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Crop King Monsanto Seeks Pig-Breeding Patent Clout

By Carey Gillam
August 10, 2005

KANSAS CITY, Missouri - Monsanto Company, already a world powerhouse in biotech crops, is shaking up the swine industry with plans to patent pig-breeding techniques and lay claim to the animals born as a result.

Agricultural experts are scrambling to assess how these patents might affect the market, while consumer activists warn that if the company is granted pig-related patents, on top of its tight rein on key feed and food crops, its control over agriculture could be unprecedented.

"We're afraid that Monsanto and other big companies are getting control of the world's genetic resources," said Christoph Then, a patent expert with Greenpeace in Germany.

The patent applications, filed with the World Intellectual Property Organization, are broad in scope, and are expected to take several years and numerous rewrites before approval.

"We applied for a patent ... for some specific reproductive processes in swine," said Monsanto spokesman Chris Horner. "Any pigs that would be produced using this reproductive technique would be covered by these patents."

The practices Monsanto wants to patent basically involve identifying genes that result in desirable traits in swine, breeding animals to achieve those traits and using a specialized device to inseminate sows deeply in a way that uses less sperm than is typically required.

"We've come up with a protocol that wraps a lot of these techniques together," said Monsanto swine molecular breeding expert Mike Lohuis.

St. Louis, Missouri-based Monsanto says any fears about its work are overblown and the patents are simply a "defensive move" as many players around the world race to find technology to breed bigger and better pigs to meet consumer demands for healthy, tasty and inexpensive pork. Officials say they are not trying to patent pigs per se. They only want the ability to track which pigs come from the Monsanto system.

Still, Greenpeace sees a more sinister motive and last week launched an Internet campaign to quash the patents, spurring hundreds of people to bombard Monsanto executives with e-mailed concerns.

Monsanto 'has invented nothing new' - Critics

More than 110 million hogs are marketed each year in North America, and there are roughly 6 million breeding sows that support that industry.

Currently, the dominant U.S. player in the swine breeding industry is the Pig Improvement Co. unit of British pig breeder Sygen International, which holds an estimated 40 percent U.S. market share. Monsanto has an estimated 10-12 percent, obtained when it acquired Dekalb Genetics six years ago.

"We'd like to build a business like theirs," Ron Schinnour, general manager of Monsanto Choice Genetics, said of PIC. "It is an area we have a lot of focus on."

The concerns over Monsanto's patents are two-pronged. One relates to how the patent claims involving the animals themselves would be used. There have been hundreds of animal patents granted over the last several years, including claims on salmon, chimps and mice. But the majority are genetically modified animals used in laboratory research, not common farm animals.

Some fear that Monsanto one day could be filing patent infringement lawsuits against pig farmers. Monsanto already has a track record of suing farmers whose crops contain some of the company's patented genetic plant technology.

"The claims are very unique. It's another incident of Monsanto trying to really push the boundaries," said agricultural patent attorney Heidi Nebel.

Critics also say it is not apparent that Monsanto has actually invented anything new in swine reproduction. They say the company is simply trying to lay claim to a combination of practices already used along with genetic selection that occurs in nature.

"The claims are very broadly sculpted; the question is whether there is anything new here," said Max Rothschild, U.S. Pig Genome Coordinator from Iowa State University, who holds several patents in this area.

Monsanto is best known for its herbicide products and its development and marketing of genetically modified soybeans and corn and other crops that resist insects and make it easier for farmers to fight weeds. Swine industry players say Monsanto has the resources to become a significant force in pork as well.

"They are making a big push," said animal scientist Dan Pomp, co-founder of Gene Seek, a DNA-based service company that contracts with Monsanto and other players for genetic swine testing. "They've built this extensive and strong program to grow that side of their business."


Seventh Anniversary of GM Safety Scandal

GM WATCH daily
August 10, 2005

Seven years ago today on the 10th August 1998 the GM debate changed forever.

The story began three years earlier. That's when the UK government's Scottish Office commissioned a three-year multi-centre research programme into the safety of GM food under the coordination of Dr Arpad Pusztai. At that time there was not a single publication in a peer-reviewed journal on the safety of GM food.

Dr Arpad Pusztai

Dr Pusztai, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, was an eminent scientist. He was the world's leading expert on the plant proteins known as lectins. He had published three books and over 270 scientific studies.

He and his team fought off competition from 28 other research organisations from across Europe to be awarded the GBP1.6 million contract by the Scottish Office. The project methodology was also reviewed and passed by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) - the UK government's main funding body for the biological sciences.

The research involved feeding GM potatoes to rats and monitoring physiological changes. By late 1997 preliminary results from the rat-feeding experiments were showing totally unexpected and worrying changes in the size and weight of the rat's body organs. Liver and heart sizes were getting smaller, and so was the brain. There were also indications that the rats' immune systems were weakening.

Dr Pusztai was interviewed for a programme about GM food being made by Granada TV's 'The World in Action'. The filming took place in late June 1998 with the agreement of the director of the Rowett Institute, Professor James, and in the presence of the Rowett Institute's press officer. The World in Action interview was broadcast on the evening of Monday 10th August 1998.

Later that evening Professor James congratulated Dr Pusztai on his TV appearance, commenting on 'how well Arpad had handled the questions'. The next day a further press release from the Rowett noted that 'a range of carefully controlled studies underlie the basis of Dr Pusztai's concerns'. However, reportedly following two calls to the Rowett from the Prime Minister's Office, the Government, the Royal Society and the Rowett launched a vitriolic campaign to sack, silence and ridicule Dr Pusztai.

He was accused of unprofessional conduct because his work had not been peer-reviewed. However, his research subsequently passed peer-review after being reviewed by a larger than usual panel of scientists and was published (see below). Many people also take the view that in circumstances where research is giving rise to serious concerns that may need to be addressed sooner rather than later, it is acceptable for scientists to act as whistle blowers and draw attention to the problems their research is uncovering even prior to peer-reviewed publication.

The Government criticised the methodology of Pusztai's research despite the fact that this had been approved in advance by its own Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. Neither the Government nor any other official body has ever repeated or refined Dr Pusztai's experiments to test the validity of his results.

The Royal Society and its leading Fellows were key players in the attacks on Dr Pusztai from the time he went public with doubts about the safety of GM foods. In February 1999, for instance, nineteen Fellows of the Royal Society condemned Pusztai, in all but name, in a letter published in the national press. Among the signatories was Peter Lachmann, who played a key role in the attacks on Pusztai.

Three months later in May 1999 the Royal Society published a partial 'peer review' of Pusztai's then unpublished research. This review was based not on a properly prepared paper, like that Pusztai and his collaborator Ewen submitted to The Lancet for peer-review, but on a far-from-complete internal report intended for use by Pusztai's research team at the Rowett Institute.

Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, described the Royal Society review as 'a gesture of breathtaking impertinence to the Rowett Institute scientists who should be judged only on the full and final publication of their work.'

The Royal Society's review was organised by members of a working group appointed by the Society in coordination with the Society's officers. The Royal Society claimed that anyone who had already commented on the Pusztai affair had been excluded from this decision making process in order to avoid bias. However, William Hill, Patrick Bateson, Brian Heap and Eric Ash, who were all involved, were all among the co-signatories of the letter condemning Pusztai that had been published in The Daily Telegraph back in February.

In addition, four key people involved, including the Chair of the working group, Noreen Murray, as well as Brian Heap, Rebecca Bowden and Sir Aaron Klug, were all part of the earlier working group that had issued the Royal Society's 1998 report supporting GM foods.

There were other issues of bias. For instance, William Hill, the chair of the Pusztai working group, was also the deputy chair of the Roslin Institute, famous for genetically modifying animals and for cloning Dolly the sheep. Roslin in turn had links to Geron Biomed for whom Lachmann consulted. Similarly, Noreen Murray was the wife of the co-founder of Europe's first biotechnology company, Biogen.

Undaunted by the Royal Society's attack on their unpublished work, Pusztai and his co-researcher, Prof Stanley Ewen, submitted their final paper on their experiments to The Lancet. It was sent to six reviewers, double the normal number, and a clear majority were in favour of its publication.

However, prior to publication the Lancet's editor Richard Horton received a phone call from Peter Lachmann, the former Vice-President of the Royal Society. According to Horton, Lachmann called him 'immoral' for publishing something he knew to be 'untrue'. Towards the end of the conversation Horton says Lachmann also told him that if he published Pusztai's paper, this would 'have implications for his personal position' as editor.

The Guardian broke the news of Horton being threatened in November 1999 in a front-page story. It quoted Horton saying that the Royal Society had acted like a Star Chamber over the Pusztai affair. 'The Royal Society has absolutely no remit to conduct that sort of inquiry.' Lachmann denied threatening Horton although he admitted making the phone call in order to discuss the pending publication.

The Guardian also talked of a GM 'rebuttal unit' operating from within the Royal Society. According to the journalist Andy Rowell, who helped research The Guardian article, Rebecca Bowden, who had coordinated the Pusztai peer-review and who had worked for the Government's Biotechnology Unit before joining The Royal Society in 1998, admitted to the paper, 'We have an organization that filters the news out there. It's really an information exchange to keep an eye on what's happening and to know what the government is having problems about ? its just so that I know who to put up.'

The attacks on The Lancet editor and his decision to publish Pusztai's paper continued. Sir Aaron Klug, vigorously opposed the publication of Pusztai's research, saying it was fatally flawed in design because the protein content of the diets which control groups of rats were fed on was not the same as that of the other diets. Pusztai commented: 'In fact, the paper clearly states that ALL diets had the same protein content and were iso-energetic. I cannot assume that Sir Aaron is not sufficiently intelligent to read a simple statement as that, so the only conclusion I can come to is that he deliberately briefed the reporters with something that was untrue.'

Richard Horton remained unbowed. 'Stanley Ewen and Arpad Pusztai's research letter,' he wrote, 'was published on grounds of scientific merit, as well as public interest'. What Sir Aaron Klug from the Royal Society cannot 'defend is the reckless decision of the Royal Society to abandon the principles of due process in passing judgement on their work. To review and then publish criticism of these researchers' findings without publishing either their original data or their response was, at best, unfair and ill-judged'.

The attacks continue unabated. Peter Lachmann's successor as Biological Secretary of the Royal Society, Patrick Bateson, told readers of the British Association's journal Science and Public Affairs that The Lancet had only published Pusztai's research 'in the face of objections by its statistically-competent referees' (June 2002, Mavericks are not always right). Bateson, presumably deliberately, inverts the fact that Pusztai's Lancet paper successfully came through a peer review process that was far more stringent than that applying to most published papers.

In an article in The Independent, giving the Royal Society's views on why the public no longer trusts experts like themselves - 'Scientists blame media and fraud for fall in public trust' - Pusztai's work is categorised as 'fraud'. Pusztai's peer reviewers, we are told in the article, 'refused it for publication, citing numerous flaws in its methods - notably that the rats in the experiment had not been fed GM potatoes, but normal ones spiked with a toxin that GM potatoes might have made.' Almost every word of this is straight fabrication. There was no fraud. Rats were fed GM potatoes. The publication of Pusztai's Lancet paper was supported by a clear majority of its peer reviewers, etc. etc. It is particularly ironic that such a travesty should have been published in an article reporting the Royal Society's concerns about the reporting of science in the media.

In February 2002 a new Royal Society report on GM crops was published as an update to the Society's September 1998 report on GM. The expert group which produced it was much more broadly based than in '98 and the report took a noticeably more cautious line. 'British Scientists Turn on GM Foods', ran The Guardian's headline on a report which included an admission 'that GM technology could lead to... unpredicted harmful changes in the nutritional status of foods'.

The expert group was chaired by Jim Smith, who had sat on the Society's Pusztai working group, and tucked away inside the report was a paragraph on Pusztai. Once again, it was designed to mislead.

The first part of the paragraph read: 'In June 1999, the Royal Society published a report, review of data on possible toxicity of GM potatoes, in response to claims made by Dr Pusztai (Ewen and Pusztai, 1999). The report found that Dr Pusztai had produced no convincing evidence of adverse effects from GM potatoes on the growth of rats or their immune function.?

The Royal Society report references the phrase 'claims made by Dr Pusztai' - claims it said it had reviewed - to the article published by Pusztai and Ewen in The Lancet in 1999. In fact, however, the Royal Society?s partial review of Pusztai's research was published months before The Lancet article appeared. The Royal Society thus conceals the fact that it had only ever reviewed part of Pusztai's data, condemning him ahead of publication of his actual paper.

The 2002 report continued: 'It concluded that the only way to clarify Dr Pusztai's claims would be to refine his experimental design and carry out further studies to test clearly defined hypotheses focused on the specific effects reported by him. Such studies, on the results of feeding GM sweet peppers and GM tomatoes to rats, and GM soya to mice and rats, have now been completed and no adverse effects have been found (Gasson and Burke, 2001).'

But the Gasson and Burke paper, to which these further feeding studies are referenced by the Society, was not a piece of primary research but an 'opinion' piece written by two pro-GM scientists, Mike Gasson and Derek Burke. Worse, one of t he two further studies mentioned had not even been published, except by way of summary, ie it had never been fully peer-reviewed. In other words, the Royal Society uses an unpublished and un-peer-reviewed study to attack Pusztai, two years after it had condemned him for speaking to the media without first publishing peer-reviewed work.

In response to criticism, the Royal Society admitted that the work in question remained unpublished but said this was not a problem because, 'it had been discussed at international scientific conferences'. By this definition, however, Pusztai's research would have been equally validated before the Society ever launched its partial review as it had been presented at an international conference prior to the Society's review. Curiously, the Royal Society has also described the opinion piece by Gasson and Burke as 'primary research,' even though it is a literature review involving no lab work.

Andy Rowell, author of a book that deals extensively with the Royal Society's role in the Pusztai affair, writes, 'the fundamental flaw in the scientific establishment's response is not that they try and damn Pusztai with unpublished data, nor is it that they have overlooked published studies [supporting Pusztai's concerns], but that in 1999, everyone agreed that more work was needed. Three years later, that work remains to be undertaken... [A] scientific body, like The Royal Society, that allocates millions in research funds every year, could have funded a repeat of Pusztai's experiments.'

Nobody ever has.

Much of the information below comes from 'Don't Worry: Its Safe To Eat' by Andy Rowell. [Earthscan, 2003, ISBN 1853839329].


Herbicide-resistant Weed Plagues California

By Juliana Barbassa
August 9, 2005

PARLIER, Calif. (AP) - Horseweed was once merely a nuisance to farmers - hard to pull out, quick to sprout back after cutting, and capable of towering over tractors.

Now, it's becoming a full-blown nightmare worthy of an agricultural horror flick: scientists in California have found clusters of the weed that are resistant to scores of herbicides, leaving farmers to fight an increasingly formidable and costly foe.

Pete Christensen said he watched his costs soar as the most popular herbicide became increasingly powerless to stop the weeds from choking the grapes on his 75-acre vineyard near Selma.

About five years ago he started noticing that Roundup wasn't withering the weed as usual. Three years later, he had tripled the concentration of the herbicide, and had doubled the applications, but the weeds were growing thicker than ever, rising over his vines and competing with them for water, nutrients and sunshine.

"It was dominant in the landscape," Christensen said.

The weed, also known as mare's tail, has always been around, but it wasn't until last month that University of California researchers confirmed that some strains of it had become resistant to herbicides like Roundup, posing a threat to the nation's most productive farmland.

Researchers were alarmed by the weed's rapid proliferation. Its spindly stalks can be seen poking out of Napa Valley vineyards in the North, along highways and pastures in the Central Valley and in Southern California fields.

Farmers elsewhere have been dealing with resistance to the chemical glyphosate. First found in Delaware in 2000, glyphosate-resistant horseweed has since been found in 10 other states in the East and South.

Farmers dealing with the problem have been forced to repeatedly till their fields, rely on weeding, or on more toxic herbicides to control the tall, fast-growing pest.

Developing resistance to a chemical isn't unusual among plants and animals, scientists said. What makes the horseweed adaptation such a nuisance is how fast it reproduces and how big it grows, stretching 10 or 12 feet tall, sucking up scarce water and nutrients. As a relative of the dandelion, each weed produces up to 200,000 tiny airborne seeds a season on fluffy yellow flowers.

For decades, growers, gardeners and anyone looking for an easy way to beat back weeds have relied on glyphosate. While it's inexpensive, it works on several types of weeds, and is less toxic than other pest-control ingredients.

Farmers planting Roundup-Ready crops such as corn, soybeans or cotton that have been genetically engineered to survive the chemical could spray it liberally over their entire field, killing all weeds and leaving only their crops standing.

The herbicide's popularity may be partly to blame for breeding the resistance, researchers said. By killing nonresistant weeds, it allows only the survivors - those few naturally resistant plants - to thrive.

"They've created a problem by relying on one solution to solve all problems," said weed ecologist Anil Shrestha of the University of California's Kearney Agricultural Center.

Some scientists said the development wasn't surprising.

Systems like Monsanto's Roundup-Ready crops, which promise an easy, one-chemical solution to the age-old problem of weed control, only work for a short time, said Margaret Mellon, director for the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "When you expand the use of an herbicide dramatically, resistant weeds start moving in," said Mellon.

Bob Prys, a manager for the 13,000-acre Borba Farms, said the weed became a problem just three or four years after they started growing Roundup-Ready cotton on the 500-acre ranch. They sprayed the field, killing everything but the cotton plants, and saving money by having to till their fields less frequently.

Now Prys said they're relying on weeding again and adding other chemicals to their herbicide mix - adding unexpected costs to the higher price they pay for Roundup-Ready seed."It's caused us to re-evaluate our Roundup-Ready cotton," Prys said.

Monsanto researchers recommend mixing in other chemicals to eliminate the threat before there is a problem, said David Heering, the Roundup technical manager for Monsanto.

"At the end of the day, they'll still have fewer passes through the fields, and fewer weed-control problems," Heering said.

The UC scientists recommended rotating crops, cultivating the land with farm equipment, weeding, and the use of herbicides that kill the seeds in the soil before they germinate.

Those measures will increase costs for farmers, but will prevent a more serious and costly problem later on.

Genetically Engineered Crops Use More Pesticide

Union of Concerned Scientists Report

When genetically engineered (GE) crops first came on the market in 1996, proponents claimed that they would need far less pesticide than conventional crops. Most genetically engineered crops are modified to either tolerate the herbicide glyphosate (HT crops) or to produce their own insecticide (Bt crops), so in theory, fewer applications of pesticide on GE fields would be sufficient to take care of pests. For the first three years of use, this was true. However, a new report by agricultural economist Dr. Charles Benbrook, Genetically Engineered Crops and Pesticide Use in the United States, shows that farmers now use more pesticide on the top three GE crops—corn, soybeans, and cotton—than on conventional varieties.

From 1996 to 1999, pest management in GE corn, soybeans, and cotton was relatively simple and effective, and engineered crops needed less pesticide than conventional varieties. By 2000, however, a contrary trend appeared—an increase in herbicide use on HT varieties over conventional varieties. That trend has continued and even accelerated in the last four years. Now, nine years of data on GE crops and pesticide use indicate that a total of 122 million more pounds of pesticides have been used on engineered crops than on conventional ones over that period.

According to the report, the difference in pesticide use is due to a sharp increase in herbicides applied to glyphosate-tolerant crops. This has occurred due to the emergence of new weeds—glyphosate-tolerant ones. As weed scientists have predicted for years, the widespread use of glyphosate on millions of acres of GE crops has selected for weeds that are tolerant to the chemical. These new weeds are subdued only by multiple applications of glyphosate and/or other herbicides.

Price drops for glyphosate and other herbicides and vigorous marketing by herbicide manufacturers have led farmers to apply more and more herbicides to deal with the new weed problem. Between 1996 and 2004, farmers used 138 million more pounds of herbicides on GE varieties than on conventional ones.

This huge increase was offset a bit by a welcome decline in insecticide use on Bt varieties. Between 1996 and 2004, 15.6 million fewer pounds of insecticide were used on Bt crops compared with conventional varieties.

The report predicts that the intensity of herbicide use on GE crops is not likely to subside in the near future because of the popularity of HT varieties, the limited supply of seeds for non-HT varieties, and increasingly aggressive herbicide company campaigns targeting farmers growing HT crops.

The Union of Concerned Scientists funded the analytical work on which the report is based.

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Genetically engineered food is corporate bioterrorism