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November 2009 Updates

War of Words over Weeds Could Modify the Verdict on GM Crops

By Chris Benfield
Yorkshire Post
November 24, 2009

American farmers are having to spend more and more money and chemicals fighting "superweeds" created by the rush into genetically modified crops, according to a new report which promises to re-ignite the debate over GM.

It claims that, far from reducing pesticide use, as promised, GM crops are requiring much more - because the saving on insecticide use is outweighed by extra herbicides being thrown at the weeds.

The cost of weed control in the southern states is approaching the point where it will wipe out the benefit of extra yields from GM seeds and the problem is moving north says the report, which was published last week by The Organic Center in Boulder, Colorado.

On the face of it, this is a major challenge to the UK Government, which - supported by the majority of farmers - wants to relax the EU rules to let a bit more GM technology in. Even the GM business admits the accusations would be sensational if true, but it is now challenging them head on.

PG Economics, a consultancy which has previously reported in favour of GM, rushed out a review of it at the weekend which the agribusiness giants are recommending to the media.

It says bluntly: "The Organic Center's assessment is disappointingly inaccurate, misleading and fails to acknowledge several of the benefits US farmers and citizens have derived from use of the technology."

Game on, it seems. The Organic Center is clearly ready for the argument. Its champion, and the author of the report, is its chief scientist, agricultural economist Charles Benbrook, a former US government adviser. He will be presenting his findings in Brussels and London early in December.

His work has been praised by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Center for Food Safety in the US, and the Soil Association in this country. But all are essentially anti-GM in the first place, it should be said, as are Dr Benbrook and his employers.

The headline finding is that overall pesticide use has increased dramatically since GM crops were first planted in commercial quantities in 1996 - even though better chemicals mean conventional farms require less. Dr Benbrook says the problem is the big category of GM crops known as RR - meaning Roundup-Resistant.

Roundup, from the international giant Monsanto, is the most popular make of the most versatile weedkiller. However, according to Dr Benbrook, its widespread use has led to fast evolution of weeds which are resistant to the chemicals, so they need more Roundup to kill them, or something else as well. Farmers have got themselves into an arms race with Nature instead of altering their strategies and agribusiness is responding with more technology which, he says, "makes as much sense as pouring gasoline on a fire".

He acknowledges that pest-resistant GM strains have led to a reduction in the use of insecticides. But he says more herbicide on every GM acre means a big overall increase in the weight of chemicals put into the environment. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has failed to notice because of cuts in its pesticide monitoring operation under the Bush administration, he says.

But agribusiness says that in rejecting the USDA figures, Dr Benbrook has made guesses which contradict more reliable research - such as an American Geographical Society finding that rivers in the corn belt were cleaner since GM. They also point out that Roundup has been in use since 1974.

Colin Merritt, a spokesman for the manufacturer, Monsanto, told the Yorkshire Post: "What Dr Benbrook says would be extremely sensational but we say it is extremely wrong. He has made assumptions which cannot be backed up, he has omitted important points and he has confused issues."

But Lord Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association, which will host Dr Benbrook's visit to Westminster on December 3, said yesterday: "This is very significant research and a major blow to attempts to revive GM crops in England."

For the general public, the row at least promises to clarify the arguments. Until now, the GM debate has been largely about theoretical risks versus theoretical benefits. Now both sides have committed themselves to proving or disproving the facts of actual experience.


Monsanto's Dominance Draws Antitrust Inquiry

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post
November 29, 2009

Patented seeds are go-to for farmers, who decry their fast-growing price

For plants designed in a lab a little more than a decade ago, they've come a long way: Today, the vast majority of the nation's two primary crops grow from seeds genetically altered according to Monsanto company patents.

Ninety-three percent of soybeans. Eighty percent of corn.

The seeds represent "probably the most revolutionary event in grain crops over the last 30 years," said Geno Lowe, a Salisbury, Md., soybean farmer.

But for farmers such as Lowe, prices of the Monsanto-patented seeds have steadily increased, roughly doubling during the past decade, to about $50 for a 50-pound bag of soybean seed, according to seed dealers.

The revolution, and Monsanto's dominant role in the nation's agriculture, has not unfolded without complaint. Farmers have decried the price increases, and competitors say the company has ruthlessly stifled competition.

Now Monsanto -- like IBM and Google -- has drawn scrutiny from U.S. antitrust investigators, who under the Obama administration have looked more skeptically at the actions of dominant firms.

During the Bush administration, the Justice Department did not file a single case under antimonopoly laws regulating a dominant firm. But that stretch seems unlikely to continue.

This year, the Obama Justice Department tossed out the antitrust guidelines of its predecessor because they advocated "extreme hesitancy in the face of potential abuses by monopoly firms."

"We must change course," Christine Varney, the Obama administration's chief antitrust enforcer, said at the time.

Of all the new scrutiny by Justice, the Monsanto investigation might have the highest stakes, dealing as it does with the food supply and one of the nation's largest agricultural firms. It could also force the Obama administration, already under fire for the government's expanded role in the economy, to explain how it distinguishes between normal rough-and-tumble competition and abusive monopolistic business practices.

Monsanto says it has done nothing wrong.

"Farmers choose these products because of the value they deliver on farm," Monsanto said in a statement. "Given the phenomenally broad adoption of these technologies by farmers, such questions are normal and to be expected."

Even with the growing cost, farmers have embraced the genetic modifications because they save work and enable them to cultivate more land. The modified plants can stand up to the powerful herbicide glyphosate, best known commercially as Roundup, allowing them to use the weedkiller not just before planting but also after the crops have come up.

"Everybody wants it, and Monsanto is seeing what the market will bear," said Lowe, 39. "People say that's capitalism. The question is, where does capitalism meet corruption?"

Before it jumped into biotechnology, Monsanto was already one of the nation's largest chemical companies and had patented glyphosate, bringing it to market as Roundup in the '70s.

The product kills just about all weeds, and for farmers it served as a wonderfully effective herbicide. Instead of tilling the earth, they could simply blanket it with Roundup. Because the chemicals in Roundup break down quickly in the sun and rain, seeds could be planted shortly afterward.

It became one of the best-selling herbicides ever, and the seed patents at the center of the antitrust allegations were built upon that chemical's appeal.

If there was a practical drawback with Roundup, it was that it couldn't be used after planting: Applying Roundup at that point would kill the crops, too.

Scientists wondered: Could they develop plants that could withstand Roundup?

The answer emerged, partly by accident, out of Louisiana muck.

Monsanto was producing Roundup at a plant in Luling, La., and the water and sludge in the waste ponds around the plant were exposed to the chemical. It was the perfect place to find organisms that could withstand the chemical's lethal effects.

After bacteria discovered in the pond sludge proved resistant to the chemical, scientists isolated the gene that gave the bacteria Roundup tolerance and placed that gene, known as CPS4, into soybeans, then corn.

The resulting plants, called "Roundup Ready," represented a billion-dollar breakthrough and, as Monsanto sees it, a just reward for its $1.5 billion investment in biotech research.

"During the same period, our competitors . . . largely ignored biotech," the company said in a statement. "Monsanto took risks our competition chose not to take."

Although farmers have grumbled about Monsanto's regular price increases for Roundup Ready technology for seeds, it is DuPont, a Monsanto rival, that has pressed the antitrust case.

Farmers and seed companies "are afraid to speak in public, worried that they will become victims of retaliation," Thomas L. Sager, DuPont senior vice president and general counsel, said in a statement. "That's why it's so important that antitrust investigators move quickly -- to learn the truth before even more harm is done to America's farmers."

In court papers, DuPont argues that Monsanto has used the dominance of the Roundup Ready brand to prevent competitors from bringing innovations to market.

In its view, Roundup Ready is so popular that any new biotech innovations must be designed to work with Monsanto's technology. But Monsanto effectively freezes out the competition, it says, by making it difficult for other companies to win a license to add their traits to Monsanto-patented seeds.

"Monsanto has abused its unlawfully-acquired monopoly power to block competition, thwart innovation and extract from farmers unjustified price increases of over 100 percent in recent years," DuPont argues in court documents.

A recent paper by Diana Moss of the American Antitrust Institute broadened the antitrust case against Monsanto and called for legal enforcement, citing "an almost intractable situation for competition." The institute has taken donations from DuPont but does not cater to its donors' viewpoints, officials said.

Monsanto says that the allegations of stifling competition are "without merit" and that it broadly licenses its technology.

"We license Roundup Ready technology to hundreds of independent seed companies and our major competitors," Lee Quarles, a company spokesman said. The company won't license Roundup Ready without restriction, however, because it wants to ensure that any other traits that are stacked onto the Roundup Ready seeds actually function as promised, a precaution that protects their brand and their customers, Monsanto officials say.

Out in the fields, meanwhile, there remains resentment and wonder about the Monsanto-patented seed.

According to Moss, the price of seed from 2000 to 2008 outpaced the growth of crop yields by 2 to 4 percent a year.

Several farmers said the cost of Roundup Ready seeds seemed to rise faster than their own margins. But that doesn't mean, at least just yet, that they'll stop using them. "Everybody likes Roundup Ready," said William Layton, a grain farmer on the Eastern Shore. "Maybe it costs a little more than we like. But everybody's going to keep using it."


The Monopoly Named Monsanto

By Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Triple Pundit
November 27 , 2009

Monsanto is the largest seed company in the world. It controls 95 percent of the market for insect and herbicide resistant cotton traits. In 2008, Monsanto had shares of up to 65 percent for traited corn and soybeans and about 45 percent for traited corn. During the late 1990s and through the 2000s, Monsanto acquired almost 40 companies "creating the horizontal and vertical integration that underlies the firm's platforms in cotton, corn, and soybeans," according to a whitepaper by American Antitrust Institute's vice president and senior fellow, Diana Moss. Most of the acquisitions were seed companies.

The whitepaper cites a report by the Government Accounting Office (GAO), which noted that Monsanto's U.S. patents for Roundup Ready soybean seeds give it power over the seed market. It also points out that during the years 2002 to 2009 there were almost 60 patent infringement and antitrust court cases in federal district and appeals court. Almost 55 percent involve Monsanto as the plaintiff, and 20 percent as the defendant. This amounts to three-quarters of all the cases. "The lack of competition and innovation in the marketplace has reduced farmers' choices and enabled Monsanto to raise prices unencumbered," said Keith Mudd from the Organization for Competitive Markets, after Monsanto decided to raise some GM maize seed prices by 35 percent.

Obama administration investigating Monsanto

Christine Varney, chief of the Justice Department's antitrust division, said last summer that "competition issues affecting agriculture have been a priority for me." In October, Monsanto said it received requests from the Justice Department about possible violations of antitrust laws.

Peter Carstensen, a former Justice Department lawyer, recently said, "The Justice Department has clearly begun a major investigation and is moving ahead."

"My guess is that they are looking at a number of situations that involve dominant firms with near monopoly power and are interested in reviving and enforcing the Sherman Act, Section 2, which governs monopolization," Tim Greaney said recently. Greaney is also a former Justice Department lawyer

EU revoked GM patent in 2007

In 2007, the European Patent Office (EPO) revoked the 13-year patent on Monsanto's GMO soybeans. The patent gave Monsanto about 90 percent of the market for GMO soybeans. Scientists said it was too broad of a patent.

"No patent symbolizes the brokenness of the patent system better than Monsanto's species-wide patent on genetically engineered soybeans," said Hope Shand of ETC Group. "Monsanto's patent is both technically flawed and morally unacceptable."

Shand added, "Monsanto's patent is undermining the economic security of farming communities and jeopardizing access to seeds \u2013 the first link in the food chain. Whoever controls the seeds controls the food supply."

"The statistics speak for themselves," said Greenpeace's patent expert Dr. Christoph Then. "A single company has been awarded sweeping monopoly control over one of the world's most important food crops."


New GMO Labeling Website Showcases Hard-to-find Product Comparisons

By NJ Jaeger
AMLA Environmental Health Examiner
November 30, 2009

Today the Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT) launched a new website that takes the guesswork out of how to avoid genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and gene-spliced food products. With polls indicating that 9 out of 10 Americans want GMOs labeled, the site's brand vs. brand comparison is expected to have a significant influence in shifting the choices shoppers make in supermarkets.

The site was developed for the 53% of Americans who say they would avoid GMOs if labeled. It lists popular brands that don't use ingredients from the eight GM crops such as GM soy and corn. It also lists dairy products that don't allow the controversial GM bovine growth hormone.

Ann Marie Michaels, proud mom of a two-year old, says "I am so grateful IRT put up this site. The Non-GMO Shopping Guide fits easily into my purse, and now I wouldn't leave home without it. I've posted some of this hard-to-find information on my website, and sent the link to my friends, who will tell their friends, who will tell their friends."

IRT's Executive Director Jeffrey Smith, who hears from thousands of consumers on trips around the US, frustrated at the lack of labeling, says "Our new website gives consumers back the power to make an informed choice."

Dr. Ted Nordquist, founder and CEO of WholeSoy & Co., America's number one maker of Non-GMO Organic soy yogurts, says "WholeSoy understands the negative impact of pesticides and herbicides on our environment and does not use any genetically modified organisms in our products. We are happy to be listed and to see a growing trend towards safety conscious food shopping."

Maria Emmer-Aanes, director of marketing and communications from Nature's Path, North America's number one organic cereal manufacturer, says, "We have been at the forefront of the organic food movement since the inception of the company almost 25 years ago, and have never supported the use of GMO ingredients." She says, "We are extremely concerned about transparency and letting consumers make an informed choice about whether or not they eat GMOs, so we applaud the creation of this resource and are happy to be listed on the website."

Doctor's Orders

Physician Amy Dean, who is a board member of AAEM, a Physicians' association that recently asked doctors to prescribe non-GMO diets to all patients, says she regularly provides the Non-GMO Shopping Guide for her patients, and is pleased to recommend IRT's informative and easy-to-use new website.

The Non-GMO Shopping Guide is a joint production of IRT and the Center for Food Safety. Find more information on GMOs at

The Institute for Responsible Technology's Campaign for Healthier Eating in America mobilizes citizens, organizations, businesses, and the media, to achieve the tipping point of consumer rejection of genetically modified foods.

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