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March 2008 Updates

U.S. Organic Food Industry Fears GMO Contamination

By Carey Gillam
March 12, 2008

KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - Widespread contamination of U.S. corn, soybeans and other crops by genetically engineered varieties is threatening the purity of organic and natural food products and driving purveyors of such specialty products to new efforts to protect their markets, industry leaders said this week.

A range of players, from dairy farmers to natural food retailers, are behind an effort to introduce testing requirements and standards for certification aimed at keeping contamination at bay. That goal is rapidly becoming harder, however, as planting of biotech corn, soybeans, and other crops expands across the United States.

"Now there is a real shortage of organic grain for animal husbandry and dairy operations," said Organic Consumers Association national director Ronnie Cummins. "People are having to be real careful."

Proponents of the plan are rolling it out this week at an industry meeting in Anaheim, California, seeking to get the entire organic and natural foods industry to agree on testing and standard certifications. Companies that get certified will be allowed to use a seal designating as much on their products.

"We think we can keep the contamination from getting worse by putting safeguards in place so people who want to choose to eat organic products free of genetic contamination can do so," said Michael Funk, CEO of United Natural Foods, which is backing the initiative. "The longer we delay ... the more challenging it is going to be."

Biotech crops, primarily corn, soybeans, cotton and canola, have genes that have been manipulated to express specific traits, most commonly a resistance to herbicide, which helps farmers. Biotech developers such as Monsanto Co patent the crop technology and tightly control use of the seed.

But mixing of biotech crops and conventional crops can occur during many phases of harvest, storage and shipment of grain, and drifting pollen and other natural forces can also contaminate crops while they are still in the fields.

Indeed, contamination of conventional crops by biotech crops has been reported around the world. There were 39 cases of crop contamination in 23 countries in 2007, and more than 200 in 57 countries over the last 10 years, according to biotech critic Greenpeace International.

Contamination of corn is the biggest concern for those trying to sell biotech-free food. Corn is not only used in human food but is also used to feed livestock, meaning organic beef and dairy farmers must ensure their animals are fed corn that is free of contamination.

That has become more difficult as biotech corn acres have expanded in the United States. In 2007, an estimated 73 percent of the 92.9 million acres of U.S. corn planted were biotech, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA has a set of national standards for foods labeled "organic" as part of its marketing service, but the industry players seeking independent testing said the USDA has not gone far enough to require organic and natural foods are free from biotech contamination.

Organic dairy farmer Albert Straus, who started testing corn fed to his 300-head dairy herd more than a year ago, and found about one-third had been contaminated, now tests every lot of grain he buys.

"I started to test our products to see if there was an issue or not. It turned out there was an issue," said Straus. He is now adding a label to his dairy products to alert consumers to the extra level of caution. "There is so much contamination," he said.


Heads Monsanto Wins, Tails We Lose

By Robert Weissman
Multinational Monitor
March 18, 2008

The genetically modified food gamble

There have been few experiments as reckless, overhyped and with as little potential upside as the rapid rollout of genetically modified crops.

Last month, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a pro-biotech nonprofit, released a report highlighting the proliferation of genetically modified crops. According to ISAAA, biotech crop area grew 12 percent, or 12.3 million hectares, to reach 114.3 million hectares in 2007, the second highest area increase in the past five years.

For the biotech backers, this is cause to celebrate. They claim that biotech helps farmers. They say it promises to reduce hunger and poverty in developing countries. "If we are to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of cutting hunger and poverty in half by 2015," says Clive James, ISAAA founder and the author the just-released report, "biotech crops must play an even bigger role in the next decade."

In fact, existing genetically modified crops are hurting small farmers and failing to deliver increased food supply -- and posing enormous, largely unknown risks to people and the planet.

For all of the industry hype around biotech products, virtually all planted genetically modified seed is for only four products -- soy, corn, cotton and canola -- with just two engineered traits. Most of the crops are engineered to be resistant to glyphosate, an herbicide sold by Monsanto under the brand-name Round-up (these biotech seeds are known as RoundUp-Ready). Others are engineered to include a naturally occurring pesticide, Bt.

Most of the genetically modified crops in developing countries are soy, says Bill Freese, science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety and co-author of "Who Benefits from GM Crops," a report issued at the same time as ISAAA's release. These crops are exported to rich countries, primarily as animal feed. They do absolutely nothing to supply food to the hungry.

As used in developing countries, biotech crops are shifting power away from small, poor farmers desperately trying to eke out livelihoods and maintain their land tenure.

Glyphosate-resistance is supposed to enable earlier and less frequent spraying, but, concludes "Who Benefits from GM Crops," these biotech seeds "allow farmers to spray a particular herbicide more frequently and indiscriminately without fear of damaging the crop." This requires expenditures beyond the means of small farmers -- but reduces labor costs, a major benefit for industrial farms.

ISAAA contends that Bt planting in India and China has substantially reduced insecticide spraying, which it advances as the primary benefit of biotech crops.

Bt crops may offer initial reductions in required spraying, says Freese, but Bt is only effective against some pests, meaning farmers may have to use pesticides to prevent other insects from eating their crops. Focusing on a district in Punjab, "Who Benefits from GM Crops" shows how secondary pest problems have offset whatever gains Bt crops might offer.

Freese also notes that evidence is starting to come in to support longstanding fears that genetically engineering the Bt trait into crops would give rise to Bt-resistant pests.

The biotech seeds are themselves expensive, and must be purchased anew every year. Industry leader Monsanto is infamous for suing farmers for the age-old practice of saving seeds, and holds that it is illegal for farmers even to save genetically engineered seeds that have blown onto their fields from neighboring farms. "That has nothing to do with feeding the hungry," or helping the poorest of the poor, says Hope Shand, research director for the ETC Group, an ardent biotech opponent. It is, to say the least, not exactly a farmer-friendly approach.

Although the industry and its allies tout the benefits that biotech may yield someday for the poor, "we have yet to see genetically modified food that is cheaper, more nutritious or tastes better," says Shand. "Biotech seeds have not been shown to be scientifically or socially useful," although they have been useful for the profit-driven interests of Monsanto, she says.

Freese notes that the industry has been promising gains for the poor for a decade and a half -- but hasn't delivered. Products in the pipeline won't change that, he says, with the industry focused on introducing new herbicide resistant seeds.

The evidence on yields for the biotech crops is ambiguous, but there is good reason to believe yields have actually dropped. ISAAA's Clive James says that Bt crops in India and China have improved yields somewhat. "Who Benefits from GM Crops" carefully reviews this claim, and offers a convincing rebuttal. The report emphasizes the multiple factors that affect yield, and notes that Bt and Roundup-Ready seeds alike are not engineered to improve yield per se, just to protect against certain predators or for resistance to herbicide spraying.

Beyond the social disaster of contributing to land concentration and displacement of small farmers, a range of serious ecological and sustainability problems with biotech crops is already emerging -- even though the biotech crop experiment remains quite new.

Strong evidence of pesticide resistance is rapidly accumulating, details "Who Benefits from GM Crops," meaning that farmers will have to spray more and more chemicals to less and less effect. Pesticide use is rising rapidly in biotech-heavy countries. In the heaviest user of biotech seeds -- the United States, which has half of all biotech seed planting -- glyphosate-resistant weeds are proliferating. Glyphosate use in the United States rose by 15 times from 1994 to 2005, according to "Who Benefits from GM Crops," and use of other and more toxic herbicides is rapidly rising. The U.S. experience likely foreshadows what is to come for other countries more recently adopting biotech crops.

Seed diversity is dropping, as Monsanto and its allies aim to eliminate seed saving, and development of new crop varieties is slowing. Contamination from neighboring fields using genetically modified seeds can destroy farmers' ability to maintain biotech-free crops. Reliance on a narrow range of seed varieties makes the food system very vulnerable, especially because of the visible problems with the biotech seeds now in such widespread use.

For all the uncertainties about the long-term effects of biotech crops and food, one might imagine that there were huge, identifiable short-term benefits. But one would be wrong.

Instead, a narrowly based industry has managed to impose a risky technology with short-term negatives and potentially dramatic downsides.

But while it is true, as ISAAA happily reports, that biotech planting is rapidly growing, it remains heavily concentrated in just a few countries: the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India and China.

Europe and most of the developing world continue to resist Monsanto's seed imperialism. The industry and its allies decry this stand as a senseless response to fear-mongering. It actually reflects a rational assessment of demonstrated costs and benefits -- and an appreciation for real but incalculable risks of toying with the very nature of nature.


D.C. Circuit Court Says "No" to Scotts and Monsanto on Biotech Grasses

Contact: George Kimbrell, Kevin Golden
The Center for Food Safety
March 19, 2008

Ruling is latest in a string of victories in which the Center for Food Safety successfully challenged inadequate oversight of biotech crops

Washington, DC, - The Center for Food Safety announced today that a Federal Court of Appeals has tossed out the appeal of Scotts Grass Company, ending a long-running dispute over the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) approval of the open-air field testing of genetically engineered "Round-up Ready" (GE) grasses without assessing any potential environmental impacts. The GE grasses are owned by Scotts Grass Company using patents owned by Monsanto.

In 2007 a federal district court ruled that the USDA's approvals of the tests were illegal because they did not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). USDA declined to appeal the decision and instead instituted new NEPA policies for any future field tests. The court also ruled that USDA had to re-assess whether the GE grasses were "noxious weeds" under the Plant Protection Act. Scotts intervened in the case before the lower court's ruling. Scotts then appealed the decision, challenging the plaintiffs' ability to bring the case and the lower court's decision. Yesterday the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit granted the plaintiffs' motion and dismissed the case.

The Center for Food Safety's (CFS) legal director Joe Mendelson hailed the decision, saying that "the Court's ruling vindicates our challenge to USDA's inadequate review of these biotech grasses. This is the latest ruling in a string of cases exposing USDA's failure to properly assess the potential risks in testing and commercializing GE crops and plants."

Creeping Bentgrass and Kentucky Bluegrass, two robust, weedy perennial grasses, pose significant environmental risks to the environment when genetically engineered for Round Up resistance, including the threat of biological contamination of naturally occurring grass species through pollen transfer. In this case, the illegally-approved GE grass field trials were later found in two studies to have contaminated surrounding areas, including a National Grassland. Under a 2007 settlement agreement, USDA fined Scotts $500,000 and assessed other penalties for infractions in testing the GE grasses, including their contamination of the environment from the field trials in this case.

Beyond the significant potential environmental risks of genetically engineered crops, the case is also a strong legal precedent limiting corporate intervenor-defendants' ability to continue legal challenges to government action without the government's involvement. "The Court's dismissal of Scotts' appeal sends a strong signal to Scotts, Monsanto and other corporations that they will not be permitted to prolong litigation after the government has conceded defeat," said Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety.

The case is ICTA et al. v. Johanns, et al., Docket No. 03-0020 (D.D.C. Feb. 5, 2007), motion to dismiss granted Scotts v. ICTA et al., Docket No. 07-5238 (D.C. Cir. March 17, 2008).

Summary of other recent related CFS cases: Last year, the Federal Court of the Northern District of California ruled that USDA violated NEPA by approving for commercial sale Monsanto's GE "Roundup Ready" alfalfa without sufficient NEPA environmental review and ordered a halt to the sale and planting of GE alfalfa until USDA prepares an environmental impacts statement (EIS). In 2006, the Federal District Court of Hawaii ruled that the USDA violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and NEPA by granting field trials of biopharmaceutical, drug-producing, GE crops without first conducting necessary environmental review. And on January 23, 2008, the Center for Food Safety, along with the Organic Seed Alliance, the Sierra Club, High Mowing Seeds and Earthjustice, filed suit against USDA for approving GE sugar beets for commercial use in violation of NEPA without first conducing proper environmental review.


No Beets Going in the Ground

By Teresa Wright
The Guardian, Prince Edward Island, Canada
March 20, 2008

The company that wants to build an $85-million ethanol plant on P.E.I. will not plant a sugar beet crop on the Island this year.

Atlantic Bioenergy Corporation (ABC) had 40 growers on standby for sugar beet production in May, but without co-operation from the province, the company said it cannot continue its plan for this year.

"The last couple of weeks has put some big daggers into this project," said Ron Coles, public relations manager for ABC. "We're moving on to stage two of our business plan."

ABC is not asking for any provincial funding for its proposed plant for Borden-Carleton. But it was asking the province to mandate a 10 per cent ethanol blend (E10) in all Island gasoline.

The premier said nothing will go ahead until public consultations have been conducted.

But ABC needs the sugar beet crop for this year's production schedule to be in the ground by May 1. And since public consultations are not set to begin until as late as early summer, the company is packing up its gear and moving on. "We're not doing a crop on P.E.I. this year," Coles said.

"There would have been one for sure, but we accept the fact that they want to go to public consultation." Several other jurisdictions have expressed interest in the company's ethanol plant, so the company is taking the $13 million of equipment already purchased for the specialized crop to another province.

"Maybe we'll come back to P.E.I., maybe not," Coles said.

But it's not the way they wanted it to be. Coles said ABC wanted to make P.E.I. its home base in a series of ethanol plants. "We want it to be our mother plant. We're selling this concept worldwide and drawing interest worldwide. There's huge demands for ethanol, so this wouldn't even be close to being the last of them."

Development Minister Richard Brown said he knows the company is disappointed it can't move ahead with planting this spring, but he said due process must be followed.

"Our plan is quite clear," Brown said.

"We're not going to set an energy fuel standard until the public is consulted, until the public has been given the information and we hear their comments first. "With the high price of fuel today, I as a minister, am not prepared to increase that price any more."

But Coles said an E10 mandate would not cost Islanders any more at the pumps.

"Our pump price would be regulated by IRAC. We guarantee to provincial government we'd be the same price in gasoline or lower to consumers." Brown said all biofuels projects must now go through a screening process conducted by the new Inter-Departmental Biofuels Committee, as recommended in the Environmental and Renewable Industries Committee (ERIC) report, released this week.

To get approval from this new committee, all biofuel projects must prove they are economically and environmentally sustainable, the report stated.

The report also said ethanol production is not as viable for P.E.I. as other biofuels industries, a major reason government is hesitating, Brown said.

"Now it's up to this group to prove us wrong. We've laid our cards on the table."

But Coles said ABC's cards are showing a win-win for the province.

They had a draft contract with farmers for a guaranteed price per acre, the price of fuel would not increase for Islanders, and the spinoffs for other industries - such as Island trucking and building companies - were calculated at $75 million, Coles said.

There are also a few jobs - 35 at the facility and perhaps 60 more in spinoffs, Coles added.

"We came here specifically because it's a green province with a lot of acreage that's in short proximity and we knew that the farmers had expressed interest that they could grow this crop, so this is the first place that we thought we would do business.

"But we were just last week in Southern Ontario where it's a similar scenario - there's great farmers up there, there's farmland there . . . you might see an announcement in the next month of this plant being constructed somewhere else."

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