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When Food From the Laboratory Leaves a Bitter Taste

By Stephen Holden
NY Times
September 14, 2005

The heroes and villains in "The Future of Food," Deborah Koons Garcia's sober, far-reaching polemic against genetically modified foods, are clearly identified. The good guys, acknowledged in the film's cursory final segment, are organic farmers along with a growing network of farmers' markets around the United States that constitute a grass-roots resistance to the Goliath of agribusiness and the genetically engineered products it favors.

The bad guys, to whom this quietly inflammatory film devotes the bulk of its attention, are large corporations, especially the Monsanto Company, a pioneer in the development of genetically engineered agricultural products. In recent years, Monsanto has patented seeds that yield crops whose chemical structures have been modified to ward off pests.

The film poses many ticklish ethical and scientific questions:

  • Since genetic material is life, should corporations have the right to patent genes?
  • What are the long-term effects on humans of consuming genetically engineered food, which is still largely unlabeled in the United States?
  • Can the crossbreeding of wild and genetically modified plants be controlled?
  • Might genetically engineered food be the answer to world hunger?
  • And finally, could the reduction of biodiversity, which has quickened since the introduction of genetically modified plants, lead to catastrophe?

The film's answers to these five questions are: No. Possibly damaging. Probably not. Probably not. Possibly.

In each case, the movie outlines the pluses, the minuses and the imponderables. But the overall attitude of Ms. Garcia, the widow of the Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, might be summed up with the scolding slogan "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature."

Much of the film is devoted to Monsanto's prosecution of Canadian farmers on whose property the company discovered traces of its patented Roundup Ready canola seed, which is genetically engineered to kill pests. Though the seed had drifted accidentally onto the farmers' land, courts ruled that they had violated Monsanto's patent and were liable for damages.

The film begins with a capsule history of agriculture going back more than 12,000 years but concentrating on the 20th century. It traces the development of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the rise and fall of the green revolution, its morphing into the gene revolution, and the implanting of natural bacterial toxins into the cells of corn. Can wheat be far behind?

In the mid-1990's, Monsanto, the DuPont Company and others bought the seed industry. Monsanto alone spent $8 billion investing in the notion that, as the film bluntly puts it, "whoever controls the seeds controls the food."

Monsanto has even developed a "suicide seed" that makes crops kill themselves after one planting. What might happen, the film wonders, if this seed mixed with wild seeds?

The movie wags its finger at the hand-in-hand relationship of multinational corporations and big government. One of the film's more unsettling revelations is its identification of the connections between Monsanto and top government officials who have been board members, consultants and executives for its subsidiaries. As a result, the movie insinuates, the government has little interest in underwriting research into the promotion of biodiversity and other alternatives to the economic goals of agribusiness.

The movie ends on a tentative upbeat note. It visits farmers' markets where the organically grown tomatoes look so inviting you want to pluck them off the screen and slice them into your own scrumptious B.L.T. We see whole-earth-style advocates carrying signs that read, "Our children are not lab rats." Goliath, we are assured, still has a way to go before trampling all the Davids armed with slingshots.


Glyphosate and Fusarium Crop Death

Prof. Joe Cummins
September 24, 2005

Last year I wrote about glyphosate and the Fusarium fungus causing sudden death syndrome in soy and wheat. In that article I quoted an article from the New Scientist magazine describing unpublished studies by Myriam Fernandez and co-worlers from Agriculture Canada (1). Dr. Fernandez and her co-workers completed and published the study recently (2). Glyphosate application in combination with no till (crop seeds are drilled into fields were prepared by herbicide treatment alone) had significantly increased fusarium head blight in spring wheat. The Fusarium infection not only affected wheat production but also increaded the risk of having mycotoxins harmful to humans and farm animals alike. The study did not determine whether the impact of glyphosate treatment was due to over-wintering and culture of pathogens in the crop residues left after herbicide treatment or whether it was due to some feature of glyphosate treatment.

Sudden crop death following Fusarium infection is also a problem in soybean production. In growth chamber and greenhouse experiments glyphosate treatment caused significant increases in disease severity and infection of roots (3). In field experiments with soy there was increase in Fusarium disease after glyphosate preparation of soil but the disease incidence did not differ between glyphosate tolerant and sensitive cultivars (4,). During 1997 a severe epidemic of soy sudden death syndrome that severally effected several RoundupReady cultivars. A follow up study found that sudden death syndrome on RoundupReady cultivars is influenced by the genetic background of the cultivars (5).

Fusarium-based sudden crop death is clearly influenced by the use of glyphosate. It is not yet clear whether the effect is due to the residues of plant material in the soil resulting form herbicide use or whether the fungus itself is affected by glyphosate. RoundupReady crops have been sold commercially since 1996.

Following that introduction several fundamental flaws in the use of that genetic technology have appeared. There has been little or no effort to correct the fundamental flaws in the technology. Glyphosate is rapidly translocated to accumulated in roots and reproductive tissue. Such accumulation results in reduced pollen production and viability, or increased fruit abortion. Glyphosate treatments affect the relationship between RoundupReady crops, plant pathogens, plant pests and symbiotic microorganisms. In some cases nitrogen fixation or accumulation has been effected(6). In spite of these adverse effects RoundupReady crops are widely sold. The effect may be like the sale of cigarettes, where public relations have prevailed over rationality.


  1. Cummins,J. Round-up Ready sudden death syndrome Science in Society 2004 ,21.24

  2. Fernandez,M, Selles,F, Gehl,D, DePauw,R. and Zentner,R. Crop production factors associated with Fusarium head blight in spring wheat in Eastern Saskatchewan Crop Science 2005,45,1908-16
  3. Sanogo,S, Yang,X. and Scherm,H. Effects of Herbicides on Fusarium solani f. sp. glycines. and Development of Sudden Death Syndrome. in Glyphosate-Tolerant Soybean Phytopathology 2000 90,57-66
  4. Sanogo,S,Yang,X and Lundeen,P. Field response of glyphosate-tolerant soybean to herbicides and sudden death syndrome Plant Disease 2001 ,85,773-9
  5. Njiti,V, Myers,O, Schroeder,D. and Lightfoot,D. Roundup ready soybean glyphosate effects on Fusarium solani root colonization and sudden death syndrome 2003 Agron J. 2003,95,1140-5
  6. Pline-Smic,W. Technical performance of some commercial glyphosate-resistant crops Pest Manag Sci 2005,61,225-34

Rice in a Private Grip

By Devinder Sharma
India Together
September 21, 2005

Swiss biotech corporation Syngenta has tightened its monopoly control over rice. Seeking global patents over thousands of genes in rice, the multinational based in a country that produces no rice itself, is set to own the world's most important staple food crop, says Devinder Sharma.

The journey of rice, beginning with the emergence of wild rice some 130 million years ago, transcending through the Himalayas, passing through southern China, hopping to Japan, travelling to Africa, traded to Middle East and the Mediterranean, shipped to Mexico and America, has finally ended at the banks of river Rhine in Basel, Switzerland.

Swiss biotech giant Syngenta, based at Basel in Switzerland, has tightened its monopoly control over rice. Seeking global patents over thousands of genes in rice (a single grain of rice contains 37,544 genes, roughly one-fourth more than the genes in a human body), the multinational giant is all set to "own" rice, the world's most important staple food crop.

Interestingly, Syngenta and another seed multinational, Pioneer Hi-Bred, were earlier agitated when the European Patent Office (EPO) on May 6, 2003 upheld the European Patent No. 301,749, granted in March 1994, which provided Monsanto exclusive monopoly over all forms of genetically engineered soybean varieties and seeds -- irrespective of the genes used or the transformation technique employed. It appears Syngenta's objection to Monsanto's claim over soybean was only to ensure that the proprietary control over food crops remains with them.

The trade negotiators who have been relentlessly winding and unwinding the complex maze around intellectual proprietary at the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) negotiations, and the international scientific community had refused to see the signs on the wall. With the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) clearly and steadily backing the biotechnology industry's agenda of private control of the world's food supply, and with the governments of major rice producing countries of Asia refusing to wake up to the emerging threats, Syngenta has been allowed to take control.

Delivering a keynote at the inaugural ceremony of the International Year of Rice 2004 at Basel in Switzerland, which for understandable reasons was jointly organised by the Swiss government, this writer had warned against the strengthening of the private control over rice: "The celebration of the year 2004 as the international year of the rice is a toast to acknowledge the emergence of Switzerland on the world's rice map". Incidentally, Switzerland does not grow any rice.

A year later, Syngenta spilled the beans. In August 2005, in a communication to four NGOs -- Berne Declaration (Switzerland), Swissaid (Switzerland), the German NGO "No Patents on Life" and Greenpeace -- Adrian Dubock, head of Biotechnology ventures in Syngenta, stated: "Syngenta's original commercial interest (discontinued for now, but not necessarily for ever) was for sales in the industrialised countries of nutritionally enhanced crops, included, but not limited to rice." Accordingly, the patent on the GE rice will not be dropped because "Our shareholders wouldn't thank us if we had forgone that possibility." Yet the company claims there are no commercial interests in this technology at the moment.

The civil society groups had asked Syngenta to drop some of its rice patent claims. The proprietary claims are also aimed at other important food crops like wheat, corn, sorghum, rye, banana, fruits and vegetables besides others. The company claims that most of the gene sequences that it has 'invented' are identical in other crops and therefore the patent needs to extend to those crops also. In all, Syngenta has filed for mega-patents on 15 groups of gene sequences covering thousands of genes, peptides, transgenic plants and seeds, method of genetic engineering etc. One patent application, for patent 1 through 6, belongs to the 'same patent family' (application # 60/300, 112) and runs into 12,529 pages.

Syngenta claims it invented more than 30,000 gene sequences of rice. Syngenta in collaboration with Myriad Genetics Inc of USA had beaten Monsanto in the game of mapping the genetic structure of rice by sequencing more than 99.5 per cent of the rice genome. Top executives of Syngenta had then told the New York Times that while the companies would not seek to patent the entire genome, they would try to patent individual valuable genes. They categorically stated that Syngenta and Myriad were well on their way to finding many of those.

True to its words, Syngenta finally filed for global patents before the European Patent Office, US Patent and Trademark Office and the World Intellectual Property Rights Organisation (WIPO). Thanks to the untiring efforts of four civil society organisations, which have been on a hot trail of the patenting follies, the world would have never known the patently unfair designs of the private companies. While the company does acknowledge that the scope of many of these patents will be reduced as the examination of patents proceeds, but the mere fact that the scientific community and the Asian governments have turned into mute spectators is worrying enough.

Syngenta's efforts to seek control over rice have severe implications for the future of rice research and its resulting impact on food security and hunger. For countries like India or Japan, one of the seats of origin of rice, it is an ominous sign. In other words, biological inheritance of the world's major food crop is now in the hands of a Swiss multinational. If Syngenta's application for global patents is accepted, the Asian countries will lose all control that comes through 'sovereign' control over genetic resources (as defined by the Convention on Biological Diversity, 1992) of the staple grain.

Staple food for more than half the world's population, rice is part of the Asian culture, rice is the unstated religion of Asia, and in essence rice is the life of Asia. It is in Asia still that more than 97 per cent of the world's rice is grown. Nearly 91 per cent of world's rice is produced in Asia, and 92 per cent is eaten in Asia. Rice is the principal food of three of the world's four most populous nations: People's Republic of China, India and Indonesia. For more than 2.5 billion people in these three countries alone - rice is what they grow up with. For centuries, rice has been the sociology, tradition and lifeline for the majority world.

Syngenta has already made it clear that the patents will restrict access to the genomic map and expects proprietary control over any research carried out with the information. By denying access to these genes of commercial value, the company will in reality block public sector science in the developing countries. At the same time, it raises serious questions over the validity of the sui generis legislations that a number of developing countries are formulating to protect the rights of the researchers and farmers. This writer has time and again warned that the sui generis laws being framed under the trade-related intellectual property rights (TRIPs) regime is merely a strategy to allow the passage of time while the seed multinationals tighten their private control over public property.

In essence, it is the beginning of a scientific apartheid against all Third World countries.


Farm Bodies Seek Ban on Bt Cotton Cultivation

By Ashok B Sharma
The Financial Express
September 24, 2005

NEW DELHI - Leading farmers’ organisations have demanded a ban on Bt cotton and a moratorium on any further approval of genetically modified (GM) crops for commercial cultivation.

They cautioned the National Commission on Farmers (NCF) not to do anything that would put the livelihood of millions of farmers in jeopardy. The NCF, headed by Dr MS Swaminathan, had convened a meeting of farmers’ organisations and some individual farmers from across the country on Thursday to discuus formulation of a separate National Biotechnology Policy.

Among the leading farmers’ organisation to call for a ban on Bt cotton was the ruling Congress Party’s outfit, Bharat Krishak Samaj (BKS). Dr Krishan Bir Chaudhary, executive chairman, BKS, said: "Bt cotton cultivation has placed farmers into heavy losses in the past three years. Three varieties of Monsanto’s Bt cotton failed miserably in Andhra Pradesh. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) had to ban its cultivation in Andhra Pradesh on receiving adverse reports from the state government and farmers. The GEAC also banned the cultivation of Monsanto’s Mech-12 Bt in entire South India."

He said that based on the experiences of Bt cotton cultivation in the past three years, the GEAC should not have approved any new transgenic varieties as demanded by the farmers. But unfortunately, bowing to the pressures from the industry, GEAC approved 13 new Bt cotton varieties for the current season, he said and added that these new varieties are also not performing well.

P Chengal Reddy of Industry-Farmers Alliance, however, said that GM crops hold out better prospects for farmers. He called for setting up of an autonomous regulator for GM crops, greater allocation for research on GM crops in public sector and public-private partnership.

Vijay Javandhia of Shetkari Sangathan said that the government should encourage development and improvement of tradtional varieties of crops instead of introducing GM crops. Mahender Singh Tikait, president of Bharatiya Kisan Union, said that the farmers are not in a position to buy hybrid seed each year at high price and the seed companies should not be allowed to produce hybrid seeds.

The BKS leader, Dr Chaudhary called for immediate compensation to Bt cotton growers. He alleged that Monsanto is reluctant to pay the minimum level of compensation determined by the Andhra Pradesh government. He said in future the the extent of losses should be determined jointly by the farmers and panchayat leaders at the farm level and the compensation so determined should be paid at the farm level. He alleged there are reports that GM crops have caused pollen flow to other crops in different countries. It has also created health and environmental hazards.


CSOs Report Foul Practices in Bt Cotton Sales

Ashok B Sharma
Commodities Bureau
The Financial Express
September 22, 2005

NEW DELHI - A report released by Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC) set up by Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) has alleged that transgenic seed companies have resorted to false and misleading claims and unethical practices to sell Bt cotton to farmers.

The CSOs namely Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Greenpeace India, Adivasi Ekta Sangathan, AKRSP, Dead, Grameen Vikas, Jan Saahas, Kheti Virasat Mission, Krishnadevaraya Rythu Sankshema Sangam, Krushi, Mari, Navajyoti, Pasumai Tayagam, Prasun, Rashtriya Satyagrah Dal, Sampark, Sarvodaya Youth Organisation, Secure, Vasps and Yuva had jointly set up a MEC on Bt cotton. This MEC was coordinated by Greenpeace India and Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) and the study was undertaken in Punjab, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. The study compiled evidences to show numerous unethical practices for its products and then claiming it as "the willingness of Indian farmers". The MEC has called for accountability mechanisms to be put in place, to ensure that aggressive and unethical practices used by the Bt Cotton seed corporations to gain market share are put under check.

"The aggressive and misleading selling techniques adopted by the Bt Cotton companies show utter disregard for the farmers’ choice to buy seed. This also severely limits the options available for promoting safer alternatives like organic farming," alleged Dr GV Ramanjaneyulu, executive director, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture.

According to Ms Thangamma Monnappa of Greenpeace India "Agriculture is a state subject and most states have failed utterly to evaluate the frightening scale of this Bt Cotton disaster.

The agricultural department needs to take a firm stand to ensure that the regulatory regime is strengthened for the protection of the farmer." A researcher in CSA, Ms Kavitha Kuruganti said, "The Bt cotton industry would like us to believe that their sales are an indication of farmers’ acceptance of the technology and that it is a science-based industry. We have a different story to tell.

This compilation of various marketing practices, including stories of outright lies on the Bollgard posters, misleading advertisements of farmers with exaggerated claims to lure other farmers, of using a variety of incentives and even questionable means to attract and entrap farmers makes us question the claims of the company.


Genetically Modified Vines Worry French Winemakers

Kerstin Gehmlich
September 28, 2005

COLMAR, France (Reuters) - French scientist Jean Masson carefully unlocks the gate of a heavily protected open-air enclosure. Behind the fence and security cameras there are no wild animals or convicts, just 70 vines.

In the heart of the picturesque Alsace wine region, researchers have planted France's only genetically modified vines in the hope of finding a way to battle the damaging "court-noue" virus afflicting a third of the country's vines.

The modified plants will not grow grapes or yield any wine, and scientists at the state-financed National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), which is conducting the experiment, say it is safe.

"The environmental risk is nil," said Masson, head of INRA in the eastern town of Colmar. "We have taken all safety measures."

But many local winegrowers fear the plants will contaminate their vineyards and ruin the reputation of France's wine sector.

"It makes me angry because this is imposed on everyone without us being informed about the risk," Pierre-Paul Humbrecht, a maker of bio wines, said in his vineyard just a few mile or so away from the open-air experiment.

"If there's a problem, it concerns us all. We fear for our vines."

In France, resistance against genetically modified food is fierce. Farmer and environmentalist Jose Bove has shot to national fame for ripping up modified crops.

INRA stopped its first tests on genetically modified vines in the Champagne region in 1999 following protests. After years of talks with locals and winemakers, Masson said his researchers had now set up enough safety measures to satisfy critics.

They dug a hole of the size of a basketball court, put in a cover to shield the natural ground and planted the contested vines on soil from outside. The plants are also surrounded by some 1,500 normal vines.

The prison-style fence was a request by environmentalists, who wanted to prevent animals and human intruders from carrying parts of the plants outside the enclosure, Masson said.

Damaging Virus

Masson said INRA conducted tests only in the lower part of the vine, the rootstock, which did not carry any grapes.

Almost all French winegrowers have used separate rootstocks since the phylloxera pest nearly wiped out the European wine industry in the late 1800s.

In response to the tiny louse, which attacks the root system of vines and was accidentally brought to Europe from America in 1860, European winemakers imported resistant American rootstocks and grafted their vines onto them.

INRA says no genetic information can pass from this rootstock into the plant's upper part -- which grows the grapes. But to ease fears that a modified plant could one day yield wine, the researchers will strip the vine of any blossoms.

"We don't want to produce grapes. We want to answer the scientific question of whether this transgenic (genetically modified) root can lead to the plant developing durable resistance to this virus," said INRA's Olivier Lemaire, who is in charge of the project.

Winemakers agree the court-noue virus is causing havoc but they disagree over whether INRA's research is needed.

"In the long-term it is a very dangerous virus," said 80-year-old wine grower Jean Hugel, whose family has run a vineyard in the small town of Riquewihr for more than 300 years.

"The end result is that the blossoming doesn't go well and you don't have any crop."

So far, winemakers have had to battle the virus with very toxic pesticides or by letting the soil rest for years.

"If they find a way to get rid of the virus on the American root, with assurances that it does not pass into the European grafted-on vine, it would be a great, great success. You have to try," Hugel said.

But fellow winemaker Frederic Geschickt, bringing in grapes from his vineyard, said he would rather live with the virus than accept the danger of genetically modified plants.

"You should tear these vines down," he said. Genetic tests on vines already exist in places such as the United States but the French case was special, he said.

"French wines are already subject to strong market pressure. Over recent years, competition from New World wines has grown. The only solution for French wines is to affirm their particularity and their difference," he said.

Genetic tests risked making French wines uniform, he said.

New World Threat

The wine sector -- a pillar of French life that provides 75,000 jobs -- has been hit hard by competition from "New World" rivals such as Australia and Chile.

France and Italy are the world's top winemakers with the former accounting for around one-fifth of world production, but New World countries have been increasing their market share.

Masson said the scientists did not want to market their test results, pointing out that scientific publication would be the ultimate goal when the experiment ends in four years.

But environmentalists fear the case sets a precedent.

"They want to test to what extent we will resist this," said Henri Stoll, Green Party mayor in the small town of Kaysersberg which is surrounded by vineyards.

"If we don't, something else will come up. We will have genetically modified wine and a genetically modified society."

But the gray-haired Hugel said he believed winemakers were too intelligent to ever make genetically modified wine.

"One hundred percent of a wine's quality is in the grapes," he said. "We have not seen any miracles in 370 years."

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Genetically engineered food is corporate bioterrorism