Say No To GMOs! logo
June 2009 Updates

US Court Cuts off Appeals in Monsanto Alfalfa Case

By Gina Keating
June 24, 2009

Appeals court says lower court ruling to stand
Food safety advocates call ruling a major victory

LOS ANGELES - A U.S. appeals court on Wednesday left in place an injunction barring Monsanto Co (MON.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) from selling its Roundup Ready alfalfa seed until the government completes an environmental impact study on how the genetically modified product could affect neighboring crops.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the company's request for a rehearing of its appeal and said it would accept no more petitions for rehearing in the three-year-old case.

Monsanto's only remaining avenue appears to be U.S. Supreme Court review. A Monsanto spokesman could not be reached for comment.

"This is a major victory for consumers, for farmers and for the public as far as protecting their rights and the rights of farmers to sow the crop of their choice and consumers to eat the food of their choice," said George Kimbrell, staff attorney for the Center for Food Safety.

Kimbrell, whose group is a plaintiff in the case, predicted that Monsanto's chances of getting Supreme Court review of the case were "slim to none and slim just left town."

Environmental groups and conventional seed companies, led by Geertson Seed Farms, sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture in February 2006 to force it to rescind its 2005 approval of the Monsanto seed until it does a full environmental study.

Monsanto intervened on the government's side in the suit.

The plaintiffs claimed cross pollination of genetically modified crops could contaminate conventional alfalfa fields and overuse of the herbicide Roundup, which the seeds were bred to resist, could foul soil and groundwater or give rise to Roundup-resistant "super weeds."

The trial judge, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer, ruled in 2007 that an agency study had failed to address those concerns. The Ninth Circuit affirmed that ruling twice.

The USDA did not join Monsanto in its petition for rehearing. The USDA has agreed to conduct the environmental impact study, but has not indicated when the study would be completed, Kimbrell said.

A USDA spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.

Genetically modified crops, particularly corn and soybeans that are resistant to herbicide, are popular with U.S. farmers. St. Louis-based Monsanto is the leading developer of such crops.

About two dozen countries allow the cultivation of biotech crops, but much of Europe, Japan, and most of Africa remain opposed to genetically altered crops.

The case is Geertson Seed Farms et al v. Mike Johanns as Secretary of the USDA, Case No. 07-16458, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. (Reporting by Gina Keating; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)


Weed-Whacking Herbicide Proves Deadly to Human Cells

By Crystal Gammon and Environmental Health News
Scientific American
June 23, 2009

Used in gardens, farms, and parks around the world, the weed killer Roundup contains an ingredient that can suffocate human cells in a laboratory, researchers say

Used in yards, farms and parks throughout the world, Roundup has long been a top-selling weed killer. But now researchers have found that one of Roundup's inert ingredients can kill human cells, particularly embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells.

The new findings intensify a debate about so-called "inerts" - the solvents, preservatives, surfactants and other substances that manufacturers add to pesticides. Nearly 4,000 inert ingredients are approved for use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Glyphosate, Roundup's active ingredient, is the most widely used herbicide in the United States. About 100 million pounds are applied to U.S. farms and lawns every year, according to the EPA.

Until now, most health studies have focused on the safety of glyphosate, rather than the mixture of ingredients found in Roundup. But in the new study, scientists found that Roundup's inert ingredients amplified the toxic effect on human cells - even at concentrations much more diluted than those used on farms and lawns.

One specific inert ingredient, polyethoxylated tallowamine, or POEA, was more deadly to human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells than the herbicide itself - a finding the researchers call "astonishing."

"This clearly confirms that the [inert ingredients] in Roundup formulations are not inert," wrote the study authors from France's University of Caen. "Moreover, the proprietary mixtures available on the market could cause cell damage and even death [at the] residual levels" found on Roundup-treated crops, such as soybeans, alfalfa and corn, or lawns and gardens.

The research team suspects that Roundup might cause pregnancy problems by interfering with hormone production, possibly leading to abnormal fetal development, low birth weights or miscarriages.

Monsanto, Roundup's manufacturer, contends that the methods used in the study don't reflect realistic conditions and that their product, which has been sold since the 1970s, is safe when used as directed. Hundreds of studies over the past 35 years have addressed the safety of glyphosate.

"Roundup has one of the most extensive human health safety and environmental data packages of any pesticide that's out there," said Monsanto spokesman John Combest. "It's used in public parks, it's used to protect schools. There's been a great deal of study on Roundup, and we're very proud of its performance."

The EPA considers glyphosate to have low toxicity when used at the recommended doses.

"Risk estimates for glyphosate were well below the level of concern," said EPA spokesman Dale Kemery. The EPA classifies glyphosate as a Group E chemical, which means there is strong evidence that it does not cause cancer in humans.

In addition, the EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture both recognize POEA as an inert ingredient. Derived from animal fat, POEA is allowed in products certified organic by the USDA. The EPA has concluded that it is not dangerous to public health or the environment.

The French team, led by Gilles-Eric Seralini, a University of Caen molecular biologist, said its results highlight the need for health agencies to reconsider the safety of Roundup.

"The authorizations for using these Roundup herbicides must now clearly be revised since their toxic effects depend on, and are multiplied by, other compounds used in the mixtures," Seralini's team wrote.

Controversy about the safety of the weed killer recently erupted in Argentina, one of the world's largest exporters of soy.

Last month, an environmental group petitioned Argentina's Supreme Court, seeking a temporary ban on glyphosate use after an Argentine scientist and local activists reported a high incidence of birth defects and cancers in people living near crop-spraying areas. Scientists there also linked genetic malformations in amphibians to glysophate. In addition, last year in Sweden, a scientific team found that exposure is a risk factor for people developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Inert ingredients are often less scrutinized than active pest-killing ingredients. Since specific herbicide formulations are protected as trade secrets, manufacturers aren't required to publicly disclose them. Although Monsanto is the largest manufacturer of glyphosate-based herbicides, several other manufacturers sell similar herbicides with different inert ingredients.

The term "inert ingredient" is often misleading, according to Caroline Cox, research director of the Center for Environmental Health, an Oakland-based environmental organization. Federal law classifies all pesticide ingredients that don't harm pests as "inert," she said. Inert compounds, therefore, aren't necessarily biologically or toxicologically harmless - they simply don't kill insects or weeds.

Kemery said the EPA takes into account the inert ingredients and how the product is used, whenever a pesticide is approved for use. The aim, he said, is to ensure that "if the product is used according to labeled directions, both people's health and the environment will not be harmed." One label requirement for Roundup is that it should not be used in or near freshwater to protect amphibians and other wildlife.

But some inert ingredients have been found to potentially affect human health. Many amplify the effects of active ingredients by helping them penetrate clothing, protective equipment and cell membranes, or by increasing their toxicity. For example, a Croatian team recently found that an herbicide formulation containing atrazine caused DNA damage, which can lead to cancer, while atrazine alone did not.

POEA was recognized as a common inert ingredient in herbicides in the 1980s, when researchers linked it to a group of poisonings in Japan. Doctors there examined patients who drank Roundup, either intentionally or accidentally, and determined that their sicknesses and deaths were due to POEA, not glyphosate.

POEA is a surfactant, or detergent, derived from animal fat. It is added to Roundup and other herbicides to help them penetrate plants' surfaces, making the weed killer more effective.

"POEA helps glyphosate interact with the surfaces of plant cells," explained Negin Martin, a scientist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in North Carolina, who was not involved in the study. POEA lowers water's surface tension--the property that makes water form droplets on most surfaces--which helps glyphosate disperse and penetrate the waxy surface of a plant.

In the French study, researchers tested four different Roundup formulations, all containing POEA and glyphosate at concentrations below the recommended lawn and agricultural dose. They also tested POEA and glyphosate separately to determine which caused more damage to embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells.

Glyphosate, POEA and all four Roundup formulations damaged all three cell types. Umbilical cord cells were especially sensitive to POEA. Glyphosate became more harmful when combined with POEA, and POEA alone was more deadly to cells than glyphosate. The research appears in the January issue of the journal Chemical Research in Toxicology.

By using embryonic and placental cell lines, which multiply and respond to chemicals rapidly, and fresh umbilical cord cells, Seralini's team was able to determine how the chemicals combine to damage cells.

The two ingredients work together to "limit breathing of the cells, stress them and drive them towards a suicide," Seralini said.

The research was funded in part by France's Committee for Research and Independent Information on Genetic Engineering, a scientific committee that investigates risks associated with genetically modified organisms. One of Roundup's primary uses is on crops that are genetically engineered to be resistant to glyphosate.

Monsanto scientists argue that cells in Seralini's study were exposed to unnaturally high levels of the chemicals. "It's very unlike anything you'd see in real-world exposure. People's cells are not bathed in these things," said Donna Farmer, another toxicologist at Monsanto.

Seralini's team, however, did study multiple concentrations of Roundup. These ranged from the typical agricultural or lawn dose down to concentrations 100,000 times more dilute than the products sold on shelves. The researchers saw cell damage at all concentrations.

Monsanto scientists also question the French team's use of laboratory cell lines. "These are just not very good models of a whole organism, like a human being," said Dan Goldstein, a toxicologist with Monsanto.

Goldstein said humans have protective mechanisms that resist substances in the environment, such as skin and the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, which constantly renew themselves. "Those phenomena just don't happen with isolated cells in a Petri dish."

But Cox, who studies pesticides and their inert ingredients at the Oakland environmental group, says lab experiments like these are important in determining whether a chemical is safe.

"We would never consider it ethical to test these products on people, so we're obliged to look at their effects on other species and in other systems," she said. "There's really no way around that."

Seralini said the cells used in the study are widely accepted in toxicology as good models for studying the toxicity of chemicals.

"The fact is that 90 percent of labs studying mechanisms of toxicity or physiology use cell lines," he said.

Most research has examined glyphosate alone, rather than combined with Roundup's inert ingredients. Researchers who have studied Roundup formulations have drawn conclusions similar to the Seralini group's. For example, in 2005, University of Pittsburg ecologists added Roundup at the manufacturer's recommended dose to ponds filled with frog and toad tadpoles. When they returned two weeks later, they found that 50 to 100 percent of the populations of several species of tadpoles had been killed.

A group of over 250 environmental, health and labor organizations has petitioned the EPA to change requirements for identifying pesticides' inert ingredients. The agency's decision is due this fall.

"It would be a big step for the agency to take," said Cox. "But it's one they definitely should."

The groups claim that the laws allowing manufacturers to keep inert ingredients secret from competitors are essentially unnecessary. Companies can determine a competitor's inert ingredients through routine lab analyses, said Cox.

"The proprietary protection laws really only keep information from the public," she said.

This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.


One-Third of Wildlife Refuges Use GM Crops in Southeast

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)
June 25, 2009

Genetically Modified Seeds Okayed by Obama Fish & Wildlife Service Director Pick Hamilton

Washington, DC - One-third of National Wildlife Refuges in the Southeast U.S. are growing genetically modified crops with approval from the official tapped by the Obama White House to head the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, according to agency records obtained today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Planting GM crops on a wildlife refuge is illegal without full prior environmental and public review under a federal court ruling won by PEER and allied groups last year, but none of the Southeastern refuges have undertaken the required reviews.

National wildlife refuges have allowed farming for decades in order to help prepare seed beds for native habitat such as grasslands and provide food for migratory birds and other wildlife. In recent years, refuge farming programs are being converted to GM crops because that is the seed that farmers can obtain or, in some case, prefer. Today, almost all the crops being grown on refuges are genetically modified.

By law and policy, these refuges are supposed to be administered to benefit wildlife, not local farmers. In fact, Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) policy explicitly forbids "genetically modified agricultural crops in refuge management unless we determine their use is essential to accomplishing refuge purpose(s)". By contrast to this policy, in the Southeast Region, headed by Sam Hamilton, named by the Obama administration as its intended nominee to lead the entire FWS, records show:

  • One in three (41 of 128 total refuges) are growing GM crops;
  • No refuge has been denied permission for GM crops; and
  • The basis for Hamilton's Regional Office approval typically cites farmers' profitability or their preference for GM crops.

"What is supposed to be a last resort exception has become common practice," stated PEER Executive Direct Jeff Ruch, who obtained copies of all GM crop approvals from the FWS under the Freedom of Information Act. "Sam Hamilton seems to embrace genetically engineered refuge management with open arms."

Earlier this year in a lawsuit brought by PEER and other groups, a federal court ordered FWS to stop planting GM crops on its Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware. The court found that FWS had illegally entered into Cooperative Farming Agreements without doing compatibility determinations required by the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act and environmental assessments required by the National Environmental Policy Act. While the ruling was limited to one refuge, its legal rationale applies to every refuge across the country.

The records obtained by PEER indicated that refuges in Hamilton's region had not done the legally required reviews. "The next Director of the Fish & Wildlife Service should have demonstrated both the ability and willingness to follow the very laws that the agency is supposed to administer," Ruch added. "Sam Hamilton's record strongly suggests business as usual will continue at the Fish & Wildlife Service."


Survey Shows Most Canadian Farmers Oppose GM Wheat

By Caroline Scott-Thomas
June 30, 2009

Most Canadian wheat farmers are opposed to the introduction of genetically modified (GM) wheat unless market conditions change, according to a Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) survey.

The annual CWB survey was based on 1,300 telephone interviews with Western Canadian farmers. It found that most (57 percent) thought that GM wheat should not be grown in Canada until certain conditions are met, such as added agronomic benefits for farmers or an identified market demand.

Nineteen percent said that GM wheat should not be grown in Canada, while only nine percent said it should be grown as soon as it becomes available.

The survey showed split opinion in how interested farmers would be in growing a GM wheat variety: 51 percent said they were \u201cnot interested at all\u201d, while 46 percent said they were \u201csomewhat\u201d or \u201cvery\u201d interested.

Opposing views

The issue of GM wheat has moved to the fore since a group of wheat industry representatives from Canada, the US and Australia signed a joint statement in May pledging to synchronize their efforts to commercialize the introduction of GM wheat.

Their position prompted a counter-statement from another tri-national group of organizations that centered on the lack of consumer acceptance for GM wheat and lack of agronomic benefits of existing GM crops.

Contradicting US wheat growers?

The CWB survey results on Canadian farmers\u2019 attitudes to GM wheat could be seen as contradictory to a similar survey conducted by the US National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) in February.

The NAWG said that 76 percent of respondents were in favor of a petition for developing biotech traits in wheat. However, it has since been criticized for only including farms with at least 500 acres of wheat and 1000 acres in production. The NAWG said the reason for excluding smaller farms was \u201cin an effort to concentrate on commercial wheat growers and to manage mailing and data costs\u201d.

The reply post card asked respondents to either agree or disagree \u201cwith the National Association of Wheat Growers petition to support the development of advanced technologies and biotech traits in wheat.\u201d There are currently no commercially available GM wheat varieties.

top of page