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Beneath North Dakota's amber waves, the roots of resistance to genetic engineering and corporate power run deep

(Monday, May 15, 2006 -- CropChoice news) --

1. Shareholdersa ask for GMO measures
2. Beneath North Dakota's amber waves, the roots of resistance to genetic engineering and corporate power run deep.
3. US: Organic farmers debate genetic engineering of crops
4. GMO issue heats up in Poland
5. Ireland gives go-ahead for GMO potato trials
6. 1.1600 sheep die after grazing in Bt cotton field
7. Despite pesticide reductions, transgenic cotton fails to improve biodiversity

1. Shareholdersa ask for GMO measures
-Proposals ask for adequate safety measures on genetically modified crops

05/15 14:54

NEW YORK (Dow Jones) -- Shareholder proposals asking companies to evaluate "Frankenfood" scenarios as a financial risk are having limited success - despite their new, financially savvy vocabulary.

A proposal on DuPont Co.'s 2006 proxy, which 7.3 percent of shareholders voted for at the company's recent annual meeting, exemplifies a new breed of proposal from environmentally concerned shareholders. It asked DuPont's board to report by its 2007 meeting on internal controls related to potential adverse impacts from genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, sometimes referred to as "Frankenfoods."

Specifically, the proposal asked DuPont to determine whether there are adequate systems to monitor its modified seed products once they're in the marketplace; to retain an independent environmental expert to review the effectiveness of its risk management processes; and to examine the possibility that genetically modified seed, through inadvertent cross-pollination, can affect all seed product.

The proposal raises the issue of what companies need to disclose about environmental risks and related internal controls. Proposals on such issues have proliferated this proxy season. Already, around 180 such proposals have been put forth, up from 169 in 2005, according to the Social Investment Forum. In past years, proposals on GMOs asked companies to label all products that might contain GMOs - a measure that companies said was unnecessary and unreasonable - or to stop producing them altogether.

"Many more of the environmental resolutions are couched not just in environmental good policy terms, but as what's good for shareholder value," said Tim Smith, president of the Social Investment Forum, the trade association for socially concerned investors. "These relate to directors' fiduciary duty." Aside from DuPont, there are at least three other companies that have faced proposals to disclose more about their internal controls over GMOs. Dow Chemical Co. shareholders rejected a similar proposal at the company's annual general meeting last week, and Archer Daniels Midland Co. saw 7.7 percent of shareholders vote for such a proposal at its November meeting.

After failing to reach the 6 percent approval threshold to be reinstated on this year's proxy, a resolution that has been on Monsanto Co.'s proxy for two years running won't reappear this year, though shareholder groups say they are still in dialogue with the company on the issue.

DuPont didn't return calls for comment on whether it viewed the request to assess issues related to GMOs as part of its compliance with internal controls.

In its recommendation that shareholders vote against the proposal, the company said it believes that the concerns raised in the proposal are already being satisfied, listing extensive premarket testing, subjection to Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency approval requirements, and work with the Food and Drug Administration.

Auditing experts say the items brought up in DuPont's proposal wouldn't likely need to be disclosed under internal-controls rules of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act because they relate to operational controls rather than financial controls.

"To make sure the company doesn't get into trouble and lose money because it's doing bad things - that really doesn't relate to financial reporting controls except that they need to make sure that any liabilities that could occur are properly reflected in the financial statements," said Rick Steinberg, founder and principal of Steinberg Governance Advisors Inc., a governance consulting firm. Such issues would more likely need to be included in disclosure of significant risk factors in the company's 10-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, he said.

Christian Brothers Investment Services, or CBIS, which wrote the DuPont proposal, noted that the shares voted in favor of the resolution represented $1.5 billion in shareholder equity and said the vote result was a big step forward in what is usually a multiyear process of building support for such issues. By garnering more than 6 percent of the votes, the proposal is guaranteed to make it onto DuPont's proxy again in 2007.

But the GMO proposals are still getting thumbs down from most shareholders, as well as Institutional Shareholder Services, the largest proxy adviser. Companies and ISS say there's no proven link between GMOs and financial risk. But the 2006 proposals argue that perceived risks have already translated into real risks.

For instance, DuPont's proposal notes that insurers in Germany, the U.K. and elsewhere have refused to issue liability coverage for genetically engineered crops because of perceived risks. And concerns about the safety of GMOs have already led to the inability to partake in European markets, which steer clear of GMOs despite the recent World Trade Organization decision deeming that the 25-nation bloc has been violating trade rules by doing so.

Concerns about being shut out of foreign markets has already led to lawsuits from organic growers, restauranteurs and other parties that claim their products have been trespassed upon or contaminated with genetic seed.

For instance, the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate, an organization that represents many of the Canadian province's certified organic grain farmers filed a lawsuit in 2004 against Monsanto and Aventis Pharma Ltd. that seeks damages resulting from genetically engineered canola crops and an injunction to stop the launch of genetically engineered wheat into Saskatchewan.

DuPont is attracting extra attention because of its recent issues with perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, which was recently deemed a likely carcinogen by a panel of EPA advisers. DuPont has agreed to pay $16.5 million to settle government allegations it hid the dangers of the synthetic chemical used in making nonstick Teflon coating and may yet face a class-action lawsuit.

In a letter addressing a request that it study the possibility of a phase-out of PFOAs, DuPont said it is "not technologically feasible" to eliminate PFOAs in its manufacturing and "the alternative - halting production of those products in which it is employed - would have a serious negative impact on both societal benefits and shareholder value."

The 2006 proposals argue that by demonstrating internal control over GMOs, companies could avoid similar binds.

"Our sole goal here is to avoid a repeat of the Teflon controversy, which was brought about when DuPont inaccurately asserted the safety of PFOA over many decades," Christian Brothers said in a statement. "At a minimum, DuPont has an obligation to start acknowledging to its shareholders that there are valid concerns here about potential risks associated with GMOs."

(This story originally appeared in Corporate Governance, a biweekly email newsletter that covers company management, shareholder relations and the regulatory environment in which businesses operate. Dow Jones Newswires, publisher of Corporate Governance, runs select stories from the newsletter.) (SK)

2. Beneath North Dakota's amber waves, the roots of resistance to genetic engineering and corporate power run deep

This article has been abridged for the web. To read the full article, _Click Here _ http://www.oriononline.org/pages/om/ManageSub_om.html to receive a Free Trial copy of the current issue of Orion magazine.

IN THE NEW RED-BLUE LEXICON of American politics, the Red River Valley of North Dakota seems aptly named. This is football-on-Friday-night country, where Clear Channel Radio sets the tone, and patriotic themes blend smoothly with corporate ones. Broad and pancake-flat, with topsoil measured in feet rather than inches, it possesses some of the most prized agricultural land in America. The roads run straight, the pickup trucks are big, and the immense Massey Ferguson tractors that ply the fields come equipped with global positioning system guidance, satellite radio, and quadraphonic sound. In 2004, George Bush carried North Dakota with 63 percent of the vote. It seems like the last place that one might go looking for a revolt against the powers that be. Nor does a man like Todd Leake seem like the type of person to participate in any such uprising. "Extreme traditionalist" might be closer to the mark. Lean and soft-spoken, Leake has spent the past twenty-eight years farming the homestead established by his great-grandfather, a Canadian immigrant who arrived here over 120 years ago. "I guess you'd describe me as an umpteenth-generation wheat farmer," he says, "because as far back as we can tell, on both sides of the family, it's been farmers. And as far back as we can tell, it's also been wheat."

On a crisp, windy November day, Leake reflects on the events that turned him into a thorn in the side of the agribusiness establishment, especially the Monsanto Company. He gestures toward two symbols. The first, just visible through his kitchen window, is the outline of the North Dakota Mill, the only grain-handling facility owned jointly by the citizenry of any state. "Sort of the epitome of farmers cooperating," he notes.

The other symbol offers a less inspiring vision, one of farmer fragmentation and disempowerment. It is a simple refrigerator magnet inscribed with the words, "MONSANTO CUSTOMER SUPPORT 800-332-3111."

"They call it customer support," says Leake. "It's actually a snitch line, where you report that your neighbor is brown-bagging. Or where somebody reports you, and a week or two later you find a couple of big guys in black Monsanto leather jackets standing in your driveway."

Brownbagging is an old term in rural America. It refers to replanting seed from your own harvest, rather than buying new seed. Lately the term has come to possess a second meaning, that of a crime, a consequence of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1980 decision in _Diamond v. Chakrabarty_ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diamond_v._Chakrabarty) allowing private companies to obtain patents for lifeforms, and the Court's 2001 decision in _J.E.M. Ag Supply v. Pioneer_ (http://neuro.law.cornell.edu/supct/search/display.html?terms=patent&url=/supct /html/99-1996.ZS.html) affirming that the saving of seed constituted a patent violation.

When Todd Leake first became aware of genetic engineering in the mid-1990s, the prospects sounded enticing, including heady promises that new biotech crops capable of producing industrial chemicals and even pharmaceuticals would expand agricultural markets and thereby raise farm incomes. "But when they finally came out with actual product," he said, "it was all about selling more Roundup."

_Roundup_ (http://www.mindfully.org/Pesticide/Monsanto-Roundup-Glyphosate.htm) , Monsanto's leading product, is the trade name of an herbicide based on the chemical glyphosate. By using genetic engineering to create glyphosate resistance in common crops, Monsanto made it feasible for farmers to apply Roundup directly to fields at any time in the growing season, killing weeds without killing crops.

By 2000, Monsanto had successfully introduced "Roundup Ready" corn, alfalfa, canola, soybeans, and cotton in the United States and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the company began field-testing and pursuing USDA permits for Roundup Ready spring wheat. Wheat is the world's most widely cultivated food, and Monsanto wanted to introduce it as the crown jewel of genetically modified (GM) crops. North Dakota, which accounts for 47 percent of the U.S. acreage for spring wheat, was vital to the company's plans.

But Leake wondered whether the new seed would end up actually hurting farmers. One worrisome possibility was that "Frankenfood"-averse European or Japanese markets would reject GM wheat, causing the price to collapse. Something similar had happened in the late 1990s, when the Japanese had begun rejecting soybean shipments containing transgenic material.

Another concern was Monsanto's record of suing scores of farmers whose crop was found to contain patented genetic material, even miniscule amounts that had arrived via spillage, wind-blown seed, or pollen drift. He found himself sympathizing with _Percy Schmeiser_ (http://www.mindfully.org/GE/GE4/Heartbreak-In-The-Heartland21jul02.htm) , the Canadian farmer who had been sued by Monsanto in 1998 for violating the company's patent on Roundup Ready canola. Schmeiser had never bought Monsanto's seed. He had only planted seed saved from his own fields. Apparently, his fields had been contaminated through seed blown from passing trucks, but it didn't matter: brown-bagging had turned him into a common thief.

When Leake talks about wheat, his tone shifts subtly, becoming almost reverential. "Wheat's an amazing plant," he notes. "It's a combination of three Middle Eastern grasses, and that gives it a huge genome. In many languages, the word for 'wheat' is the same as the word for 'life.' There's a ten-thousand-year connection between wheat and human beings, each generation saving seed. Now it's in our hands."

In January 2000, Leake began urging various organizations in North Dakota to oppose the introduction of genetically modified wheat. One of the groups he approached was the _Dakota Resource Council_ (http://www.drcinfo.com/) , a network of local groups that originally formed in the late 1970s to deal with strip mines and power plants. (For full disclosure, I should note that I spent several years working for the council in the early days, first as a field organizer and later as staff director, until I left in 1982.) Leake's concern about GM wheat fit naturally within the DRC's scope, but questions remained: what tactics should be adopted, and what objectives should be pursued? A reasonable political strategy might start from the assumption that GM wheat would inevitably come to be a presence in fields, freight cars, and grain elevators; hence, those concerned about negative effects would try to shore up protective regulations so that GM wheat would not contaminate non-GM wheat.

But Leake and the DRC opted to seek a different solution: an outright ban on GM wheat in North Dakota until all outstanding concerns were addressed. In the end, the radical strategy worked; the organizers had enough support to thwart Monsanto's plans. The story of why Leake and other opponents of GM wheat chose the riskier and more militant goal, and how they fought to achieve it, is one with implications beyond the issue of genetic engineering. It is also a story about a little-known strain of U.S. history, and about the ability of Americans to control their destinies.

AMERICA'S PRIMARY decision-making system, known as representative democracy, is two centuries old. Structured according to the terms and judicial interpretations of the U.S. Constitution, it nominally governs decisions on all elements of public life, from elections and schools to privacy and environmental regulations. But whatever its strengths, the Constitution leaves a fundamental issue open to interpretation: who controls important economic decisions, and how will they be made?

This ambiguity allowed the rise of America's other major form of decision making, corporate capitalism, which emerged between the Civil War and the First World War. That system is not democratic, nor does anyone claim it to be. It has given the managers of a few hundred large corporations the power to make many of the big decisions that will shape the future—what energy technologies should be invested in, what medical research should be turned into pharmaceutical products, how aggressively timber or mineral resources should be extracted, how workplaces should be organized, whether hundreds of independent radio stations should be consolidated, and so forth.

According to the generally accepted rationale, corporate managers respond to markets, and markets in turn respond more or less to public preferences as expressed through buying decisions. At times one even hears markets described as a sort of democracy, with customers voting via their dollars. But because for-profit corporations are legally mandated to maximize shareholder return, their managers tend to shut out considerations vital to the larger society. In the revealing language of neo-classical economics, social effects of a product are labeled "externalities," or marginal considerations rather than central ones.

In any case, as the conventional wisdom goes, what's the alternative? Surely a market system, whatever its imperfections, is preferable to an economy rigidly controlled by monolithic bureaucracies: that is, state socialism. And here the conversation typically ends.

Today, we rarely hear such simple questions as, "What is an economy for?" or "Should we trust our future to corporations?" But these were exactly the sort of questions that farmers in North Dakota decided to ask during the debate over GM wheat. As one farmer, Steve Pollestad, expressed it, North Dakotans had a choice. They could put the future of wheat "in the hands of people who are accountable to the citizens of North Dakota. Or, we could let Monsanto decide. And maybe we also could get Enron to run our utilities and Arthur Anderson to keep the books."

It's no coincidence that such sentiments grow out of the fields of North Dakota. Beneath the state's conservative surface are surprising currents of history, some quite radically divergent from the American mainstream. North Dakota's economy cannot be described as corporate, but neither can it be described as socialist. Perhaps the best way to describe it is with a term that doesn't appear too often in economics textbooks: democratic.

For residents from Amidon to Walhalla, civic participation means not just serving on political bodies such as the county commission or the school board, but also taking part in running economic institutions such as the local electric co-op or grain elevator. Farmers see nothing extraordinary in buying gas from a co-operative gas station, buying electricity from a rural electric co-operative, borrowing college money from the publicly owned Bank of North Dakota, and selling their milk to a producer co-operative. The theme of noncorporate economics pervades the state, extending even to agricultural processing co-operatives handling everything from noodles to tilapia. Indeed, as a matter of state law, corporate-owned farms are banned in the state. North Dakota's unique economic arrangement grew out of a strain of radical populism that swept the state from 1915 to 1920. The revolt ignited in 1915 when a North Dakota state legislator named Treadwell Twichell told an assembled group of farmers seeking relief from the state, "Go home and slop the hogs." One of those farmers, A.C. Townley, couldn't go home to his hogs; he had already lost his farm in bankruptcy court. Instead, Townley and his friend Fred Wood sat down in Wood's farmhouse kitchen and drafted an audacious political platform. In essence, their call to arms urged farmers simply to bypass the corporate agricultural system altogether by creating their own grain terminals, flour mills, insurers, and even banks.

Townley was a charismatic speaker. Farmers flocked to his fledgling organization, the _Non-Partisan League_ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-Partisan_League) . To the delight of crowds, Townley shouted, "If you put a banker, a lawyer, and an industrialist in a barrel and roll it down a hill, you'll always have a son of a bitch on top."

Within three years the Non-Partisan League had completed its conquest of North Dakota's state government, capturing both the legislature and the governor's office. The league then proceeded to reorganize the infrastructure of agriculture—particularly finance, grain storage, and grain milling—taking the reins away from the corporate players and handing them over to new publicly owned institutions.

The ascendancy of the Non-Partisan League was relatively short, its decline a casualty of attacks by business groups and newspapers that branded the organization as socialist, the jailing of A.C. Townley on sedition charges, and infighting among its leaders. But the institutions of that era survived, and a populist undercurrent persisted. The most significant populist reform—the exclusion of corporations from farming—arrived via a 1932 ballot initiative in response to farm foreclosures, over a decade after the end of formal NPL rule. Once again, angry farmers, after examining the options, chose the most militant and far-reaching. Rather than passing laws to shield farms from corporate takeover, the 1932 initiative simply legislated corporations out of the picture entirely, making it illegal not just for banks to seize the land of bankrupted farmers, but for any corporation to hold any farmland whatsoever.

IN EARLY 2000, Todd Leake and the Dakota Resource Council launched their anti-GM wheat campaign from the steps of the North Dakota Mill in Grand Forks, the epicenter of the original farmer revolt. In choosing the mill, the council's aim was to signal that the anti-GM struggle and the original populist revolt were essentially about the same thing: preventing outside corporations from controlling wheat, the core of North Dakota's livelihood.

By January 2001, when the anti-GM campaign rolled into Bismarck, the state capital, it had collected tremendous momentum. Farmers, many of whom had traveled hundreds of miles despite rough winter driving, gathered in clusters in the halls of the state capitol. With scores of parka-clad men and women crowding the art-deco atrium, exchanging newspaper clippings and Internet downloads before filing into the hearing rooms of legislative committees, the sense of business-as-usual was broken. On near-unanimous votes, both houses of the state legislature enacted a new law making it illegal for corporate agents to arbitrarily enter and inspect farmers' fields.

That victory served as a prelude to the action still to come: the proposal for a ban on GM wheat until all lingering issues were resolved. Here, too, the farmer-led juggernaut seemed unstoppable. In January 2001, Todd Leake and others testified before the House Agriculture Committee on the need for the moratorium, and the mood among the legislators was so overtly favorable that when the beleaguered Monsanto lobbyist rose to testify, the chairman of the committee handed him a bottle of whisky, commenting, "Jim, I think you're going to need this." The committee voted 14-0 to support the ban, and several days later the entire North Dakota House of Representatives followed the recommendation of the Agriculture Committee, with Republicans and Democrats alike overwhelmingly voting to put the kibosh on GM wheat.

The polity had spoken. Democracy had flexed its muscle. Or so it seemed. By March 2001, Monsanto had marshaled its allies to block the ban in the state senate, aided by the timely intervention of U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, a former board member of Monsanto subsidiary Calgene, and President George Bush, who met personally with Republican members of the North Dakota state senate during a brief visit to Fargo that month. In the wake of that pressure, the ban on GM wheat was watered down to a study of the issue. It seemed to many that agribusiness had won the day, that the populist impulse had fallen short; worse, it appeared that the efforts of Leake and company had served merely to provoke Monsanto. After the senate vote, the company began flying legislators on special "fact-finding" junkets, working its vast network of grain-marketing organizations, seed and herbicide dealers, research contracts, public relations firms, and pro-agribusiness farm organizations such as the Farm Bureau. The goal: to build public support for Monsanto's GM-wheat proposal, and to head off any ban in future legislative sessions. But the anti-GM activists hadn't given up. In between the other demands of farming life, they crisscrossed the state, holding town meetings and forums, writing letters to the editor, raising the issue with grain elevator boards and wheat marketing associations, and speaking to as many farmers as would listen.

By all the conventional ways that political resources are measured, Monsanto had the advantage, and yet in those small-town cafés where the political conversation never ends, the anti-GM advocates sensed they were winning. And if farmers themselves turned against GM wheat, then all of Monsanto's political success in blocking a legislative ban would be rendered meaningless. While Monsanto had experienced across-the-board rejection of its genetically engineered food products throughout Europe and Japan, the company had never faced heavy opposition from U.S. farmers themselves. It was absolutely crucial that North Dakota farmers accept Roundup Ready spring wheat. But it wasn't happening. And during the election cycle following the defeat of the GM-wheat ban, three pro-GM legislators, including Monsanto's leading ally in the state senate, Terry Wanzek, were ousted by anti-GM opponents.

Meanwhile, North Dakota farmers had joined forces with a wide network of activists across the globe. One North Dakota farmer, Tom Wiley, traveled to Europe, Australia, and even Qatar to spread the message of revolt. In Torun, Poland, he told a radio audience, "You fought hard for your independence. Don't give up your freedom to the biotech corporations. Saving seed is a basic human right."

On May 10, 2004, Monsanto bowed to the prevailing political sentiment. It issued a curt press release announcing the withdrawal of all its pending regulatory applications for Roundup Ready wheat and the shifting of research priorities to other crops. The main factor in the decision, the company noted obliquely, was "a lack of widespread wheat industry alignment."

IT IS FEBRUARY in the Red River Valley, the desolate core of winter, with snow blowing like sand across the stubble-tufted fields. Although preparation of those fields remains months away, Todd Leake seems restless to begin planting. More than a year has passed since Monsanto announced its abandonment of Roundup Ready wheat, and farming has returned to normal. Yet Leake knows that the central issues—Monsanto's power to introduce genetically modified wheat, and the fate of seed-saving—are far from settled.

Ultimately, Leake insists, conventionally accepted notions of law and property must be challenged, particularly the idea that lifeforms can be patented. "Whatever rights corporations are claiming so that they can try to control our seed stocks," he says, "have to be subordinated to the right of farmers to plant and replant this seed."

"Seed?" he continues, "That's literally the future of humanity. Patents? Corporations? Those are just inventions on paper."

(http://www.booksense.com/product/info.jsp?affiliateId=orion&isbn=1576753190) TED NACE founded Peachpit Press, the world's leading publisher of books on digital graphics. His most recent book is _Gangs of America: The Rise of Corporate Power and the Disabling of Democracy_ (http://www.booksense.com/product/info.jsp?affiliateId=orion&isbn=1576753190) . He lives in San Francisco.Breadbasket of Democracy by Ted Nace Beneath North Dakota's amber waves, the roots of resistance to genetic engineering and corporate power run deep.

3. US: Organic farmers debate genetic engineering of crops

Monday, February 13, 2006

At the 26th annual Ecological Farming Conference in Pacific Grove in late January, Dave Henson, director of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center in Occidental and a steering committee member of the Californians for GE-Free Agriculture campaign, and Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at the Organic Center, addressed the question.

Arguing the case for genetically modified crops were Martina Newell-McGloughlin, director of the University of California's Systemwide Biotechnology Research and Education Program, and Autar Mattoo, plant physiologist with the USDA's Agricultural Research Service.

The National Organics Program, which stipulates what materials and systems organic growers may use, prohibits the use of genetically modified crops. Henson and Benbrook say they approve of this position, at least until multi-generational peer-review studies demonstrate otherwise.

Genetic modification (also called genetic engineering) refers to the manipulation of an organism's genes. Inactive genes may be turned on, active genes turned off or genes from distantly related species or species in different kingdoms of life spliced in. Crop plants have been genetically modified to withstand applications of herbicides and to produce proteins toxic to some classes of insects.

The long-term implications of genetically modified crops for human and environmental health and for food system security are too profound to be left to a handful of corporations subject to the pressures of quarterly earnings reports to evaluate, say Henson and Benbrook. The power to shuffle genes within and among species is unprecedented, and the science is too young to make informed decisions about the risks of the technologies.

"There is not a sufficient foundation of science to conclude that food safety and environmental problems will not result from the mixing in of foreign DNA into crop genomes," says Benbrook.

Newell-McGloughlin and Mattoo say that nature already has set the precedent for transferring genes between dissimilar organisms, as evidenced by genetic sequences in plants that are the same as those found in other species. Even our own genetic sequencing, says Mattoo, has partially developed through interaction with other genomes. "The human genome for vision was brought to us from very old photosynthetic bacteria. Nature mixes genes among species; it just takes time. The scientists are trying to do it faster."

Mattoo, who has studied genetically modified tomatoes, says that he has not found any evidence of chemical differences between regular tomatoes and modified tomatoes. "Work should continue with genetically modified crops," Mattoo says, "because we can't comprehend what the future will hold and need to keep an open view." He suggests that genetic modifications that benefit organic growing systems -- like high-producing cover crops that senesce early and decompose quickly -- may soon be possible.

Henson asserts that cross-species exchange occurring during the course of evolution is no argument for making this happen through entirely different means. The unintended environmental consequences and the human health concerns that have emerged in the 10 years since the commercialization of the first genetically modified crops should cause not only organic growers, but agricultural scientists, conventional farmers and consumers to demand rigorous scientific study of the matter. "Organics is one of the last lines of defense for all time," says Henson.

The USDA, EPA and FDA had the mandate and the opportunity to test the safety of patching genetic sequences into crop plants before authorizing the commercialization of the first modified crops in the mid-1990s. But the regulatory agencies decided that genetic engineering was simply the continuation of crop improvement that began when the first Fertile Crescent farmers began saving seed 10,000 years ago.

They ruled that these new crops were substantially the same as any other crop variety we had developed and required no special regulation. When Monsanto and other developers of genetically modified crops assured the regulators that the new crops were not acutely toxic, federal agencies asked few other questions.

Benbrook cites the case of the genetically modified field pea developed in Australia that was found, just prior to commercialization, to trigger a "pronounced and sustained immune response" in mice. Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, which developed the pea, canceled its release late last year. "Not a single one of the genetically engineered crops already on the market have been tested with this type of state-of-the-art assay process," says Benbrook..

Newell-McGloughlin and Mattoo say that rather than the pea demonstrating the failure of regulatory systems, the case showed that the science of evaluating modified crops was improving. But Henson says the risks are too great to release these crops first and ask questions later. After the debate, Henson elaborated upon the implications of genetically modified crops for environmental and human health and food system security.

Because pollen drifts and is undiscriminating about where it lands, genetically modified crops can transfer their characteristics to weedy relatives. Monsanto has modified canola to tolerate applications of glyphosate herbicides. Roundup, Monsanto's brand of glyphosate herbicide, is the most widely used agricultural herbicide in the world. Canola, meanwhile, is in the Brassicaceae family, which includes not only most of the world's winter vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, turnips and kale but wild radish and mustard as well.

"Tolerance to Roundup," says Henson, "is being conveyed through cross-pollination to weedy relatives (of canola), and that leaves the Caltrans of every state and county and country unable to kill the weeds -- as they have to do for fire protection -- along the freeways anymore. What do they have to use now? 2,4-D. A far more persistent toxic pesticide than Roundup."

Drifting pollen also contaminates unmodified varieties of the same species. For example, it is difficult to maintain buffer zones between a field of modified corn and a field of unmodified corn sufficient to eliminate the risk of pollen transfer. Contamination jeopardizes the grower's marketing options because many foreign markets ban genetically modified foods.

Since seed doesn't stay in place any better than pollen does, genetically modified crops jeopardize the genetic diversity of crops. Seed travels in the digestive tracts of birds and animals, on muddy boots and truck tires, on wind and in the cheeks of mice and ground squirrels. It is also carried around the world in the form of food aid. Which is probably how corn in Oaxaca, Mexico, became contaminated despite Mexico's ban on planting genetically modified corn..

The thousands of native corn varieties that grow in Oaxaca -- considered the center of diversity of corn -- comprise a genetic library to which the world turns when it needs varieties naturally adapted to niche environments, or with resistance to new pests or diseases, or with a preferred texture and flavor. If every "book" in the library becomes imprinted with the same story, the world will lose the options embedded in the varieties.

Then there is the question of who owns the books. The lawyers are having a field day arguing who is liable and who owns the contaminated crop when modified plants sprout up where they shouldn't. The patents for genetically modified crops are written such that the seed company has a legal claim not only on the seed it sells but also on the plants grown from the seed, wherever those plants crop up. One of the reasons that the developers of genetically modified crops are so eager to force their global use is to avoid the "liability train wreck" that is fast approaching, says Henson.

When interviewed after the debate, Newell-McGloughlin acknowledged that pollen floats but said she believes the risks of crop contamination are manageable and, in many cases, worth taking for the sake of crop improvement, especially in an increasingly hungry world that will require either the farming of more acres to feed or higher yields from existing acres. "It's all a question of checks and balances and of cost-benefit analysis," Newell-McGloughlin says.

The spread of genetically modified crops can also increase the speed with which agricultural pests evolve resistance to controls. The use of Roundup herbicides on the more than 80 million acres planted to Roundup-resistant crops in the United States has created a situation where only weeds that are naturally resistant to glyphosate herbicides survive to reproduce -- the so-called "superweeds." "This has happened in spades already," says Henson. "Mare's tail, a weed in the Southeast and East Coast of the United States, grows 5 to 7 feet tall and has 200,000 seeds per plant, and in just eight years it has become resistant to Roundup."

Beyond the environmental issues, we know little about the long-term impacts of consuming genetically modified food crops on human health, says Henson. We don't know, for example, what plant health or nutritional qualities we are compromising when we force a plant to withstand herbicides or to produce its own insecticides. No matter how many tricks they can perform, plants have only a finite amount of energy to spend during their life cycle.

We also don't know how safe it is to incorporate modified plants into our diet and into that of our animals. Advocates of genetic-engineering argue that we have nothing to fear from consuming these crops because the new genes ultimately express themselves as proteins, lignins and carbohydrates.

However, as in the case of the Australian pea, not all proteins are created equal, and worrisome results are emerging from feeding trials that look beyond immediate toxicity. Scientists have observed abnormal white and red blood cell counts, inflammation of the liver and unexplained growths in the stomachs and small intestines of rats fed genetically modified corn and potatoes.

Meanwhile, the claim that no one is dying from eating genetically modified foods is questionable because no one is monitoring long-term human health impacts.

"I don't know that genetically engineered foods are bad for you," says Henson. "Nobody knows. But there is enough evidence that would lead any routinely robust scientific process to say, 'We have some science to do here before we just release these widely into the food stream.' "

Finally, Henson says, we need public debate about the implications of genetically modified crops for food security. The release of genetically modified crops has been accompanied by an unprecedented consolidation of the seed industry. In the 1990s, chemical companies catapulted themselves into the seed business to capitalize on genetic-engineering technologies. By purchasing seed companies, they bought market share, seed production and marketing expertise, plant patents and seed stock..

Ten companies, with Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta firmly in the lead, now control half of the world's commercial seed sales. Monsanto alone sells 41 percent of the world's corn, 25 percent of its soybeans and more than 30 percent of its cucumbers, hot peppers and beans other than soybeans. Monsanto also sells 88 percent of the world's genetically modified seeds.

"Monsanto," says Henson, "is systematically buying privately held seed companies and retiring their seed stock." Varieties that farmers have purchased for years vanish, and the "local" seed company simply becomes a distribution center for Monsanto's seeds.

"We have to ask," says Henson "whether we bank on a corporate-controlled, extremely consolidated vertically integrated food system, or on a robust, diversified horizontal system."

Copyright Fresh Plaza

4. GMO issue heats up in Poland

By The Associated Press, 8 May 2006 http://www.broadcastnewsroom.com/articles/viewarticle.jsp?id=42272

European Union officials on Monday authorized a Polish ban on the use of around 700 types of maize seed, including 16 genetically modified varieties, which had been cleared for sale throughout the EU.

The European Commission said the Polish ban was justified because the corn varieties had a long growing cycle that would prevent the crop ripening in the Polish climate.

The 25 EU nations unanimously voted to back the Polish ban in March. Biotech products remain controversial across Europe, where many see them as potential health and environmental risks.

In February, police removed about 30 environmental activists from the entrance of the Polish prime minister's office after some of them chained themselves to railings to call for a ban on imports of genetically modified organisms.

Poland has said it would try to prevent the cultivation of all GM crops in the country, a move also being considered by Luxembourg, Greece and Austria.

5. Ireland gives go-ahead for GMO potato trials

IRELAND: May 8, 2006

DUBLIN - Ireland, Europe's biggest per capita consumer of potatoes, has given the go-ahead for a German company to grow varieties of the crop that have been genetically modified to resist disease.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gave its consent to BASF Plant Science GmbH on Friday to carry out field trials on potatoes that have been modified with improved resistance to late potato blight, the disease that caused the Irish potato famine.

"This consent is for field trials only and should not be confused with the placing of GM products on the market, which requires a separate consent and approval process at EU level," the EPA said in a statement.

"Potatoes (GM or non-GM) harvested from the field trials will not be used for food or feed purposes," it added.

One million people died and two million were forced to leave Ireland in the 1840s when potato blight caused widespread famine. Today, the Irish eat some 121 kg of potatoes per person every year, or nearly 1,000 potatoes for every man, woman and child.

Previous trials of GMO foods in Ireland have been disrupted by environmentalists who pulled up crops and damaged fields.

GM-free Ireland, an organisation campaigning against genetic food engineering, invited farmers, food producers, consumers, and politicians to an emergency meeting on Friday to decide what legal steps it could take to prevent the experiment.

Irish Green Party leader Trevor Sargent said the decision threatened the country's traditional GMO-free status which he said was a key selling point for the country's food exporters.

"Life is hard enough for farmers who are seeing less and less demand for potatoes and a growing preference for ready made meals," he said. "Farmers need this GM trial like a hole in the head."

Blight-resistant GMO potatoes were first developed in 2003 after scientists discovered a species of wild potato in Mexico that is naturally resistant to the disease, then inserted the gene into commercial strains.

The field trials will be carried out at one location at County Meath and the trial site will not exceed 1 hectare (2.5 acres) in size. The experiment will last for five years from 2006 to 2010 (inclusive), with monitoring continuing until 2014.

6. 1.1600 sheep die after grazing in Bt cotton field

30 April 2006

Hyderabad: Sixteen hundred sheep died in Warangal district after grazing in fields on which Bt cotton had been harvested.

A survey conducted by a seven member team of Centre for Sustainable agriculture working in Bt cotton issues revealed that about 1600 sheep died from Bt toxin near Ippagudem in Ghanapur mandal, Madipalli in Hasanparthi mandal and Unikicherla in Dharmasagar mandal in Warangal district.

The sheep started dying after continuously grazing on the leaves and pods of Bt cotton plant residues in the fields for seven days.

The symptoms did not correlate to any of the diseases occurred during the season, the study said.

The team urged the Government to carry out an exhaustive study of the impact of Bt toxin on livestock, a release said in Hyderabad.

New developments in this story:

7. Despite pesticide reductions, transgenic cotton fails to improve biodiversity

http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?chanID=sa003&articleID=0005CEEE-6DF2-1456-ADF 283414B7F0000

Genetically modifying cotton promises to reduce the use of chemicals and, potentially, create a better environment for harmless insects and other animals. For the last decade, some farmers in Arizona have been planting cotton engineered to contain a toxin that kills pests such as the pink bollworm. A study of randomly chosen cotton fields reveals that although this genetically modified cotton did reduce pesticide use, it did not reduce use of herbicides nor did it improve biodiversity when compared to unmodified strains.

Ecologist Yves Carriere of the University of Arizona and his colleagues randomly selected 81 cotton fields--split between unmodified and transgenic cotton breeds--over the course of two growing seasons. The scientists gathered data on pesticide use, herbicide use and all the ants and beetles they could find in pitfall traps placed in the fields, as well as other information. "The idea here is to look at not only the possible effects of transgenics but also all the other factors," Carriere says.

The data confirmed that farmers applied pesticides less often to transgenic fields--and used more precisely targeted chemicals when they did. But use of such targeted pesticides on modified cotton did rise in the fields selected during the second year of the study, perhaps due to the need to control pests unaffected by the engineered toxin, the authors speculate. And herbicide use remained the same no matter whether the cotton in question was unmodified, toxin-producing, or toxin-producing and herbicide resistant. "My guess is that they use herbicide resistance as more of an insurance policy," Carriere says.

Nor did genetic modification seem to have an effect on ant and beetle biodiversity; no matter which type of cotton was grown, ant populations declined and beetles boomed in farmed fields compared to adjacent unfarmed fields. Other factors such as soil type, seeding rates and amount of rain played a bigger role in determining population dynamics, according to the paper in Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.

The researchers will continue to refine their analysis of the data, looking for differing impacts on predatory and plant-eating insects as well as an economic analysis of the costs and benefits of genetically modified cotton. "You cannot simply assume that you will get across-the-board benefits," Carriere notes. "One thing I was a bit surprised to find is that if you control some pests with [transgenic] cotton, others become more of a problem."