anything and this development certainly smacks of 
Frankenstein."

=========================================================

April 1, 2004

A.G. Kawamura, Secretary
California Department of Food and Agriculture
1220 N Street
Sacramento, CA 95814

Dear Secretary Kawamura ,

We strongly urge you to reject the request by Ventria BioScience for emergency approval to commercially grow
rice genetically engineered with artificial human genes to produce two pharmaceutical compounds,
recombinant human lactoferrin and lysozyme.

Your approval of this proposal would trigger the first commercial use of a food plant to produce drugs in the
nation, and the first commercialization of a plant product engineered to contain human genes. The request
raises very serious issues of human and environmental safety and potential economic impact-issues that
demand broad public discussion. 

This application deserves a full public hearing, allowing comment from consumer groups, farmers, scientists,
physicians, businesses, and environmental groups, prior to permitting this drug-producing rice to be grown on
large acreage.

There are significant public health issues associated with this entirely novel crop. If the crop is grown in the
open air, inadvertent and uncontrollable public exposure to the drugs in the rice is likely. The National Academy
of Sciences/National Research Council released a report in January 2004 (Biological Confinement of
Genetically Engineered Organisms) that said that, given present technology, containment of transgenes is not
feasible: "It is unlikely that any single bioconfinement technique will be completely effective" (NRC. 2004: 10). In
fact, in November, 2002, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) revealed that another
experimental pharmaceutical crop--corn engineered by ProdiGene to produce a pig vaccine--had
contaminated two sites, in Nebraska and Iowa. In the Nebraska incident, a full silo of soybeans had to be
condemned at a cost of $2.7 million. 

To avoid contamination problems, the NRC recommended an increase in public participation in the process of
regulating these crops: 

The public's right to information-often called transparency-and its right to participate in decision
making are fundamental to the practice of democracy. Each right complements the other.
Appropriate transparency and public participation can improve the effectiveness of confinement by
informing decision makers about otherwise unknown facts about the environments in which
confinement would be implemented and by increasing the acceptance of bioconfinement measures
(and of the GEOs being confined) by building trust in the decision-making process. Transparency
and public participation should be important components in developing and implementing
the most appropriate bioconfinement techniques and approaches (NRC. 2004: pg. 8).

The health impacts of the drugs designed into this rice on people who might inadvertently be exposed to it have
not been properly evaluated, but could be serious. Noted food allergy specialist Stephen Taylor of the University
of Nebraska has warned that it is important to evaluate lactoferrin and lysozyme as produced in Ventria's rice
as to whether they may cause serious food allergies (see article at
http://www.nature.com/nsu/020422/020422-19.html). The human body produces lactoferrin and lysozyme in
breast milk, but the version produced in rice is slightly different, and thus may trigger a potentially dangerous
allergic response.

Potential environmental impact is also of concern. These two proteins, lactoferrin and lysozyme, are of interest
to Ventria because of their bacteria-killing and fungi-killing properties. Such a product could have impacts on
beneficial microbes in the environment and on wildlife via disruption of their gut flora. If transferred to weedy rice
through pollination, the proven antibacterial and antifungal properties of lysozyme could make the weed rice
better able to resist rice diseases, possibly creating a superweed. The USDA does not currently evaluate such
potential effects in any detail.

In the regulatory arena, federal policy is not yet fully established for pharmaceutical crops. Just last month, the
USDA asked for comments, and has held stakeholder meetings, on a proposed Environmental Impact
Statement (EIS). USDA asked for comment on whether its requirements for testing of Plant Made
Pharmaceuticals (PMPs) should be strengthened. The fact that USDA is asking for comments in this area
suggests that there is serious ongoing debate as to whether the agency's present regulations are stringent
enough.

The North American Millers Association, in comments to the USDA about their EIS proposal, asked the agency
to develop more stringent rules in this area, stating that "the risk of adulteration from genetic material" modified
for pharmaceutical or industrial uses entering the food chain was, in its view, "unacceptable" (LA Times,
3/30/04 at: http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-rice30mar30,1,2657028.story?coll=la-headlines-business).
The National Food Processors Association has stated that:

If the food industry had complete control of this promising technology from the beginning, we would
never have supported the use of food or feed crops for the production of PMPs. The risk of
contamination of the food or feed supply is just too great (NFPA press release, February 6, 2003).

Just last month, an editorial in Nature Biotechnology entitled, "Drugs in Crops-The Unpalatable Truth,"
expressed serious reservations about PMPs as well: 

The problem is-as anti-GM lobbyists have argued already-that the production of drugs or drug
intermediates in food or feed crop species bears the potential danger that pharmaceutical
substances could find their way into the food chain through grain admixture, or pollen-borne gene
flow (in maize, at least) or some other accidental mix-up because of the excusably human inability to
distinguish between crops for food and crops for drugs…Is this really so different from a
conventional pharmaceutical or biopharmaceutical manufacturer packaging its pills in candy
wrappers or flour bags or storing its compounds or production batches untended outside the
perimeter fence? (Nature Biotechnology, Feb. 2004, pg. 133, at
http://www.nature.com/cgi-taf/DynaPage.taf?file=/nbt/journal/v22/n2/full/nbt0204-133.htm).

The planting of this Ventria rice could also have a negative impact on California's rice industry. Any
contamination of food rice would lead to a decline or an end to rice exports to Japan and South Korea (a letter
sent by Consumers Union Japan(1) to the California Rice Commission on March 27, 2004 stated: "We wish to
inform you that if you approve Ventria's request, California's rice market in Japan will be seriously threatened.").
In addition, any contamination of food rice with genes for lactoferrin and lysozyme would result in rice recalls, as
this would violate FDA rules.

A decision to allow commercial planting of pharmaceutical rice is too important and far reaching a decision to
be left solely to a slim majority (6-5) of a panel of the California Rice Commission. This critically important
decision requires input from the public and careful consideration and analysis by the California Department of
Food and Agriculture's (CDFA's) own experts as well as the expertise of those at California Environmental
Protection Agency and Department of Health.

From a public health or public good perspective, this decision should not be rushed. Despite Ventria's request
for an "emergency exemption," there is no emergency that precludes, from a public health perspective, a
thorough vetting of the complicated issues involved. In fact, public health could be seriously undermined by a
rushed approval. An important opportunity to gather needed data should not be set aside simply to
accommodate Ventria Bioscience's desired planting schedule.

We urge CDFA to deny Ventria Bioscience's request for an emergency exemption and, instead, to conduct a
full scientific and public policy review of this broad and far-reaching question.

Sincerely,

Michael Hansen, Ph.D, Senior Research Associate
Elisa Odabashian, Senior Policy Analyst
Consumers Union of United States

Dan Jacobson, Legislative Director
Environment California

Bill Allayaud, State Director
Sierra Club California

Ronnie Cummins, National Director
Organic Consumers Association

Lisa Archer, Safer Food, Safer Farms Grassroots Coordinator
Friends of the Earth
==================================================

USDA May Approve Rice with
Human Genes in Missouri

From: Organic Seed Alliance P.O. Box 772 Port Townsend, WA 98368 
360-385-7192 fax 360-385-7455

info@seedalliance.org

Supporting the ethical stewardship & development of seed

Action Alert: BioPharming ­ Rice

Help the USDA/APHIS make a sound choice.

Please take a moment to send them comments regarding two very important
biopharming permits.

The USDA/APHIS is requesting comments on field tests of humanized rice in
Missouri. Ventria Bioscience, a biopharmaceutical company based in
Sacramento, Calif., has two permit requests pending with the U.S. Department
of Agriculture's Biotechnology Regulatory Services to grow about 200 acres of
pharmaceutical rice in southern Missouri this year. This rice contains
humanized genes.

The first USDA docket on this request (full text on USDA web site) states:
³These transgenic plants have been modified to express the human (Homo
sapiens) glycoprotein lactoferrin.² The second docket refers to the ³field-testing
of rice, Oryza sativa, genetically engineered to express human lysozyme.²
Please go to the USDA/APHIS web site and make comments.

The deadline of March 25th is rapidly approaching.

Your comments would be best received if they are polite, concise and include
any pertinent professional affiliations that you have.

We encourage your response to contain the following points: ? While rice is an
inbred (self-pollinates) and crosses at relatively low rates, there is still the
potential of contamination via pollen. Even more likely is the dispersal of seed
through incorrect handling/distribution. This has occurred with transgenic
tomato seed at the University of California Davis and at other organizations. ?
The inadvertent distribution of this rice into the food supply is a risk that is not
justifiable at the present time. ? Additionally, the potential damage to rice
exports to Europe and other countries would have severe economic
consequences for US rice farmers. ? Please exercise the Precautionary
Principle and reject this application for field tests.

Go to the USDA site:
http://docket.epa.gov/edkfed/do/EDKRegSubmitItemSearch and enter the
keyword ³rice² and the following dockets will appear:

? 05-006-1 APHIS-2005-0013 Ventria Bioscience; Availability of
Environmental Assessment for Field Test of Genetically Engineered Rice
Expressing Lactoferrin 02-23-2005 General Docket Notice 03-25-2005 ?
05-007-1 APHIS-2005-0014 Ventria Bioscience; Availability of Environmental
Assessment for Field Test of Genetically Engineered Rice Expressing
Lysozyme 02-23-2005 General Docket Notice 03-25-2005 Click on the Docket
ID and you will have the opportunity to both read the full report and give
comments. There is a button that takes you through the submission process.

Please pass this on.

Please support us! In order to keep Organic Seed Alliance running and able to
stay current with important issues such as biopharming, we need help from the
community at large. Your donations to OSA help further the work we do.
Support us today! ©2005 Organic Seed Alliance All rights reserved.
info@seedalliance.org