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May 2007 Updates

Judge Prohibits Planting of Genetically Engineered Alfalfa

By Paul Elias
Associated Press
May 3, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO - A federal judge on Thursday barred the planting of genetically engineered alfalfa nationwide, ruling that the government didn't adequately study the biotechnology crop's potential to mix with organic and conventional varieties.

U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer made permanent a temporary ban he ordered in March on alfalfa with genetic material from bacteria that makes the crop resistant to a popular weed killer.

The ruling is a major victory for anti-biotech crusaders, who have been fighting the proliferation of genetically engineered crops. It is the first ban placed on such crops since the first variety - the Flavr Savr tomato - was approved in 1994.

Breyer said the U.S. Department of Agriculture must conduct a detailed scientific study of the crop's effect on the environment and other alfalfa varieties before deciding whether to approve it.

USDA spokeswoman Rachel Iadicicco said the agency would conduct such a study.

Some 220,000 acres of genetically engineered alfalfa were planted this year before the judge's ban went into effect.

Monsanto Inc., the St. Louis-based biotech firm company that developed the crop, had asked Judge Breyer to allow continued planting this year while the USDA compiled its report, which the agency said could take up to two years to complete.

Breyer's order only affects alfalfa farmers, which grow the crop primarily for livestock feed. But many crops, including soy, corn and cotton, have been engineered with the same trait, which enables farmers to more easily spray herbicide over their fields.

Alfalfa is grown on about 21 million acres nationwide. California is the nation's largest alfalfa producer, growing the crop on about 1 million acres, primarily in the San Joaquin Valley.

Monsanto and Forage Genetics Inc., the company licensed to sell its genetically engineered seed, argued that the biotech alfalfa - dubbed Roundup Ready because of its resistance to Monsanto's popular herbicide Roundup - would actually benefit the environment because fewer weed killers would be used.

But Breyer sided with organic farmers and conventional growers who fear lost sales if their crops are contaminated by genetically engineered plants.

"The harm to these farmers and consumers who do not want to purchase genetically engineered alfalfa or animals fed with such alfalfa outweighs the economic harm to Monsanto, Forage Genetics and those farmers who desire to switch to Roundup Ready alfalfa," Breyer wrote Thursday.

Monsanto officials didn't have an immediate comment Thursday. The company's share price rose 92 cents to $59.55 in afternoon trading.

About 136.5 million acres of the nation's 445 million acres of farmland were used to grow biotech crops last year, an increase of 10 percent over 2005 plantings, according to the industry-backed nonprofit International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications.


Federal Judge Orders First-Ever Halt to Planting of a Commercialized Genetically-Altered Crop

Center for Food Safety
May 3, 2007

Judge Breyer Orders Complete Environmental Review of Monsanto's Gene-Altered Alfalfa

San Francisco, CA - A Federal judge today made a final ruling that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) 2005 approval of Monsanto's genetically engineered (GE) "Roundup Ready" alfalfa was illegal. The Judge called on USDA to ban any further planting of the GE seed until it conducts a complete Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the GE crop.

In the decision, Judge Charles Breyer in the Federal Northern District of California affirmed his preliminary ruling, which echoed the Center for Food Safety's arguments in their lawsuit against USDA, that the crop could harm the environment and contaminate natural alfalfa. Today's ruling also requires Forage Genetics to provide the locations of all existing Roundup Ready alfalfa plots to USDA within 30 days. The Judge ordered USDA to make the location of these plots "publicly available as soon as practicable" so that growers of organic and conventional alfalfa "can test their own crops to determine if there has been contamination."

"This permanent halt to the planting of this risky crop is a great victory for the environment," said Will Rostov, a Senior Attorney for CFS. "Roundup Ready alfalfa poses threats to farmers, to our export markets, and to the environment. We expect the USDA to abide by the law and insure that American farmers are protected from genetic contamination."

Today's decision is consistent with Judge Breyer's ruling of February 13th, in which Judge Breyer found that the USDA failed to address concerns that Roundup Ready alfalfa will contaminate conventional and organic alfalfa. In calling today for a permanent injunction, Judge Breyer noted that contamination of natural and organic alfalfa by the GE variety has already occurred, and noted that "Such contamination is irreparable environmental harm. The contamination cannot be undone."

"This ruling is good news for organic farmers and most conventional farmers across the country," said Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center. "This crop represents a very real threat to their crops and their livelihood. This ruling is a turning point in the regulation of biotech crops in this country," Kimbrell concluded.

The permanent injunction ordered today by Judge Breyer follows his ruling last month finding that USDA violated national environmental laws by approving GE alfalfa without a full Environmental Impact Statement. Monsanto and Forage Genetics, the developers of the GE alfalfa seed, failed to convince the Judge that their interests outweighed the public interest in food safety, freedom to farm natural crops, and environmental protection. In fact, Judge Breyer specifically noted that Monsanto's fear of lost sales "does not outweigh the potential irreparable damage to the 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 stated, "Finally, the court rejects defendants' assertion that allowing an expansion in the Roundup Ready alfalfa market is in the public interest because it promotes the use of less toxic herbicides. The record reflects that organic and most conventional forage alfalfa is grown without the use of any herbicides. In any event, a finding that increasing the use of Roundup is in the public interest is premature in light of APHIS's failure to analyze the potential for the development of Roundup-resistant weeds."

The Center for Food Safety initiated the legal action resulting in today's ruling in February 2006, representing 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.

"As a consumer of organic foods, I'm relieved to know that a U.S. District Court judge understands the regulatory role USDA plays, even though the agency itself seems to have forgotten," said Dean Hulse, an organic food consumer from Fargo and past chair of Dakota Resource Council. "Judge Breyer's ruling forces USDA to do its job--that is, to conduct the research necessary to determine the effects of Roundup Ready alfalfa on the environment."

"I'm hopeful that Judge Breyer's precedent-setting ruling will induce a rebirth of values at the USDA, in particular, and federal regulatory agencies generally," added Hulse. "The USDA's role with respect to regulating transgenic crops should be that of watch dog, not lap dog."

Organic alfalfa seed producer Blaine Schmaltz, Rugby ND, said the ruling helps farmers in a time of uncertainty. "The judge's order to make public the location of Roundup Ready alfalfa fields is a critical part of the decision," said Schmalz. "It allows GM-free and organic producers like me make sound planting decisions."

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."

"This ruling protects the ability of farmers producing organic meat and milk to obtain non-GMO alfalfa seed to grow feed for their animals and preserve the organic integrity of their products," said Jim Munsch, a certified organic livestock producer from Coon Valley, Wisconsin who represents The Cornucopia Institute, one the plaintiffs. "This is precedent-setting. For the first time the courts have intervened on a USDA ruling to ensure that proper environmental evaluation and consideration for the livelihood of family farmers are accounted for and balance the desires of large companies" Munsch added.

"This landmark decision curtails a genetically engineered crop that, among other serious environmental problems, increases farmers' dependency on toxic weed killers that hurt farmers, food consumers, and the environment," said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides.

"Today's final ruling reaffirms what Sierra Club has been saying all along: the government needs to look before it leaps and must comprehensively examine through an EIS how genetically engineered alfalfa could impact the environment before approving its widespread use," said Neil Carman of the Sierra Club's genetic engineering committee. "Conducting an EIS is plain common sense."

"This is a huge victory for family farmers in the livestock and diary industry," said Bill Wenzel, National Director Farmer to Farmer Campaign on GE. "It is unfortunate that it took lengthy and expensive litigation to achieve what should have been apparent to the bureaucrats at the USDA – that nobody but Monsanto benefits from the commercialization of GE Alfalfa."


Give Bees a Chance

By Matt Hutaff
May 1, 2007

The disappearance of bee colonies around the world could ravage agriculture -- and it's all our fault.

Rumor has it Albert Einstein once declared humanity could only outlive the bee by about four years. His reasoning was simple: "no more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."

Nothing like entomological doomsday scenarios from a classical physicist, right?

Nonetheless, it looks like we're poised to find out if the godfather of relativity is right. Bees are disappearing at an alarming rate, particularly in the United States and Germany. And while it's normal for hive populations to fall during colder winter months, the recent exodus is puzzling beekeepers and researchers around the world. Are we witnessing the death throes of the human race firsthand? Will the bee go the way of the dodo? Not likely, but I'll tell you one thing - whatever's driving the collapse of the bee population, it's man-made.

"During the last three months of 2006, we began to receive reports from commercial beekeepers of an alarming number of honey bee colonies dying in the eastern United States," says Maryann Frazier, an apiarist with Penn State University. "Since the beginning of the year, beekeepers from all over the country have been reporting unprecedented losses," including one gentleman who's lost 800 of his 2,000 colonies in less than four months.

Those losses are atypical. The usual causes of death, aside from climate, are varroa mites, hive beetles, and wax moths, which infest hives weakened by sickness and malnutrition. Annual casualties tend to hover in the 20th percentile, and beekeepers work with entomologists to protect their investments via antibiotics, miticides, and advanced pest management.

Not so today. The current blight has spread across the country rapidly, leaving abandoned hives full of uneaten food and unhatched larvae. Natural predators brave enough to enter behave erratically, "acting in a way you normally don't expect them to act," says beekeeper Julianne Wooten. And whereas naturally abandoned hives are infested by other insects within a short period of time, hives affected by what is tentatively labeled colony collapse disorder (CCD) are avoided.

California and Texas have been hit particularly hard by the sudden disappearance of bees, but dozens of other states are reporting major losses as well. And when you consider bees are big business as well as a critical part of the food chain, that vanishing act is no laughing matter. Consider:

  • bees are essential for pollinating over 90 varieties of vegetables and fruits, including apples, avocados, blueberries, and cherries;
  • pollination increases the yield and quality of crops by approximately $15 billion annually; and
  • California's almond industry alone contributes $2 billion to the local economy, and depends on 1.4 million bees, which are brought in from all over the United States.

Bees stimulate the food supply as well as the economy. So what's the cause of colony collapse? Suspicions are pointed in several different directions, including cell phone transmissions and agricultural pesticides, some of which are known to be poisonous to bees. But if these two factors are responsible, why are the deaths not a global phenomenon? The bee collapse began in isolated pockets before progressing rapidly around the nation. If cell phones are to blame, shouldn't the effect have been simultaneous, and witnessed years ago? And if pesticides are strictly to blame, shouldn't beekeepers near major farm systems be able to track those pollutants and narrow the field of possible suspects?

Perhaps they have - and the culprit is bigger than we imagine.

Several scientists have come forward with the startling claim that genetically modified food - you know, that blessing from above that would solve famine and put food in the belly of every undernourished, Third World child - is destroying bees. How could something so wondrous as pest-resistant corn kill millions upon millions of bees? Simple - by producing so much natural pesticide that bees are either driven mad or away.

Most genetically-modified seeds have a transplanted segment of DNA that creates a well-known bacterium, bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), in its cells. Normally Bt is not a problem - it's a naturally-occurring pesticide that's been used as a spray for years by farmers looking to control crop damage from butterflies. And it's effective at helping beekeepers keep bees alive, too - Bt is sprayed under hive lids to keep those pesky wax moths from attacking.

But "instead of the bacterial solution being sprayed on the plant, where it is eaten by the target insect, the genes that contain the insecticidal traits are incorporated into the genome of the farm crop," writes biologist and beekeeper John McDonald. "As the transformed plant grows, these Bt genes are replicated along with the plant genes so that each cell contains its own poison pill that kills the target insect.

"Canadian beekeepers have detected the disappearance of the wax moth in untreated hives, apparently a result of worker bees foraging in fields of transgenic canola plants. [And] the planting of transgenic corn and soybean has increased exponentially, according to statistics from farm states. Tens of millions of acres of transgenic crops are allowing Bt genes to move off crop fields."

McDonald's analysis stands up under scrutiny. A former agronomist has commented that the one trial of GM crops in the Netherlands quickly led to colony collapse within 100 kilometers of the fields, and it's reasonable to hypothesize nature's pollinators would bear an averse reaction to plants with poison coursing through every stem.

"The amount of Bt in these plants is enough to trigger allergies in some people, and irritate the skin and eyes of farmers who handle the crops," writes Patrick Wiebe. "In India, when sheep were used to clear a field of leftover Bt cotton, several sheep died after eating it." If it can kill a sheep, it can certainly kill a bee.

What can be done? Precious little if gene-modified plants are the genesis of colony collapse. "There is no way to keep genetically modified genes from escaping into the wild," says Mike Rivero. "Wild varieties of corn in Mexico have been found to contain artificial genes carried by the wind and bees. Indeed it is probable that the gene that makes the plant cells manufacture a pesticide has already escaped, which means this problem will only spread.

"This is far more dangerous than a toxic spill, which confines itself to the original spill and the downwind/downstream plumes. A mistake in a gene, once allowed into the wild, can spread across the entire planet."

Genetically-modified food is produced by companies such as Monsanto (how many of its scientists do you think drive a hybrid?). Despite a number of tests, the food created by these gene-spliced crops are considered a failure. It consistently makes animals ill, increases liver toxicity, and damages kidneys. What's the incentive to grow this food? What's the incentive to eat it?

In our dash to trademark the very building blocks of our food supply, companies experimenting with "upgrading" crops may have irreparably damaged one of nature's most important contributors. Instead of approaching famine from a balanced perspective, corporations have patented the right to subsist. If Einstein's lesser-known theory is right, they have unwittingly become Shiva, the destroyer of worlds.

Wait - that was Oppenheimer. I need to stop quoting dead German physicists.

Give bees a chance. Roll back the Frankenfood and pray the bee colonies return to pollinate our way to a full stomach.


European Patent Office Revokes Monsanto's Species Patent on Genetically Engineered Soy Beans

May 3, 2007

Munich - In a public hearing at the board of appeal at the European Patent Office a basic patent (EP 0301749) of US company Monsanto was revoked today. Reasons were that parts of the patent were not really new and others details were not described in a way that the invention could be really repeated by other experts.

The final decision was the outcome of appeals which were filed by Canadian civil society organisation ETC Group and the European Company of Syngenta. Further oppositions were filed orginally by the NGO "No Patents on Life!" and four other companies when the patent was granted in 1994. Even Monsanto filed an opposition, but then bought the company Agracetus which originally owned the patent, withdrew its opposition and started to defend the patent.

According to Hope Shand of ETC Group, "The decision comes pretty late, 13 years after the patent was granted. But the decision to revoke the patent is wonderful news. The species wide soybean patent of Monsanto is not allowed to stand."

In its orginal version as granted the patent covered all genetically engineered plant species and especially soybeans and was seen as one of the broadest species patent ever granted on plants and seeds. The background of the so called invention was a >particle gun< method by which plants get bombarded by metallic particles and so introducing foreign genes into plant material. A similar version of the particle gun (which does not allow a precise transfer of gene sequences) is still being used today to produce not only in Monsanto's plants.

Ruth Tippe from the organisation "No Patents on Life!" says: "This is an important step against patents on seeds, because it shows that civil society will keep on fighting and can finally succeed even against powerful multinationals."

The outcome of the procedure will not only affect Monsanto but also the European Patent Office: "It is now shown that the Patent Office is granting patents which are covering broad sectors of agricultural diversity without really invention behind. There are many others patents which simply satisfy the greed of companies but do not give benefits to society," says Christoph Then from Greenpeace.

Greenpeace which was supporting the legal challenge of No Patents on Life and ETC Group, is urging for a worldwide ban on patents on seeds and currently cooperating in a global coalition with farmers organisation (


Chavez Dumps Monsanto

By Jason Tockman
Green Left Weekly
May 5, 2007

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Frias has announced that the cultivation of genetically modified crops will be prohibited on Venezuelan soil, possibly establishing the most sweeping restrictions on transgenic crops in the western hemisphere.

Though full details of the administration’s policy on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are still forthcoming, the statement by President Hugo Chavez will lead most immediately to the cancellation of a contract that Venezuela had negotiated with the US-based Monsanto Corporation.

Before a recent international gathering of supporters in Caracas, Chavez admonished genetically engineered crops as contrary to interests and needs of the nation’s farmers and farmworkers. He then zeroed in on Monsanto’s plans to plant up to 500,000 acres of transgenic soybeans in Venezuela.

"I ordered an end to the project", said Chavez, upon learning that transgenic crops were involved. "This project is terminated."

Chavez emphasised the importance of food sovereignty and security — required by the Venezuelan Constitution — as the basis of his decision. Instead of allowing Monsanto to grow its transgenic crops, these fields will be used to plant yuca, an indigenous crop, Chavez explained. He also announced the creation of a large seed bank facility to maintain indigenous seeds for peasants’ movements around the world.

The international peasants’ organisation Via Campesina, representing more than 60 million farmers and farmworkers, had brought the issue to the attention of the Chavez administration when it learned of the contract with Monsanto. According to Rafael Alegria, secretary for international operations of Via Campesina, both Monsanto and Cargill are seeking authorisation to produce transgenic soy products in Venezuela.

"The agreement was against the principles of food sovereignty that guide the agricultural policy of Venezuela", said Alegria when informed of the president’s decision. "This is a very important thing for the peasants and indigenous people of Latin America and the world."

Alegria has good reason to be concerned. With a long history of social and environmental problems, Monsanto won early international fame with its production of the chemical Agent Orange — the Vietnam War defoliant linked to miscarriages, tremors, and memory loss that more than 1 million people were exposed to. More recently, the company has been criticised for side-effects that its transgenic crops and bovine growth hormone (rBGH) are believed to have on human health and the environment.

Closer to home in Venezuela, Monsanto manufactures the pesticide "glyphosate", which is used by the neighbouring Colombian government as part of its Plan Colombia offensive against coca production and rebel groups. The Colombian government aerially sprays hundreds of thousands of acres, destroying legitimate farms and natural areas like the Putomayo rainforest, and posing a direct threat to human health, including that of indigenous communities.

"If we want to achieve food sovereignty, we cannot rely on transnationals like Monsanto", said Maximilien Arvelaiz, an adviser to Chavez. "We need to strengthen local production, respecting our heritage and diversity."

Alegria hopes that Venezuela’s move will serve as encouragement to other nations contemplating how to address the issue of GMOs.

"The people of the United States, of Latin America, and of the world need to follow the example of a Venezuela free of transgenics", he said.


S[upreme] C[ourt] Allows Field Trials of GM Crops

By Ashok B Sharma
May 8, 2007

NEW DELHI - The Supreme Court on Tuesday permitted field trials of genetically modified (GM) crops approved by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) in 2006, but with riders.

A special bench consisting of Chief Justice KG Balakrishnan, Justice DK Jain and Justice Tarun Chatterjee said the GM crop fields should be at least 200 metres away from fields with normal crops. One lead scientist should be made responsible for the trials. The scientist, the bench said, should ensure that non-GM crop fields were not contaminated by pollen flow from GM crops.

The GEAC should lay down a protocol for ensuring 0.01% contamination by GM crops, it added.

The court, however, directed GEAC to produce data relating to toxicity and allergenicity of GM crops under trials.

The court was hearing a writ petition filed by Aruna Rodrigues, PV Satheesh and others, calling for a moratorium on GM crops. Their advocate Prashant Bhushan pleaded against allowing field trials owing to health and environmental hazards.

The government had filed an application, urging either vacation of the ban order or its modification.

The Riders:

  • GM crop fields should be at least 200 metres away from normal crops fields
  • A scientist should ensure non-GM crop fields weren't contaminated by GM crops

The apex court order came as a relief to the biotech industry, which had sought lifting of the ban on fresh approvals for GM crop field trials imposed by the court on September 22, 2006.

In another reprieve to the industry, the court allowed commercial cultivation of Bt cotton based on four approved events – Cry 1 Ac MON 531 sourced from Monsanto, Cry 1 Ac + Cry 2 Ab MON 15985 sourced from Monsanto, Event I sourced from IIT Kharaghpur and GFM event sourced from China.

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