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APPROVAL / PLANTS: Secrecy, danger surround genetic engineering ofgrapes in the USA

------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------
TITLE:  Secrecy, danger surround genetic engineering of grapes
SOURCE: The Napa Valley Register, USA
AUTHOR: Erica Martensen
DATE:   15.03.2007

Secrecy, danger surround genetic engineering of grapes

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,
(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.

(Martenson lives in Napa.)

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