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February 2009 Updates

Hard Choice on Biotech Corn Awaits Vilsack

By Philip Brasher
DesMoines Register
February 15, 2009

A new gene-altered corn promises to make fuel ethanol greener and cheaper. The corn, developed by Syngenta AG, requires less energy and water to turn into ethanol, and theoretically can produce more ethanol per bushel.

But the prospect of this designer corn going on the market as soon as next year is giving the food industry indigestion. The grain is engineered to contain a special enzyme that turns cornstarch into the sugar that's used to make ethanol. Syngenta says it will take less heat and water to make a gallon of ethanol using the biotech corn.

Government officials say the corn is safe for human consumption. But companies that turn cornstarch into food ingredients aren't so keen on corn that converts its own starch into sugar.

Syngenta is pledging to ensure that the corn is grown and stored separate from other types of corn and sold only to ethanol plants. But the food processors fear the Syngenta corn could still get into their grain supplies inadvertently. They've asked the USDA to delay approving the Syngenta corn.

The government lacks "adequate scientific data or documentation necessary" to evaluate the crop's impact on food and feed products, according to a letter to the USDA from trade groups representing food industry giants such as General Mills, ConAgra and Archer Daniels Midland.

The issue will present the new agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, with the first test of how tightly he will regulate agricultural biotechnology. Vilsack was a strong supporter of the industry when he was governor of Iowa - the biotech industry's chief trade organization once named him its governor of the year.

Vilsack's decision will be "particularly interesting since some segments of the food industry are opposed" to the corn, said Jane Rissler, who follows agricultural biotechnology for the Union of Concerned Scientists. Her group wants the USDA to ban the outdoor production of crops engineered for production of industrial or pharmaceutical substances. "It is not a good precedent to approve a crop like this," she said.

Syngenta competitor Pioneer Hi-Bred has taken a more conventional approach to aiding ethanol producers: Pioneer is working to increase the starch content of the kernels.

Two federal agencies have oversight responsibilities for Syngenta's product - the USDA and the FDA. The FDA considers whether a crop is safe for human consumption and decided that it was after reviewing Syngenta's data. The USDA had to determine whether the crop could be a "plant pest," a threat to other plants and the environment, and concluded that it wasn't.

Now, a conventional ethanol producer buys a liquid version of the enzyme, known as amylase, mixes it with grain and water and heats the resulting slurry so that it can be fermented into alcohol.

Steve McNinch, who has experimented with the Syngenta product for more than a year at the ethanol plant he runs in Oakley, Kan., says the corn enzyme is more effective. Less heat is needed, cutting energy costs by 10 percent a gallon, and the slurry is thinner, which means the plant can increase its alcohol output.

Before using the Syngenta corn as its enzyme source, the Western Plains Energy plant could produce 46 million to 47 million gallons a year. Now it's putting out 50 million, McNinch said. "I wouldn't want to run my plant the way we used to," he said.

Lowering the plant's natural gas bill could yield a benefit beyond cutting production costs: Ethanol made using less energy would show a greater reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. That could be important in qualifying for federal or state low-carbon rules.

The nation's leading ethanol producer, Poet LLC, sees yet another reason to get the Syngenta product on the market beyond its impact on existing facilities. The company told the USDA that designing crops like Syngenta's that can produce their own enzymes could speed the development of next-generation biofuels, which would be made from grasses, wood and other sources of plant cellulose, which is much harder to convert to sugar than cornstarch.

So Vilsack's choice appears pretty stark: food or fuel. He has to pick between the food and ethanol industries.

It won't be the last time he has to make that choice.


Crop Scientists Say Biotechnology Seed Companies Are Thwarting Research

By Andrew Pollack

February 19, 2009

Biotechnology companies are keeping university scientists from fully researching the effectiveness and environmental impact of the industry's genetically modified crops, according to an unusual complaint issued by a group of those scientists.

"No truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions," the scientists wrote in a statement submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency. The E.P.A. is seeking public comments for scientific meetings it will hold next week on biotech crops.

The statement will probably give support to critics of biotech crops, like environmental groups, who have long complained that the crops have not been studied thoroughly enough and could have unintended health and environmental consequences.

The researchers, 26 corn-insect specialists, withheld their names because they feared being cut off from research by the companies. But several of them agreed in interviews to have their names used.

The problem, the scientists say, is that farmers and other buyers of genetically engineered seeds have to sign an agreement meant to ensure that growers honor company patent rights and environmental regulations. But the agreements also prohibit growing the crops for research purposes.

So while university scientists can freely buy pesticides or conventional seeds for their research, they cannot do that with genetically engineered seeds. Instead, they must seek permission from the seed companies. And sometimes that permission is denied or the company insists on reviewing any findings before they can be published, they say.

Such agreements have long been a problem, the scientists said, but they are going public now because frustration has been building.

"If a company can control the research that appears in the public domain, they can reduce the potential negatives that can come out of any research," said Ken Ostlie, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota, who was one of the scientists who had signed the statement.

What is striking is that the scientists issuing the protest, who are mainly from land-grant universities with big agricultural programs, say they are not opposed to the technology. Rather, they say, the industry's chokehold on research means that they cannot supply some information to farmers about how best to grow the crops. And, they say, the data being provided to government regulators is being "unduly limited."

The companies "have the potential to launder the data, the information that is submitted to E.P.A.," said Elson J. Shields, a professor of entomology at Cornell.

William S. Niebur, the vice president in charge of crop research for DuPont, which owns the big seed company Pioneer Hi-Bred, defended his company's policies. He said that because genetically engineered crops were regulated by the government, companies must carefully police how they are grown.

"We have to protect our relationship with governmental agencies by having very strict control measures on that technology," he said.

But he added that he would welcome a chance to talk to the scientists about their concerns.

Monsanto and Syngenta, two other biotech seed companies, said Thursday that they supported university research. But as did Pioneer, they said their contracts with seed buyers were meant to protect their intellectual property and meet their regulatory obligations.

But an E.P.A. spokesman, Dale Kemery, said Thursday that the government required only management of the crops' insect resistance and that any other contractual restrictions were put in place by the companies.

The growers' agreement from Syngenta not only prohibits research in general but specifically says a seed buyer cannot compare Syngenta's product with any rival crop.

Dr. Ostlie, at the University of Minnesota, said he had permission from three companies in 2007 to compare how well their insect-resistant corn varieties fared against the rootworms found in his state. But in 2008, Syngenta, one of the three companies, withdrew its permission and the study had to stop.

"The company just decided it was not in its best interest to let it continue," Dr. Ostlie said.

Mark A. Boetel, associate professor of entomology at North Dakota State University, said that before genetically engineered sugar beet seeds were sold to farmers for the first time last year, he wanted to test how the crop would react to an insecticide treatment. But the university could not come to an agreement with the companies responsible, Monsanto and Syngenta, over publishing and intellectual property rights.

Chris DiFonzo, an entomologist at Michigan State University, said that when she conducted surveys of insects, she avoided fields with transgenic crops because her presence would put the farmer in violation of the grower's agreement.

An E.P.A. scientific advisory panel plans to hold two meetings next week. One will consider a request from Pioneer Hi-Bred for a new method that would reduce how much of a farmer's field must be set aside as a refuge aimed at preventing insects from becoming resistant to its insect-resistant corn.

The other meeting will look more broadly at insect-resistant biotech crops.

Christian Krupke, an assistant professor at Purdue, said that because outside scientists could not study Pioneer's strategy, "I don't think the potential drawbacks have been critically evaluated by as many people as they should have been."

Dr. Krupke is chairman of the committee that drafted the statement, but he would not say whether he had signed it.

Dr. Niebur of Pioneer said the company had collaborated in preparing its data with universities in Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska, the states most affected by the particular pest.

Dr. Shields of Cornell said financing for agricultural research had gradually shifted from the public sector to the private sector. That makes many scientists at universities dependent on financing or technical cooperation from the big seed companies.

"People are afraid of being blacklisted," he said. "If your sole job is to work on corn insects and you need the latest corn varieties and the companies decide not to give it to you, you can't do your job."


Biotech Crops Not Beneficial to the Poor

By Olukorede Yishau
The Nation (Nigeria)
February 20, 2009

The Friends of the Earth International has warned that biotech crops are benefiting food giants instead of small farmers. The group said world's hungry population is projected to increase to 1.2 billion by 2025.

The warning was issued in a new report released by Friends of the Earth International on February 10.

The report supports a comprehensive United Nations (UN) assessment of world agriculture which concluded in 2008 among other things that Generic Modulated (GM) crops have very little potential to alleviate poverty and hunger.

The Nigerian chapter's Executive Director and Friends of the Earth International chair, Mr. Nnimo Bassey, said: "GM crops are all about feeding biotech giants. GM seeds and the pesticides used with them are much too expensive for Africa's small farmers. Those who promote this technology in developing countries are completely out of touch with reality."

The report explains how the rising grain prices behind the world food crisis have allowed biotech giants like Monsanto to dramatically increase the price of GM seeds and chemicals they sell to farmers.

Monsanto is the world's largest seed firm, and has a near monopoly in the expensive "traits" incorporated in GM seeds. GM seeds cost two to over four times the price of conventional, non-biotech seeds. The company also markets Roundup, the world's biggest selling herbicide.

The report also described Monsanto's strategy of increasing sales of its Roundup herbicide by stacking its "Roundup Ready" trait in nearly all the GM seeds it sells.

"Thanks largely to Monsanto, US farmers are facing dramatic increases in the prices of GM seeds and the chemicals used with them," said Bill Freese, science policy analyst at the US-based Center for Food Safety and co-author of the report.

"Farmers in any developing country that welcome Monsanto and other biotech companies can expect the same fate - sharply rising seed and pesticide costs, and a radical decline in the availability of conventional seeds," he added.

Exploitation of the food crisis has been extremely profitable for Monsanto as well as for grain trading giants like Cargill. Monsanto announced in January that its quarterly profit nearly tripled, and its net income (after taxes) is also projected to triple from $984 million to $2.96 billion from 2007 to 2010.

The great cost of GM seeds is not the only problem. The vast majority of GM crops are not grown by or destined for the world's poor, but rather are soybeans and corn used to feed animals, generate agro-fuels, or produce highly processed food products consumed mostly in rich countries.

Nearly 90 per cent of the global area planted to GM crops is found in just six countries with highly industrialised, export-oriented agricultural sectors: the US, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. The United States alone, produces over 50 per cent of the world's GM crops; the US, Argentina and Brazil together grow over 80 per cent.

Despite more than a decade of hype, the biotechnology industry has not introduced a single GM crop with increased yield, enhanced nutrition, drought-tolerance or salt-tolerance. Disease-resistant GM crops are practically non-existent.

In fact, GM crops available today are best characterised by the overwhelming penetration of just one trait - herbicide tolerance - which is found in over 80 per cent of all GM crops planted worldwide. Herbicide-tolerant GM crops have indisputably increased use of chemical pesticides.

The report said the hype around biotech crops has obscured the huge potential of low-cost agro-ecological and organic techniques to increase food production and alleviate hunger in developing countries.

It cited several realities such as 'push-pull' maize farming in east Africa. The enormously successful push-pull system controls weed and insect pests without chemicals, increases maize production, and raises the income of smallholder farmers.

Who benefits from GM crops 2009 pdf


Monsanto's Bt Cotton Kills the Soil as Well as Farmers

ISIS Press Release
February 23, 2009

Biosafety refers to ensuring that GMO's do not harm the environment or health.

The soil, its fertility, and the organisms which maintain the fertility of soil are a vital aspect of the environment, especially in the context of food and agricultural production.

A recent scientific study carried out by Navdanya, compared the soil of fields where Bt-cotton had been planted for 3 years with adjoining fields with non GMO cotton or other crops. The region covered included Nagpur, Amravati and Wardha of Vidharbha which accounts for highest GMO cotton planting in India, and the highest rate of farmers suicides (4000 per year).

In 3 years, Bt-cotton has reduced the population of Actinomycetes by 17%. Actinomycetes are vital for breaking down cellulose and creating humus.

Bacteria were reduced by 14%. The total microbial biomass was reduced by 8.9%.

Vital soil beneficial enzymes which make nutrients available to plants have also been drastically reduced. Acid Phosphatase which contributes to uptake of phosphates was reduced by 26.6%. Nitrogenase enzymes which help fix nitrogen were reduced by 22.6%.

At this rate, in a decade of planting with GM cotton, or any GM crop with Bt genes in it, could lead to total destruction of soil organisms, leaving dead soil unable to produce food.

The ISAAA in its recent release has stated that there are 7.6 mha of Bt-cotton in India. This means 7.6 mha of dying soils.

The impact of GMO's on soil organisms is not commonly studied. This is a vital lacunae because Bt toxin crops such as Mon 810 corn or Bt-cotton or Bt Brinjal have serious impact on beneficial soil organisms.

The government of India is trying to grant approval to Bt Brinjal without Bio safety studies on impact on Soil organisms. The European Commissión is trying to put pressure on GMO free countries to introduce Mon 810.

The Navdanya study the first that has looked at the long term impact of Bt cotton on soil organisms is a wake up to regulators worldwide. It also shows that the claims of the Biotechnology industry about the safety of GM crops are false.

Read the report pdf

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