Say No To GMOs! logo
April 2009 Updates

Obama Administration Upholds GM Sugarbeet Deregulation

By Caroline Scott-Thomas
April 1, 2009

The USDA has chosen not to change laws on genetically engineered sugarbeets in a lawsuit filed by the Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice requesting a review of deregulation for the beets last month.

The first crop of Monsanto's Roundup Ready sugarbeets, genetically engineered to be resistant to the company's Roundup-brand herbicide, was harvested in the fall following approval from the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

But the plaintiffs argued that Monsanto, currently the sole supplier of GM sugarbeets, should be required to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement before its GM beets are allowed to be grown without restriction. In light of the new administration, they called on APHIS to reconsider this option.

Following the USDA lawyers' decision to retain the department's current position, CFS attorney Zelig Golden said: "This certainly is not the 'change' the Obama Administration promised. We're very disappointed that the USDA and Secretary Vilsack did not take this important opportunity to reverse the Bush Administration's flawed position on GMOs, and take steps to safeguard public health, environment and farmers' livelihoods."

A USDA spokesperson told "USDA has a rigorous science-based regulatory system and has adhered to our authorities and implementation of National Environmental Policy Act statutes." She added: "We stand by our decision."

GM sugarbeet concerns

The CFS has expressed concern that GM beet pollen could contaminate non-GM and organic crops because sugarbeets are wind pollinated.

The organization has long questioned the safety of GM sugarbeets, claiming that "they have not been proven safe" and saying that at Monsanto's request, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) "increased allowable levels of herbicide residues [glyphosate] on GM sugar beet roots by up to 5,000 percent when USDA approved the crop for planting."

However, a spokesperson for Monsanto told "The referenced '5,000 percent increase' is not being used in its complete and correct context . . . Refined sugarbeet roots produce pure sugar that is the same as any other sugar, and with no glyphosate residue.

"Critics of Roundup Ready sugarbeets like to publicize this decade-old EPA increase to scare people, but do not further qualify their math by purposely omitting two important facts: 1) The original 30-year-old tolerance was set at time when glyphosate was not used on sugarbeet crops, and 2) the increase is currently at a maximum EPA safe tolerance level of 1/1000th percent (0.001%)."

Industry action

Meanwhile, a group of 82 organizations representing farm, food, environmental and public interest groups, sent a letter to USDA secretary Tom Vilsack last month asking that new approvals of GM crops be blocked until the regulatory situation is clearer - and what they see as "serious deficiencies" are corrected.

Many food manufacturers are also resistant to GM sugarbeets, and over 70 food companies have signed the Non-Genetically Modified Beet Sugar Registry, pledging that they will not use or sell genetically modified beet sugar.


Germany Bans Cultivation of GM Corn

Spiegel Online (Germany)
April 14, 2009

Germany has banned the cultivation of GM corn, claiming that MON 810 is dangerous for the environment. But that argument might not stand up in court and Berlin could face fines totaling millions of euros if American multinational Monsanto decides to challenge the prohibition on its seed.

The sowing season may be just around the corner, but this year German farmers will not be planting genetically modified crops: German Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner announced Tuesday she was banning the cultivation of GM corn in Germany.

Under the new regulations, the cultivation of MON 810, a GM corn produced by the American biotech giant Monsanto, will be prohibited in Germany, as will the sale of its seed. Aigner told reporters Tuesday she had legitimate reasons to believe that MON 810 posed "a danger to the environment," a position which she said the Environment Ministry also supported. In taking the step, Aigner is taking advantage of a clause in EU law which allows individual countries to impose such bans.

"Contrary to assertions stating otherwise, my decision is not politically motivated," Aigner said, referring to reports that she had come under pressure to impose a ban from within her party, the conservative Bavaria-based Christian Social Union. She stressed that the ban should be understood as an "individual case" and not as a statement of principle regarding future policy relating to genetic engineering.

Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) both welcomed the ban. Greenpeace's genetic engineering expert, Stephanie Töwe, said the decision was long overdue, explaining that numerous scientific studies demonstrated that GM corn was a danger to the environment.

However the ban could prove costly for the German government. Experts in Aigner's ministry recently told SPIEGEL that it will be hard to prove conclusively that MON 810 damages the environment, which could enable Monsanto to win a court case opposing the ban and potentially expose the government to €6-7 million ($7.9-9.2 million) in damages.

Monsanto said Tuesday that it would look into the question of whether it would take legal proceedings as quickly as possible. Andreas Thierfelder, spokesman for Monsanto Germany, said the matter was very urgent as the planting season was just about to start.

Aigner has recently come under pressure from Bavaria to ban GM corn. Bavaria's Environment Minister Markus Söder wants to turn Germany into a "GM food-free zone." Environmental groups have long called for a ban on GM crops in Germany, arguing that they pose a danger to plants and animals.

However, supporters of genetic engineering argue that a ban could prompt research companies and institutes to pull up stakes and leave Germany. Wolfgang Herrmann, president of Munich's Technical University, has said that a prohibition risks precipitating "an exodus of researchers."

The issue has exposed a split between Bavaria's CSU and its larger sister party, Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union. Katherina Reiche, deputy chairwoman of the CDU/CSU's parliamentary group, has complained of the "CSU's irresponsible, cheap propaganda," claiming that it could harm German industry. She argued that anti-GM sentiment was one reason a subsidiary of the German chemical giant Bayer decided to moved its facilities for genetic engineering from Potsdam, near Berlin, to Belgium.

MON 810 was approved for cultivation in Europe by the European Union in 1998 and is currently the only GM crop which can be grown in Germany. The plant produces a toxin to fight off a certain pest, the voracious larvae of the corn borer moth. The crop was due to be planted this year on a total area of around 3,600 hectares (8,896 acres) in Germany. The cultivation of MON 810 is already banned in five other EU member states, namely Austria, Hungary, Greece, France and Luxembourg.


Genetic Engineering Has Failed to Significantly Boost U.S. Crop Yields Despite Biotech Industry Claims, New Report Finds

Press Release
Union of Concerned Scientists
April 14, 2009

Increases Over The Last Decade Largely Due to Traditional Breeding and Conventional Agricultural Improvements

WASHINGTON (April , 2009) - For years, the biotechnology industry has trumpeted that it will feed the world, promising that its genetically engineered crops will produce higher yields.

That promise has proven to be empty, according to a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Despite 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization, genetic engineering has failed to significantly increase U.S. crop yields.

"The biotech industry has spent billions on research and public relations hype, but genetically engineered food and feed crops haven't enabled American farmers to grow significantly more crops per acre of land," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a biologist in the UCS Food and Environment Program and author of the report. "In comparison, traditional breeding continues to deliver better results."

The report, "Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops," is the first to closely evaluate the overall effect genetic engineering has had on crop yields in relation to other agricultural technologies. It reviewed two dozen academic studies of corn and soybeans, the two primary genetically engineered food and feed crops grown in the United States. Based on those studies, the UCS report concluded that genetically engineering herbicide-tolerant soybeans and herbicide-tolerant corn has not increased yields. Insect-resistant corn, meanwhile, has improved yields only marginally. The increase in yields for both crops over the last 13 years, the report found, was largely due to traditional breeding or improvements in agricultural practices. (For the report, go here.)

The UCS report comes at a time when food price spikes and localized shortages worldwide have prompted calls to boost agricultural productivity, or yield -- the amount of a crop produced per unit of land over a specified amount of time. Biotechnology companies maintain that genetic engineering is essential to meeting this goal. Monsanto, for example, is currently running an advertising campaign warning of an exploding world population and claiming that its "advanced seeds . significantly increase crop yields.." (For a pdf of the ad, go here.) The UCS report debunks that claim, concluding that genetic engineering is unlikely to play a significant role in increasing food production in the foreseeable future.

The biotechnology industry has been promising better yields since the mid-1990s, but "Failure to Yield" documents that the industry has been carrying out gene field trials to increase yields for 20 years without significant results.

"After more than 3,000 field trials, only two types of engineered genes are in widespread use, and they haven't helped raise the ceiling on potential yields," said Margaret Mellon, a microbiologist and director of UCS's Food and Environment Program. "This record does not inspire confidence in the future of the technology."

"Failure to Yield" makes a critical distinction between potential -- or intrinsic -- yield and operational yield, concepts that are often conflated by the industry and misunderstood by others. Intrinsic yield refers to a crop's ultimate production potential under the best possible conditions. Operational yield refers to production levels after losses due to pests, drought and other environmental factors.

The study reviewed the intrinsic and operational yield achievements of the three most common genetically altered food and feed crops in the United States: herbicide-tolerant soybeans, herbicide-tolerant corn and insect-resistant corn (known as Bt corn, after the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, whose genes enable the corn to resist several kinds of insects).

Herbicide-tolerant soybeans, herbicide-tolerant corn and Bt corn have failed to increase intrinsic yields, the report found. Herbicide-tolerant soybeans and herbicide-tolerant corn also have failed to increase operational yields, compared with conventional methods.

Meanwhile, the report found that Bt corn likely provides a marginal operational yield advantage of 3 to 4 percent over typical conventional practices. Since Bt corn became commercially available in 1996, its yield advantage averages out to a 0.2 to 0.3 percent yield increase per year. To put that figure in context, overall U.S. corn yields over the last several decades have annually averaged an increase of approximately 1 percent, which is considerably more than what Bt traits have provided.

In addition to evaluating genetic engineering's record, "Failure to Yield" considers the technology's potential role in increasing food production over the next few decades. The report does not discount the possibility of genetic engineering eventually contributing to increase crop yields. It does, however, suggest that it makes little sense to support genetic engineering at the expense of technologies that have proven to substantially increase yields, especially in many developing countries. In addition, recent studies have shown that organic and similar farming methods that minimize the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers can more than double crop yields at little cost to poor farmers in such developing regions as Sub-Saharan Africa.

The report recommends that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, state agricultural agencies, and universities increase research and development for proven approaches to boost crop yields. Those approaches should include modern conventional plant breeding methods, sustainable and organic farming, and other sophisticated farming practices that do not require farmers to pay significant upfront costs. The report also recommends that U.S. food aid organizations make these more promising and affordable alternatives available to farmers in developing countries.

"If we are going to make headway in combating hunger due to overpopulation and climate change, we will need to increase crop yields," said Gurian-Sherman. "Traditional breeding outperforms genetic engineering hands down."


'Superweed' Explosion Threatens Monsanto Heartlands

By Clea Caulcutt
France 24
April 19, 2009

'Superweeds' are plaguing high-tech Monsanto crops in southern US states, driving farmers to use more herbicides, return to conventional crops or even abandon their farms.

The gospel of high-tech genetically modified (GM) crops is not sounding quite so sweet in the land of the converted. A new pest, the evil pigweed, is hitting headlines and chomping its way across Sun Belt states, threatening to transform cotton and soybean plots into weed battlefields.

In late 2004, 'superweeds' that resisted Monsanto's iconic 'Roundup' herbicide, popped up in GM crops in the county of Macon, Georgia. Monsanto, the US multinational biotech corporation, is the world's leading producer of Roundup, as well as genetically engineered seeds. Company figures show that nine out of 10 US farmers produce Roundup Ready seeds for their soybean crops.

Superweeds have since alarmingly appeared in other parts of Georgia, as well as South Carolina, North Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri, according to media reports. Roundup contains the active ingredient glyphosate, which is the most used herbicide in the USA.

How has this happened? Farmers over-relied on Monsanto's revolutionary and controversial combination of a single 'round up' herbicide and a high-tech seed with a built-in resistance to glyphosate, scientists say.

Today, 100,000 acres in Georgia are severely infested with pigweed and 29 counties have now confirmed resistance to glyphosate, according to weed specialist Stanley Culpepper from the University of Georgia.

"Farmers are taking this threat very seriously. It took us two years to make them understand how serious it was. But once they understood, they started taking a very aggressive approach to the weed," Culpepper told FRANCE 24.

"Just to illustrate how aggressive we are, last year we hand-weeded 45% of our severely infested fields," said Culpepper, adding that the fight involved "spending a lot of money."

In 2007, 10,000 acres of land were abandoned in Macon country, the epicentre of the superweed explosion, North Carolina State University's Alan York told local media.

The perfect weed

Had Monsanto wanted to design a deadlier weed, they probably could not have done better. Resistant pigweed is the most feared superweed, alongside horseweed, ragweed and waterhemp.

"Palmer pigweed is the one pest you don't want, it is so dominating," says Culpepper. Pigweed can produce 10,000 seeds at a time, is drought-resistant, and has very diverse genetics. It can grow to three metres high and easily smother young cotton plants.

Today, farmers are struggling to find an effective herbicide they can safely use over cotton plants.

Controversial solutions

In an interview with FRANCE 24, Monsanto's technical development manager, Rick Cole, said he believed superweeds were manageable. "The problem of weeds that have developed a resistance to Roundup crops is real and [Monsanto] doesn't deny that, however the problem is manageable," he said.

Cole encourages farmers to alternate crops and use different makes of herbicides.

Indeed, according to Monsanto press releases, company sales representatives are encouraging farmers to mix glyphosate and older herbicides such as 2,4-D, a herbicide which was banned in Sweden, Denmark and Norway over its links to cancer, reproductive harm and mental impairment. 2,4-D is also well-known for being a component of Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide which was used in chemical warfare in Vietnam in the 1960s.

Questioned on the environmental impact and toxicity of such mixtures, Monsanto's public affairs director, Janice Person, said that "they didn't recommend any mixtures that were not approved by the EPA," she said, referring to the US federal Environmental Protection Agency.

According to the UK-based Soil Association, which campaigns for and certifies organic food, Monsanto was well aware of the risk of superweeds as early as 2001 and took out a patent on mixtures of glyphosate and herbicide targeting glyphosate-resistant weeds.

"The patent will enable the company to profit from a problem that its products had created in the first place," says a 2002 Soil Association report.

Returning to conventional crops

In the face of the weed explosion in cotton and soybean crops, some farmers are even considering moving back to non-GM seeds. "It's good for us to go back, people have overdone the Roundup seeds," Alan Rowland, a soybean seed producer based in Dudley, Missouri, told FRANCE 24. He used to sell 80% Monsanto 'Roundup Ready' soybeans and now has gone back to traditional crops, in a market overwhelmingly dominated by Monsanto.

According to a number of agricultural specialists, farmers are considering moving back to conventional crops. But it's all down to economics, they say. GM crops are becoming expensive, growers say.

While farmers and specialists are reluctant to blame Monsanto, Rowland says he's started to "see people rebelling against the higher costs."


Widespread Call Issued to Stop GM Alfalfa in Canada

Press Release
Canadian Biotechnology Action Network
April 28, 2009

80 groups to fight the commercialization of genetically modified alfalfa

Ottawa - Today, 80 groups including farmer associations and food businesses from across Canada joined the growing call to stop the introduction and field-testing of genetically modified (GM) alfalfa.

The alfalfa in question is genetically modified by Monsanto to be tolerant to the company's brand name herbicide Roundup. Alfalfa would be the first perennial GM crop on the market.

"The contamination of alfalfa would be inevitable and irreversible. We've already seen an end to organic canola due to GM contamination and we can't afford to lose alfalfa," said Arnold Taylor of the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate. "Because it's pollinated by bees, genes from Monsanto's GM alfalfa would spread out of control."

Alfalfa is an important crop for all farmers, both organic and conventional, as a soil builder by fixing nitrogen, as a clean-up crop to end weed infestations, and as feed for dairy cattle and other animals. "Farmers universally see no reason for GM alfalfa. Monsanto is the only beneficiary. The company would gain by selling more Roundup and by controlling yet another crop through its gene patents, which in all other Roundup Ready crops in Canada, have disallowed farmers from saving seed," said Terry Boehm, Vice President of the National Farmers Union.

GM alfalfa was approved by the Canadian government in 2005 but cannot be commercialized until Monsanto and Forage Genetics International seek and meet registration requirements for the variety. In the U.S., a Federal court revoked approval for GM alfalfa, ruling that a full environmental assessment was needed, citing risks to farmers and the environment.

The 80 groups that signed the "No to GM Alfalfa" letter include farmer associations, farm businesses, sprouting and seed companies, food retailers, and public interest groups. The groups oppose the sale, trade and production of GM alfalfa and are asking the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to reassess its approval of GM alfalfa.

"The response from diverse groups across Canada in support of this position is huge. This is only the beginning of strong opposition to GM alfalfa as there is so much at stake for consumers and farmers alike," said Lucy Sharratt, Coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, a coalition of 18 groups. "The government must recognize the predictable and devastating environmental and economic costs of GM alfalfa and revoke approval now, rather than wait until after its too late and farmers have lost their crops and livelihoods to contamination."

Carmen Wakeling of Eatmore Sprouts & Greens Ltd. in BC said that, "Over time the availability of certified organic alfalfa seed would disappear, creating severe challenges for seed and sprout growers. Ultimately, GM alfalfa would have major repercussions on certified organic food producers throughout Canada and the U.S., no matter what they are making or growing".

Urban consumers are also extremely concerned about the introduction of GM alfalfa. "Canadian consumers are becoming more and more educated about GM foods and are increasingly looking for organic products," said Dag Falck, Organic Program Manager for Nature's Path, a major manufacturer of organic cereals in North America. "Its essential that we ensure consumers retain the option to buy non-GM foods."

"Our customers are very clear that they don't want to eat GM foods, and that includes honey, milk and meat that would be effected by GM alfalfa," said Julie Daniluk of The Big Carrot food store in Toronto.

The 80 groups will work together to stop the commercialization of GM alfalfa in Canada and have formed a "No to GM Alfalfa" campaign to protect the crop.

For more information and to see the list of groups endorsing the campaign:

top of page