Friday, July 18, 2014


Vilsack: GMO wheat report due in ‘very near term’

By Eric Mortenson
Capital Press

Eric Mortenson/Capital Press U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said a GMO wheat report is expected in the "very near term."

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack acknowledges a GMO wheat investigation, now 15 months old, may not answer every question.

PORTLAND — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he expects a report on the GMO wheat found in Eastern Oregon last year in the “very near term” but cautioned it may contain some question marks.
“I’m not sure we’re going to have every answer,” Vilsack said.
Vilsack, in Portland to discuss the USDA’s new Regional Conservation Partnership Program, said his department is working in the meantime to foster coexistence between growers of conventional and genetically engineered crops. Vilsack revived the department’s Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture for that purpose.
The discovery of GMO wheat last year temporarily disrupted the international export market crucial to Pacific Northwest growers. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has been working on the investigation for 15 months.

Producers have consistently said they don’t want markets threatened again by having a “bomb” dropped on them — a report that shows GMO contamination elsewhere, for example — during harvest this year.

The investigation began in April 2013 when an Eastern Oregon grower noticed that some volunteer wheat plants he sprayed with glyphosate did not die as expected. The 125-acre field had been planted with certified seed in October 2011 and harvested in the summer of 2012, and was lying fallow when they farmer sprayed it — a common practice to control weeds.
Tests at Oregon State University, confirmed by APHIS, showed the plants were a “Roundup Ready” variety developed by Monsanto Co. to withstand the key ingredient in its herbicide.
Monsanto field-tested the variety in 16 states, including Oregon, from 1998 to 2005, but withdrew its application to have it approved because farmers objected. The last testing in Oregon was in 2001, however, and the field where the plants were found was not a test site, which only deepened the mystery.
Buyers in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, the chief markets for Pacific Northwest wheat, are strongly opposed to GMO food products.
Monsanto says its testing protocol was rigidly controlled and that genetically engineered crops pose no hazard to food or feed. APHIS says there’s been no more GMO wheat found and no evidence that it got into commerce. Beyond that, the agency has been silent.



A worker stands next to a crushing machine in a warehouse at Tasmanian Alkaloids, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary which processes around 80 percent of the world's thebaine poppies, the main ingredient in slow-release pain medication, located in Tasmania's northwest on the outskirts of Launceston June 4, 2014.   REUTERS-David GrayEven in isolated, pristine Tasmania, pressure to allow GMO farming

POWRANNA Australia Fri Jul 18, 2014 1:35am EDT

1 of 6. A worker stands next to a crushing machine in a warehouse at Tasmanian Alkaloids, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary which processes around 80 percent of the world's thebaine poppies, the main ingredient in slow-release pain medication, located in Tasmania's northwest on the outskirts of Launceston June 4, 2014. Credit: Reuters/David Gray

Australia's Tasmania contemplates a less 'pure' future (Reuters) - Thousands of Black Angus bulls snort steam gently into the frigid early morning air at Tasmania's largest cattle feedlot as they jostle for space at a long grain trough. The pitch black cattle, blending into their muddy surroundings and stretching as far as the eye can see, are being fattened up for the Japanese market where marbled Angus beef is in high demand. These bulls at the feedlot owned by Japan's Aeon Co Ltd book an even higher premium, thanks to Tasmania's status as the only Australian state that bans genetically modified food crops and animal feed.  

That moratorium has made Tasmania - an island the size of Ireland separated from Australia's mainland by 250 km (150 miles) of Bass Strait waters - a model of high-end, value-added agriculture production.

Tasmania's isolation and wilderness once made it a dumping ground for the British Empire's convicts. But these same qualities, and a small population of just over half a million people, make the island one of the cleanest places on earth.
Now, with fewer and fewer places in the world free from genetically modified farming and the innovations it brings, the pristine environment is under threat.

The state government says it is planning legislation to extend the ban on genetically modified farming when it expires later this year. But Tasmania's powerful poppy industry, the world's largest supplier of pharmaceutical grade opiates for painkillers, is strongly lobbying for the moratorium on genetically modified organisms (GMO) to be lifted.

Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Tasmanian Alkaloids, GlaxoSmithKline and Australia's privately-held TPI Enterprises, who share a A$120 million ($113 million) oligopoly, see a major threat looming as Victoria state on the mainland recently indicated it wanted to allow production of genetically modified poppies.

That throws open the prospect of tough competition and Tasmanian poppy farms losing out on cost-savings just as global demand for painkillers surges.

"There is a threat," said Tasmanian Alkaloids field operator Rick Rockliff, whose factory in the state's northwest processes around 80 percent of the world's thebaine poppies, the main ingredient in slow-release pain medication. "I would hope our government wouldn't sit on their hands and let that happen."

The road that Tasmania chooses will be critical as Australia seeks to fulfill lofty ambitions to become a "food bowl" for a rapidly growing middle-class in Asia. 

Already the world's third largest exporter of beef and the No.4 wheat exporter, Australia is eyeing agriculture as a key economic driver as a decade-long mining investment boom that brought the country riches wanes. 

But critics warn that it is in danger of failing at the farm gate due to the country's harsh, drought-prone climate and a lack of investment in agricultural innovation

In Tasmania, the accent is on high-value crops and cattle for export.

The state's niche producers are supplying everything from off-season wasabi and lavender teddy bears to fresh salmon and live abalone and see this as the future, rather than low value, bulk commodities. Its wine industry is thriving as climate change pressures major producers to move from traditional grape-growing regions on the mainland to Tasmania's cooler climes. 

These products attract a premium because of the GMO ban - the state's honey brings in prices of at least 40 percent more than mainland honey - according to the Safe Food Foundation. 

Tasmania Feedlot Pty Ltd in Powranna is home to between 6,000 and 11,000 Angus cattle all year round. The animals are beefed up over a period of five to six months before large cuts are shipped frozen to Japan. 

"They're looking for a very safe product, and a very consistent product," said the feedlot's Managing Director Andrew Thompson of the company's Japanese buyers.

"GM is one of the main factors, along with no use of hormone growth promotants," he added. "We've got this great reputation of being safe and clean and I think we've got to enhance that into the future."

The use of GMOs was outlawed in Tasmania more than a decade ago, after genetically altered canola escaped from crops at secret trials around the state. 

The state government says it plans to introduce legislation later this year to extend the ban, which expires in November. But it has left the door open a crack, retaining exemptions for scientific trials of GM crops and refusing to rule out lifting the ban in the future.

That's left Tasmania's organic farmers nervously eyeing a recent landmark court case in Western Australia. Farmer Steve Marsh unsuccessfully sued his neighbor, blaming him for losing his licence as an organic grower after Monsanto GMO canola seed heads blew on to his property.

Marsh is appealing the ruling, a process that could take up to a year to be finalised. Tasmania's fear of contamination is reflected in its strict food importation rules. Visitors arriving from the mainland are required to dispose of any foodstuffs before leaving the airport.

The island's isolation and its small population were the main reasons the federal government granted an exclusive licence to Tasmania to grow opium poppies for legal commercial production half a century ago. 

The arrangement has proved a boon for growers, with U.N. figures showing demand for pain relief more than tripled between 1993 and 2012 to the equivalent of 14 billion doses. Demand is expected to rise further in coming decades as the middle-class, particularly in Asia, grows. 

But Tasmania's efforts to secure a further five-year ban on other states growing poppies for commercial production have fallen on deaf ears as the federal government considers Victoria's bid.

Tasmania's poppy farmers say expanding production across Australia will leave them at a handicap if the GMO ban in the state remains. 

"It will make it more attractive to grow in Victoria," said Tasmanian Alkaloids' Rockliff. His company developed a trial GMO poppy several years ago that was unaffected by a common herbicide used to kill weeds, a development that would cut growers' costs and time in the field if able to be used commercially. 

"From that perspective, GMO is really interesting and it will eventually happen in Tasmania," he said.

Many others are fervently hoping that Rockliff is wrong. 

"I think the key is that Tasmania will never have the scale to produce enormous crops of grain or fruit for example, so why push for advantages that only work for scale?," said Tasmania Feedlot's Thompson. "Perhaps we're better to push for advantages that work for our particular image, of being grown in this island state and being clean and green and safe."

(Editing by Lincoln Feast and Raju Gopalakrishnan)


Wednesday, July 16, 2014


UK Parliament Meets to Discuss Dangers of World’s Best Selling Herbicide: RoundUp
by Christina Sarich
July 3rd, 2014

UK Parliament Meets to Discuss Dangers of World’s Best Selling Herbicide: RoundUp The London House of Parliament hosted a meeting attended by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Agroecology, Chaired by the Countess of Mar just weeks ago to discuss one of the world’s best-selling herbicide’s and its dangers to the public – Monsanto’s Roundup.

This was perhaps the most comprehensive meeting of UK government officials ever held in Europe, which included experts from all over the world to discuss glyphosate and RoundUp specifically. The scientific evidence of many was presented to the media, members of UK political parties, non-profit organizations, and members of the general public.

It was clear that this topic is of concern to many individuals, as the House of Parliament Room 10 was busting at the seams with experts that had traveled from as far as Russia, China, and the U.S. to listen to four different speakers present on the subject. Many of the unanswered questions about glyphosate were addressed; outlining the harm that glyphosate is causing people, animals, and our environment. Solutions to the prevalent use of glyphosate were also discussed.

The meeting outlined the use of glyphosate not just as an agricultural chemical (to dessicate cereal fed to farm animals, as an herbicide for soya, maize, and cotton crops, and more,) but also for weed control for homes, golf courses, and in horticulture around the world. The presenters pointed out that both humans and animals are at risk of exposure due to such prevalent use of glyphosate. The presentations confirmed that glyphosate is being found in human blood, urine, and in breast milk.

The presenters suggested that while glyphosate is presented as a harmless chemical that becomes inactive once it is in soil, it is in fact very dangerous, interfering with plant enzymes, soil microbes, and plant growth. It can also bind (chelate) trace metals with its imbred antibiotic action, leeching important nutrients from our soil, and food. When used with other chemicals sold to farmers and gardeners, the chemical’s effects are often compounded.

In summary, they agreed that glyphosate is anything but safe, and is in fact harming our ecosystem, and human life as the industrial agricultural model of farming requires ever-more herbicide use.

The full presentations made by the four members who presented from the APPG Agroecology meeting can be seen below. Please note that these are PDF files on the file sharing system Dropbox. Two of them should be able to be viewed without downloading the PDFs, while two require a download. Enjoy.

Dr. Don M. Huber – Professor Emeritus of Plant Pathology at Purdue University

Professor Malcolm Hooper – Professor of Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Sunderland

Dr. John Peterson “Pete” Myers – Founder, CEO and Chief Scientist of Environmental Health Sciences

Dr. Michael Antoniou – Reader in Molecular Genetics and Head of the Gene Expression and Therapy Group, Department of Medical and Molecular Genetics, King’s College London School of Medicine, UK.

Read more:


Mexican Farmers Oppose Expansion of Transgenic Crops

- Emilio Godoy
A bean cleaning plant in the northern Mexican state of Zacatecas. Credit: Courtesy of Secretaría de AgriculturaBean grower Manuel Alvarado is part of the majority of producers in Mexico who consider it unnecessary to introduce genetically modified varieties of beans, as the government is promoting.

“There is no study showing superior yields compared with hybrid or regional seeds. People are still unaware of what transgenic products are, nor the effects they have, but some of the things that are known about them are not good,” said Alvarado, the head of Enlaces al Campo, a bulk beans sales company in the city of Fresnillo, in the northern state of Zacatecas.

Genetically modified organisms (GMO) may cause a number of problems, among them the possibility that “transgenics will contaminate native and hybrid seeds, which have higher germination rates than transgenics,” Alvarado told IPS.

Bean farmers in Mexico face a context of overproduction, low prices and increasing imports, in a country where there are 300,000 bean producers, half of them small scale farmers.

Alvarado has obtained yields of between 12 and 16 tonnes per hectare from 10 native varieties of beans on 15 hectares of land. He has also tested 28 commercial maize hybrid seeds, obtaining up to 15 tonnes per hectare on 14 hectares of land.

In 2013, beans were grown on an area of 1.83 million hectares in Mexico and 1.28 million tonnes were produced, with overall yields of 1.79 tonnes per hectare, according to the Observatorio de Precios (Price Observatory), an independent group providing information and analysis for food producers and consumers.

The northern states of Zacatecas, Durango and Chihuahua are the main producing areas.
Cultivation of GMO in Mexico is turning away from concentration on maize and soybeans, after various legal appeals in 2013 banned their planting. The Mexican government and the industry are expanding their sights now to include beans and wheat, among other crops.

On Apr. 22, the National Institute of Forestry, Agricultural and Livestock Research (INIFAP) presented an application to the National Service for Agri-Food Health, Safety and Quality (SENASICA) for experimental planting of transgenic beans (Phaseolus vulgaris L.) on 0.12 hectares in the central state of Guanajuato.

The application is based on the research paper “Resistance to Colletotrichum lindemuthianum in transgenic common bean expressing an Arabidopsis thaliana defensin gene,” funded by the National Council for Science and Technology and the Agriculture ministry and published in 2013 in the Revista Mexicana de Ciencias Agrícolas.

The five authors, scientists at INIFAP, engineered five independent lines and 20 transgenic bean plants expressing the defensin gene. These plants proved resistant to two strains of the pathogenic fungus Colletotrichum lindemuthianum, which causes the fungal disease anthracnose. Non-genetically modified plants were not resistant.

Anthracnose, rust, angular leaf spot and root rot are diseases that affect beans in Mexico, which has 70 different varieties of the crop.

Silvia Ribeiro, the Latin America director of the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group), complained about the use of public funds to promote this kind of research which she views as a new “trick” to take over staple food production.

“The use of public resources for GMO research increases dependence on technology. It would be better to devote these funds to supporting the vast reservoir of wisdom on bean farming among campesinos (small farmers), and to promote preventive pest management and agroecosystems,” she told IPS.

SENASICA has received four applications this year for experimental and pilot plots of transgenic maize in 10 hectares in the northwestern staes of Sonora and Sinaloa from Pioneer, a U.S. seed company.  A further four pilot project applications for 85,000 hectares of genetically modified cotton in different states have been made by U.S. giant Monsanto.

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre has also presented five applications for experimental planting of transgenic wheat on half a hectare in the central state of Morelos, adjacent to Mexico City.

In 2013, SENASICA received 58 applications for experimental, pilot and commercial planting of transgenic maize on a total of over five million hectares, presented by Monsanto, Pioneer, Syngenta (Switzerland) and Dow Agrosciences (U.S.).

Another 29 applications for experimental, pilot and commercial planting of transgenic cotton were made by Monsanto and Bayer (Germany), which also requested three experimental permits for soybeans on 45 hectares in the southeastern states of Campeche, Quintana Roo and Yucatán and the southern state of Chiapas.

U.S. company Forage Genetics applied for an experimental alfalfa plantation on 0.38 hectares in the northern state of Coahuila.

“They want to shift the focus of the debate away from the fact that only companies present applications, and show that there is a national research capability,” Catherine Marielle, the coordinator of the sustainable food systems programme of the Group for Environmental Studies, an NGO, told IPS.

In July 2013, 53 individuals and 20 civil society organisations mounted a collective legal challenge against applications to plant transgenic maize, and in September a federal judge granted a precautionary ban on such authorisations.

The Agriculture and Environment ministries and the companies involved presented more than 70 rebuttals of the ruling, but the case “will take time,” according to court sources.

Since March 2014, organisations of beekeepers and indigenous communities have won two further provisional protection orders against commercial transgenic soybean crops in Campeche and Yucatán.
In June 2012, the Agriculture ministry authorised Monsanto to plant transgenic soybean commercially on an area of 253,000 hectares in seven Mexican states, including Campeche.

“We have perfected technological packages on how to prepare the soil, what seed to use and what fertilisers to apply. In the medium term we want to move to using organic fertilisers. All this would be scuppered if transgenic beans are imposed,” producer Alvarado said.

At present farmers sell beans for 30 to 45 cents of a dollar per kilo. With a state subsidy of a similar value, growers can recoup their production costs.

In Alvarado’s view, farmers could compete with U.S. imports “if we organise in the production zones, and the state stockpiles, provides credit to producers and value is added” to beans.

Although GMOs have been commercialised since the mid 1990s, nearly all transgenic crop production is concentrated in 10 countries: United States, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, India, China, Paraguay, South Africa, Pakistan and Uruguay, in that order.

Most transgenic crops are used for livestock forage, but Mexico wants maize, at least, to be used for human food.

The government supports GMO, according to agricultural officials, because in the medium and long term they are a means of confronting climate effects on food production and guaranteeing food security.

“Mexico does not need transgenics. The country has never produced as much maize as it produces now. Besides, there can be no biosecurity with transgenics: they cause genetic erosion (loss of genetic diversity),” because contamination of conventional crops is inevitable, said Ribeiro of ETC Group.

This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.   Copyright 2014 Inter Press Service

Monday, July 14, 2014


photo: Jerry GreenfieldBen & Jerry’s Joins the Food Fight for GMO Labeling
Friday, July 11, 2014 :: Staff infoZine
By Kate Winkle - Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream is helping to bring a sweet food fight to Washington.
Washington, DC - infoZine - Scripps Howard Foundation Wire - “Let’s serve ice cream,” company co-founder Jerry Greenfield said after a Thursday news conference outside the Capitol. Interns with the Environmental Working Group obliged, handing out small ice cream cups.

“Ben & Jerry’s has an unusual position where, because we make ice cream, people pay attention to ice cream,” Greenfield said.

Greenfield, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and pro-labeling advocacy groups gathered to oppose a House bill that could prevent states and the Food and Drug Administration from requiring labels on food containing genetically modified organisms. The bill gives the secretary of Health and Human Services the final word on GMO food safety and labeling.

Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, says the company is relabeling its products to reflect that it’s moving toward using non-GMO ingredients. He spoke at a news conference about whether to label foods that contain GMO ingredients. SHFWire photo by Kate Winkle
“One spoonful at a time, we’ll change this law,” DeFazio said.
Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., introduced the bill they oppose, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, on April 9.

The Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food, which opposes GMO labeling, said in a statement that the news conference’s push for mandatory labeling laws is “misguided.”

“Mandatory labeling efforts mislead consumers about GMOs, which are perfectly safe, and represent a thinly veiled effort to remove modern biotechnology from American agriculture,” spokeswoman Claire Parker said in a statement.

DeFazio encouraged people to support his bill, the Genetically Engineered Food Right-To-Know Act, which he introduced in April 2013. The bill would require genetically engineered foods and foods with GE ingredients to be labeled, as they are in 64 countries around the world.

Greenfield brought along some of the Ben & Jerry’s “Food Fight Fudge Brownie,” to support GMO labeling efforts. The ice cream formerly known as “Chocolate Fudge Brownie” was ceremonially renamed after the Grocery Manufacturers Association and three other organizations sued Vermont after it became the first state to enact a GMO-labeling law in May. The company donates $1 from each sale at company-owned shops in Vermont to the Vermont Food Fight Fund to help pay legal fees.

Because genetically engineered food doesn’t occur in nature, the health risks or benefits are unclear, DeFazio said. Consumers should have the right to know if a food contains GMOs and choose if they want to purchase it.

“This is something that will not be stopped. American people simply want to know what’s in their food,” DeFazio said.

Labeling GMO food could increase costs to consumers, according to the Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food. The statement said GMOs are important tools for farmers to produce safe and affordable food.

Greenfield said relabeling Ben & Jerry’s ice cream hasn’t cost consumers as the ice cream makers have begun to transition to non-GMO ingredients. The company plans to have all of its labels updated by the end of the year, and it is working with farmers who use GMO feed to find other sources for dairy products.

“Food companies should be proud to talk about the ingredients they put in their food. We should be screaming it from the rooftops,” Greenfield said.



Americans Are Too Stupid For GMO Labeling, Congressional Panel Says

Posted: Updated:
WASHINGTON -- It's pretty rare that members of Congress and all the witnesses they've called will declare out loud that Americans are just too ignorant to be given a piece of information, but that was a key conclusion of a session of the House Agriculture Committee this week.

The issue was genetically modified organisms, or GMOs as they're often known in the food industry. And members of the subcommittee on Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture, as well as their four experts, agreed that the genetic engineering of food crops has been a thorough success responsible for feeding the hungry, improving nutrition and reducing the use of pesticides.
People who oppose GMOs or want them labeled so that consumers can know what they're eating are alarmists who thrive on fear and ignorance, the panel agreed. Labeling GMO foods would only stoke those fears, and harm a beneficial thing, so it should not be allowed, the lawmakers and witnesses agreed.

"I really worry that labeling does more harm than good, that it leads too many people away from it and it diminishes the market for GMOs that are the solution to a lot of the problems we face," said David Just, a professor at Cornell University and co-director of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs.

Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) agreed with Just and asked him, "What is the biggest drawback? Is it the ignorance of what the product is, just from a lack of education?"
"It is ignorance of the product, and it's a general skepticism of anything they eat that is too processed or treated in some way that they don't quite understand," Just said.
"Even using long scientific-sounding words make it sound like it's been grown in a test tube, and people get scared of it," Just added.

Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) agreed with another witness, Calestous Juma, an international development professor at Harvard's Kennedy School, that political leaders had been cowed by misinformed populaces into bending on GMOs, especially in the European Union, where Juma said hundreds of millions of euros have been spent on studies that have found GMOs safe.
"It's obvious that while the science in the EU in incontrovertible about the health and safety benefits of genetically modified hybrid crops, that because of politics, people are afraid to lead, and inform consumers," Schrader said.

Juma cited an extensive report by the European Commission. (There is at least one controversial group that disagrees with him.)

Certainly, there is misinformation about GMOs, as highlighted in a New York Times feature on a Hawaiian ban of most GMOs. But entirely missing from the hearing was any suggestion that there are real concerns about the impact of genetically engineered food, such as the growth of pesticide-resistant "super weeds," over-reliance on single-crop factory farming, decreased biodiversity, and a lack of a consistent approval process. (Read more pros and cons here.)

The issue may soon gain fresh relevance on Capitol Hill, where a measure backed by Reps. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) and G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) to stop states from requiring GMO labeling could get marked up as early as September. The bill also would allow genetically engineered food to be labeled "100 percent natural."

The idea of the bill brought Ben and Jerry's co-founder Jerry Greenfield to Capitol Hill Thursday to push back, along with Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who backs labeling.

Greenfield told HuffPost that labeling is a simple, inexpensive matter of letting people know what's in their food, and letting them decide what they want to support and eat.

"This idea that consumers will be scared away -- the label will be a very simple thing, a few words on a container saying something like 'may be produced with genetic engineering.' It's not scary," Greenfield said.

Watch the video above to see experts and members of Congress conclude Americans should be denied GMO labels because they are too ignorant, as well as Greenfield's reaction.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post.


Thursday, July 10, 2014


2014 710 mons fw Monsanto's Herbicide Linked to Fatal Kidney Disease Epidemic: Could It Topple the Company?

Thursday, 10 July 2014 09:18 By Jeff Ritterman, M.D., Truthout | News Analysis

(Photo courtesy of Vivien Feyer)
Also see: Dahr Jamail | Salvadoran Farmers Successfully Oppose the Use of Monsanto Seeds
Monsanto's herbicide Roundup has been linked to a mysterious fatal kidney disease epidemic that has appeared in Central America, Sri Lanka and India.
For years, scientists have been trying to unravel the mystery of a chronic kidney disease epidemic that has hit Central America, India and Sri Lanka. The disease occurs in poor peasant farmers who do hard physical work in hot climes. In each instance, the farmers have been exposed to herbicides and to heavy metals. The disease is known as CKDu, for Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown etiology. The "u" differentiates this illness from other chronic kidney diseases where the cause is known. Very few Western medical practitioners are even aware of CKDu, despite the terrible toll it has taken on poor farmers from El Salvador to South Asia.
Dr. Catharina Wesseling, the regional director for the Program on Work and Health (SALTRA) in Central America, which pioneered the initial studies of the region's unsolved outbreak, put it this way, "Nephrologists and public health professionals from wealthy countries are mostly either unfamiliar with the problem or skeptical whether it even exists."
Dr. Wesseling was being diplomatic. At a 2011 health summit in Mexico City, the United States beat back a proposal by Central American nations that would have listed CKDu as a top priority for the Americas.
David McQueen, a US delegate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who has since retired from the agency, explained the US position.
"The idea was to keep the focus on the key big risk factors that we could control and the major causes of death: heart disease, cancer and diabetes. And we felt, the position we were taking, that CKD was included."
The United States was wrong. The delegates from Central America were correct. CKDu is a new form of illness. This kidney ailment does not stem from diabetes, hypertension or other diet-related risk factors. Unlike the kidney disease found in diabetes or hypertension, the kidney tubules are a major site of injury in CKDu, suggesting a toxic etiology.
2014 710 mons 2Salvadoran farmer returning from the fields, Palo Grande, El Salvador. Photo courtesy of Vivien Feyer.CKDu is now the second leading cause of mortality among men in El Salvador. This small, densely populated Central American country now has the highest overall mortality rate from kidney disease in the world. Neighboring Honduras and Nicaragua also have extremely high rates of kidney disease mortality. In El Salvador and Nicaragua, more men are dying from CKDu than from HIV/AIDS, diabetes, and leukemia combined. In one patch of rural Nicaragua, so many men have died that the community is called "The Island of the Widows."
In addition to Central America, India and Sri Lanka have been hit hard by the epidemic. In Sri Lanka, over 20,000 people have died from CKDu in the past two decades. In the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, more than 1,500 have been treated for the ailment since 2007. Given the rarity of dialysis and kidney transplantation in these regions, most who suffer from CKDu will die from their kidney disease.
Mural celebrating traditional agrarian life, Juayua, El Salvador. Photo courtesy of Vivien Feyer.
2014 710 mons 3In an investigation worthy of the great Sherlock Holmes, a scientific sleuth from Sri Lanka, Dr. Channa Jayasumana, and his two colleagues, Dr. Sarath Gunatilake and Dr. Priyantha Senanayake, have put forward a unifying hypothesis that could explain the origin of the disease. They reasoned that the offending agent had to have been introduced into Sri Lanka within the last 30 years, since the first cases appeared in the mid-1990s. The chemical also needed to be able to form stable complexes with the metals in hard water and to act as a shield, protecting those metals from metabolism by the liver. The compound would also need to act as a carrier and be able to deliver the metals to the kidney.
We know that political changes in Sri Lanka in the late 1970s led to the introduction of agrochemicals, especially in rice farming. The researchers looked for likely suspects. Everything pointed to glyphosate. This herbicide is used in abundance in Sri Lanka. Earlier studies had shown that once glyphosate binds with metals, the glyphosate-metal complex can last for decades in the soil.
Glyphosate was not originally designed for use as an herbicide. Patented by the Stauffer Chemical Company in 1964, it was introduced as a chelating agent. It avidly binds to metals. Glyphosate was first used as a descaling agent to clean out mineral deposits from the pipes in boilers and other hot water systems.
It is this chelating property that allows glyphosate to form complexes with the arsenic, cadmium and other heavy metals found in the groundwater and soil in Central America, India and Sri Lanka. The glyphosate-heavy metal complex can enter the human body in a variety of ways. The complex can be ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Glyphosate acts like a Trojan horse, allowing the bound heavy metal to avoid detection by the liver, since the glyphosate occupies the binding sites that the liver would normally latch onto. The glyphosate-heavy metal complex reaches the kidney tubules, where the high acidity allows the metal to break free of the glyphosate. The cadmium or arsenic then damages the kidney tubules and other parts of the kidneys, ultimately resulting in kidney failure and, most often, death.
At this point, this elegant theory advanced by Dr. Jayasumana and colleagues can only be considered hypothesis-generating. Further scientific studies will need to confirm the hypothesis that CKDu is indeed due to glyphosate-heavy metal toxicity to the kidney tubules. For the present, this may be the best explanation for the epidemic.
Another explanation is that heat stress may be the cause, or a combination of heat stress and chemical toxicity. Monsanto, of course, is standing behind glyphosate and disputing the claim that it plays any role whatsoever in the genesis of CKDu.
While the exact cause of CKDu has not been proven conclusively, both Sri Lanka and El Salvador have invoked the precautionary principle. El Salvador banned glyphosate in September 2013 and is currently looking for safer alternatives. Sri Lanka banned glyphosate in March of this year because of concerns about CKDu.
2014 710 mons 4Mural celebrating traditional agrarian life, Palo Grande, El Salvador. Photo courtesy of Vivien Feyer. 
Glyphosate has had an interesting history. After its initial use as a descaling agent by Stauffer Chemical, scientists at Monsanto discovered its herbicidal qualities. Monsanto patented glyphosate as an herbicide in the 1970s, and has marketed it as "Roundup" since 1974. Monsanto retained exclusive rights until 2000, when the patent expired. By 2005, Monsanto's glyphosate products were registered in more than 130 countries for use in more than 100 crops. As of 2013, glyphosate was the world's largest selling herbicide.
Glyphosate's popularity has been due, in part, to the perception that it is extremely safe. The Monsanto website claims:
Glyphosate binds tightly to most types of soil so it is not available for uptake by roots of nearby plants. It works by disrupting a plant enzyme involved in the production of amino acids that are essential to plant growth. The enzyme, EPSP synthase, is not present in humans or animals, contributing to the low risk to human health from the use of glyphosate according to label directions.
Because of glyphosate's reputation for both safety and effectiveness, John Franz, who discovered glyphosate's usefulness as a herbicide, received the National Medal of Technology in 1987. Franz also received the American Chemical Society's Carothers Award in 1989, and the American Section of the Society of Chemical Industry's Perkins Medal in 1990. In 2007, he was inducted into the United States' Inventor's Hall of Fame for his work on the herbicide. Roundup was named one of the "Top 10 Products That Changed the Face of Agriculture" by the magazine Farm Chemicals in 1994.
Not everyone agrees with this perception of glyphosate's safety. The first "Roundup resistant" GMO crops, soybeans, were introduced by Monsanto in 1996. The same year, the first glyphosate resistant weeds began to emerge. Farmers responded by using increasingly toxic herbicides to deal with the new super weeds that had developed glyphosate resistance.
In addition to the concern about the emergence of super weeds, a study in rats demonstrated that low levels of glyphosate induced severe hormone-dependent mammary, hepatic, and kidney disturbances. Recently two activist groups, Moms Across America and Thinking Moms Revolution, asked the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to recall Monsanto's Roundup, citing a host of adverse health impacts in their children from the herbicide, including failure to thrive, leaky gut syndrome, autism and food allergies.
Glyphosate is no ordinary herbicide. Besides being the most used herbicide on earth, it is also the central pillar of Monsanto's temple. Most of Monsanto's seeds, including soy, corn, canola, alfalfa, cotton, sugar beets and sorghum, are glyphosate resistant. As of 2009, Monsanto's Roundup (glyphosate) products, which include its GMO seeds, represented about half of Monsanto's yearly revenue. This reliance on glyphosate products makes Monsanto extremely vulnerable to research challenging the herbicide's safety.
Glyphosate-resistant seeds are engineered to allow the farmer to drench his fields in the herbicide to kill off all of the weeds. The glyphosate resistant crop can then be harvested. But if the combination of glyphosate and the heavy metals found in the groundwater or the soil destroys the farmer's kidneys in the process, the whole house of cards falls apart. This may be what is happening now.
An ugly confrontation has been unfolding in El Salvador. The US government has been pressuring El Salvador to buy GMO seeds from Monsanto rather than indigenous seeds from their own farmers. The US has threatened to withhold almost $300 million in aid unless El Salvador purchases Monsanto's GMO seeds. The GMO seeds are more expensive. They are not adapted to the Salvadoran climate or soil.
The only "advantage" of Monsanto's GMO seeds is their glyphosate resistance. Now that glyphosate has been shown to be a possible, and perhaps likely, cause of CKDu, that "advantage" no longer exists.

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Mural, Concepcion de Ataco, El Salvador. Photo courtesy of Vivien Feyer.
What is the message from the United States to El Salvador exactly? Perhaps the kindest explanation is that the United States is unaware that glyphosate may be the cause of the fatal kidney disease epidemic in El Salvador and that the government sincerely believes that the GMO seeds will provide a better yield. If so, a sad mixture of ignorance and arrogance is at the heart of this foreign policy blunder. A less kind interpretation would suggest that the government puts Monsanto's profits above concerns about the economy, environment and health of the Salvadorans. This view would suggest that a tragic mix of greed and callous disregard for the Salvadorans is behind US policy.
Unfortunately, there is evidence to support the latter view. The United States seems to be completely behind Monsanto, regardless of any science questioning the safety of its products. Cables released by WikiLeaks show that US diplomats around the world are pushing GMO crops as a strategic government and commercial imperative. The cables also reveal instructions to punish any foreign countries trying to ban GMO crops.N
Whatever the explanation, pressuring El Salvador, or any country, to buy GMO seeds from Monsanto is a tragic mistake. It is foreign policy not worthy of America. Let's change it. Let's base our foreign and domestic policies on human rights, environmental stewardship, health and equity.
Post script: After articles about the seed dispute appeared in the media, The New York Times reported that the United States has reversed its position and will stop pressuring El Salvador to buy Monsanto's seeds. Thus far, the aid money has not been released.

Jeff Ritterman, M.D.
Dr. Jeff Ritterman is vice president of the board of directors of the SF Bay Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility.  He is the retired chief of cardiology at Kaiser Richmond and a former Richmond, Calif., city councilman.