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August 2010 Updates

Federal Court Rescinds USDA Approval of Genetically Engineered Sugar Beets

Press Release
Earthjustice, Center for Food Safety
August 13, 2010

Order bans planting or sale of controversial crop.
Court denies Monsanto request to allow continued planting.

San Francisco - Today Judge Jeffrey White, federal district judge for the Northern District of California, issued a ruling granting the request of plaintiffs Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, High Mowing Organic Seeds, and the Sierra Club to rescind the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) approval of genetically engineered "Roundup Ready" sugar beets. In Seprember 2009, the Court had found that the USDA had violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by approving the Monsanto-engineered biotech crop without first preparing an Environmental Impact Statement. The crop was engineered to resist the effects of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, which it sells to farmers together with the patented seed. Similar Roundup Ready crops have led to increased use of herbicides, proliferation of herbicide resistant weeds, and contamination of conventional and organic crops.

In today's ruling the Court officially "vacated" the USDA "deregulation" of Monsanto's biotech sugar beets and prohibited any future planting and sale pending the agency's compliance with NEPA and all other relevant laws. USDA has estimated that an EIS may be ready by 2012.

Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of plaintiff and co-counsel the Center for Food Safety, stated, "This is a major victory for farmers, consumers and the rule of law. USDA has once again acted illegally and had its approval of a biotech crop rescinded. Hopefully the agency will learn that their mandate is to protect farmers, consumers and the environment and not the bottom line of corporations such as Monsanto."

Paul Achitoff of Earthjustice, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, commented: "Time and again, USDA has ignored the law and abdicated its duty to protect the environment and American agriculture from genetically engineered crops designed to sell toxic chemicals. Time and again, citizens speaking truth to power have taken USDA to court and won."

In his order, Judge White noted that USDA's "errors are not minor or insignificant, and his "concern that Defendants are not taking this process seriously." He also pointed out that "despite the fact that the statutes at issue are designed to protect the environment," USDA and the sugar beet industry focused on the economic consequences to themselves, yet "failed to demonstrate that serious economic harm would be incurred pending a full economic review...."

The Court held in part:

…the Court GRANTS Plaintiffs' request to vacate APHIS's decision to deregulate genetically engineered sugar beets and remands this matter to APHIS. Based on this vacatur, genetically engineered sugar beets are once again regulated articles pursuant to the Plant Protection Act. This vacatur applies to all future plantings…

This is the second time a Court has rescinded USDA's approval of a biotech crop. The first such crop, Roundup Ready alfalfa, is also illegal to plant, based on the vacating of its deregulation in 2007 pending preparation of an EIS. Although Monsanto took that case all the way to the Supreme Court and the High Court set aside part of the relief granted, the full prohibition on its planting - based on the same remedy granted here, the vacatur - remains in place. In the past several years federal courts have also held illegal USDA's approval of biotech crop field trials, including the testing of biotech grasses in Oregon and the testing of engineered, pharmaceutical-producing crops in Hawai'i.

This case is Center for Food Safety v. Vilsack, No. C08-00484 JSW (N.D. Cal. 2010).


DNA from Transgenic Plants Found in Milk and Animal Tissue

Press Release
August 19, 2010

Traces of genetically engineered maize and soy in goats, fish and pigs.

Munich - A recent Testbiotech survey shows that DNA fragments from transgenic plants are increasingly found in animal tissue such as milk, inner organs and muscles. Most recently, in April 2010, scientists from Italy reported DNA sequences stemming from genetically engineered soy in milk from goats. These DNA fragments are presumably, entering the blood stream from the gut and then from there reaching the udder and the milk. Traces of specific DNA were also identified in kids fed with the goat's milk. These findings are not the first to be reported after DNA fragments have been found in the tissue of animals fed with transgenic plants. A few years ago, DNA from genetically engineered maize was found in samples from pigs. More recently, research found traces from transgenic plants in the organs of fish, namely rainbow trout and tilapia. In fish, the gene sequences were found in nearly all inner organs.

"Recent publications could lend support to those stakeholders in favour of labelling products such as meat, milk and eggs derived from animals fed with genetically engineered plants. If the methods for sampling DNA get even better, those traces will be found more often in future," says Christoph Then from Testbiotech. "So far detection is not possible in each and every case. Most frequently these traces seem to occur in fish."

In the past, several experts and also the European Food Safety Authority EFSA were of the opinion that specific DNA fragments related to transgenic material, could not be detected in animals. For years now it has been known that in general, DNA from plants is not completely degraded in the gut, and can be found in inner organs, the blood stream and even in the offspring of mice.

In Testbiotech's opinion, mandatory labelling of those products is important for consumers interested in more transparency about how genetically engineered plants are used. Millions of tons of genetically engineered soy are fed to animals such as pigs, poultry and cattle in Europe. Most experts think that products derived from those animals are not likely to pose a health risk. There is however, a need for further research since for unknown reasons some enzyme activity in kids fed with goat's milk containing specific DNA was found to be enhanced.


Gates Foundation Invests in Monsanto

Press Release
Travis English, AGRA Watch
August 25, 2010

Both will profit at expense of small-scale African farmers

Seattle, WA - Farmers and civil society organizations around the world are outraged by the recent discovery of further connections between the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and agribusiness titan Monsanto. Last week, a financial website published the Gates Foundation's investment portfolio, including 500,000 shares of Monsanto stock with an estimated worth of $23.1 million purchased in the second quarter of 2010 (see the filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission). This marks a substantial increase from its previous holdings, valued at just over $360,000 (see the Foundation's 2008 990 Form).

"The Foundation's direct investment in Monsanto is problematic on two primary levels," said Dr. Phil Bereano, University of Washington Professor Emeritus and recognized expert on genetic engineering. "First, Monsanto has a history of blatant disregard for the interests and well-being of small farmers around the world, as well as an appalling environmental track record. The strong connections to Monsanto cast serious doubt on the Foundation's heavy funding of agricultural development in Africa and purported goal of alleviating poverty and hunger among small-scale farmers. Second, this investment represents an enormous conflict of interests."

Monsanto has already negatively impacted agriculture in African countries. For example, in South Africa in 2009, Monsanto's genetically modified maize failed to produce kernels and hundreds of farmers were devastated. According to Mariam Mayet, environmental attorney and director of the Africa Centre for Biosafety in Johannesburg, some farmers suffered up to an 80% crop failure. While Monsanto compensated the large-scale farmers to whom it directly sold the faulty product, it gave nothing to the small-scale farmers to whom it had handed out free sachets of seeds. "When the economic power of Gates is coupled with the irresponsibility of Monsanto, the outlook for African smallholders is not very promising," said Mayet. Monsanto's aggressive patenting practices have also monopolized control over seed in ways that deny farmers control over their own harvest, going so far as to sue - and bankrupt - farmers for "patent infringement."

News of the Foundation's recent Monsanto investment has confirmed the misgivings of many farmers and sustainable agriculture advocates in Africa, among them the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition, who commented, "We have long suspected that the founders of AGRA - the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation - had a long and more intimate affair with Monsanto." Indeed, according to Travis English, researcher with AGRA Watch, "The Foundation's ownership of Monsanto stock is emblematic of a deeper, more long-standing involvement with the corporation, particularly in Africa." In 2008, AGRA Watch, a project of the Seattle-based organization Community Alliance for Global Justice, uncovered many linkages between the Foundation's grantees and Monsanto. For example, some grantees (in particular about 70% of grantees in Kenya) of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) - considered by the Foundation to be its "African face" - work directly with Monsanto on agricultural development projects. Other prominent links include high-level Foundation staff members who were once senior officials for Monsanto, such as Rob Horsch, formerly Monsanto Vice President of International Development Partnerships and current Senior Program Officer of the Gates Agricultural Development Program.

Transnational corporations like Monsanto have been key collaborators with the Foundation and AGRA's grantees in promoting the spread of industrial agriculture on the continent. This model of production relies on expensive inputs such as chemical fertilizers, genetically modified seeds, and herbicides. Though this package represents enticing market development opportunities for the private sector, many civil society organizations contend it will lead to further displacement of farmers from the land, an actual increase in hunger, and migration to already swollen cities unable to provide employment opportunities. In the words of a representative from the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition, "AGRA is poison for our farming systems and livelihoods. Under the philanthropic banner of greening agriculture, AGRA will eventually eat away what little is left of sustainable small-scale farming in Africa."

A 2008 report initiated by the World Bank and the UN, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), promotes alternative solutions to the problems of hunger and poverty that emphasize their social and economic roots. The IAASTD concluded that small-scale agroecological farming is more suitable for the third world than the industrial agricultural model favored by Gates and Monsanto. In a summary of the key findings of IAASTD, the Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA) emphasizes the report's warning that "continued reliance on simplistic technological fixes - including transgenic crops - will not reduce persistent hunger and poverty and could exacerbate environmental problems and worsen social inequity." Furthermore, PANNA explains, "The Assessment's 21 key findings suggest that small-scale agroecological farming may offer one of the best means to feed the hungry while protecting the planet."

The Gates Foundation has been challenged in the past for its questionable investments; in 2007, the L.A. Times exposed the Foundation for investing in its own grantees and for its "holdings in many companies that have failed tests of social responsibility because of environmental lapses, employment discrimination, disregard for worker rights, or unethical practices." The Times chastised the Foundation for what it called "blind-eye investing," with at least 41% of its assets invested in "companies that countered the foundation's charitable goals or socially-concerned philosophy."

Although the Foundation announced it would reassess its practices, it decided to retain them. As reported by the L.A. Times, chief executive of the Foundation Patty Stonesifer defended their investments, stating, "It would be naïve . . . to think that changing the foundation's investment policy could stop the human suffering blamed on the practices of companies in which it invests billions of dollars." This decision is in direct contradiction to the Foundation's official "Investment Philosophy", which, according to its website, "defined areas in which the endowment will not invest, such as companies whose profit model is centrally tied to corporate activity that [Bill and Melinda] find egregious. This is why the endowment does not invest in tobacco stocks."

More recently, the Foundation has come under fire in its own hometown. This week, 250 Seattle residents sent postcards expressing their concern that the Foundation's approach to agricultural development, rather than reducing hunger as pledged, would instead "increase farmer debt, enrich agribusiness corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta, degrade the environment, and dispossess small farmers." In addition to demanding that the Foundation instead fund "socially and ecologically appropriate practices determined locally by African farmers and scientists" and support African food sovereignty, they urged the Foundation to cut all ties to Monsanto and the biotechnology industry.

AGRA Watch, a program of Seattle-based Community Alliance for Global Justice, supports African initiatives and programs that foster farmers' self-determination and food sovereignty. AGRA Watch also supports public engagement in fighting genetic engineering and exploitative agricultural policies, and demands transparency and accountability on the part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and AGRA.


Coalition Demands FDA Deny Approval of Controversial Genetically Engineered Fish

Press Release
Center for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch, Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, SalmonAID Foundation
August 27, 2010

FDA Considers Approval of GE Salmon--the First GE Food Animal--Yet Fails to Inform the Public of Environmental and Economic Risks

Washington, DC - A coalition of 31 consumer, animal welfare and environmental groups, along with commercial and recreational fisheries associations and food retailers submitted a joint statement criticizing an announcement this week by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that it will potentially approve the long-shelved AquAdvantage transgenic salmon as the first genetically engineered (GE) animal intended for human consumption.

The engineered Atlantic salmon being considered was developed by AquaBounty Technologies, which artificially combined growth hormone genes from an unrelated Pacific salmon, (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) with DNA from the anti-freeze genes of an eelpout (Zoarces americanus). This modification causes production of growth-hormone year-round, creating a fish the company claims grows at twice the normal rate. This could allow factory fish farms to crowd fish into pens and still get high production rates.

Each year millions of farmed salmon escape from open-water net pens, outcompeting wild populations for resources and straining ecosystems. "We believe any approval of GE salmon would represent a serious threat to the survival of native salmon populations, many of which have already suffered severe declines related to salmon farms and other man-made impacts," Marianne Cufone, director of Food and Water Watch's fish program said.

If the FDA opens this door, GE fish will likely be among the millions of salmon that currently escape from open ocean pens every year. This could be the last blow to wild salmon stocks and in turn the thousands of men and women who depend on fishing for their livelihoods. "Approving genetically engineered salmon is a sharp contradiction to the agreements the United States has signed at NASCO, where transgenic salmonids are considered a serious threat to wild salmon" said Boyce Thorne Miller, Science and Policy Coordinator for the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance and accredited observer at the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization.

Escaped GE salmon can pose an additional threat - genetic pollution resulting from what scientists call the "Trojan gene" effect." Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences notes that a release of just sixty GE salmon into a wild population of 60,000 would lead to the extinction of the wild population in less than 40 generations.

Anticipating the stark danger to our fisheries and ocean environments - and trying to circumvent analyses of those dangers - AquaBounty has claimed that they will only raise their fish in land-based facilities. However most salmon farmers in the real world ply their trade in low-lying coastal areas and competing corporations will no doubt race to produce GE fish in crowded open ocean facilities already in use for fish production. Backsliding on its original claims, reports have circulated that AquaBounty may only suggest producers raise GE fish in "inland waters" - presenting novel threats to our nation's lakes, rivers, and estuaries - many of which are already under attack by invasive fish species like the Asian carp and Northern snakehead.

"FDA's decision to go ahead with this approval process is misguided and dangerous, and is made worse by its complete lack of data to review" said Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director for the Center for Food Safety. "FDA has been sitting on this application for 10 years and yet it has chosen not to disclose any data about its decision until just a few days before the public meeting."

On Wednesday, FDA officials announced that they had begun the approval process for the engineered salmon and have scheduled public meetings beginning Sunday, September 19. Speakers wishing to present oral comments are expected to submit their requests in writing by September 7th; one day after the FDA has said it may post "some" of the data to its website. "This is not a process that leads to full and informed public participation," said Charles Margulis, Sustainable Food Program Coordinator for the Center for Environmental Health.

FDA announced the same day that it will hold a public comment period and a hearing on labeling for the transgenic salmon, which seems to presuppose that the controversial GE fish will be approved. If the GE fish is approved, Agency officials are undecided as to whether they will require any product labeling.

"We all know there is a great appetite for salmon, but the solution is not to 'farm' genetically engineered versions to put more on our dinner tables; the solution is to work to bring our wild salmon populations back" said Jonathan Rosenfield, PhD, a Conservation Biologist and President of the SalmonAID Foundation, a 28-member coalition of commercial, tribal, and sportfishing interests, conservation organizations and chefs. "The approval of these transgenic fish will only exacerbate the problems facing our wild fisheries."


Gates Foundation Ties with Monsanto under Fire from Activists

By Maureen O'Hagan and Kristi Heim
Seattle Times
August 28, 2010

Local activists are mounting a campaign to get the Gates Foundation to cut its ties with the agribusiness giant Monsanto and other firms involved in developing bioengineered crops.

For two years, local activists on a shoestring budget have been trying to document connections between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Monsanto, the company vilified by some for its heavy involvement in genetic engineering of crops.

Try as they might, their work got little attention.

That all changed with the news, reported by The Wall Street Journal last week, that Monsanto was among the foundation's most recent portfolio investments. A filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission says the foundation bought 500,000 shares of the stock between April and June; on Friday, the total value was $27.6 million.

The Gates Foundation doesn't comment on specific investments, a spokeswoman said.

While the Monsanto investment is a tiny fraction of the foundation's $33 billion endowment, it loomed large among those involved in food issues. The news ricocheted around activist circles and has given the Seattle-based Community Alliance for Global Justice (CAGJ) a national platform.

Its AGRA Watch campaign has been quietly compiling Monsanto/foundation connections for two years. Several foundation employees have ties to the company, including some in leadership positions. A number of the projects it has funded in Africa also work with the company.

As news of the investment broke, national activist organizations started reaching out to the alliance, said Heather Day, CAGJ's director. The group will start "organizing on a national scale" next week with the help of the larger groups.

The foundation's investment in Monsanto was the "bad news that's good news" for their effort to get the foundation to "do the right thing," Day said. This week, 250 people sent postcards to the foundation asking it to cut ties to Monsanto and other biotech firms and shift its funding priorities "from industrial agriculture to socially and ecologically appropriate practices." The groups are also planning an online-petition drive.

Meanwhile, national groups plan to write the foundation outlining reasons why they need to break their ties with companies involved in developing bioengineered crops, Day said.

When asked about AGRA Watch, the Gates Foundation replied in e-mailed statements, and the spokeswoman declined to give her name. "We have met with representatives from AGRA Watch and a variety of other organizations with a broad range of views about agriculture in the developing world," a spokeswoman wrote Thursday. "We believe an open exchange of ideas is essential to tackling urgent global challenges."

Giving pause

Much of the foundation's work has avoided major controversy.

That changed when, four years ago, the foundation, along with the Rockefeller Foundation, created the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), aimed at alleviating hunger by boosting farm productivity.

The name itself gave some people pause. An earlier Green Revolution that started nearly 70 years ago had similar aims.

Some say that by introducing high-yield crop varieties it averted widespread famine in India and Mexico and helped those countries become more self-sufficient. Critics, on the other hand, say it led to lasting environmental damage and displaced small farmers, to the benefit of corporations that started up large-scale industrial operations.

The foundation announced it would fund projects that trained farmers and opened up new markets, as well as introduce new seed varieties. Initially, these would be conventionally bred seeds.

But over time, the work has been seen as increasingly tied to large-scale industrial agriculture and has pushed the use of genetically modified crops, critics say. For example, the foundation helped fund $37 million in grants to engineer crops to increase their vitamins and minerals.

Day believes the whole model is wrongheaded. "There's plenty of food being produced in the world," she said. "It's a matter of people being poor, and food not being distributed fairly.

"The Gates foundation is driven by an ideology based on technology," Day added. "Technology doesn't solve all problems."

The foundation counters that it has looked at the problem of hunger from all angles. Its strategy is based on "consultations with hundreds of people in the public and private sectors around the world, and we continually meet with scientists, development experts, policymakers, NGOs, farmers and stakeholders as part of our ongoing efforts," the spokeswoman said.

The Gates Foundation gave a $42 million grant to the African Agricultural Technology Foundation to develop new varieties of drought-tolerant maize in a partnership with Monsanto. The new varieties are expected to be available in about seven years and will be royalty-free for small-scale farmers in Africa, the Gates Foundation spokeswoman said.

To Day and other activists, the foundation's connection with Monsanto makes the strategy all the more troubling.

Monsanto produces the widely used herbicide Roundup, along with seeds that have been genetically engineered to be resistant to Roundup. The idea is that a farmer can spray an entire field, and the genetically engineered crops will survive.

The problem, Day believes, is that Monsanto owns the patent to the seeds, and farmers have to buy them from the company - along with millions of gallons of Roundup - year after year.

This model - and Monsanto - shouldn't be part of the foundation's vision for Africa, activists say.

"We're talking about some of the most impoverished people in the world," Day said. How are they going to afford all those seeds and chemicals?

Critics say the foundation's $27.6 million investment raises more questions.

"Our biggest concern is that the foundation is invested in Monsanto so they're looking for Monsanto to make a profit," said Travis English, of AGRA Watch. "What they're doing is opening up new markets in Africa for Monsanto to monopolize the seed market."

He sees it as a conflict of interest.

One philanthropy expert saw it differently.

Elise Lufkin, senior program director of Giving Assets Inc., a group that advocates socially responsible investing, said conflicts of interest usually arise when the programs a foundation funds are at cross purposes with companies in which they're invested - an environmental organization opposed to oil drilling whose endowment benefits from oil company stock, for example.

The Gates investment is not necessarily a conflict of interest if the foundation and Monsanto share the same goals.

Conflict or not, Day said the investment will be "the springboard for the national campaign to begin."

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