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Local Grassroots Campaign Targets Genetically Modified Food

By Rana Sharkawy
Avalanche-Journal - Lubbock, Texas
June 19, 2005

A group of farmers and other concerned citizens gathered Saturday afternoon to discuss a growing concern in the United States: genetically modified food.

Bob "Bubba" Curtis, owner of Bob's Woodworks, was a primary speaker at the meeting.

"I'm mad (about genetically modified food)," he said. "Until (Americans) can stand up and say we're (going to) buck, (this will be a problem)."

Curtis said that it is important to make people aware of what is in their food.

"If soccer moms knew what their kids were getting to eat, they would storm Washington (D.C.)," Curtis said.

People in the United States do not really have a choice about eating genetically modified food, Curtis explained, because there is no law requiring disclosure of genetically modified ingredients on food packaging.

Curtis said he believes the effects of these foods are the reason Americans tend to have so many health problems, including obesity.

Curtis wants not only to raise awareness about the issue in West Texas, but to make it an issue across the nation as well.

"I'm not a farmer," Curtis said. " I have nothing to gain from this. (I want people to know) that these seed companies are taking away from farmers and messing with our health."

Since Curtis said he wants to take a Christian approach, he invited Karl Coke, who is educated in ministry, of Charlotte, N.C., to help inform people about the situation.

"I'm here to listen to farmers about their problems and answer their questions about what the Bible says about farming," Coke said.

Jim Burnett, a business owner in Brownfield who sells organic fertilizer and does crop consulting, is also extremely concerned about the issue.

"My knowledge of GM foods comes from several years of research, and what I see is that genetic modification is man-made manipulation of the genes - DNA - in products by companies to better sell their products," Burnett said. "In doing so, they overlook plant nutrition and have not substantiated a risk-free program."

Burnett said that in his opinion this issue is more critical than some issues that are currently of concern to the government, such as labeling the origin of foods.

"The only choice we have to ensure the safety of our food is (by eating) organic food, because they fall under different regulations," Burnett said.

Curtis and Burnett, among others, said they felt it was important to get the word out on what effects these foods can have on the public as well as the agriculture business.

They will be in Midland on Tuesday filming a series of eight half-hour television programs.


Agri-Mark Weighs Ban on Cow Hormone

By Robin Palmer
Times Argus
June 12, 2005

Agri-Mark Inc., the largest dairy cooperative in New England, is studying whether to continue accepting milk containing artificial growth hormone.

Paul Johnston, the cooperative's chief executive officer, recently told board members that farmer members' use of rBST on their herds was becoming a problem, and consumer demand for rBST-free milk might necessitate a change in the cooperative's policy on accepting milk with the production-enhancing growth hormone.

"The rBST issue has reopened and people are reconsidering it. No final decision has been made," Agri-Mark economist Robert Wellington said.

BST, or bovine somatotropin, is a hormone cows produce naturally during early stages of lactation after calving, Wellington explained. As calves' demand for milk drops, however, the cows' hormone production, and thus milk production, slows.

To keep milk production high, some farmers give their cows an artificially manufactured, or recombinant, version of the growth hormone called rBST.

Wellington argues the artificial hormone is safe.

"The USDA and Federal Drug Administration have said repeatedly, 'It's a safe product.'" But with Agri-Mark customers, such as milk bottlers H.P. Hood and Garelick Farms, demanding rBST-free milk, Agri-Mark is being forced to review its policy, Wellington said.

"We are looking at what our customers want. If our customers demand to have a certain product, we'll do our best to meet their demands, but we will charge them the appropriate cost," Wellington said.

Eliminating rBST would reduce a farm's production and thus profits, and farmers would have to be compensated for the loss, raising the price of milk to bottlers, he said.

Fewer than 15 percent of Agri-Mark's roughly 1,300 member farms use rBST. Agri-Mark members come from New York and all six New England states, including Vermont where more than 400 farms – a third of the state's total – ship their milk to Agri-Mark.

An average Vermont farmer can earn an extra $3,000 to $4,000 annually by using rBST, Wellington said.

Vermont Agriculture of Agency Deputy Commissioner Louise Calderwood said an Agri-Mark policy that excludes rBST would likely not hurt Vermont farmers because of the premium price they would be paid for their hormone-free milk.

"There may be farmers who want to use it for things other than the monetary value of the milk," Calderwood noted. There are indications that rBST offers cows certain health benefits, and farmers use the hormone to boost herd milk production averages, she said.

The Vermont Agency of Agriculture takes the position that rBST "has been proven safe and effective" and it's up to farmers to decide whether they use it, Calderwood said. Vermont farmers' use of the hormone has exceeded national averages in years past, but Calderwood said she is unsure how many Vermont farmers use it now.

Other cooperatives have discussed rBST usage in the past. Initially, the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery Inc., Vermont's largest dairy cooperative, did not allow members to use the hormone, Calderwood said.

Consumer demand for rBST-free milk may not be as great as Agri-Mark thinks, however.

Hood currently bottles rBST-free milk at plants in Portland, Maine, Concord, N.H., and Barre, Hood spokeswoman Lynne Bohan said. The three plants (Hood has eight plants in all) bottle only rBST-free milk, or milk farmers say is free of the growth hormone.

"There is demand in specific markets and in these markets we're addressing it, in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont," she said.

But Bohan said she is not aware of Hood's plans to increase production of hormone-free milk. "We're not changing any of our procedures," she said. "Nothing is changing in our purchasing."

And Agri-Mark is certainly not ready to close the door on the growth hormone.

"It depends on our customers," Wellington said. "We would prefer this whole issue would go away."

Since its advent, rBST has been a marketing nightmare, said Wellington. "Life would be easier if it had never been developed."

Chemical giant Monsanto introduced rBST under the brand name POSILAC in February 1994. According to the company's Web site, 13,000 U.S. dairy producers, who own a third of the nation's nearly 9 million cows, are using it.

Despite the controversy surrounding rBST, Wellington offered a bit of comfort for farmers who use the hormone. He doesn't see a long shelf life for an rBST-free category of milk, he said.

He said regular milk and organic milk will be the norm. "I think it's going to break out to these two types," he predicted.

Organic milk is rBST-free. And, said Wellington, more and more farmers will be interested in producing organic milk because they get a considerably higher price for it ($20 or more a hundredweight) as compared to non-organic (about $15 a hundredweight).

"I think there's going to be opportunities for farmers who use it and don't use it," Wellington said.


Growers Oppose Drugs Made of Flax

By Jim Wasserman
Associated Press
June 15, 2005

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - A North Dakota flax marketing group is opposing a plant-based pharmaceutical company planned here, citing potential contamination of traditional flax fields by genetically modified crops.

"Are we going to risk our new and emerging markets for the flax on something that hasn't even been licensed yet?" said Ernie Hoffert, a Carrington farmer and secretary-treasurer of AmeriFlax, a branch of the North Dakota Oilseed Council. "This is absurd."

Agragen, a company started by Cincinnati entrepreneur Sam Huttenbauer Jr., has leased space in the University of North Dakota technology park. The company plans to use North Dakota-grown flax in medicines such as albumin, which would be used in blood transfusions for trauma patients.

Huttenbauer said the market potential for plant-made pharmaceuticals would boost the flax industry in North Dakota, which grows more than 90 percent of the U.S. crop.

AmeriFlax said it worries about genetically engineered grain entering the food chain, a prospect it calls "unacceptable."

AmeriFlax last week met with about 30 people involved in the North Dakota flax industry, seeking help in drafting a statement that would strengthen its opposition to production of pharmaceuticals made from flax.

"I do not want to make this specific to Agragen," Hoffert said.

A statement from Huttenbauer that was handed out at the meeting pledged not to move ahead with transgenic flax in North Dakota until regulatory agencies and AmeriFlax agreed that all necessary safeguards had been met. Agragen also is seeking the full support of AmeriFlax, and help from the group and the state in finding development money.

No plant-made pharmaceuticals have been approved for the market by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, according to the federal Agriculture Department. Last year, only about 45 acres of the crops were grown nationwide, under strict federal guidelines.


Complexities of GM Issue Delay WTO Decision

By Lindsey Partos
Food Navigator, France
June 20, 2005

Stakeholders in the food chain, along with technocrats and politicians in Brussels, must wait until October this year to get the final word from the WTO on the GM complaint filed by the US, Canada and Argentina, reports Lindsey Partos.

These three major GM crop producing countries set off to the world's trade arbiter two years ago, complaining that the EU's moratorium on approvals of genetically modified organisms was a barrier to trade.

Chairman of the GM dispute panel at the World Trade Organisation, Swiss trade diplomat Christian Haberli, recently told the parties that the panel's ruling, due by the end of June, was now being put off until the end of October.

Haberli cited the complexity of the case, the large amount of documentation submitted, as well as the decision to consult with scientific experts on technical issues raised as the reasons for the delay.

A de facto moratorium in place since 1998 saw Europe refusing to approve any new GM cops for entry into the food chain.

But since the US complaint was issued, Brussels has brought in tough new labelling legislation for GM ingredients: the labels alert consumers to any engineered foodstuffs used in a food recipe.

Through greater transparency for the consumer the new rules, seen by critics as Europe caving into pressure from the US, actually ushered in the possibility for new GM approvals and heralded an end to the moratorium.

But since their introduction, only two products have been cleared for import: a GM sweetcorn supplied by Swiss biotech firm Syngenta and Monsanto's MON810 biotech maize, engineered to be resistant to the European corn borer.

The lack of approvals, despite a host of applications, reflects the deep divisions in Europe over GM acceptance.

And while the biotech companies continue to push forward their applications for approval, there is little chance the European food industry will actually use the GM ingredients in their formulations.

By all accounts, the business savvy food maker, who cannot afford to lose sales, will opt to skip the use of GM ingredients in their European food formulations: knowing, as they do, that the cynical European consumer will refuse to buy any GM food product. complexities-of-gm


EU Ministers Uphold Sovereign Right to Ban GMOs

By Jeremy Smith
June 24, 2005

LUXEMBOURG - EU environment ministers dealt a blow on Friday to efforts to get more GMO crops grown in Europe as they agreed to uphold eight national bans on genetically modified maize and rapeseed types.

The vote was a sharp rebuff for the European Union's executive Commission, which had wanted the ministers to endorse an order to lift the bans within 20 days. EU law provides for national GMO bans if the government can justify the prohibition.

It was also the EU's first agreement on GMO policy since 1998, when the bloc began its unofficial moratorium on approving new GMO foods and crops -- lifted last year by a legal default.

"A very large majority, 22 member states, rejected proposals to lift these national bans. We were able to give a clear message to the European Commission," Luxembourg Environment Minister Lucien Lux told a news conference.

The ministers' decision plays into the hands of the United States, Canada and Argentina, whose suit against the European Union at the World Trade Organization alleges that EU biotech policy harms trade and is not founded on science.

The EU's 1998-2004 biotech ban, they say, was illegal. The WTO is now expected to issue its initial ruling on the GMO case in early October, postponed from August, officials say.

Between 1997 and 2000, Austria, France, Germany, Greece and Luxembourg banned specific GMOs on their territory, focusing on three maize and two rapeseed types approved shortly before the start of the EU moratorium.

For the Commission, the votes were a setback, especially in its WTO defense, but it was still "business as usual."

The EU executive now has several options, including returning to the ministers with the same proposals for lifting the bans, though at a later date, or changing them radically.

"The EU is under considerable pressure at the WTO, and not only due to the lack of action (on national GMO bans) in previous years. And further delays would weaken our position at the WTO," EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said.

"This does not call our regulatory framework into question...(which) is the strictest in the world. We are going to apply the existing framework and we are obliged to do so."

Greens Ecstatic, Industry Angry

Spain was the only country to uphold all eight bans, despite the fact that its farmers grow one of the maize types, the Bt-176 strain made by Swiss biotech giant Syngenta .

Spain is one of the few countries that grows GMO crops extensively in Europe, where much of the public view them as "Frankenstein" foods despite industry assurances they are safe.

Green groups were ecstatic that the EU had finally agreed to slap down not just one of the national bans, but all eight.

"The European Commission asked for more guidance from the member states and they got it," said Adrian Bebb, GMO campaigner at environmental lobby group Friends of the Earth Europe.

"Countries today have demanded the sovereign right to ban genetically modified crops if there are questions over their safety," he said in a statement.

Apart from the Bt-176 strain, the other maize types in the national bans are MON 810, made by U.S. agrochemicals giant Monsanto, and Bayer's T25 maize.

There are also two rapeseed types, both made by Bayer.

But Europe's biotech industry was incensed by the decisions.

"This is the unacceptable and hypocritical face of EU politics," said one Brussels-based biotech industry source.

"Some member states continue to show their disregard for laws which they themselves put in place while on the other hand they call for support of the EU legislative system."

GMO Deadlock Elsewhere

Even though the EU has now lifted its six-year unofficial moratorium on approving new GMO products, national governments have consistently clashed over biotech policy.

The EU's member states have now ended meetings in deadlock 14 times in a row on whether to approve new GMO products, usually for use in industrial processing or as animal feed.

The latest occasion was also on Wednesday, when the ministers failed to agree on authorizing another Monsanto maize known as MON 863, modified to resist the corn rootworm insect.

The Commission will now take up the dossier and most likely issue a rubberstamp authorization in the next few months, officials say. This process kicks in when EU ministers fail to agree after three months on whether to authorize a GMO or not.

"We weren't able to get a qualified majority for or against," Lux said. "It will be up to the European commission to take a decision. There was a simply majority against this proposal but not a qualified one, which is what we need."

Monsanto's requested use was for processing into animal feed, not for growing or for consumption as human food.

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