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March 2006 Updates

Syngenta Moves Closer to Launching GM Wheat

March 15, 2006

Leading agribusiness Syngenta could be set to introduce the world's first genetically modified wheat seed by early next decade, a move fully supported by American wheat industry organizations.

The Swiss company has already conducted several years of successful trials on its wheat seed, which has been developed to resist the increasingly troublesome disease fusarium.

Syngenta now says it needs to conduct more extensive field performance evaluations and technical success in field trials, emphasizing that it is still in early stages of development.

Indeed, the firm is still keeping quiet about its GM wheat, making no public announcements and speaking tentatively when it comes to possible commercialization dates.

"We have no timelines," said spokesperson Anne Burt. "It takes a long time from initial development to final registration, but the earliest possible date it could be ready is early next decade."

The company is currently talking to stakeholders to query market acceptance of the genetically modified wheat.

"We will go where the market is," Burt told

Indeed, Syngenta has good reason to be cautious. With wheat forming a major staple in the Western diet today, the introduction of a genetically modified version is likely to cause significant controversy and opposition.

In fact, two years ago, rival company Monsanto did not follow through on plans to introduce a GM wheat variety that was resistant to herbicide.

"Wheat is such an essential food product. Developing genetically modified traits does attract the attention of activists who are opposed to technology; and it is easy to critique because of the emotional values connected to it," said Lisa Dry, communications director of the Biotechnology Industry Organization's (BIO) food and agriculture department. BIO represents companies in the field of biotechnology, offering legal support to get FDA approval for new products.

But despite the opposition a GM wheat is sure to raise, US wheat industry organizations have given their full backing to Syngenta.

Last month, US Wheat Associates (USW), the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) and the Wheat Export Trade Education Committee (WETEC) passed resolutions of support for biotechnological research, which they said "holds great promise for the future."

"USW/NAWG/WETEC support continued research and development of Syngenta's fusarium tolerance transgenic trait in wheat and will work proactively with stakeholders in the food system for the benefit of customers and consumers worldwide, US wheat producers and the whole US wheat industry," they said.

The organizations also announced certain positions they have taken "in preparation for the future commercialization of biotechnologically-derived wheat," which they believe can occur with "minimum market disruption."

These include support of wheat growers to ensure that planting and marketing choices are based on economic, agronomic, and market factors, as well as backing wheat customers in their decisions to make purchases on the basis of specific traits.

The wheat organizations also said they encourage the adoption of a nationally and internationally accepted definition of biotechnologically-derived products, as well as the international harmonization of scientific standards and trade rules.

They oppose compulsory labeling of products containing GM wheat in both the US and international markets if the biotechnologically-derived traits "do not differ significantly from their conventional counterpart." However, they said they support voluntary labeling, provided it is consistent with US law and international trade agreements and is not misleading.

They also said they "support and will assist in the development by all segments of the industry of an orderly marketing system to assure delivery of non-transgenic wheat within reasonable tolerances to markets that require it."


Weed-resistant Alfalfa Provides Fodder to Activists

By Phil Brasher
Des Moines Register
March 5, 2006

Even hay is going biotech.

Monsanto Co.'s latest genetically engineered crop is alfalfa that is resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup weedkiller.

Farmers planted the first 50,000 acres of the biotech alfalfa last fall, and there will be enough seed this spring for an additional 90,000 acres, the company says.

Farmers harvest about 22 million acres of alfalfa annually, 1.3 million acres of which is in Iowa.

A small amount may be growing in Iowa. Fewer than 10 farmers bought seed last fall, according to Monsanto. How much of the seed was planted is unknown.

Monsanto's alfalfa is the first bioengineered perennial crop, other than papaya, that's been approved by the government for commercial-scale production.

This crop almost certainly won't approach the popularity of glyphosate-resistant soybeans, which accounted for nearly 90 percent of the nation's entire soybean acreage last year. Weeds are nowhere near the problem in growing alfalfa as they are for soybeans.

But a group of environmentalists, farmers and anti-biotech activists say the crop never should have been approved by the government and have sued to get the seeds removed from the market.

Their lawsuit, filed in San Francisco, is seeking to force the Agriculture Department to do an environmental impact study of the gene-altered alfalfa.

Pat Trask, an outspoken South Dakota rancher who got himself thrown out of the local Farm Bureau leadership for criticizing a policy stand, claims that the biotech alfalfa could contaminate his crops of conventional alfalfa seed.

Alfalfa is easily cross-pollinated by bees or the wind. The pollen can travel up to two miles from its source.

"The way this spreads so far and wide, it will eliminate the conventional alfalfa industry," says Trask.

His operation, Trask Family Seeds, farms about 15,000 acres of its own property and custom-harvests alfalfa seed from other ranches in the Black Hills area.

Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the Sierra Club and the Washington- based Center for Food Safety, an anti-biotech advocacy group, and the National Family Farm Coalition.

The complaints laid out in the lawsuit aren't new to USDA.

The department considered the concerns raised by the lawsuit, including the cross-pollination issue, before it approved the crop without doing a full environmental study.

USDA officials noted that other biotech crops, including corn, don't have to be isolated to prevent cross-pollinating other crops. Organic corn growers know that all too well. And, USDA says, it's up to organic farmers to avoid cross-pollination, not the other way around.

And USDA officials say there's unlikely to be significant pollination problems with alfalfa anyway, for this rather obvious reason: Unlike corn, alfalfa is typically harvested before it goes to flower, not after.

Unless, of course, you're growing the alfalfa for seed. Then, like Trask, you could have a problem if your customers are expecting pure conventional or organic seed.

Whether farmers actually buy the new Monsanto seed will depend on how much of a weed problem they have and whether they're selling the hay to customers who want it free of weed seed, says Charles Brummer, a forage specialist at Iowa State University.

The biotech seeds carry a technology fee of $125 to $150 per 50-pound bag, which could push the total price to about $400.

Monsanto claims the seed will pay for itself in getting the crop established the first year. Farmers often plant cover crops such as oats with new alfalfa plantings to prevent weeds from taking hold in the field.

"It's like any other technology. For some farmers it's going to be great. For other farmers, it just isn't going to fit into their operation," he says.

The problem for producers like Trask: They don't want it in their operations, and they don't want it in their neighbor's, either.


Controversy Sparked on Sterile GM Seeds

By Vicky Uhland
Natural Foods Merchandiser
March 7, 2006

Terminating Monsanto

A nonprofit group of more than 300 worldwide organizations and individuals claims that biotech giant Monsanto is preparing to renege on its pledge that it won't sell GMO seeds whose next-generation offspring become sterile, thus forcing farmers to buy new seed each year. Monsanto denied the charges.

The Ban Terminator Campaign was formed to prevent Monsanto or other biotech groups from using Terminator sterile seeds. Monsanto pledged in 1999 not to commercialize its Terminator technology. But Ban Terminator coordinator Lucy Sharratt said Monsanto officials wrote in the company's 2005 Pledge Report that Monsanto "would use Terminator seeds in nonfood crops and does not rule out other uses in the future."

Diane Herndon, Monsanto's director of public policy, apologized for any confusion in the report and added: "We stand by our commitment to not use genetic engineering methods that result in sterile seeds. Period."

However, Herndon said Monsanto could develop other GURTs (genetic use restriction technologies) that might "turn off the expression of the biotech trait in the next generation of seed while not affecting all other characteristics of the seed and keeping the seed viable in subsequent generations."

Monsanto spokesman Chris Horner said that has always been the company's policy. "Back in 1999, we said there might be other [GURT] technologies out there and we never precluded the idea that we might pursue them. But we still have the same position that Terminator is not a technology we're going to pursue."

Sharratt believes Monsanto could change that stance if the Convention on Biological Diversity overturns its 2000 moratorium on sterile seed technologies. Although such a discussion is not on the CBD agenda, Sharratt said she has inside knowledge the topic will be brought up. "We see evidence of increasing interest by companies and governments to overthrow the moratorium." She said a group of 500 farmers from around the world, along with "thousands of Brazilian farmers" are planning to protest any discussions in favor of overturning the moratorium.

Report roulette

Despite widespread announcements that the World Trade Organization ruled in February that the European ban on GMOs violated international trade rules, a new report softens the blow for GMO opponents.

Friends of the Earth International obtained a leaked confidential copy of the WTO ruling. According to FoEI, the WTO found that:

  • Europe's four-year moratorium on GMOs only broke trade rules because it caused "undue delay" in the approval of new GM foods (as opposed to what?). The WTO dismissed eight other complaints in relation to the moratorium.
  • There was also an "undue delay" in the EU's approval procedures for more than 20 specified biotech products. However, the WTO dismissed 11 other complaints about product-specific EU measures.

"(This report) reveals that the big corporations that stand behind the WTO failed to get the big win they were hoping for. Free trade proponents needed a clear victory in this dispute to be able to push governments in the EU and the developing world to accept genetically modified food. They failed, and now is the time to build a consensus that the WTO, with its business-only agenda, is the wrong place to decide on what people eat and how we protect our environment," said Adrian Bebb, GMO campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe in Brussels.

Simon Barber, a representative of the biotech industry group EuropaBio, told FoodNavigator newsletter that the WTO is not "forcing people to have things they don't want. Environmental protection has never come into this discussion. The only thing being challenged was the trade rules."

FoEI also recently released another report, in conjunction with the African Center for Biosafety, that concluded that during the last 10 years, African GM crops have not been found to be safer, cheaper or better quality than non-GM crops. The report also stated that GM crops in Africa aren't solving hunger because most of the seeds commercialized so far have been used for animal feed.


Biotech Foods: David Versus Goliath

For Immediate Release
Friends of the Earth International
March 10, 2006

Developing countries fight with big business over safety laws

CURITIBA, Brazil - The battle between the majority of developing countries and some of the world's biggest corporations will peak on March 13-17, 2006 in Brazil.

United Nations talks on the global trade in genetically modified (GM), or biotech foods and crops will highlight the gap between countries demanding the right to regulate imports of GM products and the huge business interests that seek to benefit from weak rules.

The identification and labeling of imports of GM products will be the key debate in Curitiba. The biotech industries consistently opposed clear identification and labelling requirements for any of the GM crops on the market today. Without clear labelling many countries, especially developing countries with their limited resources, are unable to protect their food supply and environment from GM contamination.

Nnimmo Bassey, International Coordinator of the Friends of the Earth GM Campaign said: "These talks are key to protecting the environment and the world's food supply from contamination from the biotech industry. Every country should have the right to know what is being imported and to decide if they want to eat genetically modified foods or not. African countries and other developing countries will not be the dumping ground for genetically modified crops that no one else wants."

The UN Biosafety Protocol, which was originally agreed in January 2000, provides basic international rules that allow mainly developing countries to regulate the safety of GM foods, crops and seeds. It has been ratified by 132 countries but the three main countries that grow GM crops - the United States, Argentina and Canada - have refused to support it. Talks broke down in Montreal in June 2005 after Brazil and New Zealand blocked proposals that would have allowed the majority of developing countries to know if GM grains were being imported.

Ten years after the first significant planting of GM crops, no plants with benefits to consumers or the environment have materialized and GM crops have failed to deliver the promises of the biotech industry. More than 80% of the area cultivated with biotech crops is still concentrated in only three countries: the US, Argentina and Canada. Friends of the Earth International recently published a report that concluded:

  • GM crops are not 'green'. Monsanto's GM soybeans, the most extensively grown GM crop today, has led to an increase in herbicide use. The intensive cultivation of soybeans in South America is fostering deforestation, and has been associated with a decline in soil fertility and soil erosion.
  • GM crops do not tackle hunger or poverty. Most GM crops commercialized so far are destined for animal feed, not for food, and none have been introduced to address hunger and poverty issues. In Argentina, the second biggest producer of GM crops in the world, only 2% of the soya stays in the country. Other developing countries, such as Indonesia and India, have experienced substantial problems with Monsanto's GM crops, often leaving farmers heavily indebted.
  • The biotech industry has failed to introduce the promised 'new generation' of GM crops with consumer benefits. After 30 years of research, only two modifications have made it to the marketplace on any scale: insect resistance and herbicide tolerance.

Don't Sell "Suicide Seeds", Activists Warn In Curitiba

by Haider Rizvi
Inter Press Service
March 22, 2006

CURITIBA, Brazil - On Tuesday morning, as delegates arrived at the conference venue, they faced more than 100 peasant and indigenous rights activists at the main gates staging a demonstration in support of a complete ban on the sale and use of Terminator seeds, officially known as Genetic Use Restriction Technology.

"These seeds are killed seeds," the crowd shouted as they watched delegates arrive in cars and buses.

"Terminate the Terminator", the activists chanted in unison, while demanding tough laws against field testing and sale of so-called "Terminator" technology, which refers to plants that have had their genes altered so that they render sterile seeds at harvest. Because of this trait, some activists call Terminator products "suicide seeds".

The U.N. Convention on Biodiversity had adopted a moratorium on field testing and commercialisation of Terminator technology in 2000. But opponents fear that such seeds are likely to be marketed soon unless governments impose a blanket ban.

Currently, the product is being tested in greenhouses throughout the United States. Developed by multinational agribusiness firms and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Terminator has the potential to keep small-scale farmers from saving or replanting seeds from one growing season to another, activists say.

"Somebody is trying to befool me as a farmer," said Clement Chipokolo of the African Biodiversity Network, who came here all the way from Zambia. "In my culture we don't buy seeds. We save them. But now somebody is trying to bring agricultural slavery for us."

The industry claims that it will enhance biodiversity and its high cost is more than compensated for by improved crop yield and quality. But opponents argue that Terminator would not only undermine traditional knowledge and innovation, but would add to the economic burden of poor peasants who depend on saved seeds.

"It's the neutron bomb of biotechnology," said Hope Shand of the Canada-based Action Group for Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC), about Terminator. "It is designed to maximise profits for the biotech industry because farmers will be forced to buy seeds every year."

Currently, the number of small farmers around the world is estimated to be over one billion.

The biotech industry's interest in promoting Terminator is not hard to understand because each year the global commercial seed market brings in about 23 billion dollars in revenue, according to independent trade experts who estimate that if farmers were forced to buy new seeds at each planting, the global market would be worth over 45 billion dollars.

ETC researchers estimate that if allowed to sell Terminator seeds, the industry will earn at least an additional 10 billion dollars from farmers in developing countries. They say that Brazilian farmers will have to pay no less than 500 million dollars a year to buy soybean seeds, while the purchase of seeds for wheat and cotton crops will cost peasants in Pakistan more than 120 million dollars a year.

Currently, about 80 percent of farmers in both Brazil and Pakistan grow crops based on saved seeds from previous harvests.

Many governments in the developing world have so far resisted pressure from the U.S. government and industry, but some governments in the industrialised world are trying to influence the outcome of the negotiations in favour of the industry, say activists closely watching the talks here.

Last year, the government of Brazil -- the world's fifth most populous country and a major agricultural producer -- passed a law prohibiting the use, registration, patenting and licensing of modified seeds. India, a predominantly agrarian nation and home to one billion people, has done the same.

Yet indications are that rich countries like Australia, Canada and New Zealand will side with the U.S. and the biotech industry during the two weeks of negotiations on the Convention on Biodiversity, which has drawn delegates from 188 countries. The Australian delegation is reportedly trying to introduce language that would undermine efforts to keep the U.N. moratorium on field testing and commercialisation of modified seeds intact.

Last January, when delegates to the Convention on Biodiversity met in Spain, the Australians recommended that Terminator technology be studied on a "case-by-case risk assessment basis", a turning point in negotiations that activists fear has the potential to undermine the U.N. moratorium.

"It is an immoral technology. It's anti-farmer," Shand said. "We don't need any more studies. It must be banned."

Francisco Rodriguez Anamuri of Compesina (a women and indigenous people's group in Chile) added: "It's not about Monsanto. It's about our food security. You don't have food security if you don't have seeds."

Monsanto, the U.S.-based biotech giant, has repeatedly come under attack from environmental and indigenous right groups for its aggressive research and marketing of genetically modified crops. Though it had pledged in the past not to commercialise Terminator, Monsanto says it seeks to study "the risks and benefits of this technology on case-by-case basis".

Some countries have agreed with the industry that genetic modifications can play a significant role in fighting hunger at negligible risk to the environment. But a 100-page study released in January by Friends of the Earth concludes that only a handful of countries have introduced and increased the use of genetically modified crops.

Titled "Who Benefits from GM Crops?", the report says that after 10 years of GM crop cultivation, more than 80 percent of the area sown with biotech crops is still concentrated in only three countries: the United States, Argentina and Canada.

In other countries -- including Brazil and Paraguay -- GM crops were planted illegally, and in Indonesia, they were planted after government officials were bribed, FoE said.

On the debate surrounding the use and sale of Terminator seeds, a senior U.N. official said indications are that delegates might reach a consensus by the end of the meeting next week.

"For six years there has been a deadlock," Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the Convention on Biodiversity, told IPS Monday. "I think the decision could likely be taken at this meeting."

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