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June 21, 2010


Alfalfa Win at Supreme Court; Delivering the Promise; Wake Up and Smell the Coffee; African Safety Drill; One Hungry Planet


* Monsanto Claims Victory at Supreme Court
* GM Technology Is Delivering Its Promise
* European Union - GM Crops
* African GM Safety Drill
* European Politicians Score Poorly In Agbiotech
* Global Grain Surplus Sows Trouble
* One Hungry Planet


Monsanto Claims Victory at Supreme Court

- Philip Brasher, Des Moines Register, June 21, 2010

The Supreme Court ruled 7-1 today in striking down a nationwide ban on planting of the Monsanto’s genetically engineered alfalfa. The court said it was OK for the judge to disallow the complete deregulation of the crop and order the Agriculture Department to conduct an environmental impact study. But Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the court, said the judge went too far in issuing a nationwide ban on the seeds.

It’s not clear when farmers will get to start planting the seeds again. Steve Welker, Monsanto’s alfalfa business lead, said the ruling was “exceptionally good news” that would allow farmers to plant the crop this fall. But the USDA isn’t expected to issue its environmental impact statement until next spring. And the anti-biotech Center for Food Safety says the ruling still makes it illegal for farmers to use the seed until it’s fully cleared by the USDA. Alito wrote that none of the alfalfa “can be grown or sold until such time as a new deregulation decision is in place.” The alfalfa is engineered to be immune to Roundup herbicide.

This was the first case involving agricultural biotechnology to make it to the high court, and agribusiness interests and anti-biotech groups were closely watching it closely because of its potential impact on the commercialization of new biotech crop varieties. The case stems from a lawsuit brought by conventional farmers who claimed the bioech alfalfa will contaminate seed supplies and cripple export sales.

Justice John Paul Stevens, who is retiring, was the lone dissenting vote. The district judge in question, Charles Breyer, is the brother of Justice Stephen Breyer, and he recused himself from the case because of their relationship.

The American Farm Bureau Federation had warned that farmers could be hesitant to start using some new biotech products if they’re worried a court could stop the crop varieties after they’ve gone on the market.

Officials with Monsanto-rival Pioneer Hi-Bred didn’t see the case having a dramatic effect one way or the other on the company’s business, which is focused on corn and soybeans, two commodity where biotech traits are commonly used. However, Johnston-based Pioneer has disputed claims by organic farmers that the biotech crops would jeopardize their business.

Complete text of the court ruling at



GM Technology Is Delivering Its Promise

- Leila Oda, Scidev.net, June 14, 2010 (Brazilian Biosafety Association) http://www.scidev.net/en/editor-letters/gm-technology-is-delivering-its-promise.html

In their article, GM: higher production doesn't mean wider acceptance, Luisa Massarani and colleagues make an unfair link between the introduction of genetically modified (GM) soya to Argentina and a shift in the agricultural practices of small farmers.

A study published in 2006 by Eduardo Trigo and Eugenio Cap shows that in the 1987–88 growing season more than 65 per cent of cultivated land in small farms (less than 100 hectares) was already planted with soya, as was 27 per cent of the land in farms larger than 1,000 hectares.

This means that, contrary to the authors' suggestion, almost ten years before the release of GM soya, small farmers in Argentina were already planting soya or leasing their land for the crop.

Massarani and colleagues also mistakenly say that the introduction of glyphosate-tolerant GM soya, combined with non-till practices, increased herbicide use in Argentina. In fact, the soya crop has always been treated with herbicides, and with agents that are more toxic than glyphosate. These are usually used pre-emergence and applied directly to the soil, where they stay active for a long time, affecting the development and yield of the winter crop planted after soya.

The replacement of these toxic herbicides by glyphosate, applied on top of GM soya, has allowed farmers to use what is called a complete non-till practice programme, with an increase in soybean rotation, a larger number of winter crops, and less soil erosion, leading to more sustainable agriculture.

When it comes to Brazil, the authors present a biased historical perspective on the delay in approving GM crops for cultivation. They make no mention of the frustration felt by the thousands of Brazilian farmers who could not use GM technology for almost ten years. And they do not mention the billions of dollars that Brazilian agriculture lost by not taking advantage of this technology.

In considering the approval of GM crops for cultivation, the Brazilian National Biosafety Technical Commission, CTNBio, drew on valid scientific evidence on the safety of these products.

Numerous national and international scientific and regulatory organisations, including Argentinean agencies, have reviewed similar evidence and concluded that GM crops pose no unique safety concerns compared with crops developed by traditional breeding. Indeed, these crops have been widely adopted by farmers across the world — they are now grown on more than 1 billion hectares worldwide — demonstrating an established history of safe use.

Many Brazilian and international scientific and regulatory institutions recognise GM technology as an important tool for improving crop yields and encourage its use, both in developing crops suited to poor countries and enhancing the nutritional value of staple crops for resource-poor farmers and consumers.

There is also some worldwide recognition that GM crops benefit the environment by reducing pesticide use and enabling the use of more sustainable agricultural practices.

At the turn of the century, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said: "When appropriately integrated with other technologies for the production of food, agricultural products and services, biotechnology can be of significant assistance in meeting the needs of an expanding and increasingly urbanised population in the next millennium."

Ten years later, biotechnology and GM crops are certainly delivering on those promises.


European Union - GM Crops

- Meat Trade News Daily (UK), June 21, 2010 http://www.meattradenewsdaily.co.uk/news/210610/european_union___gm_crops_.aspx

The European Union plans to change the approval process for growing genetically modified crops in the 27-nation grouping, according to Bloomberg. This would ease a system that blocked all but one application in more than a decade.

The proposal by Health and Consumer Affairs Commissioner John Dalli may be announced July 13, commission spokesman Roger Waite told Bloomberg by phone from Brussels.It would allow member states to opt out of cultivating approved crops, he said.

The EU's approval process has hindered biotech companies from expanding the European market for biotech crops. The commission in March approved a modified potato developed by BASF, the first such move in a decade, after an approval process that began in 2003. The commission said March 2 it planned to come up with a proposal "by the summer" that would allow EU members more choice on whether to allow growing of genetically modified crops.

Waite said governments have been "dragging their feet" under current rules to delay approvals. "Our hope is that this might accelerate the approval procedure for GMOs for cultivation," Waite said. "All authorization will still take place on a European-wide basis. A member can then choose for this opt-out clause."

Not for use in animal feed
The proposals only cover growing biotech crops, not their use in food and animal feed, according to Waite. Since ending a six-year moratorium on new gene-modified products in 2004, the EU has let them be imported for food and feed uses. The EU approved only two genetically modified crops for cultivation, compared with about 150 being planted worldwide.

EU biotech plantings fell 12% to 94,750 hectares last year as Germany abandoned insect-resistant corn, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications said in a report in February. Six EU nations planted engineered corn, with Spain accounting for 80% of the region's total, the industry group said.


African GM Safety Drill

- Lucas Laursen, Nature Biotechnology - June 2010 v. 28, p 534 www.nature.com

The African Union has set up a school to educate and train future regulators in genetically modified (GM) crop biosafety. The African Biosafety Network of Expertise (ABNE) was officially launched in April in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, with a five-year, $10.4 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

This continent-wide initiative, administered by the African Union's New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), aims “to build functional biosafety systems,” says program director Diran Makinde, who notes that of the 12 African countries that have biotech crop research programs, only 3 have reached the stage of commercialization. A tour of Africa taken in 2008 by Makinde and his staff to assess the nations' different needs highlighted the lack of regulatory expertise. The visiting team concluded that any pan-African solution would need to provide online information resources, training workshops, technical support and partnerships.

Today, ABNE's website offers environmental, socioeconomic and food safety advice and information on issues related to GM crops through a live chat function handled by staff. In late March, before the official launch, ABNE hosted a workshop for about 40 regulators in Accra, Ghana, to discuss locally developed, insect-resistant transgenic crops. ABNE's staff also took part in a training course last fall at Michigan State University in East Lansing to ramp up their own expertise. These newly minted ABNE trainers are equipped to guide regulators in risk assessment and management issues to enable GM crop adoption. But they will need to learn quickly if they are to succeed in training regulators and consultants across Africa's major languages, according to Theresa Sengooba, a researcher with the International Food Policy Research Institute in Kampala, Uganda.

Given the varied state of African biosafety infrastructure, another of ABNE's challenges will be to determine “how best to help countries which are already advanced as well as those which are behind,” Sengooba adds. Makinde points out, however, that ABNE enjoys an “added value” from NEPAD's status as a technical arm of the politically well-connected African Union. This supplies the network with the necessary kudos to approach national ministers responsible for agricultural planning and biotech research in African countries.

Makinde intends to help two or three additional African countries reach the commercialization stage, and improve regulatory decision-making in the rest within the program's initial budget. “Our main objective,” Makinde stresses, “is to contribute to food security in Africa.”


1 out of 27— European Politicians Score Poorly In Agbiotech

- Atanas Atanassov, Godelieve Gheysen, Denis J Murphy, Olivier Sanvido, Joachim Schiemann, Charles Spillane & Roberto Tuberosa, Nature Biotechnology - June 2010 v. 28, p 551–552 www.nature.com

To the Editor:

We wish to express our concern and dismay at the apparent lack of intergovernmental engagement by European governments regarding the proven positive roles of modern biotechnologies as key tools supporting efforts to address the issue of food security, especially in developing countries. This was shown clearly by the failure of 26 of the 27 members states of the European Union to send any official government delegations to participate and engage in the recent United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO; Rome) intergovernmental conference (ABDC-10) on 'Agricultural biotechnologies in developing countries' (http://www.fao.org/biotech/abdc/en/). The Netherlands was the only EU member state to send an official government delegate to ABDC-10.

The conference1, which took place in Guadalajara, Mexico, on March 1–4, 2010, was concerned with the full range of agricultural biotechnologies used in food and agriculture, including the improvement of plant varieties and animal populations to increase their yields; characterization and conservation of genetic resources; plant or animal disease diagnosis; vaccine development; improvement of feeds; and the safety of foods. The meeting also crossed different sectors, covering crops, livestock, forestry, agro-industry, and fisheries and aquaculture.

Around 300 policy makers (government representatives), scientists and representatives of intergovernmental and international nongovernmental organizations came together at the meeting from 68 different countries. The conference was co-sponsored by the International Fund for Agricultural Development and also involved the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, the Global Forum on Agricultural Research, the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology and the World Bank. Previous FAO International Technical Conferences on related topics, such as genetic resources for food and agriculture, have been fully attended by EU member states and have led to agreement on International Plans of Action.

Over the past few years, there has been a great deal of rhetoric from EU governments and national European organizations about the importance of global food security and the need for a multi-pronged approach from both developed and developing countries. The desirability of a “multifaceted and linked global strategy--- to ensure sustainable and equitable food security” was highlighted recently by an eminent group of European experts that included the UK government chief scientist, John Beddington2. It was therefore surprising that only one European government thought it worthwhile to take advantage of the unique opportunity presented by the FAO conference to engage with several hundred policy specialists and agricultural experts from over 50 developing countries in a forum specifically targeted at developing approaches and alliances to increase global food security.

In contrast to the no-shows from EU member states, which collectively aspire under the Lisbon Agenda to become a knowledge-based bio-economy region, the United States sent a high-level official government delegation of >20 officials, scientists and policymakers led by Roger Beachy, director of the US Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture and a senior member of US President Obama's science team. It was clear that the US government regards agricultural biotechnologies as a key area in which its own public and private sector R&D can be usefully deployed to assist in the challenge of food security in developing countries.

Many ABDC-10 delegates expressed puzzlement at the stark lack of attendance from official EU government representatives and the negative message that this conveyed about the willingness of European countries to facilitate the exploitation of European agricultural biotechnology research for the strengthening of food security in developing countries. This was even more ironic given the fact that the International Steering Committee for the FAO conference had significant representation of technical and policy expertise from Europe (including signatories of this letter).

For genetic modification (GM)-phobic European policymakers, it should be emphasized that one clear message from the FAO conference was that modern agricultural biotechnologies are about much more than genetic engineering. Indeed, although genetic modification technologies are constantly being improved and are making important contributions to crop breeding, they are only one component of the overall agricultural biotechnology toolkit required for science and technology to strengthen food security in developing countries.

Other biotechnologies that have already contributed greatly to developing country crop, forestry, fisheries and livestock improvement include advanced tissue culture, artificial insemination and reproductive technologies, mutagenesis/TILLING, marker-assisted selection and micropropagation. Like GM, all of these biotechnologies have also benefited from new advances in research over the past few decades. In addition to their vital contributions to breeding, biotechnologies are also playing key roles in improving the cultivation and management of crops, forestry, fisheries and livestock. For example, crop management is benefiting from new biotech-based strategies for pest and disease control (including diagnostics), as well as the increasing use of biofertilizers as an alternative to expensive nonrenewable chemical inputs.

As stated in the conference report1, there was strong consensus at ABDC-10 that future progress for global food security will require the deployment of the whole range of both new and traditional biotechnologies, in combination with other less high-tech methods in the context of a more needs-driven rather than technology-led approach. Organizations representative of end-users, especially smallholders, should, where possible, participate in the process of crop, forestry, fisheries and livestock improvement.

In the context of climate change and other environmental uncertainties that are likely to increase both biotic and abiotic stresses, there may be many cases where broad adaptability and yield robustness, rather than high yields per se, should be the primary focus of crop and animal improvement. It was also agreed that access to agricultural biotechnologies should be improved, for example via North-South collaborations and private-public partnerships. Finally, the sometimes inconsistent and onerous regulatory burdens that policy makers have devised regarding some biotechnologies (that is, GM) were felt to be a major impediment to any possibilities for their dissemination and exploitation by developing countries for the benefit of poorer smallholder farmers.

In one of the final sessions of the FAO conference, a European participant confessed to being “ashamed” at the lack of participation by European governments. He was not alone. This was an opportunity missed by EU member states and has certainly raised questions in some developing countries regarding the willingness of EU member states to close the widening biotech gap between rich and poor countries, in a manner that could reduce poverty levels and strengthen food security in developing countries.

Rather than focusing on inward-looking debates on issues such as the intricacies of GM crop regulation, European governments and policy makers should realize that there is a broad range of agricultural biotechnologies (including, but by no means restricted to, GM) that can make a huge contribution to assisting humanity tackle the immense task of feeding itself sustainably in an era dominated by the uncertainties of population growth, climate change and rapidly escalating global demand for food, feed and energy. As our US colleagues might say, European governments and their policy makers should “wake up and smell the coffee.”


Global Grain Surplus Sows Trouble

- Scott Kilman, Wall Street Journal, June 21, 2010

Two years after the global food crisis peaked, grain shortages are turning into surpluses that could create their own problems.

Some traders and economists are speculating that if the U.S. and world economies don't heat up soon, surpluses could turn into price-depressing gluts. While cheap grain is good news for consumers and livestock producers, excessive supplies increase a government's cost for farm subsidies and tend to ignite trade fights between the big farming powers.

This tension is growing partly because many of the farmers in the U.S. Midwest who were plagued by rainy growing seasons in recent years are having few problems so far this year.

Although the corn harvest is months away, farmer Clay Mitchell of Buckingham, Iowa, is preparing his storage bins for what's shaping up as a record-large crop. The corn plants are already as tall as his chest, helped by a warm spring that permitted early planting, followed by well-timed summer rains. "So far, this has been the best growing season ever," says the 37-year-old newlywed, who planted 1,600 acres of corn.

In some northern Texas towns, the unfolding wheat harvest is so big that farmers delivering grain to local elevators in recent weeks have had to wait all day in long lines of trucks. Some elevators are so full that wheat is being stored in cotton warehouses. "There's probably never been this much wheat in our county before," says Steven Sparkman, Texas A&M agricultural extension agent in Hardeman County. "We've got a glut."

This is a big change from most of the last decade, when farmers' inability to keep up with expanding global demand for grain set the stage for what became known as the food crisis of 2007 and 2008.

World grain stocks—what's left by the time new harvests can replenish supplies—shrank as the growing middle-class in emerging nations such as China demanded more meat from livestock fattened on grain. Industrialized nations, stung by soaring oil prices, were increasing support for fuels made from crops. In the U.S., the ethanol industry began consuming one-third of the nation's biggest crop, corn.

Grain prices skyrocketed as some panicked governments disrupted trade by husbanding domestic supplies, increasing the numbers of hungry people around the world by millions and fueling street protests and riots. It took a global recession to cool grain prices in late 2008.

Two years later, however, farmers world-wide are working harder than ever. Growers from Latin America to the former Soviet Union have expanded so quickly that the global acreage devoted to the 16 biggest grain and oilseed crops has climbed 82 million acres since 2006—akin to creating another U.S. corn belt, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.

Grain traders in Chicago expect U.S. farmers to produce record-large corn and soybean crops for the second straight year. Farmers in Brazil and Argentina are wrapping up record-large soybean harvests. Asian farmers are poised to produce a huge rice crop. According to forecasts by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, this year's global cereal reserves—the buffer against shortages—will probably be 24% bigger than just two years ago, and the largest in eight years.

With world grain production this year expected to exceed demand for a third consecutive year, many grain traders and farm economists are beginning to debate the prospects for two starkly different outlooks.

If an economic recovery doesn't gather steam soon, says one group, price-depressing grain gluts could materialize in a few years, dragging down farmers' profits and chilling farmers' demand for everything from tractors to genetically modified seed.

This argument has history on its side: the 1970s grain-price rally ignited a production boom that swamped the 1980s farm sector. Indeed, U.S. wheat reserves by next year are forecast to swell to their highest levels since 1987, thanks largely to plunging U.S. exports in the face of competition from resurgent wheat farmers in the former Soviet Union.

Others, however, worry that the world's farmers won't be able to keep up with demand again once the economy does recover, which would increase costs for food manufacturers and create the environment for another food crisis. China's and India's appetites are expected to grow strongly.

For now, Daniel Basse, president of AgResource Co., a Chicago commodity forecaster, is leaning toward the first camp. He thinks the genetically modified seeds that have saturated U.S. corn and soybean farms are increasing yields faster than anyone expected. Mr. Basse cites the fact that U.S. corn and soybean farmers harvested record crops last year despite a rain-delayed planting season.

At the same time, some important demand is slowing. The federally supported ethanol industry is growing more slowly as it bumps up against federal limits on the amount of ethanol allowed to be blended into gasoline for traditional cars. The U.S. ethanol industry's annual consumption of corn, which had been expanding by several hundreds of millions of bushels in recent years, is expected by USDA economists to grow just 150 million bushels during the year ending Aug. 31, 2011. "The message," Mr. Basse says, "is that agriculture has always been and always will be a cyclical business."


One Hungry Planet


This short movie has a clear, simple message. I am surprised that industry is catching up with PR tactics, and getting to be as good as Greenpeace!