Say No To GMOs! logo
October 2010 Updates

Malaysia to Carry Out Landmark GM Mosquito Trial

Agence France Press
October 10, 2010

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's health minister Sunday said the country would carry out a landmark field trial by releasing genetically modified mosquitoes designed to combat dengue fever by the end of the year.

Liow Tiong Lai said the delayed field trials, which were to have begun this month, were now back on track as laboratory tests had been done and the country's biosafety board had approved the mosquitoes' release into a controlled environment.

"Barring any unforeseen circumstances, the GM anti-dengue mosquito trial will take place by the end of this year," Liow told AFP.

"On my side everything is clear. Now it's under the ministry of natural resources and environment, who will submit the plan to cabinet for final approval," he said.

Malaysia's death rate from dengue fever has spiralled 53 percent this year and the public is being urged to take action to eradicate the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes -- which spread dengue -- from homes and workplaces.

Liow's comments came ahead of a World Health Organization regional meeting starting on Monday in the Malaysian capital.

WHO regional director Shin Young-Soo welcomed the field trials.

"Over the last 10 years the number of dengue cases in the world has doubled and the situation this year is significantly worse than last year, so we welcome how Malaysia is responding to this threat," he said.

In the first experiment of its kind in Asia, 2,000-3,000 male Aedes mosquitoes are to be released in two Malaysian states.

The insects in the study have been engineered so that their offspring quickly die, curbing the growth of the population in a technique researchers hope could eventually eradicate the dengue mosquito altogether.

Females of the Aedes species are responsible for spreading dengue fever.

However, environmentalists are concerned the GM mosquito could fail to prevent dengue and could also have unintended consequences.

Critics have said the larvae will only die if their environment is free of tetracycline, an antibiotic commonly used for medical and veterinary purposes.

Dengue infection leads to a sudden onset of fever with severe headaches, muscle and joint pains, and rashes, which can lead to death if left untreated.


Monsanto's Fortunes Turn Sour

By Andrew Pollack
New York Times
October 4, 2010

As recently as late December, Monsanto was named "company of the year" by Forbes magazine. Last week, the company earned a different accolade from Jim Cramer, the television stock market commentator. "This may be the worst stock of 2010," he proclaimed.

Monsanto, the giant of agricultural biotechnology, has been buffeted by setbacks this year that have prompted analysts to question whether its winning streak from creating ever more expensive genetically engineered crops is coming to an end.

The company's stock, which rose steadily over several years to peak at around $145 a share in mid-2008, closed Monday at $47.77, having fallen about 42 percent since the beginning of the year. Its earnings for the fiscal year that ended in August, which will be announced Wednesday, are expected to be well below projections made at the beginning of the year, and the company has abandoned its profit goal for 2012 as well.

The latest blow came last week, when early returns from this year's harvest showed that Monsanto's newest product, SmartStax corn, which contains an unprecedented eight inserted genes, was providing yields no higher than the company's less expensive corn that contains only three foreign genes.

Monsanto has already been forced to sharply cut prices on SmartStax and on its newest soybean seeds, called Roundup Ready 2 Yield, as sales fell below projections.

But there is more. Sales of Monsanto's Roundup, the widely used herbicide, has collapsed this year under an onslaught of low-priced generics made in China. Weeds are growing resistant to Roundup, dampening the future of the entire Roundup Ready crop franchise. And the Justice Department is investigating Monsanto for possible antitrust violations.

Until now, Monsanto's main challenge has come from opponents of genetically modified crops, who have slowed their adoption in Europe and some other regions. Now, however, the outspoken critics also include farmers and investors who were once in Monsanto's camp.

"My personal view is that they overplayed their hand," William R. Young, managing director of ChemSpeak and a consultant to investors in the chemical industry, said of Monsanto. "They are going to have to demonstrate to the farmer the advantage of their products."

Brett D. Begemann, Monsanto's executive vice president for seeds and traits, said the setbacks were not reflective of systemic management problems and that the company was already moving to deal with them.

"Farmers clearly gave us some feedback that we have made adjustments from," he said in an interview Monday.

Mr. Begemann said that Monsanto used to introduce new seeds at a price that gave farmers two thirds and Monsanto one third of the extra profits that would come from higher yields or lower pest-control costs. But with SmartStax corn and Roundup Ready 2 soybeans, the company's pricing aimed for a 50-50 split.

That backfired as American farmers grew only 6 million acres of Roundup Ready 2 soybeans this year, below the company's goal of 8 million to 10 million acres, and only 3 million acres of SmartStax corn, below the goal of 4 million.

So now Monsanto is moving back to the older arrangement. SmartStax seed for planting next year will be priced at about only $8 an acre more than other seeds, down from about a $24 premium for this year's seeds, Mr. Begemann said. The company will also offer credits for free seed to farmers who planted SmartStax this year and were disappointed.

Monsanto has also moved to offer farmers more varieties with fewer inserted genes. Some farmers have said they often have to buy traits they do not need - such as protection from the corn rootworm in regions where that pest is not a problem - in order to get the best varieties. This issue has surfaced in the antitrust investigation.

Monsanto's arch rival, DuPont's Pioneer Hi-Bred, has also capitalized on the limited variety under a campaign called "right product, right acre."

"If they don't have a need for rootworm then we won't have that trait in that product," Paul E. Schickler, the president of Pioneer, said in an interview.

After years of rapidly losing market share in corn seeds to Monsanto, Pioneer says it has gained back 4 percentage points in the last two years, to 34 percent. Monsanto puts its market share at 36 percent in 2009 and says it has remained flat this year. In soybeans, Pioneer puts its share at 31 percent, up 7 percent over the last two years; Monsanto puts its share at 28 percent last year and said it has dropped some this year.

Monsanto had a similar problem with lower-than-expected yields on Roundup Ready 2 soybeans last year, when the crop was first planted commercially, forcing it to slash the premium it charges.

But this year, the yield appears to be meeting expectations, according to OTR Global, a market research firm that surveys farmers and seed dealers. That could bode well for SmartStax next year.

One reason is that the Roundup Ready 2 gene is now offered in more varieties, making it better suited to more growing conditions. The yield of a crop is mainly determined by the seed's intrinsic properties, not the inserted genes. An insect protection gene will not make a poor variety a high yielder any more than spiffy shoes will turn a slow runner into Usain Bolt. In the first year of a new product, few varieties contain the new gene.

Still, Mosanto is bound at some point to face diminishing returns from its strategy of putting more and more insect-resistance and herbicide-resistance genes into the same crop, at ever increasing prices. Growth might have to eventually come from new traits, such as a drought-tolerant corn the company hopes to introduce in 2012.

"Technologically, they are still the market leader," said Laurence Alexander, an analyst at Jefferies & Company. "The main issue going forward is do they get paid for the technology they deliver. The jury is still out on that one. It's going to take a year or two of data to reassure people."


Plaintiffs Want Bio-Beet Stecklings Uprooted

By Wes Sander
Capital Press
October 06, 2010

Plaintiffs in a case against biotech sugar beets have asked a federal judge to order that the season's root stock for seed production be dug up.

Disrupting this year's stecklings would throw doubt on the availability of sufficient seed for a 2012 crop of beets with Monsanto's Roundup Ready genes. Stecklings are planted in the fall uprooted during the winter, then replanted to produce seed.

The unregulated use of Roundup Ready sugar beets was banned by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White as a result of a previous lawsuit. White ordered USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to conduct an environmental impact statement before deciding whether the genetically modified beets could be deregulated.

On Monday, plaintiffs -- the Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, the Sierra Club and High Mowing Organic Seeds -- filed a court argument saying APHIS had disobeyed the judge's order by permitting planting of the stecklings without environmental review.

White last week ordered plaintiffs to re-submit their request for a remedy on the stecklings. Plaintiffs had earlier requested a restraining order on planting, but USDA had already issued the permits and producers had already planted.

White gave the plaintiffs another chance to block production, indicating that his decision would partly hinge on whether USDA held back the information that it had permitted steckling production.

White ordered APHIS to "state under penalty of perjury exactly when and where it made the information public that the permits had been granted."

White ordered the agency to file a reply by Oct. 8. He scheduled a hearing on the request for Oct. 22.

The plaintiffs sued USDA on Sept. 9 to block its effort to allow restricted production of Roundup Ready beets for the next two years.

APHIS has said it intends to partially deregulate the seeds while it completes an environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act.

White ruled in the previous case that the agency must produce the document in order to deregulate the seeds or the beets they produce. But he kicked to USDA the question of how to regulate the seeds in the mean time.

USDA then issued steckling permits as the season was starting, saying their restrictions -- in addition to the fact that stecklings never flower -- meant that they would pose no danger of cross-pollination with organic crops.

In their argument, plaintiffs accuse USDA of treating the public process as a "game" in which it creates "one fait accompli after another" to allow planting without prior environmental review.

In the previous case, "... the Court explicitly made further planting without such prior review unlawful," they said. "Defendants responded with another brazen game of brinksmanship."

The agency said it expects to implement partial deregulation by the end of the year.


Officials Don't Plan to Restrict Biotech Crops

By Philip Brasher
The Des Moines Register
October 09, 2010

Washington, D.C. ? As the government wrestles with what to do about the growing problem of herbicide-resistant weeds, one idea apparently is off the table: restricting how farmers can use the biotech crops that are linked to the problem.

Scientists say farmers' over-reliance on Roundup herbicide, which the biotech soybeans and other crops are immune to, has led to increased problems with weeds that are resistant to the weedkiller and can cut crop yields.

But the Agriculture Department, which regulates the crops, has no plans to impose controls on their use, and a leading expert on the herbicide resistance issue says it's too late for government restrictions anyway.

Ann Wright, a deputy undersecretary at the USDA, told a House oversight subcommittee last week that the Obama administration is committed to protecting the continued use of genetically engineered seeds and lacks authority to restrict herbicide-tolerant crops even if it wanted to.

"This administration and USDA see biotechnology as being a very important tool for farmers to use in addressing some very important issues, globally and domestically," Wright said. "All the options we look at have to be supportive of that."

She said that limiting the use of herbicide-tolerant crops would force farmers to "return to older, often costly, and less environmentally friendly" ways of controlling weeds.

Michael Owen, a weed scientist at Iowa State University, said restrictions on planting the Roundup-immune crops would only delay the development of resistant weeds, not prevent it.

He said the best solution is to persuade farmers to stop relying exclusively on Roundup, the trade name for glyphosate, and use additional herbicides and other measures, such as rotating crops and cultivating problem areas. But that's a hard sell, he acknowledged, because the Roundup-resistant crops became popular with farmers precisely because they could keep weeds out of their fields with less labor and the use of a single chemical.

"Mother Nature will efficiently, effectively and inevitably move around anything that's done recurrently that's simple and convenient," he said.

Owen worked on a recent National Research Council study that warned that the weed problem was threatening to erase the environmental gains that the biotech crops had produced. The use of the crops has allowed farmers to reduce their tillage, which cuts down on erosion and protects the water quality in neighboring streams and ponds.

About 93 percent of the soybeans and 70 percent of the corn planted nationwide this year were herbicide-tolerant varieties.

Wright told the House panel that the USDA can regulate herbicide-tolerant crops only to prevent them from becoming pests themselves, not to stop their use from leading to resistant weeds.

The department's stand didn't sit well with Rep. Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat and former presidential candidate who is chairing a series of hearings on the superweed issue. Kucinich told Wright the department could impose restrictions on herbicide-tolerant crops under its authority to control noxious weeds.

Wright admitted she wasn't familiar with the noxious-weed section of the law, prompting Kucinich to respond, "You're really not? If the regulatory agency is not fully aware of the full extent of its authority, then that may be why we're having a problem here."

An official of the Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, said under questioning by Kucinich that EPA personnel have raised concerns about the weed-resistance issue with the USDA. The USDA "said to us, 'You've raised some good points. Let's talk about that,' " said Jim Jones, the EPA's deputy assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention. "Those conversations continue to this day."

Owen and other members of the research panel are in discussions with the USDA and additional scientists about setting up a summit meeting next spring in Washington to address the issue.

Kucinich said there would be additional hearings on the issue, but his power to pursue it is going to be limited if Democrats lose control of the House in next month's elections.


Bayer Settles Texas Suits Alleging Its GM Seed Contaminated Rice Fields

By Margaret Cronin Fisk and Joe Whittington
October 19, 2010

A Bayer AG unit settled a lawsuit brought by three Texas growers over claims its genetically engineered seed contaminated U.S. long-grain rice fields, causing a plunge in exports to Europe.

The settlement was reached Oct. 15 after three days of trial in federal court in St. Louis and announced to the judge over the weekend, said attorney Don Downing, who represents the Texas rice farmers. The settlement only covers claims by the growers in trial and doesn't affect more than 6,000 other claims, Downing said in an interview today.

"It's an historic event," Downing said. "It's the first time there has been a settlement in a farmers' case" against Bayer involving contaminated rice, he said.

Farmers in five states claim Bayer negligently contaminated the U.S. long-grain rice crop with its genetically modified LibertyLink seed, leading to export restrictions, bans on two kinds of high-yield seeds and a plunge in prices. Bayer, based in Leverkusen, Germany, denies negligence and disputes the damages claims, contending that rice sales rebounded after an initial drop.

The Texas trial was the seventh against Bayer in the genetically modified rice litigation. Bayer lost the first six, for a total of about $54 million. The company is challenging the verdicts in appeals and post-trial motions.

"Bayer CropScience has always been willing to settle such biotech rice litigation cases on reasonable terms and is pleased to be able to do so in this instance," CropScience Chief Executive Officer Bill Buckner said in an e-mailed statement. The company said it would continue mediation over the claims by the remaining plaintiffs. 'Small Farmers'

The three Texas growers were seeking $430,000 in damages, plus unspecified punitive damages, Downing said. They settled for $290,000, he said.

"These are relatively small farmers with relatively small acreage," he said.

The plaintiffs are John Gaulding and John Donaho, partners in the Gaulding farm in Winnie, Texas; James Gentz Jr. and Carol Barton Gentz, who also have a farm in Winnie; and Lee and Robbie Hafernick, owners of an operation in Edna, Texas. Winnie and Edna are near Houston.

Bayer lost the first three trials in federal court, one for about $2 million in December, another in February for about $1.5 million, and the third, for about $500,000 in July.

Bayer also lost the first three trials in state court, all in Arkansas. The first of those trials ended in a jury verdict of about $1 million, including $500,000 in punitive damages. The second resulted in a verdict of almost $48 million, with a punitive award of $42 million, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The third, for about $950,000 in July, didn't include punitive damages, Coffey said last week.

The federal case is In re Genetically Modified Rice Litigation, 06-md-1811, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri (St. Louis).

top of page