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June 2008 Updates

California's GMO Bill Approved by Senate Ag Committee

Genetic Engineering Policy Project
For Immediate Release
June 5, 2008

Bill would protect farmers from Monsanto's harassment

AB 541 is one step closer to becoming California's first state law protecting farmers from the hazards of genetically engineered crops. Having already passed the Assembly, it passed out of the Senate Agriculture Committee on June 5th. It has the support of Community Alliance with Family Farmers, the California Farmers Union, California Certified Organic Farmers, the California Farm Bureau, the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Associations, and many food safety and environmental organizations.

Introduced by Assembly Member Jared Huffman (6th AD) early in 2007 as a comprehensive bill to address many aspects of the problems associated with genetic engineering (GE) contamination, the bill was held over in the Agriculture Committee in April. Since then, AB 541 has been scaled back to address two provisions related to farmer protections.

AB 541 will enact protections for California farmers against frivolous lawsuits that intimidate and harass those who have not been able to prevent the inevitable - the drift of GE pollen or seed. It will level the playing field for farmers accused by agricultural biotechnology companies and other patent holders of contract violations, and discourage the practice of biotech companies sampling crops without explicit permission from farmers and prosecuting based on unverifiable testing results.

Specifically, the newly amended bill would provide for:

  1. Protection from patent infringement lawsuits for farmers unknowingly contaminated by GE crops. Currently, farmers with crops that become contaminated by patented seeds or pollen have been the target of such lawsuits without clear recourse or defense.
  2. The establishment of a mandatory crop sampling protocol to be used by patent holders when investigating farmers they believe may have violated patents or seed contracts. This protocol would require the farmer's written permission for sampling, and provide for a state agriculture official to accompany the patent holder during the sampling and collect duplicate samples for independent verification if requested by either party.

"I am very pleased that the stakeholders on this issue have found a way to address one of the issues related to genetic contamination of crops," stated Assembly Member Huffman. "While there is still work to do on other issues concerning genetic engineering contamination, AB 541 would be an important step in establishing basic protections for California's farmers."

"While AB 541 as currently amended represents only a small piece of what our stakeholders identify as issues to be addressed, we think this represents a move in the right direction," stated Renata Brillinger, director of the Genetic Engineering Policy Project, the 13-member coalition of organic and conventional farmers, food industry, environmental, and faith organizations sponsoring AB 541.

The bill will be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 24th and then the full Senate.

Genetic Engineering Policy Project

California Certified Organic Farmers - California Church IMPACT - Center for Food Safety - Center for Environmental Health - Community Alliance with Family Farmers - Earthbound Farm - Ecological Farming Association - Environment California - Good Earth Natural Foods - Occidental Arts and Ecology Center - Oakland Institute - Ocean Beach People's Organic Food Co-op - Pesticide Action Network North America - United Natural Foods, Inc.


The Colour Purple

By Meena Menon
The Hindu
June 8, 2008

The debate over transgenic crops continues to rage as India's first GM food crop, brinjal, gets ready for release

"There was no barrier around the whole field and I visited the field five times, which should not have been allowed," said Selvam. R. Selvam, president of the Erode District Organic Farmers Federation

First cotton; now brinjal. Both have their centre of origin in India and this must be one of the few countries where there has been very little debate on the safety or even necessity of genetically modified (GM) crops. While Bt cotton is already grow n in India, there are growing protests against the release of India's first GM food crop: brinjal.

In one sense, India shares with other countries the rather dubious record of not sharing data on the safety of transgenic crops. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) maintains that all research data is up on its website.

However, Divya Raghunandan of Greenpeace had to file a Right to Information (RTI) petition to demand the reports of bio-safety and other tests. While the Chief Information Commissioner has ordered the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) to part with the information, the DBT has shown a marked reluctance to do so, insisting that the records were voluminous and she should inspect it under supervision in the office.

A non-compliance petition was filed before the CIC and once again the DBT was directed to give the information. Meanwhile Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (MAHYCO) got a stay from the Delhi High Court.

In February, the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) in Coimbatore had banners across its entrance saying it was now owned by Monsanto. This was after farmers found that it was conducting field trials of transgenic brinjal being developed by Monsanto's partner MAHYCO on the campus.


R. Selvam, president of the Erode District Organic Farmers Federation, wrote to the GEAC listing the violations in the field trials at TNAU. He said the prime violation was the refugia or the buffer zone stipulation. Instead of five rows there were two rows, and that too with a lot of gaps. Another major violation was that the brinjals were dumped in an abandoned well, instead of being burnt.

"There was no barrier around the whole field and I visited the field five times, which should not have been allowed," said Selvam. He says the University is maintaining a germ plasm of traditional brinjal varieties, which is why the trial of transgenic brinjal is absolutely unacceptable. The priorities of research are totally misplaced, he pointed out. "Millions of coconut trees are infected with termites in the state but the University is conducting trials of Bt brinjal."

Dr. Veeraraghavan Thatam, Dean, TNAU Horticultural College and Research Institute, Coimbatore, said that it was very difficult to convince people about the science of transgenic crops, which only helped give crops resistance to pests. He said transgenic brinjal was designed to resist the fruit and shoot borer, which often decimated the crop.

He said all the rules set by the Department of Biotechnology were adhered to and the tested brinjals were incinerated. The research studies are on the website and people were free to read it, he pointed out. The GEAC, in turn, said that it would examine all aspects of the issue and only then take a decision.

While field trials of GM crops are in progress since five years or so, very little information was available till Greenpeace filed an RTI petition. In 2005, for the first time, there was a clear picture of the genetic experiments on food crops being conducted in India. There were 21 different food crops being engineered, mainly rice, brinjal, okra, tomato, cabbage, cauliflower, mustard, groundnut, pigeon pea, potato, corn.

Almost all these crops have been engineered with the insect resistant gene (Cry1 Ac) also referred to as the Bt gene.

Lack on information

In fact Aruna Rodrigues' petition in the Supreme Court was spurred by concerns on lack of information on biosafety and regulation. In India, before a GM crop can be commercialised, it must go through glasshouse trials, then two years of multi-location research trials in open fields and then large-scale trials. Only transgenic brinjal has reached the stage of large-scale trials.

On May 8, 2007, the Court directed that there must be 200 meters isolation distance between the trial fields and the neighbouring fields cultivating the same crop to avoid contamination. The GEAC will examine this issue and prescribe the isolation distance depending upon the nature of the crop.

Two intervening applications in the Supreme Court complained that the data regarding toxicity and allergenicity have not been placed in public domain by those conducting the trials, with regard to nine crops to be field tested.

While the government told the apex court that, as regards Bt cotton and Bt brinjal, required data has already been put on the website; in regard to seven other crops, data is being collected and as soon as the full data is available with the GEAC, it would be put on the website.

Greenpeace points out that field trials are open-air experiments conducted in fields. They pose a risk to the environment and health because these untested GM plants could cross pollinate and contaminate nearby crops, and related wild varieties. Rice exporters protested against the testing of GM rice in the basmati growing areas last year and the government took a policy decision not to allow field trials in basmati growing areas. It has already stopped transgenic research in basmati rice.

Even in the case of Bt cotton, field trials between 1995 and 2001 were supposed to evaluate the economic, social and environmental impact. But an illegal Bt cotton hybrid was found growing on over 10,000 acres in Gujarat, which completely exposed the lack of regulation.

In 2005, 21 civil society organisations across six states across the country formed the Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC) since the one set up by the government was not doing its job. The MEC documented 19 cases of field trial violations where farmers mixed the field trial produce with non-GM cotton and sold it in the market.

Already, transgenic rice, groundnut, brinjal, okra, tomato, groundnut cauliflower and cabbage are being tested in India.

While civil society groups are stepping up pressure with all-India protests, it is time the government reviewed its experience with transgenic cotton before embarking on clearing other crops.


Biotech Giants Demand a High Price

By Geoffrey Lean
June 8, 2008

Giant biotech companies are privatising the world's protection against climate change by filing hundreds of monopoly patents on genes that help crops resist it, a new investigation has concluded.

The study - by the authoritative Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group), based in Ottawa, Canada - has found that nine firms have filed at least 532 patents around the world on about 55 different genes offering protection against heat, drought and floods. If granted, the companies would be given control of crucial natural raw material needed to maintain food supplies in an increasingly hungry world.

Last week, as world leaders met in Rome to discuss the food crisis, GM companies promoted their technologies as the answer to hunger. On Thursday, Monsanto - the biggest and most controversial firm - announced a "commitment" to increase food production, partly by developing crops that need less water.

"Together we must meet the needs for increased food, fibre and energy, while preserving the environment," said the company's head, Hugh Grant. "These commitments represent the beginning of a journey that we will expand on and deepen in the years ahead."

The ETC Group calls this "an opportunistic public relations strategy", adding: "Monsanto's business is selling patented seeds for industrial agriculture - not addressing a humanitarian food crisis."

The report of its investigation shows that Monsanto and BASF - which last year announced a $1.5bn "collaboration" to develop new GM crops, including "ones more tolerant to adverse environmental conditions such as drought" - have between them filed patents for 27 of the 55 genes. Others had been filed by companies such as Bayer, Syngenta and Dow.

The reports says some of the applications are sweeping. One would cover more than 30 crops from oats to oil palms, triticale to tea, and potatoes to perennial grass - "in other words, virtually all food crops".

It says the "corporate grab on climate-tolerant genes" means that "a handful of transnational companies are now positioned to determine who gets access to key genetic traits and what price they must pay".

Small farmers in developing countries will be particularly hard hit by such "climate-change profiteering". Patenting will make the crops expensive and ensure that poor farmers have to buy them every year, by prohibiting them from saving seeds from one harvest to grow for the next.

According to the report, conventional, non-GM breeding techniques are making remarkable progress in developing crops that can tolerate heat, floods and drought. A new Asian rice, due to go on the market next year, can stand being submerged for two weeks without affecting yields, while a new African one flowers early in the morning, escaping the heat of the day.

But, it says, "the patent grab is sucking up money and resources that could be spent on affordable, farmer-based strategies for survival".

It concludes: "These patented technologies will ultimately concentrate corporate power, drive up costs, inhibit independent research and further undermine the rights of farmers to save and exchange seeds".

But Croplife, which represents the world's plant-science industry, retorts; "Patenting is very important. That is how we protect intellectual property and ensure we continue to bring new innovations to the marketplace." It denies that biotechnology companies are seeking to monopolise world food supplies.


An Impossible Coexistence: Transgenic and Organic Agriculture

Press Release
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain
June 26, 2008

The cultivation of genetically modified maize has caused a drastic reduction in organic cultivation of this grain and is making their coexistence practically impossible. This is the main conclusion reached in one of the first field studies in Europe carried out by a researcher of the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, who has analysed the situation in Catalonia and Aragon, Europe's main producers of transgenic foods.

The study was carried out by researcher Rosa Binimelis of the UAB Institute of Environmental Science and Technology. Binimelis is working on the European project ALARM (Assessing Large Scale Risks for Biodiversity with Tested Methods) and analyses the application of the concept of coexistence between Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and conventional organic agriculture in the European Union. The results of the research have been published in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics (April 2008).

Since GM cultivation was introduced in Spain in 1998 it has been surrounded by controversy, and this has evolved into a debate over the concept of coexistence between transgenic and organic agriculture. This concept was introduced in 2002 by the European Commission with two objectives: to deal with the emerging concerns derived from the admixture of different cultivations, since organic farmers are committed to not using GMOs, and to make it easier to lift the existing "de facto" moratori! um - which is not officially recognised - within Europe so as to introduce new transgenic cultivations. Thus the concept of coexistence, after applying technical measures, should make it possible to operate freely in the market while reducing the political conflicts linked t to GMOs. The European Commission is planning this year to evaluate how the policy of coexistence has been implemented in the past ten years.

Before GMOs were introduced previous studies in this area were carried out using modelling or experimental cases, due to the lack of commercial fields in most European countries. Researcher Rosa Binimelis however analyses the situation in Catalonia and Aragon, where the commercial cultivation of transgenic crops began in 1998. This research is therefore unique and especially relevant to the European Commission's assessment scheduled for this year. It involved qualitative techniques by means of 51 in-depth interviews and participant observation (twenty-two interviews with farmers while the remaining were held with key political figures, including government representatives, scientists, academics, as well as NGO members and other organisations and platforms).

The situation of both types of cultivations in 2007 was the following: the surface used to plant transgenic maize in Catalonia and Aragon was respectively 23,000 ha and 35,900 ha, which represent 55% and 42% of the total surface used to cultivate this crop. The variety of maize grown is the Bt corn, which is designed to ward off the European corn borer and is used mainly for feed productio! n. The maize production process is integrated in cereal cooperatives, which cover the entire production chain from the sale of seeds and inputs to commercialisation, including technical advice. This system makes it difficult and expensive to segregate GM from organic and conventional production. There are no specific silos for organic maize while only a minority of cooperatives in the region restricts the use of GMOs. In parallel, organic agriculture is growing in Spain in the number of producers and hectares. However, this trend is reverted for the case of maize.

The author's analysis reveals a social confrontation between proponents and opponents of GM technology regarding the consequences it can have and the measures to be taken in regulating and taking responsibility for any cases of admixture. Confrontation also exists when trying to define technical measures that would guarantee this coexistence. Finally, the study analyses the difficulties organic farmers would face in order to claim compensation if admixture took place, due to technical uncertainties in measuring the level of "contamination" or its origin, but also because of social reasons. Many farmers who could sue for damages prefer not to do so in order to avoid any local confrontations in small villages.

As a result, the area devoted to organic maize was reduced by 75% in Aragon from 2004 (year in which the first analyses were carried out) to 2007 and by 5% in Catalonia between 2002 and 2005. The percentage in Catalonia is lower because the only available data come from the first years of the analyses, when the cultivation of GM maize was not as widespread as it is today.!

Given this context, the research concludes that both the concept of coexistence and different implementation proposals have generated new problems instead of solving existing conflicts. The results until now point to the promotion of genetically modified farming over any other alternative.

Coexistence of Plants and Coexistence of Farmers: Is an Individual Choice Possible?

By Rosa Binimelis(1)
Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics
Accepted: 19 April 2008 Published online: 7 May 2008


The introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Europe has been characterized by controversy. In 2002, the European Union introduced the concept of "coexistence" as a compromise solution that, through the establishment of science-based technical measures, should allow the market to operate freely while reducing policy conflicts on GMOs. However, the concept remains highly contested and the technical measures difficult to apply. This paper presents qualitative research on the conceptualization and implementation of the coexistence framework in two regions of Spain (Catalonia and Aragon), where 42% and 55% of maize was GM in 2006, respectively. In this context, the concept of coexistence and its proposed implementation both fail to resolve previous conflicts and actually work to generate new ones through the individualization of choice and impacts. Considerations of the social conditions in which the technology and the management measures are implemented were not taken into account. This resulted in the promotion of biotechnological agriculture over other alternatives.

(1) Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA), Autonomous University of Barcelona, 08193 Barcelona, Spain


Organic Trade Association Challenges Ohio's New Dairy Labeling Rule in Federal Court

Business Wire
June 30, 2008

Files suit to protect integrity of organic standards & consumers' constitutional rights to truthful product information

COLUMBUS, Ohio--()--The Organic Trade Association (OTA) today filed a legal complaint against Ohio's Department of Agriculture, challenging as unconstitutional an "emergency" rule seeking to prevent labeling that tells a consumer whether the cows were treated with rBST, the synthetic growth hormone manufactured and sold by Monsanto under the brand Posilac®. The lawsuit represents a determined effort not only to protect the consumer's rights to receive truthful information about how organic milk and dairy products are produced, but also to protect the rights of organic dairy farmers and processors to communicate truthfully with consumers.

"The Organic Trade Association firmly believes that consumers have a right to know, and want to know, about the products they purchase, and organic farmers and processors have a right to communicate with their consumers regarding federally regulated organic production practices," stated Caren Wilcox, executive director for the OTA. Attorney Randall J. Sunshine, a partner at Liner Yankelevitz Sunshine & Regenstreif LLP, is representing the OTA in this matter.

The federally mandated USDA National Organic Standards prohibit the use of hormones to promote growth or increase production, genetically engineered organisms (GMOS), antibiotics and toxic, persistent pesticides and have a rigorous system for inspection, certification and verification which protects consumers from false claims. In issuing its rule prohibiting organic products from being labeled "produced with milk from cows that have not been treated with synthetic growth hormones", the State of Ohio, however, has essentially chosen not to recognize the federal Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA).

In a time of unprecedented food and fuel costs, and following a year in which over 3000 of the nation's dairy farms shut their doors, the State of Ohio has stepped in to further exacerbate small dairy farmers' problems. For those farmers who have chosen to not use rBST on their cows, and who were finding new and growing markets by marketing their milk as no-rBST or organic, Ohio has passed an "emergency" rule which will hurt the farmers' ability to convey to consumers how they produce their milk.

Monsanto was the driving force behind getting FDA approval for rBST and then turned its substantial resources towards lobbying the Ohio Department of Agriculture for this new "emergency" rule.

The new rule:

  • Prohibits labels that communicate agricultural production practices required by law under the OFPA, which OTA's members already follow.
  • Prohibits labels that are either expressly permitted in a number of states or not prohibited in other states.
  • Dictates not only the words, but also the form, size, location and even color of the language that must be used on all dairy product labels.
  • Requires that dairy processors who are alleged to have violated those provisions to be subjected to a range of penalties, including criminal prosecution.

The Ohio rule violates the U.S. Constitution in three distinct ways: First, the Ohio rule violates the OTA members' free speech rights. Second, the OFPA already provides substantial regulation of the organic products industry and preempts enforcement of the Ohio rule with respect to labeling protocols followed by organic dairy farmers. The USDA's National Organic Program already has clear labeling requirements for certified organic labels. Third, The Ohio rule violates the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution which gives Congress sole authority to regulate interstate commerce. Ohio has violated that prohibition by regulating dairy products outside of Ohio that are shipped into the state and controlling the labeling of dairy products in Ohio that are shipped outside of the state.

"Any restrictions on our members' right to communicate details of federally regulated organic production practices, such as the non-use of added growth hormones and especially those derived from genetic engineering, or the use of pesticides and antibiotics, will hurt organic farmers, producers and processors," concluded Wilcox. "More importantly, the regulations will restrict the rights of consumers to truthful information about the milk produced by organic dairies. Consumers in Ohio have voiced their concern over these new regulations and have written over 1600 letters in opposition to of the regulations to Director Boggs and Governor Strickland. However, these voices have been ignored in favor of Monsanto's sole voice, and that is why we were forced to take this action today."

A similar action has also been filed today by the International Dairy Foods Association,

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) is the membership-based business association for organic agriculture and products in North America. Its more than 1,700 members include growers, shippers, processors, certifiers, farmers' associations, distributors, importers, exporters, consultants, retailers and others. OTA's mission is to promote and protect the growth of organic trade to benefit the environment, farmers, the public and the economy.

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