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Monsanto lobbies to keep the status quo for gene-altered crops

(Monday, Sept. 19, 2005 -- CropChoice news) --

1. Monsanto lobbies to keep the status quo for gene-altered crops
2. Researchers say University of Manitoba blocked video on GM crops
3. Department of Indian Work of the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota resolves to protect wild rice
4. Stakes High in U.S./EC Genetically Modified Crops Dispute at WTO

1. Monsanto lobbies to keep the status quo for gene-altered crops

Monday, September 12, 2005
By Bill Lambrecht and Deirdre Shesgreen
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
http://www.checkbiotech.org/root/index.cfm?fuseaction=news&doc_id=11204&start= 1&control=198&page_start=1&page_nr=101&pg=1

Sometimes a company's lobbying success is best measured by what doesn't happen: tighter regulations kept off the books, tax loopholes left open, hot-button issues never debated or investigated.

Take, for example, Monsanto Co., the agricultural and biotech giant based in Creve Coeur. Despite years of controversy over Monsanto's genetically modified seeds, there hasn't been a single congressional hearing on legislation calling for labeling genetically modified foods, even as much of Europe, Japan and several other nations adopted labeling laws.

Monsanto lobbyists have worked hard to preserve the current system in which its gene-altered products are treated as essentially equivalent to regular crops -- and therefore don't need any additional labeling.

Among area companies, Monsanto was by far the biggest spender on lobbying, dishing out more than $18.5 million from 1999 through 2004. In 2001, Monsanto had nine in-house Washington lobbyists on its payroll, along with another 13 at private firms.

Over the years, Monsanto has become known for its connections in Washington, hiring high-ranking government officials and a former member of Congress,_Rep. Toby Moffett, D-Conn. Among those lobbying for Monsanto last year were Peter Scher, who served in the administration of President Bill Clinton as the top negotiator and troubleshooter on global agriculture trade deals in which Monsanto had a huge stake.

Monsanto has generally deployed its phalanx of lobbyists on three fronts: shaping regulations that apply to its genetically modified crops; prying open European and other foreign markets for genetically modified foods; and winning Legislative battles to tailor the federal agriculture budget critical to its business. More than other St. Louis companies, Monsanto and its lobbyists have to navigate Washington's regulatory maze because three federal agencies regulate its gene-altered farm products. Michael Dykes, a top Monsanto in-house advocate, said the compare's lobbyists didn't try to influence the scientific review process (their scientists do that). But they do try to shape the policies that dictate how those reviews unfold -- what steps are necessary to get a new biotech product to market, for example.

Even as European nations continue to maintain a ban on most genetically modified crops, Monsanto has pressed for more government-approved uses of its technology in the United States. In June, the company won approval from the Agricuiture Department for its latest product -- alfalfa that is genetically engineered to tolerate a Monsanto-developed herbicide that kills weeds but not the alfalfa.

The agriculture giant is now in the midst of a controversial battle to commercialize a herbicide-tolerant grass that could be a big seller to golf courses. Monsanto is working with another company, Scotts Co., on that issue, and they have already run into opposition. Because grasses are wind-pollinating perennial paints, they are difficult to contain and could pose a contamination threat, critics say.

Bill Freese, a research analyst for the environmental group Friends of the Earth, said the grass could produce "Super weeds" that are resistant to herbicides.

Monsanto lobbyists exercise considerable influence over the regulatory process, Freese said, even though the rule-making might appear to be more driven by facts and less by politics.

"They have tremendous clout with the government," Freese said.

Monsanto's Dykes said his work on the special grass focused on keeping interested lawmakers abreast of the approval process, not on talking to regulators. "We would brief legislators and staff . . . on what the process is, what we're doing, how our scientists are engaged," he said.

Monsanto has a track record of political victories. Three years ago, for example, the White House sided with the company and others in the industry in their effort to avoid costly recalls and other repercussions if there's accidental contamination during field trials of gene-altered crops.

The effort by Monsanto and others in the biotech business began after the StarLink scandal in 2000, when discovery in human food of genetically modified corn approved only for animals sparked a recall of dozens of foods and a financial disaster for a company, Aventis CropScience.

The biotech companies' efforts paid off: In 2002, President George W. Bush's administration issued a directive to three federal agencies asking them to write regulations allowing unapproved materials in commercial seed and commodities "if they pose no unacceptable environmental risk."

Although it was a key win for the biotech industry, the battle isn't over. Critics argue that the policy prejudged environmental tests and posed health threats to consumers, and they are now Iobbying the agencies to write tight rules an the issue.

"We don't want to see a blanket approval for contamination," Freese said.

Monsanto, of course, is also weighing in. "We're trying to advocate a sound regulatory process as to how to effectively manage this issue," Dykes said.

2. Researchers say University of Manitoba blocked video on GM crops

September 12, 2005
Helen Fallding
CP Wire [via Agnet]

WINNIPEG -- Stephane McLachlan, an environment professor at the University of Manitoba, and his PhD student Ian Mauro, were cited as accusing the university of blocking the release of their video exploring the risks of genetically modified crops while at the same time courting funds from biotech companies.

The story explains that the two completed a feature-length documentary in 2002 with help from independent Winnipeg filmmaker Jim Sanders, and is based on interviews with Prairie farmers about their experiences -- good and bad -- with genetically modified canola.

But the Seeds of Change video has never been screened because the university and the researchers, who share the copyright, have been unable to negotiate an agreement on its release.

The story explains that the university originally demanded assurances it would not be liable if anyone sued. One insurer demanded a $50,000 deductible for any lawsuits by crop marketer Monsanto, which has a reputation for protecting its interests vigorously through the courts.

The company is featured in the documentary because of its legal battle with a Saskatchewan farmer and its development of genetically modified wheat. Monsanto Canada spokeswoman Trish Jordan was quoted as saying, "Obviously, we've never seen (the video), so I'm not sure how these guys could assume that we would sue them."

Now that a private investor has pulled out of the Seeds of Change project and the filmmakers have made it clear they don't intend to make a profit, the lawsuit issue has apparently been dropped by the university.

Alan Simms, who represented the university in early negotiations before going on to head the university's Smartpark research complex, was quoted as saying, "I've seen (the video) and I think it's fair. It's not a biased kind of thing."

But McLachlan said the university is still demanding control over where and when the video is shown, while at the same time requiring a disclaimer indicating the project has nothing to do with the university.

University spokesman John Danakas would not say what restrictions the university would place on how the video is screened, because those details have not yet been discussed with the researchers.

The university wants to make sure the documentary is only used for educational purposes, he said.

3. Department of Indian Work of the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota Resolves to Protect Wild Rice

32033 E. Round Lake Rd. Ponsford, MN 56575-9250
Phone: (218) 573-3448 Fax: (218) 573-3444
For Immediate Release 9/15/05
Contact: Jennifer Tlumak

St. Cloud, MN: On September 13, 2005 The Department of Indian Work of the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota forwarded a unanimous resolution to the Bishop. The resolution, aimed at protecting sacred wild rice from contamination from potential genetic engineering, passed without dissent. The group has asked that the Bishop James L. Jelinek of Minnesota communicate to the Governor of Minnesota, the State House of Representatives, State Senate, and other relevant State agencies the "importance of protecting our wild rice resources by prohibiting genetically engineered wild rice from being introduced into Minnesota."

The Rev. Canon Stephen Schaitberger brought the resolution forward. A man with a love of the natural world, Rev. Schaitberger is deeply concerned about the environmental and spiritual implications of the genetic alteration of rice. "We want to support Minnesota's diverse religious community, and this issue is of great spiritual importance to our Ojibwe brothers and sisters," he said. "If wild rice is 'tamed' in the laboratory through genetic engineering, and planted alongside lake rice, the environmental consequences could be detrimental. Wild rice is a state symbol for all Minnesotans, and I, along with this committee, want to make sure it's protected," Schaitberger stated. He summed up, "Wild rice is our mother, our sister, our brother; it is a relative as well as a plant."

The passage of this resolution adds another voice to the growing chorus of advocacy groups, businesses, and individuals who oppose genetic engineering of wild rice. Legislation to protect wild rice is expected to be introduced at the Minnesota Legislature in the upcoming session, which will begin March 1, 2006.


4. Stakes High in U.S./EC Genetically Modified Crops Dispute at WTO
New Backgrounder Outlines Key Issues - Ruling Expected Soon

Press Release from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
September 15, 2005
Contact: Ben Lilliston, 612-870-3416, blilliston@iatp.org

Minneapolis - In the next month, the World Trade Organization (WTO) is scheduled to rule on a highly anticipated case that will directly impact how countries around the world regulate genetically modified (GM) crops and food. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) has outlined the key issues in a new backgrounder on the trade dispute between the primary plaintiff, the United States (joined by Canada and Argentina), and the European Communities (EC). The backgrounder can be found at: http://www.iatp.org .

In addition to ruling directly on the ECís regulatory system for GM crops, the WTO ruling will set a precedent on food safety, public health and environmental health measures applied to internationally traded goods and services. The U.S. is the worldís largest user of GM crops. Most corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the U.S. are genetically modified. As of 2002, the U.S. State Department claimed at least $300 million in lost sales of GM corn and soy products to the EU.

"This case is about whether WTO members may use precaution when scientific uncertainties preclude regulators from assessing the risks not only of GM crops but also other new technologies," said Steve Suppan, IATPís Director of Research and author of the backgrounder. "U.S. regulators allow biotech firms to determine when biotech product risks merit regulatory concern. Now, the U.S. wants to export its deregulatory model to other WTO Members through this decision."

The U.S. charges that by not approving a single new GM crop from 1996 through 2001, the EC regulatory system imposed a WTO illegal moratorium on new approvals without scientific basis. The EU countered it was developing a regulatory system during this period and that there is significant scientific uncertainty related to the health and environmental consequences of GM crops. The EC subsequently put in place a regulatory system for biotech products that has approved several new GM crops.

A ruling in favor of the U.S. would undermine the ability of regulators to consider broader regulatory objectives cited in the EC arguments, such as biodiversity conservation, and the ECís ability to do independent assessment of biotech product claims and data. Developing countries, many of which have yet to establish regulatory regimes for GMO crops, will be particularly affected by this decision. Aspects of the ruling could also be applied to a threatened U.S. case against a draft EC regulatory plan to regulate more rigorously certain industrial chemicals for public health purposes.

The backgrounder identifies four central questions in the case:

1 - Will the EC and other WTO members be able to develop and maintain a regulatory system for GM crops that allows for the use of precautionary measures to protect consumer, animal and/or plant health when there is insufficient scientific evidence to assess the risks?

2 - Will the WTO agree that some of the ECís regulatory objectives for GM crops fall outside of the WTO and are instead covered by other international agreements such as the Cartagena Protocol to Biosafety, which allow for a more precautionary approach?

3 - How will the panel document its use of expert opinion in determining the factual matters in the dispute?

4 - How will the panel use previous WTO dispute panel and appellate body rulings on "scientific uncertainty" to justify its ruling?

The backgrounder on the case can be found at: www.iatp.org.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy works globally to promote resilient family farms, communities and ecosystems through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.