WorldScan: December 8, 2002

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Network of European Labs Takes on GMO Analysis

BRUSSELS, Belgium, December 9, 2002 (ENS) - A new network of 45 control laboratories located in European Union Member States is being mobilized to improve traceability of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the food chain and to support regulation of their use in Europe.

European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin inaugurated the European network of GMO laboratories at a launch in Brussels on December 4. The network will develop and validate methods for detecting and quantifying GMOs in food and feed. Activities will be coordinated by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre.

"I welcome the political agreement on the GMO labeling requirements, reached at the Agriculture Council on November 28," said Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin. Robust legislation to regulate the use of GMOs in food and feed is necessary, he said, but "it is not enough on its own."

Commissioner Busquin wants the European Union to "harvest the potential that biotechnology holds for consumers in a responsible way."

On November 28, the Council of Agriculture Ministers reached a political agreement on labeling and tracing GMOs in Europe. The draft law provides for all foods in Europe produced from GMOs to be labeled. The Council of Environment Ministers is set to address the issue of GMO traceability at its meeting today.

The EU draft law is based on the premise that consumers have the right to choose between products that do or do not contain GMOs. Still, the lawmakers acknowledge, "even a very well organized food chain cannot fully guarantee that traditional foodstuffs are free from trace amounts of GMOs."

The Commission has therefore proposed simple and straightforward "threshold" regulation for food labeling. For example, if a biscuit has been made from flour that contains less than one percent of genetically modified maize (corn) flour, it should not be labeled; if it contains more than one percent, it should be labeled.

The Commission proposal, as endorsed by the Agriculture Council on November 28, lowers this threshold to 0.9 percent.

The Council also set a tolerance threshold of 0.5 percent for a three year period for the adventitious presence of GMO material unauthorized in the EU, but which has undergone a favorable risk assessment.

"We have to enforce the legislation and develop reliable, validated tests to verify compliance," said Commissioner Busquin. "I am confident that the network of GMO laboratories will greatly improve our capacity to detect and screen GMOs and to provide a sound scientific basis for enforcing biotechnology legislation."

Labeling is only the tip of the GMO regulatory iceberg, the Commission recognizes. Biotechnology companies, control authorities, trade partners and importers have all faced the analytical implications of GMO regulations.

"By creating a strong pan-European network of scientists, such technical issues can be tackled in a transparent way, making the regulatory framework more flexible and manageable, and boost public confidence," the Commission said last week.

GMO inspection is not just a matter for European Union control laboratories, so the new lab network is inviting future EU Member States to participate in working groups. Ten countries are about to join the EU, bringing to 25 the number of Member States.

Seeking collaboration on a worldwide basis, the lab network is also interacting with all EU global trade partners.

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Baku-Ceyhan Pipeline Gets Environmental Oversight

BUFFALO, New York, December 9, 2002 (ENS) - The contract for environmental oversight over the final leg of a crude oil pipeline extending from northeastern Turkey to the deepwater port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean has been awarded. The main emphasis of the project will be to train Turkish nationals in environmental practices in accordance with World Bank standards.

The 1,500 kilometer (932 mile) pipeline, now under construction, will transport oil from the Caspian Sea through Baku, Azerbaijan; Tbilisi, Georgia; and across Turkey, to the port of Ceyhan.

Ecology & Environment, Inc., (E & E) headquartered near Buffalo; Walsh Environmental Scientists and Engineers, which is an E & E company, and its Turkish partner (TEPE) have been awarded two contracts from the state owned oil company in Turkey, BOTAS.

E & E has worked with its local partner in Turkey, TEPE, and its president, Ali Kantur, for more than 10 years. With his input, E & E is developing and implementing an environmental management system (EMS) for the pipeline construction that will comply with ISO 14001 regulations. They will be supervising Turkish site archaeologists and restoration specialists as well.

The contract calls for E & E to develop an environmental plan/manual for all construction personnel, conduct training sessions for workers, provide environmental construction oversight, and conduct quarterly audits and management review tasks.

For the second contract, E & E will perform parallel tasks for the construction of four pumping stations and one "pigging" station along the 1,000 kilometer (620 mile) route in Turkey. The oversight program is estimated at $1.2 million.

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Canada's Endangered Species List Expands

OTTAWA, Ontario, Canada, December 9, 2002 - On the Atlantic coast of Canada, the Scotian Shelf population of the Northern bottlenose whale was uplisted to Endangered last week by the federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). This species of beaked whale is threatened by oil and gas exploration and development in and around its prime habitat near Sable Island, COSEWIC said.

Petroleum resources are found using loud seismic explosions. All whale species are sensitive to loud noise, ane some are super-sensitive. Beaked whales elsewhere have perished because of loud underwater noises associated with undersea exploration and military exercises, the committee pointed out.

The estimated population of 130 Northern bottlenose whales on the Scotian Shelf are mainly found in an underwater canyon in the Atlantic Ocean known as The Gully off the coast of Nova Scotia. Previously, this whale was considered a Species of Special Concern, the least urgent of the COSEWIC three categories: endangered, threatened and special concern.

The Nova Scotia chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS-NS) is in favor of designating The Gully as a protected area, but calls for more action to save these endangered whales.

"Protecting the Gully alone will not be enough," says Dr. Martin Willison, president of CPAWS-NS. "These whales are dependent on a larger area, which must be protected along with the Gully if we are to control threats to the whale population."

Willison argues that "seismic testing should not be allowed within 50 kilometers of the Gully and the two adjacent canyons that the whales inhabit."

Because offshore petroleum development falls under the jurisdiction of both the federal and provincial governments, CPAWS-NS says both Nova Scotia and Ottawa have a responsibility to protect the Northern bottlenose whale from the harmful impacts of oil and gas exploration.

COSEWIC assessed 31 species during its five day November meeting in Ottawa. Assessments on two additional species were deferred. Fifteen species were assessed for the first time. Of these, the Oregon forestsnail, the Lake Winnipeg physa snail, the streambank lupine and the forked three-awned grass were added to the list in the endangered category.

Seven of the species that were re-assessed were uplisted to a higher category of risk, including three freshwater fishes - the pugnose shiner, the speckled dace, and the northern madtom. Three plants were uplisted too - the small-flowered lipocarpha, the common hoptree, and the small-flowered sand-verbena.

Eleven species were added to the Canadian list of Species at Risk following scientific assessments completed by COSEWIC in late November. The Macoun's Shining Moss was designated Extinct.

There are now 415 species in various risk categories on the list, including 141 that are Endangered, 99 that are threatened, and 142 species of special concern. In addition, 21 species are extirpated, meaning no longer found in Canada, and 12 are extinct.

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Net Database Helps Identify Derelict Nets

DARWIN, Australia, December 9, 2002 (ENS) - There are more than 90 types of discarded fishing nets continually washing ashore and creating tons of accumulated litter on northern Australian beaches. This week WWF-Australia published a guide to enable easy reporting and identification of the nets as a first step to keeping them out of the environment.

"We are appealing to the public to report all discarded nets that they find on regional beaches," said Linda Cuttriss, WWF Australia's Arafura Ecoregion Program Manager.

Cuttriss said the coasts of northeast Arnhem Land and the Gulf of Carpentaria are being "swamped" by tons of discarded fishing gear and other debris. Surveys conducted by WWF-Australia with the assistance of indigenous communities at Cape Arnhem, Groote Eylandt, and Elcho Island suggest that the majority of debris originated from fishing operations in the Arafura and Timor Seas, she said.

Local fishermen told her of "a dolphin and turtle graveyard" among discarded fishing nets that literally drape the cliffs of Cape Wessell off northeast Arnhem Land.

The illustrated guide lists net mesh, color and twine size, net use, and likely country of origin. It will be distributed free to all members of the public, including fisheries and indigenous communities, who use the beaches and waters of the Northern Territory and northern Queensland.

Reporting the type of nets and where they are found will help WWF to work with national governments and fisheries in the region "to develop solutions to the pressing economic, cultural and ecological problems caused by marine debris," the group said.

Details can be listed on a data sheet which can be faxed or mailed to WWF's Darwin office. The information will become part of a database WWF is building to support work aimed at getting the nets out of the water.

"Discarded ghost nets floating in open waters are a threat to protected species such as marine turtles, sharks and dugong through entanglement and ingestion of synthetic materials," Cuttriss said.

"The impact on marine wildlife cannot be underestimated. Dhimurru Rangers have found 200 turtles entangled in fishing nets near Cape Arnhem over the past five years," she said. "In Queensland, on the opposite side of the Gulf of Carpentaria, 500 entangled turtles were found over three years. One net washed ashore at Weipa contained 14 turtles, a shark, and a dugong."

Marine debris found during WWF surveys on northern Australian beaches includes derelict fishing nets, plastic strapping bands, crates, buoys and floats. In 2001, 600 fishing nets, 3,000 floats, 4,000 plastic bottles and 3,000 thongs were collected over two weeks from an eight kilometer stretch of beach at Cape Arnhem.

The 2002 WWF surveys collected over three tons of debris from 16 kilometers of beaches.

"Marine debris degrades marine habitats and beaches and economically impacts on fisheries and tourism. The problem is a major concern to indigenous communities because it affects animals and landscapes for which they have long held a cultural connection," Cuttriss said.

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Bangladesh Rice Tainted with Arsenic from Irrigation

ABERDEEN, Scotland, December 9, 2002 (ENS) - The arsenic that has contaminated much of Bangladesh's drinking water supply is penetrating its rice, according to a new study. Irrigating rice fields with tainted well water could be jeopardizing the country's staple food, which provides more than 70 percent of the population's daily intake of calories.

Arsenic is a slow poison. Studies have linked long term exposure to several types of cancer, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Shallow wells, known as tubewells, are commonly used in Bangladesh to avoid the region's surface water, much of which contains bacteria that can cause waterborne diseases. Beginning in the 1970s, international aid organizations dug millions of tubewells, and the program was successful in providing clean water. But officials soon found that the tubewells were reaching groundwater containing high levels of arsenic.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has called the tubewell crisis in Bangladesh the largest mass poisoning of a population in history. WHO predicts that as many as 270,000 people may die from drinking arsenic contaminated water in the Ganges Delta region.

"There has been a considerable research effort on the effects of drinking arsenic contaminated water in Bangladesh," says Andrew Meharg, Ph.D., a biogeochemist at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and lead author on the study. "However, the tubewell water is not just used for drinking water, it is also used for irrigation."

Meharg and his colleagues took 71 soil samples from 27 districts throughout Bangladesh and collected rice grains from various regions. "We've shown that rice collected from the areas of Bangladesh with the most contaminated fields have arsenic levels 10 fold higher than rice from uncontaminated areas," Meharg says.

Meharg and his team calculated that rice could be the main source of arsenic for people in these contaminated areas.

Three of the Bangladesh rice samples contained more than 1.7 milligrams of arsenic per kilogram of rice.

A number of countries in the region have similar problems with tubewell contamination. Two areas - Vietnam and West Bengal, India - are particularly likely candidates for finding arsenic in rice, Meharg says.

His findings will appear in the January 15 print edition of "Environmental Science & Technology," a peer-reviewed journal of the American Chemical Society. The article was initially published November 20 on the journal's website.

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UK Wildlife Smuggling Routes, Entry Points Mapped

LONDON, UK, December 9 2002 (ENS) - The first ever list of the top 10 illegal wildlife trade channels into the UK shows that entry points most used by smugglers include Heathrow, Manchester and Gatwick airports and Waterloo International Station. The entry points were identified in a new WWF and TRAFFIC report looking at global wildlife trafficking routes, released today.

TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, is a joint program of WWF and IUCN-The World Conservation Union.

Crawford Allan, TRAFFIC global enforcement assistance coordinator, said, "The channels used by smugglers are constantly switching to avoid the attention of Customs and detecting these changes and closing down routes is a major challenge."

The number one point of entry to block is Heathrow Airport where 1,001 seizures were made between 1996 and 2000, according to a list of HM Customs & Excise seizures. Manchester was second with 201 seizures, and Gatwick was a distant third with 92 seizures.

HM Customs & Excise have seized rhino horns concealed within statues, stained ivory hidden in wood shipments, live hatchlings of rare bird species mixed with shipments of domestic chicken hatchlings, and suitcases filled with rare birds stuffed into tubes.

"Customs in the UK are amongst the best in the world but the frequency and diversity of the seizures they make show that there is still significant demand and that the resources Customs apply are not acting as a deterrent to stop the illegal trade in wildlife," Allen said.

"Smugglers go to great lengths to disguise their activities," said David Cowdrey, WWF wildlife trade campaign director.

"Most commonly permit papers are doctored in an attempt to cover their tracks," Cowdrey said. But there are cases where "a live snake has been worn like a belt, plants have been taped to the body, and egg collectors have worn specially made body vests with pouches for live eggs."

Maps included in the report show roundabout routes. One route for smuggling birds from Guyana involved the birds being taken by boat to Grenada, via Suriname, where they were then moved to Barbados, flown to Cuba, then on to Moscow and then Hungary, from where the birds were finally transported overland into Europe.

The survey found that 17 percent of seizures were of live animal specimens. Dead items,ranging from taxidermy specimens to traditional Asian medicine pills, made up 75 percent of seizures. Only seven per cent of seizures were of plants, the majority of which were rare orchids which sometimes arrived in large shipments from Taiwan. Nearly half, 47 percent, of all live animal specimens seized were reptiles, reflecting their popularity as exotic pets and the ease of transporting them.

There is evidence that organized criminal gangs including the Russian Mafia and drugs cartels are increasingly involved in this global trade, TRAFFIC says. They use their existing smuggling routes for small arms, drugs and humans to traffic highly profitable illegal wildlife commodities says the report, "Switching Channels."

Aside from increasing vigilance, changes need to be made to UK law, the report recommends. By increasing penalties from two to five years imprisonment, all wildlife trade offenses will become arrestable.