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March 2010 Updates

SmartStax Corn: Corporate War on Bees

By Prof. Joe Cummins
ISIS Report
March 8, 2010

US regulatory agencies are aiding and abetting in killing bees and more. This report has been submitted to the US EPA on behalf of ISIS

SmartStax corn

Smartstax is a genetically modified (GM) corn that has eight GM traits combined or "stacked" together, six for insect resistance (Bt) and two for herbicide tolerance. Current stacked GM trait crops on the market only have up to three traits each. SmartStax was created through a collaboration between Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences, allowing the two corporations to share GM traits. The traits are combined together using crosses between existing transgenic corn lines rather than using genetic transformation of a single maize strain. Interestingly, a collection of old transgenes brought together with traditional crosses are being described as the "new" technology. Monsanto and Dow are predicting that SmartStax will be the largest commercial launch of a single GM corn because it will replace a lot of the existing GM corn varieties on the market. The main benefit of Smartstax maize is that it provides above and below ground insect protection along with tolerance to two herbicides (glyphosate and glufosinate) [1]. Herbicide tolerance and insect resistance genes are engineered in redundant combinations in the belief that it will prevent establishment of resistances to herbicides and the Bt proteins among weeds and insect pests respectively [2]. The USDA provided a premium reduction in the cost of crop insurance for farmers growing Smartstax maize while the US EPA granted a reduction in the size of the refuge area set aside from 20 percent to 5 percent, which constitutes substantial government financial incentives for growing Smartstax maize [3]. It is supposed to protect growers of Smartstax maize from the uncertainties of climatic instabilities associated with global warming. The USDA crop insurance program covers organic farmers too, but fails to protect the organic premium on price and will not consider the crop loss from pollen contamination from GM crops. Organic and conventional growers are placed at a clear disadvantage in comparison to growers of Smartstax corn.

Smartstax can end bees

Smarstax corn contains a potpourri of transgenes claimed to control pests both above and below ground. Monsanto's subsidiary Genuity, which markets Smartstax corn along with stacked versions of GM soybeans and cotton, uses Acceleron seed treatment products. These contain a combination of fungicides including ipconazole, metalaxyl and trifloxystrobin for protection against primary seed-borne and soil-borne diseases, along with clothianidin, an insecticide, to reduce damage caused by secondary pests [2]. Clothianidin is a systemic insecticide that may be carried to all parts of the corn plant including the pollen-producing tassel and pollen visited by bees [4]. The selection of clothianidin for seed treatment is rather cavalier because the insecticide has been implicated in bee die-offs [5]. A German judge prohibited the use of clothianidin in maize seed treatment after the pesticide was observed to have killed foraging honey bees [6] Emergency Pesticide Ban for Saving the Honeybee, SiS 39). A German coalition of farmers brought legal action against the president of Bayer Crop Science for marketing the dangerous neonicotinoid pesticides such as clothianidin that have caused mass death of bees all over the world [7]. The Institute of Science in Society has long maintained that the neonicotinoid insecticides, such as clothianidin, in seed dressing and sprays are responsible for the collapse of honey bee colonies, The insecticides impair the bee's foraging behaviour and its immunity to parasitic and viral diseases. The Bt toxins such as those contained in the Smartstax corn have also been found to impair the bee's behaviour and immunity to disease [8-10] (Requiem for the Honeybee, SiS 35; Saving the Honeybee Through Organic Farming, SiS 38;To Bee Organic or not to Bee, SiS 39).

Can Smartstax be safe for bees or humans?

The stacked transgenic varieties assembled using conventional breeding are not regulated by USDA/APHIS and environments assessment is not required. But such introductions are regulated by US EPA, which does not appear to be concerned over the die-off of bees from seed treatment chemicals nor from the transgenic Bt proteins. This is clearly unacceptable, and these regulatory agencies should be held fully responsible for aiding and abetting in the corporate killing of bees.

EPA should also note that ISIS has previously requested the agency to ban glyphosate and Roundup herbicide based on new evidence over its toxicity [11] (Death by Multiple Poisoning, Glyphosate and Roundup, SiS 42), and more damning evidence has emerged since that glyphosate-based herbicides are toxic and endocrine disrupting [12]. In addition, a ban on glufosinate herbicide has been approved by the European Parliament in January 2009 [13].

References available on request


Glyphosate-resistant Weeds Now Established in 19 States

By Lynda Waddington
The Iowa Independent
March 10, 2010

Resistant weeds threaten to cripple Iowa's agriculture economy

Iowa crop farmers are battling an old problem with potentially new and devastating repercussions for the entire state's agricultural economy: Herbicide-resistant weeds.

The phenomenon is not all that new, said Mike Owen, a weed specialist at Iowa State University who has been discussing herbicide-resistant weeds since the 1980s. But widespread adoption of certain biotech advances have made matters much more complicated.

It has only been in the last few years that crops have been selectively engineered to tolerate topical application of active ingredients in a specific herbicide. The resistance that weeds have developed to that ingredient - called glyphosate - combined with its widespread adoption, has the potential of costing Iowa producers millions of bushels of produce, and severely crippling the state's ag-based economy.

An herbicide with glyphosate was introduced by the Monsanto Co. in 1974 under the commercial name Roundup. Roughly 18 years later, the company introduced its first biotech crop, Roundup Ready soybeans, which would tolerate direct application of the glysophate-based herbicide. Modified corn was introduced two years later.

When these glyphosate-resistant crops came onto the market, many hoped and some believed that another herbicide or genetically-modified crop wouldn't need to be developed. However, over time, crop farmers encountered more and more glyphosate-resistant weeds, and no new herbicide ingredients being developed to control them. Within a decade, some environmental and consumer groups were beginning to question the safety of the Roundup Ready crop line, specifically pointing to the emergence of "super weeds."

Despite the concerns voiced by some, and increasingly aggressive tactics by Monsanto to protect its seed patents, use of the Roundup Ready crop brands were widely adopted by farmers in Iowa and throughout the nation. While each individual grower had his or her own specific reasons for changing to the Roundup Ready system, Owen believes that larger scale operations' search for simplicity and convenience as well as corporate marketing played key roles.

"[P]art of this is definitely the issue of scale. Growers are looking at time management. They are looking for simplicity and convenience because of the scale that agriculture has achieved over the past 10 years," Owen said. "We also need to look at how the marketing has influenced the growers' decisions. Certainly marketing campaigns are very influential in the decisions that growers make. They are very persuasive, and they are very pervasive in the marketplace."

From television to radio to numerous ag-specific print publications, Iowa's rural community has been bombarded by a wealth of advertising by corporations that need growers to adopt their systems. As agriculture has grown, and larger growing plots have become more time-consuming for producers, the companies have successfully highlighted the aspects of their products they believe will most appeal to producers.

"These are very powerful and very desirable things in the marketplace. Convenience and simplicity are both very useful and very important; however, they are also something that have considerable risks associated," he explained.

Although it might seem logical to point an immediate accusatory finger at either the modified crops or the herbicides as being the key forces behind the problem, Owen warns that while both might play an indirect role, neither are fully or totally to blame.

"The predominant system that has emerged in Iowa is based on glyphosate-resistant crops, and the subsequent use of glyphosate," he said. "Now, as a result of that, we are beginning to see weeds that no longer respond to that herbicide. The question becomes if this resistance is because we are planting these crops. No, because the trait that dictates resistance to glyphosate is essentially benign in the environment. Is the herbicide causing the problem? The answer to that is directly no, but indirectly yes."

If the situation cannot be fully placed on the back of the crops or herbicide, what or who is to blame?

"The who or what is the manner by which the growers decide to use the technology," he said. "Their decisions are influenced by obviously their own interpretation and assessment of the technology, but also influenced by the marketing that the corporations use to move their proprietary traits and herbicides into the grower marketplace."

While Owen has no doubt that farmers and producers are some of the best stewards of our land, water and overall environment, he is also concerned that they are not seeing the big picture when it comes to management and control of weeds.

"In relation to some of the obvious issues that reflect land and environmental quality - tillage, waterways and things like that - I think [growers] can foresee long-term problems, and they do make stewardship efforts once those issues are identified," Owen said. "In relation to weed management and the potential evolution of resistant weeds, however, I don't think they fully understand the implications of the practices that they use or anticipate the severity of the problems that may result"

To some degree that is the industry's fault, Owen said, because "historically we have always been able to come back with a better tool, a new tool, that would take care of those problems. What we've found ourselves in now is a situation where those tools are not readily available and they are not, at least in the near future, observable."

There needs to be a renewed understanding on the part of growers that "what we've got is what we've got, and there's going to be nothing - that is, the Lone Ranger isn't going to come riding in on Silver to fix the problem."

There is no new silver bullet, he said, so growers need to take care of the tools that they have.

"I think we can do this and, as it turns out, based on what I've observed, we can actually make money by using some of the practices that provide better diversity of management practices for weed control," he said. "But growers, at least at this point, just don't seem to be accepting this message for a number of different reasons."

Chart showing soybean farmers who believe higher rates or application frequency of glyphosate is required for weed control (Source: Iowa State University/Iowa Soybean Association). [Chart based on survey of 568 Ag chem dealers; 57% think more glyphosate is needed for weed control now, compared to 39% who say more isn't required now.]

Although glysophate-based herbicide had been on the market for a number of years, the 1996 Field Crops Summary conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicated that less than 1 million pounds of the herbicide were applied to roughly 15 percent of Iowa soybean fields - a figure well be below what was being used at the same time by farmers in Illinois and Indiana.

In 2006, however, use by Iowa farmers had skyrocketed to more than 12 million pounds on nearly 90 percent of all soybean acreage - and had out-paced use by any other Midwestern state known for soybean production. Not only had the percent of Iowa's land use for soybean production increased during that time frame, but the statistics clearly show that producers were more than doubling the amount of glyphosate that was initially used for weed control.

Just as diseases can evolve resistance to antibiotics, weeds can evolve resistance to herbicides, prompting more frequent application to provide adequate control and maintain crop yield potential. Glyphosate-resistant weeds are now established in 19 states and deemed a serious economic concern - both for the increased cost to destroy the weed, and for the potential to drag crop yield.

Currently there are at least 15 different types of herbicide-resistant weeds in Iowa. The first, Kochia scoparia, was reported in 1985 with a resistance to atrazine. The most widespread glyphosate-resistant weed in the state is common waterhemp, which infests an estimated 1,000 to 10,000 acres. The most recently discovered glyphosate-resistant weed, identified just last year, is giant ragweed (Ambrosia trifida). It is estimated by state weed scientists that there are 1,210 sites and more than 12,400 acres invested with herbicide resistant weeds in Iowa, and that they infest corn, railways and soybeans.

Although those figures may seem striking to a person who is not familiar with the problem of resistant weeds, the truth is that Iowa has fared much better than Southeast states. For instance, producers in Macon, Georgia abandoned about 10,000 acres of cropland in 2007 following an infestation of glyphosate-resistant Palmer amaranth, a member of the pigweed family.

"My sense is that we are going to see more weed problems if growers continue to rely only on glyphosate," said Owen. "If the only thing they are planning to do this year is use glyphosate, then I would suggest that they may have greater problems with weeds this year than what they may have had last year."

For now, there are other options available to farmers - options they should use wisely, Owen said. Despite the initial cost of using a soil residual pre-emergent herbicide, Owen believes there is a significant yield boost associated with the application. He and his colleagues at Iowa State University have developed a 2010 Herbicide Guide for Iowa Corn and Soybean Production that outlines and highlights some of the best practices they have used for maintaining crop profits.

"Just as an estimate, if growers are only using glyphosate, and if they are making application at only particular instances, they are likely losing five or so bushels of soybeans per acre. And there are similar, if not higher, numbers of bushels of corn being lost," he said. "If your project that over all the acres - five bushels of soybeans over 9 million acres of soybeans produced - then you are looking at 45 million bushels of soybeans that may be lost because of poor timing of weed management. Although that's just a 'back-of-the-envelope' projection, it seems reasonable based on some of the modeling routines that we've done.

"Suffice it to say that it is a butt-load of money."


Rapid Rise in Seed Prices Draws U.S. Scrutiny

By William Neuman
New York Times
March 11, 2010

During the depths of the economic crisis last year, the prices for many goods held steady or even dropped. But on American farms, the picture was far different, as farmers watched the price they paid for seeds skyrocket. Corn seed prices rose 32 percent; soybean seeds were up 24 percent.

Such price increases for seeds - the most important purchase a farmer makes each year - are part of an unprecedented climb that began more than a decade ago, stemming from the advent of genetically engineered crops and the rapid concentration in the seed industry that accompanied it.

The price increases have not only irritated many farmers, they have caught the attention of the Obama administration. The Justice Department began an antitrust investigation of the seed industry last year, with an apparent focus on Monsanto, which controls much of the market for the expensive bioengineered traits that make crops resistant to insect pests and herbicides.

The investigation is just one facet of a push by the Obama administration to take a closer look at competition - or the lack thereof - in agriculture, from the dairy industry to livestock to commodity crops, like corn and soybeans.

On Friday, as the spring planting season approaches, Eric H. Holder Jr., the attorney general, and Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, will speak at the first of a series of public meetings aimed at letting farmers and industry executives voice their ideas. The meeting, in Ankeny, Iowa, will include a session on the seed industry.

"I think most farmers would look to have more competition in the industry," said Laura L. Foell, who raises corn and soybeans on 900 acres in Schaller, Iowa.

The Iowa attorney general, Tom Miller, has also been scrutinizing Monsanto's market dominance. The company's genetically engineered traits are in the vast majority of corn and soybeans grown in the United States, Mr. Miller said. "That gives them considerable power, and questions arise about how that power is used," he said.

Critics charge that Monsanto has used license agreements with smaller seed companies to gain an unfair advantage over competitors and to block cheaper generic versions of its seeds from eventually entering the market. DuPont, a rival company, also claims Monsanto has unfairly barred it from combining biotech traits in a way that would benefit farmers.

In a recent interview at Monsanto's headquarters in St. Louis, its chief executive, Hugh Grant, said that while his company might be the market leader, competition was increasing as the era of biotech crops matured.

"We were the first out of the blocks, and I think what you see now is a bunch of people catching up and aggressively competing, and I'm fighting with them," Mr. Grant said. He said farmers chose the company's products because they liked the results in the field, not because of any untoward conduct on Monsanto's part.

Yet in a seed market that Monsanto dominates, the jump in prices has been nothing short of stunning.

Including the sharp increases last year, Agriculture Department figures show that corn seed prices have risen 135 percent since 2001. Soybean prices went up 108 percent over that period. By contrast, the Consumer Price Index rose only 20 percent in that period.

Many farmers have been willing to pay a premium price because the genetically engineered seeds that make up most of the market come with advantages. Genetic modifications for both corn and soybeans make the crops resistant to herbicides, simplifying weed control and saving labor, fuel and machinery costs. Many genetically engineered corn and cotton seeds also resist insect pests, which cuts down on chemical spraying.

Lee Quarles, a Monsanto spokesman, said the price increases were justified because the quality of the seeds had been going up, and new biotech traits kept being added. For example, he said, many corn varieties now include multiple genes to battle insect pests, raising their value.

Mr. Quarles said higher prices were justified because the traits saved farmers money and made their operations more efficient.

Monsanto began investing heavily in biotechnology in the 1980s - ahead of most other agricultural companies. In the mid-1990s, it became the first to widely market genetically engineered seeds for row crops, introducing soybeans containing the so-called Roundup Ready gene, which allowed plants to tolerate spraying of its popular Roundup weed killer. Soon after, it began selling corn seed engineered with a gene to resist insect pests.

The number of biotech plant traits has grown since then, and other large companies - including DuPont, Dow Chemical, Syngenta, BASF and Bayer CropScience - have gotten into the business. But Monsanto has taken advantage of its head start. Today more than 90 percent of soybeans and more than 80 percent of the corn grown in this country are genetically engineered. A majority of those crops contain one or more Monsanto genes.

As biotechnology has spread, Monsanto and its competitors have bought dozens of smaller seed companies, increasing the concentration of market power in the industry.

Monsanto sells its own branded seed varieties, like Dekalb in corn and Asgrow in soybeans, to farmers. But it has expanded its influence and profits by licensing those traits to hundreds of small seed companies, allowing them to incorporate the traits in the seeds they sell. It has also granted licenses to the other large trait developers, allowing them to create combinations of engineered traits in a process known as stacking.

Monsanto says that its licensing shows it is the opposite of a monopolist, encouraging rather than hampering competition.

But critics say the licenses give Monsanto excessive control. Seed company executives said the licenses were sometimes worded in a way that compelled them to sell Monsanto traits over those of its competitors. Mr. Quarles denied that, saying the contracts contain sales incentives typical of the industry.

Some of the most pointed accusations have come in a court battle between Monsanto and DuPont. Last year Monsanto sued its rival, saying DuPont had used a Monsanto trait to create a gene combination that was not permitted in its licensing agreement.

DuPont countered by charging that Monsanto was using its market power to strong-arm competitors and quash innovation that would benefit farmers and consumers.

In January, Monsanto won a partial victory. A federal judge ruled that the license barred DuPont from creating the gene stack. But the judge said that DuPont could move ahead with its antitrust claims, which, if successful, could potentially nullify the stacking ban.

DuPont made another accusation that caught the attention of farmers and regulators, saying that Monsanto was trying to head off the eventual entry into the marketplace of generic Roundup Ready seeds.

The company's patent on the Roundup Ready trait in soybeans expires before the 2014 planting season, meaning that, just as in the pharmaceutical business, rivals would be free to sell a cheaper version. Farmers would also be free to save seed from one year to the next, a money-saving step they are now barred from taking.

But DuPont charged that Monsanto was trying to force seed companies to switch prematurely to its second-generation Roundup Ready soybeans and taking other steps to make the entry of generics more difficult.

Monsanto responded by announcing that it would not block companies from selling a generic version of Roundup Ready seeds. But farmers have continued to fret that cheaper generic seeds may be at risk.

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