January 18, 2010
Italy is the Achilles heel of the campaign to maintain Europe's defences against genetically modified crops, a US report has said, adding that the region's consumers are not as opposed to the technology as is portrayed.
With 65% of Italians supporting biotechnology, and the Vatican a "vocal advocate" of GM crops as a way of easing hunger in Africa, the country was a "good place to start" a campaign to "educate" Europeans about GM crops.
"Italy may present uniquely valuable opportunity for improving public opinion about biotechnology in the EU," her report said.
Engaging Italy's consumers in the biotechnology debate could help battle the "minority composed of fringe groups and government officials [which] are responsible for Italy's ban on biotech crops and food", Cynthia Barmore, US Department of Agriculture attaché in Rome, said.
Indeed, Europeans as a whole "may not be as intractably negative as it is often portrayed" about GM foods, the briefing added, quoting 2005 research.
"In fact, public opinion is fairly divided," Ms Barmore said.
"Part of the misperception about European public opinion is the disproportionate attention paid to fringe activists who are not representative of the general public.
"Most Europeans have heard of biotechnology, but they are not activists and their opinions are not very strong."
The task of winning government consents to at least sell GM foods in retailers, rested in part on the battleground chosen, with arguments on environmental and pesticide considerations more likely to bear fruit than those based on value for money.
"When price becomes the salient factor, Europeans may believe the price comes at the expense of quality or safety," the report said.
Doctors and academics may prove more effective advocates than government or industry figures.
America is home to some of the world's biggest GM seeds group, including Dow Chemical, DuPont and Monsanto. European rivals include Germany's Bayer and, outside the EU, Switzerland's Syngenta.
By Tom Lutey
The Billings Gazette
January 20, 2010
Foes of popular beet seek injunction to halt planting
A federal court is being asked to ban genetically modified sugar beets from being planted or processed, effectively halting nearly half the nation's sugar production until the crop's safety is determined.
The injunction sought against sugar beets genetically altered to resist the powerful herbicide Roundup could force farmers to do an about-face. Roughly 95 percent of the nation's sugar beet acres were planted with Monsanto-created Roundup Ready beets last year, including 68,000 acres in Montana and Wyoming.
Sugar beets were a $45 million crop for Montana farmers in 2007, according to the most recent data available from the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Values weren't available for Wyoming. Western Sugar Cooperative, which refines sugar in Billings, did not respond to requests for comment. Cal Jones, president of Wyoming Sugar, said that for legal reasons he couldn't discuss the matter.
Luther Markwart of the American Sugar Beet Growers Association said no public statements would be made until the association's attorneys reviewed the 122-page motion.
Wyoming was a test ground for Roundup Ready beets before commercialization and one of the first areas to use the new technology.
Half the sugar produced in the United States comes from sugar beets.
At issue is whether the genetically altered beets can corrupt natural varieties of beets and Swiss chard through cross pollination. The nation's seed supply for both types of plants, altered and natural, is based in Oregon's Willamette Valley. Organic seed producers there fear that once cross pollination takes place, farmers will have nothing but genetically modified seeds and consumers will have no choice but to eat crops with genetically modified origins.
The Organic Seed Alliance, Center for Food Safety, High Mowing Organic Seeds and the Sierra Club filed a motion for injunction late Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The court has already agreed on most of the grounds stated for banning the Roundup Ready seed.
Last September, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White found that the U.S. Department of Agriculture broke the law when it failed to take a "hard look" at the potential damage genetically altered beets posed to crops that were related but natural, like table beets, chard and sugar beets that weren't genetically modified.
White ordered the USDA to go back and conduct a full environmental impact statement on the consequences of deregulating Roundup Ready beets. The USDA deregulated the beets in 2005. They were planted commercially in 2008 and quickly became the seed of choice among sugar beet farmers, who saw cost benefits to planting a crop resistant to the powerful plant killer glyphosate, marketed as Roundup. Weed control is costly with sugar beets and non-Roundup Ready beets varieties required a cocktail of different herbicides for weed control. The promise of Roundup Ready crops was that using a single chemical would be cheaper and that less spraying would be required because of Roundup's potency.
But the genetically altered plant's effects on its natural cousins weren't vetted.
"Monsanto's gene-altered sugar beets were illegally approved by the (George W.) Bush administration's USDA. The profound economic impacts on organic and conventional farmers, as well as the environment, were not assessed. As a result, the planting of these crops should be halted to avoid further harm," said Andrew Kimbrell, Center for Food Safety's executive director, in a written statement.
The plaintiffs in the case are arguing that the beets shouldn't be planted or processed unless they are found safe through the court's mandated environmental study. The Center for Food Safety has a winning record in lawsuits concerning genetically modified crops.
Working with others, the center successfully halted the planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa in 2007. In that case also, arguments centered on the USDA not using due diligence on the effects of Roundup Ready hay on natural varieties of the crop. Three courts ruled in the center's favor, and Monsanto last week was granted a hearing on the matter before the U.S. Supreme Court. The USDA is now completing the environmental impact statement for Roundup Ready hay.
Although sugar beet producers declined to make public statements about the injunction or the lawsuit, some acknowledged they were concerned about the availability of non-Roundup Ready beet seed should the court agree with a seed ban.
It has been two years since Roundup Ready seeds became the industry's seed of choice. There may be enough old seed available, but there could be germination issues because of age, and there may be shortages of particular varieties of seed. Not every region grows the same variety of sugar beet. If the best varieties aren't available, 2010 yields could be down.
By Jack Kaskey
January 21, 2010
Genetically engineered soybeans will go generic, but woe to anyone that crosses the seed giant on new products
Beset by federal antitrust lawyers, a deep-pockets competitor, and a barnful of groups opposed to genetically modified crops, Monsanto is suddenly playing Mr. Nice. Chief Executive Hugh Grant says the company will let patents on its bioengineered farm seeds expire without a fight, starting with its ubiquitous Roundup Ready soybeans in 2014. The move would allow rivals to make cheaper knockoffs - and farmers to plant these seeds from their own harvests - without legal restriction for the first time since 1996.
Don't expect Monsanto to turn into Mr. Pushover, however. The world's biggest seed company has begun selling new versions of herbicide-resistant soybeans and corn, with other gene-modified products to follow in 2011. Monsanto will be just as tough in protecting these patents, a strategy that has helped it capture 93% of the U.S. soybean crop with its first-generation biotech seed. To achieve that dominance, the company has also relied heavily on licensing rights to other producers. Says Scott S. Partridge, Monsanto chief deputy general counsel: "We are going to seek appropriate protection under existing patent laws."
Monsanto's conciliatory gesture hasn't helped so far. The St. Louis-based company disclosed in mid-January that it has turned over millions of pages of documents to the U.S. Justice Dept. as part of a civil investigation into allegations of anticompetitive behavior in its soybean business. In addition, DuPont (DD), the seed industry's No. 2 company, is suing Monsanto, accusing it of exploiting its market position and technology licenses to block products from DuPont's Pioneer-Hi Bred International unit and other companies.
Monsanto's stock, which soared from 10 a share in 2000 to almost 140 in mid-2008, is down more than 40% from its peak and has barely budged over the past year; it closed at 81.42 on Jan. 20, lagging both DuPont and Syngenta (SYT), another competitor, in price appreciation. In its fiscal first quarter, which ended Nov. 30, Monsanto lost $19 million as revenue tumbled 36%, to $1.7 billion. The company blamed the loss on plunging sales of Roundup weed killer, as farmers turned to generic varieties.
Grant, 51, sees a bounceback by 2012. Although activists continue to decry bioengineered crops - Monsanto was tarred in a recent documentary, Food Inc. - Grant notes that over the past 18 months Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, India, and China have opened the door to genetically modified crops or research. He sees that as a sign that fears of food shortages are trumping what he says is unfounded anxiety about safety.
New products may win over more converts. Monsanto is already marketing Roundup Ready 2 soybeans, which produce greater yields. This spring in the U.S. it is introducing a new corn with genes that make it immune to herbicides and a host of insects. A drought-resistant variety will follow in 2012. Monsanto scientists are also manipulating wheat DNA to produce a drought-hardy strain, which would open a new market for the $11.7 billion company.
Grant is betting that sales of these higher-priced, second-generation seeds will more than offset the loss of sales of earlier versions as their patents expire. "Growers will decide, 'Do I go with the old 1996 material or do I go with some of these new varieties?' " Grant says. "I'm fine with that setup."
By Tom Lutey
The Billings Gazette
January 26, 2010
Justices to hear appeal on Roundup Ready alfalfa seed
John Wold holds a handful of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed Saturday in a field near his ranch west of Laurel where he used to grow the seed. Sales of the seed have been on hold for three years as the result of a court injunction.
A Supreme Court case targeting Roundup Ready alfalfa could write new ground rules for legal battles involving other genetically modified crops, including Montana and Wyoming sugar beets.
At issue is whether a lower court erred when it sided with environmentalists alleging imminent danger if Monsanto Co. sold alfalfa seed genetically engineered to resist the popular weed killer Roundup.
Monsanto is arguing that its opponents should have been required to produce evidence that danger was indeed imminent.
The Center for Food Safety, representing several consumer and farm-related groups, argued that Monsanto alfalfa could cross-pollinate with organic varieties, making them unmarketable. Sales of Monsanto's seed have been on hold for three years as the result of the lower court's ban-imposing injunction.
Likewise, Monsanto is arguing that it should have had the chance, through evidentiary hearing, to prove that its alfalfa isn't a threat.
Days after the Supreme Court agreed to hear Monsanto's appeal, the Center for Food Safety petitioned a lower court for a similar ban on Monsanto's Roundup Ready sugar beets, a variety from which roughly half the nation's sugar is produced. A Supreme Court decision favorable to Monsanto would force the company's opponents to back up their danger claims with scientific facts.
"What this does, is when you have activist plaintiffs who make these allegations in order to get something as significant as an injunction, they have to prove there's imminent danger," said Garrett Kasper, Monsanto spokesman. "There was no discussion in this case, no taking scientific evidence into account."
For farmers in Montana and Wyoming, the two cases hit very close to home. Seed farmers like John Wold of Park City had been growing Roundup Ready alfalfa for two years before the a 9th Circuit District Court judge in California imposed the sale ban in 2007.
"I'm pretty confident that a year from now we'll be growing Roundup Ready alfalfa," Wold said.
The weed-free alfalfa was a hit with weed-weary dairy farmers, who are known to slice a hay bale like bread searching for unwanted thistle or bindweed, Wold said. Even if the Supreme Court rules against Monsanto, the Roundup Ready alfalfa will likely come back, he said.
The original alfalfa lawsuit centered on whether the U.S. Department of Agriculture did enough fact-finding before approving Roundup Ready alfalfa for commercial sale. The District Court ruled that the USDA hadn't done enough and needed to complete a full environmental impact statement to determine the alfalfa's safety.
The statement is now done and the USDA is soliciting public comment on its recommendation that Roundup Ready alfalfa return to the commercial market.
Organic hay farmers like Dina Hoff of Glendive aren't swayed by the USDA's assurances that the genetically modified alfalfa is safe. She said the USDA made it difficult for people to object to its recommendation through the public comment period, which ends Feb. 16.
"I'm hoping that a lot of people are going to comment. They released this over the holidays, so it's a short comment period," Hoff said. "The document is 200 pages, 1,400 with all the appendices."
Conventional dairy farmers may have wanted the alfalfa, but organic dairy farmers didn't, Hoff said. If there's a question of whether the hay they feed isn't organic, their operations will be ruined, she said.
But producers wanting genetically modified crops say the fact that Roundup Ready alfalfa and sugar beets were in the commercial production without incident proves that the crops are safe.
"The plaintiffs waited five years after biotech sugar beets were approved for planting before filing their lawsuit," said Luther Markwart of the American Sugar Beet Growers Association. "They're now claiming irreparable harm is imminent on a product that's been used by 95 percent of the sugar beet industry?"
Sugar beet farmers nervously await the March hearing, which will determine whether the seeds they've planted for two years will be allowed to be sown again. There are concerns about finding an alternate seed, as 95 percent of the nation's sugar beet acres are planted with Monsanto's Roundup Ready seed.
To the Center for Food Safety, the appeal to the Supreme Court seems like a way to sap the effectiveness of injunctions, a tool of last resort for stopping crops that weren't adequately vetted by the USDA before being put in commercial use.
The center's lawsuits aim to force the USDA to go back and thoroughly examine genetically modified crops before approving them. And with both alfalfa and sugar beets, the court sided with the center.
"What really is at issue are these arcane issues about what kind of process needs to happen before the EIS is put in place," said George Kimbrell, Center For Food Safety attorney.
The Supreme Court hasn't set a date for hearing the Monsanto appeal, but the bench is positioning to hear it. Justice Stephen Breyer has recused himself because his brother, 9th District Judge Charles Breyer, heard the alfalfa case in a lower court and ruled in favor of the Center. Clarence Thomas, a former staff attorney for Monsanto's herbicide division, is not recusing himself.
By Carey Gillam
January 27, 2010
European Union and Japan opposed to biotech wheat - Lost exports could send U.S. spring wheat down 40%
CHICAGO - U.S. wheat prices could fall by 40 percent or more if industry efforts to develop a biotech wheat succeed, according to an industry report issued on Wednesday.
The report, issued by the Western Organization of Resource Councils, a farmer and rancher group, cited persistent opposition to genetically modified wheat in Europe, Japan, and other Asian countries. It said buyers in those countries probably would shift purchases away from the United States, if a biotech wheat was commercialized here.
The price of U.S. hard red spring wheat would fall 40 percent, the report predicted, and the price of durum wheat would drop 57 percent.
"Introduction of genetically modified wheat in the United States is a risky proposition," said the report's author, industry consultant Neal Blue, a former research economist at Ohio State University.
Any biotech wheat is still years from commercialization as companies like Monsanto Co, Dow AgroSciences, and others research various improvements to the crop through genetic modifications and other means.
Monsanto, a leading developer of corn and soybeans genetically altered to tolerate herbicide treatments and resist pests, backed off a plan to commercialize herbicide-tolerant "Roundup Ready" spring wheat in 2004. At the time, the industry feared the new wheat would hurt U.S. export business.
Monsanto said last year it was starting a new biotech effort focused on making wheat plants more drought tolerant, more efficient in the use of nitrogen and higher yielding.
U.S. wheat acres have been declining in recent years as farmers shift to more profitable crops. Several wheat industry groups have asked Monsanto and rival seed companies to develop better wheat seed.
Currently no biotech wheat is grown on a commercial scale anywhere in the world due to opposition from consumers and food industry players.
The report issued Wednesday said consumers in the European Union and Japan remained opposed to biotech wheat, and labeling and traceability requirements would make it difficult to sell genetically modified wheat there, the report said.
"Some in the wheat industry seem intent on pushing genetically modified wheat," said Todd Leake, a wheat farmer and member of the Dakota Resource Council. "This report strongly suggests they should be very cautious and listen to the customer."
U.S. Wheat Associates President Alan Tracy said the wheat industry was working to improve international acceptance of biotech wheat in advance of commercial introductions, which are still several years away.
"The U.S. wheat industry has pledged to our customers that we will continue to supply them with the products they need," said Tracy. "U.S. wheat growers generally recognize that, if our industry is to prosper, we need to take advantage of technological changes, and that to feed 9 billion people by mid-century, the farmers of the world need to do so as well." (Reporting by Carey Gillam; Editing by David Gregorio and Walter Bagley)