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November 2007 Updates

Genetically Modified Seeds Raise Contamination Fears

By Alan Crowell, Staff Writer
Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel
November 16, 2007

WATERVILLE -- C. R. Lawn plans to testify today before the Maine Board of Pesticides Control on the need to protect against the spread of pollen from genetically engineered corn.

Founder of FEDCO Seeds, a gardening supply cooperative that pledges not to sell genetically engineered seeds, Lawn has firsthand experience with the problem.

For seven years, FEDCO has tested random samples of corn seed to ensure it is not contaminated by genetically engineered plants. For the first time this year, three samples from the same supplier tested positive -- evidence that pollen from genetically altered corn contaminated the supplier's crop.

"The problem with pollen is you can't fence it in," said Lawn, who would like to see the state adopt a 660-foot buffer around Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) corn, a type of corn that is genetically altered to produce its own pesticides.

For about a decade, Maine was the only state in the country where the use of Bt corn was not allowed. That changed in July, when the Maine Board of Pesticides Control licensed the use of Bt corn.

Farmers argued that new Bt lines offered growers competitive advantages.

According to the National Science Foundation, Bt corn accounts for about 35 percent of the corn acreage in the United States and is gaining in popularity.

What remains to be determined before crops are planted next spring, however, are the rules under which farmers can use it.

Among the rules under consideration are requiring growers to keep records of their use of the seeds and receive special training.

At today's hearing, the public is invited to weigh in on those regulations.

Lawn said he favors a buffer because corn in one farmer's field has the potential to pollinate corn in another farmer's field, potentially spreading unwanted genes.

Of the three seed samples that tested positive this year for the presence of genetically engineered material, two showed a trace amount of contamination and one came back positive, meaning it showed more than a trace amount.

The test used was very, very sensitive, said Lawn, but the results were still cause for concern.

"My feeling is that the seed industry is going to have to be adamant about protecting their (seed varieties)," said Lawn.

All three lots that tested positive were taken off the market, he said. Two of those varieties will not be included in this year's catalogue. He said the other variety will be tested before orders are shipped.

"Corn pollen is scattered by the wind. If you are selling contaminated seeds .... there is the risk that it could spread to other people's corn who don't want it," said Lawn.

Some studies have found that the pesticides produced by the plants, not only protect them against crop-damaging insects but may also have negative impacts on aquatic insects that serve as food for fish.

Logan Perkins, campaign organizer for Protect Maine Farmers, said there are simply too many questions that haven't been answered about the short-term and long-term effects of the Bt plants.

"Bt corn has only been on the market for ten years and in the world of agriculture that is only the blink of an eye," she said.

Perkins said that her organization advocates the use of a mile-wide buffer around Bt corn crops.

John Jemison, an extension professor of water quality and soil science at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and member of the pesticide board, said several of the state's large dairy farmers argued in favor of using the Bt lines.

Jemison said his own research has not shown significant yield benefits when the Bt lines are used, but he said the genetically altered seeds do provide farmers with another tool.

Use of the Bt lines also allows farmers to avoid spreading pesticides and potentially exposing themselves to the chemicals, said Jemison. As far as the unknowns with genetically altered seeds, Jemison said there are also questions about the effects of the insecticides farmers use to counter the same pests controlled by Bt crops.

"There is always going to be a certain amount of uncertainty related to everything," he said.

He said he suspects that the rules that the board of pesticides develops for the use of the Bt seeds will be more conservative than those used by other states.


Proposed Ban on Genetically Modified Corn in Europe

By James Kanter
The New York Times
November 23, 2007

PARIS, Nov. 22 - European Union environmental officials have determined that two kinds of genetically modified corn could harm butterflies, affect food chains and disturb life in rivers and streams, and they have proposed a ban on the sale of the seeds, which are made by DuPont Pioneer, Dow Agrosciences and Syngenta.

The preliminary decisions are circulating within the European Commission, which has the final say. Some officials there are skeptical of a ban that would upset the powerful biotechnology industry and could exacerbate tensions with important trading partners like the United States. The seeds are not available on the European market for cultivation.

In the decisions, the environment commissioner, Stavros Dimas, contends that the genetically modified corn, or maize could affect certain butterfly species, specifically the monarch, and other beneficial insects. For instance, research this year indicates that larvae of the monarch butterfly exposed to the genetically modified corn "behave differently than other larvae."

In the decision concerning the corn seeds produced by Dow and Pioneer, Mr. Dimas calls "potential damage on the environment irreversible." In the decision on Syngenta's corn, he says that "the level of risk generated by the cultivation of this product for the environment is unacceptable."

A decision by the European Union to bar cultivation of the genetically modified crops would be the first of its kind in the trade bloc, and would intensify the continuing battle over genetically modified corn.

Since 1998, the commission has not approved any applications for the cultivation of genetically modified crops, but it has not actively rejected any applications, either, as would be the case with the genetically modified corn products.

Banning the applications for corn crops also would mark a bold new step for European environmental authorities, who are already aggressively pursuing regulations on emissions from cars and aircraft, setting it at odds with the United States and angering industries.

"These products have been grown in the U.S. and other countries for years," said Stephen Norton, a spokesman for the United States trade representative. "We are not aware of any other case when a product has been rejected after having been reviewed and determined safe" by European food safety authorities, he said.

In 2005, the European Food Safety Authority, a European agency based in Parma, Italy, that operates independently of the European Union, ruled that the products were unlikely to harm human and animal health or the environment. But in the draft decision, Mr. Dimas said that other studies had since come to light on the potential effects of the seeds and that further investigation was needed.

Barbara Helfferich, a spokeswoman for Mr. Dimas, declined to comment on the specifics of the procedure because commissioners had not yet made a final decision. But she said that the European Union was within its rights to make decisions based on the "precautionary principle" even when scientists had found no definitive evidence proving products can cause harm.

"The commission has the authority to be a risk manager when it comes to the safety and science of genetically modified crops," Ms. Helfferich said.

She said that the decisions by Mr. Dimas could go before the commission within a few weeks, but she said that no date had been set.

In the decisions, Mr. Dimas cited recent research showing that consumption of genetically modified "corn byproducts reduced growth and increased mortality of nontarget stream insects" and that these insects "are important prey for aquatic and riparian predators" and that this could have "unexpected ecosystem-scale consequences."

Although still preliminary, his decisions could drastically tilt the policy against future approvals of genetically modified crops, said Nathalie Moll, a spokeswoman for Europabio, an industry group with 80 members including Syngenta, Pioneer and Dow.

The decisions "would be setting a precedent for E.U. officials to reject products based on nonverified scientific data," Ms. Moll said.

Europabio says that the crops grown using the genetically modified corn are already imported into several European countries, including France and Germany, where they are used to feed animals like cows and chickens.

Rob Gianfranceschi, spokesman at the United States mission to the European Union in Brussels, said it was too early to comment on a decision that had not yet been formalized. But he made clear that the United States remained frustrated with European policies on genetically modified crops.

"The United States has consistently stated that the E.U. continues to lack a predictable, workable process for approving these products in a way that reflects scientific rather than political factors," Mr. Gianfranceschi said.


Round 2 for Biotech Beets

By Andrew Pollack
New York Times
November 27, 2007

Each growing season, like many other sugar beet farmers bedeviled by weeds, Robert Green repeatedly and painstakingly applies herbicides in a process he compares to treating cancer with chemotherapy.

"You give small doses of products that might harm the crop, but it harms the weeds a little more," said Mr. Green, who plants about 900 acres in beets in St. Thomas, N.D.

But next spring, for the first time, Mr. Green intends to plant beets genetically engineered to withstand Monsanto's powerful Roundup herbicide. The Roundup will destroy the weeds but leave his crop unscathed, potentially saving him thousands of dollars in tractor fuel and labor.

For Mr. Green and many other beet farmers, it is technology too long delayed. And the engineered beets could pave the way for the eventual planting of other biotech crops like wheat, rice and potatoes, which were also stalled on the launching pad.

Seven years ago, beet breeders were on the verge of introducing Roundup-resistant seeds. But they had to pull back after sugar-using food companies like Hershey and Mars, fearing consumer resistance, balked at the idea of biotech beets. Now, though, sensing that those concerns have subsided, many processors have cleared their growers to plant the Roundup-resistant beets next spring.

It would be the first new type of genetically engineered food crop widely grown since the 1990s, when biotech soybeans, corn and a few other crops entered the market.

"Basically, we have not run into resistance," said David Berg, president of American Crystal Sugar, the nation's largest sugar beet processor. "We really think that consumer attitudes have come to accept food from biotechnology."

A Kellogg spokeswoman, Kris Charles, said her company "would not have any issues" buying such sugar for products sold in the United States, where she said "most consumers are not concerned about biotech."

If some other big food companies are now open to genetically modified sugar, though, they are not talking about it. Both Hershey and Mars declined to comment. "There's just nothing we have to say on the topic," a Mars spokeswoman said.

Many sugar refiners and seed developers also refused to comment, hewing to an industrywide plan to coordinate the introduction of the genetically engineered beets and carefully control what is said about them.

When it comes to genetically modified crops, there is a reason to keep one's corporate head low - to avoid protests. Some opponents of biotechnology are only now getting wind that the sugar beets have been resurrected.

"When I first saw this I said, 'No, it can't be,'" said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association. "I thought we had already dealt with this."

His organization issued a call to arms and thousands of identical e-mail messages were sent to Mr. Berg at American Crystal Sugar warning that "profit margins of your company and its supporting farmers" would be hurt by consumer resistance.

Mr. Berg said he received 681 messages in a 24-hour period before having the e-mail blocked. He said he still believed that most consumers would accept biotech crops. Mr. Cummins, however, said he would next try to persuade consumers to pressure food companies to boycott the sugar. "I don't think companies like Hershey are going to want any more hassles than they already have," he said, referring to recent earnings pressure and management turmoil at the chocolate company.

About 10,000 American farmers grow sugar beets on about 1.3 million acres, mainly in Northern states from Oregon to Michigan. That makes the beets a minor crop compared with corn, at about 90 million acres, and soybeans, at almost 70 million.

And yet beets account for about half the nation's sugar supply, with the rest coming from sugar cane. The sugar from beets and cane, generally considered interchangeable, is used in candies, cereals, cakes and numerous other products, although some food manufacturers have switched to high-fructose corn syrup, which is cheaper.

When genetically engineered versions of soybeans and corn - as well as cotton and canola - were introduced in the mid-1990s, farmers quickly adopted them. But opposition to genetically engineered crops then took hold, particularly in Europe. Food companies, fearing protests or loss of customers, pressured farmers not to grow the crops.

Sugar was not the only crop affected. Insect-resistant potatoes developed by Monsanto were withdrawn from the market in 2001 after fast-food companies resisted them. Monsanto gave up on developing Roundup-resistant wheat in 2004, in part because American wheat farmers feared losing exports. The rice industry, also heavily dependent on exports, has never grown herbicide-tolerant varieties.

Even if the situation has now changed for sugar, however, other crops might still meet resistance. For one thing, sugar is a refined product that contains no DNA or proteins, just the chemical sucrose. "While the sugar beet is genetically different, the sugar is the same," said Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association and co-chairman of the Sugar Industry Biotech Council.

By contrast, the foreign DNA and proteins in genetically modified wheat, rice or potatoes can be eaten by consumers, which at least theoretically raises food safety questions.

Moreover, only about 3 percent of American sugar is exported, Mr. Markwart said, compared with about half of wheat and rice.

The sugar industry's organizational structure also helps. Virtually all sugar processors - the companies that buy the beets from farmers and then extract the sugar and sell it - are owned by the farmers themselves. That makes them more likely to accept the biotech crops than an independent processor might be.

Among farmers, demand for the Roundup Ready beets, as they are known, is expected to be strong. "The sugar beet growers are going to adopt this technology immediately," said Alan G. Dexter, the extension sugar beet specialist at North Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota. In a survey he conducted, 57 percent of beet growers cited weeds as their biggest problem, with diseases the distant runner-up at 16 percent.

The seeds will be most attractive to those with the biggest weed problems. With a technology fee of a little more than $100 per 100,000 seeds paid to Monsanto, the genetically engineered seeds will cost at least twice as much as conventional seeds. That translates to about $50 to $65 in extra seed costs per acre.

But Duane Grant, who grows about 5,000 acres of sugar beets in Rupert, Idaho, said the extra seed outlays would be offset by other savings. He said his annual herbicide costs would drop to $35 an acre, from $70, and he would no longer have to hire migrant workers to pull weeds by hand, at a cost of $35 to $150 an acre.

Mr. Grant, who was designated by the national beet growers' association as its spokesman on this issue, also said Roundup would have to be sprayed only two or three times during the spring-to-fall growing season, while the existing herbicides must be sprayed five times or more. The existing herbicides are decades old and some weeds have developed resistance to them, Mr. Grant said.

Some weed experts say there are also some weeds resistant to Roundup and its generic equivalent, glyphosate, as a consequence of the heavy use of the herbicide spurred by the proliferation of Roundup Ready crops. But such weeds are not found in beet fields, Mr. Grant said.

He said that with conventional beets, Roundup can be used only before the seedlings emerge from the ground, because after that the Roundup would kill them.

Bringing back the biotech beets took a long, coordinated effort involving Monsanto, seed companies, growers, processors and trade groups under the auspices of the Sugar Industry Biotech Council.

Rival seed companies all agreed to use seeds descended from a single genetic transformation done by Monsanto and KWS, a German seed company. That meant the industry had to win federal approval only once. The new genetically engineered sugar beet was reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration in 2004 and approved for unrestricted growing by the Agriculture Department in early 2005.

And before planting the beets, farmers have waited for approvals in other important markets. Just last month Europe approved the beets for food and feed use, although not for planting.

Because such foods would have to be labeled in Europe as containing genetically engineered ingredients, some American food companies might use cane sugar, which is not genetically modified, for products they export to Europe. But in the United States, foods containing sugar made from biotech beets would not have to be labeled.

The sugar beet industry conducted field trials in Idaho last year and Michigan this year. Mr. Grant, who was part of the Idaho test, said the biotech seeds actually had slightly higher yields and sugar output than very similar conventional varieties.

Some environmentalists say the use of Roundup on sugar beets could contribute to the growing problem of Roundup-resistant weeds. But the Agriculture Department said it expected little, if any, environmental effect from growing the beets.

One factor that could help keep the trait from spreading is that beets produce seeds only in their second year, after passing through a winter. So beets grown in most parts of the country never produce seeds, because farmers harvest beets every fall and plant new seeds the next spring.

But in California, beets stay in the ground through the winter and there are weeds that can mate with sugar beets. So growers there may be more cautious about the Roundup revolution.

"We have to make sure we don't cause ourselves more problems than we're curing," said Ben Goodwin, executive manager of the California Beet Growers Association.


Scotts to Pay $500,000 Fine over Biotech Bentgrass

By Christopher Doering
November , 2007

WASHINGTON - Scotts Miracle-Gro Co will pay a $500,000 fine over allegations it failed to comply with U.S. rules while testing a genetically engineered grass variety that could one day be used on lawns and athletic fields, the Agriculture Department said on Monday.

The settlement involves field tests in Oregon and 20 other states of creeping bentgrass modified to resist weed killers such as Monsanto Co's Roundup. A golf course, for example, could be sprayed to kill weeds without hurting the grass. Genetically engineered grasses have not been approved by USDA.

The civil penalty is the largest allowed by the Plant Protection Act of 2000, according to the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

An APHIS spokeswoman said the allegations included failure by Scotts to follow proper equipment-cleaning procedures and to have all required buffer zones around the genetically engineered crop to prevent mixing with traditional crops.

Jim King, a Scotts spokesman, said the company takes responsibility for the mistakes and has implemented steps to prevent them from happening again.

"This is an issue that we view as largely behind us," said King. "The outcome that (USDA) announced today was not inconsistent with what we would have expected to see from them. We will pay the fine and move on."

APHIS also alleged Scotts failed to prevent bentgrass or its offspring from persisting in the environment following a field trial in Oregon in 2003.

The government instructed Scotts in 2004 to locate and remove any accidentally released bentgrass to address past allegations that the company failed to notify APHIS of the problem. Since then, there have been more findings of the genetically engineered crop in the environment.

As part of the agreement, Scotts will conduct three public workshops for other potential developers of genetically engineered plants and other interested parties within one year that focus on the best ways to grow biotech crops and how to quickly resolve biotechnology compliance incidents.

"USDA takes compliance with its biotechnology regulations very seriously," said Bruce Knight, under secretary for marketing and regulatory programs. "Compliance is, and will always be, our highest priority and we will continue our rigorous oversight of regulated genetically engineered plants."

A U.S. district judge ruled in February that the Agriculture Department must conduct a more thorough review of applications for field trials of genetically engineered crops to determine if they pose a threat to the environment.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy said APHIS failed to adequately consider whether field tests for genetically engineered bentgrass from Scotts could harm the environment.

The lawsuit, filed by the Center for Food Safety and other groups in 2003, alleged APHIS violated environmental regulations when it approved field tests without determining whether genetically modified bentgrass was a plant pest and could breed with native plants.


PA Dairy Label Rule Shelved

By Daniel Malloy
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
November 28, 2007

A controversial decision by the state Department of Agriculture concerning dairy labeling is under review after facing strong public backlash.

Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff announced last month that the department would crack down on what it viewed as misleading labels on dairy products, including claims that milk was made from cows not treated with artificial growth hormones.

But early last week Gov. Ed Rendell's office initiated a review of the decision. Originally scheduled for Jan. 1, enforcement of the new rules has been delayed at least a month.

The controversy has focused on recombinant bovine growth hormone, also called recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), which is injected into cows to increase milk production by about 15 percent.

Under Mr. Wolff's directive, dairies selling milk in the state cannot declare on their labels that the milk is hormone-free or "rBST-free."

So far, 19 companies have been informed that their labels must change. Pennsylvania, home to 9,000 dairy farms, is the fourth-largest dairy-producing state in the country.

Chuck Ardo, press secretary for Mr. Rendell, said the governor's office heard complaints from elected representatives of rural districts and agriculture lobbyists, prompting the review.

Mr. Ardo said the review likely would take at least two or three months, further delaying the implementation of the labeling restrictions. The governor's office, which was not involved in the initial decision, will participate in reviewing the new rules "both in the way they were promulgated and their effect," Mr. Ardo said.

Consumer and public health groups also have been critical of the labeling restrictions.

"This violates the fundamental rights of consumers to know what's in their milk," said Kevin Golden, staff attorney for the Center for Food Safety, a non-profit organization that advocates sustainable agriculture and food safety.

"We wouldn't be surprised if Pennsylvania turns around and takes away this action. ... If [Mr. Rendell] doesn't, they are going to see lawsuits."

The Department of Agriculture acted after Mr. Wolff, who owns a dairy farm in Columbia County, formed the Food Labeling Advisory Committee, which had its only meeting Oct. 5. The 22-member committee, composed of consumer advocates, dairy producers, academics and others, examined dairy labels and recommended that certain types be banned.

Criticism of the decision was swift and harsh, and targeted primarily at rBST, the hormone produced by St. Louis-based Monsanto Co.

Though there is no reliable test to show the hormone is present in milk -- and "rBST-free" labels are required by the FDA to acknowledge that there is no quantifiable difference in the quality or safety of the product -- many consumers choose to eschew rBST.

It was approved by the FDA in 1994, but many countries, including Canada, Japan, Australia and the European Union, have not approved the use of rBST because of cattle health concerns. Also, some studies have shown a correlation between certain types of cancer in humans and elevated levels of insulin growth factor, which is present in rBST-fueled milk.

Pennsylvania is the first state to restrict labeling in this way, and the decision came just months after the Federal Trade Commission refused a request by Monsanto to ban such labels.

The Department of Agriculture insists that rBST-free claims are misleading because they are not verifiable, unlike "organic," a designation subject to third-party review. Under the current system, milk distributors get farmers to sign a pledge not to use rBST.

Critics argue that the Department of Agriculture is coercing consumers into purchasing something they want to avoid.

"There was some level of surprise," Chris Ryder, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, said of the opposition to the state's new labeling restrictions. "We weren't anticipating quite this response."

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