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January 2008 Updates

Farmers, Consumer Advocates, Conservationists Challenge Federal Approval of Genetically Engineered Beets

Press Release
Center for Food Safety, Goodman Media, Earthjustice
Organic Seed Alliance, High Mowing Seeds, Sierra Club
January 22, 2008

Negative Impacts on Crops, Business, Environment, and Consumer Rights Cited

San Francisco, CA - Today, farmers, food safety advocates, and conservation groups filed suit in federal court challenging the deregulation of herbicide-tolerant "Roundup Ready" sugar beets by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Attorneys from the Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice are representing plaintiffs Organic Seed Alliance, Sierra Club, High Mowing Seeds, and the Center for Food Safety in the lawsuit, which seeks a thorough assessment of environmental, health, and associated economic impacts of the deregulation as required by federal law.

This spring, commercial sugar beet farmers in the western United States will begin planting Roundup Ready sugar beets, which are genetically engineered (GE) to be resistant to Monsanto's herbicide Roundup. Sugar beet seeds are primarily grown in Oregon's Willamette Valley, also an important seed growing area for crops closely related to sugar beets, such as organic chard and table beets. The wind-pollinated GE sugar beets will inevitably cross-pollinate with related crops being grown in close proximity, contaminating conventional sugar beets and organic chard and table beet crops.

"Contamination from genetically engineered pollen is a major risk to both the conventional and organic seed farmers, who have a long history in the Willamette Valley," said the Organic Seed Alliance's Director of Advocacy, Matthew Dillon. "The economic impact of contamination affects not only these seed farmers, but the beet and chard farmers who rely on the genetic integrity of their varieties. The government is playing fast and loose with these farmers' livelihoods."

GE sugar beets are wind pollinated, and there is a strong possibility that pollen from Roundup Ready sugar beets could contaminate non-GE sugar beets and important food crops such as chard, and red and yellow beets (or "table beets"). Such biological contamination would also be devastating to organic farmers, who face debilitating market losses if their crops are contaminated by a GE variety. Contamination also reduces the ability of conventional farmers to decide what to grow, and limits consumer choice of natural foods.

According to Tom Stearns, President of High Mowing Seeds, "the issue of releasing GMO crops without serious research or oversight risks the security of our food supply and the economic viability of our nation's non-GMO and organic farmers."

In addition to the risk of crop contamination, scientific studies have shown that applications of Roundup, a glyphosate-based herbicide, increase significantly when Roundup Ready crops are grown. Increased use of this herbicide is instrumental in the creation of Roundup-resistant "super weeds".

"Contrary to the industry's mantra that these plants reduce chemical use, studies have shown that herbicide use actually _increases_ with the planting of Roundup Ready crops," said Kevin Golden, of the Center for Food Safety. "Just as overuse of antibiotics eventually breeds drug resistant bacteria, overuse of Roundup eventually breeds Roundup-resistant weeds. When that happens, farmers are forced to rely on even more toxic herbicides to control those weeds."

Crops that have been genetically engineered to withstand herbicides made up 81% of the GE crops planted globally in 2006. 99% of the herbicide tolerant crops grown in the U.S. are "Roundup Ready". According to an independent analysis of USDA data by former Board of Agriculture Chair of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Charles Benbrook, GE crops increased herbicide use in the U.S. by 122 million pounds - a 15-fold increase - between 1994 (when GE herbicide-tolerant crops were introduced) to 2004.

"The law requires the government to take a hard look at the impact that deregulating Roundup Ready sugar beets will have on human health, agriculture and the environment," said Greg Loarie of Earthjustice. "The government cannot simply ignore the fact that deregulation will harm organic farmers and consumers, and exacerbate the growing epidemic of herbicide-resistant weeds."

These herbicide-resistant weeds have spread rapidly over the past seven years, and experts agree that their proliferation is directly linked to the introduction of Roundup Ready crops, including soybeans, cotton and corn. As recently as 2000, there were no documented cases of weeds resistant to glyphosate in the Corn Belt. Today, marestail, common and giant ragweed, waterhemp and Palmer pigweed are weeds with confirmed resistance to glyphosate. Cocklebur, lambsquarters, morning glory, velvetleaf, and others are also proving tougher to kill. In total, Roundup-resistant weeds have been reported on 2.4 million acres of U.S. cropland.

The sugar produced by Roundup Ready beets, which may have greatly elevated levels of the herbicide glyphosphate, may be included in products ranging from candy to breakfast cereal to bread. At this point, none of those products will require labeling of any kind to indicate the presence of sugar derived from Roundup Ready sugar beets.

"As a consumer, I'm very concerned about genetically-engineered sugar making its way into the products I eat, as well as genetic contamination of conventional and organically grown varieties of table beets and chard," said the Sierra Club's Neil Carman. "It's unacceptable for consumers to be exposed to untested genetically engineered ingredients in foods that aren't labeled. At a time when consumers are facing multiple food safety challenges, we don't need more corporations messing with our food supply."


Biotech Critics Challenging Monsanto GMO Sugar Beet

By Carey Gillam
Reuters International
January 23, 2008

KANSAS CITY, Missouri - Opponents of biotech crops said on Wednesday they were filing a lawsuit to challenge the USDA's deregulation of Monsanto Co's genetically engineered sugar beet because of fears of "biological contamination" and other harm to the environment.

The Center for Food Safety, the Sierra Club and two organic seed groups said the lawsuit involved the United States Department of Agriculture's approval of Monsanto's glyphosate-resistant sugar beet, which is engineered to withstand treatment of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide.

The "Roundup Ready" sugar beets are slated to be grown on a commercial scale for the first time in the United States this year, the groups said.

Neither Monsanto nor USDA officials could be reached immediately for comment.

The groups said the wind-pollinated biotech sugar beets will cross-pollinate and contaminate conventional sugar beets, organic chard and table beet crops.

As well, the groups said the biotech sugar beets will increase the recent rise of weeds resistant to herbicide, which have been reported on 2.4 million acres of U.S. cropland, the groups said.

"The law requires the government to take a hard look at the impact that deregulating Roundup Ready sugar beets will have on human health, agriculture and the environment," said Greg Loarie, an attorney at the Earthjustice law firm, which is helping represent the plaintiffs. "The government cannot simply ignore the fact that deregulation will harm organic farmers and consumers, and exacerbate the growing epidemic of herbicide-resistant weeds."

The lawsuit is similar to one biotech crop opponents filed over the USDA's deregulation of Monsanto's genetically altered alfalfa, which led a federal judge last year to issue a nationwide ban against the planting of the Roundup Ready alfalfa.

The judge found that U.S. regulators improperly allowed the commercialization of the biotech alfalfa without a thorough examination of its effects.

(Reporting by Carey Gillam, editing by Jackie Frank)


Gates Foundation's Agriculture Aid a Hard Sell

By Kristi Heim
Seattle Times
January 20, 2008

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is dramatically expanding its efforts to help the world's poorest farmers, with goals every bit as ambitious as its better-known global-health work fighting diseases such as AIDS and malaria.

But the foundation's nascent agricultural program is encountering more resistance than much of its other work, with critics concerned that its market-oriented, technology-centric approach will open the door to big agribusiness interests and genetically engineered food.

The Gates Foundation began making grants a year and a half ago, spending $350 million so far. Its aim is to radically boost farm productivity in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia in a short time by introducing new seed varieties, irrigation, fertilizer, training for farmers and access to local and international markets.

The foundation explored how it could address poverty for about two years before settling on agriculture, seeing it as a natural extension of its work in health: It's no use curing disease only to see a child starve.

"This is not just about helping very poor people grow a little more food," said Rajiv Shah, the director of agriculture programs for the Gates Foundation. "This is about transforming agricultural economies so people can move on with their lives."

In the poorest countries, 65 percent of jobs are in farming. Yet Africa's share of food production is shrinking, and the number of people who are hungry is going up -- in sharp contrast to improvements in the rest of the world.

Wars and drought are partly to blame, but so is a lack of assistance for farmers and investment in agriculture, Shah says.

In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 200 million people are hungry or malnourished -- one-third of the population.

It's uncertain whether even the wealthiest private foundation can spur change where decades of aid and development work have failed and people have learned to distrust the rosy promises of outsiders. The wrong steps could end up exacerbating their problems, critics say.

"What is at stake here is the very future of the continent's agricultural practices -- what is grown, how it is grown, who gets to grow it, who processes it, who sells it and ... how much the African consumer will pay," Kenyan political columnist Mukoma Wa Ngugi wrote in December in a critique of the foundation's work.

"Hot potato"

The Gates Foundation made its first foray into agriculture in 2006 with a $100 million grant to create an initiative with the Rockefeller Foundation called the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

Based in Nairobi, AGRA took as its model the original Green Revolution, which helped relieve widespread famine in the 1940s through the 1960s by boosting production of maize, wheat and rice in Latin America and Asia.

Part of the controversy lies in the Gates Foundation's choosing that approach.

Using strains of crops that required fertilizer, pesticides and irrigation, the Green Revolution methods increased yields. But they also damaged the environment, favored wealthier farmers and left some poorer ones deeper in debt.

Critics worry AGRA will repeat those mistakes in Africa.

"I wouldn't say [the Green Revolution is] universally reviled, but it's certainly a hot potato when it comes to agricultural development," said Britt Yamamoto, professor of Environment and Community at Antioch University Seattle.

"Personally I was a little surprised they would embrace that and not try to capitalize on the recognition that sustainable agriculture is possible and needs to incorporate politics and society to have a broader focus, not just a technical approach."

Eric Holt-Gimenez, executive director of Food First/Institute for Food Development and Policy, a California think tank, was more blunt. "It's a corporate strategy for colonizing Africa's food and agriculture systems, which thus far have resisted," he said.

Food First was among the sponsors of a weeklong conference in Mali in November to promote alternatives to AGRA, attracting 100 organizations concerned with maintaining local control over food.

In December, Shah flew to Portugal during an African leaders summit, meeting with government officials and activist groups who oppose the foundation's work. He said the exchange shows how the foundation is listening to its critics.

"It was a fantastic conversation," said Shah, a young medical doctor with an economics degree and background in health policy. "When you get people from all walks of life and different perspectives together in a room, we realize we all care about the same things."

Opinions vary widely on how to help the poorest farmers in the world -- most of whom are women -- escape poverty.

Catherine Bertini, who joined the Gates Foundation last June, spent a decade directing the U.N. World Food Program. She thinks there are two reasons why earlier programs haven't been successful:

"They've not been supportive of the roles of women, who are such vast players in agriculture," she said. "And they haven't done enough work at the community level understanding the needs before they start spending money."

Permanent solutions

At a village in rural Uganda recently, Shah sat on the ground with a group of women readying large, round banana-tree bulbs for planting. A staple crop, the banana trees had been suffering from bacterial wilt that cut fruit harvests in half.

Shah was trying to learn what might improve the women's lives.

A USAID government program to help them through the crisis was set to expire early this year, just one more well-intentioned project these farmers have seen come and go over the years, with nothing permanent to relieve their grinding poverty.

The women asked him to do something that would last. Back in Seattle, he took that as a fundamental lesson. "We talk about that every single day with every single project," he said.

The Gates Foundation initially focused on developing new seeds. But over the last year it has broadened its strategy to include what it calls the entire "agricultural value chain."

With an $8 million grant from Gates, the U.S.-based National Cooperative Business Association is organizing about 35,000 cotton growers in Mozambique, who typically work plots of 2 acres, to combine their harvests and sell to the world's largest private cotton merchandiser, Dunavant Enterprises in Memphis.

The five-year program, which Shah says is projected to raise the incomes of farmers from $225 per year to about $302 per year, also provides access to credit, literacy training and planting expertise.

The foundation is also backing irrigation programs, such as a low-cost drip system created by the U.S. nonprofit International Development Enterprise (IDE). It consists of plastic piping and a human-powered pump that operates with a foot pedal. The system reduces the cost of irrigation from about $6,000 per acre to about $37, IDE says.

Irrigation allows farmers to grow fruits and vegetables, improving their diet beyond subsistence crops. But only about 7 percent of the land in sub-Saharan Africa is irrigated.

Crop controversy

The area that has generated the most controversy is Gates' involvement in genetic modification of crops.

Through its global health program, it has helped fund $37 million in grants for genetic-engineering research aimed at developing plants that carry more nutrition.

One project by a team at Ohio State University is attempting to modify cassava, the starchy root that provides basic sustenance for millions in Africa, in order to increase key vitamins and minerals and extend its shelf life.

Another project by DuPont subsidiary Pioneer Hi-Bred, A Harvest of Kenya and a South African research council aims to genetically engineer a new variety of sorghum, dubbed "super sorghum," that has more vitamins and protein and is easier to digest.

In the future, drought-tolerant varieties of maize could lead to big increases in food supply and incomes of poor farmers in parts of Africa, Shah said.

The Gates Foundation, whose science-and-technology efforts are led by a former Monsanto researcher, is helping African governments develop biosafety standards and regulations and training local researchers in the latest plant breeding.

Such work is paving the way for "profit-hungry corporations vying to control the seed market in African countries," wrote Kenyan columnist Ngugi, "which will harm indigenous seeds and biodiversity."

The situation was further complicated when former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, now chairman of AGRA's board, made a statement that African journalists interpreted as rejecting the use of genetically modified seeds.

The Gates Foundation later said Annan was misquoted.

Although the scientific data on genetically engineered crops and the legal framework to support their use in Africa are several years away, Shah said the Gates Foundation intends to pursue those options.

"We don't want to take anything off the table," Shah said. "Over time we will explore and use those types of technologies."

This worries Joshua Machinga, a Kenyan farmer who works with the nonprofit Common Ground Program. Farmers share local seeds with other farmers and cannot afford to buy seeds, let alone more expensive transgenic varieties that often require fertilizer and pesticide, he said.

"People do not know the hidden agenda behind it," he said, "that once they get the high-yielding seed, they have to keep buying it. Once you get in the system, then getting out becomes difficult."

Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that while genetically modified crops might work in some situations, it's unwise to devote limited attention and resources to unproven technology when basic things like roads and storage and distribution are underfunded.

Ultimately, it will be a decision for African governments and farmers, Shah said.

"Our goal is to develop things that help small farmers lead better lives. If it doesn't help small farmers, we are not interested."


Foodland to Remain Free of GM Foods (Australia)
January 24, 2008

Independent supermarket chain Foodland will not use genetically modified (GM) ingredients in its own range of products following feedback from customers.

The company, which operates 109 stores in South Australia, the Northern Territory and New South Wales, has also called for better labelling laws to ensure consumers can make an informed choice on whether or not to buy any goods that contain GM ingredients.

Foodland SA chief executive Russell Markham said customers had overwhelmingly indicated they did not want GM ingredients in any of the chain's 160 Foodland-branded products.

"None of our Foodland range currently contains GM ingredients and we feel it is important to assure our customers that all our foods will remain GM free in the future," Mr Markham said.

"Customers should have the right to choose what foods they buy and feed their families, and Foodland believes it is important that branded and fresh products made from GM foods are clearly labelled to enable this choice to be made."

But Professor Mark Tester from the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics said the move seemed a weak attempt at cheap populism and any claim of offering GM free products was "untenable".

"Any processed food that includes ingredients that are not purely Australian could contain GM," Professor Tester said.

He also called on Foodland to tell consumers other details about their products.

"Why suddenly pick on the essentially meaningless label of GM as something to tell the consumer," Professor Tester said.

"Why not all the other, quite possibly more important aspects of the food."

Mr Markham said the issue of labelling laws was particularly important given the move by NSW and Victoria to lift bans on commercially grown GM foods.

"If governments are prepared to allow GM foods to be grown commercially, they must give the customer the right to decide whether or not to consume them," he said.

"It is not up to any government to dictate what people eat.

"The final decisions must be left to the customer but the customer has to know what they are buying.

"This means having clear and unambiguous labelling laws and these laws need to be in place before any decision is made to lift bans on commercial growing."


Bills Seek Labels for Biotech Food (Hawaii)

Honolulu Star-Bulletin
January 26, 2008

Sen. Mike Gabbard has introduced a bill requiring all genetically modified whole foods sold in Hawaii be labeled and another requiring companies to reveal the test plots of genetically engineered crops.

Gabbard and his staff say the bills are the first of their kind in Hawaii, although similar legislation has been introduced on the mainland.

"These bills are about consumer choice," said Gabbard (D-Kalaeoloa-Makakilo). "People have a right to know what food they put in their bodies and what is happening on our lands, and they should be informed."

The first bill -- SB3232 -- requires a conspicuous "GENETICALLY ENGINEERED" label on the distribution or sale of fruits and vegetables, which would pertain mostly to papaya, squash and sweet corn in Hawaii.

Companion bill SB3233 requires anyone undertaking the open field production of a genetically engineered plant to notify the state Department of Agriculture 30 days in advance, disclosing what will be grown and where.

Gabbard said the bills reflect the wishes of the majority of residents here.

The Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, which represents Dow AgroScience, Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred International and Syngenta, says the bill is not necessary.

"Over a decade of scientific studies have concluded that there is absolutely no difference in the health and safety of biotech and non-biotech foods," said Alicia Maluafiti, HCIA's executive director. "To suggest that biotech foods require a special label would mislead the consumer into thinking otherwise."

Maluafiti added that requiring disclosure of test sites would invite disruption of legitimate agricultural activities, jeopardizing the safety of staff and employees -- besides implying that they were unsafe.

She said test site locations on Molokai and Kauai have been vandalized.

Ken Kamiya, president of the Hawaii Papaya Industry Association, also said labeling should not be required for food that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration has listed as safe for consumption.

"If it is not dangerous, harmful or different, why label it?" said Kamiya.

The bills are supported, however, by the Sierra Club and Earthjustice, as well as organic farmers who worry about the potential contamination of their crops by GE test fields nearby.

"I think they represent a very necessary control of the unwanted spread of genetically engineered crops," said Paul Achitoff, Earthjustice attorney. "The problem has been (that) people have been growing and selling GE crops without any requirement to notify either the consumers, neighbors or farmers of what's being grown or sold."

Achitoff said the bills would allow consumers to decide whether or not to buy GE produce.

Opposition to genetically engineered foods has been growing across the U.S., with similar attempts to pass laws in other states. Alaska requires the labeling of genetically engineered fish and shellfish, but a similar proposal in Oregon failed.

Seed crops have become the third-largest commodity in Hawaii's agricultural economy, according to the HCIA, bringing in $144 million annually.

More than 4,000 permits for GE testing in Hawaii have been issued, according to Gabbard, as the state becomes one of the primary biotech research and development centers in the globe.

Monsanto, for instance, last year purchased 2,300 acres of Kunia land once tended to by Del Monte Fresh Produce, which ended production unexpectedly. Monsanto Hawaii also expanded on Molokai, leasing some 1,650 acres of land around Kaunakakai.

"The bottom line is that people have the right to choose whether they eat a GE papaya or not," said Gabbard. "And, they have the right to know whether a company is testing GE crops nearby."

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