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Misuse of Monsanto's modified seeds is creating hardier weeds; other news

(Friday, Oct. 14, 2005 -- CropChoice news) --

1. Misuse of Monsanto's modified seeds is creating hardier weeds
2. The GMO duel
3. No go on GMO moratorium
4. Peruvian farmers move to end terminator seeds
5. Study cites biotech farming gains

1. Misuse of Monsanto's modified seeds is creating hardier weeds

By Rachel Melcer
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri)
October 10, 2005

Two Missouri farmers are providing Monsanto Co. and a University of Missouri scientist with a cautionary tale: Misuse Monsanto's Roundup Ready weed-control system, and you're likely to create a stronger weed.

On two separate soybean fields in the northwest part of the state, scientists have found common waterhemp, also known as pigweed, that shows signs of resisting glyphosate herbicide. Creve Coeur-based Monsanto sells glyphosate as Roundup.

It is one of the most effective, relatively safe and commonly used agricultural weedkillers.

It also is the cornerstone of Monsanto's blockbuster Roundup Ready crop technology. The company has genetically modified soybeans, corn, cotton and canola to withstand glyphosate. The result: Growers can spray Roundup over the top of their fields to kill weeds without harming the crop.

But if the same crop and herbicide are used on a field, year after year, weeds with a natural genetic resistance to glyphosate will survive -- and thrive. Then each year, the number of resistant weeds can multiply until they choke the crop and reduce yield.

That is what happened on the northeast Missouri fields, said Kevin Bradley, extension weed scientist and assistant professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia. He would not identify the fields or farmers, but said the farmers had irresponsibly planted Roundup Ready soybeans every year since the seeds became available in 1996.

Waterhemp taken from their fields last year withstood eight times the recommended dose of Roundup. If field studies planned for next summer show that the ability is inherited by new generations of waterhemp -- something that Bradley considers "highly likely" -- then it will be classified as Roundup resistant.

Universities and agriculture companies try to teach growers to vary crops and weedkillers each year, Bradley said. "But it's their bottom line. We can tell them to rotate to this other herbicide, but (that) costs $2 or $3 more per acre. And it doesn't make financial sense to some of them. ... You just can't compete with the Roundup Ready system.

"Sometimes it's that attitude -- 'It's not a problem until it's a problem on my property, and I'll deal with it when I get it.' And that's what we have here," he said.

Monsanto said 101.5 million acres in the United States were planted with Roundup Ready crops this year. The company globally sold nearly $1.6 billion in Roundup and other glyphosate products in the nine months that ended May 31.

And Roundup Ready traits account for the bulk of the $2.7 billion in seeds and traits Monsanto sold in the same period.

These sales could be threatened if the number of glyphosate-resistant weeds continues to multiply. Eight species globally -- five in the United States -- have been classified since 1996, according to a consortium of weed scientists.

Less than 1 percent of all planted crop acres in the United States have had problems with glyphosate resistant weeds, said Harvey Glick, director of scientific affairs for Monsanto. And the herbicide is designed to kill more than 100 species, so the percentage of those it does not affect is small. Still, "we take all of those cases very seriously," he said.

On Oct. 3, Monsanto debuted a Web site offering information to growers on how to avoid weed resistance and how to deal with it. Last month, Monsanto competitor Syngenta AG did the same.

Yet some critics say the companies are doing too little, too late. Margaret Mellon, director of the food and environment program for the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, said Monsanto should have contractually required farmers using its Roundup Ready crops to rotate them each year.

"This is an absolutely predictable problem," she said.

The companies' stepped-up education effort "is an acknowledgment that it's a problem (and) that it's their problem," Mellon said. "I think they have a responsibility to be there, right up at the front of the response effort."

Monsanto is working with Bradley on Missouri's hardy waterhemp, just as it volunteers assistance to any extension scientist dealing with potentially resistant weeds. The typical result is advice for the growers on herbicides and mechanical methods that can be used alongside glyphosate to kill the resistant weeds.

These pests can be controlled, Bradley said. But there are challenges. If a resistant weed has seeds that become airborne, it can easily spread to neighboring fields. What's more, the number of agricultural pesticides available is limited, so it can be tough to find one that works well on a particular type of weed.

Waterhemp poses the latter problem. It "is one of those scary ones, in that we don't have a lot of (other) options for dealing with it," Bradley said.

Dealing with resistant weeds also diminishes key benefits of Roundup Ready crops: cost savings and reduced use of pesticides.

"It's not a bulletproof system. That's what we're learning," Bradley said. He estimates the two Missouri farmers will have to spend at least an additional $4 to $5 an acre to kill their waterhemp.

Still, no one believes that Roundup Ready crops will go away. They are too widespread, and the benefits outweigh costs, even when treating resistant weeds.

But more careful stewardship will be required, Mellon said. Glyphosate is valuable for many nonfarm uses -- clearing foliage along roadways or around public facilities and maintenance around homes, for example. Growers and manufacturers should begin to guard it as a public trust, she said.

Bradley said he and other extension scientists will use the waterhemp example to wake up growers in states such as Missouri, Illinois and Iowa, where it had been a major pest before the Roundup Ready system.

"Maybe we can use this for good," he said. "What we're looking for, hopefully, is to use it as a tool to educate farmers about what can happen."

Bradley hesitated to blame growers entirely, saying that Monsanto has made Roundup Ready crops too good to resist, tempting farmers to plant them year after year. But farmers need to avoid being short-sighted, he said.

Monsanto's Glick said: "At the end of the day, the grower is going to make the decision that he thinks is best for his particular operation. And all we can do is provide him with the information to make the best decision."

2. The GMO duel

by Tim Tesconi
Santa Rosa California Press Democrat
Oct. 10, 2005

Glen Ellen vintner Mike Benziger wants a temporary ban on genetically engineered crops in Sonoma County, calling Measure M's proposed 10-year moratorium a needed "timeout" to catch up with the science.

Across the county, Graton grape grower Steve Dutton, a fifth-generation Sonoma County farmer, strongly opposes the ban, saying it would stifle technology that could lead to disease-resistant grapevines and reduce the use of pesticides.

Dutton and Benziger, both leaders in Sonoma County's $2 billion wine industry, represent the escalating debate over Measure M that will ask voters to choose between environmental sanctity and scientific innovation on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Winemakers and growers, who nurture the image of wine as a special combination of grape and nature, are as divided as they ever have been over an agricultural issue. The symbolic significance is whether Sonoma County will be seen as embracing or rejecting a technology that could alter not only the genetic makeup of grapevines in decades to come, but also the public's perception of future vintages.

Mendocino County voters two years ago approved an anti-GMO measure despite record-setting spending by agribusiness companies opposed to the measure.

Now Sonoma County, in what could be the most expensive ballot campaign in its history, is poised to make a statement that reflects not only its grape-growing status, but its heritage as a leading agricultural region where dairies and specialty organic crops also have a major stake.

Genetically engineered crops in commercial production are now limited to field crops such as corn, cotton, canola and soybeans and spread across 118 million acres in the United States. Genetically engineered seeds were first made available to farmers in 1996.

In Sonoma County, corn is the only genetically modified crop being grown, and it's produced on fewer than 300 of the county's 1 million acres. The corn is used only for cattle feed.

If approved by voters, Measure M would prohibit genetically modified organisms from being raised or cultivated in Sonoma County for the next 10 years.

To alter, or not

A drive through Wine Country shows the split among growers who own the county's 60,000 acres of vineyards, which are now in the final weeks of harvest. It's common to see neighboring vineyards posted with dueling campaign signs that urge a "yes" vote for a GE-Free Sonoma County or a "no" vote by the Family Farmers Alliance, a group formed to oppose the initiative.

That division is reflected in the viewpoints of Benziger and Dutton.

"We just don't know enough about genetic engineering to allow it to have widespread use," said Benziger of Benziger Family Winery, a leader in biodynamic grape growing. "We have to be very careful. Once these genetically engineered crops are released into the environment, it's irreversible."

"Putting a ban on this technology limits our future," said Dutton, 38, who farms more than 1,000 acres of vineyards with his younger brother, Joe, 36.

Genetic engineering is the process of copying a gene from one living organism - bacterium, plant or animal - and adding it to another living organism. Its implications are much greater for the future than for the present.

Measure M qualified for the ballot after a locally based group, GE-Free Sonoma County, gathered 45,000 signatures from county residents. David Henson, executive director of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, an 80-acre organic farm and resource center, wrote the initiative and is the measure's chief advocate.

Henson and anti-GMO forces are concerned there will be more genetically engineered crops, like apples and tomatoes, in the future. They fear there will be cross-pollination and genetic contamination of crops grown by organic farmers.

Grape growers' opposition to or support for the measure is largely philosophical because so far there are no genetically engineered grapevines growing in Sonoma County. Researchers believe it could be 10 to 20 years before a genetically engineered grapevine is developed as a tool in the battle against such common vine maladies as Pierce's disease and powdery mildew.

If adopted, Measure M will have an immediate impact on a handful of Sonoma County farmers who grow genetically engineered corn for dairy cows. These farmers are united in their support for genetically engineered crops. They are even more united in their opposition to Measure M.

"We are able to produce more corn on less land, which helps us to survive in the dairy business. It's been a benefit to us," said Valenti Aggio, 35, who farms GMO corn with his father, Val Aggio, 66, on a family dairy in northwest Santa Rosa.

Benziger and Dutton both base their positions on the long-range implications that genetic engineering could have on Sonoma County's wine industry. Scientists at UC Davis and other universities are conducting field trials on genetically engineered wine grapes, and while the results are far from promising, the research will continue whether or not Measure M passes.

Dutton believes in embracing the technology that promises to reshape global agricultural practices. Benziger said there may be benefits from biotechnology but urges caution in moving too fast until there is more scientific research.

Reputation at stake?

It's perception, as well as science, that worries Benziger and others.

"One of Sonoma County's strongest selling points is the purity and diversity of our environment," he said. "If that is jeopardized, we are giving up a comparative advantage in marketing our wine and food."

Benziger is concerned about Sonoma County's image if voters keep the door open for planting genetically engineered crops. Sometimes using terms like "Frankenfoods," opponents of genetic engineering say science is meddling with Mother Nature by mixing the DNA of different species such as bacteria and fish with plants.

Advocates of Measure M argue that even the perception that genetically altered grapes or vines could be part of the wine could tarnish the image of Sonoma County wines in a world already crowded with fine wine choices.

Dutton believes GMO crops are as safe as the potatoes, plums and other food crops developed by Santa Rosa plant wizard Luther Burbank. He said it's folly to thwart a scientific process that promises not only better grapevines but more food for an expanding world population.

"Genetic engineering is the future of farming," said Dutton. "If Sonoma County isn't part of that future, how can our farmers stay viable and how can agriculture survive?"

Benziger said that given the choice, consumers will select foods that do not contain GMOs and points to numerous food industry studies to back up the claim.

"We need to understand what the consumer wants," said Benziger.

Dutton doesn't think wine lovers really care if the grapevine producing the wine was developed through traditional crossbreeding or molecular re-engineering of genes.

"Most American consumers want a good bottle of chardonnay or pinot noir and don't think about the nuts and bolts of how it was produced," said Dutton. "Just like I don't think about how this cotton shirt I'm wearing was made from GMO cotton."

Measure M is opposed by the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association and United Winegrowers for Sonoma County, but there are members within both associations who disagree with the official stance. Several groups, including the North Coast Grape Growers Association and the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance, have not taken a position because members are so divided they could not reach a consensus.

Farmers divided

Grape growers are not the only agricultural producers in Sonoma County divided by Measure M. Sonoma County farmers raising other crops and livestock also are taking opposite sides on the issue of whether the county should be GMO free.

The Sonoma County Farm Bureau, the county's largest agricultural organization, opposes Measure M. But the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, a group of mostly small-scale farmers and organic producers, supports the initiative.

For organic farmers, it's a clear choice to reject biotechnology. To be certified organic, crops and livestock can't come from genetically modified organisms. There are concerns that GMO crops could genetically contaminate other crops and seed stocks through cross-pollination or the spread of seed carried by birds.

"Genetic engineering is a very new and powerful technology that could have some unfortunate circumstances," said organic farmer Keith Abeles of Sebastopol.

Abeles and business partner Kevin McEnnis grow organic tomatoes, peppers, onions, lettuce and other crops on a small farm in southwest Santa Rosa. They worry about consumer perception of local farm products if Sonoma County does not close the door to GMOs.

"I don't see the urgency to this technology," said Abeles. "The county's primary crops are not genetically engineered. There will not be that many farmers directly impacted if Measure M passes."

But perhaps the most visible grower of corn in Sonoma County has a different view.

Jim Groveman, who owns the Petaluma Pumpkin Patch but rents the land next to Highway 101 where it has been located for 11 years, said he could buy genetically modified corn but doesn't.

"I have no need for it," he said. The 4-acre square of land that sprouts with 10-foot-tall corn designed as a maze is small enough that he can weed it without spraying.

"But if I was a commercial grower, I would need it," he said, adding that he opposes Measure M. "It's the only way you can stay competitive in the market, in the world actually."

The Aggio family will be among those affected. They have harvested this year's corn crop, but if Measure M is approved, they could not grow their 50 acres of GMO corn for the next 10 years.

Val Aggio and his son grow Roundup Ready corn on their dairy, producing nearly half the feed needed by their 125 cows. This genetically engineered corn has a gene that makes it resistant to the herbicide Roundup.

Aggio said he can spray Roundup on his field to control weeds without killing the corn plants. He said controlling weeds in traditional corn requires more herbicide applications and the results are less effective.

"We're brainstorming to figure out what else we can plant if we can't plant the Roundup Ready corn," said Valenti Aggio. "There are not a lot of options. It will be impossible to come up with another silage crop that so suits our land and summer growing season."

The Aggios also worry about the fallout from Measure M, whether it passes or not.

"Pitting one farmer against another is counterproductive," said Valenti Aggio.

3. No go on GMO moratorium

John Jensen
Lake County Record-Bee
Wednesday, October 12, 2005

LAKEPORT -- A proposed ordinance to place a moratorium on the planting of genetically engineered alfalfa was defeated in a vote by the Board of Supervisors Tuesday. In a 3-2 decision, supervisors voted against adopting the ordinance, authored by the Lake County Coalition for Responsible Agriculture, to enforce a 30-month waiting period before Roundup Ready alfalfa could be planted in the county.

LCCRA originally took the ordinance to the board Aug. 23. The issue had been continued since Sept. 27 to allow the supervisors to assimilate the volumes of information provided by both the ordinance's supporters and opponents.

Roundup Ready alfalfa, produced by Monsanto, is meant to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup, also a Monsanto product. The idea behind the engineered alfalfa is that growers can spray for weeds while not harming their alfalfa crop.

While the ordinance had strictly addressed the issue of Roundup Ready alfalfa as the target of a 30-month fact finding moratorium, opponents had consistently argued that it was simply the first salvo in an effort to ban all genetically modified organisms from the county.

That controversy contributed to the quiet demise of a similar ordinance last year, District 1 Supervisor Ed Robey said. The people working on last year's ordinance, Robey said, could not agree whether to call the measure a ban or a moratorium. As a result, discussions broke down and the effort disintegrated under the weight of the controversy. This time around, the measure called for a moratorium on a single product for a specific amount of time. Robey said he met with LCCRA members and agreed to bring the ordinance before the board. However, Robey said he decided to include last year's more controversial version at the same time. "I would prefer to talk about the whole enchilada and not just take a bite out of it," he said at the time.

When asked why he was combining the single product moratorium with a full spectrum assault on GMOs that had previously proven futile, Robey responded, "I thought it was a good idea."

Robey denied that pursuing the two different ordinances at the same time was confusing.

Yet, during the meeting, Supervisor Anthony Farrington stopped to ask which of the two ordinances were affected by the vote. During discussion of the request, Farrington suggested that should this measure fail, a modified version with an earlier sunset would institute the moratorium until a ballot measure could be mounted and voters could decide the issue.

"There has been one dynamic missing in the whole exchange," he said. "That is the consumer."

Robey made no effort to convince fellow board members Rob Brown, Gary Lewis and Jeff Smith to reconsider their positions after each spoke about their concerns regarding the moratorium.

"I know more than I ever wanted to (about GMOs)," Lewis said. He pointed out that very little alfalfa is grown in the county before admitting his opposition to the ordinance. "I'm perplexed at why we are here even talking about this."

Lewis seemed to believe that the moratorium was first step toward a future ban on all GMOs. "I was originally in favor of it," he said. "From everything I've read, this is just a lead-in (to a larger ban)."

The vote surprised LCCRA organizer Victoria Brandon , who reported lobbying efforts prior to the vote had "gotten more support," from board members. Brandon isn't giving up. She said she looks forward to getting "something on the ballot" to address the GMO issue in the county.

Contact John Jensen at jjensen@record-bee.com.

4. Peruvian farmers move to end Terminator seeds

by Sanjay Suri
Inter Press Service

LONDON - A group of Peruvian indigenous farmers have prepared an extensively researched counter to a Canadian move to revive 'terminator' seeds.

Terminator seeds work only once. For a new crop, farmers would have to go back to sellers. These seeds that do not regenerate like normal seeds would work hugely to the advantage of corporations, to the detriment of farmers.

A United Nations moratorium at present blocks commercialisation of terminator seeds. But a group of countries led by Canada have challenged the UN safety regulation. This has led the Convention on Biological Diversity based in Montreal to open new discussions on relaxing the moratorium on such seeds.

One of the strongest counters to the move so far has come not from experts and officials but by Peruvian, says Michel Pimbert from the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) that promotes sustainable development at local levels.

After monitoring cultivation methods, about 70 indigenous leaders representing 26 Andean and Amazon communities met in a mountain village last month over two days to collate their findings and assess the damage that could be caused by terminator seeds.

''When does it happen that marginalised, excluded citizens come out and talk in this way,'' Pimbert told IPS. The Peruvian indigenous farmers came together under the Quechua-Aymara Association for Nature and Sustainable Development (ANDES) and the International Institute for Environment and Development, a general assembly largely composed of indigenous people from villages in the Andes.

''Indigenous people and marginalised groups barely have a voice when it comes to policies and legislation,'' Pimbert said. ''These were the voices of the poorest of the poor living in biodiversity hotspots.''

Officials at the Montreal institute had acknowledged that the input from the Peruvian indigenous farmers was one of the strongest they have received so far, Pimbert said.

The indigenous farmers reported that Peruvian farmers and small farmers worldwide ''are dependent on seeds obtained from the harvest as a principal source of seed to be used in subsequent agricultural cycles.''

But their findings went beyond that to examine several aspects of any change. The farmers ''evaluated the evidence and assessed the risks of terminator technology on land, spiritual systems and on women, who are their seed keepers,'' Pimbert said.

The farmers also showed that Terminator (Genetic Use Restriction Technology) would transfer sterility to and effectively kill off other crops and wider plant life, as well as increasing the reliance of farmers on big agribusiness which is already patenting seeds traditionally owned by indigenous people.

They reported that industrialised 'mono-culture' farming would benefit at the expense of tried and tested local agricultural knowledge. They warned that in Peru alone, 2,000 varieties of potato could be put at risk by Terminator technology. Peru gave the potato to the world.

''Terminator seeds do not have life,'' Felipe Gonzalez of the indigenous Pinchimoro community said in a statement. ''Like a plague they will come infecting our crops and carrying sickness. We want to continue using our own seeds and our own customs of seed conservation and sharing.''

The Swiss-based company Syngenta recently won the patent on Terminator potatoes, but under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, it cannot market these potatoes.

The submission by the Peruvian farmers will be reviewed at a conference on such agricultural technology in Granada in Spain later this year. The moratorium issue will come up at a conference on biological diversity to be held in Brazil in March next year.

''These voices and their research will be formally communicated there,'' Pimbert said. They would seek to challenge claims by academics who feel terminator technology is safe, he said.

Peruvian indigenous leaders are urging the UN to expose the dangers of Terminator technology and uphold the moratorium. They also demand that indigenous people have a say in the process equal to the influence of the agribusiness lobby.

''The UN moratorium helps to protect millenarian indigenous agricultural knowledge and the agrobiodiversity and global food security it enables,'' Alejandro Argumedo, associate director of ANDES, said in a statement. ''The rush to exploit Terminator technology for corporate profit must not be allowed to sabotage vital international biosafety polices.

5. Study cites biotech farming gains

By Jim Wasserman -- Sacramento Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 am PDT Wednesday, October 12, 2005

A British study reported Tuesday that biotech crops have curbed negative environmental effects of farming by 14 percent during the nine years they've been used.

London-based PG Economics said farmers have dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions by using 475 million fewer gallons of fuel since 1996. They've also applied 380 million fewer pounds of pesticides, it said, while increasing their income $17 billion from growing biotech soybeans and $6.5 billion by growing biotech cotton.

The report says the United States, Canada, China, South Africa and Argentina have seen the greatest reductions in environmental impacts. More than 8.25 million farmers in 18 nations have adopted genetically modified crops such as soybeans, corn and cotton, the study said.

Ryan Zinn, a San Francisco-based spokesman for the Organic Consumers Association, said Tuesday that the study authors frequently do reports commissioned by major biotech interests. He said he doubts claims about increased farm income.

Zinn said the study also proves that farmers who grow major commodity crops increasingly find themselves with fewer alternatives to using genetically modified seeds.