E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


Unapproved GM corn found in US food chain; other news

(Thursday, March 24, 2005 -- CropChoice news) --

1. Unapproved GM corn found in US food chain
2. US launches probe into sales of unapproved transgenic corn
3. Monsanto on a biotech tear
4. Local farmers ask legislators for help
5. Poland to Ban Monsanto GMO Maize Seed

1. Unapproved GM corn found in US food chain

Kurt Kleiner, NewScientist.com news service, March 23, http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn7188

A Swiss company accidentally sold unapproved genetically modified seed corn in the US for four years. The mistake resulted in about 133 million kilograms of the corn making its way into the food chain.

Officials for the company, Syngenta, and the US Environmental Protection Agency insist there is no danger to human health. But the EPA and the US Department of Agriculture are investigating to see if any laws or regulations were broken. The EPA confirmed the investigation was underway in a statement to the journal Nature.

Between 2001 and 2004, Syngenta accidentally sold an unapproved corn variety called Bt 10, mistaking it for the approved variety Bt 11. Both varieties produce a bacterial toxin that kills insects, using the same inserted gene and producing the same protein. The only difference is the location of the inserted gene, Syngenta says.

The company says it discovered the mistake for itself when it switched to a new quality control system that tests for DNA directly. Previously it had tested only for proteins, which meant the two varieties appeared identical.

In all, about 15,000 hectares in four US states were planted with the unapproved variety. This amounts to about 0.01% of the corn grown in the US over those four years. On average, about 70% of corn in the US is fed to animals, while the other 30% is consumed directly by people.

Allergic reactions

In 2000 a GM corn variety called Starlink was discovered in the human food supply, even though it was approved only for use in animal feed because of possible allergic reactions in humans. That discovery prompted a massive recall and new methods for segregating GM and non-GM corn. It also raised concerns among overseas buyers of US corn.

Critics say the Bt 10 release demonstrates that regulations and methods for controlling GM crops are still faulty.

"This really makes us wonder what else is in corn that has not been approved but that has been field tested. It seems that companies either won't or can't control it," says Jane Rissler, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, DC, US.

The Starlink contamination was originally discovered by the environmental group Friends of the Earth and Bill Freese, an FoE research analyst, says regulators should not assume the unapproved variety is harmless without further testing.

"The US government should immediately institute a testing programme, at Syngenta's expense, to remove Bt 10-contaminated grain, seed stocks and processed foods from the food chain," he adds.

2. US launches probe into sales of unapproved transgenic corn: Syngenta admits 150 square kilometres accidentally sown with wrong seeds.

Colin Macilwain, Nature, 22 March 2005

Some US corn fields have been sown with a different transgenic strain to the one that was approved.

A strain of genetically modified corn that does not have regulatory approval has been distributed by accident over the past four years, Nature has learned.

Syngenta, one of the world's largest agricultural biotechnology companies, revealed the mistake to US regulators at the end of last year. Although the crop is believed to be safe, the fact that it was sold for years by accident raises serious questions about how carefully biotechnology firms are controlling their activities, critics say.

The corn (maize) was modified with a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which is inserted into the crop to act as a pesticide. Syngenta has approval to sell a variety of the transgenic crop called Bt11, which has been used successfully for many years in the United States and elsewhere. The strain has been approved for consumption in the European Union, for example, and may be one of the first food crops approved for cultivation there.

But between 2001 and 2004, Syngenta inadvertently produced and distributed several hundred tonnes of Bt10 corn - a different genetic modification that has not been approved.

Since the release was discovered in late 2004, US government scientists have assessed the Bt10 corn - which differs from Bt11 by only a handful of nucleotides on a section of the gene that does not code for the protein toxin - and have concluded that it is safe to eat and poses no environmental threat.

"What makes this somewhat unique is that Bt10 and Bt11 are physically identical and the proteins are identical," says Jeff Stein, head of regulatory affairs at Syngenta in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

Sarah Hull, a spokeswoman for the company in Washington DC, adds that Syngenta promptly reported the mistake to regulators after the discovery. She says this shows that the system is working as it should do. Company officials also note that the release was relatively small. About 150 square kilometres of the crop was planted over the four years, they say, which is 0.01% of all corn planted in the United States during that period. As Bt corn seed has to be bought every year, rather than being gathered from the previous year's crop, the problem should not escalate.

Hard to swallow

But Michael Rodemeyer, director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, a think-tank in Washington DC, says that the release reflects the absence of a thorough monitoring system for genetically modified products in the US food supply. "This will raise questions in the minds of countries that import food from the United States about whether we have adequate controls in place," Rodemeyer says. "It will provide ammunition for critics of genetically modified food - and it may provide incentives for countries to look at non-genetically modified varieties."

Syngenta discovered the mistake when one of its seed manufacturers, which was attempting to use the corn seeds in plant-breeding experiments, informed it that the seed was not Bt11.

Syngenta then told the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which are jointly responsible for approving genetically modified crops. Regulators and the company have since been involved in months of discussions over what should be done about the error, and how and when information should be released to the public.

White House officials have also been involved in these sensitive talks, partly because the United States and the European Union are locked in a fierce trade dispute over whether tough European rules to trace the flow of genetically modified crops are scientifically necessary. Syngenta officials declined to list the countries that accidentally received the Bt10 seed.

In a statement released to Nature on 14 March, the EPA says that regulatory agencies are "conducting investigations to determine the circumstances surrounding and extent of any violations of relevant laws and regulations". The EPA says that it is investigating whether the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act has been breached, and that the USDA is looking at possible violations of the Plant Protection Act. "The US government is also communicating with our major trading partners to ensure they understand there are no food safety or environmental concerns," it adds.

The last major, unintended release of a genetically modified crop in the United States occurred in 2000, when a Bt corn known as StarLink was inadvertently planted for human consumption. Because of possible allergic reactions, StarLink had been approved for use only in animal feed. Recall of StarLink corn cost the food industry an estimated US$1 billion, according to Rodemeyer, and lent impetus to global concerns about the safety of genetically modified food.

3. Monsanto on a biotech tear

By JIM SUHR/The Associated Press, Lincoln Journal Star, 3/20/05

ST. LOUIS -- When Monsanto Co. scrapped its plans last May to market its most-anticipated product in years ? genetically modified wheat ? even biotechnology's most ardent supporters complained about the company's lackluster pipeline.

The lucrative European market, meanwhile, remains closed to the company's wares and Monsanto has posted losses for the past two quarters. The company also has agreed to pay $1.5 million in penalties for bribing an Indonesian government official, a scandal its opponents eagerly are exploiting to keep Monsanto's wares out of southeast Asia.

So why is the stock trading near its all-time highs?

Despite the high-profile resistance to genetically engineered products, biotech crops continue to sprout on more of the world's arable acreage every year. And despite its losses, Monsanto's financial forecasts for this year and next are rosy.

In 1996, about 4.3 million acres were under biotechnology cultivation; that number has swelled to some 200 million acres.

Wall Street has rewarded Monsanto chief executive Hugh Grant's risky decision two years ago to distance the company from its chemical-making roots and refashion the St. Louis fixture as a biotechnology outfit.

Monsanto is using its grip on the small but growing niche of genetically engineered agriculture to push into markets outside the United States. At home, it controls almost all the nation's entire soy crop and half the corn seed supply.

(Earlier this month, Monsanto bought NC+ Hybrids of Lincoln, a familiar and venerable Nebraska agricultural seed company.)

The company has also begun to tame a flourishing black market for its products in South America, while more of its cotton seed is bought and sown in India each year.

With one-tenth of the world's high-value farmland growing biotech crops, "this is just the beginning," said Robb Fraley, the company's chief technology officer. "What gives me comfort is that we're seeing the momentum really across the world."

Wall Street has noticed. Monsanto's shares rose a blistering 93 percent for 2004 after a 49 percent jump the previous year.

Though the company has posted losses in the last two quarters, mostly associated with the bankruptcy of the chemical concern it spun off, it has boosted its financial forecast for the next two years. That's because its genetically engineered seed sales are booming -- a 20 percent increase last quarter -- and the company expects the growth to continue as it expands outside the United States.

Still, there's concern that that growth is driven by three products that benefit consumers little.

Critics complain that Monsanto and its rivals have failed to deliver on the promise to revolutionize agriculture with plants genetically engineered to be healthier, drought-resistant and tastier.

Monsanto's best-selling seeds remain soy, corn and cotton genetically engineered to resist weed killers and bugs, and the prospects for introducing new biotech crops to the market are at least two years away.

"Monsanto has done a good job of cornering the biotech market, but it has a very narrow focus on a very few products," said Greg Jaffe, who wrote a report last month lamenting the industry's lackluster immediate future for the Washington D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. "They seem to be coasting on the products that they developed in the mid-1990s."

Addressing that issue, Monsanto last month agreed to pay $1 billion cash for Seminis Inc., the Oxnard, Calif.-based supplier of more than 3,500 seed varieties to commercial fruit and vegetable growers, dealers, distributors and wholesalers in more than 150 countries.

It also has turned its attention to conquering the cotton sector -- now dominated by Bayer CropScience and Delta and Pine Land -- with its $300 million acquisition last month of the nation's third-largest cotton seed provider, Emergent Genetics.

Last week, Monsanto said it got U.S. regulatory approval for its next-generation of Roundup-resistant cotton, which among other things allows growers to use the herbicide later in the season, reduces tillage and is less dependent on some spray equipment.

Monsanto expects the cotton to be offered in time for the 2006 growing season, with regulatory approval in other countries to follow later this year.

This month, India -- a reluctant entrant in the world of biotech -- approved cultivation of six varieties of genetically modified cotton based on Monsanto technology in its fertile northern region, thwarting anti-biotechnology activists. Monsanto's pest-resistant cotton is the only genetically engineered crop allowed in India.

In Brazil, meanwhile, lawmakers this month cleared the way for regulators to approve biotech crops, opening a big door for Monsanto to sell its popular modified soy seed in a country where farmers have used pirated versions of the company's Roundup Ready variety for years. Brazil's president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is expected to soon sign that into law.

The country's soy market has boomed over the past decade and the new law would double use of Monsanto's soy seeds in Brazil over the next several years to about 50 percent of the market.

Monsanto insists its inroads into Brazil are just a start.

"Where we are is still at the very beginning of the cycle," said Fraley, the company CTO, "like betting at the beginning of the computer revolution."

AP Biotechnology Writer Paul Elias contributed to this report.

4.Local farmers ask legislators for help

By CHRIS PARKER [shortened]
Bennington Banner, via GM Watch, March 19 2005

RUPERT -- Martha Sirjane of Shrewsbury was on the verge of tears in describing her passion for legislation commonly known as the farmer protection act.

The seventh generation Vermonter told members of the House Agricultural Committee at a special public forum here that the state must do more to protect its farmers.

Sirjane said bill S.18, which would make biotechnology companies - not farmers and grain elevators - liable for damages from genetically modified crops, could be a positive step forward.

"Vermont can ill afford to lose any more farms," she said. "They're vital to our state, residents, families and heritage."

Many of the 35 or so farmers and other folks from Whitingham to Brandon who attended the meeting Friday afternoon at the Rupert Community Center and Firehouse agreed.

Rep. Bill Botzow, D-Pownal/Woodford, hosted the two-hour event as part of an ongoing series in which his fellow agriculture committee members could listen to the concerns of local farmers.

5. Poland to Ban Monsanto GMO Maize Seed

http://www.planetark.com/dailynewsstory.cfm/newsid/30052/story.htm , 23/3/2005

WARSAW - Poland wants to ban the import and planting of 17 varieties of genetically modified (GMO) maize seed made by US biotech giant Monsanto for two years, a senior Farm Ministry official said on Tuesday.

The EU newcomer will soon notify its plan to ban the seed, made from a parent seed known as MON 810, to the European Commission and expects a decision within one to two months, said Wieslaw Podyma, deputy director at the ministry's plant protection department.

Poland is the second central European country to ban a GMO maize type after Hungary, which outlawed the planting of Monsanto's MON 810 hybrid seeds in January.

While MON 810 is permitted across the 25-nation bloc, individual countries have discretion on whether to allow it and other gene-altered crops on their national territory.

"We are not yet announcing a ban. We are going to submit a motion to ban the imports and trading of 17 types of genetically modified MON 810 seeds for two years," Podyma said. "The ban will be introduced if Brussels approves this.

"Our motion was prepared on a different basis than in the case of Hungary. We have had no field experience related to these types of maize in Poland," he added.

Hungary banned biotech seed planting pending tests to establish whether GMO crops contaminated other crops and said old stocks must be destroyed, although it will continue to allow GMO maize in food production.

No GMO crops are yet grown in Poland, where maize production reached around 2.3 million tonnes last year.

Environmental lobby group Greenpeace welcomed Poland's decision and called on all EU member states to take action to prevent cultivation of gene crops in Europe.

Opponents of the genetic modification have expressed concern that the new EU countries, many of them relatively poor ex-communist states, could provide a back door for GMO production -- a claim strongly denied by the biotech industry.

In the late 1990s, Austria, France, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg imposed national bans on a number of GMO products.