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September 2006 Updates

Tracing the Transatlantic Spread of GM Rice

By Gretchen Vogel
Science, Vol. 313. no. 5794, p. 1714
September 22, 2006

Amid product recalls and plummeting prices, scientists are trying to figure out exactly how traces of an experimental variety of genetically modified (GM) rice ended up in commercially available supplies in the United States and Europe. Although the herbicide-resistant strain was never approved or marketed, traces of it have appeared in samples collected on both continents. Agriculture officials stress that the rice poses no health threat, but its spread is a cautionary tale that introduced genes may be harder to contain than some scientists and industry leaders had hoped. The finds "set a really bad example for genes that we do want to keep contained," says plant geneticist Norman Ellstrand of the University of California, Riverside.

The variety, called Liberty Link 601 (LL601), was grown in test plots in several states between 1998 and 2001. Designed to be resistant to the broad-spectrum Liberty herbicide sold by Aventis CropScience (later bought by the German company Bayer), it was not as successful as hoped, and Aventis discontinued research on the strain in 2001. In late July, Bayer notified the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that it had found traces of LL601 in commercial samples of long-grain rice stored in Arkansas and Missouri. When USDA announced the find two and a half weeks later, U.S. rice prices fell by nearly 10% in 2 days.

On 11 September, European Union officials confirmed that 33 of 162 samples tested by rice millers across Europe, a major importer of U.S.-grown rice, had shown traces of LL601. Officials in Sweden and France also said they found traces of the gene in commercially available rice. And Greenpeace said it had found traces of LL601 in rice for sale at Aldi supermarkets in Germany, prompting a nationwide recall.

How the gene spread so far is still a mystery. Rice is thought to pose a relatively low risk of cross-contamination because it self-pollinates, often before the flower even opens, lowering the likelihood that wind or insects could spread GM pollen. Steve Linscombe, a rice breeder at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge, where some of the test plots were grown, says they strictly followed USDA standards, exceeding the minimum requirements for buffer zones between the test plots and conventional rice. However, the university did say it found "traces of genetic material" from LL601 in samples of foundation seed rice grown at LSU in 2003 for the widely grown Cheniere variety. Foundation seed is the original stock of a commercially available variety. It is distributed to seed-producing farmers, who then plant it to grow seed rice that is sold nationwide. Linscombe says the university is working with USDA to determine how the LL601 gene could have entered the Cheniere seed stocks.

Doug Gurian-Sherman of the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C., says regulations designed to limit the spread of introduced genes should require more extensive testing of such seed stocks. The possibility of contamination "needs to be taken seriously," he says. Ellstrand says that a careful investigation of what led to the spread will be crucial for scientists planning field trials of GM plants that contain more sensitive genes, such as those for pharmaceuticals or industrial products.


Gene-Altered Profit-Killer

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post
September 20, 2006

A Slight Taint of Biotech Rice Puts Farmers' Overseas Sales in Peril

The disclosure last month that American long-grain rice has become widely contaminated with traces of an experimental, gene-altered rice has provoked an economic crisis for farmers and reignited a long-smoldering debate over the adequacy of U.S. oversight of biotech food.

Already, Japan has banned U.S. long-grain imports, noting, as have other countries, that the genetically altered variety never passed regulatory muster. Stores in Germany, Switzerland and France have pulled American rice off their shelves. And at least one ship last week remained quarantined in Rotterdam, awaiting word of whether its contents would be diverted or destroyed.

"Until this happened, it looked like rice farmers were finally going to make a profit this year," said Greg Yielding, executive director of the Arkansas Rice Growers Association. Instead, U.S. rice prices have slumped about 10 percent, and some expect market losses to reach $150 million.

Scientists are just now figuring out how LLRICE601 made its way into the nation's commercial rice supply. The company that developed it, Bayer CropScience of Research Triangle Park, N.C., says it abandoned the project in 2001.

The unapproved rice poses no threat to human or animal health, federal officials have assured the public. And the level of contamination is minuscule, on the order of just six genetically engineered grains in every 10,000.

But the growing economic fallout from LL601's unwanted and illegal reappearance -- including a handful of lawsuits against Bayer -- is a reminder that when it comes to food, public perception is as important as scientific assurances.

"We've been warning for years that something like this could happen," Yielding said, citing a December 2005 report from the Agriculture Department's inspector general that lambasted the government for not keeping a closer eye on companies developing new crops. "This is one of those deals where you hate to be right."

Genetically engineered crops are common in the United States, where 60 to 90 percent of the corn, soybean and cotton plants are enhanced with genes from bacteria and other organisms. Most of the added genes allow the plants to make their own insecticides or, as in LLRICE601, confer resistance to commonly used weedkillers.

But motivated by scientific, cultural and economic concerns, most countries around the world are finicky about biotech crops and allow relatively few in. That, in turn, has created tension for U.S. agriculture.

Although U.S. farmers say they favor, in theory, further development of the crops, many have called for delays in field testing or marketing until other countries agree to accept them. With few mechanisms in place to segregate engineered from conventional varieties, and wide availability of tests able to detect minute quantities of foreign DNA, they say it is not worth the risk that shipments will become contaminated and rejected.

"Once it's in the pipeline, it's very hard to get it out," said Jeffrey Barach, a vice president at the Food Products Association, a D.C. trade group.

Concerns have been especially high among rice growers, who sell big portions of their harvests to Kellogg for Rice Krispies, Anheuser-Busch for beer and Gerber for baby food, said Eric Wailes, an agricultural economist at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

"These are companies with huge brand equity," Wailes said, and are unwilling to risk their reputations.

In fact, many experts suspect that pressure from the food industry was a major reason why Bayer mysteriously dropped LL601 five years ago without seeking USDA approval for it. The company has refused to answer questions about its biotech rice program, which produced two other varieties. The Agriculture Department deemed those two safe for sale, but Bayer opted not to market them.

In recent weeks, tests by researchers in Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana have begun to unveil how LL601 persisted even after Bayer quit. The rice had been grown in several test locations, including Louisiana State University's rice research station near Crowley from 1999 to 2001.

Analyses in the past two weeks of samples of other rice varieties that were grown over the years at the same research station found that at least one -- a long-grain rice known as Cheniere -- was contaminated with LL601 at least as far back as 2003.

Records indicate that the affected plot of Cheniere rice, which was used to grow "foundation stock" from which much larger amounts were produced over the next few years, was located at least 160 feet from the LL601 plot, farther apart than what USDA required, said LSU spokeswoman Frankie Gould.

Exactly how and when the crossover of the genetically altered rice occurred remains uncertain. It could be, experts said, that some grains of LL601 got mixed inadvertently with grains of Cheniere, so that future plantings of Cheniere were really plantings of both. That could have gone unnoticed for years until someone tested for the errant gene -- which is how Riceland Foods Inc. of Stuttgart, Ark., happened upon the problem this year.

Or it may be that LL601 plants fertilized some Cheniere plants, creating a gene-enhanced Cheniere. Rice pollen does not usually go far afield, but it can.

Tests on more than a dozen other LSU varieties have come up negative for the LL601 gene, as have tests from Texas and Arkansas plots; results from Mississippi are pending. But because many varieties of rice are mixed in huge bins after harvest, it could be difficult to rid the U.S. rice crop of the illegal variety.

"The damage has been done and it is still being done," said Adam J. Levitt, a partner in the Chicago office of Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz LLC, who led a class action lawsuit that won $110 million for farmers after gene-altered and unapproved StarLink corn appeared in food in 2000. "They've really in a very substantial way poisoned the well."

How Bayer will deal with the international ramifications of LL601's escape is uncertain. But its domestic strategy became clear on Aug. 18, the day Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced the problem. That day Bayer filed a petition seeking USDA approval -- or "deregulation" -- of LL601.

If the petition is successful, the variety's presence would no longer violate U.S. regulations -- but the strategy has raised some hackles.

"Post hoc approval strikes us as really cynical," said Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the District-based Center for Food Safety. "Bayer has no intention of bringing this rice to market. Clearly this is an effort to avoid liability."

Last week Freese's group filed a petition asking USDA to reject Bayer's request and to rescind its earlier approval of the company's other two engineered rice varieties.

The petition argues that the herbicide resistance trait is sure to make its way into red rice, a weedy wild relative of white rice that is already rice growers' biggest pest. Any advance likely to make red rice herbicide-resistant, the petition claims, would force farmers to turn to more potent weedkillers and violate the Plant Protection Act.

Even if Bayer succeeds in deregulating LL601, farmers will still face international rejection -- a potentially major hit, since most rice profits are from overseas sales.

On Friday the European Commission said the rice "is not likely to pose an imminent safety concern." But it also made plain that the rice is illegal and offered no hints it would soften its stance.

Of even greater concern is whether Central American nations -- the biggest foreign buyers of U.S. rice -- and Mexico, the second biggest, will adhere to their strict rules on engineered foods. Talks were underway late last week, Yielding said.

The December inspector general report scolded USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service for failing to conduct required inspections of test plots and in some cases not even knowing where experiments it had approved were being conducted.

APHIS spokeswoman Rachel Iadicicco said the shortcomings cited in that report have been remedied.


Stop Giving Approvals to Field Trials of GM Crops: SC

By Ashok B. Sharma
The Financial Express
September 23, 2006

NEW DELHI - In a landmark interim verdict, the Supreme Court on Friday directed the Centre not to go ahead with its proposed plan for approving field trials of genetically modified (GM) crops in the country.

A bench, consisting of Chief Justice YK Sabharwal, Justice CK Thakkar and Justice RV Ravindran, directed the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) not to give any further approval to the field trials of GM crop until the final judgement was passed on the writ petition by Aruna Rodrigues and other seeking a moratorium on GM crops.

The counsel for the petitioner, Prashant Bhushan, told FE, "A rejoinder was filed on behalf of Aruna Rodrigues on August 1. This came up for hearing today and the apex court directed the government to reply to the rejoinder within two weeks."

The Supreme Court also directed the GEAC to co-opt independent experts for deciding on GM crops.

The judgement has given a relief to NGOs and consumer organisations who were opposing the proposed field trials of the country's first transgenic food crop, Bt brinjal. GEAC had formed an in-house panel of experts, headed by Delhi University vice-chancellor Deepak Pental, to review the objections to the proposed Bt Brinjal field trials raised by independent scientists, NGOs and consumer groups. The panel is scheduled to meet on September 25.

The apex court's judgement has also given some relief to a group of independent scientists who were opposed to the proposed field trials of Bt brinjal.

GEAC has already approved a number of field trials for new Bt cotton hybrid. It has also approved some Bt cotton hybrid for commercial cultivation in the current kharif season. As the court's interim verdict is for restraining further approval of GM crops, the approved Bt cotton hybrid have escaped the purview of this order.


Bio Firm Plans Kansas Rice Plant

By John Hanna
The Associated Press
September 29, 2006

JUNCTION CITY, Kan. - A California company that has faced criticism for growing and processing genetically engineered rice is planning to open a processing plant here and contract with area farmers to grow the crop.

State and local officials have embraced Ventria Bioscience's project, and they and the Sacramento, Calif.-based firm's leader had a news conference Friday to tout it as a major boost for Kansas' emerging biosciences industry.

Ventria plans to use the genetically altered rice it grows for manufacturing medicine, including one developed to fight childhood diarrhea, a leading cause of death for infants and toddlers worldwide.

The company plans to spend $6 million to renovate an abandoned grocery distribution center here and hopes farmers under contract will begin planting rice in the spring. Eventually, Ventria could hire 50 workers at its plant and contract to grow 30,000 acres of rice, Chief Executive Officer Scott Deeter told reporters.

"There were a lot of states that were very excited about Ventria putting a bioprocessing facility in place," Deeter, a Holton native, said after the news conference. "We're quite excited about Kansas. We think it's a perfect fit for us."

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius issued a statement welcoming Ventria, adding that she looks forward to "their contributions to the health of children worldwide."

Tracy Taylor, CEO of the Kansas Technology Enterprise Corp., a state agency set up to nurture emerging high-tech industries, said the project will create high-paying jobs, generate wealth for farmers and investors, improve health care and allow a Kansas native to bring his company into his home state.

"Is that great stuff or what?" Taylor said.

But Jane Rissler, a senior scientist and plant pathologist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, was skeptical the promised benefits would emerge.

"I have seen promise after promise after promise to get venture capital, to get taxpayer funds, and most of the promises do not appear," she said. "States with a lot of farmers and rural communities that need support, I can understand their searching for an industry that will help farmers and help revitalize rural communities, but this isn't it."

The practice of growing genetically modified crops to use in manufacturing drugs is sometimes called "biopharming," and the products have nicknames such as "pharmarice" and "pharmacorn."

Outside Kansas, Ventria's critics contend its technology could threaten the safety of conventional food crops by mixing with them. Rissler said contamination could make crops more dangerous for human consumption and increased biopharming makes contamination more likely.

Thomas Wynn, director of market development for the U.S. Rice Producers Association in Houston, said no one in the U.S. is growing genetically modified rice to sell to consumers. He said some people simply don't want to eat food they perceive as not being "completely natural."

"There are a lot of countries that are concerned about those types of things," he said. "We try to keep our industry as clean as possible."

California's native rice industry drove Ventria's experimental work out of that state two years ago, and protests by farmers and others in Missouri caused the company to abandon plans there.

Anheuser-Busch Companies, the nation's No. 1 brewer of beer and buyer of rice, announced in April it wouldn't buy rice from Missouri if the growth of pharmacrops were allowed there.

But Kansas has no rice-growing industry, and its officials are enthusiastic about Ventria's plans, having connected with the company earlier this year during an international biosciences convention in Chicago.

Junction City has pledged $5.5 million in incentives, money it expects to reclaim over time as the company's operations become profitable. Ventria plans to pay farmers between $150 and $200 more an acre than they're receiving for their current best crop, said state Agriculture Secretary Adrian Polansky.

"Kansas producers are progressive. Producers have adopted technology, biotechnology in corn and soybeans very, very readily," Polansky said. "We are very supportive of doing things better."

Polansky also said Ventria's efforts will create a "closed system," in which its rice is stored near farmers' fields and used only by Ventria. Deeter said the company will burn the material not used.

Deeter said the company genetically modifies its rice so that it produces a protein common in the human body, though the process does not involve mixing human and plant material. He said the protein is then extracted and used in medical products.

"We can make a major different for some of the children around the world who need it the most," Deeter said during the news conference.

Rissler said companies choose food crops for biopharming because they're relatively easy to work with. However, she said, there are alternatives, including growing fungi in a secure environment.

"They must stop, and if they want to produce drugs, use alternative systems," she said. "That is the only sane, long-term, safe way to go."


PUBPAT Challenges Monsanto Patents Being Used To Bankrupt American Farmers

September 29, 2006

Patent Office Asked to Review and Revoke Agricultural Giant's Widely Asserted Patents

New York, NY -- The Public Patent Foundation ("PUBPAT") filed formal requests with the United States Patent and Trademark Office today to review and ultimately revoke four of Monsanto Company's patents related to genetically modified crops that the agricultural giant is using to harass, intimidate, sue - and in some cases literally bankrupt - American farmers. In its filings, PUBPAT submitted prior art showing the patents were obvious in light of earlier work by other inventors and, as such, should have never been granted.

Monsanto has filed dozens of patent infringement lawsuits asserting the four challenged patents against American farmers, many of whom are unable to hire adequate representation to defend themselves in court. The crime these farmers are accused of is nothing more than saving seed from one year's crop to replant the following year, something farmers have done since the beginning of time. The Center for Food Safety found in its study of the matter that, "Monsanto has used heavy-handed investigations and ruthless prosecutions that have fundamentally changed the way many American farmers farm. The result has been nothing less than an assault on the foundations of farming practices and traditions that have endured for centuries in this country and millennia around the world, including one of the oldest, the right to save and replant crop seed."

"Monsanto's aggressive assertion of its patents is not only obnoxious and offensive to the core fabric of American life and culture, it is also causing substantial public harm," said Dan Ravicher, PUBPAT's Executive Director. "It appears as though Monsanto wants to control all of America's farmland and - unfortunately - the patent system is providing them the perfect means to accomplish that goal by bullying independent and family owned farms right out of existence."

Copies of the Requests for Reexamination filed by PUBPAT against the four patents Monsanto is widely asserting against America's famers can be found at PUBPAT > Monsanto v. Farmer Patents.

Monsanto vs. U.S. Farmers Report

2005 report documents Monsanto's lawsuits against American farmers, revealing thousands of investigations, nearly 100 lawsuits and numerous bankruptcies.


Monsanto Sued For Alleged Glyphosate Monopoly

By Jeff Caldwell
Agriculture Online News
September 28, 2006

Plaintiffs say company unfairly dominates market years after Roundup patent expired

The Monsanto Company is the target of a class-action antitrust lawsuit filed this week in federal court.

Pullen Seeds and Soil, based in Sac City, Iowa, led the group filing Pullen Seeds and Soil v. Monsanto Company, No. 06-599, Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Wilmington, Delaware. Plaintiffs allege the company violated Sections 1 and 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act, as it allegedly has a monopoly over the glyphosate herbicide marketplace with its Roundup products. Monsanto's patent on Roundup product name expired in 2000.

"During the post-patent period...Roundup has maintained an 80% (or more) market share of all the glyphosate herbicides sold in the United States despite Monsanto's charging dealers 300% to 400% more for brand-name Roundup than the price charged by generic competitors," according to the Pullen v. Monsanto court document filed Tuesday. "Monsanto's ability to charge higher prices for Roundup is the result of a comprehensive anticompetitive scheme which Monsanto began implementing in the 1990s."

In the class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday, Pullen, a licensed grower of Monsanto's soybeans and corn containing glyphosate tolerance and seller of Monsanto seed, is joined by an estimated 100,000 class members around the nation (1,000 in Iowa), according to Iowa State University agriculture law specialist and ag law center director Roger McEowen. But, according to Monsanto spokesman and public affairs manager Andrew Burchett, the anticompetitive practices named in the suit do not exist.

"There are dozens of different brands and formulations of glyphosate available from more than 30 different companies in the United States," Burchett says. "This is far more competition than exists with regard to any other agricultural chemical."

Plaintiffs also allege Monsanto retained product exclusivity "by acquiring seed companies that were developing modified seed technology, eliminating those products that could have led to the development of genetically modified seeds that could be used with non-glyphosate herbicide," according to McEowen.

"These efforts to block the development of competing genetically modified seeds had a direct effect on Monsanto's glyphosate herbicide monopoly because had competing seeds been developed, farmers would have had a choice not only to buy competing seeds, but also to use different types of herbicides instead of glyphosate," according to the court document. "Thus, the development of these competing seeds would have created an increased demand for other non-glyphosate herbicides that would have competed with Roundup.

"This would have dramatically reduced Roundup's market dominance and Monsanto's ability to charge monopoly prices," the document reads.

Also at issue in the Pullen case is the practice of "bundling" crop input products like herbicides with seed. While this is not uncommon in the crop seed industry, it could become a major argument in the case.

"In addition to the exclusive dealing requirements with its seed company licensees, Pullen claims that Monsanto has used various types of bundled rebates to ensure that seed companies produce and sell seed containing Monsanto's seed traits virtually exclusively," McEowen says.

Yet, the arguments used by Pullen, et. al., according to Burchett, are not new and instead appear to be attempts to find holes in previously resolved cases.

"This complaint appears to recycle old allegations regarding our marketing and pricing of glyphosate -- complaints that DuPont and others previously have made in lawsuits and which were the subject of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice that was closed in 2004 with no enforcement action," Burchett says. "We believe this complaint is without merit and will vigorously defend against it."

The process now awaits the formal organization of the plaintiff class, which McEowen says will seek "declaratory and injunctive relief for Monsanto's alleged violations...and treble damages under Iowa antitrust law for the overcharges Pullen and other class members have paid." He estimates the "very difficult" case could take up to 10 years.

Calls to Pullen Seeds and Soil were not returned.

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