Finely Aged, Well Engineered

Erica Martenson is not a scientist. Rather, she is a gardener. In her big backyard in Napa, she says, she has “several fruit trees and a small area where I have a vegetable garden. At this point, I can grow pretty much what I need for the year — I dry my fruit, and I can things.”

Until 2005 or so, one of her homegrown crops was soybeans, “for edamame. Then I saw an article that mentioned something about genetically engineered soy, and I started wondering if my soybeans could be genetically engineered. I started doing some research and found that even organic seed companies like Seeds of Change can’t guarantee anymore that their soybeans are GE-free. There’s too much contamination — partly through cross-pollination, but also because there’s so much consolidation now within the seed supply. Sometimes even the organic seed supply is contaminated. So I stopped growing soybeans, and that’s how I got introduced to the whole issue — not being able to grow something that I wanted to grow. It’s one of those issues that a lot of people don’t know about, but once you do know about it, you tend to have a strong feeling about it.”

It’s a pretty strong word, “contaminated” — the sort usually reserved for poisoned water supplies and the like. Martenson isn’t trying to be alarmist, only to indicate that GE foodstuffs have a way of insinuating themselves into the general food supply. But she is concerned. “I’m concerned about the health aspect. There hasn’t been a single peer-reviewed study to prove that GE foods are safe, for example. There are no safety tests required by the government. Most of the developers’ own studies have not been made public. A German court recently forced Monsanto to make one of its studies public, and it showed that there were problems with the lab animals. And there have been independent studies that have pointed to problems. There have been studies of GE yeast that showed — and this is a problem with GE in general — that inserting the foreign genes disrupts the genome. It can cause unexpected changes in the yeast — change its metabolism, cause toxicity or allergenicity. I think the way the whole GE thing has unfolded has been very unscientific. There’s been a lot of propaganda saying that this is going to solve people’s problems, that it’s progress, and that if you’re against it, then you’re a Luddite.”

Martenson mentioned yeast in particular because she drinks wine, because she lives in Napa, and because there are currently two GE yeasts on the market for use in wine production. (One unites alcoholic and malolactic fermentations to reduce production of the biogenic amines that cause headaches in some people. The other degrades urea and so reduces the production of ethyl carbamate, a substance found to exhibit carcinogenic activity in laboratory animals, though Martenson points out that the substance has not been shown to cause cancer in humans and that “wine has other properties that seem to counter those carcinogenic effects.” Martenson is not pro-headache/pro-cancer, but neither is she confident in the biotech industry’s assurances and disinterest.) She also mentions it because it’s a local issue. “There are lots and lots of groups that are working on this at the international and national level. I decided I wanted to do something locally — there’s so much corporate influence at the national level, and there wasn’t anything happening here in our county.”

The result was PINA: Preserving the Integrity of Napa’s Agriculture. PINA’s website identifies the group as “a grassroots organization comprised of diverse individuals from Napa County” who “share the belief that genetically modified organisms pose a serious risk to our health…and that they threaten our environment, economy, and consumers’ rights…No GMOs should be introduced into Napa County until a regulatory system is in place.”

“Our focus is education,” adds Martenson. “There are field tests going on all over the country, and nobody knows where they are. We’ve been doing lots of film showings and presentations” — things like the documentary Future of Food — “and are just trying to open up a dialogue with the whole community. Including the wine industry. We work through organizations. We went to the Native Plant Society and asked, ‘Would you be interested in sponsoring a film?’ That way we bring in all of their members and people interested in native plants.” So far, with winegrowers, “It’s been more sharing conversations. I know the grape growers have had two forums on GE grapes, but that was more for the industry.”

And the response? Martenson goes into hopeful mode: “Um, positive. There are conversations happening. I think the wine industry here has always been very good about working with the community to solve problems that affect the industry and the environment and to find creative solutions. We have a long history of doing that, and I hope this will be the same way. I think there’s an image and reputation issue. There’s no labeling law here now that says you have to say if your product is GE, but that could change very quickly. The Food Policy Institute, a research unit of Rutgers University, conducted a poll in 2003 that revealed that 94 percent of American consumers want GE food labeled. Both presidential candidates on the Democratic side have said they support mandatory labeling, as does independent candidate Ron Paul. It’s a health and safety issue; since GE foods aren’t labeled, any health problems associated with them are impossible to trace. In Europe, there are already strict labeling laws, and even though there’s no ban on GE foods, nobody wants to market products as GE because they won’t sell. Here, the whole GE thing has been very stealth, but I think producers here have to look forward. It would be very difficult, I think, for them to go the GE route and not lose something as far as their image and market share.”

PINA is after a moratorium on GE products in Napa County; in the meantime, Martenson will settle for bringing matters into the light. She wrote an opinion piece for the Napa Valley Register on GE grapevine trials, noting that both Cornell and UC Davis “have permits to field test up to five and a half acres of experimental GE grapes anywhere in California.” The piece asks a lot of questions that may have fairly benign answers, but Martenson’s point is that she can’t get those answers, benign or otherwise. “What types of genes are they using that they feel they need to hide that information from the public?” she asks, regarding a trial using genes designated as “confidential business information.”

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the article is that the Cornell professor she quotes, Dr. Bruce Reisch, shows up several times in the comment section. Reisch takes issue with much of what Martenson writes and argues that the United States food system is “one of the very best in the world,” the success of which “includes the ongoing and widespread consumption of a multitude of products from plant genetic engineering, and these products have an excellent track record of…production of healthy food products.” Martenson counters with arguments about U.S. approval of products (such as bovine growth hormone) that are not allowed in other first-world countries and adds that “many third-world countries will not even accept GE crops as food aid.” The exchange is civil, extended, and enlightening and may be found here: http://www.napavalleyregister.com/articles/2007/03/15/opinion/commentary/doc45f9480b21e0e837159310.txt

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First of all, you can't ever prove something is safe. All you can do with a study is prove that something is not safe. You can never prove that genetically changed materials are safe - and that shadow of doubt is all that naysayers like Erica need in order to keep getting their names in lights. Second, she assumes that scientists and company executives are bad people, who only want to make money, at the expense of people and nature. She needs to be careful in what she says and have her knowledge down right. She needs to be careful about talking about transgenic (switching genes from different animals) and genetic enhancement using the yeast genes own genetic material. There is a huge difference. As for ethyl carbamate, it hasn't been shown to cause cancer in humans because performing studies on this to prove that would be unethical, something the Nazis did. However, its so cancer causing, it's ability to cause cancer is so stable, it's actually used as a baseline to compare how cancer causing other substances are. And she says that we should continue keeping it in wine? Finally, I've worked in the past with companies who have had to deal with consumer "advocates" like Erica. Dealing with them opens up a huge can of worms. You write a response and they pick that apart to keep the debate going. People like Erica are only interested in getting their name in lights and you writing her up just fans the flames. Good work writing a one-sided story not talking to anyone on the other side. Nice lazy work!!

Actually, the developer of these yeasts could have done animal feeding trials to test for toxicity, the same way developers of new food additives do. And since there have been studies showing that GMOing yeasts can produce toxicity, that's exactly what he should have done. The developer of these yeasts is the lazy one (along with the FDA, which doesn't require such tests), not the writer of this article. There have also been studies showing that ethyl carbamate (when in wine) does not cause cancer in lab animals, supporting the idea that wine has other properties (i.e. resveratrol) that counteract any carcinogenic effects of ethyl carbamate. So there is no reason to take a chance on this type of GE wine yeast, healthwise or marketwise.

Transgenic just means inserting genes from a foreign species. (It doesn't have to be from an animal.) The ML01 GE yeast is transgenic, because the developer inserted a gene from a bacteria to make it.
In any event, the genes being from a foreign species isn't the main issue. The main issue is the fact that the insertion of genes, any genes, is inherently disruptive and can affect the way the whole organism functions. Get your facts straight, Bruto.

Notes on the self cloned wine yeast debate: The debate about self cloned wine yeast seemed to centered on one individual who believed that the carcinogen ethyl carbamate (urethane) should not be left in the wine and that people cannot be tested to identify human carcinogens. As one reader commented the urethane in wine is less cancer causing in wine than out of it. That is a well supported observation. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (a United Nations Agency) is probably the best authority on cancer causing chemicals. Their report is summarized as follows: http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Meetings/96-ethylcarbamate.pdf IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans Ethylcarbamate (urethane) Carcinogenicity in experimental animals There is sufficient evidence in experimental animals for the carcinogenicity of ethyl carbamate. Overall evaluation Ethyl carbamate is probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A). The groups are as follows: Group 1 carcinogenic to humans (87 chemicals ); Group 2A probably carcinogenic to humans (63); Group 2B possibly carcinogenicto humans (234);Group 3 not classifiable as to carcinogenicity to humans (493); Group 4 probably not carcinogenic to humans (1).There is little question that urethane is hazardous to humans. However, urethane in wine is mitigated by the well known anti cancer chemicals in wine. Thus the carcinogen is neutralized by the anti-cancer chemicals in wine. Urethane removal by genetic modification seems to be a greater risk than just letting the wine ant-cancer chemicals do their job.
My main concern about the self cloned yeast is expressed in ISIS Press Release 08/01/07 Self-Cloned' Wine Yeasts Not Necessarily Safe by Prof. Joe Cummins “Nevertheless, even self-cloned yeasts must be subject to rigorous and comprehensive safety tests, as it has already been demonstrated that changing the expression of a single gene in yeast can have unexpected effects. In 1995, Japanese researchers reported that a transgenic yeast engineered for increased rate of fermentation with multiple copies of one of its own genes ended up accumulating the metabolite methylglyoxal at toxic, mutagenic levels to humans (1).”My main objection to self cloned yeast is that they must be tested carefully changes to a single gene can lead to unexpected and dangerous consequences.

I think it's also important to point out that many fermented foods and beverages contain urethane, including bread and soy sauce; so this issue is not exclusive to wine, and these products don't have the anti-cancer properties that wine has. It would certainly be careless to begin using GE yeast that has not been safety tested to ferment these foods/beverages to reduce urethane, ameliorating one health issue only to perhaps create a different health issue.

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