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Roundup Ready alfalfa worries growers; other news

(Friday, Aug. 12, 2005 -- CropChoice news) --

1. Roundup Ready alfalfa worries growers
2. Japan finds seventh shipment with Bt-10 maize
3. Q&A on Oregon's Bill SB 570 -The Biopharm Bill
4. Roundup is killing off amphibians, ecologist says

1. Roundup Ready alfalfa worries growers

By Anna King, Herald staff writer
TriCityHerald, August 5th, 2005

Alfalfa growers in the Mid-Columbia say they aren't ready to grow Roundup Ready alfalfa because they're worried that if they do their export markets in Japan could ban Washington hay.

The genetically modified plants have a resistance to the weed killer Roundup, enabling farmers to spray fields for weeds without killing the crop. However, the perception, growers say, is that the product is unnatural and could affect milk and people.

Monsanto and Forage Genetics International, which jointly produce the product, received U.S. Department of Agriculture approval for the hay in July and have started selling the seed in every state but Washington. The companies are poised to release the seed in the state as early as spring 2006, and the first crop could be cut and baled that summer.

But those in Washington who export high-value hay say their customers in Japan don't want the alfalfa in their dairy feed troughs.

Columbia Basin growers export about $140 million in alfalfa to Japan a year. And hay is the largest export by volume in the Pacific Northwest, shipped out of the ports of Tacoma, Seattle, Portland and Oakland, Calif.

"There is no possible way that the Japanese customer will accept it," said Chep Gauntt, president of the Washington State Hay Growers Association and a Burbank-area hay grower. "We stand the chance of losing all of our export market."

However, Monsanto spokeswoman Jennifer Garrett said the company expects the Japanese government to approve Roundup Ready alfalfa by the end of the year.

But Gauntt said even with government approval, if the Japanese dairymen don't like the product, they won't import it or allow it in shipments. And that means big-money losses for the Mid-Columbia hay exporters.

Talks between Monsanto, Forage Genetics and the hay association have been going on for a few years. But with the date of the seed release edging forward, the situation is becoming increasingly tense.

This week, Gauntt said he learned that a longtime member of the association's board of directors, William "Bill" Ford, is being paid by Monsanto, which raises ethics concerns.

Ford is a retired Washington State University agronomist who worked out of the Pasco extension office for about 34 years. He helped test new alfalfa varieties in the area and has worked extensively with area growers and exporters.

"He's had the trust of everyone, and no one even questioned it," Gauntt said.

Ford said he's been working as a consultant for the company for about two or three years and didn't see it as a conflict of interest because he has never voted on the subject at association meetings.

"All I did was to work with them and put them in contact with the major exporters here in Washington," he said.

Ford and the companies declined to discuss how much he had been paid.

Mark McCaslin, president of Forage Genetics, said his company did compensate Ford for travel expenses but that he worked only as a liaison between the companies and Washington hay exporters to set up meetings. Gauntt said he's mainly concerned with what Ford may have shared from confidential discussions among association members about Monsanto and Forage Genetics. This week, the association issued a statement asking Monsanto to delay its seed release in Washington for another year.

"He comes and listens as we are very candid," Gauntt said. "He is listening and bringing that back to Monsanto. He's capitalized on that in the form of money."

But Gauntt said the association has no formal policy about disclosure of directors' compensation from companies.

"I had no idea that it was this deep," he said. "We're businessmen and we're not naive, but maybe in a way we have been."

Brent Evans, international sales manager for Eckenberg Farms of Mattawa, said he's not worried about Roundup Ready alfalfa as a product, but he is extremely concerned about the Japanese perception.

Evans lived in Japan for about six years and said consumers and farmers there are very health-conscious and will ban anything they view as contaminated or dangerous.

In 1995, he worked for the Washington State Apple Commission in Japan when the Japanese shut down imports of all Washington apples after a chemical residue was discovered on less than 1 percent of the fruit.

"It's an underlying fear that we are messing with nature," he said. Evans said Eckenberg Farms ships about 5,000 shipping containers of alfalfa to Japan each year.

That exported hay is the most expensive sold in Washington, he said, and a disruption in that market would have dismal effect on hay prices in the Northwest.

Evans said his company would like the product better if the companies would help the growers educate their consumers in Japan.

He said that might take an additional year or two. But make a wrong move, and it could take years to resolve, he said.

"If you think they won't stop alfalfa from Washington State, all you have to do is to look at beef," Evans said, referring to the trade embargo on U.S. beef after mad cow disease was discovered in a slaughtered Mabton cow. "They can't get the Japanese to budge."

2. Japan finds a seventh shipment with Bt-10 maize


The Ministry of the Agriculture of Japan announced this Thursday (04-08-2005) to have discovered a seventh shipment of grains for feed from the U.S.A. with Bt-10GM maize, and it requested the importer to destroy the volume or to order the ship to return to the country of origin. Tests made with samples of the maize from North America for feed had resulted positive for traces of Bt-10, a genetically modified variety of maize produced by the Swiss agrochemical corporation Syngenta AG, a type not approved for distribution. The company announced in March that remains of its seeds of maize in the U.S.A. was contaminated erroneously with the Bt-10 between 2001 and 2004. The shipment arrived on 15 July in the port of Hakata, in the Japanese island of Kyushu, in the south of the country. The ministry did not disclose the name of the importer.

By Aya Takada
Source: Reuters

3. Q&A on Oregon's Bill SB 570 -THE BIOPHARM BILL

What are biopharmaceutical (biopharm) crops? Theyíre plants genetically engineered (GE) to produce drugs or chemicals they could not produce naturally. The bill also covers industrial crops, which are GE plants that produce industrial or research chemicals or enzymes.

What does the bill do? It places a four-year moratorium on any biopharmaceutical and industrial crops that are grown outdoors or using food/feed crops (indoors or outdoors).

There are two exceptions. The bill would not restrict GE crops producing chemicals they produce naturally or GE crops producing chemicals generally recognized as safe by the FDA. Also, the bill would not restrict non-food/feed biopharm crops grown inside in contained, controlled facilities.

Some plants produce chemicals naturally that are used for drugs and industry. Would this bill affect them? No.

Does the bill affect GE plants intended for food? No, only plants intended for drug or industrial production.

What are the problems with biopharm crops?

Human food contamination: It's virtually inevitable that our food will be contaminated with drugs or industrial chemicals. Cross-pollination, especially with corn or canola, spilled seed, unusual weather and human error all are factors. Biopharm contamination incidents have already occurred in Iowa and Nebraska in 2002. Moreover, the Union of Concerned Scientists reported in a 2004 survey that half of the supposedly non-genetically engineered corn and soybean seeds tested and over 80% of the canola seeds had been contaminated. These were not biopharm incidents, but they demonstrated the pervasiveness of the genetic contamination problem.

The health consequences of biopharm crops already being field-tested can be serious, including allergic reactions, pancreatic disease, vitamin B deficiency and asthma. Regardless of severity, Oregon PSRís firm belief is that people should not ingest any drug at any level without their full knowledge and consent.

Equally disturbing, we simply donít know what drugs and chemicals are being grown in many biopharm crops because the biotech firms performing the tests often maintain the information is confidential. Even officials at state agriculture departments donít always know what is in biopharm crops.

Environmental contamination: Mammals, birds and insects will feed on biopharm crops, which could wreak havoc with their systems. Two known examples are aprotinin, which shortens the life of honeybees, and avidin, which kills or impairs numerous species of insects. Moreover, ìleakageî from biopharm plant roots may impact microorganisms in the soil and water, affecting the entire food chain.

Financial liability to farmers and food manufacturers: Both conventional and organic farmers whose crops are contaminated by biopharm crops could face a financially devastating loss. Food manufacturers could see a repeat of the 2000 Starlink incident, where corn not approved for human consumption was mixed into the food supply, resulting in massive recalls and losses of hundreds of millions of dollars. Q. Since no biopharm crops have been grown in Oregon for almost 10 years, is this a problem? In the past four years, every state bordering Oregon ñ California, Washington, Idaho and Nevada ñ has had outdoor biopharm crop testing approved. Oregon is perfectly suited in both climate and soil to have biopharm tests and it could happen at any time.

Q. Does Oregon have the authority to enact legislation on the planting of biopharm crops more restrictive than federal regulations? Oregon PSR has consulted with a number of lawyers and all have offered the opinion that the federal government has not "occupied the field" regarding GE crops. This allows more stringent regulation by states.

Significant activity outside Oregon indicates that states or localities may pass laws restricting GE crops. Massachusetts, Texas and Colorado all proposed legislation in 2003 restricting biopharm crops and California took action against GE biopharm rice. Also, the Congressional Research Service reviewed Vermontís state-wide moratorium bill on all GE crops in August 2004 and expressed its opinion that the bill would stand up to any Constitutional challenge. The opinion is specific to Vermont, but the issues regarding state authority are similar.

Q. Couldn't biopharming be a growth industry for Oregon, creating many jobs? No one can say for sure, but itís highly doubtful. Itís essential to be clear on definitions and differentiate between various types of biotechnology. There have been over 100 pharmaceuticals developed involving genetic processes employing animal, bacterial and yeast cell cultures. They are produced in contained, controlled manufacturing plants. This technology, not biopharming, has been a successful industry.

In contrast, not a single biopharm drug has been approved by the FDA since testing began in 1991, and only a few industrial chemicals have been developed. This is mainly because of the difficulties in extracting, purifying and achieving consistency in biopharm crops. This doesnít mean that none will ever be approved, but several independent experts question whether large numbers of people will ever be employed, either on the farm or in processing facilities. Even counting ALL pharmaceutical manufacturing, research and development, there are only an estimated 1,500 jobs in Oregon (Source: Ross DeVol et al, Milken Institute - 2003).

This should be compared to the estimated 128,000 jobs (Source: Portland State U. Food Industry Leadership Center ñ 2002) already existing in Oregon farming, food manufacturing and wholesale firms, many of which could be affected if food crops were contaminated. The risks far outweigh highly speculative benefits.

Q. Since the USDA decides procedures and rules for biopharm testing, shouldnít this be handled at the federal level? Oregon PSR, along with many other concerned agencies, has contacted the USDA on several occasions urging restrictions on biopharming. We will continue to do so. However, the USDA still allows open-air field testing and use of food crops and is unlikely to change these policies in the near future. Indeed, the agency has even helped fund biopharm tests. If Oregon wants protection, we must take action here and now.

Q. Who else believes USDA regulations are inadequate? The National Academy of Sciences, Center For Food Safety, Consumer Policy Institute, Friends of the Earth, Grocery Manufacturers of America, Sierra Club, National Family Farm Coalition, Union of Concerned Scientists and many others. Even Nature Biotechnology, the leading pro-GE journal, has written editorials critical of the way biopharming has been handled.

Q. What are the main points Oregon PSR is trying to make? Biopharm crops are not food. They are crops used for drug or industrial manufacturing, and must be treated as such. If grown, they must be in contained, controlled facilities, just like any other drug or industrial production. Obviously, Oregon PSR favors development of new, beneficial, lower-cost drugs. We simply believe this can, and should, be done without undue risk of contaminating our food supply and environment and threatening the livelihoods of food producers.

Contact: Rick North, Project Director, Oregon PSR Campaign For Safe Food 503-968-1520 hrnorth@hevanet.com

4. Roundup Is Killing Off Amphibians, Ecologist Says

August 10, 2005 — By Eric Hand, St. Louis Post-Dispatch Worldwide, amphibians are dying. And University of Pittsburgh ecologist Rick Relyea said he knows one way to kill them: Spray them with a little Roundup, the best-selling weed killer from St. Louis-based Monsanto.

In a new study from Relyea, published in this month's issue of the journal Ecological Applications, Roundup killed 98 percent of tadpoles during a three-week test in simulated shallow ponds. In a separate dry experiment, Roundup killed 79 percent of young frogs and toads after just one day. "It's much deadlier than we thought," Relyea said.

Monsanto says that Roundup isn't meant to be used near water and that its directions clearly say so. But many amphibians live in shallow puddles, Relyea said. He said he worries that wetlands within fields and forests are accidentally being sprayed.

Something clearly is killing amphibians. They have declined drastically since the 1970s, biologists say. Nearly a third of the world's amphibians are threatened, according to a global survey last year by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

By contrast, 12 percent of bird species and 20 percent of mammals are threatened, according to the union's Web site, www.redlist.org.

"The debate is whether amphibians are the canaries in the coal mine," Washington University biologist Jonathan Chase said. There are reasons to suspect they are."

Amphibians' permeable skins make them vulnerable to toxins. Global warming, acid rain and increased ultraviolet light all seem to harm them. So even if Roundup has a toxic effect, Chase said, it's unlikely to cause the global declines on its own. Rather, there are likely many causes with the biggest being loss of habitat, he said.

"The No. 1 cause is that we're building parking lots and malls and expanding our footprint on the world," he said.

Relyea said he agrees that habitat loss is the most important factor. There isn't evidence yet that Roundup is contributing to the worldwide decline, he said. But his experiments show its striking lethality.

Relyea added one tablespoon of Roundup Grass and Weed Killer to 250 gallons of water in cattle-watering tanks where tadpoles were growing with soil and food. That amount mimicked a worst-case accidental spraying of a small wetland, Relyea said.

But Monsanto spokeswoman Mica DeLong said Relyea's concentrations were too high and unlikely to be found in nature. She also criticized the artificial setting of Relyea's dry experiment, in which he sprayed frogs and toads who sat in plastic tubs lined with moist paper towels.

"We believe this needs to be studied in a natural setting where other factors come into play," she said, citing a field study last year by Canadian scientists, published in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. It shows that even when small wetlands are accidentally sprayed, Roundup concentrations never come close to the levels Relyea applied.

Roundup is a product name for a herbicide, one of many in a general class that use the chemical glyphosate, which Monsanto pioneered. Glyphosate is now the top agricultural pesticide in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

In 1993, the EPA renewed its permit for Roundup. It noted that glyphosate itself is not toxic to aquatic life. The problem was with one of its common surfactants, which is toxic. A surfactant is a soapy additive used so glyphosate can stick to and penetrate plants.

In Australia and Europe, Monsanto sells Roundup Biactive, a version with a different surfactant that doesn't harm amphibians.

"Why don't we have the other surfactant?" Relyea asked. "Either it's less effective at killing weeds or it's more expensive to make."

Monsanto toxicologist Donna Farmer said the surfactant in Roundup Biactive was less effective on North American weeds and also would be subject to a cumbersome EPA approval process.

To see more of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.stltoday.com.

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News