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Terminator seeds suffer defeat at global conference;other news

(Friday, March 31, 2006) --

1. Waldo County town votes to ban GMOs
2. Creating a network against biopiracy
3. Terminator seeds suffer defeat at global conference
4. Bill would take food-label rights away from states
5. GMO liability bills divide lawmakers
6. WTO vs. Europe on GMOs

1. Waldo County town votes to ban GMOs

Associated Press
Tuesday, March 28, 2006

MONTVILLE, Maine - Residents have voted to include a ban of genetically engineered seeds in the town's land use ordinances.

At their annual town meeting on Saturday, residents gave overwhelming approval to a resolution that declared that the town would commit to banning genetically modified organisms, or GMO's, and develop land-use ordinances to support the policy. The policy will be included in the town's comprehensive plan.

It is thought to be the first time that a Maine town has agreed to ban GMO's in its land use ordinances. Voters in Brooklin last year passed a resolution to voluntarily declare the town a GMO-free zone.

Kai George, a supporter of the Montville resolution, called the vote a "landmark decision for Maine."

Genetically modified seeds are planted on about 6,100 acres of Maine's 1.25 million acres of farm land, she said.

Genetic technology has been widely used by major seed companies to promote insect resistance or herbicide tolerance in crops.

Opponents fear that pollen from genetically altered plants -- whose DNA is reconfigured to make the plants resistant to insects and weed-killing chemicals -- will contaminate nearby organic farms or traditional farms that don't want to use the altered seeds.

Many consumers also fear there isn't enough information available on the long-range consequences of eating genetically modified foods.

Biotechnology companies have countered that the negative effects are nonexistent, noting that not a single stomach ache has been reported since the Food and Drug Administration first approved genetically engineered crops for human consumption a dozen years ago.

Moreover, they say that crops genetically engineered to resist weeds and bugs enable farmers to decrease pesticide use.

European consumers are widely entrenched in their aversion to genetically modified food and pockets of similar resistance have popped up in the United States.

In California, voters in at least four counties have voted to ban biotech plants in their counties. But voters in four other California counties have rejected such proposals.

2. Creating a network against biopiracy

Published on Tuesday, March 28, 2006 by the Inter Press Service
Mario Osava

CURITIBA, Brazil - Two patents granted in the United States between 2000 and 2002 and another for which an application has been filed have put "maca", a high altitude Andean plant that is used by indigenous people in Peru, at the centre of a new battle against biopiracy, which involves the construction of an international network against the misappropriation of traditional knowledge.

One of the patented maca-based products claims to raise testosterone levels. But the countries that registered the plant "did not invent a thing," said lawyer Isabel Lapeña, with the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law. "They merely took advantage of indigenous, campesino knowledge of the plant, which is known as ‘natural viagra'," she told IPS.

News of the patent was met with howls of outrage, and a working group was set up by campesinos (peasant farmers) and scientists to study maca-related patents that have been registered in the United States, and investigate ways of challenging them.

A National Commission for the Protection of Biodiversity and "the collective knowledge of indigenous peoples" was also established two years ago.

Peruvian activists are now encouraging the replication of their experience, through the creation of similar movements in other countries, by means of the Andean-Amazon Initiative for the Prevention of Biopiracy.

The initiative, which is to be extended beyond South America's Andean and Amazon regions, so far includes partner institutions in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.

The idea is to combat all kinds of biopiracy, and it is useful to be able to refer to cases that have had major repercussions, like the ones involving maca in Peru and cupuaçú in Brazil, said Lapeña.

Cupuaçú is an Amazon fruit from the cacao family, which is used to produce chocolate-like sweets, beverages and other products for export. Several years ago, a Japanese company registered the name of the fruit as a trademark, but thanks to legal action, the patent was annulled.

Today, Amazonlink, the same non-governmental organisation based in the Amazon jungle state of Acre that spearheaded the campaign "Cupuaçú Is Ours" is focusing on another case of biopiracy.

Several U.S. companies, universities and researchers, including the Seattle-based ZymoGenetics Inc., have filed for patents for a toxin found in the skin of the Monkey frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor).

The secretion has traditionally been used by indigenous communities in the Amazon jungle in shamanic hunting rituals.

Pharmaceutical companies and researchers found that the secretion contains new peptides that have analgesic properties and are capable of combating ischemia, a condition in which the blood flow (and thus oxygen) is restricted to a part of the body, said Michael Schmidlehner, president of Amazonlink.

"We do not want to overturn the patents," said the activist, who also pointed out that synthetic versions of the peptides have already been produced.

But the case serves to highlight the need for "informed prior consent", as established by the Convention on Biological Diversity, before traditional knowledge is used, and to distribute the benefits of such knowledge among its holders, he said.

What such cases involve is "theft," said Manoel Roque de Souza, better known as Roque Yawanawá, from the Yawanawá people in the state of Acre.

The Yawanawá are among the communities that use the secretion from the frog for medicinal and ritual purposes, as do other indigenous groups in Brazil and Peru, like the Katukina, Ashaninka and Kaxinawá.

The case of the Monkey frog prompted the Yawanawá leaders to contact Amazonlink to help orient their actions. That gave rise to the "Vigilant Villages Project", aimed at raising the awareness of, and training, indigenous communities to help prevent corporate biopiracy.

The Initiative for the Prevention of Biopiracy is seeking to expand the network of organisations involved in fighting biopiracy, encourage investigations, disseminate information, and even influence institutions that deal with patents, like the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), said the Peruvian activist, Lapeña.

Many of the patent applications filed in Brazil do not even mention the origin of the genetic material that was used to make the product in question, said Henry Novion, with the non-governmental Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA).

The Mar. 20-31 Eighth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP8) taking place in the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba is tackling several related issues.

The most controversial aspect of the debates involves access to genetic resources and the distribution of the benefits derived from them, a point of especial interest to "megadiverse" countries - countries with enormous biological diversity - and indigenous and other rural communities.

The creation of an international regime to regulate such questions, within the framework of the Convention on Biological Diversity, has been proposed. It would include mechanisms to ensure that the holders of traditional knowledge receive a fair share of the benefits generated, monetary or otherwise.

Another point of concern for indigenous and other local communities involves the protection of "traditional knowledge, practices and innovations," as an aspect of the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, in accordance with the commitment assumed by the signatories to the Convention. But so far, few nations have adopted programmes or taken steps towards that end.

The Convention on Biological Diversity is seen by many environmentalists as a counterweight to the WTO when it comes to the question of patents. "In the WTO, the rights of traditional knowledge-holders are not taken into consideration," complained Lapeña.

3. T erminator seeds suffer defeat at global conference

Mario Osava

CURITIBA, Brazil, Mar 24 (IPS) - Small farmers and activists celebrated a triumph against Terminator seeds in Brazil Friday, but said they would not let down their guard, and would continue to fight the seeds.

The working group in charge of addressing the issue at the Eighth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP8) maintained the moratorium on field trials of Terminator technology, which produces seeds whose sterile offspring cannot reproduce.

The decision is still pending a vote in next Friday's plenary session in the Mar. 20-31 conference taking place in the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba. But that will merely be a formality.

Only Australia, Canada and New Zealand tried to leave a door open, pushing for "case-by-case" evaluation of permits for field testing, which critics say would weaken the moratorium put in place in 2000 on Terminators, or GURTS (Genetic Use Restriction Technologies).

For the stance they took in this case, and with regard to transgenic crops in general, Australia, Canada and New Zealand were granted the "evil axis" award by an informal coalition of civil society groups that annually hands out the Captain Hook Awards for Biopiracy.

The coalition awarded 10 "prizes" to "biopirates" as well as 10 "cog awards for resisting biopiracy". (Cogs were ships designed to repel attacks by pirates).

The United States won the award for "most despicable" act of biopiracy, for imposing plant intellectual property laws on occupied, war-torn Iraq in June 2004, making it illegal for Iraqi farmers to re-use seeds harvested from new varieties registered under the law.

Swiss biotech giant Syngenta was voted the worst threat to food sovereignty, for its patent on the Terminator potato.

The global small farmer movement Vía Campesina has held near daily demonstrations since COP8 began on Monday, to demand a ban on Terminator seeds.

On Friday, it announced that it would continue holding protests in Curitiba to call for a total worldwide ban on Terminator technology.

Other activists also said they would keep up their guard, even while they celebrated the victory. "There are governments and companies that will keep trying to produce ‘suicide seeds'," said Maria Rita Reis, with the Brazilian NGO Terra de Direitos.

GURTS, as Terminator technologies are referred to in the Convention on Biological Diversity, produce "suicide seeds" or "homicide seeds" stressed Hope Shand, research director for the ECT Group (Action Group on Erosion, Concentration and Technology), a Canada-based organisation that works to defend cultural and ecological diversity and human rights.

The commercialisation of Terminator seeds, which would make it impossible for farmers to save seeds from their harvests, would provoke enormous losses for farmers, forcing them off the land and exacerbating hunger and poverty, she maintained.

According to ETC Group estimates, soybean production in Argentina would be hit by an additional 276 million dollars in annual costs, while the cost of wheat production in Pakistan would be 191 million dollars higher.

Numerous activists emphasised that potential contamination and sterilisation of other species would have catastrophic results. There is no need for "field testing" to establish that this technology poses a threat to all life on earth, just as there is no need for field testing on the effects of torture, one activist commented.

The protests voiced by small farmers and environmentalists have fallen on more than fertile ground. Restrictions on Terminator seeds have enjoyed majority support from the outset of COP8. In the European Parliament, this position earned 419 votes in favour and a mere 15 against.

Within the Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC) there is a consensus on maintaining the moratorium on field trials and commercial releases of Terminator seeds and rejecting the proposal for a "case by case" assessment, Alicia Torres, director of Uruguay's National Environment Office and head of her country's delegation to COP8, told IPS.

In the meantime, Syngenta is currently facing troubles in Brazil that go beyond acts of protest.

In addition to the occupation of its test field since Mar. 14 by close to 1,000 rural activists from Brazilian groups associated with the Via Campesina network - like the Movement of Landless Rural Workers û the transnational corporation has just been hit with a fine of one million reals (470,000 dollars) from Brazil's environmental authority.

The sanction stems from the fact that Syngenta's transgenic soybean test crops in Santa Teresa, in the southern state of Paraná, violate national laws because they are located too close to Iguacu National Park, a nature preserve.

Syngenta and Monsanto have both been consistently targeted by protesters at the parallel meetings to COP8 and by the Global Civil Society Forum, a gathering of social movements and non-governmental organisations held in tents outside the Expo Trade Centre, the venue of the official conference. (END/2006)

4. Bill would take food-label rights away from states

By Kristen Davenport For The New Mexican
March 22, 2006

A bill that would forbid states from labeling food products unless the federal government allows it passed through the House of Representatives last week without a single committee hearing.

"It was really bad," said Tom Udall, Northern New Mexico’s Democratic congressman. "In the normal legislative process, a bill goes through committee, and the committee calls witnesses . What the Republicans do now is bring up bills without ever letting the committees work their will."

In other words, the thousands of people who oppose the bill were not heard. Udall said he received at least 500 letters, phone calls or e-mails from New Mexicans opposing the bill — and not one in favor.

The bill — named the Food Uniformity Act — has been slammed by opponents as a bow to big agribusiness and those who don’t want states to be allowed to label foods containing genetically altered organisms.

"A lot of people don’t know how much genetically engineered material is in their food," said Bobbe Besold, a Santa Fe food activist and former member of the now defunct Food Fight group. Food Fight used to organize anti-GMO — Genetically Modified Organism — gatherings and provide literature to people about genetically engineered food.

No research to date has conclusively shown that genetically modified foods are harmful to human health. However, organic farmers say GMOs are a threat to biodiversity and that pollen from such engineered crops threatens to drift into organic gene pools.

"I see (this bill) as infringing on our rights — withholding information from the public and keeping us from being informed about what’s in our food," Besold said.

Opponents say the bill came about because certain large agriculture and food-production companies — such as Novartis, General Mills and Monsanto — dislike the increasing efforts by activists and others to pass laws banning GMOs or requiring all GMO foods to be labeled as such. The Food Uniformity Act allows states to appeal to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to have their labeling requirements adopted by the federal agency. But Udall said that measure simply puts the cost and burden on states, which isn’t fair. "It will cost the states $100 million," Udall said. "That really places an undue burden on them." Udall said the bill certainly didn’t originate with consumers or with state governments; it originated with the food industry. "These big companies want to sweep aside the right to label as the states want," Udall said. Many things could be affected by the act, including small local farmers who label their products "organically grown in New Mexico."

The bill was sponsored in the House by Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Missouri, who said the bill is necessary to eliminate the "patchwork" of safety laws that differ from state to state.

"Creating a uniform system assures Americans that no matter where they live or travel in the nation, they can depend on food labels to reflect the contents of food and the potential for reactions to certain contents ," Rogers said in a press release after the bill was introduced in December 2005.

"In today’s worldwide market, it is essential that we have a mechanism for a thorough, orderly food labeling system based on safe, scientific guidelines," Rogers said.

But Udall said the measure also indicates that Republicans are abandoning their decades-old belief in states’ rights.

"That was a big part of the conservative philosophy," Udall said. "Let the states do these things. When civil rights came up, that was their mantra — let ’s let the states do this. Anytime there’s a federal program, they say, ‘ Let the states do it.’ Well, food-safety labeling is something the states have traditionally done for themselves . And now they want to take it away at the urging of these big special interests."

However, Udall said, it appears unlikely the bill will pass in the Senate because the Senate’s calendar is full and "there’s not much space for something like this."

So far, no states require labeling on all GMO crops, although the European Union requires all food containing GMOs to be labeled as such.

5. GMO liability bills divide lawmakers

Monday, March 20

BENNINGTON — Bennington County legislators are as divided over a bill dealing with liability for genetically-modified seeds as they feel their constituents are. At issue are measures before the Legislature that would make manufacturers of genetically-modified organisms financially responsible if their products spread beyond the farms where they are planted and reach land used by organic farmers. Democratic lawmakers Sen. Dick Sears and Rep. William Botzow of Pownal are on opposite sides of the debate. Meanwhile, Rep. Patti Komline, R-Dorset, favors the Senate's approach.

"There's a lot of controversy over this, a lot of people don't agree," Sears said. "There's a lot of strong opinions." Sears said he has heard from farmers in Shaftsbury and Pownal and an agricultural supply store in Manchester. There is little common ground among them, he said.

Similarly, the Senate and House have their preferred ways of dealing with the issue. The Senate bill calls for strict liability on the part of the manufacturer of GMOs.

The House bill provides a number of different remedies for the organic farmer but does not hold the manufacturer wholly responsible. A conference committee was called for by members of the House and Senate but it failed to reach a compromise.

Botzow said farmers need a mechanism to address their losses if the seed manufacturer is at fault. He believes in offering at least three paths of liability: product, strict and nuisance.

Sears and Komline favor strict liability, meaning manufacturers would pay if an organic field was contaminated with GMOs even if they were not directly responsible. Komline compared the situation to a farmer who owns a steer that breaks through a fence and damages another person's property. The owner of the steer would be liable, so she believes the manufacturer should be liable, whether they were responsible for the seeds spreading or not. Sears said he wanted to protect farmers.

"The manufacturer under current contract laws requires that person (who uses GMOs) to hold liability. We didn't think that was fair. That's why we called it the Farmer Protection Bill," he said.

Second thoughts

Komline said she hadn't changed her position, but some aspects have given her second thoughts. For instance, strict liability makes it easy for an organic farmer to corrupt his or her own crops and then sue the manufacturer.

Komline also said organic farmers seemed very single-minded and didn't seem to understand that even the Senate version of the bill required them to go to court to seek a remedy.

"I have a big concern for the non-GMO farmer but some people can't see the other side. They're so convinced the genetically-modified seeds are bad for us and there's no proof of that. So I'm a little concerned with the lack of perspective," she said.

Botzow agreed that the bill didn't tackle the larger issues some are concerned with. "What's important to remember is that this isn't about whether farming with GMOs is bad or not, this is about, if a farmer is damaged, how do you make that farmer whole. What recourse does the farmer have in the face of a large, international corporation," he said.

Choose the venue

Both the House and the Senate bills offer to let the farmer choose the venue for a lawsuit. Under current law, a seed manufacturer could insist a lawsuit be tried in an out-of-state court under that state's laws. That can make it difficult for a small farmer to pursue litigation.

The legislators also agree that a bill is necessary. Gov. James Douglas, however, believes existing case law is enough to protect farmers, although he said he was prepared to sign the House version of the bill.

The future of the bill is up in the air. Botzow said the House had accepted the report of the first conference committee which is the first step toward creating a second conference committee. Botzow believes it's important the issue not be lost in the shuffle of other legislation.

"We need good, fair, predictable outcomes for the entire agricultural industry, for all our farmers. We need our farmers united on any of the issues they face. Farmers have had a hard time of it," he said.

According to Rural Vermont, a nonprofit advocacy group opposed to corporate agriculture, (T)here has been widespread contamination of non-GMO corn, soy, canola and cotton seed in the U.S. from pollen drift." Rural Vermont claims GMOs have been allowed onto the market without government safety testing.

E-mail Patrick McArdle at pmcardle@benningtonbanner.com_

6. WTO vs Europe on GMOs

March 20, 2006 15:13 | by Brian Tokar

In the late Spring of 2003, amidst the political fallout of "Old Europe's" refusal to support the US invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration threw down a gauntlet that threatened to permanently aggravate transatlantic hostilities. As a political favour to its agribusiness allies in the Midwestern farm belt, the administration filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) seeking to overturn Europe's de facto five-year moratorium on approvals of new genetically engineered crop varieties. The governments of Argentina and Canada also signed on to the complaint; together these three countries grow roughly 80 percent of the world's genetically engineered crops.

Just last week, the substance of the WTO's decision on this case was released to the parties involved, and almost immediately leaked to the press. As nearly everyone expected, the WTO's anonymous three-judge panel ruled that some of Europe's restrictions on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) violate global trade rules, and that any attempt to regulate this technology requires strict compliance with the trade body's exacting and often industry-biased scientific risk assessment procedures. Perhaps more than any previous WTO decision, the ruling confirmed many people's fears about the role this secretive and unaccountable trade body would play in today's world. The response to the decision from both sides of the global GMO debate was immediate.

Supporters of the technology were quick to declare victory, and denounce European concerns about genetic engineering as mere protectionism for European vs. American agricultural products. They predicted that the WTO would impose penalties of over a billion dollars to compensate US companies for lost European exports, and claimed this decision 'proved' that opposition to GMOs has no scientific basis. Critics of the biotech industry denounced the WTO's violation of people's right to make appropriate choices about their food and how it is grown, and pointed out that Europeans would not begin consuming genetically engineered corn or soybeans as a result of this decision. Its main impact would be on other countries still struggling to address the implications of this technology. "[T]he WTO suit is clearly an effort to chill other nations from pursuing any regulations on GE foods," explained an alliance of 15 US-based NGOs in a statement that immediately preceded the ruling. African and Asian governments are by far the most conspicuous targets.

On one hand, the WTO panel ruled against the European Union (EU) in each of the three substantive areas addressed by the US complaint. First, the unnamed trade judges declared that Europe had indeed imposed a sweeping moratorium on new genetically engineered crop varieties, in violation of the international trade agreement on "Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures." Second, they ruled that approvals of 24 specific GMO crop varieties had been illegally delayed. Third, the judges declared that additional prohibitions imposed by six countries-Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, and Luxembourg-are inconsistent with these countries' obligations as members of the global trade body.

But on the other hand, the WTO officials were careful to point out that they had dismissed most aspects of the US complaint. This is clear from the concluding 22 pages of the 1050 page decision, the only portion that has been publicly released. The decision, for example, explicitly does not address the safety of biotech products, their similarity (or not) to conventional crop varieties, countries' right to require pre-market approval of GE varieties, nor even the European Union's specific regulatory procedures. The WTO panel affirmed that member countries have the right to consider all possible hazards of GMOs in their risk assessments, even those that are perceived to be "highly unlikely to occur."

The defending countries' principal violation was a "failure to complete individual approval procedures without undue delay," no more, no less. Other aspects of the US, Canada and Argentina's complaints were largely rejected. The EU was found to have acted inconsistently with only one clause of the international sanitary measures agreement, having to do with the timeliness of GMO approvals. In six other areas, including the scientific validity of Europe's regulations, the decision refutes US assertions that Europeans acted inconsistently with their WTO obligations. The claim that European regulations discriminated against US imports in a protectionist manner was explicitly rejected, and the panel upheld European regulators' non-approval of three GMO varieties developed by Aventis Crop Science, now part of Bayer.

The six countries with additional prohibitions on GMOs were found to have violated WTO rules by enacting measures that trumped EU risk assessment protocols. Thus the WTO implicitly endorsed the principle of pre-emption: that no member state can impose regulations more stringent than those of the European Union as a whole. There is no claim that countries introduced invalid or insufficient scientific evidence; their only offence was to enact a political decision that the interests of their people are best served by keeping many genetically engineered foods out of the country. It is precisely these kinds of precautionary political decisions that international trade rules aim to prohibit, even though a precautionary approach has been endorsed by parties to the United Nations' Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.

European officials' defence was that they never actually imposed a moratorium on GMOs, only that companies were not complying with the existing approval process, leading to unanticipated delays. This argument was apparently rejected by the trade officials. However, during the three years that this case has been pending, EU officials clarified and streamlined their approval processes for engineered crop varieties. One new genetically engineered sweet corn has already been approved, though no one realistically expects it to be grown or marketed in Europe. The Union has implemented detailed GMO labelling and traceability rules designed to conform to WTO requirements. These protections still go far beyond anything seen in the US, and the Bush administration has repeatedly threatened a new complaint to challenge them. But first, according to Friends of the Earth, the EU will have 30 days to file a response to the WTO ruling, and is entitled to seek a "reasonable period of time" to comply, followed by another six-month review.

What does this decision mean for people who mainly want to know what's in their food? That still depends on where in the world you live. In Europe, genetically engineered ingredients have been virtually eliminated from processed foods, even products imported by US companies and sold under US brand names. Any ingredient that is more than 0.9 percent genetically engineered needs to be clearly labelled as such. European countries import engineered soybeans from the US and Brazil for animal feed, but there is growing pressure on meat processors and retailers to curtail this practice. Some 3500 cities, towns and regions in Europe have declared themselves GMO-Free Zones, and just last November, Swiss voters endorsed a measure that prohibits the growing of engineered crops for five years.

In the US, new varieties of genetically engineered corn, soy, canola and cotton continue to be marketed and approved for sale with only a cursory, and often voluntary, examination of company data by federal regulators. Most Hawaiian papayas are genetically engineered, as are just a few varieties of summer squash. Milk from cows injected with Monsanto's recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone also continues to be sold in many regions of the country. Nearly 100 New England towns have voted in favour of a moratorium and labelling of GMOs, and four California counties have banned the raising of engineered crops or livestock. But attempts to more comprehensively regulate this technology have languished under the pressure of Monsanto's potent political influence, especially at the federal level.

The rest of the world may be up for grabs now. People throughout Asia, Africa, and parts of Latin America have raised a determined opposition to GMOs, viewing the technology as a fundamental threat to food sovereignty and the survival of traditional agriculture.

Numerous countries have labelling and testing requirements that reach far beyond what is acceptable to Monsanto or the Bush administration. One hundred thirty countries (excluding the US) have ratified the UN's Biosafety Protocol, which requires prior informed consent before seeds or other living engineered organisms can be shipped into any country. It is in the so-called developing world that the pressure from the WTO's decision may be most felt, particularly in Africa, where Zambia and other countries have steadfastly resisted the introduction of GMOs, especially in the form of US food aid. "We made a decision based on facts and those facts have not changed," Zambian Agriculture Minister Mundia Sikatana told Reuters, "We do not want GM foods [and we] hope no one in Africa feels they have to change their views based on that ruling."


Brian Tokar's latest book is Gene Traders: Biotechnology, World Trade and the Globalization of Hunger (http://www.genetraders.org ). This article first appeared in ZNet, February 16, 2006