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March 2007 Updates

Federal Judge Orders First-Ever Moratorium On Sale Of Genetically Altered Seed

For immediate release
The Center for Food Safety
March 12, 2007

USDA approval of genetically engineered alfalfa is vacated, seed sales halted

San Francisco, CA - A Federal judge ruled today that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) 2005 approval of genetically engineered (GE) alfalfa is vacated and ordered an immediate halt to sales of the GE seed. The ruling follows a hearing last week in the case brought by the Center for Food Safety (CFS) against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for approving GE alfalfa without conducting the required Environmental Impact Statement.

"We are pleased that the judge called for halt to sales of this potentially damaging crop," 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 give these harmful effects of the crop full consideration."

The preliminary injunction ordered by Judge Charles Breyer in the Federal Northern District of California today follows his ruling last month finding that USDA violated national environmental laws by approving GE alfafa without a full Environmental Impact Statement. Monsanto and Forage Genetics, the developers of the GE alfalfa seed, argued against the injunction. But while Monsanto and its allies claimed that delaying the sale or planting of their GE seed would harm farmers, the judge found otherwise. "Disappointment in the delay to their switch to Roundup Ready alfalfa is not an interest which outweighs the potential environmental harmŠ" posed by the GE crop, he wrote.

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. The ruling noted that "Šfor those farmers who choose to grow non-genetically engineered alfalfa, the possibility that their crops will be infected with the engineered gene is tantamount to the elimination of all alfalfa; they cannot grow their chosen crop." Commenting on the agency's refusal to assess this risk and others, the judge noted that "Nothing in NEPA, the relevant regulations, or the caselaw support such a cavalier response."

Judge Breyer will hold a hearing and is expected to decide whether to impose a permanent injunction in late April.

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

Read the Judge's decision



Rice Industry Troubled by Genetic Contamination

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post
March 11, 2007

When Fred Zaunbrecher heard in August that the popular variety of long-grain rice he was planning to grow had become contaminated with snippets of experimental, unapproved DNA, the Louisiana rice farmer took it in stride and ordered a different variety of seed for his spring planting.

But when federal officials announced last week that the rice he and many others switched to was also contaminated -- this time with a different unapproved gene -- irritation grew to alarm. The two sidelined varieties accounted for about a third of last year's Southern rice crop, and planting was set to begin within days.

"Everybody's been scrambling for seed," Zaunbrecher said. "I have no idea whether there will be enough or not."

The tremors going through the U.S. long-grain rice industry -- amplified by the decision of many biotech-wary nations to restrict imports of U.S. rice until questions of purity are resolved -- have revealed how vulnerable a $1 billion agricultural sector can be to the escape of something as small as a molecule of DNA. But rice is not the only crop being affected by genetic pollution.

Eleven years after the first gene-altered crops got the go-ahead for U.S. planting, biotech acreage is at a record high. Almost 90 percent of U.S. soy and corn, as well as about 60 percent of U.S. cotton, is spiked with genes from other organisms, mostly to confer resistance to insects and to make the crops immune to weed-killing chemicals.

Yet some of those genes have spread to weeds, making them tougher to control. Biotech crops approved only as animal feed have found their way into human food. And plants engineered to make medicines in their tissues have escaped from their test plots.

"Something's not working," said Al Montna, who grows 2,500 acres of rice in California. "Something's got to change."

Some farmers are pointing fingers at biotech-seed producers, whose carelessness, they say, has allowed experimental DNA to drift into commercial varieties, transforming U.S. rice into a global pariah and sending the industry into its biggest crisis in memory.

Others are fed up with the Agriculture Department, which in the past six months has been scolded in three federal courts for not keeping adequate tabs on the burgeoning business of genetically engineered crops.

Whatever the root cause, the string of recent missteps has sullied an industry that, though long controversial in much of the world, has mostly grown under the radar in the United States.

Advocates say the biotech revolution has improved productivity while reducing the consumption of pesticides and tractor fuel. A report commissioned by industry leader Monsanto Co., released last week, estimated that biotech crops in 2005 allowed farmers to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by 9 million tons -- equivalent to removing 4 million cars from the roads.

But increasingly, farmers are concluding that early assurances that engineered varieties could be kept segregated from conventional crops were overstated.

So far, gene escapes have not had discernible effects on human or animal health, leading some proponents to suggest that the real problems are the strict rules in place from the early days of biotech, when safety was a major concern.

"Most of these issues have been issues of regulatory compliance and quality control," said L. Val Giddings, president of PrometheusAB, a Silver Spring-based biotech consulting firm. "These are important, but they aren't safety concerns."

Giddings and some others say it is time for more discriminating standards that would treat many biotech crops as environmentally friendly instead of criminalizing every smidgen of errant DNA.

Others see things differently.

"For years the industry said, 'This will never get out,' " said Joseph Mendelson III, legal director of the Center for Food Safety, a Washington advocacy group that has won several legal challenges against the Agriculture Department's handling of biotech crops. "Now it's, 'It will get out, but what does it matter?' We can have a scientific debate about that, but in the meantime it certainly matters a lot economically, because so much of the world doesn't want this stuff."

U.S. farmers such as Zaunbrecher have been caught in the middle, fighting off domestic efforts to introduce gene-altered rice until international markets warm to the product. He was going to plant a conventional variety called Cheniere on at least 500 of his more than 2,000 acres, until he learned that it had become inexplicably tainted with a weedkiller-resistant gene created by Bayer CropScience of Research Triangle Park, N.C., that was unapproved for rice.

In its place, he ordered Clearfield131, another non-engineered variety, developed by BASF of Germany. But on March 5, the USDA put out an emergency call to prevent all planting of that variety. Tests had found two laboratory-made genes not meant to be in it, one belonging to Bayer and one that has yet to be fully identified.

"Everybody's frustrated," said Bobby Hanks, who employs about 100 workers at Louisiana Rice Mill near Crowley. "At this point, the industry has very little confidence in researchers to keep these things out of the food stream."

Cynthia Sagers, a plant ecologist at the University of Arkansas, said USDA rules on how to isolate experimental rice from other varieties have not been stringent enough. Textbooks say rice is a self-pollinating plant, meaning its pollen does not drift far. "But stand in an Arkansas rice field at 11:45 on a sunny day," Sagers said, "and you'll see a zillion billion pollen grains blowing around."

Even if the pollen is contained, accidental mingling of engineered and conventional seeds occurs easily, especially when biotech varieties are not restricted to dedicated equipment and distribution streams.

A string of recent court rulings has revealed regulatory shortcomings for other biotech crops. In August, a federal judge criticized the USDA, saying it had "utter disregard" for the risks posed by plantings of biotech corn and sugar cane that the agency had endorsed in Hawaii. Two rulings in February took the agency to task for not fully considering the risks posed by biotech alfalfa and turf grass.

In the absence of stricter federal rules, some states have taken matters into their own hands. When a company recently sought permission to grow rice endowed with human drug-producing genes in California, officials there said okay -- if the company stayed at least 500 miles from the nearest rice field and waited for a special ruling from the state's Department of Food and Agriculture.

When the company sought instead to plant in Missouri, that state's legislature withheld promised research money until the company gave up and moved to Kansas -- a state that welcomed the project in part because no other rice is grown there.

Cindy Smith, deputy administrator in charge of biotechnology regulation at the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said that oversight has improved considerably in the past two years and that other changes are coming. Central among them is a risk-based system that will streamline approvals of biotech crops that are similar to others with proven safety records while raising the bar for those that pose the greatest risks.

"The nature of our regulatory system is that it has to continually evolve . . . because we're regulating a technology that continues to evolve," Smith said. And though she said she "fully appreciates" the gravity of the occasional failing, Smith noted that the agency has overseen more than 13,500 field tests on nearly 80,000 locations nationwide, the vast majority without a hitch.

Yet in today's global market -- in which biotech food is largely shunned, in part as a matter of "green" philosophy and in part as a covert means of trade protectionism -- that may not be enough, said Montna, the California grower, who is chairman of the USA Rice Federation.

"Everything is about market acceptance," Montna said, noting that the rice federation has pushed for stricter testing of all seed to prevent future surprises.

That would help not only farmers but seed companies, too -- some of which are now suffering from decreased sales because their varieties have become contaminated, and others of which are being sued for misplacing their genes.

"I'm seeing a lot of very, very angry people," said Adam Levitt, a Chicago lawyer who is involved in a class-action lawsuit against Bayer that already includes hundreds of rice farmers and millers.

Bayer spokesman Greg Coffey said the company should not be blamed if the federal rules that it followed are inadequate.

"We do believe our work has adhered to USDA regulatory guidelines," he said, completing the circle of blame that on many farms today is as familiar as the seasons.


Rice Board Spurns Biotech

By Jim Downing
The Sacramento Bee
March 15, 2007

State commission worries test plants would cut sales overseas

The California Rice Commission on Wednesday called for a moratorium on experimental plantings of genetically modified rice in the state, saying federal controls meant to keep such varieties from contaminating commercial rice are inadequate.

"We have to protect our industry at all costs," said Keith Davis, a Marysville-area rice farmer who is chairman of a group that has been reviewing the industry's genetic-engineering policy over the past several months.

The vote is advisory, but Tim Johnson, president of the Rice Commission, said it is likely to carry weight with the AB 2622 Advisory Board, which controls nearly all test plantings of rice in the state.

The decision by the 40-member group meeting in Colusa was driven largely by concerns that the contamination of the state's rice supplies with even a tiny amount of genetically engineered material could devastate sales to touchy export markets such as Japan and South Korea. The commission represents the state's roughly 1,000 rice farmers and processors.

As much as 40 percent of California's $200 million to $400 million annual rice harvest is sent overseas. Nearly all of the state's rice grows in the Sacramento Valley, where it is the most widely planted crop.

Two still-unsolved contamination incidents in the past eight months elsewhere in the country have demonstrated the market hazards.

Last summer, a rice variety containing a gene for herbicide tolerance was found in commercial rice in several Southern states. Futures prices for long-grain rice plunged as European importers demanded that each shipment be tested. Some other countries banned U.S. rice altogether.

And on March 4, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued what amounted to a recall for the seed of a popular type of rice grown in the South because it was found to have been contaminated with genetic material not approved for human consumption. Board members say it was this incident that led to Wednesday's decision.

"Nobody has been able to explain to us what happened in the South," Davis said. "We felt that we had a necessary stance to take."

Johnson said that two experimental plantings of genetically engineered rice were approved in the state in 2006.

The DNA of genetically modified crops has been altered to yield traits such as herbicide resistance or enhanced nutritional content. Genetically modified crops are considered safe to eat, but they are opposed in many nations -- including the United States -- for ecological, moral and other reasons.

The use of genetically modified seed has become widespread in the corn, soy and cotton industries, and the technology is broadly endorsed by mainstream farm groups. But due in large part to export concerns, genetically modified rice has not been planted by commercial farmers in the United States or in most other countries in the world.

Last month, after a report documented the strong opposition to genetically modified rice in several key export markets, a group of 200 Northern California rice farmers called for an end to experimental plantings of such rice.

Greg Massa, the leader of the group and a longtime opponent of genetic engineering in rice, seemed almost dazed after Wednesday's meeting.

"I'm still shocked," said Massa, who also holds a seat on the Rice Commission board. "I went from fighting in this underdog position for the last 3 1/2 years to being in the majority literally overnight."

Martina Newell-McGloughlin, who directs the Biotechnology Research and Education Program for the University of California system, had a mixed reaction.

"Of course any group wants to protect its market," she said. "But I think this is fear rather than rational thought."

Newell-McGloughlin said she believes that existing safeguards on research plantings are adequate.

The Rice Commission's stance could put it in a strange-bedfellows situation this year as the Legislature debates a bill that would make firms that produce genetically modified seeds liable for damages if their product contaminates a field.

The state Farm Bureau opposes the bill. But the Rice Commission may find itself fighting for it alongside activist groups such as the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Food Safety.

"If the mainstream is against these things, then maybe we aren't mainstream," said rice grower Don Bransford.


GE Contaminated Rice Turns up in Mexican Markets

By Jessica Azulay
The NewStandard
March 15, 2007

Six months after the US Department of Agriculture announced that the US long-grain rice supply had been contaminated with illegal rice, the genetically modified grains are still showing up in unexpected places.

The international environmental organization Greenpeace released lab results this week showing that genetically engineered rice known as Liberty Link (LL) 601 is being sold in at least three markets in Mexico. LL601 was an experimental rice designed by Bayer CropScience to resist the company's trademark Liberty Link pesticide.

The rice was not approved by the US government for humans to eat until about three months after it was revealed that it was already in the food supply. It remains unapproved in Mexico, according to Greenpeace. The NewStandard was not able to independently verify that the rice is still banned in Mexico, but could find no record of its approval.

"Our worst fears have been confirmed: we are eating genetically engineered rice without even knowing it," Gustavo Ampugnani, genetic engineering campaigner with Greenpeace Mexico, said in a press statement.

Dr. Doreen Stabinsky, a Greenpeace scientist based in the US, told TNS that the organization purchased rice in three locations in Mexico and sent samples to an independent laboratory for testing. While testing by the group on earlier samples found no genetic contamination, the new samples did prove contaminated. Two of the samples tested were the popular Mexican supermarket brands, Chedraui and Soriana. The other was from one of the city's large wholesale markets, Central de Abastos.

"These test results and the latest USDA declarations prove that contamination isn't only possible, but is reaching epidemic proportions in the US," Stabinsky said in a press statement. "The US regulatory system is clearly incapable of protecting consumers here and abroad from untested and unapproved genetically engineered varieties."

Supposedly, LL601 rice has not been planted in the United States since 2001. Neither Bayer nor the US government has been able to explain how genes from the rice are turning up in today's rice supplies.

Since the USDA relies on private companies to monitor rice stocks, the genetic contamination only came to light after Bayer itself notified the government. As previously reported by TNS, Bayer appears to have waited two months to tell the USDA, which in turn waited another eighteen days to inform the public.

Since the contamination scandal came to light, the European Union has imposed strict testing requirements on rice imports to keep LL601 out of food supplies there. Greenpeace accused US companies of dumping contaminated rice on Mexico and called on the Mexican government to impose safeguards to keep LL601 out of the rice supply.

"US rice exporters are taking advantage of Mexican government apathy and disposing of their adulterated rice south of the border," Ampugnani claimed.


USDA Identifies Rice in Latest GM Contamination

By Lorraine Heller
March 23, 2007

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has identified the source of a recent GM contamination in rice, and has said that it poses no food safety concerns.

The agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) yesterday announced the minute levels of regulated genetic material found in Clearfield 131 (CL131) rice seed has been identified as LLRICE604.

The findings come after the regulatory agency launched an investigation into the contamination of CL131, a long-grain rice seed from BASF, because it was suspected to contain genetic material not yet approved for commercialization.

Earlier this month, APHIS issued 'emergency action notifications' to inform distributors of the seed, which had been scheduled for planting this spring, that it must be held until the agency concludes its investigation.

Tests conducted at USDA laboratories as part of the investigation revealed that the rice had been contaminated by the PAT (phosphinothricin-N-acetyltransferase) protein, contained in the LLRICE 604 variety developed by Bayer Cropscience.

"The PAT protein has been repeatedly and thoroughly scientifically evaluated and is used safely in food and feed, cultivation and breeding in the United States as well as nearly a dozen other countries around the world. APHIS has previously deregulated similar genetically engineered herbicide-tolerant products such as corn, canola and soybean," said the agency in a statement.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has previously evaluated the PAT protein for safety on a number of occasions through the Agency's voluntary biotechnology consultation process. FDA therefore concluded that the presence of rice from the LLRICE 600 series at low levels in food would pose no food or feed safety concerns.

Based on this determination, APHIS said it will not prevent movement or processing of CL131 rice from previous years.

In 1999, APHIS deregulated - or approved for commercial use - two similar herbicide tolerant rice lines, LLRICE62 and LLRICE06. The agency extended this deregulation in November 2006 to include LLRICE601.

The USDA said an investigation continues to determine the circumstances surrounding the release and whether any USDA regulations were violated.

Another GM contamination involving the LLRICE 600 series last year caused a major disruption in the US rice industry.

The contamination - involving the GMO LL Rice 601 variety - sparked a flow of reactions against the firm and the US rice export market. Such limits on rice exports had an immediate impact on US farmers, who retaliated with a flood of lawsuits against Bayer. The variety has since been approved by USDA.

However, the agency says it has not as yet received a petition from Bayer to deregulate the variety in the latest contamination case. As a result, because LLRICE604 remains a regulated article, producers will not be able to plant any CL131 seed that currently remains on hold.


Importers Question Purity of U.S. Crops

The Wall Street Journal
March 26, 2007

Recent breakdowns in the system meant to keep experimental genetically engineered plants from contaminating the hundreds of millions of acres of crops grown in the U.S. has farmers and import markets questioning the purity of U.S. goods.

Mexico, the largest foreign market for U.S. rice, sent tremors through the U.S. sector midmonth when it stopped shipments on the border out of concern the U.S. can't keep its experimental transgenic long-grain rice out of commercial crops.

California's medium-grain rice growers have demanded a statewide moratorium on any biotech field trials to avoid the contamination recently plaguing long-grain growers in the south.

Those contaminations, California Rice Commission spokeswoman Beth Horan said, prompted farmers and millers to say, "Whoa, this isn't as isolated as we thought and really the system isn't working the way that we thought."

California relies on countries such as Japan and South Korea to buy as much as 30% of the state's harvest each year, and producers want to keep the experimental crops as far away from their fields as possible.

That's getting harder, if not impossible, to do with so many field trials going on, said biotechnology experts at nonprofit consumer groups.

The U.S. is the largest producer of biotech crops in the world, with 135 million acres planted last year, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.

European Union countries, which were big long-grain buyers, stopped importing when they realized the U.S. couldn't keep biotech rice out of exports.

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