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September 2009 Updates

Why GMO Foods Have Failed at Producing Healthy Food for More People

By Timothy J. LaSalle
Rodale Institute
September 8, 2009

For a technology that has sucked up billions of research dollars and prolonged agriculture's dependence on chemical inputs, GMOs (genetically modified organisms) have yet to justify their role in a world desperate for more sustainable ways to produce healthier food for more people. In a recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists entitled "Failure to Yield," a summary of on-farm production levels of genetically modified crops showed less than marginal gains in actual yield. In fact, the review concluded that "no currently available transgenic varieties enhance the intrinsic yield of any crops."

Let's Put GMO Food on the Shelf

Such findings beg the question: Who needs GMO food anyway? If GMOs are developed to increase yields, then they have failed. If they are marketed to reduce costs for farmers, and the price of GMO corn seed is now three times greater than it was just a few years ago, they have failed yet again. If these seeds are engineered to use less herbicides when, according to recent indications, many weeds are becoming Roundup-resistant, requiring a cocktail of herbicide applications in certain farming areas while crop land is just being abandoned in others, they have most certainly failed!

GMO defenders cite net yield increases per acre due to weed and pest management traits, apparently comparing GMO-chemical regimes with non-GMO-chemical regimes in traditional intensive corn-soy production systems. They don't compare the genetically modified pest-management results with non-chemical systems where organic corn tolerates higher weed populations without yield loss, and where insect damage becomes insignificant in most years once basic crop rotations are established and soil health improves. It seems GMO defenders have failed to take the varying approaches of these two systems into account, which leaves us with only a chapter of the whole story.

GMO Food Just Doesn't Make Sense

Despite the failures of GMOs, it is clear that their developers have not failed at making huge profits in a system where farmers are forced to market on volume, and have no market rewards for nutritional quality or penalties for ecological impact.

So what have consumers gained? Perhaps the answer is unclear. But I do know why we in the organic movement are so dead against GMO food. The answer is pretty simple: Genetically engineered seeds just don't make sense. Here's why:

  • How can a seed variety that is costly to patent (and legally can't be saved for replanting) help poor farmers around the world?
  • How can a seed that needs increased levels of toxins to control weeds be the safest option, ecologically or from a human standpoint?
  • How can a seed that is artificially injected with foreign proteins be harmless to eat?

GMO Food and Human Health: The Hidden Consequences

Whether genetically modified foods are safe for human consumption will remain a controversial issue. Yet some scientists who have been quieted or marginalized have found serious concerns about the safety of GMOs in laboratory animal studies. In many investigations involving GMO-fed animals, there have been cases of underdeveloped organs, reproductive problems, accelerated aging and even death.

As the four As (allergies, asthma, autism, and ADD) rapidly increase in U.S. health statistics, we must consider that GMOs could certainly be one of the causes. As a matter of fact, in a recent position paper by the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, physicians across the country called for a moratorium on GMO foods because "there is more than a casual association between GM foods and adverse health effects."

In the last few decades most of these health concerns have more than doubled, and, at times, tripled. The human body has not changed, but our diet undoubtedly has, and as of the 1990s, GMOs have become increasingly prevalent in our food supply. In her new book, The Unhealthy Truth, Robyn O'Brien outlines the logical connection between the astronomical increase in allergic response among our American population and our unbridled consumption of these altered foods. She states that almost 75 percent of our processed foods now contain neurotoxins, novel proteins, and allergens.

In Search of Safe Food

Meanwhile, we continue to consume these foods every day. Thanks to legislation and regulations shaped by the expansive lobbying efforts of GMO giants like Monsanto, we are not allowed to know which foods contain modified genes. Many European, Asian, and African countries have banned GMOs to protect their farming systems and food supplies, yet we are seemingly complacent that these controversial seeds have entered our food supply. In reality, about 92 percent of all U.S. soybean acreage is planted with GMO seed. Although you may not consume soy products outright, say in the form of soy milk or tofu, you are surely getting a heavy dose of GMO soy if you regularly eat non-organic processed foods. (Thanks to certification standards, when you buy organic you buy food grown without GMO seeds.)

With the tragic consequences of the chronic maladies mentioned above, why would we let these experimental seeds remain in our food source without demanding to know the long-term, generational effects they may have on human health? Why would we want our children to be the guinea pigs for brand-new, laboratory-created proteins that have undergone genetic modification?

First, we should demand our legislators implement a precautionary principle: GMOs should not be allowed into our food system until extensive long-term, third-party studies--not studies funded or in any way influenced by seed technology companies--have been performed. A less effective, but equally important, second is that all of our food must be clearly labeled if it contains GMO crop ingredients. We must know. We have a right to know. Our food--our bodies.


Seeds Grow Monsanto's Business

By Jeffrey Tomich
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
September 20, 2009

WOODLAND, CALIF. - The future of supermarket produce is spread across 144 acres of flat, arid farmland in California's Central Valley.

The region is known for its processing tomatoes used in ketchup, soups and salsa. In mid-August, trucks zip up and down the highways overflowing with red balls destined to be chopped, canned and shipped.

But what's grown here is exponentially more diverse. There are dozens of varieties of tomatoes, melons, hot peppers, onions and squash. And they're not so much for eating, but specimens for probing, prodding and extracting DNA.

This small farm, about a half-hour west of Sacramento, belongs to Monsanto Co., the biotech giant known as the king of genetically modified, or GM, crops and maker of Roundup weed killer. Less recognized is Monsanto's leading position in the $3 billion global vegetable seed industry.

Monsanto, based in Creve Coeur, got to be No. 1 in vegetable seed through a pair of acquisitions. Now, CEO Hugh Grant aims to boost profitability and market share further by using much the same playbook that made the company dominant in corn and soybeans - by building seeds that produce healthier, better tasting fruit and vegetables.

Monsanto is spending about $75 million developing new vegetable seeds. Much of its budget still goes to traditional and advanced breeding. With few exceptions, it's not investing in genetically modified varieties, which involve introducing new genes to make plants resistant to pests or herbicide.

Woodland is the largest of 60 vegetable breeding stations around the globe. It's home to about 180 breeders, pathologists and other scientists. Offices, labs and 290,000 square feet of greenhouses are surrounded by fields brimming with new and novel varieties of tomatoes, peppers, onions, squash and melons.

Take the small, bright orange grape tomato known simply as No. 3756.

To most people, it doesn't look different from what you might find today at the grocery store. Its creator, tomato breeder Doug Heath, believes it's destined to become a hit with consumers, retailers and growers - all of which will mean an opportunity to justify higher seed prices.

On a tour of the tomato plot on a sunny mid-August morning, Heath walks down a 100-foot-long row of plants full of bright orange tomatoes that stand out like lights on a Christmas tree.

The tomato is characterized by several key traits. It contains a specific "long shelf life" gene that helps it stay fresh as it travels thousands of miles to stores. It's resistant to Tomato Mosaic Virus, a scourge for greenhouse growers. But mostly, it's higher in Brix, or sweetness. A slicing tomato measures about 5 degrees Brix; a typical cherry or grape tomato is 8. This one registers near 12.

"This is a favorite of my kids," Heath says, plucking one of the bulbs and popping it in his mouth. "Absolutely kid-proven. If I bring these home, they eat them like Skittles."

Heath and many of the other scientists at Woodland are holdovers from Seminis Inc., which was already the world's largest vegetable seed company when Monsanto bought it for $1.5 billion in 2005.

The company added to its seed empire last year with the $800 million purchase of Netherlands-based De Ruiter Seeds Group BV, which specializes in seeds for greenhouse vegetables, a fast-growing and more profitable segment of the business.

Healthier Tomatoes

Monsanto was developing potatoes, tomatoes and berries, including genetically modified varieties, in the late 1990s. The company left that business a few years later.

Executives never lost interest, though. A few years later they saw an opportunity to leverage the company's expertise in plant genetics and biotechnology to take advantage of increasing global vegetable consumption.

Vegetables are still a tiny piece of Monsanto's business. Sales totaled $744 million in fiscal 2008, just 7 percent of total revenue. Overall, it sells more than 3,000 products in 156 countries, mostly to seed dealers and distributors.

Monsanto aims to boost vegetable seed sales to $1 billion by 2012 by focusing on consumer traits such as flavor and nutrition. That's a new tack for seed companies, which historically poured their energy into boosting yields and creating produce that resisted disease. Sometimes, those grower traits came at the expense of flavor.

New products include Dolce Verde, a lettuce that combines the sweetness and crunch of iceberg and the dark color and nutritional qualities of romaine. It's being sold at 800 Tesco supermarkets in the United Kingdom, and the company hopes to bring it to the United States.

A new sweet onion will be test-marketed in St. Louis around Thanksgiving. It's meant to fill the seasonal gap that exists when Vidalia onions aren't available.

Other new products are aimed squarely at nutrition, such as high-lycopene tomatoes and broccoli that the company claims contains more cancer-fighting compounds than varieties available today.

"When I talk to people who are leading nutritionists and ask them what we should do to make fruits and vegetables healthier, the real consensus I get is to make them taste better so that people will eat more," said David M. Stark, Monsanto's vice president of consumer traits.

Booming demand for antioxidant-rich "superfoods" such as blueberries and pomegranates are examples of consumer interest in healthy foods, said Michael O'Brien, vice president of produce and floral for St. Louis-based Schnuck Markets Inc.

"Those two items resonated with people," said O'Brien, who is part of a group advising Monsanto through his position as secretary-treasurer of the Produce Marketing Association.

Monsanto is also forging relationships with companies such as produce giant Dole Food Co. The companies announced a five-year agreement this year to develop healthier, better-tasting broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce and spinach.

Sano Shimoda, president and founder of Bioscience Securities Inc., an advisory and investment banking firm in Venice, Calif., believes the goal of such alliances is to create brands that will fetch a premium from consumers.

"If you can create differentiated products coming off the farm, then there's the opportunity to create brand identification that is tied to traits," he said. "The whole point is: How can they

create product identification that the consumer will pay for, that will create brand identity and that they can charge more for?"

But knowing what consumers want today is only part of the challenge. It can take years to develop a new tomato, melon or pepper. And tastes vary widely by geography. Consider tomatoes: Italians want an acidic tomato. Japanese want a pinkish, sweet fruit without a hint of acid. Americans generally prefer something in between.

Processed food companies and fast-food restaurants also have different demands.

"McDonald's doesn't want a perfectly round tomato. They want a uniform red tomato like a sausage, so that every slice is almost the same," said John Uhlig, who runs Monsanto's food quality lab at Woodland. "And when they make ketchup, they want a different tomato. You've almost got a moving target."

Accelerating Nature

Uhlig's lab resembles a science classroom. Stacks of brown plastic bins holding basketball-size watermelons sit on the floor, waiting to be tested to see how they withstand the cold (typically, they don't).

On a table around the corner, clear plastic containers of slicing tomatoes are arranged on cafeteria trays. Each box holds three or four pre-sliced tomatoes picked days earlier. The goal: to mimic how they'll hold up when they arrive at a deli or a fast-food restaurant.

Over the course of a year, the lab will handle 58,000 pounds of produce, running tests on sugars, acidity and pungency. In all, more than 330,000 individual items will be bar-coded and tested for various physical and chemical properties.

Much of the work is still done by hand, as are other time-consuming chores at Woodland, such as pollinating tiny greenhouse plants.

Meanwhile, much of the head-spinning genetic analysis that's become an integral part of the company's plant-breeding program has been revolutionized by proprietary automated systems.

The speed and efficiency is a key to Monsanto's increased use of a powerful biotech tool - the use of molecular markers, DNA fragments used to identify genetic features of plants.

So far, Monsanto researchers have identified more than 15,000 such markers across a dozen key crops, such as tomatoes, peppers and melons, that can significantly accelerate the breeding process.

Take a cherry tomato developed by Heath. It was bred with a wild species indigenous to Peru to make it resistant to late blight disease, a fungal disease that has wreaked havoc on some tomato crops this year.

In the past, crossing a domesticated tomato with a wild species would have taken a decade. With markers, the time can be cut to as little as two to three years, Heath said.

"It's almost like having X-ray glasses," he said. "My assistant takes a millimeter sliver of leaf, extracts the DNA, and we have many markers we can look at."

Monsanto has earned billions of dollars selling genetically engineered corn and soybean, and it even markets transgenic squash developed by Seminis in 1995 that's resistant to certain plant viruses. Yet, the company doesn't have aggressive plans to launch new GM fruit or vegetables in the near future.

The company's first foray into biotech vegetables was the NewLeaf potato, which contained a gene from a microorganism that produced a toxin to repel the Colorado potato beetle - a damaging pest for growers. At its peak, the potato was planted on 55,000 acres. But fast-food giant McDonald's instructed french fry suppliers to stop using the potato. Many farmers followed suit, and Monsanto shelved it in 2001.

Today, Monsanto said it was investing in only a handful of biotech products. One is an insect-protected and herbicide-tolerant sweet corn that it hopes to introduce in the United States within the next decade to compete against a product offered by rival Syngenta.

A partner in India, Mahyco, has commercialized insect-protected brinjal, or eggplant, for that country. Now Monsanto is considering launching the trait in its own line of GM brinjal seeds.

The projects are evidence that Monsanto continues to believe biotech traits hold promise for consumers and growers.

But the scientific and business obstacles for successfully commercializing a genetically modified vegetable is steep, said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist in the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.

Perhaps the steepest hurdle is getting consumers to accept it. "The concept still is somewhat troubling to people," he said.


Court Finds USDA Violated Federal Law by Allowing Genetically Engineered Sugar Beets on the Market

Press Release
Center for Food Safety
September 22, 2009

Government Failed To Evaluate Environmental and Economic Risks of Monsanto Product

San Francisco, CA - In a case brought by Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice representing a coalition of farmers and consumers, a Federal Court ruled yesterday that the Bush USDA's approval of genetically engineered (GE) "RoundUp Ready" sugar beets was unlawful. The Court ordered the USDA to conduct a rigorous assessment of the environmental and economic impacts of the crop on farmers and the environment.

The federal district court for the Northern District of California ruled that the U. S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service ("APHIS") violated the National Environmental Policy Act ("NEPA") when it failed to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement ("EIS") before deregulating sugar beets that have been genetically engineered ("GE") to be resistant to glyphosate herbicide, marketed by Monsanto as Roundup. Plaintiffs Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, Sierra Club, and High Mowing Seeds, represented by Earthjustice and the Center for Food Safety, filed suit against APHIS in January 2008, alleging APHIS failed to adequately assess the environmental, health, and associated economic impacts of allowing "Roundup Ready" sugar beets to be commercially grown without restriction.

"This court decision is a wakeup call for the Obama USDA that they will not be allowed to ignore the biological pollution and economic impacts of gene altered crops," stated Andrew Kimbrell Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety. "The Courts have made it clear that USDA's job is to protect America's farmers and consumers, not the interests of Monsanto."

While industry asserts that the adoption rates of GE sugar beets has been high, food producers have shown reluctance in accepting GE beet sugar. Over 100 companies have joined the Non-GM Beet Sugar Registry opposing the introduction of GE sugar beets, and pledging to seek wherever possible to avoid using GM beet sugar in their products: .

Sugar beet seed is grown primarily in Oregon's Willamette Valley, which is also an important seed growing area for crops closely related to sugar beets, such as organic chard and table beets. GE sugar beets are wind pollinated and will inevitably cross-pollinate the related crops being grown in the same area. Such biological contamination would be devastating to organic farmers, who face debilitating market losses if their crops are contaminated by a GE variety. Contamination also reduces the ability of conventional farmers to decide what to grow, and limits consumer choice of the foods they can eat. In his September 21, 2009 order requiring APHIS to prepare an EIS, Judge Jeffrey S. White emphasized that "the potential elimination of a farmer's choice to grow non-genetically engineered crops, or a consumer's choice to eat non-genetically engineered food, is an action that potentially eliminates or reduces the availability of a particular plant has a significant effect on the human environment."

The Court found "no support in the record" for APHIS' conclusion that conventional sugar beets would remain available for farmers and consumers and held that the agency's decision that there would be no impacts from the GE beets "unreasonable."

The Court also held that APHIS failed to analyze the impacts of biological contamination on the related crops of red table beets and Swiss chard. "Organic seed is the foundation of organic farming and organic food integrity, said Mathew Dillon, Director of Advocacy of the Organic Seed Alliance. "We must continue to protect this natural resource, along with the rights of organic farmers to be protected from negative economic impact from GE crops, and consumers rights' to choose to eat food free of GE components."

"The ruling is a major consumer victory for preserving the right to grow and eat organic foods in the United States," stated Neil Carman of the Sierra Club. "Environmental impacts of Roundup Ready sugar beets were also not considered by APHIS, and they need to be fully evaluated."

"Roundup Ready" crops allow farmers to douse their fields with Monsanto's Roundup herbicide without killing the crop. Constant application of the herbicide has resulted in weeds becoming resistant to it. There are now millions of acres across the U.S. of such "superweeds," including marestail, ragweed, and waterhemp, and farmers are using greater applications of Roundup or other, even more toxic chemicals. According to an independent analysis of USDA data by former Board of Agriculture Chair of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Charles Benbrook, GE crops increased herbicide use in the U.S. by 122 million pounds - a 15-fold increase - between 1994 (when GE herbicide-tolerant crops were introduced) to 2004.

Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff noted, "Although touted by Monsanto as offering all sorts of benefits, GE crops offer consumers nothing, and are designed primarily to sell herbicides. The end result of their use is more toxics in our environment and our food, disappointed farmers, and revenue for Monsanto."

A 2008 scientific study revealed that Roundup formulations and metabolic products cause the death of human embryonic, placental, and umbilical cells in vitro even at low concentrations. Other recent studies suggest Roundup is an endocrine disrupter, and that some amphibians and other organisms may be at risk from glyphosate.

In addition, Judge Jeffrey S. White - in his ruling - has scheduled a meeting in his courtroom on October 30, 2009 to discuss the remedies phase of the case, including potential injunctive relief.

Monsanto has been the subject of increasing speculation that the Department of Justice's antitrust division is scrutinizing the biotechnology company's control of the markets for GE crops, and for commodities such as corn, soy and cotton.

The case is Center for Food Safety v. Vilsack, No. C 08-00484 JSW (N.D. Cal. 2009). The decision follows on the heels of a June 2009 decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirming the illegality of the APHIS' approval of Monsanto's genetically engineered alfalfa.


Judge Rejects Approval of Biotech Sugar Beets

By Andrew Pollack
New York Times
September 23, 2009

A federal judge has ruled that the government failed to adequately assess the environmental impacts of genetically engineered sugar beets before approving the crop for cultivation in the United States. The decision could lead to a ban on the planting of the beets, which have been widely adopted by farmers.

In a decision issued Monday, Judge Jeffrey S. White of Federal District Court in San Francisco, said that the Agriculture Department should have done an environmental impact statement. He said it should have assessed the consequences from the likely spread of the genetically engineered trait to other sugar beets or to the related crops of Swiss chard and red table beets.

The decision echoes another ruling two years ago by a different judge in the same court involving genetically engineered alfalfa. In that case, the judge later ruled that farmers could no longer plant the genetically modified alfalfa until the Agriculture Department wrote the environmental impact statement. Two years later, there is still no such assessment and the alfalfa, with rare exceptions, is not being grown.

In the new case, Judge White has not yet decided on the remedy. A meeting to begin that phase of the case is scheduled for Oct. 30.

But the plaintiffs in the lawsuit said they would press to ban planting of the biotech beets, arguing that Judge White's decision effectively revoked their approval and made them illegal to grow outside of field trials.

"We expect the same result here as we got in alfalfa," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, a Washington advocacy group that was also involved in the alfalfa lawsuit. "It will halt almost any further planting and sale because it's no longer an approved crop."

The Center for Food Safety was joined in the suit by the Sierra Club, the Organic Seed Alliance and High Mowing Organic Seeds, a small seed company. The defendant, the Department of Agriculture, said it was reviewing the decision.

Some beet farmers and sugar processors declined to comment Tuesday on the decision, saying they needed more time to analyze it. But they said that the genetically engineered sugar beets had proved immensely popular since first being widely grown in 2008.

The beets contain a bacterial gene licensed by Monsanto that renders them impervious to glyphosate, an herbicide that Monsanto sells as Roundup. That allows the herbicide to kill weeds without harming the crop.

"Growers have embraced this technology," said Duane Grant, a farmer in Rupert, Idaho, who said industry surveys suggested that 95 percent of the sugar beets planted this year were genetically modified.

Mr. Grant, who is also the chairman of the Snake River Sugar Company, a grower-owned cooperative, said easier weed control allowed farmers to reduce tillage, which in turn saved fuel and fertilizer and reduced erosion.

Mr. Grant, as well as some other growers, sugar processors and seed companies like Monsanto, had sought to intervene in the case. Judge White said that other than filing a friend-of-the-court brief, they could not participate in the phase of the lawsuit examining whether the Agriculture Department fulfilled its obligations under environmental law.

However, those groups are expected be allowed to take part in the next round of the case, involving the remedies. "We're going to use that opportunity to advocate the need for that technology and vigorously defend our growers' freedom to plant Roundup Ready sugar beets," said Luther Markwart, executive vice president for the American Sugarbeet Growers Association.

Beets supply about half the nation's sugar, with the rest coming from sugar cane. About 10,000 farmers grow about 1.1 million acres of sugar beets, Mr. Markwart said. That makes it a small crop compared to staples like soybeans and corn.

The Agriculture Department did conduct an environmental assessment before approving the genetically engineered beets in 2005 for widespread planting. But the department concluded there would be no significant impact, so a fuller environmental impact statement was not needed.

But Judge White said that the pollen from the genetically engineered crops might spread to non-engineered beets. He said that the "potential elimination of farmer's choice to grow non-genetically engineered crops, or a consumer's choice to eat non-genetically engineered food" constituted a significant effect on the environment that necessitated an environmental impact statement.

In March, Judge White had asked the federal government if the Obama administration would take a different stance in the case than the Bush administration had. The new administration said there would be no change.

David Berg, president of American Crystal Sugar Company, the nation's largest sugar beet processor, said food companies had accepted sugar from the biotech beets. "They've been a big nonevent in terms of customer acceptance," he said.

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