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January 2010 Updates

Safety of GM Sugar Beets Subject of Hearing

By Eric Burkett
Food Safety News, USA
January 11, 2010

Could a federal judge in San Francisco who has already found the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) lacking when it comes to making sure genetically modified sugar beets are safe end up blocking planting of Roundup Ready sugar beets this spring?

The schedule for ongoing litigation between Monsanto, Forbes Magazine's Company of the Year and the maker of Roundup Ready sugar beet, and a list of opponents that includes the Center for Food Safety, the Organic Seed Alliance, High Mowing Organic Seeds, and the Sierra Club makes its less likely.

The parties, who have until Feb. 4 to hold a settlement conference on their own, are scheduled for a hearing on June 11th, well after most Roundup Ready sugar beets will be in the ground in the western and upper Midwestern states that grow them.

The collection of plaintiffs are hoping that discovery information the court expects to receive in March will convince Judge Jeffery White to halt planting of the next crop of GM sugar beets, expected to begin in April.

It was Judge White, appointed to the federal bench by former President George W. Bush, who last September ordered USDA to complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the safety of Roundup Ready sugar beets.

That decision was seen as a "procedural win" for the plaintiff groups. The Sugar Industry Biotech Council found no issue with the safety of the Roundup Ready sugar beets, which are now favored by 95 percent of the acreage dedicated to sugar beets.

USDA deregulated Roundup Ready sugar beets in 2006, and the plaintiff groups filed their lawsuit in January 2008. The case was filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. Since the EIS decision, both sides have been shoring up their evidence and gathering evidence.

Judge White's order for USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is being reviewed by the agency, according to Suzanne Bond, the service's assistant director of public affairs.

Beets are among the most labor-intensive of crops and Roundup Ready sugar beets dramatically reduce the need for weeding and fuel, as well as water, said Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugar Beet Growers Association.

Introduced into the market in 2008, farmers apparently agreed and Roundup Ready sugar beets saw the fastest adoption rate by farmers of any genetically modified crop. Sugar beets account for more than half of the United States' sugar production, and since the GM beets were deregulated nearly four years ago, nearly 95 percent of sugar beets produced in the US are genetically modified.

For organic seed growers like Frank Morton of Philomath, Ore., however, it's only made matters more complicated. Philomath is situated in Oregon's Willamette Valley where nearly all the country's sugar beet seeds--both conventional and organic--are produced.

"I was concerned that contamination events would begin to occur that would make my seed worthless," Morton told Capital Press, an agricultural newspaper, last December. Morton approached the Center for Food Safety in December, 2007 and they filed suit against the USDA the following month.

Sugar beets, along with chard and table beets, are members of the Beta vulgaris family, and the three groups easily cross pollinate, a fact acknowledged by both Morton and Monsanto. In addition to the potential that genetically modified beets could cross pollinate with organic crops thereby destroying the organics' value, there is considerable worry about other dangers from genetically modified food crops.

"For both organic and conventional consumers, they should be concerned because there are insufficient claims that say those products are safe," said Zelig Kevin Golden, staff attorney for CFS in San Francisco. Monsanto bases those claims on very short term studies, he said, and those studies were conducted over periods of time too short to really determine whether the sugar beets are truly safe Monsanto officials consider the plaintiffs' concerns overwrought.

"Activists are making some pretty dramatic claims, but that's why there are stewardship agreements," said Garrett Kasper, public affairs manager for Monsanto in St. Louis. "There's a lot of stewardship and training. Growing is by very well trained seed partners."

Activists' concerns go well beyond contamination of organic fields, however.

"There are new studies coming out primarily in Europe that demonstrate genetically engineered corn varieties are toxic to organic functions," said CFS's attorney Golden. Genetically engineered soybeans have been shown to be toxic, he said.

"I wouldn't say they'll kill, no one actually knows that," said Golden. "We're being experimented upon because no one actually knows that."


Was 2009 the Year the World Turned Against GM?

By Claire Robinson & Jonathan Matthews
The Ecologist
January 11, 2010

Despite promising the world in 2009, biotech corporations have increasingly raised the hackles of scientists and citizens worldwide

2009 was a year in which the biotech industry, Gates and their US Administration allies did everything in their power to drive the world down the GM road, but it was also a year marked by remarkable global resistance.

It was a year too in which the truth emerged more clearly than ever about not just the severe limitations and risks of GM crops, but the viability of the many positive alternatives to GMOs alternatives from which the profit-driven GM-fixation diverts much needed attention and resources.

The scene had been set in 2008 with the IAASTD report, produced by 400 scientific experts and signed up to by some 60 governments. That made it clear that after more than 10 years of commercialisation, GM crops had done nothing to help with the eradication of hunger or poverty, or the reversal of the environmental degradation caused by agriculture.

The IAASTD instead championed as the way forward: agro-ecological farming; and research conducted by the UN Environment Programme also suggested organic, small-scale farming could deliver increased yields without the accompanying environmental and social damage of industrial farming. The UNEP's analysis of 114 projects in 24 African countries found that yields had more than doubled where organic, or near-organic practices had been used. In 2009 the contribution of such sustainable approaches to cooling the planet was also widely acknowledged while news of Monsanto's attempts to dress up environmentally destructive GM monocultures as climate friendly earned it a worst lobbying award.

Mainstream criticism

But what was most remarkable in 2009 was the way in which criticism of the biotech industry went mainstream. Alarmingly for the industry, some of the hardest hitting criticism it faced was to be found in editorials and investigative articles that appeared in the likes of Scientific American, the New York Times, the Associated Press and, most astonishingly of all perhaps, the staunchly pro-GM journal Nature Biotechnology.

And in different ways they were all making the same fundamental point - the GM industry has been allowed to gain an unprecedented stranglehold over the use of seeds. An editorial in Scientific American, for instance, complained that 'it is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised. That is because agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers'.

The editorial went on to note that, 'food safety and environmental protection depend on making plant products available to regular scientific scrutiny', and Scientific American called on the industry to 'immediately remove the restriction on research from their end-user agreements. Going forward, the EPA should also require, as a condition of approving the sale of new seeds, that independent researchers have unfettered access to all products currently on the market'.

Et tu, Brute?

A correspondent for an agricultural trade publication noted that nobody in the biotech industry could provide him with a single example of any other kind of product on the market that was protected in the way GM seeds were from scientific scrutiny.

And the science correspondent of the Financial Times - another solidly pro-GM publication - complained, 'Imagine pharmaceutical companies trying to prevent medical researchers comparing patented drugs or investigating their side-effects - it is unthinkable. Yet scientists cannot independently examine raw materials in the food supply or investigate plants that cover a lot of rural America'.

An article in Nature Biotechnology noted how even when research critical of GM did get published it was met by a wall of apparently orchestrated, ad hominem and unfounded attacks by GM proponents who, in the words of an editor for the Entomological Society of America, 'denigrate research by other legitimate scientists in a knee-jerk, partisan, emotional way that is not helpful in advancing knowledge and is outside the ideals of scientific inquiry'.

And it wasn't just scientific enquiry that Monsanto was exposed as strangling. An Associated Press investigation reported on confidential Monsanto contracts showing how the world's biggest seed developer is squeezing competitors, controlling smaller seed companies and aggressively protecting its multibillion-dollar market dominance.

Farmers hit

Meanwhile disenchanted farmers pointed to how the GM giant is using its market power to raise prices for farmers and limit their access to non-GM seeds. And another new report showed GM seed prices increasing so dramatically that they have already cut average farm incomes for US farmers.

So in 2010 amidst the inevitable deluge of vacuous hype about GM being vital to deal with hunger, poverty and the impact of climate change, population growth, fuel scarcity and every other concern known to humankind, nobody should be in any doubt as to what's really at stake: control over science, nature, food and farming.

And over that kind of stranglehold, it can only be a fight to the death.


Monsanto GMO Ignites Big Seed War

By Frank Morris
January 12, 2010

Even though deep snowdrifts cover his fields in eastern Kansas, Luke Ulrich, a corn and soybean farmer here, is thinking about spring. It's time to buy seed again, but hundreds of seed companies have gone under in the past two decades.

Ulrich remembers the days before genetically modified seeds upended the industry. Critics of the big agriculture biotech company Monsanto say its popular Roundup Ready technology is to blame for that. Roundup Ready is a line of gene-modified seeds that inoculate plants against a herbicide, Roundup, also made by Monsanto, that kills just about everything else.

"Ever since they've come out with the Roundup Ready trait and that became popular and basically took over farming, we've seen significant increases every single year," Ulrich says.

Ulrich says his seed costs shot up almost 50 percent last year. That's because farmers are contractually prohibited from saving seeds and planting them the following year.

Farmers face lawsuits if they try to save and replant the genetically modified seed because they don't own the technology. While they bristle at that, they love the Roundup Ready seed.

"There's nothing like Roundup. A monkey could farm with it," Ulrich says.

'Amazing Amount Of Leverage'

More than 9 out of 10 soybean seeds carry the Roundup Ready trait. It's about the same for cotton and just a little lower for corn.

"Farmers will not buy soybeans without Roundup Ready in it. So, that gives Monsanto an amazing amount of leverage," says Jim Denvir, a lawyer working for DuPont. DuPont owns Pioneer, a competing seed company.

Pioneer licenses the Roundup Ready trait from Monsanto, as do about 150 other seed companies. Those agreements control which other genetics competing companies can mix with the Roundup Ready trait. Last year, Monsanto sued to stop Pioneer from "stacking" Roundup Ready with another trait. Denvir says Pioneer complained to the Justice Department.

"A seed company can't stay in business without offering seeds with Roundup Ready in it, so if they want to stay in that business, essentially they have to do what Monsanto tells them to do," Denvir says.

Monsanto's critics say it used this "platform monopoly" to crush many competitors. Chris Holman, a patent lawyer who teaches at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, likens it to Microsoft and its dominant Windows operating system.

"Because of the structure of the industry, they are able to really drive participants in the industry into using their technology," Holman says.

Monsanto spokesman Lee Quarles says those allegations are unfair, though he concedes they're coming at the company fast and furious.

"We're actively working to address questions from regulators, both the Department of Justice and state attorneys general as well as other parties in the industry, to address any questions they have about our business," Quarles says.

But Monsanto is pushing ahead. It will soon market a soybean seed combining eight separate genetically engineered traits.

Roundup Ready 2 Yield

Roundup Ready technology was developed at Monsanto's world headquarters in St. Louis. Jim Tobin of Monsanto says it sells itself. "Farmers get to vote every year before they plant, and it's that vote each year that determines who has the largest market share or volume," Tobin says.

Monsanto spent huge amounts of money and took big risks to develop the Roundup Ready trait. Tobin says it has revolutionized agriculture. But now, "Well, we've invented something new," he says.

It's called Roundup Ready 2 Yield. It uses the gene as the original, just placed in a different spot in the genome. Monsanto says that boosts yield.

Interesting timing: Monsanto's patent on Roundup Ready 1 expires in 2014 and with it, a revenue stream of maybe half a billion dollars a year in royalties. That's unless it can switch farmers over to Roundup Ready 2.

"We'd like to have everyone in the soybean business, seed business using the trait," Tobin says.

Monsanto's putting the new trait in all its best soybean seeds. And Paul Schickler, president of Pioneer, says Monsanto is forcing its licensees to do the same. He charges that Monsanto is trying to make Roundup Ready 1 disappear.

"That's our concern: bridging or switching from one patented product, Roundup Ready 1, to the next-generation Roundup Ready 2 Yield, doesn't allow competition for the original technology," Schickler says.

Unlike in many other industries, there's no clear path for a genetically modified crop to go generic. As it stands, generic providers would probably still need access to Monsanto's proprietary data to get federal approval to sell the Roundup Ready trait.

They'd also need closely held technical data to update licenses that keep the trait legal in big, important markets like China and the EU.

Meanwhile, the end of the Roundup Ready patent will very likely give farmers a chance to do something they haven't for years: plant the seed they've harvested. Luke Ulrich is ready.

"I don't care how good Roundup Ready 2 is; if you tell me I can save back my own seed, I'm going to plant my own seed," Ulrich says.

The problem for guys like Ulrich will be finding seed that has just the Roundup Ready gene alone, one not stacked with other patented traits. After all, if he can't find the seed in the first place, he can't grow it.


U.S. Opens Antitrust Probe of Monsanto

By Scott Kilman & Thomas Catan
The Wall Street Journal
January 15, 2010

Antitrust Enforcers Probe Business Practices Surrounding Biotech Soybean Seed

The U.S. Justice Department has opened a formal antitrust investigation into crop-biotechnology giant Monsanto Co. as it contends with the loss of patent protection on its blockbuster soybean in 2014.

Monsanto on Thursday received a formal demand from the Justice Department for information about the St. Louis company's business practices surrounding its Roundup Ready soybean, the nation's most popular genetically-modified crop.

Roughly 90% of all the soybeans grown in the U.S. contain a Monsanto gene that helps the plant survive dousing by Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller. Introduced in 1996, the Roundup Ready soybean seed allows farmers to chemically remove weeds from their fields without damaging crops.

With that seed losing patent protection in four years, Monsanto is trying to get farmers to switch to a second generation of Roundup Ready seed that still will be protected.

Justice Department spokeswoman Gina Talamona confirmed Thursday that antitrust regulators have begun a formal investigation of the seed industry. She refused to identify the investigation's target or provide specific details.

In the wake of Monsanto's disclosure, the company's shares fell $1.16, or 1.4%, to $82.79 in 4 p.m. composite trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Controversy over Monsanto's plans for Roundup Ready soybeans grew so heated across the Farm Belt last year that the company declared that it wouldn't stand in the way of farmers using off-patent seeds.

"We're confident that a thorough review will show that all of our business practices are fair, pro-competitive and in compliance with the law," Monsanto spokesman Lee Quarles saidThursday.

Monsanto has been in regulators' sights since the Justice Department said in August it would take a hard look at economic concentration in agriculture as part on an increased emphasis on antitrust enforcement.

Farmers and seed companies that license genes from Monsanto have long complained about the prices it can command. The price of a bag of soybean seed has roughly quadrupled since the biotech-era dawned in 1996.

The Justice Department's inquiry appears to mirror complaints filed this month by Monsanto's archrival, the Pioneer Hi-Bred seed unit of DuPont Co., for a nationwide series of hearings the Justice and Agriculture departments plan to hold on farmers' competitive concerns. DuPont, which pays to use Monsanto's first-generation Roundup Ready technology in the seed it sells to farmers, has complained that Monsanto is trying to force seed companies to prematurely switch to the second-generation technology. "The effect of this campaign would be to eliminate any prospect for the emergence of generic competition," DuPont has said.

DuPont, of Wilmington, Del., several months ago received a demand for information from the Justice Department for information about the seed market. A DuPont spokesman said the company believes the investigation isn't aimed at DuPont's behavior.


Court Rules for Monsanto, Antitrust Case Remains

By Christopher Leonard
The Washington Post
January 16, 2010

ST. LOUIS -- A legal ruling says DuPont violated it contract with rival Monsanto by developing genetically modified soybeans created with Monsanto's technology, but leaves open DuPont's challenge of the contract on antitrust grounds.

The ruling in St. Louis federal court is the latest turn in a lawsuit between the world's two biggest seed companies. At issue is how much freedom Monsanto Co.'s competitors have to develop crops containing their own biotech traits using Monsanto's patented Roundup Ready gene, which is inserted in the vast majority of U.S. corn and soybean crops.

The Roundup Ready gene makes crops resistant to its Roundup herbicide, making weed control cheaper and easier for farmers because they can spray the herbicide without hurting their crop. The trait has become the industry standard since Monsanto introduced it in 1996.

Monsanto sued DuPont last spring, claiming it was illegal for DuPont to sell its new line of biotech seeds called Optimum GAT. That line of seeds adds a new DuPont gene to the older line of Roundup Ready corn and soybean plants that DuPont developed under a license with Monsanto.

U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber said in Friday's ruling that Monsanto's licensing agreement clearly prohibits DuPont from inserting its Optimum GAT gene into corn and soybean plants with Monsanto traits.

But Webber said his ruling was narrow, and didn't consider whether Monsanto has the right under antitrust laws to restrict how competitors breed and sell plants with Monsanto traits.

DuPont is challenging its licensing agreement with Monsanto on antitrust grounds, in the midst of a U.S. Department of Justice antitrust investigation into Monsanto that is examining whether there is anticompetitive behavior in the seed industry.

"This litigation is just beginning; we will now vigorously pursue our antitrust, license and patent fraud claims," DuPont Senior Vice President and General Counsel Thomas L. Sager said in a statement Saturday.

Monsanto spokesman Lee Quarles said DuPont's claims of antitrust violations in the contract are a "continued smoke screen and effort to obscure the significance of the court's ruling on their license violation."

"As we've stated clearly over the last several months, DuPont negotiated and signed a contract with a specific set of rights, at the financial terms they preferred, and the rights they licensed did not include making" Optimum GAT, Quarles said in an e-mail Saturday.

Monsanto announced this week that the Justice Department demanded internal documents related to the company's soybean business. Quarles said the company has done nothing wrong and is cooperating with the department, providing the millions of pages of documents it requested.

DuPont spokesman Dan Turner said Friday's ruling won't change or delay the company's efforts to commercialize its Optimum GAT seeds, which the company says will be an alternative to Monsanto's products.

The Optimum GAT launch has already been delayed for a years because of regulatory and research glitches. DuPont announced in December that its Optimum GAT soybean launch will be delayed from 2011, to 2013 or 2014 because of changes in regulatory policy in key import markets. Similarly Optimum GAT corn was delayed from 2010 until the middle of the decade because of quality concerns.

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