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April 2008 Updates

Lobbyists Try to Keep Milk Information from Consumers

By Michael Hansen and Rhonda Perry
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
April 1, 2008

Missouri lawmakers are about to consider House Bill 2283, which would ban milk labels that inform consumers that their dairy products are free of artificial growth hormones. That's a remarkable turn of events, and it bucks a well-established national trend toward more information in food labeling, not less.

Why is Missouri going backward while the rest of the country goes forward on consumer information labels? The answer is St. Louis-based Monsanto Company, the biotech giant that markets recombinant bovine growth hormone (rbGH or rbST), a genetically engineered drug used to increase milk production in cows.

Monsanto and its advocates are claiming that milk from cows treated with the hormone is the same as natural milk, and that dairies are misleading consumers when they label their products "rbGH-free."

But, sales figures \u2014 and numerous polls \u2014 show widespread consumer demand for milk produced by cows not treated with the artificial hormone. For example, a 2007 Consumer Reports poll found that 88 percent of respondents agreed that milk from cows raised without synthetic bovine growth hormone should be allowed to be labeled as such.

As consumers have become more concerned about the effects of rbGH on human and animal health, demand for rbGH-free dairy products has grown. National food brands and retailers such as Ben & Jerry's, Tillamook Cheese, Starbucks, Kroger and, most recently, Wal-Mart have switched to rbGH-free milk.

The notion that consumers have a right to know whether their milk was produced by cows injected with artificial growth hormones has not been good for Monsanto's bottom line. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of dairy cows injected with rbGH dropped from 22.3 percent of all U.S. dairy cows in 2002 to 17.2 percent in 2007, a nearly 23 percent drop. This trend in response to consumer rejection probably will continue: Many more dairies have announced that they will go rbGH-free in 2008.

Last year, Monsanto asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to reconsider its position on milk labeling. Monsanto claimed that labels identifying milk as "free of artificial hormones" or "from cows not treated with rbGH" cast doubt on the quality of milk that did not carry that labeling. The FDA disagreed, ruling that there is nothing wrong with labeling that tells consumers what is in or not in the milk they buy or how that milk was produced.

Since then, industry lobbyists and a new, supposedly grass-roots organization supported by Monsanto called American Farmers for the Advancement of Conservation of Technology have pushed for state legislation banning or restricting milk labeling in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Vermont, Kansas, Indiana and Utah. Almost all of these attempts have failed: Once consumers and farmers became aware that their rights were under attack, they spoke out, and lawmakers in those states dismissed the Monsanto-driven efforts.

But if Monsanto gets its way here in Missouri, the state's farmers no longer will be able to freely speak with their customers. Further, Missourians will lose the right to know if they are buying the safe, un-treated dairy products they have trusted for generations.

In fact, labeling is vitally needed because there are significant changes in milk and dairy products produced with rbGH. Use of the drug elevates levels in milk of another powerful hormone, Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1). Although there are no strong scientific data on whether IGF-1 absorbed from diary foods increases IGF-1 levels in the blood of humans, some studies suggest that it might.

There also are correlations between the use of rbGH and animal health problems. Studies show an increased risk for infertility and a 50 percent increase in lameness associated with rbGH use, along with an increased risk of mastitis, an infection of dairy cow udders. Mastitis is treated with antibiotics, the use of which can produce increases in bacteria that are resistant to those antibiotics. With doctors warning of the increase in antibiotic-resistant diseases, this development is a public health issue that should concern all Missourians.

Regulators in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and all 27 nations of the European Union have banned rbGH. We believe that rbGH is a product with no redeeming qualities: It is bad for the consumer, the cow and the dairies.

It is hard to understand why a family-farm state such as Missouri would want to interfere with supply and demand to protect a failing product. Giving in to the lobbyists would be an undemocratic and irresponsible action that puts Monsanto's corporate interests above Missourians' right to know what's in their food and the rights of dairies and farmers to tell them.

Michael Hansen is a senior scientist at Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports. Rhonda Perry is a livestock and grain farmer from Howard County, Mo., and program director of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center.


Vote in Montville is Boost for Natural Crops

By Craig Crosby, Morning Sentinel Staff
Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel
April 1, 2008

MONTVILLE -- Organic supporters hailed Saturday's vote to adopt a town ordinance banning the use of genetically modified plants as a landmark decision -- but farmers who rely on the pest-resistant crops say farming communities are unlikely to follow suit.

Residents at Saturday's town meeting overwhelmingly approved an ordinance that prohibits growing genetically engineered crops for the next 10 years. The few Montville farmers currently growing the engineered crops are required to register with the code enforcement officer while phasing out use over the next two years.

Believed to be the first municipal ban on genetically engineered crops outside of California, it is unclear whether the ordinance conforms with state law, according to a spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture.

Ned Porter, deputy commissioner of the department, who had not seen the ordinance, said Monday that the department will seek input from the attorney general's office.

Maine statute requires the department to review town ordinances that impact agriculture, Porter said.

"How that may play out in this case I'm not sure," he said.

The moratorium is the latest turn in a sometimes heated debate over the use of genetically engineered crops.

While organic farmers worry about cross-contamination, the evolution of super-resistant pests and even lawsuits due to accidental contamination, farmers who rely on genetically engineered crops say the technology is a safe and efficient method for reducing the use of dangerous herbicides and turning a better yield.

Maine, which has allowed other forms of genetically engineered crops, in July became the last state in the union to allow the use of so-called Bt corn.

State representatives are expected to vote as early as today on L.D. 1650, a bill that would amend laws concerning genetically engineered plants and seeds.

While that bill has spawned debate, the Montville moratorium passed with ease, said Montville First Selectman Jay LeGore.

"A few people were concerned about government regulations," LeGore said.

"People don't want government telling them what they can and can't do on their property."

Montville's Diana George Chapin, who helped develop the ordinance over the past two years -- residents passed a resolution in 2006 demanding the town develop an ordinance banning genetically engineered crops -- breeds early American and Victorian-era plants at Heirloom Garden of Maine.

"The plants we have are pure plants that have been saved by ordinary people like ourselves for many generations," Chapin said.

But her primary motivation for helping make the moratorium a reality was concern for her family, friends and security of the food system, she said.

"We are not involved in this out of concern for our business," Chapin said. "We're concerned about the future of seed."

Saturday's decision, which was primarily rendered by consumers, not farmers, proves that concern runs across the spectrum, Chapin said.

"That, to me, made a powerful statement about this community and said something about who is concerned about this issue," Chapin said. "It's not just farmers."

Logan Perkins of Protect Maine Farmers, a statewide organization that opposes the use of genetically engineered crops, said Montville's decision was an example of what could happen in other communities.

"It's clearly a demonstration of where the public in general stands," Perkins said. "Montville happens to be the first place to get organized. In some ways, Montville is a bellwether of public opinion."

But Vernon DeLong, executive director of the Maine Agriculture Bargaining Council in Presque Isle, said similar ordinances are unlikely to be imposed in communities where farming is a lifeblood.

"If you were in an agricultural area I don't think you'd stand a chance of doing that," he said.

While he does not fear similar bans spreading throughout the state, DeLong said he is troubled by what he called Montville's willingness to put farmers at a disadvantage.

"We think growers struggling to make a living need all the tools available to them to grow the market," DeLong said. "There's nothing that says genetically engineered whatever is harmful. Even mother nature genetically engineers crops. This relates from fear more than science."

Rather than state or town intervention, the Department of Agriculture has always encouraged farmers to work together to keep each other informed of the types of crops they are growing and to resolve conflict.

"That's the way it works best," Porter said. "Farmers in these times need access to all the tools."

Chapin believes banning the use of genetically engineered crops will allow farmers to tap into a market eager to buy the freshest, healthiest food possible.

"I think there's a massive potential for genetically-engineered-free crops in this country and in this world," Chapin said. "The state of Maine should think really hard about the economic potential of having a genetically-engineered-free state."

But when DeLong switched to standard canola varieties rather than genetically engineered a number of years ago hoping to find a niche market, he found none existed.

"All in all we thought we could find a market that would reward us for doing that," DeLong said. "In the final analysis we gave up. You produce the market and it will take care of itself."

Heather Spalding, associate director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, praised Montville for its decision and for proactively helping farmers phase out genetically engineered crops.

"The big thing is communicating the alternatives that organic farmers are using," Spalding said. "It doesn't have to be an adversarial approach. It can be a real bridge-building approach."


GM Seeds Can 'Last for 10 Years'

By Richard Black
BBC News
April 2, 2008

Seeds of some genetically modified crops can endure in soil for at least 10 years, scientists have discovered.

Researchers in Sweden examined a field planted with experimental oilseed rape a decade ago, and found transgenic specimens were still growing there.

This was despite intensive efforts in the intervening years to remove seeds.

No GM crop has been found to endure so long; and critics say it shows that genetically modified organisms cannot be contained once released.

Tina D'Hertefeldt from Lund University led the team of scientists that scoured the small field, which had hosted the GM trial 10 years ago, looking for "volunteers" - plants that have sprung up spontaneously from seed in the soil.

"We were surprised, very surprised," she told BBC News. "We knew that volunteers had been detected earlier, but we thought they'd all have gone by now."

Eradication effort

Presenting their findings in the journal Biology Letters, the researchers note that after the trial of herbicide-resistant GM rape, the Swedish Board of Agriculture sprayed the field intensively with chemicals that should have killed all the remaining plants.

And for two years, inspectors looked specifically for volunteer plants and killed them.

This is much more effort than would usually be deployed on a normal farmer's field.

But even so, 15 plants had sprung up 10 years later carrying the genes that scientists had originally inserted into their experimental rape variety to make them resistant to the herbicide glufosinate.

Non-GM varieties were used in the 10-year-old study as well, and some of these had also survived.

"I wouldn't say that the transgenic varieties are able to survive better," said Dr D'Hertefeldt. "It's just that oilseed rape is a tough plant."

Jeremy Sweet, a former head of the UK's National Institute of Agricultural Botany and now an independent consultant on biotech crops, agreed.

"It's been known for some time that oilseed rape is a bit of a problem because of the survival of its seed," he told BBC News.

"It means that if farmers want to swap [from growing GM rape] to conventional varieties, they will have to wait for a number of years."

Growth industry

Rapeseed - often known by its Canadian name canola - is the fourth most commonly grown GM crop in the world, after soya beans, maize and cotton.

An industry organisation, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), calculated recently that more than one million square kilometres of land across the world are now dedicated to growing GM plants.

Europe accounts for only about 0.1% of that total, with a single maize variety the single transgenic food plant being grown.

Many European countries, including the UK, have yet to implement legislation on the thorny issue of how fields of genetically modified crops could co-exist with others that farmers are keen to keep free of transgenic material.

Two years ago, the UK government published a consultation paper (which refers to England only - Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland regulations are dealt with by the devolved administrations) including proposals on issues such as minimum distances between fields growing biotech and conventional varieties, compensation, and labelling of GM foods.

Campaign groups say the proposals are too weak, notably that farmers would not be liable for environmental impacts of the crops they grow.

Clare Oxborrow, GM campaigner with Friends of the Earth (FoE) UK, said the Swedish research strengthened their case.

"Despite the best efforts by the researchers to eliminate GM oilseed rape, it appears that once it is planted, it is virtually impossible to prevent GM contamination of future crops," she said.

"The government must now tear up its weak proposals for the 'coexistence' of GM with organic and conventional crops, and put in place tough rules that protect GM-free food and farming."

Time to look

The Lund research does not deal with the flow of genes into neighbouring fields, or whether transgenes can transfer into wild plants growing nearby.

But Tina D'Hertefeldt believes legislators do need to take note of her findings.

"What we are saying is they also need to take into account the temporal aspect," she said.

Professor Mark Westoby, a plant ecologist from Macquarie University in Australia, had a more blunt assessment.

"This study confirms that GM crops are difficult to confine," he said.

"We should assume that GM organisms cannot be confined, and ask instead what will become of them when they escape."


Centre Nod to Make Public Toxicity Data of GM Crops

The Times of India
April 9, 2008

NEW DELHI: After persistently refusing right to information applications seeking access to the toxicity and allergenicity data relating to genetically modified crops, the Centre [the Government of India] on Tuesday agreed before the SC [Supreme Court] to make these public, much to the joy of anti-GM crop campaigners.

The government's refusal to part with this information had led to petitions filed by NGO "Gene Campaign" and Aruna Rodrigues, who alleged that the data had vital bearing on the safety of human beings and environs.

When the matter came up for hearing before a bench comprising Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan and Justice R V Raveendran, counsel for petitioners \u2014 Sanjay Parikh and Prashant Bhushan \u2014 said the companies experimenting with GM crops could not claim privacy and copyright over the data as it did not relate to the manufacturing process but about the future damage potential of the crop.

At this point, additional solicitor general Amarandra Saran, in what marked a major shift of stance, told the bench that the government was willing to put all data relating to toxicity and allerginicity of the GM crops, which are under experimentation prior to field trial, on the official website.

Just two years ago, the Department of Bio-Technology had rejected an RTI [freedom of information] appeal on the issue and said: "The toxicity and allergenicity data being generated on transgenic crops that are yet to get the approval for commercial cultivation, is the intellectual property of the applicant."

"It also has commercial value and disclosure of information on the same is likely to adversely affect the competitive advantage of the applicant generating the data as it can be taken as publicly available information by the competitors in the same field."


Show GM Food Data, Says Court

The Telegraph (Calcutta, India)
April 9, 2008

New Delhi: The Supreme Court today [April 8] ordered the government to make public all data on genetically-modified (GM) crops that is relevant to environment and safety, responding to activists seeking independent scientific scrutiny of claimed results.

In a ruling on petitions filed by non-government organisations, the court said all the relevant data on toxicity and allergenicity studies conducted on laboratory animals should be made public by the Genetic Engineering Advisory Committee (GEAC).

The GEAC is a government agency that approves GM crops for field trials and commercial cultivation after evaluating the results of such studies. But it has never made public details, such as design and analysis of the studies on the animals.

Petitioners said they are still unsure what data will be released.

"We need fine details for independent scrutiny," said Suman Sahai, director of Gene Campaign, a research and advocacy organisation that had filed a petition seeking transparency and strengthened regulatory mechanisms to govern GM crops in India.

"We need data that will tell us how the animals responded, what were the doses given, what measurements were done on the immune system, the statistical analysis used," she said. "We still don't know whether they're going to make this public."

In response to an earlier request, Sahai said, the GEAC had merely provided information about what animals were used in tests, where the studies were conducted and the conclusions.

"It was a pretence of giving information without giving anything useful at all," Sahai said. "We're going to be on our guard that they don't do the same thing again."

In the past, GM crop companies and the department of biotechnology have argued that research data is "proprietary and confidential" and its public release was likely to "harm the competitive advantage" of the companies.

"We have in place independent regulatory systems for evaluation of such data," biotechnology secretary M.K. Bhan said. "Whatever data is available [!] will be made public," he had said yesterday, when asked whether the department would support the release of the data.

The clamour for independent examination of safety data has grown in the past two years after data submitted to European regulators by an international company was found by independent scientists to have adopted inappropriate statistical methods to draw favourable conclusions about GM crops.

"All we're asking for is a transparent system where any qualified scientist can have a look at how the animals responded, said Jai Shankar, an activist with Greenpeace India, which has also been trying to access safety data from the government.

Greenpeace activists have pointed out that several countries have adopted a cautious approach on genetically engineered crops.


Rule Protects Farmers from GE Suits

By Sharon Kiley Mack
Bangor Daily News
April 10, 2008

AUGUSTA, Maine - The Maine Legislature this week approved a major revision in the rules surrounding the use of genetically engineered crops in the state, changes that provide Maine's organic farmers protection against lawsuits and require specific growing practices for GE crops.

In the past, it has been the department's policy that GE crops do not differ, and are not to be treated separately, from conventional crops.

"The legislation is important in that it begins to clarify responsibility," Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Gardeners and Farmers Association said Wednesday. "By establishing Best Management Practices, this gets the [Maine] Department [of Agriculture] and farmers into a conversation about how to solve problems before they arise. To me, that is a good step forward."

Douglas Johnson of the Maine Biotechnology Information Bureau in Stonington, said the bill was a win-win piece of legislation.

"Farmers on both sides of the biotech issue had input into the final bill," he said. "Both sides can claim victory. This is what Maine needs, solutions that work for all farmers."

In the 10 years that GE crops have been grown in Maine, there have been no GE-related lawsuits here, although according to a study by the Center for Food Safety, more than 90 GE-based lawsuits have been filed against 147 farmers in 25 states. Most suits were against farmers because they saved seed from year to year, an age-old practice, yet they were charged with patent infringement.

GE advocates, however, say the protection could be unnecessary since the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in July 2007 rejected the four patents that chemical giant Monsanto was using to sue farmers. Monsanto has since appealed the ruling.

While hailing the protection it affords them, organic farmers said they are disappointed that an eleventh hour amendment that would have required a GE crop tracking system was not included in the final bill.

The use of GE crops is an issue around the globe for both farmers and consumers. It pits commodity farmers, who say the GE crops provide protection against pests and results in a better yield, against organic farmers who feel cross-contamination from GE crops adulterates their organic crops. Organic farmers also worry about the long-term effects on humans and nature.

Passage of the bill comes on the heels of a ground-breaking vote last month in Montville, a town of about 1,000 in Waldo County. On March 29, at their annual town meeting, Montville voters approved an ordinance making it unlawful to grow genetically engineered crops in Montville for the next 10 years.

It was the first such vote outside of California.

Logan Perkins of Protect Maine Farmers, a grass-roots group that advocated for the GE bill, said it provides Maine's farmers with new protections and assurances, and has taken nearly two years to craft.

The legislation

  • Prevents lawsuits for patent infringement against farmers who unintentionally end up with genetically engineered material in their crops.
  • Ensures that lawsuits that do occur against farmers involving GE crops or seeds will be held in the state of Maine.
  • Directs the Maine Department of Agriculture to develop and implement Best Management Practices for GE crops. Previously, GE crops had the same BMP's as all other conventional and organic crops.

An amendment by the House of Representatives, that was not included in the final Senate version, would have required manufacturers of GE seed to submit an annual report to the Department of Agriculture giving the total number of potential acres that could be planted in each type of genetically engineered crop. Perkins said this would have allowed the Department of Agriculture to track the use of genetically engineered crops, see trends in their use, and be alerted to new crops coming into the state.

"While I am pleased with the step forward that we have taken here, I know that we have more work to do to ensure that policymakers have all the information they need to make good decisions in the future," the amendment's sponsor Rep. Benjamin Pratt, D-Eddington, said Wednesday.

Perkins said the bill is similar to laws in other states, including North and South Dakota and Indiana.

"Maine's farmers now have some substantial assurance that if they save seed that has been contaminated by genetically engineered varieties, they are not at risk for a lawsuit," Perkins said.

Spencer Aitel of Two Loons Farm in South China is an organic dairy farmer who saves corn seed. "It's good to know that I won't be sued for saving my seeds, but I would like to see a way to make the companies take responsibility for the losses this technology can cause when it contaminates my crops. Maybe next year, the Legislature can work on that," Aitel said Wednesday.

Perkins also praised the requirement that the Department of Agriculture implement Best Management Practices for GE crops.

"Until now farmers had to follow Best Management Practices for spreading manure, a practice in use on farms for thousands of years, yet there were no regulations for genetically engineered crops, a technology only a few years old," she said.

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