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Posts Tagged ‘agriculture’

Well, the folks at ETC have another view on the Enola Been Patent appeal decision that I wrote about yesterday. Hope Shand’s comments give a bitter-sweet taste to what I saw as a happy ending of a tale that started out as a horror story. I have admired the work of Hope and Pat, RAFI and ETC, for many years. I agree with her on her points, but disagree with the PR approach on this one.

Specifically, I agree that the damage to farmer livelihoods should be addressed (and that is the bitterest piece of all), and recognize that, as in most court cases, Proctor’s lawyers delayed the process to suit their clients advantage, I am less inclined to see it as a “hollow” victory, which strongly implies that it is without meaning. It has meaning, it just doesn’t result in a full measure of justice. Unfortunately, justice will not be a meal served in a single course.

The patent system is a mess. Concentrated corporate interests influence the entire political process and as such PTO. A complete institutional overhaul is needed to address concentration in the agricultural sector, corporate influence on politics, dangerous technologies and practices, and our overall regulatory approach to plant genetic systems. But, I don’t think we can realistically expect change to come in any manner other than small victories that build cultural recognition of the issues and political reformation. I don’t see a revolution welling up outside the door to demand reform. I’d like to see Prius filled streets of Port Townsend – where everyone’s a “locavore” but government policy glazes peoples eyes – filled with pitchfork wielding populist radicals. In fact I offer tine sharpening services. But we also have to set realistic objectives, with accomplishments that we can attain, or it’s all doom and gloom.

I think that ETC, CGIAR, and others should pat themselves on the back for remaining vigilant, seeing this case to its current status, and continuing the fight. Don’t break any arms doing it, but we have to celebrate even small victories when the daily news on the agricultural front is constantly filled with such disastrous tides. Wow I sound like my mom, the preschool teacher, writing about giving gold stars – but I believe it is true. Don’t rest on laurels or imagine them more grand than they are, but an overly dark approach doesn’t do much to fuel those of us who continue to work for change. The Enola case helps builds a foundation. Bittersweet, but a victory nonetheless. I’m grateful for all the work that those on the case have put into it. And for the continued fight from folks like ETC.

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Obviously I need to be a bit careful on this, as Organic Seed Alliance is as plaintiff in the case, but I am working on an editorial piece that should be up next week. Press release below, actually complaint.

 

FARMERS, CONSUMER ADVOCATES, CONSERVATIONISTS CHALLENGE FEDERAL APPROVAL OF GENETICALLY ENGINEERED BEETS

Negative Impacts on Crops, Business, Environment, and Consumer Rights Cited

San Francisco, CA, January 23, 2008 – Today, farmers, food safety advocates, and conservation groups filed suit in federal court challenging the deregulation of herbicide-tolerant “Roundup Ready” sugar beets by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Attorneys from the Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice are representing plaintiffs Organic Seed Alliance, Sierra Club, High Mowing Seeds, and the Center for Food Safety in the lawsuit, which seeks a thorough assessment of environmental, health, and associated economic impacts of the deregulation as required by federal law.

This spring, commercial sugar beet farmers in the western United States will begin planting Roundup Ready sugar beets, which are genetically engineered (GE) to be resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup. Sugar beet seeds are primarily grown in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, also an important seed growing area for crops closely related to sugar beets, such as organic chard and table beets. The wind-pollinated GE sugar beets will inevitably cross-pollinate with related crops being grown in close proximity, contaminating conventional sugar beets and organic chard and table beet crops.

Contamination from genetically engineered pollen is a major risk to both the conventional and organic seed farmers, who have a long history in the Willamette Valley,” said the Organic Seed Alliance’s Director of Advocacy, Matthew Dillon. “The economic impact of contamination affects not only these seed farmers, but the beet and chard farmers who rely on the genetic integrity of their varieties. The government is playing fast and loose with these farmers’ livelihoods.”

GE sugar beets are wind pollinated, and there is a strong possibility that pollen from Roundup Ready sugar beets could contaminate non-GE sugar beets and important food crops such as chard, and red and yellow beets (or “table beets”). Such biological contamination would also be devastating to organic farmers, who face debilitating market losses if their crops are contaminated by a GE variety. Contamination also reduces the ability of conventional farmers to decide what to grow, and limits consumer choice of natural foods.

According to Tom Stearns, President of High Mowing Seeds, “the issue of releasing GMO crops without serious research or oversight risks the security of our food supply and the economic viability of our nation’s non-GMO and organic farmers.”

In addition to the risk of crop contamination, scientific studies have shown that applications of Roundup, a glyphosate-based herbicide, increase significantly when Roundup Ready crops are grown. Increased use of this herbicide is instrumental in the creation of Roundup-resistant “super weeds”.

Contrary to the industry’s mantra that these plants reduce chemical use, studies have shown that herbicide use actually increases with the planting of Roundup Ready crops,” said Kevin Golden, of the Center for Food Safety. “Just as overuse of antibiotics eventually breeds drug resistant bacteria, overuse of Roundup eventually breeds Roundup-resistant weeds. When that happens, farmers are forced to rely on even more toxic herbicides to control those weeds.”

Crops that have been genetically engineered to withstand herbicides made up 81% of the GE crops planted globally in 2006. 99% of the herbicide tolerant crops grown in the U.S. are “Roundup Ready”. According to an independent analysis of USDA data by former Board of Agriculture Chair of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Charles Benbrook, GE crops increased herbicide use in the U.S. by 122 million pounds – a 15-fold increase – between 1994 (when GE herbicide-tolerant crops were introduced) to 2004.

The law requires the government to take a hard look at the impact that deregulating Roundup Ready sugar beets will have on human health, agriculture and the environment,” said Greg Loarie of Earthjustice. “The government cannot simply ignore the fact that deregulation will harm organic farmers and consumers, and exacerbate the growing epidemic of herbicide-resistant weeds.”

These herbicide-resistant weeds have spread rapidly over the past seven years, and experts agree that their proliferation is directly linked to the introduction of Roundup Ready crops, including soybeans, cotton and corn. As recently as 2000, there were no documented cases of weeds resistant to glyphosate in the Corn Belt. Today, marestail, common and giant ragweed, waterhemp and Palmer pigweed are weeds with confirmed resistance to glyphosate. Cocklebur, lambsquarters, morning glory, velvetleaf, and others are also proving tougher to kill. In total, Roundup-resistant weeds have been reported on 2.4 million acres of U.S. cropland.

The sugar produced by Roundup Ready beets, which may have greatly elevated levels of the herbicide glyphosphate, may be included in products ranging from candy to breakfast cereal to bread. At this point, none of those products will require labeling of any kind to indicate the presence of sugar derived from Roundup Ready sugar beets.

As a consumer, I’m very concerned about genetically-engineered sugar making its way into the products I eat, as well as genetic contamination of conventional and organically grown varieties of table beets and chard,” said the Sierra Club’s Neil Carman. “It’s unacceptable for consumers to be exposed to untested genetically engineered ingredients in foods that aren’t labeled. At a time when consumers are facing multiple food safety challenges, we don’t need more corporations messing with our food supply.”

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Fedco Seeds, a fantastic cooperative seed company from Maine that specializes in fresh market varieties for the Northeast, has reported GMO contamination in two of their sweet corn lots. The 2007 Feco catalog identifies varieties Tuxedo and Lancelot (both are hybrid varieties) as testing positive in random sampling. 

It’s tough to find information on their web site on this, but on page seven of their catalog they do a nice job of describing the situation. You can go HERE for a PDF of the Fedco catalog and scroll down to page seven.

Fedco has taken the Safe Seed Pledge, tests their varieties for contamination , and is run by some of the best seed people in the business. CR Lawn is a seed wizard and works with great staff like Roberta Bailey and Nikos Kavanya. Thanks for all your work guys.

Also, an update from Fedco on the Seminis-Monsanto issue. Two years ago when I reported on Monsanto’s buyout of Seminis, many seed companies were in a bit of a dilemma. Seminis has some great varieties that their customers have grown to love, but many of their customers also weren’t fond of Monsanto. Fedco decided to work diligently to replace their Seminis varieties with equivalent genetics. CR Lawn writes of the progress towards replacement :

So How Are We Doing? Two years ago when Monsanto bought out Seminis, we decided to phase out our Seminis line. ..At the time of our decision, Seminis was our biggest supplier, accounting for 70 varieties and more than 11% of our gross sales. We set about, through our research and trials, to replace the Seminis selections with the best varieties we could find. In two years we have fulfilled exactly half our quest. For 9 of the varieties we have found alternate sources and for 26 more we have found comparable or superior replacements. We pledge to persevere. Some niches will be easier and quicker to fill than others.

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Two links for you to check out. The first is GRAIN, a fantastic international organization “which promotes the sustainable management and use of agricultural biodiversity based on people’s control over genetic resources and local knowledge”.

The second is a link to the book Good Crop/Bad Crop written by GRAIN’s Canadian coordinator Devlin Kuyek. The blurb: In Good Crop / Bad Crop Devlin Kuyek deftly examines the economic and environmental background of the modern seed trade from a Canadian perspective. Historically seeds were viewed more as public goods than as commodities, and plant breeding objectives were widely shared by scientists, governments, and farmers. Now that approach is changing; seeds have become increasingly commodified, and plant breeding has become subject to corporate priorities.

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Warning – this is not objective reporting and contains cynicism and sarcasm. But then again, who needs objectivity, not our Federal agencies…read on….

On September 26th Monsanto announced the “Biotech Yield Endorsement Program”(BYE), a partnership with the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC) which will give a 20% discount on crop insurance premiums to farmers who plant Monsanto varieties that feature YieldGard Plus with Roundup Ready Corn 2 or YieldGard VT Triple technologies. In recent days there have been a slew of new press releases and articles on this (it is time to be buying your spring seed you know).

Before I get into this and complete blow a gasket, let me first key you in on the mission of the FCIC. From the FCIC web page:

The Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC) promotes the economic stability of agriculture through a sound system of crop insurance and providing the means for the research and experience helpful in devising and establishing such insurance.”

Product not Practices, and Protocols without Public Oversight

The big news isn’t the USDA having a partnership with Monsanto, as they already hold a joint patent on Terminator Technology with the seed company, but rather that it is the first time that the FCIC has allowed a premium discount for a specific commercial product. Normally the FCIC supports farmers making good decisions in practices, that is minimizing risk by choosing the best strategies in irrigation practices, pest management, harvesting or processing, and so on. Product premiums are a bit odd. If John Deere makes a cultivator that leaves less of the harvest for the field mice (thus reducing risk of loss), should farmers get a discount on their crop insurance for using the new model? Is the FCIC really going to go into the product endorsement business?

On September 26th I called FCIC to confirm that this tax-payer funded, federal insurance program, administered under the US Department of Agriculture was indeed offering such a program. FCIC Board Executive Secretary, Brent Doanne, did confirm that this was a first for the organization, but noted that section 1523(D) of the Federal Crop Insurance Act allowed for the development of discount policies if a company could prove that their product clearly demonstrated reduced risk in the field. In this instance the FCIC board allowed for Monsanto’s field trial data to stand as sufficient evidence of clear demonstration; third party verification that the biotech products really reduce risk and maximize yield wasn’t necessary according to Mr. Doanne. But, as he said, “They have thousands and thousands of acres of data.” And hey, big numbers always means good science.

Let’s outsource regulation to the private sector!!

Yes, yes, the government has spent billions of dollars creating agencies to manage regulatory oversight of our environment, public health, economy, and so on. But people still get sick and rivers get polluted, so maybe they haven’t done such a good job. In fact, they’ve done such a bad job let’s go ahead and hire someone else to do it for us. Besides, we can’t afford to spend tax-payer money on regulatory testing – as we have the newly approved energy bill and the oil industry needs that $13.5 Billion in taxpayer funded incentives that the new Energy Bill provides because they only made $35 billion in NET profits last year. Let’s outsource regulatory oversight to people who know how to make money, not spend it, like those government bureaucrats.

Okay, enough sarcasm. The reality is that the FCIC trusts the Monsanto generated data, but they are going to keep their eyes open. Mr. Doanne did say that the FCIC will monitor yield for several years to determine if Monsanto’s products really do result in reduced yield risk. I find this to be an odd regulatory protocol, kind of like buying a mail order bride isn’t it? Not sure what you’ll get but boy they say she’s a beauty, so let’s trust em. Just as the FDA and other federal agencies are now trusting corporations to verify their products efficacy and safety (and isn’t Vioxx great? And nah, OxyContin isn’t addictive), so now another USDA agency continues to avoid regulatory responsibility. They ignore not only their public duty, but deny the immense economic benefit that unregulated approval of these products has for the corporations whose revolving doors they sashay in and out of like belles at the ball.

What? Benefit to Monsanto?

As states such as Iowa launch anti-trust investigation into Monsanto marketing practices the FCIC has in one fell swoop approved a policy that will result in an obvious marketing advantage to the company that already dominates the corn market. In addition to calling Mr. Doanne I also tracked down Curt Sindergard. Mr. Sindergard is a FCIC board member, and Iowas soybean and corn farmer, and seed dealer for DeKalb – which is of course owned by Monsanto. Mr. Sindergard told me that the FCIC board does not see this as favoritism to Monsanto in that other seed companies may petition for similar discount programs. “Monsanto invested a lot of money and time in getting this approved by the (FCIC) board. Other seed companies, competitors to Monsanto, will likely benefit from the precedent and put their own traits forward for similar programs.”

Mr. Sindergard also noted that this will benefit biotech usage, and that the usage of any technology that reduces risk of yield loss is a good thing for farmers. As he put it, “We (FCIC Board) see this as a way to support future enhancement of biotech traits.” Is this the FCIC mission? To support particular technologies? I thought they were in the insurance business. Oh yes, but the insurance business often colludes with the pharmaceutical sector in human health, why not in agricultural systems? Could it be that having a representative from the biotech seed sector on the FCIC board, such as Mr. Sindergard, is just a tad bit inappropriate? Just what does he know about insurance? Economics? Research? Here’s his bio: http://www.rma.usda.gov/fcic/sindergard.pdf

I suppose being a deacon he does have some insurance background. Plant your seeds and say your prayers.

But Hey, the FCIC gives Organic special treatment too

Meanwhile organic farmers are forced to pay an additional 5% surcharge for federal crop insurance, but are paid out on claims at conventional crop values as opposed to the higher, true, organic market value. When I asked Mr. Doane about this surcharge he said that it was, “Necessary because of the higher risk associated with organic farming.” When I pressed him to document that additional risk with research he said that the FCIC was still collecting data to determine just how high the level of risk was from growing organically. Well thank goodness they’re doing their regulatory homework and spending our dollars researching the dangers of organics. In other words organics is presumed guilty of being a substandard system of production with higher risk until proven innocent, whereas industry driven biotech claims are taken as the gold standard of acceptable research? Does the FCIC have an organic or low-input agricultural representative on their board? No. At least not until Monsanto goes organic.

 

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Bayer-Crop Science’s vegetable seed division is known as Nunhems. Nunhems announced today that they have aquired what is likely the world’s largest lettuce seed company – Paragon – with annual sales of over $8 million in what is thought to be a $60 lettuce seed industry (no one really knows, the seed companies keep that very private, so these are analyst’s guetimations based on publicly traded companies that do report sales). This will place Nunhems in direct competition with Semenis (Monsanto) who also has a huge lettuce division (and one with RoundUp Ready Lettuce in the pipeline). The only good news in this consilidation – I hear from the seed industry reps I know that Nunhems is not planning on investing in transgenic/GMO vegetable crops.  Hope the rumor is true.

Reuter’s article on the buyout

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Here’s a broadcast from KPLU radio that reports on research being conducted by Dr. Stephen Jones of Washington State University (Pullman). Dr. Jones has been an ongoing inspiration to many of us in the world of plant breeding. He was the first plant breeder I asked to join the board of Organic Seed Alliance, and was honored when he accepted. He’s a public plant breeder who believes and acts from a standpoint that his job is to improve the public good via improving wheat varieties. He’s not working for royalties, for corporate favors, or a new campus building bought and built by Monsanto with a bronze plaque honoring his name. And he teaches his students these ethics along with excellent classical plant breeding methods.

Enough of me. The radio broadcast.

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