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Secrecy, Danger Surround Genetic Engineering of Grapes

  • Secrecy, danger surround genetic engineering of grapes
    By ERICA MARTENSON
    Napa Valley Register (California), Thursday, March 15, 2007

Web Note: The article below makes a strong case against secret testing of GM crops. Similar cases could be made about the secret testing of crops such as barley and safflower modified with human genes producing pharmaceuticals in Washington State In the grape tests mentioned below the fungus Trichoderma harzianum, providing genes to some of the grapes has been found to infect and injure or kill people with weakened immune systems and that fungus also produces a product causing infertility in males. Tests sites for GM crops must be required to be disclosed and explained to those effected by the tests.

I'm writing to make visible an invisible and immediate threat to our local agriculture, economy, and environment - researchers who may be conducting secret field tests on genetically engineered (GE) grapes in our own backyard.

As the coordinator for the organization Preserving the Integrity of Napa's Agriculture, or PINA, I discovered that UC Davis and Cornell University have permits to field test up to five-and-a-half acres of experimental GE grapes anywhere in California. The U.S. Department of Agriculture did not require applications or environmental assessments for these permits, only notification by the institutions. Are these universities conducting field trials in Napa County? Are they taking steps to ensure that commercial and native grapes are not contaminated through cross-pollination, and that the environment and public health are protected? One cannot find out this information unless the researcher agrees to make contact with you and is willing to tell you. There is a veil of secrecy around these field tests which prevents growers from being able to take measures to protect their vineyards from genetic contamination that could result in a tarnished image and market loss from consumers who reject GE products.

A 2005 U.S. Inspector General report criticized the USDA for not adequately overseeing field trials of GE crops. It stated that the USDA "lacks basic information about the field test sites it approves and is responsible for monitoring, including where and how the crops are being grown, and what becomes of them at the end of the field test." Last month, a federal judge ruled that the USDA cannot approve new GE field trials without environmental assessments. Unfortunately, this ruling applies to future tests and not to the permits currently held by UC Davis and Cornell.

UC Davis has permits to test grapevines in California that have been engineered using genes from pear fruit in an effort to create rootstock resistant to Pierce's disease. The head of this research team refused to make contact with me. However, through a third party, he or she stated, "We have not planted any grapes as yet. At some point, we will and, most likely, it will not be in Napa County. However, I would not like to disclose their location." The response was reassuring for our county, but since these permits are valid until 2014, they have much time to change their mind and have an experimental vineyard in Oakville where they can plant them.

Two groups of Cornell scientists are researching GE grapes in California. The head of one of them, Dr. Bruce Reisch, was willing to communicate with me, perhaps because he already completed his research in California. He said that they did their test in a "coastal county," but would not say which one. In that test, they inserted genes from Trichoderma harzianum, a fungus found in soil, hoping to develop grapes resistant to powdery mildew and botrytis. While they placed bird netting over the experimental grapes to prevent seed dispersal, they did nothing to prevent insects and wind from dispersing pollen. Researchers in South Africa wanting to do field trials on GE grapes have proposed bagging flowers to prevent pollen spread. When I asked Dr. Reisch if he had taken this precautionary step, he stated that bagging flowers "would add greatly to the expense of such trials." He believed that the distance between the experimental and commercial grapes, 500 feet, was sufficient to prevent cross-pollination. Was it?

The head of the other Cornell group refused to make contact with me. This group has a permit to test grapes genetically altered for fanleaf virus-resistance. On the permit, the foreign genes being used are designated "CBI," or Confidential Business Information, which raises a red flag. What type of genes are they using that they feel the need to hide that information from the public? Are they taking steps to ensure that birds, wildlife and passersby do not consume the grapes, which may not be safe to eat? Are they taking steps to prevent the dispersal of both seed and pollen? There are simply too many questions to not have our local agriculture commissioner overseeing what is taking place at the local level to ensure that our local interests are protected.

Assemblyman Jared Huffman, whose district includes parts of Sonoma and Marin counties, recently introduced AB 541 ‹ a bill to protect farmers from problems associated with genetic engineering. It would require those wishing to plant GE crops to register with the agriculture commissioner and would allow farmers whose crops have been contaminated to seek compensation for any market loss and for the cost of testing and cleanup. Please consider going to our Web site, www.preservenapasag.org (on the bottom of the FAQs page), to read more about this important legislation and for a sample letter of support, which you can send to the Assembly Agriculture Committee within the next week and/or to our state representatives, Noreen Evans and Pat Wiggins, after that.

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