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February 2007 Updates

Federal Court Orders for the First Time a Halt to New Field Trials of Genetically Engineered Crops

Press Release
Center for Food Safety
February 6, 2007

Far-Reaching Decision Requires More Rigorous Environmental Review For Future Trials

Past Trials on Genetically Engineered Creeping Bentgrass Ruled Illegal

Washington, DC - In a decision broadly affecting field trials of genetically engineered crops a federal district judge ruled yesterday that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) must halt approval of all new field trials until more rigorous environmental reviews are conducted. Citing potential threats to the environment, Judge Harold Kennedy found in favor of the Center for Food Safety that USDA's past approvals of field trials of herbicide tolerant, genetically engineered bentgrass were illegal.

"This is a significant victory. The decision requires far more thorough oversight of the environmental impact of these crops, " stated Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Center for Food Safety.

"The Court was clearly concerned that the agency has put our nation's environment at risk by exempting many of these field trials from environmental review. That's why the judge made the decision broadly apply to all future field trials of genetically engineered crops." Mendelson continued.

The federal lawsuit was filed by the Center for Food Safety, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center and other individuals and organizations in 2003. At issue in the lawsuit are novel varieties of creeping bentgrass and Kentucky bluegrass manufactured by Scotts and Monsanto that have been genetically engineered to resist Roundup, Monsanto's popular herbicide.

Currently, use of the Roundup weedkiller is limited to spot spraying of weeds in that the herbicide kills any grass with which it comes in contact. The new engineered grass has been altered to be resistant to the weedkiller so that users will be able to spray entire lawns, fields and golf courses with large amounts of the chemical without fear of hurting the grass. Large scale planting of the biotech grass would therefore significantly increase the amounts of herbicide used in home lawns, sports fields, schools and golf courses around the country.

In seminal studies concerning environmental contamination from genetically engineered creeping bentgrass, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found multiple instances of the pollen from engineered bentgrass traveling several miles and transferring its traits to native grasses. Last year, EPA researchers found that the engineered grasses had escaped from field trials to contaminate a national grassland.

"These field trials threaten our public land, our communities and our health," said Lesley Adams, Outreach Coordinator for plaintiff Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.

"We will monitor the USDA very closely to make sure they don't allow any more of these tests until they've rigorously assessed their environmental impact," Adams concluded.

View the court's decision PDF


U.S. Agency Violated Law in Seed Case, Judge Rules

By Andrew Pollack
New York Times
February 14, 2007

A federal judge ruled yesterday that the Agriculture Department violated the law by failing to adequately assess possible environmental impacts before approving Monsanto’s genetically engineered alfalfa.

Judge Charles R. Breyer of Federal District Court in San Francisco said the agency had been "cavalier" in deciding that a full environmental impact statement was not needed because the potential environmental and economic effects of the crop were not significant.

Plaintiffs in the case — some alfalfa seed companies and environmental and farm advocacy groups — said they would push to stop the sales and planting of the alfalfa, which is resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.

Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Center for Food Safety, a Washington advocacy group that organized the lawsuit, said the decision by itself could block commercial sales of genetically engineered alfalfa seeds but that the plaintiffs would ask for an injunction to make sure. Judge Breyer asked the parties to meet and propose remedies to him by Feb. 26.

Christopher R. Horner, a spokesman for Monsanto, said the company had not seen the decision but thought it would not affect its business. Monsanto was not named in the suit, which was filed against the Agriculture Department.

Calls to several spokesmen for the Agriculture Department were not returned. A recording in the department’s communications office said the government closed early yesterday because of expected bad weather in Washington.

A federal judge in Washington said last week that the Agriculture Department had not done adequate assessments before approving field trials of genetically engineered grass. And last August a federal judge in Hawaii, in a case involving field trials of crops engineered to produce pharmaceuticals, ruled that the Agriculture Department had not adequately assessed the possible impact on endangered species.

Mr. Mendelson of the Center for Food Safety said yesterday’s decision could set a precedent that would require the Agriculture Department to do full impact statements for other biotech crops before they are approved.

The Roundup Ready alfalfa was deregulated by the Agriculture Department in June 2005, meaning it could be grown outside of field trials. It was the first approval in years of a new genetically engineered crop. Because alfalfa is the fourth most widely planted crop in the United States, the action presented a big opportunity for Monsanto.

The Agriculture Department had first done an environmental assessment, which concluded that a longer and more detailed environmental impact statement was not needed. This was in part, the agency said, because the implanted gene conferring herbicide resistance was harmless to people and livestock.

But Judge Breyer, in his 20-page opinion, said that the agency had not adequately considered the possibility that the gene could be transferred by pollen to organic or conventional alfalfa, hurting sales of organic farmers or exports to countries like Japan that did not want the genetically engineered variety.

"An action which potentially eliminates or at least greatly reduces the availability of a particular plant — here, nonengineered alfalfa — has a significant effect on the human environment," he wrote.

The judge also said that the Agriculture Department had too easily dismissed the possibility that planting Roundup-resistant alfalfa would lead to wider use of Roundup, which in turn would contribute to the development of weeds resistant to the popular herbicide. That is particularly a risk, he said, because many other crops like soybeans and corn are also resistant to Roundup, which is known generically as glyphosate.

"One would expect that some federal agency is considering whether there is some risk to engineering all of America’s crops to include the gene that confers resistance to glyphosate," he wrote.


Federal Court Finds USDA Erred in Approving Genetically Engineered Alfalfa Without Full Environmental Review

By Will Rostov and Joseph Mendelson
Center for Food Safety
February 14, 2007

Precedent-setting Decision May Block Planting, Sales of Monsanto Alfalfa

Washington, DC - In a decision handed down yesterday, a Federal Court has ruled, for the first time ever, that the U.S. Department of Agriculture failed to abide by federal environmental laws when it approved a genetically engineered crop without conducting a full Environment Impact Statement (EIS).

In what will likely be a precedent-setting ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Breyer of the Northern District of California decided in favor of farmers, consumers, and environmentalists who filed a suit calling the USDA's approval of genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa a threat to farmers' livelihoods and a risk to the environment. Judge Breyer ordered that a full Environmental Impact Statement must be carried out on "Roundup Ready" alfalfa, the GE variety developed by Monsanto and Forage Genetics. The decision may prevent this season's sales and planting of Monsanto's GE alfalfa and future submissions of other GE crops for commercial deregulation.

Judge Breyer concluded that the lawsuit, brought last year by a coalition of groups led by the Center for Food Safety, raised valid concerns about environmental impacts that the USDA failed to address before approving the commercialization and release of Roundup Ready alfalfa.

In his ruling, the judge consistently found USDA's arguments unconvincing, without scientific basis, and/or contrary to the law. For example:

  • The judge found that plaintiffs' concerns that Roundup Ready alfalfa will contaminate natural and organic alfalfa are valid, stating that USDA's opposing arguments were "not convincing" and do not demonstrate the "hard look" required by federal environmental laws. The ruling went on to note that "ŠFor those farmers who choose to grow non-genetically engineered alfalfa, the possibility that their crops will be infected with the engineered gene is tantamount to the elimination of all alfalfa; they cannot grow their chosen crop."
  • USDA argued that, based on a legal technicality, the agency did not have to address the economic risks to organic and conventional growers whose alfalfa crop could be contaminated by Monsanto's GE variety. But the judge found that USDA "overstates the lawŠEconomic effects are relevant "when they are 'interelated' with 'natural or physical environmental effects.'ŠHere, the economic effects on the organic and conventional farmers of the government's deregulation decision are interrelated with, and, indeed, a direct result of, the effect on the physical environment."
  • Judge Breyer found that USDA failed to address the problem of Roundup-resistant "superweeds" that could follow commercial planting of GE alfalfa. Commenting on the agency's refusal to assess this risk, the judge noted that "Nothing in NEPA, the relevant regulations, or the caselaw support such a cavalier response."

"This is a major victory for farmers and the environment," said Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety. "Not only has a Federal Court recognized that USDA failed to consider the environmental and economic threats posed by GE alfalfa, but it has also questioned whether any agency in the federal government is looking at the cumulative impacts of GE crop approvals."

"This is another nail in the coffin for USDA's hands-off approach to regulations on these risky engineered crops," said Will Rostov, Senior Attorney of The Center for Food Safety, which just last week won another judgment calling for USDA to provide more environmental documentation for any new GE field trials.

"This ruling will help protect my rights as a consumer to choose, and I choose organic foods whenever and wherever I can," said Dean Hulse, Fargo, ND-based spokesperson for Dakota Resource Council and the Western Organization of Resource Councils. "The decision rejects Monsanto's claims that transgenic crops are safe for the environment. Many people have been skeptical of those claims, and now we have a judge who's skeptical as well - a judge who has actually studied the facts."

The suit also cited the urgent concerns of farmers who sell to export markets. Japan and South Korea, America's most important alfalfa customers, have warned that they will discontinue imports of U.S. alfalfa if a GE variety is grown in this country. U.S. alfalfa exports total nearly $480 million per year, with about 75% headed to Japan. The Court disagreed with USDA's assertion that exports to Japan would not be harmed by deregulation of GE alfalfa.

"Today's ruling reinforces what Sierra Club has been saying all along: the government should look before it leaps and examine how genetically engineered alfalfa could harm the environment before approving its widespread use," said Neil Carman of the Sierra Club's genetic engineering committee. "That's just plain common sense."

Alfalfa is grown on over 21 million acres, and is worth $8 billion per year (not including the value of final products, such as dairy), making it the country's third most valuable and fourth most widely grown crop. Alfalfa is primarily used in feed for dairy cows and beef cattle, and it also greatly contributes to pork, lamb, sheep, and honey production. Consumers also eat alfalfa as sprouts in salads and other foods.

"We applaud the decision of the Court," said Bill Wenzel of the National Family Farm Coalition. "It's unfortunate that we have to turn to judges to do what's right for farmers while the USDA carries water for the biotech companies."

Pat Trask of Trask Family Seeds, a South Dakota conventional alfalfa grower and plaintiff in the case stated: "It's a great day for God's own alfalfa."

The Center for Food Safety represented itself and the following co-plaintiffs in the suit: Western Organization of Resource Councils, National Family Farm Coalition, Sierra Club, Beyond Pesticides, Cornucopia Institute, Dakota Resource Council, Trask Family Seeds, and Geertson Seed Farms.

Read the decision


USDA Criticized by 2nd Judge over Genetic Crops

by Carey Gillam
February 15, 2007

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Biotech crop critics celebrated Wednesday the second court ruling this month to find the US Department of Agriculture acted improperly in advancing certain genetically altered crops, both of which are tied to biotech giant Monsanto Co.

"This is another nail in the coffin for USDA's hands-off approach to regulations on these risky engineered crops," Will Rostov, senior attorney for The Center for Food Safety, said in a statement.

US District Court Judge Charles R. Breyer of the Northern District of California in San Francisco criticized the USDA on Tuesday as "cavalier" and said the department violated the law by failing to adequately assess possible environmental impacts before approving genetically engineered alfalfa developed by Monsanto.

Roundup Ready Alfalfa allows growers to use Monsanto's Roundup herbicide to kill competing weeds without damaging the alfalfa, a key fodder crop.

A coalition of farmers, consumers, and environmentalists, led by the Center for Food Safety filed suit last year, alleging biotech alfalfa could create super weeds resistant to herbicide, hurt production of organic dairy and beef products, and could cause farmers to lose export business due to risks of contamination to natural and organic alfalfa.

The suit also alleged that contamination of conventionally grown alfalfa could force farmers to pay for Monsanto's patented gene technology whether they wanted it or not.

Alfalfa, a perennial plant cross-pollinated by bees and wind, is among the most widely grown crops in the United States, along with corn, soybeans, and wheat.

Judge Breyer said the parties in the case should propose remedies to him by Feb. 26. Rostov said the plaintiffs would ask the court for an injunction against future seed sales or plantings of the biotech alfalfa.

The defendants in the case are Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns, Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Administrator Ron Dehaven and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Steve Johnson.

Monsanto, which is not a named defendant, said it disagreed with the alfalfa finding.

"Monsanto stands behind the human health and environmental safety of Roundup Ready Alfalfa," spokeswoman Lori Fisher said. "Numerous regulatory agencies around the world, including Canada, have confirmed the environmental safety of Roundup Ready alfalfa. We are currently reviewing our legal options regarding this matter."

A spokeswoman for APHIS said the service was examining both court rulings. "We are very committed to protecting the environment and we do take compliance with environmental regulations seriously," said Rachel Iadicicco.

The ruling on alfalfa follows a Feb. 5 court ruling that was also critical of the USDA. That case involves field tests approved for bentgrass genetically modified to resist Monsanto's Roundup herbicide in a collaboration between Monsanto and The Scotts Co. Bentgrass is commonly used on lawns, athletic fields and golf courses.

US District Judge Henry Kennedy for the District of Columbia said there is "substantial evidence that the field tests may have had the potential to affect significantly the quality of the human environment." He said USDA could not process any further field test permits without conducting a more thorough review.

Kennedy said USDA's APHIS failed to adequately consider whether the field tests could harm the environment.


UC's Biotech-biofuel Benefactors: The Power of Big Finance and Bad Ideas

By Miguel A. Altieri and Eric Holt-Gimenez
Berkeley Daily Planet
February 6, 2007

With royal fanfare, British Petroleum just donated $500 million in research funds for UC Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois to develop new sources of energy—primarily biotechnology to produce biofuel crops. This comes on the anniversary of Berkeley’s hapless research deal with seed giant Novartis ten years ago. However, at half a billion dollars, the BP grant dwarfs Novartis’ investment by a factor of 10. The graphics of the announcement were unmistakable: BP’s corporate logo is perfectly aligned with the flags of the Nation, the State, and the University.

CEO/Chairman Robert A. Malone proclaimed BP was "joining some of the world’s best science and engineering talent to meet the demand for low carbon energy … we will be working to improve and expand the production of clean, renewable energy through the development of better crops…" This partnership reflects the rapid, unchecked and unprecedented global corporate alignment of the world’s largest agribusiness (ADM, Cargill and Bunge), biotech (Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, Dupont), petroleum (BP, TOTAL, Shell), and automotive industries (Volkswagen, Peugeot, Citroen, Renault, SAAB). With what for them is a relatively small investment, these industries will appropriate academic expertise built over decades of public support, translating into billions in revenues for these global partners.

Could this be a "win-win" agenda for the university, the public, the environment and industry? Hardly. In addition to overwhelming the university’s research agenda, what scientists behind this blatantly private business venture fail to mention is that the apparent free lunch of crop-based fuel can’t satisfy our energy appetite, and it will not be free or environmentally sound.

Dedicating all present U.S. corn and soybean production to biofuels would meet only 12 percent of our gasoline demand and 6 percent of diesel demand. Total U.S. cropland reaches 625,000 square miles. To replace U.S. oil consumption with biofuels, we would need 1.4 million sq.mi. of corn for ethanol and 8.8 million square miles of soybean for biodiesel. Biofuels are expected to turn Iowa and South Dakota into corn-importers by 2008.

The biofuel energy balance—the amount of fossil energy put into producing crop biomass compared to that coming out—is anything but promising. Researchers Patzek and Pimentel see serious negative energy balances with biofuels. Other researchers see only 1.2 to 1.8 returns, for ethanol at best, with the jury still lukewarm on cellulosic biofuels.

Industrial methods of corn and soybean production depend on large-scale monocultures. Industrial corn requires high levels of chemical nitrogen fertilizer (largely responsible for the dead zone in Gulf of Mexico) and the herbicide atrazine an endocrine disruptor. Soybeans require massive amounts of non-selective, Roundup herbicide that upsets soil ecology and produce "superweeds." Both monocultures produce massive topsoil erosion and surface and groundwater pollution from pesticides and fertilizer runoff. Each gallon of ethanol sucks up three to four gallons of water in the production of biomass. The expansion of irrigated "fuel on the cob" into drier areas in the Midwest will draw down the already suffering Ogallala aquifer.

One of the more surreptitious industrial motives of the biofuels agenda—and the reason Monsanto and company are key players—is the opportunity to irreversibly convert agriculture to genetically engineered crops (GMOs). Presently, 52 percent of corn, 89 percent of soy, and 50 percent of canola in the United States is GMO. The expansion of biofuels with "designer corn" genetically tailored for special ethanol processing plants will remove all practical barriers to the permanent contamination of all non-GMO crops.

Obviously the United States can’t satisfy its energy appetite with biofuels. Instead, fuel crops will be grown in the developing world on large-scale plantations of sugarcane, oil palm and soybean already replacing primary and secondary tropical forests and grasslands in Argentina, Brasil, Colombia, Ecuador and Malaysia. Soybeans have already caused the destruction of over 91 million acres of forests and grasslands in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia. To satisfy world market demands, Brasil alone will need to clear 148 million additional acres of forest. Reduction of greenhouse gases is lost when carbon-capturing forests are felled to make way for biofuel crops.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of small-scale peasant farmers are being displaced by soybeans expansion. Many more stand to lose their land under the biofuels stampede. Already, the expanding cropland planted to yellow corn for ethanol has reduced the supply of white corn for tortillas in Mexico, sending prices up 400 percent. This led peasant leaders at the recent World Social Forum in Nairobi to demand, "No full tanks when there are still empty bellies!"

By promoting large-scale mechanized monocultures which require agrochemical inputs and machinery, and as carbon-capturing forests are felled to make way for biofuel crops, CO2 emissions will increase not decrease. The only way to stop global warming is to promote small-scale organic agriculture and decrease the use of all fuels, which requires major reductions in consumption patterns and development of massive public transportation systems, areas that the University of California should be actively researching and that BP and the other biofuel partners will never invest one penny towards.

The potential consequences for the environment and society of BP’s funding are deeply disturbing. In the wake of the report of the external review of the UCB-Novartis agreement that recommended that the university not enter into such agreements in the future, how could such a major deal be announced without wide consultation of the UC faculty? The university has been recruited into a corporate partnership that may irreversibly transform the plant’s food and fuel systems and concentrating tremendous power in the hands of a few corporate partners.

It is up to the citizens of California to hold the university accountable to research that supports truly sustainable alternatives to the energy crisis. A serious public debate on this new program is long overdue.

Miguel A. Altieri is a professor at UC Berkeley and Eric Holt-Gimenez is executive director of Oakland’s Food First

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