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August 2009 Updates

Scientists Urge Better Seed Access

By Andrew Eder
The News Journal, USA
August 8, 2009

Scientists and advocates are sounding the alarm on a practice of high-tech seed producers: limiting the independent research that can be done on those seeds.

Since their introduction in the 1990s, genetically modified seeds -- those altered with foreign genetic material to give them special characteristics -- have become an indelible part of the agricultural landscape.

Thanks to a 1980 Supreme Court decision, genetically modified organisms can be patented. And the biotech seed companies -- including the top three seed producers, Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta -- require a signed user agreement to purchase their seeds.

Among the stipulations of the agreements is a prohibition on independent research, which prevents public-sector scientists from conducting head-to-head comparisons or environmental and health studies of genetically modified seeds.

Earlier this year, a group of 24 corn insect scientists from public research institutions submitted a comment to the Environmental Protection Agency, urging regulators to require the seed companies to allow research on their products.

"As a result of restricted access, no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the technology," wrote the scientists, who withheld their names "because virtually all of us require cooperation from industry at some level to conduct our research."

The magazine Scientific American published an editorial this month highlighting the practice and calling on the EPA to require access to new seeds for independent researchers.

"When scientists are prevented from examining the raw ingredients in our nation's food supply or from testing the plant material that covers a large portion of the country's agricultural land, the restrictions on free inquiry become dangerous," the magazine's editors wrote.

Bill Freese, a science policy analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Food Safety, said the research restrictions point to the larger issue of the shrinking role of the public sector in agricultural research.

Freese said that in previous decades, universities provided many of the seeds for farmers. "What we've seen with biotech is that those public sector breeding programs are almost defunct," he said.

The seed companies argue they need protection for the massive investment they make in seed technologies. Paul Schickler, president of DuPont's seed producer, Pioneer Hi-Bred, said the company's genetics and technology are its "critical resources," and the company needs to protect trade secrets.

Pioneer supports public research institutions and collaborates closely with researchers, Schickler said.

"At the same time, we have to have the appropriate mechanisms in place to protect our investments," he said.


Antitrust Enforcers Begin Visiting Farm Belt

By Scott Kilman
Wall St. Journal
August 8, 2009

ST. LOUIS -- The Obama administration will take an extensive look at concentration in U.S. agriculture as part of its increased emphasis on antitrust enforcement, a Justice Department official said Friday.

Philip J. Weiser, a telecommunications-law expert who was recently named deputy assistant attorney general, told a farmer gathering here that federal antitrust regulators are "committed to examining" the level of competition in several agribusiness sectors, such as the marketing of genetically modified seed, dairy processing and meatpacking.

Washington has often sympathized with farmers who find themselves selling their commodities to fewer and larger processors. But the Obama administration is taking a further step, with plans for a nationwide series of sessions next year for the U.S. Agriculture Department to hear competitive concerns of farmers.

Mr. Weiser's remarks are another sign the Obama administration intends to step up enforcement of antitrust laws. In May, the Justice Department's antitrust division withdrew anti-monopoly legal guidelines issued under the Bush administration and signaled closer scrutiny of some industries.

While Mr. Weiser didn't single out any agricultural companies for criticism, his 30-minute appearance came in the hometown of St. Louis crop-biotechnology titan Monsanto Co., where he addressed the annual convention of a farmers advocacy group called the Organization for Competitive Markets. Officials of the group have complained about Monsanto's dominance over genetically modified seeds.

The vast majority of the genetically modified crops grown in the U.S. farm belt contains at least one gene from Monsanto. Its success has made the company a formidable rival of DuPontCo.'s Pioneer Hi-Bred seed unit, which has accused Monsanto of being a monopolist.

DuPont spokesman Dan Turner said Friday the Wilmington, Del., concern has "funded and supported" the OCM farmer group for years, as it has many other farmer and commodity trade groups. Mr. Turner said DuPont didn't sponsor the meeting at which Mr. Weiser spoke.

Monsanto spokesman Lee Quarles called DuPont's backing "extremely disappointing, because they are aligning themselves with an organization that is spreading false and misleading information about our business."


The Stealth Threat to the World's Food Supply

By Bill Freese
The Daily Beast
August 11, 2009

Genetically engineered crops have been touted as the miracle way to feed the planet. One food-safety expert argues that a biotech grab of the world's seed supply is actually the biggest threat to our dinner table.

Americans expect cutting-edge science to solve every conceivable problem, and that includes the global food supply, which has been radically altered in recent years by genetic engineering. This process involves splicing DNA from bacteria, viruses, and other organisms into plants, and is supposed to generate miracle crops to feed a hungry world. Promises of increased yield, extra nutrients, and drought-tolerance are made by the likes of the U.S. government, and influential donors like the Rockefeller and Gates Foundations, but after two decades are still unfulfilled. Enthralled by some highly publicized experiments, many well-meaning agricultural experts seem blind to the quite different reality in the field.

If biotech crops are not about feeding the world, what is the point? The operative formula is biotechnology = chemicals + seeds.

Far from feeding the world, the biotech "revolution" that began in the 1990s has largely bypassed the world's poor farmers. Over half of all genetically engineered crops are grown in the U.S. and Canada, most of the rest in South America. Biotech soybeans and corn are most prevalent, and are grown primarily on large farms, for export, to feed livestock or fuel cars ("biofuels") in rich nations. In Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, food crops and the small farmers who grow them are being displaced by GE soybean plantations to feed the cows of Europe and Japan. Rural poverty is rampant in all three countries.

The most widely planted type of biotech crop is engineered to withstand application of an herbicide to kill nearby weeds. With these "herbicide-tolerant" crops, weed-killing chemicals reduce labor needs for weed control, a particular benefit to larger growers. Monsanto has a near monopoly in this field with its Roundup Ready line of crops. Problems include an epidemic of Roundup-resistant weeds, and increased use of Roundup and other herbicides to kill them. Most of the world's small farmers can't afford pricey herbicides, anyway.

What about yield? Nothing to brag about here. The most widely cultivated biotech crop, Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans, actually suffers from a slight "yield drag" compared with conventional varieties. The Union of Concerned Scientists found that conventional breeding practices are responsible for yield increases in corn, while insect-resistant GE corn reduces yield losses only under conditions of heavy pest infestation, which are infrequent.

If biotech crops are not about feeding the world, what is the point? A look at the industry is instructive. The operative formula is biotechnology = chemicals + seeds. The world's leading agrichemical companies - Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, and Bayer - have bought up a substantial chunk of the world's seed supply. Genetic engineering is used primarily to develop herbicide-tolerant crops, and so exploit synergies between the firms' chemical and seed divisions. On the horizon are biotech crops engineered to tolerate multiple - up to seven or more - herbicides.

Gene patents are another troubling development. While such patents normally apply to the foreign genes spliced into seeds, courts have perversely interpreted these gene patents as granting biotech firms comprehensive rights to the seeds that contain them. One consequence is that a farmer can be held liable for patent infringement even if the patented gene/plant appears in his fields through no fault of his own (e.g. cross-pollination or seed dispersal). Another consequence is that farmers can be sued for patent infringement if they save and replant seeds from their harvest, so-called second-generation seeds. In the U.S., Monsanto has pursued thousands of farmers for allegedly saving its patented Roundup Ready soybean seeds, extracting tens of millions of dollars in damages from them in the process. Monsanto claims that patents are necessary to ensure returns on its R&D in biotechnology, but this merely begs the question of whether the world really needs more GE crops.

Biotech firms also have "Terminator" technology waiting in the wings. Terminator is a genetic manipulation that renders harvested seeds sterile, and represents a biological means to achieve the same end as patents: elimination of seed-saving. While international opposition has thus far blocked deployment of Terminator, Monsanto recently purchased the seed company (Delta and Pine Land) that holds several major patents on the technology (together with the U.S. Department of Agriculture). And while Monsanto has pledged not to deploy Terminator, the company has stated that this "pledge" is revocable at any time.

Biotech seeds are also quite expensive, two to over four times as much as conventional varieties. The price ratchets up with each new "trait" that is introduced. Seeds with one trait were once the norm, but are rapidly being replaced with two- and three-trait versions. Monsanto and Dow recently announced plans to introduce GE corn with eight different traits. Farmers who want more affordable conventional seed, or even biotech seed with just one or two traits, may soon be out of luck. As University of Kentucky agronomist Chad Lee put it: "The cost of corn seed keeps getting higher and there doesn't appear to be a stopping point in sight." Developing countries that accept biotech crops can count on the same steeply rising seed prices that American farmers now face.

Last year, an exhaustive three-year appraisal of world agriculture sponsored by the United Nations and World Bank - the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development - concluded that biotech crops have little potential to alleviate hunger and poverty. Instead, the IAASTD's experts recommended low-input agroecological techniques, empowerment of women, and trade reform as the way forward for developing countries' agriculture.

Those findings resonated with my experiences in agricultural development. Back in the early 1980s, when on a college program in India, I studied a low-tech irrigation project in drought-prone Maharashtra. The keys to success involved "harvesting" monsoon runoff in catchment zones to replenish the water table, inexpensive electric motors to pump the stored water for irrigation, and a firm commitment to grow water-sparing staples like millet rather than water-intensive cash crops like sugarcane. Such projects, sadly, were too few to stave off India's current water crisis, caused in no small part by massive reliance on high-yielding but water-intensive "Green Revolution" crops. With world hunger on the rise despite GE crops, it's time we look just as skeptically this new "biotech revolution" in agriculture.


Decision on Genetically Modified Beets Likely to Be Delayed

By John Fryar
Longmont Times-Call (Colorado)
August 26, 2009

BOULDER - Boulder County commissioners appeared late Tuesday night to be headed toward at least a one- or two-year delay in deciding whether genetically modified sugar beets can ever be grown on county-owned farm land.

The six farmers who last December requested permission to plant genetically engineered sugar beets on land they lease from Boulder County more recently have asked that the commissioners postpone action on that application - a delay now supported by the county staff, which originally had recommended approval of the farmers' modified-beet proposal.

And while the commissioners' Tuesday night meeting on the issue was still under way at press time, county board chairman Ben Pearlman noted the farmers' request for a delayed decision, which Pearlman said would "allow us to do a deeper discussion" on the future management of county-owned agricultural land, including whether tenant farmers should be allowed to raise any genetically modified crops on that land.

Meanwhile, Pearlman told the dozens of people who'd signed up for Tuesday's public hearing that the commissioners would like those Boulder County residents' views about what those further county studies and planning "should look like."

Last Thursday, the six farmers who had originally asked for permission to grow genetically modified sugar beets on county-owned land wrote the commissioners that they'd still "like to have the opportunity to grow Roundup Ready sugar beets, like other sugar beet growers in the United States and Canada."

The farmers noted, however, that their 8-month-old application "has turned into a broader emotional debate that has deeply divided our community." They wrote county commissioners that "we respectfully ask that you delay any decision on the petition, to allow the community time to find ways for our farming operations to coexist as they have for many years before."

Jules Van Thuyne Jr., one of the farmers who's applied for county permission to grow the sugar beets engineered to resist the herbicide Roundup, noted during Tuesday's hearing that he'd been a member of a previous advisory county panel that earlier this decade recommended Boulder County's current 6-year-old protocols and conditions for growing genetically modified corn on county land.

But the debates that have erupted over the proposal to plant genetically engineered sugar beets have wound up pitting organic farming enthusiasts against conventional farmers who want to plant some modified crops, Van Thuyne said, and "this was never our intent."

A number of speakers at Tuesday's hearing expressed support for granting the farmers' original sugar beets proposal. But Van Thuyne said the debates have become so emotionally charged that "delay is appropriate."

Also among the more than 100 people who showed up for the commissioners' courthouse hearing were numerous opponents of allowing any modified crops on county open space.

"Please understand, we are not here to condemn the advancement of science," said Longmont-area resident Steve Demos. But he warned that genetically modified crops aren't as heavily regulated as the biomedicine that's been shown to benefit humans, and he said it's "totally inappropriate" to put genetically modified organisms into the food chain.

Demos questioned the economic benefits and environmental-safety claims advanced by genetically modified organism advocates. And he questioned whether allowing such crops to be grown in Boulder County is "consistent with our community values."

Adam Gorove of Boulder cautioned that food from genetically modified plants "could provide significant health risks" to humans, including the presence of allergens and toxins.

But Amber Clay of Erie, speaking on behalf of the Boulder County Farm Bureau, said genetically modified organisms "have gotten a bad rap" and that crops such as Roundup Ready sugar beets are "highly regulated."

Clay expressed support for the local farmers applying for county permission to grow those sugar beets, saying they "are good people. They are hard-working people." Clay said several of those families had sold some of the land in question to the county with the understanding that they'd be allowed to continue to farm it.

Another speaker at the hearing, Aurora Organic Dairy co-founder Mark Retzloff, said that company would be willing to help the six farmers who have proposed producing the modified sugar beets on about 900 or so acres of county-owned property north and southeast of Longmont, with a transition into producing organic crops on that land.

Once the land is certified as organic, a three-year process, Aurora Organic would then be willing to sign long-term contracts to buy organic alfalfa hay and silage from those farmers as feed for the company's dairy cattle, Retzloff said.

"We would like to see Boulder make a strong commitment toward organic agriculture," Retzloff said. He said that in the meantime, as far as genetically modified organisms, Boulder County taxpayers' and voters' open space shouldn't "be used as a Petrie dish for human experimentation."

One of the issues that could be considered during a management-policy study of the county's agricultural lands might be to work on ways to help large-scale farms move to organic farming, as well as to work on broader policies.

Boulder County's Parks and Open Space Department staff already was scheduled to develop such a management policy in 2011, but Tina Nielsen, the staffer who's been coordinating work on addressing the modified sugar-beet issues, suggested that timetable could be moved up if the county commissioners make it a priority.


'Non-GMO' Seal Identifies Foods Mostly Biotech-Free

By William Neuman
NY Times
August 29, 2009

Alarmed that genetically engineered crops may be finding their way into organic and natural foods, an industry group has begun a campaign to test products and label those that are largely free of biotech ingredients.

With farmers using gene-altered seeds to grow much of North America's corn, soybeans, canola and sugar, ingredients derived from biotech crops have become hard for food companies to avoid. But many makers of organic and natural foods are convinced that their credibility in the marketplace requires them to do so.

The industry group, the Non-GMO Project, says its new label is aimed at reassuring consumers and will be backed by rigorous testing.

"There's a vulnerability here that the industry is addressing," said Michael J. Potter, the founder and president of Eden Foods and a board member of the Non-GMO Project, the organization responsible for the testing and labeling campaign.

As plantings of conventional crops with genetic modifications soared in recent years, Mr. Potter put in place stringent safeguards to ensure that the organic soybeans he bought for tofu , soy milk and other products did not come from genetically engineered plants. He even supplies the seed that farmers use to grow his soybeans.

But many other companies have not been so careful, and as a result, Mr. Potter said, the organic and natural foods industry is like "a dirty room" in need of cleaning.

"What I've heard, what I know, what I've seen, what's been tested and the test results that have been shared with me, clearly indicate that the room is very dirty," Mr. Potter said.

Hundreds of products already claim on their packaging that they do not contain genetically modified ingredients, but with little consistency in the labeling and little assurance that the products have actually been tested. The new labeling campaign hopes to clear up such confusion.

The initials GMO stand for genetically modified organism. Participants in the Non-GMO Project include major players in the organic and natural foods business, like Whole Foods Market .

Whole Foods plans to place the project's seal on hundreds of products it markets under its "365" store brand. Nature's Path, a leading manufacturer of organic packaged foods like cereals, frozen waffles and granola bars, has also embraced the initiative.

The project's seal, a butterfly perched on two blades of grass in the form of a check mark, will begin appearing on packaged foods this fall. The project will not try to guarantee that foods are entirely free of genetically modified ingredients, but that manufacturers have followed procedures, including testing, to ensure that crucial ingredients contain no more than 0.9 percent of biotech material. That is the same threshold used in Europe, where labeling is required if products contain higher levels.

Dag Falck, a project board member who is the organic program manager of Nature's Path, said testing and labeling were needed to protect the industry from the steady spread of biotech ingredients. His company has been testing for such ingredients for several years and is strengthening those measures.

"The thing is, if we have a contamination problem that's growing in organics, what will happen one day when someone tests something and finds out that organics is contaminated beyond a reasonable amount, say 5 or 10 percent?" he said. "Consumers would lose all faith in organics."

While a consensus has developed among scientists that the genetically modified crops now in cultivation are safe, many biotech opponents say that questions remain over whether such foods pose health risks and whether the crops, and agricultural practices associated with them, could damage the environment.

The genetic modifications used in major crops in the United States largely involve traits beneficial to farmers. Some make the plants resistant to insects while others allow them to tolerate sprayings of a common herbicide used to combat weeds.

Plantings of crops with genetic modifications have risen sharply over the last decade, to the point that about 85 percent of corn and canola and 91 percent of soybean acreage this year was sown with biotech seed. Few food products in the supermarket lack at least some element derived from these crops, including oils, corn syrup, corn starch and soy lecithin.

The most recent agricultural sector to convert is sugar beets. Once this year's crop is processed, close to half of the nation's sugar will come from gene-engineered plants. Monsanto , a major developer of such seeds, has said it plans to develop biotech wheat, and scientists are moving forward on other crops.

Farmers who want to plant without using biotechnology are often surrounded by neighbors whose fields are sown with genetically modified crops. And manufacturers who want to avoid genetically engineered crops and their byproducts find that increasingly difficult to do.

Pollen from a biotech field may be carried by wind or insects to fertilize plants in a nonbiotech plot. At harvest and afterward, biotech and nonbiotech crops and their byproducts are often handled with the same farm equipment, trucks and so on. If the equipment is not properly cleaned, the two types of foodstuffs can mix.

While federal organic regulations bar farmers from planting genetically engineered seed, they are silent on what should be done about issues like pollination from nearby biotech crops. Few regulations govern foods labeled "natural," but retailers say consumers of those products want them to be free of genetically engineered ingredients.

"There's some GMO presence in almost everything today," said Lynn Clarkson, president of Clarkson Grain Company, in Cerro Gordo, Ill., which specializes in handling nonbiotech corn and soybeans.

Mr. Clarkson tests every truckload that farmers bring him, rejecting 5 to 7 percent of corn and soybean loads because they contain more than 0.9 percent of genetically modified material.

The Non-GMO project works with companies to test their ingredients and improve manufacturing processes. It will also spot test products in stores.

Officials with the project would not provide details of the test results conducted so far under the program.

Sandra Kepler, the chief executive of Food Chain Global Advisors, a consulting company that administers the project, said it was too early to draw conclusions and that much of the testing had been done on ingredients used by companies with safeguards already in place.

The executives of several companies participating in the project, including Eden and Nature's Path, said their products had come up clean in the tests. But several executives also said they were aware of positive tests for other companies, which they would not identify.

"People are going to be reluctant to say, `My brand of cereal, we found some contaminated products and we changed sources,' " said Michael S. Funk, a project board member who is co-founder and chairman of United Natural Foods , a major distributor. "Nobody wants to have that information out there." He said, however, that he believed the number of cases was small.

Labeling of food products for biotech content, or lack of it, has long been controversial. The biotechnology industry fought off early efforts to require labeling of genetically modified foods. Then, when some natural foods makers began using labels saying they were free of biotech ingredients, the Food and Drug Administration criticized the labels as potentially misleading. Labeling remains a gray area, with a host of products continuing to make such claims.

Supporters of the biotech industry questioned whether the new labeling campaign would pass muster with the F.D.A. "It's very important that the labels on those products are used for marketing and branding purposes and not to make statements about food safety ," said Karen Batra, a director of communications of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a lobbying group.

The F.D.A. said it did not have authority to approve labels before they appeared in the marketplace. Once a label is in use, the agency could initiate a review if it received consumer complaints or had concerns the label was misleading.

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