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January 2008 Updates

State Revises Hormone Label for Milk

By Andrew Martin
New York Times
January 18, 2008

On Thursday, the state issued new guidelines that required that the labels not be misleading and that there be a paper trail to verify the claims.

For instance, a label cannot read "No BST," which is short for bovine somatotropin, since the hormone occurs naturally in cows. A dairy can, however, label its milk as coming "from cows not treated with rBST" - for recombinant bovine somatotropin, the synthetic version - as long as a disclaimer is included that says that "No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST-treated and non-rBST-treated cows." (A dairy can preface the disclaimer with "The F.D.A. says.")

The decision was hailed by some dairies and consumer groups, who had complained that the planned ban disregarded consumer demand.

The state's agriculture secretary, Dennis Wolff, issued a notice of the ban in October, arguing that the labels were confusing and impossible to verify.

The ban was supposed to go into effect on Feb. 1. It caused such an uproar that Gov. Edward G. Rendell's office intervened. On Thursday, in a statement, the governor said, "The public has a right to complete information about how the milk they buy is produced."

Farmers use the artificial hormone rBST to stimulate milk production, increasing a cow's output by a gallon or more a day. While the federal government maintains that artificial bovine growth hormone is safe, a growing number of dairy companies are offering milk, and even cheese, from cows that are not treated with it because consumers want products that are more natural.

For instance, the private-label milk sold at Whole Foods, Kroger and Publix grocery stores comes from cows not treated with bovine growth hormone, and within the next couple of months, all of Wal-Mart's private-label milk will come from cows not treated with bovine growth hormone.

David Darr, director of industry research and analysis for the Dairy Farmers of America, the nation's largest dairy cooperative, said that the demand for milk from cows not treated with bovine growth hormone was largely regional but that there was growing pressure on farmers throughout the country to stop using it.

"The demand for it is turning pretty quick," Mr. Darr said of milk from untreated cows.


USA Threatens Retaliation Against EU

By Trevor Wells
Farmers Legal Action Group-South Africa
January 15, 2008

Two days after French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he would join other EU countries in banning Monsanto's MON 810, genetically modified (GM) maize. the U.S. announced it will retaliate with trade sanctions unless European Union countries reverse bans on planting genetically modified crops. (Wall Street Journal, Tuesday 15th January 2008).

On 17th December 2007 Monsanto was found guilty of contempt of the South African Advertising Authority (ASA) for publishing false claims about the safety of GM foods.

In January,2007, Monsanto was fined 15,000 euros (US$19,000 ) in a French court for misleading the public about the environmental impact of herbicide Roundup.

A former chairman of Monsanto Agriculture France was found guilty of false advertising for presenting Roundup as biodegradable and claiming that it left the soil clean after use. Monsanto's French distributor Scotts France was also fined 15,000 euros.

In 2005 Monsanto was caught smuggling South African produced GM Bollgard cotton seed into Indonesia disguised as rice. Monsanto was fined for bribing Indonesian officials.

In 2006 Monsanto suppressed evidence of serious damage to the liver and kidneys of rats in their MON 863 GM maize trials until ordered to release this evidence by a German Court.

In June, 2007, a second peer-reviewed case involving another variation of Monsanto's GM maize, namely, NK 603, has been shown by studies to be potentially toxic to humans. NK 603 has been approved for food, feed, processing, and propagation in Europe and the Philippines The new research, carried out by the French scientific research institute CRIGEN, involves biotech firm Monsanto's NK 603 GMO corn (marketed commercially under the name Round-up Ready).

Rats that were fed GM maize showed significant differences in measurements, as well as significant weight differences compared to those fed with normal maize. Almost 70 statistically significant differences were observed and reported - 12 for hematology parameters, 18 for clinical chemistry parameters, nine for urine chemistry parameters, six for the organ weights (brain, heart, liver), 14 for body weights and body weight changes, and eight for food consumption. toxicity, The most alarming was the diminished brain size. Scientists warned that diminished brain size sent out a urgent danger warning for growing children fed GM food.


US Delays Biotech Retaliation Against EU

Trade Reports International Group
Washington Trade Daily
January 15, 2008

The United States said yesterday it will hold off on any further sanctions against the European Union in its long-standing dispute on agricultural biotechnology products - giving Brussels more time to comply with World Trade Organization rulings against its ban on genetically modified organisms (WTD, 1/11/08).

Brussels had until January 11 to bring its biotech approval system into compliance. While Washington "remains very concerned with EU treatment of agricultural biotech products," the US Trade Representative's office said it has agreed to suspend further WTO proceedings temporarily to give the EU time to "demonstrate meaningful progress on the approval of biotech products."

"We must note, however, that the United States first turned to the WTO to resolve this dispute over four and one half years ago, that US seed companies, farmers and exporters continue to experience significant commercial losses as a result of the EU actions and that the patience of US stakeholders is close to exhaustion," USTR said.

US Will Evaluate Progress

The United States will periodically evaluate EU progress toward normalizing trade against a set of benchmarks and time lines over the coming months. If the United States decides to pursue WTO compliance proceedings, it will file a formal consultation request with Brussels, followed by a request for the establishment of a WTO compliance panel.

France announced Friday it would impose a ban on the planting of the only biotech corn variety currently cultivated in the European Union.

"We expect the European Commission to move promptly to lift this unjustified ban, and would hope that the government of France would reconsider this unwarranted action," USTR said. Separately, head of the EU Commission Delegation to the United States John Bruton has urged the Congress to repeal US biodiesel blending subsidies now in law, which he said threaten Europe's biodiesel industry and leaves US taxpayers effectively subsidizing European motorists (WTD, 4/30/07). Mr. Bruton said he hopes the issue can be resolved before European producers file a countervailing duty complaint with the European Commission.

In a written statement, Mr. Bruton pointed out that around one million tons of biodiesel entered the EU from the United States last year - representing some 15 percent to 20 percent of the EU biodiesel market and a tenfold increase over 2006.


Arpad Pusztai: Biological Divide

By James Randerson
The Guardian, UK
January 15, 2008

The scientist at the centre of a storm over GM foods 10 years ago tells James Randerson he is unrepentant

Contrary to the belief of some in the scientific community, Dr Arpad Pusztai does not have horns or a malevolent cackle. Nor does he inhabit an imposing gothic mansion bought with the proceeds of guest appearances as an eco-hero. In fact, he lives in a modest semi in Aberdeen.

This elderly man is one of the most divisive figures in biology. Many blame him for tilting the balance in the PR battle over GM food towards public rejection. His research on GM potatoes - which came explosively into the public spotlight in a World in Action programme in August 1998 - has been dismissed as poorly done, muddled and even fabricated. Yet to anti-GM campaigners he is a hero - the scientist who stood up to the establishment and, as a result, had his career squashed at the behest of shadowy forces in the GM industry and the government.

"I think it did a lot of damage because ... the vast majority of people were somewhat neutral at the time," said Professor Chris Leaver, a plant scientist and strong supporter of GM at Oxford University. "I think the NGOs ... decided that they would make a play using him. I think he got hijacked and then he got out of his depth."

The affair finished off Pusztai's research career (although at the time he was already 69) and affected his health. His supporters were appalled by his treatment at the hands of the publicly funded Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, which he had served with distinction for most of his career. He was regarded as a world expert on plant lectins - defensive proteins that kill insects and other invaders - with over 300 scientific papers, including two in the prestigious journal Nature.

"I would have characterised [his treatment] as disgraceful. I don't see how any reputable scientist ... could be treated in this way," said Dr Stanley Ewen, a pathologist who was then at the University of Aberdeen and who worked with Pusztai.

Having said of GM food in 1998: "If I had the choice I would certainly not eat it", and that "I find it's very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs", it's easy to imagine Pusztai was ideologically opposed to GM. But this is far from the truth, he tells me. "I'm strictly science-based ... It is not an ideology for me." Still, he confesses that his opposition to the technology has hardened over the years, and he still won't eat it. "Even now, I am not a campaigner. I have never belonged to any organisation campaigning for or against it."

He felt he had a duty to speak out, "just to inject some caution into this business", he says. "Make no mistake, this is an irreversible technology. It is no good 50 years later to say: 'We should have known.'"

Concerns aired

Pusztai clearly wanted his concerns to be aired publicly, but he does not come across as a man who relished or courted publicity. He was very happy, for example, that the institute's director, Philip James, shielded him from interview requests. "I was quite happy with this ... I am an academic scientist. I've never been exposed to this," he says, "I'm really not a very media person."

Pusztai says James, on the other hand, was anxious to exploit the media attention. "The director kept running around like a blue-arsed fly. This was a tremendous public relations business for him."

James even put in a complimentary phone call to Pusztai that August evening. "I telephoned Pusztai immediately after the broadcast to congratulate him on the modest way in which he had presented the evidence on the programme," says James, although he denies relishing the publicity. He says he had grave doubts about the interview going ahead in the first place.

By this stage, Pusztai was feeling extremely uncomfortable about what he was hearing on news bulletins about his own research. "I heard things that really disturbed me," he says. "My head was buzzing ... the whole thing was getting totally out of hand."

The results that Pusztai had hinted at in his interview were a comparison of rats fed ordinary potatoes and potatoes that had been genetically modified with a lectin from snowdrops. The rats on the GM diet grew less well and had immune problems even though the lectin itself caused no adverse effects at high concentrations. His conclusion was that the GM process had somehow made the potatoes less nutritious. The GM potatoes were not a commercial variety and were never intended for human consumption, but the lectin modification - which made them poisonous to insects - was an experimental model for other GM varieties.

But newspaper stories generated confusion over the nature of the genetic modification. These articles refer to potatoes modified with a lectin gene from jackbean that is poisonous to mammals. But no one can agree on where this came from. The misinformation was formalised in a press release issued by the Rowett. James says Pusztai approved it. Pusztai says he was not aware of it until it was published. Either way, the jackbean experiments that never were have proved extremely damaging to Pusztai. Even now, GM scientists dismiss Pusztai's work on the grounds of a supposed schoolboy error: of course the rats suffered, they say, they were being fed potatoes that were genetically modified to produce a poison.

The day after the World in Action programme, Pusztai's boss changed his mood from congratulation to condemnation. "My change in attitude was dramatic because I discovered that Pusztai ... had never conducted the studies which he had claimed," says James, an accusation that Pusztai strongly denies. He says he never claimed to have done the jackbean experiments. "He just simply wanted to put a real cap on it," says Pusztai. "The simplest way to do it was to suspend all research activities into this business." Pusztai's supporters claim that James came under pressure from Downing Street to put a lid on the affair.

Suspended and silenced

James suspended Pusztai and used misconduct procedures to seize his data. Pusztai's rolling annual contract was not renewed and he was banned from speaking publicly. Pusztai says he wanted to publish his results but was concerned that James would veto any approach to an academic journal.

In 1998, if James had hoped that gagging Pusztai would make the affair go away he was wrong. Continued media speculation was doing considerable damage to public confidence in GM food and this prompted the Royal Society - the UK's premier scientific academy - to enter the fray.

Although none of Pusztai's results had yet been published, it set about reviewing the information that did exist - an internal report written by Pusztai, an audit of the data produced by the Rowett, and an independent statistical analysis carried out by Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland. The data was sent to six anonymous reviewers. The subsequent report savaged Pusztai's results, but he remains defiant.

The Royal Society putdown was predictable. The reviewers had placed a hotchpotch of lab reports and statistical analyses that were never intended for publication under intense scrutiny. "There was practically nothing in it but numbers," says Pusztai. He and Ewen point out that peer reviewers had praised the methodological details of the experiment when their application for a £1.6m research grant from the Scottish Office was given the go-ahead.

Some of the disputed data did eventually see the light of day in October 1999, when Ewen and Puztai published a paper in the prestigious medical journal the Lancet. Because of its controversial nature, the data paper was seen by six reviewers - three times the usual number. Five gave it the green light. The paper - which used data held by Ewen and so was not subject to veto by James - showed that rats fed on potatoes genetically modified with the snowdrop lectin had unusual changes to their gut tissue compared with rats fed on normal potatoes. It has been criticised on the grounds that the unmodified potatoes were not a fair control diet.

I put it to Pusztai that he is demanding a level of testing for GM food that is not applied to conventional plant breeding. Radiation and mutation-causing chemicals, for example, are standard techniques used to create new varieties, and both can create unexpected genetic changes. He bats this away. "Two negatives don't make a positive," he responds. "It doesn't mean that I agree with those techniques."

The difference with GM, he says, is that there is a political agenda at work. "Ninety-five per cent of GM is coming from America, so naturally it is in their interests to push it," he says, "I have no ideological grounds against Monsanto [the biotechnology company]. For me it's a scientific argument. They have not done a proper job [of testing], and they are just using their political and economic muscle to foist it on us."

Does he regret speaking publicly about his research prior to publication - generally regarded as a cardinal sin by scientists? "No," he says. "I was publicly funded and I thought the public had a right to know." He also rejects the notion that he would have achieved more by waiting until the science was in print. Since he went public, he estimates he has given between 150 and 200 lectures around the world. And in 2005 he was honoured with a whistleblower award from the Federation of German Scientists.

"Even our best scientific publications - I don't think they are read by more than 50 people," he says. "This had impact ... to my damage, but it had impact."

A podcast of this interview can be heard at


Dominant Traits

By Tom Philpott
January 17, 2008

Monsanto's latest court triumph cloaks massive market power

At first glance, it was an open-and-shut case. In 1998, Mississippi farmer Homan McFarling bought soybean seeds with genetic traits owned by Monsanto, then as now the world's dominant provider of genetically modified seeds -- and also the biggest herbicide maker.

Like all farmers who buy GM seeds, McFarling signed a contract obliging him not to hold back any of the resulting harvest as seed for the next year's planting. But McFarling saved his seeds anyway -- and Monsanto busted him. Hot to protect its multibillion-dollar investment in genetic modification, Monsanto set loose a cadre of rent-a-cops into the farm belt in the late 1990s, in search of farmers who dared defy its patent claims.

According to a comprehensive 2005 study [PDF] by the Center For Food Safety, "Monsanto has an annual budget of $10 million dollars and a staff of 75 devoted solely to investigating and prosecuting farmers." By the time of the study, the company had launched 90 lawsuits involving 147 farmers and 39 small businesses, CFS reports.

McFarling was one of Monsanto's first targets. The giant corporation sent the full weight of the law crashing down on the farmer's head, suing him and winning a judgment of $780,000 (he had originally bought $24,000 in seeds, according to a New York Times account from 2003.

Preventing people from saving seeds and freely propagating crops has been tried before. In medieval times, merchants in the Levant strove mightily to corner the coffee market by refusing to export raw coffee beans that might be replanted. Their effort eventually failed, and coffee now flourishes in Latin America, South Asia, and southern Africa.

But Monsanto has patent law on its side. Monsanto has established for itself the right to claim ownership of genetic material -- a revolutionary step in the history of property rights.

And McFarling trespassed on those rights. He signed a contract and then reneged on it. Case closed. Early this month, the Supreme Court upheld Monsanto's claim against McFarling (through the appeals process, the fine has been whittled to $350,000). The seed giant's case was so strong that the court made its ruling without comment.

Yet the logic behind Monsanto's claim, so airtight on its own terms, has serious implications for broader society.

Seminal Logic

Desire to plant Roundup-Ready soybeans -- engineered so that the plants can withstand infinite doses of Monsanto's flagship herbicide -- is what plunged McFarling into his legal mess.

Herbicide-tolerant soy roared through the farm belt like a prairie fire in the 1990s. Introduced in 1995, it accounted for nearly 50 percent of all soy by 1998, the year that McFarling made the seed order he will rue for the rest of his life. Today, more than 90 percent of soy planted in the United States is herbicide-tolerant -- and the great bulk of it contains Monsanto's Roundup-Ready trait. Globally, 91 percent of genetically modified soy contains Monsanto traits; the company's market share in the United States is likely even higher.

To understand how this product conquered the farm belt so rapidly, you have to understand how large-scale commodity farmers make decisions. Your neighbor tries a new product, and suddenly boasts weed-free fields and yields that trump yours.

He reveals that he bought newfangled, high-dollar seeds -- and more than made his money back with the higher yield. So you do the same. Trouble is, everyone else does, too -- and the higher yields nationwide lead to lower prices for soy, erasing any advantage of the new seeds.

Indeed, USDA figures show that soybean production surged after the introduction of herbicide-tolerant varieties in 1995 -- and prices dropped. Soy prices didn't recover in any meaningful way until the great biofuel boom that started in 2006. All things being equal, technologies that increase yield end up lowering prices -- erasing any net gain for farmers.

Thus in their rush to adapt new technologies, farmers aren't working in their own interest, but rather in the interests of big corporate buyers like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill -- and, of course, in the interests of the companies that sell the new technologies, like Monsanto.

And once new technologies gain traction, they can be nearly impossible to resist. If soybean prices are dropping because all farmers are adapting a new technology, then holding out can seem insane. Say you're trying to make a living growing soybeans, and you'd prefer not to use GM seeds. By holding out, you get low prices and subpar yields -- a disastrous combination.

Devil's Bargain

Even when prices are high -- as they are now, because of the biofuel boom -- there's economic pressure to submit to GM seeds. Farmers know that good times don't last forever; you have to "make hay while the sun shines." To wring every penny out of the soy rally, you have to maximize yield. And that means planting Roundup Ready soy -- and dousing it with Roundup, Monsanto's flagship herbicide.

Thus farmers hardly enter into Monsanto's "technology agreements" under completely free-market conditions. Their choice is essentially to submit to Monsanto's terms, or live with lower yields.

Remember, 90 percent of U.S. soy -- our second-biggest crop -- is genetically modified to be herbicide-resistant; and more than 90 percent of that contains traits owned by Monsanto. For corn, our biggest crop, 60 percent is GM -- and nearly all of it contains Monsanto genes.

Since the U.S. food system relies so heavily on these two crops, essentially our entire food supply is genetically modified, to the benefit of one company. Since the U.S. doesn't require companies to label GM ingredients, it's impossible to know how much of the U.S. diet contains genes owned by Monsanto. In a much-cited study from 2000, the Grocery Manufacturers of America estimated that 70 percent of food in the U.S. contains genetically modified traits. The proliferation of GM seeds has only grown since.

Somehow, a single corporation has managed to use patent law to gain de facto control of the nation's two biggest crops -- and managed to annul the age-old right of seed-saving over a broad swath of farm country. Monsanto may have airtight logic on its side for patent law, but it has clearly run afoul of a much less-enforced branch of legal code: antitrust law.

The time has come to bust up this giant seed trust.

Gristmill blogger Tom Philpott farms and cooks at Maverick Farms, a sustainable-agriculture nonprofit and small farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

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