* The Future of GM Crops in Europe
* How the State is a Roadblock to Progress
* Limits to Biotechnology
* Is There a Future in India for Genetically Modified Seeds?
* Rapid Rise in Seed Prices Draws U.S. Scrutiny
* FAO Conference on Agricultural Biotechnologies Stresses Role of Smallholders
* Zero Tolerance' of GM: New problems with the Import of Feed?
* South Africa: Battle Looms Over GM Foods
* USDA: Biotechnology Risk Assessment Research Grants Program
* Today - NPR Science Friday: Genetically Modified Crops
The Future of GM Crops in Europe
- Scientific Alliance, Cambridge, UK; March 12, 2010. http://www.scientific-alliance.org
GM crops have, for many years, been a source of controversy in the EU. After a 6 year effective moratorium on new approvals, a revised regulatory system finally began to function in 2004. However, since then, the only crops approved have been soy and maize varieties for import. Now, after a 12 year gap, and 13 years after the original dossier was submitted, a further crop has at last been approved for European cultivation. This is the Amflora potato variety, developed by BASF and to be grown purely for industrial processing.
Conventional potatoes, like nearly all crops, contain starch granules made up of two glucose polymers: amylopectin, a highly branched molecule, and amylose, which is linear. It is the amylose component which is responsible for the common behaviour of, for example, cornflour and wheat flour; including the setting of sauces on cooling and the staling of bread. This behaviour, known as retrogradation, is due to alignment of the linear amylose chains and is undesirable in many industrial applications such as paper coating.
Certain starches, such as so-called 'waxy' maize, contain little or no amylose, but others must be chemically modified to be useful in these specialised applications. The availability of Amflora potatoes means that such specialised starch will now be grown in Europe, providing economic benefits for local industry and farmers.
This approval is a significant breakthrough, coming as it does after so many years of stalemate in the EU. Since the lifting of the moratorium, a significant number of dossiers have been submitted, but all have been for import only. Even in these cases, the entrenched opposition from member states such as Austria, Greece and Italy meant that, despite consistent positive assessments by scientists working on behalf of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), there has never been a qualified majority of votes for approval by the Council.
In such cases, the system allows for the final decision to be made by the Commission which, until Amflora came along, had always taken the rational approach and approved the applications in line with EFSA recommendation. Not so, however, for this landmark application for a new crop actually to be planted in European soil. The then Environment Commissioner, Stavros Dimas, had an opportunity to take the expected positive decision following an inconclusive vote by the Agriculture Ministers in 2007. He failed to do so, and the dossier was sent back to EFSA for further consideration, specifically regarding the presence of an antibiotic resistance marker gene.
This gene codes for resistance to the antibiotic kanamycin, which is used relatively infrequently in human medicine. Although there is a hypothetical risk of resistance being transmitted to disease-causing bacteria via micro-organisms in the gut, it is recognised that there is a vastly greater problem of resistance caused simply by the overuse of antibiotics and the failure of patients to complete courses of treatment. EFSA has come to the conclusion several times that the presence of the maker gene should not be a barrier to approval.
However, it has taken the formation of a new Commission for a science-based decision to be made. According to John Dalli, the new health commissioner, 'any delay in taking a decision now would have simply been unjustified', and the formal decision was made on 2nd March. This follows a commitment by Commission president Barroso to a more science-based approach to the issue, which included his decision to transfer responsibility for approval from DG Environment to Health. DG Environment has long opposed the spread of crop biotechnology in Europe, and a change of commissioner would in itself have been unlikely to alter that, given the strong influence of the environmental lobby throughout the DG.
It might be tempting now to believe that this important decision will have cleared the logjam and make the progress of further dossiers more assured. But things are never that simple in European politics. Opposition to the Commission decision has been predictably swift in coming with, for example, the Italian agriculture minister threatening a continuing fight by a number of member states, the expected protests from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, and the headline 'Fury and EU approves GM potato' in the UK Independent.
Given this, the floodgates are unlikely to open any time soon. But in many ways this is the perfect product to be approved at this time. For one thing, it is not for food use, which immediately removes one major objection from activists. And potatoes as a crop are very unlikely to give rise to horizontal gene transfer, as propagation is via tubers rather than pollinated seed and there are no wild relatives of potatoes in Europe if any tiny amount of pollen was to be transferred outside a field. The one weak point has always been the presence of an antibiotic resistance marker gene, once common in GM crops but now seen as an outdated technology.
The other significant new factor in the equation is the Commission's intention to change the current system so that, although scientific assessments will still be undertaken centrally by EFSA, each member state will be able to decide whether to allow a crop to be grown on its soil. Full details will emerge later this year, but this seems a pragmatic decision, recognising the reality that certain countries are still viscerally opposed to GM crops, while others are far more welcoming. Spanish farmers, for example, have grown insect-resistance maize continually since the mid-90s, and Amflora is due to be grown in Germany, Sweden and the Czech republic.
Since the likelihood of decisive qualified majority voting in the medium term is slight at best, allowing member states to make their own decisions seems sensible. However, it is a significant step backwards in terms of integrated EU policy and a single agricultural market. If products are approved in one country, they may be effectively banned from import into another; the situation within Europe could become more like the current one between the EU and the USA.
For those who see the glass as half full, this situation may just allow the more rapid (or, at least, less slow) introduction of crop biotechnology into Europe and put pressure on those member states still resisting to see what their farmers might be missing and reconsider their decision. It would, for example, be fascinating to see how things developed in France. Generally thought of as anti-GM, the reality is that farmers in the south grew GM maize enthusiastically when permitted to do so. Given the importance of the farming lobby in France, it is difficult to believe that the government would resist pressure to follow the lead of other countries.
On the other hand, if the glass is half empty, the piecemeal introduction of GM crops in Europe may simply be too little, too late. Internal trade barriers could continue to keep the process a slow one. Only time will tell. But in the meantime, the new Commission deserves warm congratulations for resisting the green lobby and making a sensible and long-overdue decision.
How the State is a Roadblock to Progress
- James Woudhuysen and Norman Lewis, Spiked, March 11, 2010
Full commentary at http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/site/article/8303/
'Red tape-obsessed, visionless governments are holding back the kind of big and risky innovation society needs.'
Science is rarely seen as a positive end in itself. The New Scientism, which deifies science and makes it the chief arbiter of public policy (on climate change, obesity, alcohol, smoking and so on), is alive and corrosive. Alongside this, the recession has reinforced the view that both British science and science education at secondary and higher levels should be treated as purely economic matters: as either good, but in need of efficiency cuts (Drayson), or as very good and not deserving of cuts (everyone else).
These two prejudices about science, and the reluctance to give science free rein on its own account, leads to a policy outlook that always wants to control science, and in particular to subject the broader process of technological innovation to the dead hand of regulation.
The panic about climate change has done much to make the regulation of innovation seem not just necessary, but positively desirable. In a little noticed speech on ‘Red-Green renewal’, delivered back in 2006, the foreign secretary, David Miliband, went so far as to say that mandatory tradable emissions standards for car manufacturers, tougher energy ratings for products, and ‘regulating out of existence high polluting electrical equipment and household appliances’ should be ‘a new mission for the EU’.
Here, regulation is seen as a force for innovation. This was confirmed in the Labour government’s 2008 White Paper Innovation Nation, which saw regulation, alongside public procurement and public services, as able to ‘shape the market’ for innovations. Here, capitalism was guilty only of market failure. As a result, then, the British state must ride to the rescue and lend its full experience and dynamism to the business of making new products, new services and new processes.
This conception was silly. Genuine innovation, of the sort that can create whole new industries, knows few rules, so regulation is unlikely to accelerate it. Still, in those days, there was a ministry called the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and there was at least a nod to the idea that regulation can hinder innovation. In 2007, the government’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority finally, and with enormous generosity, allowed women to donate eggs for genetic research, and in 2009 Britain’s most esteemed scientific body, the Royal Society, put in a word for genetically modified foods.
Not every regulation is wrong. When the world’s manufacturers of mobile phones agreed that chargers should be standardised, who could disagree? Nevertheless, onerous regulations, which weigh down innovation, are more and more ubiquitous. In UK universities, to get a university grant for research and innovation involves an endless routine of filling out forms, saying what the past ‘impact’ of your research has been, and outlining what its future impact is likely to be.
Innovation, however, means making a persistent stab into the unknown. And the unknown cannot be regulated. We cannot routinise what we don’t yet know. Attempts to render technological change more predictable and ‘responsible’ can only mean closing down experiment and exploration.
Innovation is a risky business. Technological innovation creates new problems, and can even lead to deaths. On the whole, however, mankind solves those new problems. However, the contemporary impeding of innovation through regulation reflects not just the momentary lapse of a government functionary, but a dyed-in-the-wool cultural malaise, a deep antipathy to taking chances, and a fundamental nervousness about spending money on risky enterprises.
The over-regulation of innovation has acquired its own dynamic. What is now needed isn’t regulatory reform, but a sizeable – if discriminating – bonfire of controls that is more than merely rhetorical. To move Britain and the world forward, the deregulation of innovation is now an urgent imperative.
James Woudhuysen is author, with Joe Kaplinsky, of Energise! A Future for Energy Innovation, published by Beautiful Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Norman Lewis is the founding partner of Open-Knowledge UK Ltd. Read his blog here. They are both contributors to BIG POTATOES: The London Manifesto for Innovation.
Limits to Biotechnology
- Editorial, Business Standard (India), March 11, 2010
The revelation by the developer of pest-protected Bt cotton Bollgard, Monsanto-Mahyco, that pink bollworm pest has developed resistance to the killer Bt gene, Cry1Ac, in parts of Gujarat, and the rebuttal of this by a government-funded cotton research institute have created a fresh, albeit avoidable, controversy around genetically modified (GM) crops. The Monsanto statement had claimed that during field monitoring of the 2009 cotton crop in Gujarat, the company’s scientists had detected unusual survival of pink bollworms on Bt cotton hybrid Bollgard in four districts — Amreli, Bhavnagar, Junagarh and Rajkot. The firm also said that this has been conveyed to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the apex GM regulator, following the principle of transparency and accountability.
However, the director of the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has asserted that this conclusion is not well-founded as it is based on faulty testing methodology and has not been peer-reviewed. What lends a degree of credibility to the latter view is the fact that this institute has been involved in resistance-monitoring of Bt cotton since 2003 and its director heads the immunity-monitoring panel of the GEAC.
Moreover, scientists of the Bt cotton developer firm are also members of this panel, which has neither noticed such resistance among pink bollworm nor reported any such development to the GEAC. Monsanto’s claim, on the other hand, is not necessarily well-founded because it is based on just one season’s observations when other factors, including weather, could have played a role in facilitating relatively higher survival of a particular pest.
One reason why the company’s view is suspect in the eyes of its critics is the feeling that it is seeking to create a market for a new, higher-priced seed. While Monsanto may have business reasons in mind, the fact also remains that its claims should be objectively verified and the farmers properly reassured of the factual position.
After all, even GM crops are not immune to disease. Countless good crop varieties have in the past gone out of cultivation because of the loss of their inbuilt immunity against particular pests and diseases. Indeed, even in the case of human beings, pathogens and viruses inflicting them are known to often develop resistance against particular antibiotics, necessitating discovery of newer molecules to treat the diseases caused by them. The same is true in the case of vaccines and medicines used by humans to combat insect-borne diseases and other pandemics.
Thus, there is no merit in denigrating new technologies per se. It would also be short sighted to altogether abandon modern biotechnology in the creation of new and better seeds and crop varieties. Be it Bt cotton or Bt brinjal, or any other GM crop, what is really required is that one be on guard all the time in the use of modern science and technology in the unending battle against pests and diseases.
Scientists must continue to evolve new varieties of seeds with different kinds of resistance and periodically review them and replace older and outdated varieties or hybrids with superior ones.
A Growing Problem: Is There a Future in India for Genetically Modified Seeds?
- India Knowledge@Wharton, March 11, 2010
Earlier this month, Monsanto, the world's largest seed company, admitted that its genetically engineered "Bt" (bacillus thuringiensis) cotton seed wasn't all that farmers in India had hoped. Reports coming in from four districts of India's Gujarat state indicated that the company's seeds had not been able to prevent a pest called the pink bollworm from attacking cotton crops. Activists hoping to protect the country's biodiversity and its farmers from excessive dependence on multinational seed companies hailed the news as a victory in the latest round of an increasingly shrill public debate on the role of GM crops. About 90% of India's cotton is based on Bt cotton seed; Monsanto and its licensees are the dominant suppliers of those seeds.
The anti-GM camp had reason to cheer a few weeks earlier as well, when Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh abruptly put a moratorium on an insect-resistant variety of aubergine seed, known as Bt brinjal, on the eve of its much-hyped launch. But the battle is far from over. Shortly after the moratorium was declared, the government also made overtures to GM advocates by insisting that it did not want to shut the doors on the industry. Noting biotechnology's importance for "higher agricultural productivity and ensuring food security," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called for additional studies on the environmental and health effects of GM crops and promised to set up a national biotechnology authority to stimulate investment in seed development.
Fact vs. Fiction
As the Bt brinjal episode highlights, using GM seeds -- often referred to as "transgenics" -- to increase food production and lower production costs is fraught with controversy. "In the debate over biotech crops, differentiating fact from fiction is not easy," according to a paper on the economic impact of transgeniccrops published last year by the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C. "The debate has been confused by the influence of rigid, absolutist views (both supportive of and opposed to biotech crops) about the role of science in society, combined with a general ignorance of science."
The global battle lines in the controversy over GM seeds were drawn more than a decade ago in Europe, where strong anti-GM activist groups, including the likes of Greenpeace, have successfully lobbied against GM seeds, claiming that they are unsafe for human consumption and weaken or destroy other seeds and crops. But GM seeds -- for cotton, maize, soybean and rice, among others -- have steadily found their way into the agriculture of a number of countries, including the U.S., Canada, China, South Africa, Brazil and Argentina. On March 2, after a 12-year wait, the European Union approved the cultivation of a GM potato and the import of three types of maize.
According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a nonprofit that monitors the use of GM crops, there are more than 14 million farmers in 25 countries producing GM crops -- an 80-fold increase since 1996, when GM seeds were first commercialized. In 2009, there were 134 million hectares of "biotech" crops worldwide, representing an 8% increase year on year.
"The clear message is that small farmers are getting substantial benefits" from transgenic crops, says Carl E. Pray, professor with the agricultural, food and resource economics department at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who is currently studying the impact on small farmers of GM crops in South Africa, China and India. "The gain in terms of higher yields or reduced pesticide use is usually a lot more than the increase in the cost of the seeds."
As for India, its US$1.5 billion seed industry is the fifth largest in the world, with the private sector accounting for three quarters of it, of which Missouri-based Monsanto controls more than 60%. Commercial seeds -- including "hybrids" that combine different crop varieties to achieve higher yields and pest resistance -- account for 15% of the country's total supply, with farm-saved seeds making up the rest.
Over recent years, the seed industry has been encouraged by Bt cotton, which was first commercialized in India in 2002 and continues to be the only type of Bt crop allowed to grow in the country. Bt, which introduces a gene into seeds to disrupt the bollworm insect that plagues cotton crops, has lifted India's cotton production from 190 million bales in 2003 to 310 million bales currently, according to Satish Kagliwal, managing director of Nath Biogene, a seed-manufacturing company in Maharashtra's Aurangabad city, which sells a Bt cotton seed called Fusion and so-called "hybrid" seeds for a variety of other crops. "The same thing can be repeated in other [non-cotton] crops," he says. In the case of aubergine, Bt brinjal would attack the fruit and shoot borer insects that wreak havoc on those crops.
'A Rude Shock'
With February's abortive launch of Bt brinjal, however, "we have fallen behind by at least 10 years and this will have a telling effect on the country's food security," says Kagliwal. "If we are not focused on developing varieties of seeds that can resist pests, insects, heat and drought, we won't have enough food to feed the teeming millions." The government's decision "has given seed companies investing in research a rude shock," he says, adding that "investment efforts will be stopped and new technology will be delayed." Bt brinjal itself took nine years of R&D, according to its developer, Mumbai-based Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco).
Meanwhile, in the anti-GM camp, there's concern that Bt cotton and the like are doing more harm than good. "On paper, genetic engineering is made to look very good, but on the ground it's a tragedy," says Vandana Shiva, a physicist turned environmental activist in Dehradun in Uttarakhand state, who runs Navdanya, a nonprofit that donates more than 3,000 varieties of salt-tolerant rice seeds to farmers. "Otherwise, we wouldn't have farmer suicides concentrated in the Bt cotton belt." More than 200,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide over the past decade, according to government statistics, which Shiva blames in part on farmer indebtedness aggravated by transgenic cotton seeds.
"The indebtedness is created by nonrenewable [transgenic] seeds that have to be bought every year," rather than the farm-saved ones, which can be re-used, she says. After Bt seeds arrived in the country in 2002, the price of cotton seeds jumped from Rs. 7 a bag (which covers one acre) to Rs. 1,700 a bag, she says. (The price today is around Rs. 750.) For its part, Monsanto disagrees with the notion that Bt cotton seeds have had anything to do with the spate of farmer suicides, noting on its website that the trend began well before its cotton seeds were introduced to the market.
However, Shiva adds that farmers are also being misled about the seed products they're being sold. Because seed companies in India are allowed to market their products under a self-regulatory system of labeling, the yield and other properties can be overstated. "There is no independent check," says Shiva. In an article in the Huffington Post in April 2009, she alleged, "Monsanto sells its GMO seeds on fraudulent claims of yields of 1,500 kilograms a year [per acre] when farmers harvest 300 kg/year to 400 kg/year on an average."
As for the seed companies' claims that Bt brinjal will reduce the need for insecticides by as much as 90%, she counters that Bt cotton seeds have, in fact, increased that need because they have become more resistant to pests. "Bt cotton, even though promoted as resistant to the bollworm, has created new pests, and to control these new pests, farmers are using 13 times more pesticides then they were using prior to introduction of Bt cotton," she wrote in the Huffington Post article.
Shiva contends that government policies and private-sector seed manufacturers erode the banks of native seeds, yet fail to deliver improved seeds. "Genetic engineering cannot engineer tolerance to drought, floods or [salinity]." She accuses multinational seed companies of "bio-piracy, where you take stuff from the Third World, claim it to be an invention of a U.S. company, and then sell it back for a profit, and forbid the original contributors from having free access." Further, she says MNCs control the Indian seed market, both directly and by licensing seed varieties to numerous domestic Indian companies. Monsanto, for example, has a 26% equity stake in Mahyco, the first Indian company to commercially grow and market Bt cotton in 2002, and has licensing deals with 27 seed companies for Bt cotton in the country.
Kagliwal acknowledges that the fear of MNCs taking over the Indian seed industry is real, and that he too would rather not have them as competitors. In fact, Nath Biogene did not jump at licensing Monsanto's Bt cotton technology and shopped around before settling on a Chinese source, he says. Yet he sees merit in using technologies that MNCs have developed over many years. "Either you develop it yourself or pay the price for it," he says. Farmers earned Rs. 6,000 (US$150) more per acre by paying Rs. 200 (US$4) for Bt cotton seeds. "Isn't the cost-benefit ratio simple to see here?" he asks.
The Rift Grows
Will a seed policy that's now in the works address anti-GM concerns? Some of the proposed changes include making the registration of seed varieties compulsory and increasing the penalties for impingements. Yet Shiva fears these proposals target farmers' indigenous seed varieties that have evolved as resistant to drought, floods and frost. Compulsory registration will make it illegal to plant unlicensed varieties and increase farmers' dependency on "corporate" seeds, she adds.
Though the government has not set a timetable for the new policy's rollout, its objective is clear, says R. K. Sinha, executive director of the National Seed Association of India, who is among the range of stakeholders the government has asked to provide input for the new policy: "We should be in a position to supply the best planting material. The source is immaterial -- public, private, domestic or from abroad."
He sees "immense" opportunities for GM seeds in India, but calls for a "science-based approach" in deciding whether to permit which ones should be allowed. "Our problems are declining availability of arable land, declining resources, increasing population, low productivity and heavy losses due to drought, pests and salinity," he says. "We will support any technology that helps us combat those, and GM is an important element of it."
As for what India can learn from the experiences of other countries, Gyanendra Shukla, a director at Monsanto (India) in Mumbai, says China sets a good example: "It had a clear-cut policy statement that it is going to use GM crops to the fullest extent," he says. "If China can produce 450 million tons of grain from 100 million hectares, why can't India produce even 300 million metric tons from 135 million hectares, which is the second largest arable land in the world?" Shukla asks. India currently produces about 230 million tons of food grains annually.
Pray of Rutgers recommends a regulatory system that achieves two objectives. One is to keep errant elements out: "It certainly is possible to think about government plant breeders or biotech or private-sector scientists doing things that could affect the nutritional profile of the plant or potential allergens," he says. Second, he cites the need for strong competition policies, because "companies will use their scientific advantage to increase their share of their market."
But while the central ministry of environment and forests controls the release of specific strains of GM seeds, agriculture is very much a state-level issue, and it is the individual states that can sway the GM debate in India. At least 13 states, including Karnataka and Orissa, opposed Bt brinjal's commercial launch, while a few other states, including Maharashtra and Gujarat, wanted more time to examine the issue. Maharashtra, Punjab, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, which did not openly oppose Bt brinjal, account for about 40% of the country's brinjal production, so have arguably the most to gain or lose from the outcome.
But now that cotton is back in the spotlight, the debate could have even more twists and turns than it currently does. Shiva sees the latest news about Bt cotton's inability to combat the bollworm as a ploy by Monsanto to win support for its next generation of Bt cotton "It's like the pesticide treadmill … when you have resistance to [one type of GM seed] you use a more lethal pesticide," she says. Monsanto notes that the type of resistance seen in Gujarat "is natural and expected" and says it is stepping up monitoring. It also is calling for an "intensified farmer education campaign," noting that farmers may be using the Bt cotton seed improperly.
Until more trials and studies are complete, it seems that the only thing now for India's anti- and pro-GM lobbyists to do is to simply agree to disagree.
Rapid Rise in Seed Prices Draws U.S. Scrutiny
- William Neuman, The New York Times, March 11, 2010 http://www.nytimes.com
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.
FAO Conference on Agricultural Biotechnologies Stresses Role of Smallholders
March 4, 2010, Guadalajara, México - Agricultural biotechnologies in developing countries should address the specific needs of smallholders and, to do so, should encourage their participation and that of all stakeholders in the decision making process, the participants of an international technical conference held in Guadalajara, Mexico stated today.
The conference agreed on the key elements necessary to put agricultural biotechnologies at the service of the developing world: increased investments, international cooperation and effective and enabling national policies and regulatory frameworks. "Agricultural biotechnologies are not being widely used in developing countries, and research and development in agricultural biotechnologies have not generally been targeted towards the needs and problems of smallholders", said FAO Assistant Director-General, Modibo Traore. "This is something that has to change", he added.
Around 300 people from 68 countries, including experts, policy makers and representatives of civil society and international organizations attended the conference.
Every country should have a clear national vision for the role of biotechnologies, and examine the options and opportunities within the context of national economic, social and sustainable rural development and environmental strategies and objectives, the conference recommended.
This vision should be built in a process involving all stakeholders and be supported by effective communication and participation strategies to encourage and promote public involvement and empowerment in the decision-making.
The conference agreed on the need for effective and enabling national biotechnology policies and regulatory frameworks that facilitate the development and use of appropriate biotechnologies in developing countries. It also agreed on increased national investments by developing countries in the development and use of biotechnologies to support in particular, smallholders and producers.
According to the participants, stronger partnerships among and within countries such as South-South and regional alliances, public-private and research partnerships for sharing experiences, information and technologies, will facilitate development and use of biotechnologies.
Making agricultural biotechnologies accessible to developing countries and ensuring that they respond to the particular needs of small-scale farmers and producers will require the support of FAO and other relevant international organizations and donors. This is particularly needed to strengthen national capacities in the development and use of appropriate agricultural biotechnologies directed to the needs of smallholders and producers in developing countries.
Biotechnologies are much more than GMOs
Agricultural biotechnologies encompass a wide-range of tools and methodologies that are being applied to some extent in crops, livestock, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture, and agro-industries, to help alleviate hunger and poverty, assist in adaptation to climate change, and maintain the natural resource base, in developing countries.
The debate encompassing GMOs often hinders the development of other agriculture biotechnologies where there's no controversy about their environmental impacts and the benefits to small producers, as well as their important role in mitigating and adapting to climate change.
Many case studies illustrating how biotechnologies can help sustainable development were presented at the conference: from the use of DNA markers to improve the Deccani sheep in India, to molecular characterization to develop improved microbial cultures for fermented foods and drinks in the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Thailand.
"There are many biotechnologies being applied in some developing countries, such as fermentation and artificial insemination. We must focus our efforts in improving the access of developing countries to these biotechnologies", said Shivaji Pandey, Director of FAO's Plant Production and Protection Division.
Zero Tolerance' of GM: New problems with the Import of Feed?
The European feed industry once again has warned of problems with the import of feed in the case that the EU upholds its policy of 'zero tolerance' for unapproved genetically modified (GM) plants. John Dalli, EU Commissioner for Consumer Protection, is expected to suggest new solutions "in a matter of weeks".
"This spring, new genetically modified plants will be sown in North and South America. It's unlikely that they will be approved for import to the EU by harvest time in October," stated Klaus-Dieter Schumacher in a statement to the news agency Reuters as speaker for EU Grain and Oilseeds traders' association (Coceral). "This may lead to a similarly difficult situation to the past autumn." According to Mr Schumacher, a solution to the problem is "mored urgent than ever."
Currently, a 'zero-tolerance' policy is maintained in the EU towards low-level traces of unapproved GM plants. Last autumn, traces of such GM maize lines repeatedly were found in feed imports from the USA. Such shipments may not enter the EU. In the meanwhile, the European Commission has issued import approval for the GM maize lines in question.
The EU Commissioner for Consumer Protection has announced his intention within weeks to postulate solutions for the problem of minimal GM admixtures. It is expected that the Commission will issue 'technical guidelines' with regard, for example, to standardised analysis procedures and sampling for GM organisms (GMO).
Such a technical solution appears more readily realisable than protracted and politically controversial changes in the existing European regulations for gene technology. A threshold value for admixtures of unapproved GM plants, as repeatedly has been demanded by representatives of the agriculture and feed industries, nonetheless may be established by legislative means only.
In their approach to green gene technology, the major agricultural exporter countries in North and South America and their recipient markets in Europe are developing increasingly different manners. Approval and the commercial use of newly-developed GM plants are carried out significantly faster on the other side of the Atlantic than in gene-technology-sceptic Europe. The problem of minimal admixtures GMO is an expression of this widening gap.
In the USA, SmartStax maize will debut on the market in 2010. The maize produces six different Bt proteins and resists thereby a variety of pests. In addition, the maize is tolerant of two active substances used to combat weeds. Monsanto and Dow Agro Science, joint developers of the SmartStax maize, calculate a field area of at least 1.6 million hectares already in this year. An application has been submitted for the approval of import of SmartStax products to the EU. However, a decision is not in sight.
South Africa: Battle Looms Over GM Foods
- Duncan Alfreds, News24 (South Africa), March 12, 2010 http://www.news24.com
Cape Town - The battle lines have been drawn over genetically modified foods as advocates and opponents argue that they are right. "The problem is many fold and there are safety concerns. We need to make people aware of the hazards of this technology," advocacy group SafeAge's Fahrie Hassan told News24. "Because we're not sure of the safety of these GMOs (genetically modified organisms), we advocate the precautionary principle," he added.
Monsanto, owner of a large number of genetic patents in SA, issued a statement saying that GM foods were safe, resulted in increased yields for farmers, and a reduction in the use of herbicides. According to the company, GM products are as safe as conventional foods and there is no documented case of illness or harm associated with GM crops.
Hassan said his job was to make people aware of the "hazards of the technology" and while he agreed that GM foods were rigorously tested, he strongly disagreed with the claim that they were safe.
"There have been various studies by NGOs, published by scientists in peer reviewed journals, that indicate significant safety concerns with GMOs," he said. "There have been no studies on the effect of GM food on human beings and so nobody can make a claim either way," he added.
However, Professor Jennifer Thompson of UCT, said that GM food was safe for consumption. "Yes, of course they (GM foods) are safe. In terms of their safety, no other food has ever been tested as stringently as GM food," she told News24.
She blasted the argument of testing the GM products of people. "That's an appallingly poor argument. It's not ethical to feed people food that's being tested," she said. "The problem is that some people say 'No' to everything. It scares people."
In April 2009, the African Centre for Biosafety wrote an open letter to Minister of Agriculture Lulama Xingwana, urging her to ban all GMOs.
"In April 2009, the African Centre for Biosafety learnt that three of Monsanto's genetically modified maize varieties had failed to pollinate, leaving up to 200 000 hectares of mielie fields barren across several provinces. We were informed that the varieties that flopped were Monsanto's MON 810, NK 603 and its stacked GM maize MON 810 x NK 603," it said in a statement.
Thompson said she had no knowledge of these failures, but speculated what the reasons could be. "I haven't heard of those failures, but there are several reasons why a crop could fail and I would need to understand what mitigating factors there may be," she said
"There could be a specific trait, or pest that has different concentrations in particular areas. One cannot make a judgement unless you study it on a case by case basis."
Hassan insisted that the technology had a negative impact on particularly poor farmers because of they have to buy the seed every season. "It's not benefit to farmers because they cannot save their seed. There are royalty agreements on some crops and every year, they've got to buy seed. If a crop fails, the farmers carries the risk, even though Monsanto advertisers better yields on their website," he said.
He conceded that his organisation had lost the battle to prevent GM food from being introduced into SA, but said that they engaged in lobbying the department of trade and industry to enforce labelling on GMOs.
Thompson also said that GM food was a new technology, but slammed critics' claims of it being unnatural. "That's ridiculous," she said. "Agriculture hasn't been natural in 100 years."
USDA: Biotechnology Risk Assessment Research Grants Program
The purpose of the USDA Biotechnology Risk Assessment Grants (BRAG) Program is to assist Federal regulatory agencies in making science-based decisions about the effects of introducing genetically engineered organisms into the environment. Investigations of effects on both managed and natural environments are relevant.
Applications to the USDA BRAG Program must seek partial funding for a conference or address one of the following areas through research to: 1) identify and develop practices to minimize risks associated with genetically engineered organisms; 2) develop methods to monitor the dispersal of genetically engineered organisms; 3) increase knowledge about the characteristics, rates, and methods of gene transfer that may occur between genetically engineered organisms, and related wild and agricultural organisms; 4) provide analysis which compares impacts of organisms modified through genetic engineering to other types of production systems; or 5) further the purposes of the USDA BRAG program.
NPR Science Friday: Genetically Modified Crops
- Listen live Friday, March 12, 2010: 2-4 PM Eastern
The crops or products represented here have either already been genetically engineered or are involved in ongoing or planned transgenic studies. USDA image. Photo by Stephen Ausmus.
Drought-resistant corn, wonder rice, and cassava packed with vitamins are all promises of biotech for farmers in developing countries. But how has biotech delivered on those dreams? In this hour of Science Friday, we'll talk about transgenic crops. What does it take to get them from the lab to a small farmer's plot?
Are these crops turning traditional farming upside down? Plus, how far off are crops that could thrive in saltier, drier soils, and tolerate higher temperatures? A recent paper says biotech is key to safeguarding our food supply as the climate changes. But is it the only way? We're broadcasting live this week from St Louis, Missouri, as the guests of KWMU.
Glenn Stone, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri
David Fischhoff , Monsanto
Richard Sayre, Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, St. Louis, Missouri
Doug Gurian-Sherman, Union of Concerned Scientists. Washington, DC