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March 2008 Updates

Gene Modified Crop Spurs Investor Revolt

By Jonathan Birchall
The Financial Times
March 5, 2008

A group of socially concerned US investors has launched a public campaign calling on food companies not to use a controversial new genetically engineered sugar beet crop that is to be planted for the first time this spring.

The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) is calling on consumers to write to 63 companies, including Heinz, Campbell's Soup, General Mills and Kraft, asking them to say they will not use a new sugar beet strain developed by Monsanto.

The ICCR is a coalition of more than 300 faith-based institutional investors that has been in the vanguard of successful efforts to make companies more responsive to a range of social and environmental concerns.

Its members have filed shareholder resolutions calling on the McDonald's and Wendy's restaurants chains and Safeway supermarkets to label products that contain genetically engineered ingredients.

In a break with its usual focus on shareholder resolutions, it has launched a web-site, that calls on consumers to send letters to the management of the food companies that are the focus of its campaign. The letter cites survey claims that 50 per cent of US consumers would prefer not to buy GM products, and calls on the companies "to publicly oppose the spring 2008 planting of genetically modified sugar beets".

The "Roundup Ready" sugar beet in question was approved for planting by the US Department of Agriculture in March 2005. It has been genetically engineered to make it resistant to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide.

In January, four activist groups opposed to GM crops, including the Sierra Club, the largest US environmental group, filed a lawsuit in California calling on the agriculture department to review its approval of the beets.

A similar lawsuit led a federal judge to issue a nationwide ban last year against further planting of Monsanto's Roundup Ready alfalfa, pending a further environmental review by the federal government.

Leslie Lowe, of the ICCR, said that leading food companies, including McDonald's, Campbell's Soup, General Mills and Anheuser Busch, had already chosen not to use a variety of genetically engineered ingredients. "This is a front-burner brand, reputation and consumer confidence issue [for the companies]," she said.



'Frankenfoods' Giant Monsanto Plays Bully Over Consumer Labeling

By Scott Thill
March 6, 2008

"There are some corporations that clearly are operating at a level that are disastrous for the general public . . . And in fact I suppose one could argue that in many respects a corporation of that sort is the prototypical psychopath, at the corporate level instead of the individual level." --Dr. Robert Hare, The Corporation

Since 1901, Monsanto has brought us Agent Orange, PCBs, Terminator seeds and recombined milk, among other infamous products. But it's currently obsessed with the milk, or, more importantly, the milk labels, particularly those that read "rBST-free" or "rBGH-free." It's not the "BST" or "BGH" that bothers them so much; after all, bovine somatrophin, also known as bovine growth hormone, isn't exactly what the company is known for. Which is to say, it's naturally occurring. No, the problem is the "r" denoting "recombined." There's nothing natural about it. In fact, the science is increasingly pointing to the possibility that recombined milk is -- surprise! -- not as good for you as the real thing.

"Consumption of dairy products from cows treated with rbGH raise a number of health issues," explained Michael Hansen, a senior scientist for Consumers Union. "That includes increased antibiotic resistance, due to use of antibiotics to treat mastitis and other health problems, as well as increased levels of IGF-1, which has been linked to a range of cancers."

For its part, Monsanto is leaning on the crutch of terminology to derail the mounting threat to its bottom line: The consumer-driven revolution against recombined food. And so the St. Louis-based agri-chem giant has launched a war of words in the form of a full-court press to suppress the "rBGH-free" label at the state level. And it's sticking to its guns by obfuscating and indulging in cheap semantics.

"RBST is a supplement that helps the cow produce more milk," Monsanto spokesperson Lori Hoag explained to me via email. "It is injected into the cow, not into the milk. There is no way to test because the milk is absolutely the same. Neither the public nor a scientist can tell the difference in the milk because there is not a difference. Consumers absolutely have a right to know if there is a difference in foods they are buying. In this case, there simply is not a difference."

"Monsanto has an unfortunate habit of mixing some things together that confuse the issue," counters Rick North, director of Campaign for Safe Food from Physicians for Social Responsibility's Oregon chapter. "It's true that all cows have natural bovine growth hormone. But only cows injected with recombinant, genetically engineered bovine growth hormone have rBGH. And this isn't a 'supplement.' This is a drug that revs up cow metabolism so high that they're typically burned out after two lactation cycles and slaughtered. Non-rBGH cows typically live four, seven, ten or more years."

The threat of rBGH to cows and humans alike encouraged Canada, Australia and parts of the European Union to ban Monsanto's recombined milk outright. As for the corporation's native United States, it has predictably signed off on another unproven growth opportunity with possibly lethal environmental side effects. They're in it for the money. And so the battle lines on the threat have been drawn, as North takes pains to point out, between "the FDA and those who follow them," and those who don't. "These proposed state bans or restrictions on rBGH-free type of labeling have nothing to do with protecting consumers," he asserts. "They have everything to do with protecting Monsanto's profits."

But that battle over labels and profits hasn't stopped Monsanto from creating its own press at home in the United States, where it infamously got two Fox News journos fired in 1997 for refusing to bend the truth about rBGH on the air. Yet, over the long term, the multinational's attention to press relations hasn't paid off so well. Medical authorities like Samuel Epstein and Robert Hare, quoted above, have targeted them from both the physical and psychological health perspective. Meanwhile, farmers and consumers across the world have demanded labels that differentiate the recombined milk from its naturally occurring counterparts on the store shelves. And they don't think it's too much to ask, given the facts.

Hoag is "accurate" when she argued "that there is no commercial test for this drug," North concedes. "But that's entirely different than saying there is no difference. Monsanto and its front groups have tried to equate the lack of a verifying lab test with the label being false or misleading. This is a non sequitur. There are all kinds of legitimate labels that aren't verified by lab tests, such as state or country of origin labeling, fair trade labeling, bottled water that is labeled as originating from a spring, and so on."

Monsanto, meanwhile, is bedeviling the details to distort the big picture. "Sure, the label can make a claim one way or the other," Hoag admitted, "but there is no way to verify that the claim is true. This is precisely why the labels are misleading. They make consumers believe there is a difference, when in fact there is none."

That sounds simple enough, but consumers don't seem to need or want Monsanto's mothering. In 2007, its efforts at an outright ban on rBGH-free labels in Pennsylvania were almost cleared for takeoff, until the state invited its citizens to publicly comment, which eventually doomed the move. That scenario has replayed itself across the United States in accelerated fashion with success.

"The issue looks pretty dead in Indiana and Ohio, and there are solid victories in Pennsylvania and New Jersey," explains Recipe for America's Jill Richardson, author of the forthcoming book Vegetables of Mass Destruction. "Utah and Kansas are probably going to revise their bills after their hearings, because of opposition."

This opposition comes in spite of Monsanto's funding of so-called grass-roots farming coalitions like the American Farmers for Advancement and Conservation of Technology -- also known as, cleverly enough, AFACT. Monsanto's public relations firm Osborn & Barr built a site for AFACT pro bono, knitting the two organizations together in a way that may not sit well in states currently pondering their own label bans. AFACT's attacks have virally replicated across the nation, as farmers on Monsanto's payroll have taken to harassing their state legislatures in concert with the multinational's usual tactics at the federal level, such as forcing skeptical scientists off advisory panels, intimidating critics and so on.

But the assault has only met equally powerful resistance, as environmental awareness has driven the market into a recombinant-free zone. In the end, this might be Monsanto's last gasp in the fight.

"Monsanto has seen the writing on the wall in terms of consumer rejection of artificial growth hormones," claims National Family Farm Coalition policy analyst Irene Lin. "Consumers are becoming more aware and educated about what goes into their bodies and what their kids are drinking. And this is Monsanto's last-ditch, desperate attempt to maintain its profit. And they are hiding behind dairy farmers to do it."

But for every farmer who toes Monsanto's line, there are as many if not more, and not just in the United States, who are amassing in opposition to the multinational's attempt to change, and then patent, how America grows (and describes) its food. And behind them, in ever larger numbers, are consumers and stores themselves, who are demanding more, not less, information from those who produce the food.

"In the last year or so, some really big names have announced that they will only buy rBGH-free milk," explains Food and Water Watch's assistant director Patty Lovera, "including Chipotle, Starbucks, Tillamook and lots of supermarket house brands, like Kroger, Meiers and Publix. Even Kraft is going to do an rBGH-free line of cheese."

In the end, Monsanto's quibbling over labels has added up -- ironically enough, given all the text it has generated -- to censorship, pure and simple. And, as with past debacles like the aforementioned Agent Orange, PCBs and Terminator seed, they've established a pattern of stopping at nothing to increase not your health but their profits. At your expense.

"Absolutely nothing good could come from a ban on rBGH-free labeling," concludes Hansen. "More information is a good thing, and all these state actions are anti-consumer, restrict free speech and interfere with the smooth functioning of free markets."

Learn more about the ban on rBGH-free labeling and take action.


Fighting on a Battlefield the Size of a Milk Label

By Andrew Martin
The Feed
March 9, 2008

IT may be the last stand of Posilac.

A new advocacy group closely tied to Monsanto has started a counteroffensive to stop the proliferation of milk that comes from cows that aren't treated with synthetic bovine growth hormone.

The group, called American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology, or Afact, says it is a grass-roots organization that came together to defend members' right to use recombinant bovine somatotropin, also known as rBST or rBGH, an artificial hormone that stimulates milk production. It is sold by Monsanto under the brand name Posilac.

Dairy farmers are indeed part of the organization. But Afact was organized in part by Monsanto and a Colorado consultant who lists Monsanto as a client.

Afact has also received help from Osborn & Barr, a marketing firm whose founders include a former Monsanto executive. The firm received a contract in 2006 to help with the Posilac campaign.

Lori Hoag, a spokeswoman for the dairy unit of Monsanto, said her company did provide financial support to Afact. But Ms. Hoag asserted that the group is led by farmers, not Monsanto.

"They make all the governing decisions for their organization," she said. "Monsanto has nothing to do with that."

Afact has come together as a growing number of consumers are choosing milk that comes from cows that are not treated with the artificial growth hormone. Even though the Food and Drug Administration has declared the synthetic hormone safe, many other countries have refused to approve it, and there is lingering concern among many consumers about its impact on health and the welfare of cows.

The marketplace has responded, and now everyone from Whole Foods Market to Wal-Mart Stores sells milk that is labeled as coming from cows not treated with the hormone. Some dairy industry veterans say it's only a matter of time before nearly all of the milk supply comes from cows that weren't treated with Posilac. According to Monsanto, about a third of the dairy cows in the United States are in herds where Posilac is used.

And the trend might not stop with milk. Kraft is planning to sell cheese labeled as having come from untreated cows.

But consumer demand for more natural products has conflicted with some dairy farmers' desire to use the artificial hormone to bolster production and bottom lines, and it has certainly interfered with Monsanto's business plan for Posilac.

Cows typically produce an extra gallon a day when they are treated with Posilac. That can translate into serious money for dairy farmers at a time when prices are near record highs.

So Afact has embarked on a counteroffensive that includes meeting with retailers and pushing efforts by state legislators and state agriculture commissioners to pass laws to ban or restrict labels that indicate milk comes from untreated cows.

Last fall in Pennsylvania, Dennis Wolff, the agriculture secretary, tried to ban milk that was labeled as free of the synthetic hormone because, he said, consumers were confused. Mr. Wolff's office acknowledged that it had no consumer research to back up his claim, and he eventually had to scale back his plans when consumer groups and Gov. Edward G. Rendell balked.

Instead, the state tightened up the language on milk labels to make sure it was more accurate.

But Posilac's supporters haven't given up.

In recent months, labeling changes have been floated in New Jersey, Ohio, Indiana, Kansas, Utah, Missouri and Vermont, according to Michael Hansen, who has tracked the issue as a senior scientist for Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports.

A Consumer Reports survey last summer found that 88 percent of consumers believed that milk from cows not treated with synthetic hormones should be allowed to be labeled as such.

Afact says it believes that such "absence" labels can be misleading and imply that milk from cows treated with hormones is inferior. In fact, the F.D.A. maintains that there is no significant difference between milk from cows that are treated and from those that are not.

Afact also argues that some consumers are paying a premium for milk that doesn't include artificial hormones.

"We know it's a technology that makes us money and is safe for our cows," said Carrol Campbell, a Kansas dairy farmer who is co-chairman of Afact. Mr. Campbell said he became involved in the issue because his cooperative called him and asked him to stop using Posilac; instead, he found a new cooperative.

Ms. Hoag of Monsanto said her company was not actively pushing changes in milk labeling laws.

Advocates for Posilac, including Monsanto, have been complaining for years about milk labeled as free of artificial bovine growth hormone. In September 2006, Kevin Holloway, president of the Monsanto dairy unit, gave a speech in which he said the "fundamental issue" was dairy farmers' ability to choose the best technology. "Dairy farmer choice to use a variety of F.D.A.-approved technologies is at risk," he said.

That same year, the Monsanto dairy unit hired Osborn & Barr to handle, among other things, the Posilac brand, according to an article in the St. Louis Business Journal.

In 2007, Monsanto and several dairy organizations met by phone to "lay the groundwork" for a grass-roots organization, according to an online dairy industry newsletter.

Afact was created in the fall of 2007. In addition to receiving money from Monsanto, Afact has received help with its Web site from Osborn & Barr, said Monty G. Miller, a Colorado consultant who was hired to organize the group.

Afact believes that the push for milk from untreated cows is being driven by advocates like Consumers Union and PETA, "who make a profit, living and business by striking fear in citizens," Mr. Miller said in an e-mail message. The group also believes it will be hard for food retailers to "move away from the rBST-free stance without legislation and government policy," according to an Afact presentation to dairy farmers in January.

In the presentation, Afact also listed "integrity," "honesty" and "transparent" as "words we wish to embody."

They could start by being more straightforward about who is behind Afact.


Fewer Confessions and New Sins

By David Willey
BBC News, Rome
March 10, 2008

The Vatican has brought up to date the traditional seven deadly sins by adding seven modern mortal sins it claims are becoming prevalent in what it calls an era of "unstoppable globalisation".

  • Environmental pollution
  • Genetic manipulation
  • Accumulating excessive wealth
  • Inflicting poverty
  • Drug trafficking and consumption
  • Morally debatable experiments
  • Violation of fundamental rights of human nature

Those newly risking eternal punishment include drug pushers, the obscenely wealthy, and scientists who manipulate human genes. So "thou shalt not carry out morally dubious scientific experiments" or "thou shalt not pollute the earth" might one day be added to the Ten Commandments.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that "immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into Hell".

The new mortal sins were listed by Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti at the end of a week-long training seminar in Rome for priests, aimed at encouraging a revival of the practice of confession - or the Sacrament of Penance in Church jargon.

According to a survey carried out here 10 years ago by the Catholic University, 60% of Italians have stopped going to confession altogether. The situation has certainly not improved during the past decade.

Catholics are supposed to confess their sins to a priest at least once a year. The priest absolves them in God's name.

Talking to course members at the end of the seminar organised by the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Vatican department in charge of fixing the punishments and indulgences handed down to sinners, Pope Benedict added his own personal voice of disquiet.

"We are losing the notion of sin," he said. "If people do not confess regularly, they risk slowing their spiritual rhythm," he added. The Pope confesses his sins regularly once a week.

Greatest sins of our times

In an interview with the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Archbishop Girotti said he thought the most dangerous areas for committing new types of sins lay in the fields of bio-ethics and ecology.

He also named abortion and paedophilia as two of the greatest sins of our times. The archbishop brushed off cases of sexual violence against minors committed by priests as "exaggerations by the mass media aimed at discrediting the Church".

Father Gerald O'Collins, former professor of moral theology at the Papal University in Rome, and teacher of many of the Catholic Church's current top Cardinals and Bishops, welcomed the new catalogue of modern sins.

"I think the major point is that priests who are hearing confessions are not sufficiently attuned to some of the real evils in our world," he told the BBC News website. "They need to be more aware today of the social face of sin - the inequalities at the social level. They think of sin too much on an individual level.

"I think priests who hear confession should have a deeper sense of the violence and injustice of such problems - and the fact that people collaborate simply by doing nothing. One of the original deadly sins is sloth - disengagement and not getting involved," Father O'Collins said. The Jesuit professor now teaches at St Mary's University in Twickenham.

"It was interesting that these remarks came from the head of the Apostolic Penitentiary," he said. "I can't remember a time when it was so concerned about issues such as environmental pollution and social injustice. It's a new way of thinking."

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