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Biotech Wheat Foes Ask For Lawsuit Regulation

By Curt Woodward
Associated Press
February 11, 2005

BISMARCK, N.D. - Seed companies should cover a farmer's lost profits if biotech wheat shows up where it isn't welcome, say producers who fear genetic contamination if the crop reaches North Dakota.

"At this point, farmers and elevators are basically the ones assuming all the risk," Emerado farmer Todd Leake told members of the Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday.

The panel is considering legislation that would require manufacturers to shoulder most of the liability for financial damages tied to the spread of biotech wheat.

Farmers could sue a seed producer for a wide range of economic losses, including lower market prices caused by lost exports. Biotech contamination of an organic wheat crop, for example, would make the organic crop worthless for its intended market.

Leake said the bill would shield farmers who often must assume liability to purchase biotech seed, and may not have insurance coverage for damage to a neighbor's fields.

"The whole issue of liability cannot be laid upon farmers," he said.

Some industry groups say the measure would halt the advance of technology that could cure common wheat diseases, or help develop varieties suited to North Dakota's extreme climate.

"We believe North Dakota wants to be a part of this future," said Terry Wanzek, president of the state Grain Growers Association. "We have no interest in discouraging responsible biotech companies from doing business in North Dakota."

Biotech crops are created when researchers alter a plant's genetic blueprint, usually to enhance a favorable characteristic such as resistance to disease or chemicals. The method is used on other commodities planted in the state, including corn, soybeans and canola.

Biotech wheat, however, has not reached the market. Last year, St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. shelved plans to introduce biotech hard red spring wheat because of widespread public resistance, particularly in Europe.

The bill debated Thursday, sponsored by Sen. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, is similar to a measure defeated in the 2003 Legislature. The Agriculture Committee did not immediately act on the bill, which the Senate will vote on later.

John Olson, a Bismarck attorney and lobbyist for Monsanto, said Triplett's measure would establish a strict legal liability standard for biotech wheat that usually is applied only to "ultra-dangerous activities, or inherently dangerous products."

He said approving the bill would virtually guarantee that biotech companies will stay away from North Dakota.

"They will not develop and sell this technology. That's the way it will work, and I submit to you that the proponents of this bill know that," Olson said.

Tom Wiley, who raises wheat, corn and soybeans near Jamestown, said his family farm already has been harmed by biotech crops.

Wiley once grew soybeans to sell to Japan for human consumption - soybeans are often grown for animal feed - but had to abandon a major contract when biotech contamination was detected in his crop.

He told lawmakers that he has since given up on growing regular soybeans, because keeping them segregated from biotech beans was too difficult. He fears the same fate for wheat producers if biotech wheat hits the market, and said seed companies should bear responsibility.

"This does happen out in farm country and it's a real loss," Wiley said. "Suing your neighbors is not the answer in this situation."


Roundup Ready Alfalfa on the Way

By Dave Wilkins, Idaho Staff Writer
Capital Press, Agriculture Weekly
February 11, 2005

TWIN FALLS, Idaho — First it was soybeans. Then came cotton, corn and canola. Now Monsanto Co. is preparing to release its latest Roundup Ready crop: alfalfa.

Roundup Ready alfalfa hasn’t received U.S. regulatory approval yet, but it could get the green light soon, Monsanto and Forage Genetics Inc. officials told Idaho hay growers this week.

“We’re hoping to have the first varieties out this year,” said Peter Reisen, a plant breeder with Forage Genetics Inc., the research company that assisted Monsanto in developing its Roundup Ready alfalfa varieties.

The new varieties will have built-in tolerance to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.

Roundup Ready technology was first introduced by Monsanto in 1996 with soybeans. It’s now also widely used in cotton, corn and canola.

In a presentation to the Idaho Alfalfa and Forage Conference, Reisen showed slides of field trials in which Roundup Ready alfalfa compared favorably with conventional alfalfa treated with other herbicides.

Demonstration plots for Roundup Ready alfalfa have been conducted in several locations across the country, including Idaho, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

“I think we’re getting very good weed control compared to what we have out there now,” Monsanto weed scientist Jeffrey Herrmann told Idaho producers.

“Basically, we’re getting weed-free hay from establishment of the stand all through the life of the stand,” Herrmann said.

Alfalfa would be the first perennial crop in the Roundup Ready lineup.

How the new crop will be received by farmers is the big question.

Some Idaho hay growers said they are concerned about the cost. Producers will be required to pay technology fees on top of the cost of the proprietary seed.

Then there’s the cost of the Roundup herbicide itself.

“It gets to be pretty pricey,” said Don Hale, a hay grower from Blackfoot, Idaho. “Right now, I don’t think it’s economical.”

Michael Larson, a hay grower from Buhl, Idaho, said he has no plans to jump on the new technology, mainly because of the costs involved.

Cost Concern

“My biggest concern as a grower is the cost of spraying,” he said.

Larson figures he can continue to grow conventional alfalfa varieties and pay a fraction of the weed-control costs that he would with Roundup Ready seed.

Several Roundup applications would be required over the course of a growing season.

Larson said Roundup wouldn’t have the same long-lasting residual effects as some of the herbicides he is already using.

Cost isn’t the only issue.

Concerns have also been raised about the possible buildup of Roundup-resistant weeds and cross-pollination problems.

Because alfalfa is pollinated with bees, some seed growers are concerned about the potential for Roundup Ready alfalfa to be cross-pollinated with conventional varieties.

Some growers are also worried that the commercial release of Roundup Ready alfalfa could jeopardize U.S. hay exports to countries such as Japan and Taiwan.


What's Wrong with Crop Biotechnology in Hawaii

By Hector Valenzuela
kNOwGMOs - Opinion-Editorial
February 10, 2005

Biotechnology has been heralded as one of the hot industries with the potential to help Hawaii's ailing economy loosen its dependence from tourism and the military. Policy makers and university administrators have enthusiastically talked about the great potentials for biotechnology in Hawaii. As an acknowledgement the biotech industry named Governor Cayetano the "Biotech Governor" of the year for 2002 for helping to launch the biotech industry in the state. But the entire biotech picture is not as rosy as some would claim, as shown by the recent fines imposed by the EPA on Pioneer Hi-Bred for GMO pollen contamination in their Kauai research plots.

Currently the local crop biotech sector is represented mainly by a number of out-of-state multinational corporations that establish biotech plots in the state as part of their in-house research programs. Because of its moderate weather, Hawaii has become an experimental oasis for the world's seed biotech companies. Overall over 1,400 permits have been issued for field testing of biotech products in Hawaii, more than in any other state in the country. Globally over 145 million acres of land were planted in 2002 with biotech crops to produce mostly soybeans, corn, cotton and canola. Market penetration has been intense- over 70% of the products found in the supermarket, such as cereal, bread, and pet feed, contain genetically modified ingredients.

And herein lies one of the main problems that critics have about biotechnology: the secrecy involved in the testing and dissemination of genetically modified products to the American consumer. Until recently, there has been precious little public discussion in Hawaii (or in the US for that matter) concerning the pros and cons of the widespread adoption of crop biotechnology. Furthermore, the biotech industry has spent considerable PR resources fighting efforts to better inform the public about crop biotechnology.

In summary, some of the important contentions on the debate concerning the use of biotech products include:

Environmental pollution

Biotech crops in general contain foreign genetic material that does not occur naturally in the crops in which this material is introduced. Many unknowns remain concerning what will be the effects of these foreign products (such as genetic material from other species such as viruses) as these are released on the environment. A salient example is that of pharmaceutical products produced on 'pharm' crops. What will be the effect of some of these 'pharm' products on the soil ecosystem, when these novel products are exuded through vast acreages through the roots of these plants?


When biotech crops are planted on extensive acreages, the risk exists of cross-pollinating relative weedy species, or relative non-modified crops grown on neighboring farms. This could result in unintended ecological consequences. For example, this cross-contamination may produce 'super weeds' that are more resistant to herbicides than their non-modified siblings. If these biotech crops are grown near the center of origin of the species the native species or varieties being grown by subsistence farmers may become contaminated with novel genes, perhaps causing irreparable damage to the basic genetic base that crop breeders rely on to continually introduce new and better features (such as disease resistance) to our modern non-modified species.

Effects on human health

Industry pressure lead the White House to declare that genetically modified crops are 'substantially equivalent' to non-modified crops, thus circumventing normal FDA and EPA testing. But this may not be the case. The foreign materials that are introduced into biotech crops could have unintended consequences on human health through direct action, or by interacting with other chemicals in ways that we currently don't understand. Concern also exists that many of the novel genetic materials introduced into crops may cause unintended allergenic or toxic reactions on humans or children that are especially sensitive to specific chemicals. For example, recent research from Europe showed that some of the genetic material introduced into the UH's developed biotech papaya is identical to a known human allergen. But this significant finding seems to have escaped the eyes of UH researchers and of the overseeing regulatory agencies.

The Right to Know

In democratic societies such as ours, consumers would like to feel confident that regulatory agencies will keep us abreast of potential environmental and health risks when new products are introduced into the marketplace. With all the controversies surrounding the introduction of biotech products, it is thus amazing to learn that the public in the US still knows little to nothing about the biotech industry, and about the extent to which biotech products have become part of our daily diets. Not surprisingly, in countries where consumers are more aware about the risks posed by biotech products, such as in Europe and in Japan, the public consensus has been: keep biotech products out of our dining tables.

Corporate profits vs. farmer independence

With all the promises to save the world from hunger and disease aside, the major incentive for corporations in their promotion of the biotech revolution are the incredible potential profits. In some cases farmers need to purchase the biotech seed (such as 'Roundup Ready' soybeans) as well as the pesticide (Roundup herbicide, which represents 80% of Monsanto's profits) from the same company- to obtain the full benefits of this production "package". But, in the long-term, will farmers benefit, or will farmers just continue to become more and more dependent on corporations to maintain their livelihoods? Other technologies introduced by corporations over the past few decades (such as hybrid seed and pesticides) have resulted in what some ag economists term a cycle of 'dependency'.

Alternative technologies

Is biotechnology the only answer out there to solve the crop production problems farmers encounter in the farm? Not really. Alternative programs such as classical breeding, and agroecological techniques exist to deal with many of the production problems found in the farm. However, the bulk of the research conducted by universities has focused on chemical and on biotech agriculture rather than on the search for ecologically-based solutions. Little to no research has been conducted in Hawaii or elsewhere to develop chemical-free, or organic farming, production systems. The challenges currently faced by the biotech industry does not mean that the science in itself is wrong. On the contrary, biotechnology is a fascinating field that is rapidly expanding our knowledge base in the biological sciences. But the public should not be kept on the sidelines, as corporations and universities use tax payers' subsidies to help develop and release new novel products into our environment. In the end an educated citizenry will be better prepared to make educated decisions concerning issues that clearly affect them and the future of their children- issues such as the quality of the food they consume, and the quality of the environment they live in.

Hector Valenzuela, a Specialist at the UHM College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, conducts research and education on organic farming and sustainable agriculture. Hector Valenzuela, Ph.D. Vegetable Crops Extension Specialist Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Science Univ. of Hawaii at Manoa 3190 Maile Way No. 102 Honolulu, HI 96822-2279 Tel. 808-956-7903 Fax. 808-956-3894

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