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December 2007 Updates

Sask. Organic Group's GMO Suit Shut Down

By FBC staff
Farm Business Communications
December 14, 2007

The Supreme Court of Canada won't hear an appeal from two Saskatchewan farmers looking to mount a class-action suit against Monsanto Canada and Bayer CropScience over genetically modified (GM) canola.

The denial of leave to appeal by Canada's top court effectively shuts down the case in its present form, as filed by farmers Larry Hoffman and Dale Beaudoin, with backing by the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate (SOD), an umbrella group for organic farmers, end-users and consumers.

Hoffman and Beaudoin, with lawyer Terry Zakreski, sought leave to appeal decisions by two Saskatchewan courts that refused to certify the farmers' suit against the two seed and biotech companies as a class action.

The suit, if certified, would have sought compensation for the loss of canola as a certified organic crop due to what SOD called "extensive contamination of canola seed and cross-pollination by GMO varieties," specifically those containing Monsanto's Roundup Ready and Bayer's Liberty Link genes.

A Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench judge denied class-action certification in May 2005, a ruling upheld at the provincial Court of Appeal in May this year.

Justice G.A. Smith, the Queen's Bench judge at the time, had ruled that the plaintiffs' proposed "class" was over-inclusive in some respects, under-inclusive in others, and was not sufficiently related to the causes of action. The lower courts also noted that the organic standards in question were only amended to include GMOs after Roundup Ready and Liberty Link canola had been released, which left "no plausible basis" for supposing negligence by the two companies.

The provincial appeal court also noted Smith's view that the two farmers "were not suitable representatives, given the fact they were nominal plaintiffs only and had relinquished control of the action" to SOD.

In a class action suit, Smith ruled, representative plaintiffs have a responsibility to prosecute the suit in the interests of the members of the class and must have the knowledge and ability to instruct their counsel. "These are duties that cannot, in my view, be delegated to another party who is not answerable to the Court."

Hoffman said in an SOD release in August that the two farmers had to appeal to the Supreme Court because the lower court rulings showed "the bar was set too high for class actions in Saskatchewan."

SOD spokesman Arnold Taylor told the Canadian Press news agency on Thursday that the group was disappointed at the Supreme Court's dismissal. However, he noted, the decision to deny class action status doesn't stop the individual farmers from filing their case.

Taylor told CP that there likely wouldn't be a decision on whether to file suit on an individual basis until early in the new year.

Monsanto Canada spokesperson Trish Jordan said in a release Thursday that it was "gratifying" to see the top court support the lower courts' "strongly worded decisions."


Scientist Who Claimed GM Crops Could Solve Third World Hunger Admits He Got It Wrong

By Sean Poulter
The Daily Mail (UK)
December 18, 2007

A claim that GM technology is helping deliver higher crop yields in Africa was wrong, the Government's chief scientist has been forced to admit.

Professor Sir David King recently caused uproar with his assertion that GM crops could help feed the hungry of the Third World.

He called on the Government to campaign for the adoption of GM technology and said the Daily Mail's campaigning stance against it was holding up progress.

Yesterday however he was accused of "letting off blasts of hot and sometimes rancid air" after it emerged his latest GM crop claims were wildly innaccurate.

Dr Richard Horton, the editor of medical journal The Lancet said Sir David took his faith in science into "the realms of totalitarian paranoia".

Writing in his online blog he said: 'If he lost the debate on GM, it was because his arguments failed to convince people.

"King seems biased and even antidemocratic. It seems he would prefer the media not to exist at all. That is a troubling position for the Government's chief scientist to adopt."

Critics of Sir David suggest he has become "demob happy" following his decision to stand down.

Since the announcement, he has taken a more outspoken line on controversial issues such as GM, global warming and the need to innoculate children with the MMR vaccine.

Dr Horton said Sir David was "letting off blasts of hot and sometimes rancid air to relieve the dyspeptic frustrations of seven years in the most uncomfortable job in science".

The chief scientist had used the example of crop trials around Lake Victoria in Kenya to boast how useful GM farming could be in feeding the Third World.

He claimed scientists had discovered the identity of a chemical in food plants that attract pests such as root borers.

Sir David suggested it had been possible to "snip" the gene responsible for this chemical out of the food crop and then insert it into grass that is grown alongside it. He said the pests then eat the grass rather than the food.

He told Radio Four's Today programme: "You interplant the grass with the grain and it turns out the crop yield goes up 40-50 per cent. A very big advantage."

The only problem is Sir David failed to accurately describe the research in Africa, which did not involve the use of any GM technology at all.

The research actually involved finding plants that can be cultivated alongside food crops and provide a natural solution to boosting yields.

Researchers identified one set of plants that naturally deters parastic weeds, while another set, a species of grass, attracts the pests.

The net result of this "push and pull" regime is that the food crop can grow more easily and produce a much higher yield.

Green pressure groups are demanding a public apology from Sir David, whose credibility has been shaken by the error.

Director of the GM Freeze campaign, Pete Riley, said: "We find it quite staggering that Professor King made such misleading comments.

"The 'push pull' project in fact illustrates how the problem pest and weeds which plague farmers in the Global South can be tackled by well researched crop management techniques.

"These have the advantage of being cheap to apply and being free of the potential environmental and health impacts of GM crops or pesticide usage.

"If Africa is to become more self reliant in food supply without locking farmers into very expensive GM seeds and their associated herbicides then the Government need to be funding more projects like 'push pull'."

A spokesman for the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills admitted Sir David simply got it wrong.

He said: "Sir David has said this was an honest mistake."

Sir David has described the Daily Mail's campaigning stance on GM food as "brilliant journalism".

However, he complained it had held up the introduction of GM technology. This line has been rejected by Dr Horton.

Dr Horton praised Sir David for his "boldness" in persuading the Government to take climate change seriously. However, he criticised his outspoken attacks on the media as "a sorrowful end to a not undistinguished term of office".


EU Decision on GMO Testing Opens Door for U.S. Rice

December 20, 2007

Chicago - A decision to stop testing U.S. rice for genetically modified traits when it arrives at its destination should help restore trade with the European Union, which has virtually stopped since August 2006, said U.S. rice traders Thursday.

The EU Standing Committee of the Food Chain and Animal Health made the decision on Thursday and it could take effect as early as mid-January.

"It is a good sign. There's been a bit of a pickup in shipments going there," said Neauman Coleman, an analyst and rice broker in Brinkley, Arkansas. "It's all proven to be GMO free. This is another positive step."

The discovery in August 2006 of the LibertyLink trait, developed by Bayer CropScience, a division of Bayer, in commercial supplies triggered a disaster for the U.S. rice industry.

The industry quickly moved to stop planting of the varieties identified as having the GMO trait, which resulted in less than 0.5 percent of this year's crop being affected, according to USA Rice Federation, a trade organization.

"The decision opens the door," said David Coia, spokesman for USA Rice. "Now, another layer of work begins where we have to begin to rebuild the market. This certainly helps tremendously."

A U.S. government investigation was unable to determine how the biotech rice entered the commercial supply chain. The GMO strain has gotten U.S. approval but no GMO rice is authorized for import or sale in the 25-member European Union.

Most Countries Test at Origin

Most countries allow exporters to test the rice for GMO traits before it leaves port. The EU's requirement to test at destination made sales extremely risky for sellers.

If the rice tested positive, they would encounter hefty charges

Before the incident, the European Union bought about 282,000 tonnes of U.S. rice in the 2005/06 marketing year. Exports fell to 50,000 tonnes in 2006/07.

"It's been a black cloud over the market for the past year and a half," said Ed Taylor, an analyst with, a market advisory service.

"It's a big deal," he said. "It means you no longer have the risk if you ship it over there of having it rejected once it gets there."


Both Sides Cite Science to Address Altered Corn

By Elisabeth Rosenthal
NY Times
December 26, 2007

Brussels - A proposal that Europe's top environment official made last month, to ban the planting of a genetically modified corn strain, sets up a bitter war within the European Union, where politicians have done their best to dance around the issue.

The environmental commissioner, Stavros Dimas, said he had based his decision squarely on scientific studies suggesting that long-term uncertainties and risks remain in planting the so-called Bt corn. But when the full European Commission takes up the matter in the next couple of months, commissioners will have to decide what mix of science, politics and trade to apply. And they will face the ambiguous limits of science when it is applied to public policy.

For a decade, the European Union has maintained itself as the last big swath of land that is mostly free of genetically modified organisms, largely by sidestepping tough questions. It kept a moratorium on the planting of crops made from genetically altered seeds while making promises of further scientific studies.

But Europe has been under increasing pressure from the World Trade Organization and the United States, which contend that there is plenty of research to show such products do not harm the environment. Therefore, they insist, normal trade rules must apply.

Science does not provide a definitive answer to the question of safety, experts say, just as science could not determine beyond a doubt how computer clocks would fare at the turn of the millennium.

"Science is being utterly abused by all sides for nonscientific purposes," said Benedikt Haerlin, head of Save Our Seeds, an environmental group in Berlin and a former member of the European Parliament. "The illusion that science will answer this overburdens it completely." He added, "It would be helpful if all sides could be frank about their social, political and economic agendas."

Mr. Dimas, a lawyer and the minister from Greece, looked at the advice provided by the European Union's scientific advisory body - which found that the corn was "unlikely" to pose a risk - but he decided there were nevertheless too many doubts to permit the modified corn.

"Commissioner Dimas has the utmost faith in science," said Barbara Helfferich, spokeswoman for the environment department. "But there are times when diverging scientific views are on the table." She added that Mr. Dimas was acting as a "risk manager."

Within the European scientific community, there are passionate divisions about how to apply the growing body of research concerning genetically modified crops, and in particular Bt corn. That strain is based on the naturally occurring soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis and mimics its production of a toxin to kill pests. The vast majority of research into such crops is conducted by, or financed by, the companies that make seeds for genetically modified organisms.

"Where everything gets polarized is the interpretation of results and how they might translate into different scenarios for the future," said Angelika Hilbeck, an ecologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, whose skeptical scientific work on Bt corn was cited by Mr. Dimas. "Is the glass half-empty or half-full?" she asked.

Ms. Hilbeck says that company-financed studies do not devote adequate attention to broad ripple effects that modified plants might cause, like changes to bird species or the effect of all farmers planting a single biotechnology crop. She said producers of modified organisms, like Syngenta and Monsanto, have rejected repeated requests to release seeds to researchers like herself to conduct independent studies on their effect on the environment.

In his decision, Mr. Dimas cited a dozen scientific papers in finding potential hazards in the Bt corn to butterflies and other insects.

But the European Federation of Biotechnology, an industry group, contends that the great majority of these papers show that Bt corn does not pose any environmental risk.

Many plant researchers say that Mr. Dimas ignored scientific conclusions, including those of several researchers who advised the European Union that the new corn was safe.

"We are seeing 'advice-resistant' politicians pursuing their own agendas," said one researcher, who like others asked not to be identified because of his advisory role.

But Karen S. Oberhauser, a leading specialist on monarch butterflies at the University of Minnesota, said that debate and further study of Bt corn was appropriate, particularly for Europe.

"We don't really know for sure if it's having an effect" on ecosystems in the United States, she said, and it is hard to predict future problems. About 40 percent of corn in the United States is now the Bt variety, and it has been planted for about a decade.

"Whether Bt corn is a problem depends totally on the ecosystem - what plants are near the corn field and what insects feed on them," Ms. Oberhauser said. "So it's really, really important to have careful studies."

Bt crops produce a toxin that kills pests but is also toxic to related insects, notably monarch butterflies and a number of water insects. The butterflies do not feed on corn itself, but they might feed nearby, on plants like milkweed. Because corn pollen is carried in the wind, such plants can become coated with Bt pollen.

Ms. Oberhauser said she had been worried about the effect of Bt corn on monarch butterflies in the United States after her studies showed that populations of the insect dipped from 2002 to 2004. But they have rebounded in the last three years, and she has concluded that, in the American Corn Belt, Bt corn has probably not hurt monarch butterflies.

Still, she said there was disagreement about that as well as broader causes for worry. Monarch butterflies may have been saved in the United States, she said, by a fluke of local farming practices. Year by year, farmers alternate Bt corn with a genetically modified soy seed that requires the use of a weed killer. That weed killer, Monsanto's Roundup, eliminated milkweed - the monarch's favored meal - in and around corn fields, so the butterflies went elsewhere and were no longer exposed to Bt.

"It's a problem for milkweed, but it made the risk for monarchs very small," she said.

Still, she said, other effects could emerge with time and in farming regions with other practices. For example, Bt toxin slows the maturation of butterfly caterpillars, which leaves them exposed to predators for longer periods.

"Sure, time will give you answers on these questions - and maybe show you mistakes that you should have thought about earlier," she said.

For ecologists and entomologists, a major concern is that insects could quickly become resistant to the toxin built into the corn if all farmers in a region used that corn, just as microbes affecting humans become resistant to antibiotics that are prescribed often. The pests that are killed by modified corn are only a sporadic problem and could be treated by other means.

Scientists also worry about collateral damage because Bt toxin is in wind-borne pollen. Most pollens "are highly nutritious, as they are designed to attract," Ms. Hilbeck said, wondering how a toxic pollen would affect bees, for example.

Having reviewed the science, insurance companies have been unwilling to insure Bt planting because the risks to people and the environment are too uncertain, said Duncan Currie, an international lawyer in Christchurch, New Zealand, who studies the subject.

In the United States, where almost all crops are now genetically modified, the debate is largely closed.

"I'm not saying there are no more questions to pursue, but whether it's good or bad to plant Bt corn - I think we're beyond that," said Richard L. Hellmich, a plant scientist with the Agriculture Department who is based at Iowa State University. He noted that hundreds of studies had been done and that Bt corn could help "feed the world."

But the scientific equation may look different in Europe, with its increasing green consciousness and strong agricultural traditions.

"Science doesn't say on its own what to do," said Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, executive director of the European Food Safety Authority. She noted that while her agency had advised Mr. Dimas that Bt corn was "unlikely" to cause harm, it was still working to improve its assessment of the long-term risk to the environment.

Part of the reason that science is central to the current debate is that European law and World Trade Organization rules make it much easier for a country or a region to exclude genetically modified seeds if new scientific evidence indicates a risk. Lacking that kind of justification, a move to bar the plants would be regarded as an unfair barrier to trade, leaving the European Union open to penalties.

But the science probably will not be clear-cut enough to let the European ministers avoid that risk.

Simon Butler at the University of Reading in Britain is using computer models to predict the long-term effect of altered crops on birds and other species. But should the ministers reject Bt and other genetically modified corn?

"My work is not to judge whether G.M. is right or wrong," he said. "It's just to get the data out there."


Seed Controversy Sprouts

By Stephen J. Hedges - Washington Bureau
December 26, 2007

Some say USDA's insurance break for Monsanto customers unfair

Washington - While the federal government doesn't usually endorse products, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has struck an unusual arrangement with agribusiness giant Monsanto Co. that gives farmers in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Minnesota a break on federal crop insurance premiums if they plant Monsanto-brand seed corn this spring.

The arrangement has raised some eyebrows, particularly among organic farm groups that argue the government agency should not be promoting corn that contains an herbicide; the Monsanto brands contain chemicals that kill weeds and insects.

Monsanto's deal is legal, note USDA officials who point out that such arrangements were encouraged in a 2000 crop insurance law that Congress enthusiastically passed. The idea is to give farmers a break on their insurance premiums if they use corn seeds that are higher yield and shown to resist insects and other threats.

USDA officials said they are aware of the appearance of favoritism toward one of the nation's largest ag companies.

"We knew it would look that way," said Shirley Pugh, a spokeswoman for USDA's Risk Management Agency, which administers federal crop insurance. "But other companies can come and do the same thing. We are making the discount available because the corn has shown the traits necessary to reduce the risk."

Pugh said the arrangement benefits not just farmers, but also taxpayers, since USDA pays a portion of each farmer's insurance premium.

Farm groups said the timing of the USDA-Monsanto agreement will help farmers who face higher crop insurance premiums because of elevated corn prices.

"We're very supportive of the concept," said Ron Litterer, president of the National Corn Growers Association, and a farmer in Greene, Iowa. "Not only for Monsanto but for any biotechnology company that can make the case that by using those products, it lowers the risk of providing a corn crop."

The deal with St. Louis-based Monsanto occurred under a provision called the Biotech Yield Endorsement program, which is part of the Agricultural Risk Protection Act of 2000.

No other companies have taken advantage of the program, Pugh said. The insurance premium benefit to farmers, according to USDA, will be about $2 per acre, or $2,000 for a typical 1,000-acre farm.

Crop insurance prices have skyrocketed for farmers as corn prices have reached near-record highs in recent months. Today, corn trades at about $4 a bushel, double the price of about two years ago.

Those prices have continued to stay high because of increased demand from the ethanol industry, which uses the grain to make fuel, as well as increased corn exports and demands from cattle-feeding businesses.

Crop insurance rates can be as high as $50 an acre, according to Kurt Koester, a vice president and co-owner at AgriSource Inc., a crop insurance agency in West Des Moines, Iowa, involved in the pilot program. Several years ago, Koester said premiums were about $15 to $20 an acre.

"Farmers are going to face some really tough decisions here," Koester said. 'They've got this high-value corn sitting out in their fields. When you take the cost of this crop insurance, even with government subsidies, there's going to be sticker shock."

The pilot program with Monsanto covers the country's four most productive corn states. It involves corn that contains YieldGard Plus with Roundup Ready Corn 2 or YieldGard VT Triple technology from Monsanto, the company said. The deal with the Agriculture Department was finalized this month.

The corn grown is generally used as cattle feed and as raw material for ethanol plants.

Monsanto won the BYE designation by providing three years' worth of research that convinced the USDA's Federal Crop Insurance Corporation board that its triple-stack corn variety produces higher yields under difficult conditions, such as weeds and corn borer.

"It really bore out what we've heard from our farmers, saying over and over again that these triple-stack technologies in the corn plant help protect against weeds and root worms," said Darren Wallis, a Monsanto spokesman. "What this does is reduce the risk for the farmers."

Monsanto, however, has earned the wrath of organic agriculture and environmental groups, mostly for promoting the growth of genetically altered crops. The presence of Roundup in its corn seed has also drawn criticism.

Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, characterized the USDA-Monsanto BYE arrangement as one of many examples in which the department has sided with big agribusinesses instead of smaller farmers and farm groups. He said the BYE program will leave farmers with little choice but to buy Monsanto seed.

"We definitely have a problem with all the benefits that [Monsanto] gets," Cummins said. "If you really look at our crop subsidy program and what's given to farmers, you really see a lot of those subsidies going to purchase genetically engineered crops."

Cummins also said that the USDA-Monsanto arrangement excludes organic farmers.

Most of the corn acreage in the four states involved is insured, according to USDA figures. Of the 11 million acres planted in corn in 2006 in Illinois, about 9 million acres, or 79 percent, had federal crop insurance, according to USDA. In Indiana, 68 percent of corn acres were insured, in Iowa, 87 percent and in Minnesota, 89 percent.

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