Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - June 2, 2004:
* Despite [Percy Schmeiser] court ruling, greens will continue to wage 'holy war' against Monsanto
* Modified crops
* France gives green light to new GMO field trials
* EU lifts ban on GM maize
* Report: Two Monsanto products up for European approval
* Scientists zero in on drought-resistant crops
Despite [Percy Schmeiser] court ruling, greens will continue to wage 'holy war' against Monsanto
- The Calgary Herald, By Will Verboven, June 2, 2004
BODY: Pity poor farmer Percy Schmeiser. A recent decision by the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed that he was not an innocent infringer in the Monsanto versus Schmeiser case. That's legalese for being declared a thief.
You would be forgiven for not realizing that declaration, as many media reports portrayed Schmeiser as a victim of both the decision and a corporate conspiracy by the Monsanto company, whose patent rights he stole. The court ruled in a 5-4 decision that Schmeiser infringed on Monsanto Canada's patent for a genetically altered canola gene when he used and re-used the company's seeds without permission after claiming they blew onto his field.
Normally, patent rights cases don't go to the Supreme Court, but this was no ordinary case.
Environmental lobby groups saw an opportunity with the Schmeiser case to advance their global holy war against genetically modified organism (GMO) plants.
That war has not gone well in North America -- in fact, it has been a disaster. That's because unlike gullible consumers and governments in Europe, those in North America are not swayed by the fear-mongering of special interest lobby groups about GM plants and food products.
Environmental groups also saw the Schmeiser case as a legal bullet to seriously wound Monsanto, their mortal enemy.
The hope was that the Supreme Court would take a broader perspective and rule on the legal basis of GMOs, their use and who owns them. If the court ruled on those matters, it could seriously set back GMO development and use in Canada. For lobby groups, it was an ideal way to circumvent public opinion and government policy on GMOs.
The chances of the Supreme Court doing exactly that were pretty good.
Previous judgments on the Harvard GM mouse and herbicide use cases gave the court a reputation of being favourable to environmental and politically correct causes.
The 5-4 judgment showed just how close the environmental groups were to winning the case.
As expected, environmental groups were outraged with the decision and engaged in a frenzy of sabre-rattling and bluster against the hated Monsanto. One press release thundered that there are now five million Percy Schmeisers and they could clog the courts with lawsuits.
The Council of Canadians pontificated that there would be a worldwide backlash against the decision. They urged people to take the battle to governments that support GMOs.
Such outlandish statements about agricultural issues from wealthy urban-based lobby organizations are amusing indeed. Perhaps rather than rallying people against GMOs, environmental groups should seek an easier way to deal with the spread of GMOs. All the city folks who run lobby groups need to do is spend their time and money convincing a mere 30,000 farmers who profitably grow GM canola, corn and soybeans in Canada how stupid they are to grow GM crops. Now, there's an idea for a reality TV show.
But what of poor Schmeiser in all this? How has he endured these past years while the case worked its way through the courts?
Well, it hasn't been all that difficult. For most of those years, he saw no need to actually farm his own land and rented it out to others.
He probably didn't have the time to farm anyway, as he became a poster boy for the worldwide anti-GMO environmental movement.
He travelled to more than 30 countries at the expense of lobby groups and saw donations pour in from around the world to support his case.
In a way, it was fortunate he lost the case, as now he can continue travelling the world as a professional victim of the evil Monsanto.
That is, of course, as long as environmental groups and their allies find him useful -- particularly in fundraising events.
Interestingly, in a few years, such a GMO patent seed case may not happen again. That's because the oilseed crop in this case, GM canola, will have been hybridized like corn.
That will mean that replanting the previous year's seed, as Schmeiser did, will no longer work, as the seed will not contain the superior traits of the original hybrid seed.
To obtain superior genetic traits like herbicide, disease or pest resistance, farmers will have to purchase the seed every year from seed companies.
Environmental groups portray such ownership and sale of seeds as a social disaster with farmers becoming slaves to multinationals -- who will control the world's seed supply.
That shows an appalling lack of understanding of agriculture and the independent nature of farmers.
For example, hybrid corn seed has been sold by seed companies around the world since the 1920s with no evidence that farmers became enslaved to anyone.
But then, city-based environmental groups are conveniently ignorant of farming realities when they have a money-making cause to promote.
From that perspective, the Supreme Court decision on the Schmeiser case was also good for environmental lobby groups, as their anti-GMO campaigns can now continue -- to their fundraising benefit.
The Food and Agriculture Organization and other United Nations agencies are a prime source of the flawed public policy that has stymied the application of gene-splicing technology to the development of new crop varieties for poor countries ("A gene revolution," Editorial, May 25).
Last year, the United Nations put into effect a "biosafety protocol" focused narrowly on the bogus category of gene-spliced organisms. Also last year, the United Nations' Codex Alimentarius Commission promulgated unscientific, excessive requirements for gene-spliced foods. These flawed regulatory policies make the use of gene-splicing - a proven, safe, superior technology - prohibitively expensive to use, except for a handful of rich countries' high-volume commodity crops. A "gene revolution" in the developing world will have to be preceded by a regulatory revolution. That is a long road to hoe.
Henry I. Miller, Stanford, California
France gives green light to new GMO field trials
- Reuters, 06.01.04
France gave the green light to new field trials of genetically modified crops (GMOs) on Tuesday, detailing eight test sites that in the past have been the target for opponents to the new technology.
The farm ministry said the experiments, covering eight types of GMO maize and mostly in the south-west of the country, were part of its regular biotech research programme and followed its first public consultation on the proposals via the Internet.
"The field trials are aimed at observing the new strains' behaviour in real conditions," it said in a statement.
The decision comes just weeks after the European Union lifted its five-year ban on approvals for biotech food varieties by clearing imports of a new type of canned sweetcorn.
In May the government said it had received proposals from U.S. biotech giant Monsanto (nyse: MON - news - people), DuPont (nyse: DD - news -
people) (nyse: DD - news - people) unit Pioneer (nyse: DD - news - people), French research laboratory Geves and France's Biogemma, owned by seed-maker Limagrain, to undertake new tests.
The government has allowed such GMO trials for several years, regularly prompting demonstrations from opponents to the new technology who fear potential cross-contamination with conventional crops. Many fields have since been ripped up.
Last month, a court in southeast France fined three members of Confederation Paysanne, the group linked to France's most famous anti-GMO protester Jose Bove, for destroying a trial field of Monsanto GMO rapeseed in 1997.
Wary of strong public feelings on the GMO issue, the government this year submitted the trial requests to an Internet consultation before approval.
It said it received some 2,700 emails from the public, among which 18 specifically concerned the 2004 crop trial programme.
EU lifts ban on GM maize
- The East African Standard (Nairobi), June 1, 2004, By Argwings Odera
The European Union this week lifted a six-year moratorium on Genetically Modified maize, surprising protagonists in the "food wars".
Campaigners against GM food saw the EU volte face as cowardice in the face of a suit filed in the World Trade Organisation by the US, the world's biggest GM foods producer. The US argued that the moratorium, in place since 1998, had blocked an estimated $250 million in annual sales from its heavily subsidised farms.
Anti-GM campaigner Eric Gall of Greenpeace said: "The European Commission is supposed to represent the interests of European citizens and the environment, but it has chosen in this case to defend US farmers and narrow agro-business interests."
Genetic modification involves the copying and transfer of genes from one living organism to another - in this case from an animal to a food plant. The plant's genetics are altered to improve resistance to disease, weather and pests.
The EU announcement, in Brussels, stipulated that the GM maize, called Bt-11, developed by the Swiss biotechnology company, Syngenta, is to be canned, clearly labelled as GM food, and sold for human consumption in supermarkets.
EU's commissioner in charge of food safety, Mr David Byrne, said scientists had assessed the maize to be as safe as any conventional maize.
Africa, especially Zambia, has been accused of being beholden to European anti-GM campaigners who express fears that there is no scientific proof showing the long-term effect of human beings eating GM food.
Faced with a killer famine in 2002, the Zambian government rejected 26,000 tonnes of US food aid in October of that year because the shipments contained GM corn that was not thought to be safe. The Zambian agriculture minister expressed concern that the maize could pollute the country's seed stock and hurt its export markets.
Kari scientists say Africa needs more explanation and full access to the EU scientific assessment instead of the usual announcements from press.
"It would be sad if Zambians died in their thousands from starvation because of EU fears while they (EU) knew their position did not have basis in science. This is an international scam that needs to be investigated, and I believe that the EU position was political," said a senior scientist who preferred not to be named, fearful of losing foreign donor support for research projects.
Zambia's position was informed by the EU moratorium, which threatened trade sanctions on any trading partner who welcomed GM maize. The EU, accused of misleading Africans to the extent of prescribing to them death by hunger, has since denied that the moratorium influenced Zambia's rejection of the food.
The Zambian position sent consternated the world. In Washington, the Bush administration expressed fear that other countries in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East would also reject GM food.
This compelled the US to file a lawsuit last year with the WTO against the EU for imposing a ban they said was based on political considerations instead of scientific fact.
Kenya's position in the debate has been delicate, with pressure being exerted on the government to allow importation of GM food, just like its neighbour, Uganda.
Proponents see GM crops to be the solution to Africa's hunger, while their opponents argue that farmers on the continent have trouble accessing the markets they need to sell their crops and genetic engineering of crops is not their biggest priority.
Africa is sufficiently fertile and only needs sound agricultural policies, support for hi-tech farm implements, removal of US and European farm subsidies and resumption of fair trade to prosper.
Kenya Agricultural Research Institute scientists, led by Prof James Ochanda and Dr Florence Wambugu, have made significant strides in agricultural bioscience studies.
Dr Wambugu argues that the anti-GM campaigners were, in reality, opposed to Africa's advancement in bioscience. Her comments, she laments, have been distorted to make it appear as if she advocates for the supply and importation of GM products. South Africa is a major global producer of GM products alongside Egypt. Kari scientists have been struggling with their own research into GM maize, among other crops like Wambugu's disease-resistant sweet potato.
A GM maize research laboratory facility that President Mwai Kibaki was scheduled to open early this year was put off, even though the centre has carried on with tests widely seen as illegal because of Kenya's anti-GM position and the absence of legislation regulating research and planting for commercial purposes.
The Kenyan government policy bans all importation of GM products even though food aid distributor World Food Programme admitted recently that relief maize distributed to Kenya could be genetically modified from one of their main US markets.
Report: Two Monsanto products up for European approval
- St. Louis Business Journal, June 2, 2004
The European Union is scheduled to consider this month two genetically modified Monsanto Co. products for animal feed and industrial processing, according to published reports.
The votes are scheduled just weeks after the union lifted its five-year ban on genetically modified products by approving imports of Syngenta's genetically modified canned sweet corn.
The union's environmental experts are slated to vote June 16 on a type of Monsanto's genetically modified rapeseed, or canola, called GT73, modified to resist Roundup herbicide, the reports said. Later in the month, they are slated to vote on the NK603 maize, or corn, also designed to resist Roundup.
St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. (NYSE: MON) develops insect- and herbicide-resistant crops and other agricultural products.
Scientists zero in on drought-resistant crops
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 06/01/2004, By Rachel Melcer
In a hot, dry growth chamber at Monsanto Co., a few green soybean plants with small flowers and a handful of pods show scientist Stan Dotson that he has made a breakthrough.
The genetic traits that he and his colleagues identified, then engineered into the plants, allowed the soybeans to survive under drought conditions. Unmodified control plants in nearby pots withered and died.
"I'm really excited, but I'm also really nervous. ... As much as we are proud of this, there is a lot of important work left to do," said Dotson, director of yield traits and a science fellow at Creve Coeur-based Monsanto, the world's leading provider of genetically modified crops.
That work could lead to wider acceptance worldwide of crops that carry genetic traits with obvious benefits for mankind, experts say.
Dotson's effort to develop drought-resistant crops has reached a critical stage. Aided by powerful computers and a growing knowledge of plant genomics, his team identified genes that carry the desired traits and transferred them into a type of soybean grown by American farmers.
Monsanto scientists in Mystic, Conn., are doing similar work with corn.
If all goes well in further tests and in gaining regulatory approval, Monsanto could begin marketing drought-resistant crops by the end of the decade.
Similar work is under way at research institutions and competing companies, including Syngenta AG and DuPont.
Drought-resistant crops hold huge commercial potential, market analysts say.
What's more, the corn and soybeans could be the first products in a line of "next-generation" genetically modified crops being developed - crops that hold obvious benefits for humanity and consumers, in addition to farmers' pocketbooks.
These include soybeans that produce healthier cooking oils or that are enriched with cholesterol-fighting Omega 3, and corn tailored for making ethanol or that carries nutrients such as Vitamin A.
"The next generation is really what's needed to convert the European continent" which for years has shunned genetically modified crops, said Frank Mitsch, an analyst with Fulcrum Global Partners in New York.
That would open an important new market to Monsanto. But even without Europe, drought-resistant crops could be a big success, said Chief Technical Officer Robert Fraley.
"It's an incredibly important technology for the marketplace," he said. "I think they're going to fit on most acres where crops are grown."
Success with drought-resistant crops also would boost the company's image, Mitsch said. Monsanto took a hit last month when it shelved efforts to commercialize genetically modified wheat in the face of food-industry and consumer opposition. The move led some critics to speculate that modified crops were reaching the end of commercial opportunity.
Yet Monsanto has "a lot in the pipeline that's going to be rolled out over the next five years or so," Mitsch said. "Management did the right thing (with wheat) in terms of saying, 'OK, the market's not ready for it; let's not jam it down their throats.' ... It was going to create more ill will than profits."
Fraley, who oversees Monsanto's research and development, said the company is buzzing with biotechnology. It feels like the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Monsanto made the first breakthroughs in Roundup-Ready and insect-resistant GM crops, he said. Those products now are grown on 75 percent of U.S. farmland and 10 percent of crop acres worldwide.
"What's exciting to me is to see how this genomic science can be translated into products, even now at this early stage, that can benefit farmers and consumers around the world," Fraley said.
Drought-resistant crops, in particular, have potential to generate both money and a positive image for the industry, analysts and researchers say.
"When you think of a contribution that agriculture (science) can and must make to the future of the world, it is an agriculture that is sustainable and that doesn't use up water," said Roger Beachy, president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, a non-profit research institute in Creve Coeur.
About 80 percent of fresh water used in the United States is for farming. In the developing world, where drought typically leads to famine, that figure is nearly 98 percent. Not enough water is left for consumption by a growing population, so it is crucial to develop crops that require less, Beachy said.
Scientists in three labs at the Danforth center are working on drought-resistant crops, he said. Their work is different than at Monsanto, as researchers are discovering several methods to reach the same goal. The Danforth center donates its technology for use in developing countries and sells licenses to companies for commercial use elsewhere.
The approaches of public and private researchers "are quite complementary and not competitive at all," Beachy said. And they should ensure that the poor have equal access to the technology.
Monsanto, though driven by profit, has taught scientists in developing countries to genetically modify and improve local crops that aren't worth the company's investment. It has donated for humanitarian use some technology and plant genome data that it didn't need for competitive reasons.
Dotson said he knows, as he develops drought-tolerant crops, that his first goal is to create commercial products for the United States and other countries that support and use biotechnology. But he has a parallel ideal.
"It could be a really important boon to subsistence farming" in areas where drought and famine are critical issues, he said. "I have hope for that. And it makes me feel, when I come to work every day, like I'm doing something really important. That really keeps me motivated."