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Vermont House waters down modified-seed bill

(Friday, Jan. 6, 2006 -- CropChoice news) --

1. Return to organic cotton & avoid the Bt-cotton trap
2. Biotech crop acreage will grow out of necessity
3. Vermont House waters down modified-seed bill
4. WTO again delays ruling in row over EU GMO policy
5. Lax oversight found in tests of gene-altered crops
6. GM contamination register
7. Ventria cancels move to Northwest Missouri

1. Return to organic cotton & avoid the Bt-cotton trap

ISIS Press release, Jan. 5, 2006

No more debt, pesticides and suicides for Indian cotton farmers who avoid Bt-cotton and regain livelihood, health, independence and peace of mind with organic methods

Rhea Gala reports from Andhra Pradesh
The green revolution turning full circle

In the fertile regions of Andhra Pradesh (AP) ?white gold? monocultures of the high yielding hybrids of ?Green Revolution? cotton had turned the state into the pesticide capital of the world even before the advent of genetically modified (GM) Bt cotton. Now, however, the revolution is turning full circle as more and more farmers are opting for low input organic methods that are healthier and economically far more rewarding.

Non-governmental organisations such as the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Modern Architects of Rural India, the Permaculture Association of India, the Sarvodaya Youth Organisation and Oxfam are working in many villages to promote and train small and marginal farmers in non-pesticide management (NPM) of cotton leading to organic production in the third year of uptake.

This initiative comes against a historical backdrop of government support for high chemical input cotton production at national and at state level that has sent the wrong messages to farmers. GM cotton is now falsely promoted as the answer to reducing the scourge of proliferating pesticide use, and is one of many reasons farmers are succumbing to the pressure to grow GM cotton.

How AP became the ?Pesticide Capital of the World?

Many of the cotton varieties once grown with a diversity of food crops were swept aside and lost during the 1970s and 80s when the high yielding varieties (HYVs) of the Green Revolution arrived, and the irrigation infrastructure developed. These HYVs are expensive hybrids that have to be purchased every year from seed dealers and nurtured with further expensive inputs of fertiliser and pesticide, being far more vulnerable to pests and the vagaries of the weather than the hardy local varieties that they had replaced.

Farmers initially saw the system of industrial production as timesaving and requiring far less knowledge of soils and pests; however it soon proved to be a relentless treadmill. It degraded the soil, depleted scarce water resources and proliferated cotton pests beyond the farmers? worst nightmares, as both yield and profit progressively diminished. Pest resistance and distortion of natural predator communities necessitated galloping applications of the most toxic chemicals. Some 55 percent of all pesticides used globally are on cotton, more in AP than anywhere else in the world. GM cotton hybrids, far from being the solution to proliferating pesticide use, will actually accelerate this trend.

Indeed, many poor farmers and labourers can be seen with their pesticide back-packs moving backward and forwards along the rows of cotton through a haze of spray, with no protective mask or clothing. These farmers are very aware of the problems of pesticides, and many thousands of them are killed either passively through poisoning or actively through suicide when their crops fail.

Why organic cotton farming makes sense

Mr MD Amzad Ali of Sarvodaya Youth Organisation, Mr G Raja Shekar of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad, and Mr Y Kambaram of Modern Architects of Rural India introduced me to farmers who have been practising NPM cotton production and had moved on to organic cotton production after two years. By making and applying their own natural fertiliser they were able to access a high quality premium of 200 rupees per quintal (1 quintal = 100kg) at a price of around Rs1900/q.

The NPM system was started in 1997 by MARI and attracted farmers because of microcredit available to them and the low investment needed for seed and other natural inputs such as cow dung and urine mixture and neem seed that were available locally. The farmers and NGOs organised four local cooperatives of between 100 and 500 farmers that soon became self-sufficient and able to pay their way in the local market, adding substantially to the local economy. Farmers who complete the five year programme - of two NPM years followed by three organic years - become trainers and role models for new entrants.

Tookya Niak knew farmers who planted GM Bt cotton that failed and committed suicide, and decided to try the NPM method himself. Now in his second year, he stressed that the low investment required will almost certainly lead to a profit, and that farming had become virtually free from stress as his debt was minimal.

He was confident that his variety was hardy and dependable and that he could remove most pests during the early immobile stages in their life cycle through his skill in selecting an effective deterrent. He also no longer worried about the health of his young family, and expected that his yield would rise as his soil improved and insect communities reached a natural balance. He was still expecting about seven quintals per acre on his poor red soil.

Indeed Niak had become such a beacon in his community that the village has been renamed after him and the NPM credo written on the walls in the village square to counter the pro Bt cotton posters found everywhere. His positive appraisal of the NPM method and its advantages were confirmed by all the other farmers that we questioned.

Recreating the natural balance of predators and pests

The skill of managing pests without recourse to synthetic pesticide requires knowledge of life cycle and behaviour, vigilance, an armoury of pest specific deterrents, and a healthy community of natural predators of pests. To control pests such as the spotted bollworm, American bollworm, tobacco caterpillar, pink bollworm, aphids, jassids, thrips, white fly and mites, each of which is capable of causing between 30 and 50 percent damage to a crop, natural predators are the most effective year after year.

For example trichogramma, a tiny parasitic wasp, lays its eggs in the eggs of the American bollworm that soon die; bracon, another parasitic wasp, lays its eggs in bollworm larvae. Hoverfly larvae feed on aphids; pirate bugs feed on bollworm larvae, and big eyed bugs feed on bollworm larvae and white fly. Chrysopa, a lacewing, feeds on bollworm caterpillars and sucking pests; ladybird beetles and larvae feed on aphids and deter Spodoptera. Ground beetles and dragonflies feed generally on crop pests, and robber flies, predatory wasps and red tree ants steal bollworm larvae for the young in their nests. Preying mantis and spiders are also predators of cotton pests; as are many insectivorous birds for which perches are erected throughout the crop.

Mechanical and chemical aids to pest reduction include pheromone, light, kerosene, water, and yellow and white coated grease traps that are laid within the crop as a particular pest proliferates. Castor plants are grown that capture tobacco caterpillar eggs and marigolds that capture American bollworm allow these pests to be ?nipped in the bud?. Specific pests may be sprayed with a mixture of fermented cattle dung and urine that also add micronutrients that help wilt and other diseases. Neem seed kernel extract, chilli/ ginger/ garlic extract, a tobacco decoction and jaggari solution, made from the residue of sugar cane, are used to deter a variety of destructive insects. Unlike the use of pesticides, none of these biological/organic control methods will lead to pest resistance or harm the environment; instead, they serve to restore the ecological balance and to increase the farmers? health, profit, knowledge and independence.

Organic farmers regain full independence

The third year of the NPM programme is the organic stage of cotton production, and is run by Oxfam. Oxfam has accessed a traditional Tamil Nadu non-hybrid variety called surabhi from the Central Institute of Cotton Research in Coimbatore. This variety has an excellent staple length and is therefore popular with buyers. It also has resistance to both pests and diseases such as bacterial leaf blight, and grows well in conditions similar to those in AP.

Moreover, the surabhi seed costs Rs130 per acre, as opposed to Rs450 per acre for hybrid cotton and Rs1600+ per acre for GM Bt cotton. It will give a standard yield of 3 to 4 quintals per acre in poor conditions, though in good conditions last year, it yielded 8 quintals per acre. More importantly, it yields viable seed that puts seed control back in the farmers? hands, allowing them to retain and propagate the line; an unusual benefit in this age of hybrids.

So with freely available local fertilisers such as tank silt, vermicompost and green manure, and cheap natural pest control inputs, a profit from the crop is almost inevitable, giving peace of mind to the farmer, who can repay any debt to the cooperative for lending to new members.

Research backs up the case for NPM and organic cotton

A report entitled Bt cotton vs. Non Pesticidal Management of cotton: Findings of a study by the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture 2004-05 compares Bt and NPM cotton in AP. It reports conclusively that Bt cotton is more prone to pests and diseases and that beneficial insects are more prevalent on NPM cotton. It also reports that the cost of pest management of Bt cotton is 690 percent higher than in NPM farming systems and that seed cost of Bt cotton is 355 percent higher than conventional varieties (?Organic cotton beats Bt Cotton in India? SiS 27).

Madhavi, who works for Oxfam on this programme, told me that in Maharashtra, Karnataka and other Indian states, there is a culture of organic agriculture, and she is currently talking to local officials to promote organic production in colleges and research institutes in AP and to familiarise local farmers with this lost tradition.

The greatest triumph for organic cotton happened when the AP Minister of Agriculture Mr Raghuveera Reddy got the failed Monsanto cotton hybrids - Mech-12 Bt, Mech-162 Bt and Mech-184 Bt - banned in the state in May 2005, and is now supporting the expansion of the NPM programme since witnessing its success in the village of Punukula (?Organic Cotton Beats Bt Cotton in India? SiS 27).

Madhavi added that the multinational companies have corrupted seed dealers who gain a much larger profit on each drum of Bt seed sold than non-Bt seed, and although the Bt crop looks destined to fail again this year, most illiterate farmers, through wishful thinking, have believed the hype of the profiteers. They remain caught in a cycle of debt, pesticide and despair.

But the transition to organic cotton has been very successful where implemented and Oxfam is seeking to give more farmers this sustainable option and will expand its programme to other crops, including rice, in the near future. This is the opportunity that small farmers need to avoid falling into the Bt cotton trap, and return to autonomy and financial independence.

This article can be found on the I-SIS website at http://www.i-sis.org/uk/ROC.php

2. Biotech crop acreage will grow out of necessity

By Chris Anderson
Jan. 5, 2006

URBANA - One of Bruce Chassy's favorite cartoons shows an overweight woman seated on a couch. She's munching potato chips. A carton of french fries and a soda sit within convenient reach. "I won't eat anything genetically modified," she tells her equally obese male couch counterpart. "It might be unhealthy."

The University of Illinois food scientist told Illinois Crop Protection Technology Conference attendees Wednesday that genetically modified crop acreage will expand worldwide. The expansion will be fueled by increasing need to improve human nutrition as well as boost crop production, he said.

"We have 10 years of experience with biotech crops. We hit the one billionth acre of genetically modified crops harvested last year. No obvious human harm has occurred," said Chassy, who has advised food safety regulators worldwide on the topic.

Chassy said most consumers do not know what a gene is or how genetic modification works. The latter, he noted, is not gene cloning, in which a living organism gets duplicated. Instead, genetic modification takes an individual trait from a gene and transfers it in one step to another living organism.

"There's nothing natural about the food we eat. Plants naturally genetically modify themselves through random mutation. And we have selected plants for thousands of years," said Chassy. "Wheat actually is a cross among three grasses that would never take place naturally. We've been improving crops forever. Genetic modification is just another step."

Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have already improved the environment, Chassy noted. During the last decade, GMOs have boosted farm net income globally by $27 billion, he said. In the same time frame, global pesticide use dropped 378 million pounds because some GMOs contain pest-killing genes, Chassy added.

Global population has been estimated to increase 50 percent in the next 30 to 40 years, meaning global food production must double in that time, Chassy said. The scenario will occur as the amount of land for farming will decrease from an acre per person in 1991 to about a third of an acre in 2040, he added.

Despite those facts, controversy still churns regarding GMOs. European leaders, in particular, have created laws restricting GMO crop growth and developed food labels specifying GMO content.

"The biotechnology industry has done a poor job of public relations. Scientists really haven't spoken out," said Chassy. "It boils down to universities and colleges teaching better critical thinking. The debate over GMOs could prove to be the wrong issue at the wrong time because other food safety and nutrition issues loom much larger for society."

3. Vermont House waters down modified-seed bill

By Louis Porter
Vermont Press Bureau, January 4, 2006
http://www.rutlandherald.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060104/NEWS/60104033 9/1004

A long-debated measure designed to hold seed manufacturers liable for the accidental spread of genetically modified crops was narrowly defeated in the House Monday, a busy first day of the new session.

The House passed a less stringent version of the bill, which requires that lawsuits over the unintentional spread of genetically modified crops be filed in Vermont courts and affirms farmers' rights to sue companies under consumer protection law.

It is not the end of the issue, however, because the Senate passed the tougher proposal last year and a compromise will have to be worked out with the House before the end of the session.

Dozens of farmers and activists on both sides of the debate crowded the Statehouse. Supporters of the more stringent version of the bill wore red shirts, and sat elbow-to-elbow with those who opposed the bill and wore green caps.

Organic farmers who do not use genetically altered seeds could lose money if their crops are accidentally pollinated with genetically modified corn or soybeans, according to supporters of applying so-called "strict liability" to genetically modified seeds.

Under current law and contracts with seed manufacturers, the farmers would have to sue their neighbors, not the manufacturers, they said.

If strict liability was applied to genetically manufactured seeds, a farmer who suffered a loss due to pollen drift would not have to demonstrate negligence on the part of the manufacturer to claim damages.

But farmers who use the seeds and other opponents of the strict liability proposal said that seed manufacturers may stop selling the products in Vermont at all if the bill passed. And, they added, strict liability is more suited to inherently dangerous materials like explosives than to genetically modified seeds, they said.

The version of the bill which included the strict liability provision was defeated in a 79-68 vote.

"It is government trying to protect people from themselves," said Jeff Sanders of St. Albans, who left the 1,400 acres he farms to make his first trip to the Statehouse to oppose the measure. "GMO products are a tool conventional farmers use to eke out a living. Tradition is that neighboring farmers work out their differences and generally they can do a pretty good job."

But farmer Armand Pion worries about what would happen if the pollen from the genetically modified corn he used this year spreads to his neighbors' organic crops.

"If they can be allowed to sell the GMO seed they should be held responsible for what happens with it," he said of the manufacturers.

Cross-pollination could easily have happened, since without even thinking about it he planted genetically modified corn near his neighbor's fields, said Pion, who sells both organic and conventional feed.

Lawmakers were just as divided as farmers.

The strict liability proposal isn't about whether genetically modified crops are safe, said Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier.

"A farmer needs to be on a level playing field with these corporations in court," he said. Without the strict liability provision a farmer cannot afford to sue a large seed manufacturer, Klein said.

But Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, said that the strict liability proposal was in reality about opposition to genetically modified products. It is "a backdoor attempt to disallow the use of biotech seeds in Vermont," he said.

Secretary of Agriculture Steve Kerr opposed strict liability and was pleased by the vote.

"I think it is a good policy decision," said Kerr.

One lawmaker who wasn't heard from was Rep. Dexter Randall, P-North Troy, who proposed the strict liability provision and was taken to the hospital Monday night for pain from an apparent heart attack.

"I still feel that strict liability was the way to go," Randall said by telephone from the hospital. "It would point the finger right back at the manufacturer, where it belongs. The farmer would know he could recover damages."

Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor, majority leader and a supporter of applying strict liability to genetically altered crops, said the debate will continue when the conference committee of House and Senate members meets.

"The Senate feels very strongly that strict liability should be part of the bill," he said.

4. WTO again delays ruling in row over EU GMO policy

Reuters, Jan 4, 2006

GENEVA (Reuters) - A world trade ruling in a high-stakes row between the European Union and the United States and others over genetically modified crops has been delayed and is unlikely before February, trade diplomats said on Wednesday.

A preliminary decision by a panel of judges appointed by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) had been expected in early January, but reaching a verdict will take more time, the diplomats said.

"It has been delayed a few weeks. I would not bank on anything before February," said one trade diplomat involved in the long-running dispute.

The United States, Canada and Argentina brought the case in May 2003, alleging that a five-year-old EU moratorium on approving imports of genetically modified (GMO) crops and food stuffs violated global trade rules.

The moratorium has since been lifted, but Washington and its allies say that imports are still heavily restricted, with a number of EU states refusing to accept any.

Europe's shoppers are known for their wariness towards GMO products, with some opinion polls indicating opposition of slightly over 70 percent. But the United States, where the foods are far more widely accepted, says that EU scepticism has no basis in science and amounts to protectionism costing GMO producers hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales.

The WTO panel of judges was set up in March 2004, with a ruling initially due within six months, but the deadlines have been continually extended.

Officially, the WTO judges have announced that a final ruling, which comes out some weeks after the preliminary finding, has been put back three months to the end of March, but it is the preliminary verdict that diplomats are watching, and no dates are officially announced for that.

In the 11-year life of the WTO, a final verdict has never differed from a preliminary finding.

5. Lax oversight found in tests of gene-altered crops

NY Times
Jan. 3, 2006

The Department of Agriculture has failed to regulate field trials of genetically engineered crops adequately, raising the risk of unintended environmental consequences, according to a stinging report issued by the department's own auditor.

The report, issued late last month by the department's Office of Inspector General, found that biotechnology regulators did not always notice violations of their own rules, did not inspect planting sites when they should have and did not assure that the genetically engineered crops were destroyed when the field trial was done.

In many cases, the report said, regulators did not even know the locations of field trials for which they granted permits.

The regulatory branch "lacks basic information about the field test sites it approves and is responsible for monitoring, including where and how the crops are being grown, and what becomes of them at the end of the field test," the report said.

The audit results are likely to renew calls by environmental groups for tighter regulations. "Over all, I thought the report was devastating," said Margaret Mellon, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington.

Critics say genetically engineered crops could cause environmental harm, if, say, a gene for herbicide resistance spread to weeds, making them harder to kill.

In addition, the critics say, there could be harm to public health if a crop genetically engineered to produce a pharmaceutical or industrial chemical, for instance, accidentally found its way into the food supply.

The audit did not find any instances of known harm to public health or the environment.

However, the report said that weaknesses in regulations and in the internal management controls at the Department of Agriculture "increase the risk that genetically engineered organisms will inadvertently persist in the environment before they are deemed safe to grow without regulation."

In a written response, the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which regulates biotech field trials, said that it was already taking steps to adopt 23 of the 28 recommendations made by the inspector general, and that more changes were on the way.

W. Ron DeHaven, the administrator of the service, known as Aphis, wrote in the response, "Since 1987, Aphis has safely regulated G.E. organisms and provided oversight and enforcement for over 10,000 field tests with no demonstrable negative environmental impacts having arisen from these tests."

A biotechnology industry spokeswoman said the report would have little effect because changes were already under way. "This is a report that was pretty much obsolete before it was ever published," said the spokeswoman, Lisa Dry of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

The inspector general's office, however, said that further improvements would be required beyond those already planned.

Field trials are used to test experimental genetically engineered crops. Crop developers proposed to use 67,000 acres for such tests in 2004, up from 8,700 acres in 1994.

Once crops have proved themselves in field trials, the Agriculture Department can deregulate them, and seeds and harvested crops can be sold pretty much like any other seeds and crops.

The main varieties of genetically modified corn, cotton and soybeans grown in the United States have been deregulated.

The audit was conducted from May 2003 to April 2005 and involved visits to 91 field test sites as well as looking at records. The report said auditors found 13 instances of violations of rules at 11 of those sites.

One of the most controversial areas of agricultural biotechnology involves genetically engineering crops to produce pharmaceuticals or industrial chemicals. The Agriculture Department has stricter requirements for those crops than for genetically modified crops meant for food or animal feed.

However, the new report said the department often failed to enforce those stricter requirements. In most cases the auditors checked, the sites were not inspected five times each during field tests, as the department had promised. Nor were they inspected twice after the trial to make sure the crop was destroyed and the field fallow.

The report said that in two cases large harvests of pharmaceutical crops remained in storage for more than a year after the field test ended with regulators' not knowing of the storage facility or approving it.

6. GM contamination register


This GM contamination register is the first of its kind in the world. Although GM crops were grown on over 80 million hectares in 2004, there is no global monitoring system. Because of this failure of national and international agencies, GeneWatch UK and Greenpeace International have launched this joint initiative to record all incidents of contamination arising from the intentional or accidental release of genetically modified (GM) organisms (which are also known as genetically engineered (GE) organisms). It also includes illegal plantings of GM crops and the negative agricultural side-effects that have been reported.

Only those incidents which have been publically documented are recorded here. There may be others that are, as yet, undetected.

This site is intended to be a resource for individuals, public interest groups and governments. The register can be searched to see where, when and how contamination has taken place. It includes information about, and links to, sources and the GeneWatch UK and Greenpeace web sites as well as other useful sites.

7. Ventria cancels move to Northwest Missouri

Columbia Daily Tribune
Published Saturday, December 31, 2005

KANSAS CITY (AP) - A California-based company specializing in plant-made pharmaceuticals announced yesterday that it won’t be coming to Northwest Missouri State University.

Ventria Bioscience had planned to remove proteins from genetically modified rice at a facility under construction at the university. The proteins could be refined for use in medicines to fight diarrhea, dehydration and other illnesses.

The company, based in Sacramento, Calif., was to anchor the Missouri Center of Excellence for Plant Biologics on the university’s campus in Maryville. The school planned the center with the hope that it would stimulate the rural economy and provide students with opportunities in biotechnology fields.

But the university’s president, Dean Hubbard, said demand for Ventria’s product had increased much faster than anticipated. Within the next two years, the company would need 10 times more capacity than could be provided at the protein extraction facility under construction, Hubbard said. The school and Ventria had planned to build a larger extraction facility in a second phase of construction, but money for that project couldn’t be raised quickly enough.

"We were struggling because they needed to do extraction much faster than we had originally expected, and we simply couldn’t meet those deadlines in terms of construction and funding," he said.

Hubbard said that Ventria’s withdrawal does not signal an end to the Center for Excellence.

"We developed a concept before we knew Ventria existed," he said. "That concept is as viable today as it was then. What we simply will do is go to one of the other companies we’ve had discussions with and find another anchor client that can fit into what we do."