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October 2006 Updates

Alfalfa Growers Asked to Consider Risks Before Planting

WORC News Release
October 3, 2006

New Toolkit Covers Risks of Genetically Modified Alfalfa to Environment, Agriculture, and Consumers

Billings, Mont. - WORC (the Western Organization of Resource Councils) has released a new guide for alfalfa producers and consumers on the environmental, agricultural, and economic risks that Roundup Ready® alfalfa poses to U.S. conventional and organic farmers, ranchers and consumers. Produced by WORC, A Guide to Genetically Modified Alfalfa presents information on:

  • Potential problems with genetically modified (GM) alfalfa,
  • Spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds,
  • Contamination of organic and conventional crops by GM crops,
  • Action steps for farmers and consumers,
  • Strategies to minimize risks of crop contamination, and
  • Monsanto's Technology Use Agreement for Roundup Ready® alfalfa and other GM seeds.

"We hope alfalfa growers will review the information in this guide and think twice about the risks of planting Roundup Ready alfalfa," said Donny Nelson, WORC Chair and an alfalfa grower. "We're asking extension agents and crop advisors not to recommend genetically modified alfalfa to alfalfa growers until the open questions about contamination, liability, and the spread of glyphosate resistant weeds are answered."

WORC, five other farm and consumer groups, and two alfalfa producers sued the United States Department of Agriculture in February, challenging the federal government's approval of Roundup Ready® alfalfa. Federal District Judge Charles Breyer has ordered a briefing schedule this fall, and will hear oral arguments in the case on January 17, 2007. A decision in the case is expected in early winter.

The free guide is available on the web at or by calling 406-252-9672.

Based in Billings, Mont., WORC is a network of grassroots organizations representing farmers, ranchers, and consumers in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, and Wyoming.


Vermont Ag Secretary Backs Milk Hormone Ban

By Susan Smallheer
Rutland Herald
October 7 2006

MONTPELIER - Vermont Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr added his voice this week to the growing chorus urging Vermont farmers to stop giving their dairy cows the synthetic hormone rBST.

Kerr, speaking to the Vermont Dairy Industry Association's annual meeting in Burlington on Thursday, said it makes sense for Vermont's dairy farmers to stop using rBST, especially after the two largest milk processors in New England have said they no longer will accept milk from cows given the synthetic hormone.

Last month, both Dean Foods and H.P. Hood Inc., said consumer demand was growing substantially for organic milk and at the same their customers were demanding milk be hormone-free.

The synthetic hormone, recumbent bovine somatropin, boosts milk production in cows, on average, by 10 extra pounds of milk a day. With many dairy farms struggling for financial survival, rBST is viewed as one way of increasing the size of the monthly milk check.

Kerr said an estimated 20 percent of Vermont's 141,000 dairy cows are treated with rBST, and he said the push for rBST-free milk by the giants in the milk industry would make it more difficult for those farmers to continue to sell their milk, since the two types of milk have to be isolated from one another, from cow to dairy case.

"If the market is moving that way, we don't want to miss that move," Kerr said in a telephone interview before his talk.

He said the 20 percent estimate is a ballpark figure, because Monsanto, which manufactures the hormone under the brand name Posilac, refuses to divulge Vermont-specific figures. Monsanto spokesman Andrew Burchett said 30 percent of the dairy herds in the United States are treated with rBST.

Kerr said that while he is convinced rBST is safe for both the cow and the consumer, public perception is just the opposite.

"It doesn't matter. The consumer doesn't want it and it isn't going to work," Kerr said. "We all know in our heart of hearts that consumers rule."

He added, "Our short-term thinking is defensive - but we have to recognize what are the trends and what consumers want. They want pure. They want natural. They want minimally processed."

Kerr said he hoped to sit down with representatives from dairy giants Dean and Hood, which control about 90 percent of the Northeast's fluid milk market, to negotiate a premium that would compensate dairy farmers for lost production when they switch to rBST-free milk. Some dairy cooperatives do that already.St. Albans Cooperative Creamery pays farmers 20 cents per 100-weight of milk for not using the synthetic hormone, according to Leon Berbhiaume, general manager of the 500-farm cooperative.

Six-farm Thomas Dairy of Rutland has always paid its farmers extra not to use the synthetic hormone, John Thomas said. He declined to identify the amount of the premium, except to say it is in the neighborhood of the one paid by St. Albans.

"Our customers told us they didn't want anything to do with it," Thomas said of rBST. "We had a lot of calls and it wasn't hard to gauge the public's opinion."

Thomas, who stopped milking cows a year ago, said he was sympathetic to both sides. The hormone is stressful on the cows, he said, but farmers should be able to use "any tool they can" to boost production and increase their bottom line.

"I don't blame the farmers for using it, they have to pull out all the stops," Thomas said.

But Thomas, like other dairy farmers and processors contacted for this story, refused to identify specific farmers who use rBST, and only one admitted to providing it to their cows.

The issue will be on the agenda next week at the regular monthly meeting of Agri-Mark's directors, according to spokesman Doug DiMento of Agri-Mark.

"Milk prices are the lowest they've been in 25 years," DiMento said from Agri-Mark headquarters in Methuen, Mass. He said the real pressure is on the Dean Food farmers, most of whom are St. Albans Co-op members.

"We have to wait and see how the market goes. We can't pay a premium unless we get it from the market," DiMento said.

Kerr said his comments at the Burlington conference "shocked" dairy farmers and industry leaders who attended. But part of his job is to provide strategic thinking, Kerr said, and he believes stopping the use of rBST is best for Vermont's farmers in the long run.

Amy Shollenberger, policy director for Rural Vermont, said Kerr's statements this week surprised her.

"We're thrilled that the Agency of Agriculture is saying that if the market is demanding it, BST should be taken out of the milk supply," Shollenberger said.

But she also said Kerr was "talking out of both sides of his mouth" by coming out against the use of rBST while continuing to support genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

"He says that contamination from cross pollination is not an issue and the state should not be involved in it," she said.

Burchett, the Monsanto spokesman, repeated what Monsanto has said previously. "Our milk is safe, healthy and nutritious." He said there is no way to distinguish hormone-free milk from the milk produced by cows receiving the Monsanto product.

"Farmers should have the choice. When farmers' choices are restricted, they should be guaranteed a premium," he said.

Burchett said that Posilac is injected into a cow every 14 days, at $6 a dose. On average, a cow produces 10 additional pounds of milk a day if treated with the hormone, he said. Posilac was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1993, and became available in 1994, he said.

Bob Foster, one of the five Vermont directors for Agri-Mark, and one of the owners of Foster Brothers Farm in Middlebury, said his family farm uses rBST. He said that if it stopped using the hormone, the business would lose $90,000 to $100,000 a year in income. With a herd of about 360 milking cows, "We aren't a super big farm," Foster said.

For some milk producers, using rBST may make the difference between solvency and going out of business, Foster said.

He said discontinuing rBST use is a complicated issue all around - for dairy cooperatives, for farmers and for cows.

One thing that needs to happen, he said, is for large milk processors such as Dean Foods and H.P. Hood to pay farmers a premium for not using rBST. Foster said a premium of about $1 for every 100 pounds of milk would provide fair compensation. So far the processors haven't agreed to do that, he said.

The next challenge, he said, would be enforcement. Placing a marker in Posilac would make it possible to detect its use, but so far Monsanto has refused to do that, he said.

"There's no way of testing for it," he said. "It creates a whole integrity issue in the industry."

And then there's the effect on the cow, Foster said. A farmer can't stop giving a cow Posilac overnight because the hormone affects the way a cow's body makes milk. Cows taken off the synthetic hormone without a long tail-off period put on weight, which affects their fertility and their ability to "breed-back," he said.

Often, such cows are lost to milk production and have to be sold for beef, he said.

Agri-Mark has been discussing the issue for a long time and will do so again next week. "We're polling the membership and seeing what the impact will be," Foster said. "We're looking at how to segregate the (pickup) routes."

Foster added, "It's not something we take casually. It has lots of ramifications for the industry and the dairy producers. This is a tough, tough question."


Beginning of the End for rBST

by Leslie Wright
Burlington Free Press
October 8, 2006

For her family, Judi Schwartz buys milk that does not contain artificial growth hormone, or [Monsanto's genetcially engineered] rbST. The Burlington mother of two prefers to buy organic. When she can't, she seeks hormone-free brands.

She's heard about potential negative effects of rbST. While she hasn't seen scientific evidence to prove it, she figures, why take the risk.

"I can't imagine how it would help my girls' bodies," Schwartz said.

Shoppers like Schwartz are driving major change in the milk industry. Dairy processors throughout the Northeast are converting their plants to accept only rbST-free milk to meet demand. As a result, Vermont's dairy farmers are feeling pressure to stop using rbST, a valuable tool they say makes dairy farms more profitable at a time when they are struggling.

"You've got to remember these are the lowest prices in 25 years and you are going to tell them you are going to take away something that will decrease production and increase costs?" said Doug DiMento, spokesman for Agri-Mark, a Massachusetts dairy cooperative with 350 members in Vermont.

Demand spikes

Major milk processors have been gearing up for a big increase in rbST-free milk production. Last week H.P. Hood, a leader in the New England market, converted a plant in Massachusetts to rbST-free. Now all four of Hood's New England plants are rbST-free.

That includes Booth Brothers in Barre, which has been rbST-free since 1997 when Hood bought the plant, said Lynne Bohan, Hood spokeswoman.

"We are doing this because we know there is an increased demand for this. Our consumers are requesting that we process and sell milk from farmers who pledge not to use artificial growth hormones," Bohan said.

National giant Dean Foods, owner of the Garelick Farms brand, among others, converted a New Jersey plant in June and is implementing rbST-free milk processing at a plant in Franklin, Mass. A Dean plant in Maine has been rbST-free for several years, said Marguerite Copel, spokeswoman for the company.

The spike in demand for rbST-free milk has been dramatic, said Greg Wickham, general manager with Dairy Marketing Services, which transports and markets milk for 8,000 dairy farms in the Northeast. This includes Dairylea and Dairy Farmers of America cooperatives. St. Albans Cooperative Creamery Inc. is also a partner. DMS represents about 740 dairy farms in the state.

Wickham estimated that in the Northeast about 60 percent of the milk that DMS markets was produced with rbST, mostly from larger operations.

Before this summer, demand for rbST-free milk amounted to about 15 percent of the total volume of DMS milk sold to fluid processors for drinking milk, Wickham said. By next summer, Wickham anticipates demand could jump to "the higher side of 50 percent."

Monsanto, the company that sells rbST under the brand name Posilac, views the push to process more rbST-free milk as a regional marketing strategy.

"This is an effort to differentiate their products in the dairy case and potentially charge more for them," said Andrew Burchett, a Monsanto spokesman.

Dean Foods, like Hood, argued that the company is simply meeting a need in the marketplace.

"Even though Posilac is completely safe and FDA has deemed it so, there are still some (people) uncomfortable with artificial growth hormone and that's why we're providing the choice," Copel said.

Weighing change

Among dairy farmers using Posilac, dropping the synthetic growth hormone is not a decision made lightly. Posilac has been on the market for 12 years now, and many farmers have made it a regular part of their dairy operations.

The bottom line is that rbST makes farmers money, and many think they should be compensated for not using it.

"We are going to give up a tool that has no deleterious effect but decreases cost of production," said Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Steve Kerr. "Whatever you think about rbST, it does lower production costs."

Dean Foods does not currently pay extra for rbST-free milk in the Northeast, Copel said. Hood does at its Booth Brothers plant in Barre, but Hood spokeswoman Bohan declined to say how much.

Hood is waiting to hear from dairy cooperatives about a premium for rbST-free milk at its other plants, Bohan said.

How much farmers would lose by dropping rbST is open to debate. Monsanto calculates the loss at 76 cents per hundredweight -- 100 pounds or 11.6 gallons of milk .

Dairy Marketing Services and Agri-Mark are trying to find workable numbers.

"It would certainly take a number that will be significantly higher than 30 or 40 cents per hundredweight to create the size pool of milk we would need," Wickham said, referring to a premium.

Murray Thompson, a dairy farmer with 70 heads of Holstein and Guernsey cows in Colchester, uses Posilac selectively on some cows. For the economics of Posilac to work, milk prices have to be high enough to justify making more milk, he said. Thompson would drop rbST, but he wants to be compensated for doing so.

"I don't have a problem with bST per se. I think it's a fine product, but you do have to watch the market. If people don't want bST we have to listen to the consumer. Co-ops need to sell milk," Thompson said, referring to the artificial growth hormone.

Transportation is another big factor that has to be taken into account, said DiMento, Agri-Mark's spokesman. Adding another product would create a need for a second transportation system and farmers bear the cost of hauling.

"We want a premium because our farmers already have the highest production costs in the country," DiMento said. "We don't want to put our farmers in a position that they are non-competitive."

Eventually, farmers may not have a choice, Kerr said. Farmers, he said, may be seeing "the early stages of what may be the end of rbST, at least in the Northeast, because if it starts to ripple, it will ripple."

What is rbST?

Artificial growth hormone, approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration in 1993, has been available to dairy farmers since 1994 when Monsanto introduced Posilac. Monsanto is the only maker of the patented synthetic hormone. About one-third of the 9 million cows in herds today are treated with Posilac, according to Monsanto.

The hormone simulates a naturally-occurring hormone -- bovine somatotropin -- in cows and works by gearing the animal metabolically to make more milk, said Julie Smith, Extension dairy specialist at the University of Vermont.

Posilac is injected in cows every two weeks. Not all cows in a herd would get the injections at once because of normal lactation cycles, Smith said. The treatment typically yields 8 to 10 pounds of milk in a cow, or about one gallon per cow per day, Smith said.

There is no simple way to test for rbST in milk, Smith said.

The state requires farmers to sign an affidavit swearing they are not using rbST and must notify milk handlers 90 days before they stop using rbST and must give 90 days' notice before they start up again, said Steve Kerr, secretary of the Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets.


Biotech Instills Fear and Loathing in California Rice Belt

Associated Press
October 11, 2006

PRINCETON -- Fourth-generation farmer Greg Massa was in the middle of the rice harvest and he was dirty, angry and depressed.

The price of the gasoline that powers his water pumps and rice harvester has never been more expensive. A late planting season, hot summer and rising expenses had ensured a less-than-stellar harvest, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasting a 13 percent drop compared to last year.

So the last thing Massa needed was a biotechnology blunder so disastrous that it prompted the rice industry's biggest export customer -- Japan -- to prohibit some varieties and threaten to ban all U.S. imports. The European Union is making similar threats because genetically engineered rice continues to turn up on grocery shelves in Europe.

"If that happens, the California industry will evaporate," said Massa as he drove the harvester around his farm about 80 miles north of Sacramento.

He has spent the past three years publicly protesting the growth of genetically engineered rice anywhere and in any quantity. Biotech-averse overseas consumers in Japan, Europe and elsewhere simply won't buy it, he says, even if the crops are approved for U.S. consumption.

The U.S. rice harvest is imperiled by the discovery of small amounts of experimental strains of genetically engineered rice in storage facilities holding crops destined for the food supply. Bayer CropScience AG, the German company responsible for the mistake, is still investigating how the experimental rice got into the food supply. Federal officials say the company's signature genetically engineered rice came from storage bins in Arkansas and Missouri, but they don't know where it was grown.

The rice was genetically engineered by Bayer to be resistant to a weed killer and had never been approved for human consumption. Federal officials and company executives say the strain posed no health threat and was similar to biotech rice that had been approved.

Still, Bayer's blunder has been costly.

Rice futures plummeted by $150 million immediately after the contamination announcement and biotech-hating European retailers pulled U.S. rice from their shelves. Growers in Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas filed lawsuits against Bayer for hurting their sales.

Rice exports are worth $200 million annually to California, which is second only to Arkansas in rice production. Nearly all Japanese imports come from California, which grows mostly short and medium rice grains. Longer-grain rice is grown in the South. In all, the U.S. rice harvest fetches about $1.8 billion annually.

"It has caused problems in the market," said Grant Lundberg, chief executive of Richvale-based Lundberg Family Farms, one of the state's biggest rice growers. "It has given everybody a new perspective on this technology and it's not positive."

A Bayer spokesman declined to comment, other than to say that the company has no plans to commercialize any of its genetically engineered rice because few farmers are interested in growing it.

Rice farmers throughout Northern California are perplexed that companies and scientists are continuing to experiment with a technology so thoroughly rejected by the market.

Japanese and European consumers have a long-standing aversion to biotechnology products, and any changes to their food supply, a fear that harkens back to government mishandling of mad cow disease. Those consumers fear that not enough is known about genetic engineering to guarantee that food is safe.

U.S. trade officials convinced Japan to lift a ban on imported rice in 1995, but the relationship between domestic farmers and their best customer remains precarious.

Last month, Japan announced it would genetically test every rice shipment entering the country and shut down all U.S. imports if it found any more biotechnology crops. None of the genetically engineered rice at issue has been found in California.

Many rice farmers see it as the last step before the country closes its borders to all U.S. rice.

"There are political forces in Japan that would very much like to see California rice no longer shipped there," said John Hasbrook of SunWest Foods Inc., California's largest rice miller. "It's pretty much economic suicide to let genetic engineered rice creep into California and pose a contamination threat."

SunWest has called for legislation banning genetically engineered rice in California.

So-called "golden rice" was one of the first genetically engineered crops developed and it was aimed at alleviating malnutrition because of its ability to produce Vitamin A. Golden rice contains a gene from the daffodil plant and is unrelated to Bayer's rice, which is engineered with bacteria genes.

Two rice strains that were genetically engineered with bacteria genes to resist weed killer were approved for the U.S. market 14 years ago but never sold because consumers around the world rejected the use of biotechnology on such a food staple.

Still, a few companies continue to tinker with rice genes, arguing that biotechnology can be beneficial to farmers, consumers and the environment. Researchers continue to genetically engineer rice that can tolerate drought, floods and disease.

Proponents hope that consumer attitudes will change over the next few years.

In Davis, near Sacramento, Arcadia Biosciences has planted two experimental plots of genetically engineered rice. One variety is genetically engineered with a barley gene designed to help rice better consume nitrogen-laced fertilizer, which would cut down on the amount that ends up in ground water. The other variety makes it easier for rice to grow in salty conditions.

Arcadia received two of the nine USDA permits issued this year to grow small plots of experimental biotechnology rice in California. Bayer received four USDA permits, including an approval on Sept. 7, two weeks after it divulged its mistake. Another company permit is still pending. The USDA doesn't release locations of such test plots and doesn't comment on biotech permits.

"The farmers will make more money and at the same time it's going to help the environment," said Arcadia Chief Executive Eric Rey.

At the Richvale Cafe, unofficial headquarters of the California rice belt and where growers gather daily for lunch, the biotechnology crisis has opened a schism among the usually tight-knit community. Despite the recent setbacks, some see the benefits of biotechnology.

"I am not against research with genetically modified materials," said Frank Rehermann, a farmer and chairman of the California Rice Commission. "There will come a day when people will be less apprehensive. But we do have to grow what the market wants and Japan is really particular about this issue."

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