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


Genetically Modified Wheat Still Risky One Year after Monsanto Shelves Plan; Other news

(Monday, May 16, 2005 -- CropChoice news) --

1. Agribusiness Targets State Legislators to Pre-empt Local Laws on Seeds
2. Biotechnology in Arkansas
3. Genetically Modified Wheat Still Risky One Year after Monsanto Shelves Plan
4. Labeling compliance possible, but costly -- USDA report
5. Canola Acres Down as Seed Costs Eat Up Profits
6. Competition grows in the biopharming market

1. Agribusiness Targets State Legislators to Pre-empt Local Laws on Seeds

April 14, 2005


  • Brian Tokar, Biotechnology Project Director
    Institute for Social Ecology, Vermont
    (802) 229-0087
  • Stephanie Weisenbach
    Sustainable Agriculture Advocate Iowa
    (515) 556-4873
  • Britt Bailey, Director
    Environmental Commons, California
    (707) 884-5002
  • Kristy Meyer, Outreach Coordinator
    Ohio Environmental Council, Ohio
    (614) 487-7506


Legislators in eight states have passed bills preventing counties, towns and cities from introducing ordinances, resolutions, or other legislation relating to agricultural seeds. These seed pre-emption bills are an orchestrated industry response to recent local actions on genetically modified organisms. For example, ballot initiatives in three California counties have prohibited the cultivation of genetically modified crops, livestock, and other organisms and nearly 100 New England towns have passed various resolutions in support of limits on genetically engineered crops.

"Pre-emptive seed laws serve the agribusiness industry by weakening local laws and precluding the introduction of stronger protections in the future," said Britt Bailey of Environmental Commons. "They are industry's stealth response to a growing movement of people that are seeking to protect their communities at the local level."

"Over the past several years in Iowa, we've seen local control be taken away for the benefit of the corporate hog industry," said George Naylor, an Iowa farmer and President of the National Family Farm Coalition. "With this seed pre-emption legislation recently signed into law, we are now losing our ability to protect ourselves from irresponsible corporations aiming to control the agricultural seeds planted throughout the state."

In the past decade, the same preemptive strategy has been used by the tobacco industry and the National Rifle Association to thwart local efforts to introduce more stringent smoking and gun laws, respectively. As Tina Walls of Phillip Morris & Co. admitted, "By introducing preemptive statewide legislation, we can shift the battle away from the community level back to the state legislatures where we are on stronger ground."

See backgrounder (also online at http://www.environmentalcommons.org/seedlawbackgrounder.html) for contacts, resources, and discussions of:

  • Why this challenge to local rights?
  • Who is behind this strategy of state pre-emption?
  • Why is this a matter for wide public concern?
  • What are the legal precedents for local action?

2. Biotechnology in Arkansas

By David Bennett, Delta Farm Press, May 8, 2005

During the recent session of the Arkansas legislature, competing bills were introduced to regulate plant-made pharmaceutical crops in the state. The first, Senate Bill 318 (SB318), called for a ban, with rare exceptions, on growing plant-made pharmaceuticals. It didn't make it out of the Senate Agriculture Committee. The second, House Bill 2574 (HB2574), was more lenient towards such crops. After several weeks of debate, HB2574 passed the legislature.

At the time, there was much speculation that agricultural researchers in the state had been closely involved with HB2574. Bill Reed, Riceland Foods vice president, confirmed that in a mid-March interview. ?The industry ? Farm Bureau, Arkansas Rice Producers, the Southern Crop Production Association, the university research divisions, the Arkansas Plant Board and others "put together a bill we believe provides a balanced approach to this situation."

While safeguarding the economic viability of the food-grade rice crop, Reed said, the legislation would protect research for "input or output traits." That may seem an innocuous claim, but there's plenty to protect.

"Our interest, for a long time, has been to produce pharmaceuticals in plants," said Tim O'Brien. "The reason is very simple: the medical school has a fairly significant portfolio of technology -- perhaps 250 patents. We're also responsible for about 20 startup companies here. So our goal is to create new industry, a new economic sector in Arkansas."

O'Brien, a man whose words carry an Irish accent, is director of the Little Rock-based Biomedical Biotechnology Center. Established by the College of Medicine at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in 1994, the Biomedical Biotechnology Center is an umbrella under which research and industry huddle. The Biomedical Biotechnology Center is also responsible for a business incubator, Arkansas BioVentures, opened in 1997.

Recently, O'Brien spoke to Delta Farm Press about biotechnology and how it could help Arkansas producers. Among his comments:

On plant-made pharmaceuticals:

"Part of our effort, because we're a medical school, is to produce pharmaceutical products. Several companies are interested in developing both vaccines and diagnostics. These are proteins derived from viruses or from the human genome -- proteins expressed in tumors or cancer cells. People could be vaccinated to eliminate or prevent cancer.

"Therefore, we have a significant interest in how such products are produced. Traditionally, these products would be produced in yeast, bacteria or in cells of culture. Another way to produce them, though, is inside plants.

"Of course, Arkansas has a strong history of agriculture, and there is great expertise in the field. That expertise is tied to certain crops: rice, soybeans, cotton and winter wheat spring to mind.

"So, clearly there are potential ways to configure these plants and products at a significantly lower cost than from other methods. We see the capacity to produce high-value products by relatively small farmers as a way to enhance the agricultural potential of the state.

"Small farmers could do well with this because you don't need 1,000 acres to produce the products. A farmer could do well with 10, 20 or 50 acres."

On canola and rice as plant-made pharmaceuticals:

"The issue became 'What are the ideal plants for producing the proteins for therapeutic uses'. We looked at several candidates, beginning with canola. Canola isn't commonly grown in Arkansas, but there are varieties that do well here.

"We, in fact, have done early experimental work with canola, all of it in containment in collaboration with the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

"We also have evaluated rice. Ventria and others are in this business because rice is a very good candidate crop for producing the proteins. Rice can store many of the proteins, which allows a higher production rate. And the technology to introduce the products into rice is well-established.

On market opinion:

"We also recognize the potential of market opinion in introducing the proteins in rice. As a result, we?ve focused on plant varieties that aren't big commodities. More recently, we've been focusing on cowpeas as our main vehicle.

"We're redeveloping technology because much of it was brought along through canola and rice. Now, we must rework it for cowpeas.

"We think cowpeas will work well because they're self-pollinating, they have large seeds that are workable and containable. We believe cowpeas can be grown and managed in a way that would be very valuable to small farmers.

"If we're prevented from doing that in Arkansas, we'll have to look somewhere else. Inevitably, the pharma-industry will settle where it's most economical to produce these proteins."

You mentioned a couple of things that are close to fruition. Please elaborate.

"We have diagnostics and vaccines in clinical trials. If they go through the trials successfully and become a commodity we can use in the population for therapy, then the demand for the product will go up significantly. We would like to be in a position at that time to produce it in reasonable quantities.

"To do that, we would probably need to grow these products in quantity within the next two years. That means we hope to have initial production in an experimental system hopefully this year. That, in turn, will help expand the seed base so we?ll be able to have enough when the project moves forward in two years."

On how genes are placed inside plants:

"There are several manners. First, there's the "gene gun" where gold particles with DNA on them are "fired" into plant cells. There's also a bacteria used -- normally part of the nitrogen fixation process in certain plants.

"You do initial work in tissue culture and then use certain media that encourage root growth or stem growth. You take the resulting plantlets and grow them. Those are then screened and if any good ones are discovered, you continue working with them."

How close are we from seeing real plant-made pharmaceutical benefits to the world? Are we 10 years away?

"No. In some cases, we're very close. The human genome has been sequenced and we understand the genes and what regulates the disease processes and normal support processes for well-being. We're now finding what can be produced that will help us maintain a normal metabolism and how to prevent disease.

"As we do that, the whole pharmaceutical industry is moving away from chemistry-based to a biologically-based focus. That simply means instead of chemicals modifying cell behavior they're looking at proteins. The capacity to produce these proteins will be in incredible demand and expanded over the next five years. The opportunities for farmers, therefore, will develop very fast."

On marketing GM and plant-made pharmaceutical crops to the world:

"The truth is we haven't done a great job in educating the public as a whole about biotechnology. We should have been explaining the benefits and acknowledging the questions regarding any risks or downsides.

"There are risks to anything, of course." Everyone should agree that, if produced, (plant-made pharmaceuticals) need to be contained and not part of the general population of plants. I think that's very important, so we need plans and regulations that must be complied with. But I think it's clear that these proteins are going to be produced. If done properly, they can be highly beneficial to everyone."

Have any economists looked at how much this would benefit the state and farmers? What's the monetary potential for this?

"There are estimates out there. I don't want to blow up the importance. But from an economic development standpoint, there is significant and important potential with this industry. Very small acreage can produce a high-value crop.

"The great question facing us in Arkansas is, 'How do we design systems that are risk averse and contained properly that provide opportunities for the small farmer?' That's what I want to see us accomplish.

"We can do this! This is an industry that's just beginning. We can be in the forefront of how the industry is crafted and how we want the state to participate and we should spend time figuring out how best to do that."

Editor's note: for more information, visit www.uamsbiotech.com.

3. Genetically Modified Wheat Still Risky One Year after Monsanto Shelves Plan

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

CONTACT: Dr. Robert Wisner, 515-294-7318; Todd Leake, 701-594-4275; or John Smillie or Kevin Dowling, WORC staff, 406-252-9672

(BILLINGS, MONT.) ­ Prospects for introducing genetically modified (GM) wheat in the U.S. haven’t improved since Monsanto shelved its research and development plans one year ago, according to Dr. Robert Wisner, a leading grain market economist.

Introduction of genetically modified wheat in the U.S. still risks the loss of up to half U.S. wheat export markets and a one-third drop in price, according to the latest update of an October 2003 report, Market Risks of Genetically Modified Wheat, released today by the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC). Dr. Wisner is the University Professor of Economics at Iowa State University.

"One year after Monsanto’s decision, consumers in Europe and Asia remain resistant to GM crops," said Todd Leake, a wheat grower from Grand Forks, N.D., and WORC spokesperson. "Introducing GM wheat would open the door for our competitors to take more of the export market and depress prices paid to U.S. wheat growers."

The report covers policy changes, trends, and other developments that may affect market risk, including:

  • Some European Union (EU) policies on GM crops and food are changing, but so far, consumer attitudes have not.
  • Ten central and eastern European nations joined the EU, increasing the number of countries with food labeling programs. Labeling allows consumers in these countries to show their preferences about GM food to food companies, wheat producers and to the seed industry.
  • Syngenta is developing fusarium-resistant GM wheat, but will not release it for six years or more. Consumers overseas may be as resistant to Syngenta’s GM wheat as to Monsanto’s

Monsanto developed GM hard red spring wheat to resist the commonly used Round-Up® herbicide. The company indefinitely postponed release of its GM wheat in May 2004, compelled by the market resistance documented by Dr. Wisner’s original report. In that report, Dr. Wisner found:

  • A large majority of foreign consumers and wheat buyers do not want GM wheat. At least 37 countries had mandatory labeling programs for food with detectable GM ingredients as of October 2003.
  • Commercialization of GM wheat in the U.S. now or in the next few years would create a high risk of loss of one-third to one-half of U.S. hard red and durum wheat exports.
  • The European market for U.S. hard red spring and durum wheat likely would be lost completely.
  • Hard red spring and durum wheat prices could fall by one-third, to feed wheat levels.
  • Increased government program payments would only partially offset lower wheat prices.
  • Plummeting prices would lead to lost wheat acreage, loss of revenue to farm-related and rural non-farm businesses, and falling local and state tax revenues.
  • Market risks for GM wheat are greater than for GM corn and soybeans. Unlike wheat, most corn and soybeans are fed to livestock or processed into oils and sweeteners. The U.S. share of world exports is much smaller for wheat than corn or soybeans, and domestic demand for corn (unlike wheat) is growing rapidly.
  • The issue is consumer acceptance. Consumers are the driving force in countries where food labeling allows choice. Governmental approval does not guarantee consumer acceptance.

WORC is a regional network representing farmers and ranchers in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, and Wyoming.


4. Labeling compliance possible, but costly -- USDA report

May 10, 2005 Tuesday
Allison A. Freeman, Greenwire reporter

A wide range of international requirements on labeling and traceability of genetically engineered crops has made compliance by the U.S. food industry complicated and costly, the Agriculture Department says in a report released yesterday.

The report , which was issued by a USDA advisory committee, said clarifying some requirements and putting some testing mechanisms in place could help the U.S. food sector meet the challenges of new international regulations on products of biotechnology.

The report was one of two released yesterday by an advisory panel tasked with assessing how the industry is complying with worldwide labeling and traceability requirements, as well as making recommendations on how the agency should be thinking about biotechnology over the next five to ten years.

The panel -- whose 18 members represent a range of perspectives on the issue -- includes farmers, academics, consumer and environmental advocates and representatives from the biotech, food manufacturing and shipping industries representatives. It will issue further reports on the future of biotechnology over the next year.

The report comes as delegates from 50 countries and representatives from industry and non-profit groups convene for the 33rd Meeting of the Codex Alimentarius Committee on Food Labelling in Malaysia. A delegation from Consumers International is lobbying the panel there to adopt international guidelines on labelling of genetically modified food.

Meanwhile, some in the U.S. food industry struggle to comply with the new European Union rules on labeling and traceability of biotech foods.

Under the rules, all food containing more than 0.9 percent of GM material would have to carry a label indicating the presence of the technology. U.S. officials have blasted the requirements as a trade barrier.

The requirements have been further complicated in recent months by the discovery of an unapproved genetically modified strain of corn that recently contaminated U.S. stocks. Last month, the E.U. issued a list of 26 biotech products that are approved for use in its member states and voted to block imports of U.S. maize animal feed and grains unless accompanied by analytical reports that guarantee them to be free of the strain.

The report notes that in addition to the E.U. requirements, other countries have begun to develop their own safety and identification requirements as the use of biotechnology has grown. The requirements place costs and legal and commercial risks on farmers and the industry, both through the difficulty in meeting the specifications and from concern of consumer reactions to the biotech labels.

But Greg Jaffe with Center for Science in the Public Interest, who served on the advisory board, noted that the report does not extend that to say that that industry cannot comply, which is what some USDA and industry representatives have argued.

"The message that comes across is that the U.S. industry can and will comply with different labeling and traceability regimes established by other countries and there are a lot of technologies and other methods to achieve compliance with those regimes," Jaffe said.

However, Joe Mendelson with the Center for Food Safety said that by focusing on the costs and burdens of compliance, the report overlooks the benefits to consumers of such regulations and the question of which part of the food chain should bear those costs.

Mendelson said food processors are caught in the middle of the system with labelling and traceability and USDA should look at how to have the companies that have developed the technology and benefitted from it bear the burden of regulatory compliance.

5. Canola Acres Down as Seed Costs Eat Up Profits

by Paul Beingessner
Canadian farmer, writer

Although it is no surprise to farmers, the news from a University of Saskatchewan agricultural economist last week may have been a shock to urbanites who took the time to listen. The "news" was that there are no crops one might grow in Saskatchewan this year that, with an average yield, will provide a positive net return to farmers.

In defiance of this logic, farmers are out planting like crazy these days. "Like crazy" may, in this case, be more than just an expression of the need to hurry. In doing so, they are gambling, eternal optimists that they are, that they will have an above average crop. Unfortunately, the law of averages has an awful habit of asserting itself.

Farmers find themselves in this terrible position for a number of reasons. Chief among these are the high cost of fuel, skyrocketing ocean freight rates which record oil prices will only make worse, and general prices increases for most inputs.

Farmers are trying different strategies to control these costs. There has been a shift in acres to oats - a crop that can get away with fewer inputs. Other farmers are importing an American brand of glyphosate herbicide, and saving thousands of dollars. One organization, the Saskatchewan Canola Development Commission, took its own run at input costs when it complained about the price of canola seed.

The canola seed market is dominated by proprietary seeds, that is, seeds that the farmer only rents. With the myriad of Roundup Ready canola varieties, farmers are not allowed to save their seed, as the gene that gives resistance to Roundup herbicide is owned by Monsanto, and Monsanto makes sure farmers sell all of their production and do not try to used any for seed.

Other companies have joined Monsanto in this. Clearfield varieties carry licensing agreements, as do some Invigor hybrids. The latter is new this year, and varieties that were not so protected last year now carry warnings about not saving seed. One wouldn't think that would be a big problem with hybrid seed, as it does not necessarily breed true to type. This year, however, farmers are so hard up they are experimenting with replanting their own seed of hybrid canolas.

All this is driven by the high price of canola seed. Some varieties are running up to $6.50 a pound (a trifling $325 a bushel). Farmers typically plant five or more pounds an acre, so with canola worth about $6.50 a bushel this winter, a farmer can contribute his first five or six bushels just to paying for the seed.

The Saskatchewan Canola Development Commission receives a check off from each bushel of canola grown and sold. Unlike the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers, the Canola Commission has not invested this in plant breeding.

Rather, it has spent over a million dollars a year on market development, agronomic research and the like. Canola organizations in general have been more than happy to leave plant breeding to the seed giants. In fact, as organizations, they have historically been strong proponents of plant breeders rights legislation, and have had strong ties to companies like Monsanto. A president of the Manitoba Canola Growers, for example, accepted an all-expense paid trip to Spain from Monsanto to attend a conference.

Given their strong support of plant patenting (as at the Percy Schmeiser trial) and plant breeders rights, it is hard to avoid the feeling that canola growers are the victims of their own "success". By and large, they have the kind of plant breeding system they wanted - carried out by transnational seed companies, funded by royalties on seeds collected from every farmer, every year. Now they are surprised when those seed companies take them to the cleaners.

More and more, farmers understand that when they turn their industry over to agribusiness, the results are most pleasing to agribusiness. Now the Saskatchewan Canola Development Commission is talking about getting into plant breeding, about research to determine if farmers can successfully replant their own seeds, and the Commission is even musing about the problems caused by patenting of genes. How many years too late is all this?

There is a parallel in this to the Farmer Rail Car Coalition and its attempts to buy the government hopper cars. The Coalition is well aware of the danger of others controlling farmers' destiny. But, wouldn't you know it? The Saskatchewan Canola Growers organization is fighting hard against farmer ownership of the hopper cars. Somebody should urge these people to wake up.

(c) Paul Beingessner (306) 868-4734 phone 868-2009 fax beingessner@sasktel.net

6. Competition grows in the biopharming market

By Nancy Cole
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 5, 2005

The bad news for Ventria Bioscience, the California based biopharmaceutical company that drew rice-industry opposition for plans to produce human proteins in Missouri Bootheel fields, may not be over yet.

A Houston-based biotechnology firm claims it already manufactures pharmaceutical-grade human lactoferrin at costs similar to those estimated by Ventria.

Rick Barsky, the chief executive officer of Agennix Inc., said the small, private company also holds dozens of patents worldwide for its lead product, talactoferrin alfa, which already is in human clinical trials for the treatment of cancer and diabetic ulcers.

"Our actual costs are comparable to [Ventria's] best guess of their projected costs," Barsky said.

Ventria sought permits from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Biotechnology Regulatory Services to grow up to 200 acres this year in Missouri of rice genetically engineered with human lactoferrin and lysozyme, which it plans to use in an oral rehydration solution for treating children with acute diarrhea.

Ventria's plans drew opposition from Missouri rice farmers, who say that pharmaceutical rice poses an economic threat to their $93 million industry. Anheuser-Busch Cos. also threatened to boycott the state's rice because of contamination fears, until Ventria agreed to plant 120 miles away from commercial fields.

Last week Ventria's president and chief executive officer, Scott Deeter, said the company was shelving plans to grow genetically modified rice this year in Missouri because the USDA permits were unlikely to be approved in time for planting. Instead, Ventria has applied for two permits to grow rice in North Carolina, a state with no commercial rice production - where the company already has a permit to grow its rice on 2.5 acres.

Deeter said Ventria still plans to plant pharmaceutical rice next year in Missouri and to follow through on plans to relocate the company from Sacramento to Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville.

Deeter did not return calls seeking a comment on Ventria's production costs for human lactoferrin.

"Biopharming" proponents argue that food crops offer a low-cost way to produce large volumes of pharmaceuticals.

"It's important to allow this work to go forward so that we can have new treatments for diseases," said Lisa Dry, a spokesman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

"The whole concept is that by using plants -- instead of building a fermentation facility, which can cost from $500 [million] to $700 million and take five to seven years to build - you can produce drugs that might be too expensive... to produce otherwise," Dry said.

Ventria's vice president of research and development, Ning Huang, estimated his company's cost of producing recombinant proteins using transgenic rice in a January 2004 article in the journal BioProcess International.

Agennix's Barsky said he suspected that such estimates often fail to include the cost of "meeting the 'current Good Manufacturing Practice' requirements for a pharmaceutical drug" that is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Plant-made pharmaceutical companies might have to spend even more money than Agennix to "show the level of purity and consistency and all of the safeguards that we show in our closed system," he said.

Regardless of cost, Barsky said Ventria may have trouble selling human lactoferrin for a number of other reasons, including Agennix's head start.

"We've been developing it as a drug and we're in human clinical trials with our recombinant human lactoferrin, which is not produced by genetically modified crops," he said. "We produce it in a pharmaceutical manufacturing facility."

Since September 2002, Agennix has contracted the Dutch company DSM Pharma Products to manufacture more than 200 kilograms of human lactoferrin at DSM's factory in Capua, Italy.

Barsky said Agennix holds "over 75 issued patents and more than 50 pending patents" that give the company "broad protection on the composition of matter as well as on clinical applications," which could make it difficult for Ventria to sell human lactoferrin.