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The gene rush; Other news

(Sunday, Dec. 18, 2005 -- CropChoice news) --

1. Protesters attempt to influence free trade talks
2. The gene rush
3. 'Harvest at Risk' study finds mostly negatives in Roundup Ready wheat
4. Farmers, communities benefit little from ‘Bio-pharming’
5. Monsanto's cotton revenues face uphill battle
6. Seeds of doubt still strong on biotech crops

1. Protesters attempt to influence free trade talks


HONG KONG, China, December 14, 2005 (ENS) - Campaigners today delivered a petition to World Trade Organization (WTO) Director General Pascal Lamy during trade talks taking place at the Hong Kong Convention Centre.

The petition opposing the WTO trade dispute over genetically modified (GM) food filed by the United States, Argentina and Canada was signed by more than 135,000 people from 100 countries and more than 740 organizations representing 60 million people.

French Farmer José Bové, Indian ecologist Vandana Shiva, and Caroline Lucas, Green Party Member of the European Parliament for the UK, are among those who delivered the petition.

Bové said, "Farmers and consumers strongly oppose genetically modified organisms. We will take action to keep Europe free from GMOs and to protect the world from GM farming."

Through the petition citizens ask the WTO not to undermine the right of individual countries, in this case European countries, to take appropriate steps to protect their farmland, environment and consumers from the risks posed by genetically modified foods and crops.

Green Party WTO delegate Caroline Lucas MEP said, "The right of individual countries to decide whether or not to allow GMOs in their food chains or their environment is a key element of the democratic principles which are supposed to underpin the EU itself. Neither the WTO nor the EU have any right to overrule the clear majority of EU citizens who do not want GMOs in their communities."

In their complaint United States, Argentina and Canada allege that the Europe Union has refused to give the approval to a number of new genetically modified foods, has stopped processing the applications for new genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and has not taken action to stop EU member states from banning genetically modified products.

The U.S. argues that Europe's position on GMOs violates WTO rules and is a barrier to trade. In particular, it claims that US farmers have lost exports because they grow GM crops not approved in Europe.

President George W. Bush later added that the EU’s moratorium was impeding efforts to feed the world. "European governments should join - not hinder - the great cause of ending hunger in Africa," he said.

Indian Ecologist Vandana Shiva said in Hong Kong, "The transatlantic trade dispute shows the worst face of the WTO. Despite the fact that the UN Biosafety Protocol allows countries to use the Precautionary Principle to ban the import of GMOs, the WTO may force feed us GMOs anyway"

The WTO is expected to issue an interim ruling on January 5, 2006. In line with WTO secrecy, the draft ruling will only be made available to the countries in the dispute. This will form the basis for the final ruling expected later on in March or April.

Friends of the Earth International Chair Meena Raman said in Hong Kong, "The WTO should not force anybody to eat genetically modified foods. The WTO is the wrong place to be deciding what we eat and how we protect our environment. It is time for the WTO to get its hands off our food! "

The danger that current WTO trade negotiations pose to people and their environment is exposed in a new report, "The Tyranny of Free Trade," published Thursday by Friends of the Earth International. On the same day as 750,000 votes for trade justice were delivered to Tony Blair in an attempt to influence British negotiators.

The trade report presents a series of case studies from the Seychelles to Indonesia exposing the environmental and social impacts of current free trade policies in including damage to forests, fisheries, food, minerals, water and biodiversity.

The report shows that intensive agricultural practices and liberalized international trade are leading to social disruption, environmental damage and even hunger, particularly in developing countries.

Small-scale farmers are particularly vulnerable to market opening pressures and often forced from their land when it is converted to plantations or planted with crops for export, according to "The Tyranny of Free Trade."

Friends of the Earth's Trade Campaigner Eve Mitchell, said, "The mounting evidence from the World Bank, United Nations, World Resources Institute and our own research shows that the current system is making poor people poorer. Instead of basing trade on sensible resource management, it puts profits for big business first. The UK government fully supports proposals at the WTO that take us in the wrong direction, despite promising us otherwise. This can't continue."

Ronnie Hall, Friends of the Earth International's trade campaigner and one of the report's authors, said, "The myth of unfettered free trade as a solution to poverty needs to be exploded. Regional and bilateral trade agreements running in parallel are as untransparent and as harmful as the WTO."

"What we need now is a halt to trade liberalization negotiations and an urgent review of the impacts of international trade rules on poor people and the environment," Hall said.

Ministers from 149 member nations of the World Trade Organization met Tuesday to open the Sixth Ministerial Conference in a new effort to push forward the stalled Doha Round trade talks.

At the same time, more than 5,000 protesters from South Korea, Japan, India, the Philippines and some African and European countries staged a demonstration outside the Convention and Exhibition Center where the meeting is being held.

Korean demonstrators clashed with police as they tried to break a police roadblock set up to prevent people from entering a forbidden zone around the Convention Center. Police used pepper spray to break up the demonstration, spraying several reporters in the process.

About 100 anti-WTO demonstrators, including Koreans and Hong Kong residents jumped into the sea near Wanchai as a form of protest. Some demonstrators tried to swim to the Convention Centre, but they could not get on the shore as they were surrounded by the police. Some demonstrators brought along a wooden altar and tried to light it with fire but were stopped by the police.

This is the second anti-WTO demonstration held in Hong Kong this week. Thousands of anti-globalization and anti-WTO protesters took to the streets on Sunday.

The organization Stop WTO Hong Kong said its members object to the trade organization because it promotes an "unjust world economic order."

"The WTO sanctions the exploitation of people and of nature to secure profits of transnational corporations and elites," the group said. "Our fight is for a world economy based on solidarity among human beings and life in harmony with the environment."

Inside the conference hall, Hong Kong, China’s Chief Executive Donald Tsang formally opened the 6th WTO Ministerial Conference, saying, "Trade liberalization and economic growth is a permanent goal for all of us as WTO Members. While I acknowledge that in some parts of the world this goal is seen as a threat rather than an opportunity, the negotiations under the Doha Development Agenda must press ahead. We must vigorously defend the integrity and effectiveness of the multilateral trading system."

2. The gene rush

By Stan Cox, AlterNet. Posted December 14, 2005

As biotech crops blanket more and more of the countryside, America's organic farmers are struggling to keep their crops organic. The natural tendency of pollen and seed to wander from field to field, along with improved genetic-detection methods, have made it harder than ever to produce organic food that can be labeled as free of patented, engineered genes.

So in 2002, a group of plant breeders led by scientists at Cornell University set out to breed organic corn varieties with built-in protection against stray genes.

To do so, they took advantage of a well-known, naturally occurring gene, GaS, that inhibits fertilization of a corn plant by uninvited pollen. It looked like a neat way to keep patented pollen out of the organic gene pool, but there was one hitch.

The key to the breeders' plan, the GaS gene, was patented.

Last April, Nebraska seedcorn company Hoegemeyer Hybrids was awarded United States Patent 6875905, entitled "Method of producing field corn seed and plants." It described the use of GaS to block foreign corn pollen. When I asked Tom Hoegemeyer, chief technology officer of his family's company, how he first hit upon the idea, he said, "There was no particular flash of insight. It just occurred to me back in '95 or thereabouts. I remembered reading about it back in grad school."

But members of the Cornell team don't understand how patent examiners ever could have approved the application. They say the gene GaS is extremely common in tropical corn varieties, that it has been transferred many times into US strains, and that the idea has been published in the scientific literature.

Novelty and "non-obviousness" have always been two essential characteristics of a patentable idea. But the use of GaS, says Frank Kutka, who worked on the project as a Cornell graduate student, "is not novel and is perfectly obvious."

He points to an article published exactly 50 years ago in Agronomy Journal, then the premiere journal of agricultural research. In that paper, an Iowa State University scientist described the use of GaS for virtually the same purposes that are described in the Hoegemeyer patent.

But until someone invests considerable time and money to challenge the GaS patent, it will stay on the books.

Hoegemeyer's is only the latest in a long parade of patents laying claim to naturally occurring plants and genes. In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the validity of patents on crop varieties and all of their parts, including pollen, egg cells and genes. The effect of the Court's opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, was to declare the agricultural gene pool open to genetic prospectors. And the rush is on.

Bean counters and melon squeezers

In the world of patents, novelty is supposed to be king. Many of today's genetic patents demonstrate cleverness -- no argument there -- but too often it's the cleverness of the poacher, not the inspiration of the inventor.

In one widely discussed case, a Colorado business executive named Larry Proctor obtained a patent on a yellow version of the common dry bean. To come up with his "invention," he pulled a few yellow specimens out of a bag of normal-colored beans bought in a Mexican market. After growing plants and selecting among them for a few generations (a generally ineffective way to breed beans), Proctor applied successfully to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

The 1999 patent covers much more than his own variety of bean. If you want to market any beans with a similar shade of yellow in the United States, the patent requires that you get a license from Proctor. Proctor has brought lawsuits to defend his claim, but as of July 2005, his family professed never to have collected a penny.

News of Proctor's patent caused more than a little bafflement in Latin America, where people have been growing, trading, cooking and eating yellow beans for millenia. Indeed, Proctor's beans are almost identical genetically to yellow varieties from Mexico. Despite protests, the patent continues in effect.

Shamrock Seed Co. of California wants to patent a honeydew melon with "improved firmness." If the patent is granted, other melon breeders will either have to make sure their own varieties are a bit mushier than Shamrock's, or pay a license fee. The company's January 2005 application applies not only to its own strain of melon, but to any honeydew melons that meet certain specifications in a standard squeeze test.

Pure World Botanicals, Inc. of South Hackensack, New Jersey now holds patents on root extracts from maca, a plant native to Peru, for use in treating sexual dysfunction. As you might have guessed, maca has long been used by indigenous Peruvians to improve fertility, enhance libido and treat impotence. If the patented extract works (or, at least, if it's advertised with sufficient gusto), it could stimulate some exciting profits for Pure World.

Similarly, HerbalScience LLC of Naples, Florida filed a patent application in 2002 for a method of extracting the compound kavalactone from kava, a plant traditionally used by the people of the western Pacific to make a drink with mildly psychoactive properties. The application includes a description of "a rapid dissolve tablet formulation for use in the delivery of kavalactones."

One of the most notorious cases of "biopiracy" was the 1997 patent awarded to RiceTec, Inc. of Alvin, Texas for basmati, the popular aromatic rice of South Asia. Thanks to unrelenting pressure by Indian seed activists, the Delhi government successfully challenged the patent.

But this year, there comes word that a group of scientists in Thailand is applying in Europe and the U.S. for a patent on jasmine rice. They claim to have traced that rice's distinctive scent to a nonfunctional gene. But surely no government would award a patent for a gene that doesn't work -- or would they?

Sure they would. Monsanto holds a European patent on the indigenous Indian/Nepalese wheat variety Nap Hal, which lacks one of the genes that gives bread dough its elasticity. The patent covers not only Nap Hal, but any wheat developed by using Nap Hal as a breeding parent.

The claim is that Nap Hal's flour, with its genetic impairment, will be useful in making unleavened products like cookies. Using that logic, a shrewd inventor could patent a telephone with a broken ringer as "a voice-communications device impervious to telemarketing calls."

In 2000, Jeff Ehlers and Mark Sterner of Appropriate Engineering and Manufacturing in Riverside, California received a patent on "popping beans." Such beans, which pop when heated, are descended from varieties grown since ancient times in the Andean region. Ehlers and Sterner's patent was approved because they bred popping beans that can flower and produce a crop under the longer summer days of the United States.

Breeding the beans for insensitivity to day length would hardly seem to meet the Patent Office's criterion of non-obviousness; it's routinely done by breeders of many crops who want to make use of tropical varieties. Nor was it novel. A few months before Ehlers and Sterner applied for their patent in 1997, scientists from the University of Wisconsin published a paper describing their development of non-patented popping beans adapted to northern latitudes.

Not just for Monsanto

Note that only one of the above incidents involves a major biotech multinational. Patent fever isn't an exclusive disease of the Fortune 500. But with their myriad biotech patents, Monsanto, Syngenta and other "gene giants" have pushed smaller competitors into making their own grab for patents on life, both wild and tame.

Sometimes it's a matter of self-defense. For instance, Tom Hoegemeyer says his main reason for patenting the corn gene GaS was that he "didn't want it to fall into the hands of the big tech companies" which might restrict its use by organic farmers. And he says that his company is leaning toward granting free license to Cornell to use the system.

Frank Kutka, now assistant director of one of North Dakota State University's research centers, isn't impressed. He says that the well-worn defensive-patent rationale ("If we don't do it, someone else will") is rarely justified for genes or crop plants.

He says, "Hoegemeyer Seeds should just admit that this patent is not valid since it was obvious and not novel, and release this idea back into the public domain from which it clearly came. Then they should go out and sell their seeds as well as they can. I bet they will sell just fine, patent or not."

At the heart of the problem, says Kutka, is a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office inundated with applications targeting naturally occurring genes and organisms -- and they shouldn't be treated like patents on cancer drugs or can openers.

He asks, "How can we help the patent evaluators get around their inexperience in matters of plant breeding and the conflict of interest built into the system, wherein the applicant is their sole source of information? It is a bizarre and inefficient system begging for reform and assistance from the plant breeding community."

Hope Shand, research director for the Canada-based ETC Group and co-author of The Ownership of Life: When Patents and Values Clash, says genetic patents are not serving their intended purpose: "Whether it's a multinational or an individual, it doesn't matter -- a patent gives the owner the same rights, and those rights are being used to inhibit innovation rather than promote it."

Open-source genetics?

A crop variety plays two distinct and crucial roles in agriculture. In the farmer's hands, it is a producer of food, feed or fiber, while in the breeder's hands, it's a section of pipeline through which genes that evolved in the wild for millions of years flow through the present and into the future.

Since 1970, the federal Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) has provided a means for plant breeders to obtain intellectual-property protection for crop varieties. At the same time, through exemptions that allow seed saving and breeding, PVPA keeps that variety's genes in the public domain.

PVPA is still widely used. But with their 2001 decision, Justice Thomas and the Supreme Court legitimized a parallel system -- patenting -- that is clogging the genetic pipeline.

Today, efforts to find innovative ways around the patent system, such as Science Commons and Biological Innovation for Open Society (BIOS) are adapting some of the methods of Creative Commons-type copyright licensing and open-source computing to the living world. So far, they have been focused on biotechnology, but it should be feasible to build a comprehensive system for genetic resources, both wild and domestic. The tried-and-true PVPA law has characteristics of an open-source system, but getting a single variety approved costs the breeder a few thousand dollars in fees.

Reflecting on his own collision with the world of patenting and the need for an alternative, Frank Kutka concludes, "I see the granting of private monopolies on genes by the government as a 'takings' from the rights and property of the public and farmers."

Hope Shand sees a broader lesson: "Even though many people recognize that intellectual property laws are stifling research and thwarting new discoveries, a 'culture of enclosure' is pervasive in our economy. It is important for people to resist the increasing pressure to accept that culture."

Stan Cox is a senior research scientist at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas and a member of the Institute's Prairie Writers Circle.

3. 'Harvest at Risk' study finds mostly negatives in Roundup Ready wheat

The study found negative effects from nine factors influencing the costs and benefits of growing Roundup Ready wheat: emergence of resistance, gene flow, disease pressure and related problems, impacts on seed plus herbicide expenditures, market rejection, dockage, yields, grain quality, and wheat prices.

The report concludes that there is no compelling need for this technology because alternative weed management systems are available, the price of weed management is not increasing, and farmers are managing resistance to existing herbicides.

You can download the report and executive summary at http://www.worc.org/issues/benbrook.html .

4. Farmers, communities benefit little from ‘Bio-pharming’

Brendan Coyne

Dec 12 - Small farmers and small Midwestern towns looking to prime the economic pump are unlikely to do so by growing genetically engineered crops for use in drug production, despite pharmaceutical marketing claims stating otherwise, an academic study released last week said.

Commissioned by the Union of Concerned Scientists, The Economics of Pharmaceutical Crops: Potential Benefits and Risks for Farmers and Rural Communities found that small farmers engaged in what is known as "bio-pharming," raising genetically engineered crops to be used in drug production, are unlikely to have enough collective or market strength to negotiate effectively with drug-making giants like Merck. Common bio-pharm crops range from food crops like corn and soybeans to tobacco and other inedible plants.

Opponents of bio-pharming warn that genetically engineering plants to produce drugs threatens the water and food supplies. Information revealed by a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency employee earlier this year appears to support the contention that chemical runoff in soil is a threat to both the food supply and the ecosystem.

Studies directly linking pharmaceutical contamination to bio-pharming are inconclusive, but there have been a few noted accidents, in which crops engineered to produce drugs spontaneously grew in fields of food crops. Contaminated yields then had to be destroyed.

In 2002, for instance, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) found modified corn growing in an Iowa soybean field at a site used for pharma crop testing the previous year by the biotechnology company ProdiGene. Since the corn had already pollinated, the USDA ordered that all corn in a 155-acre radius be uprooted and incinerated.

The Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that because of the potential ecological damage and the lack of a clear economic benefit, farmers and farming communities should "carefully examine the pharmaceutical industry's rosily optimistic, but unsubstantiated, portrayal of this new technology's economic rewards."

5. Monsanto's cotton revenues face uphill battle

For immediate release
Polaris Institute
Ottawa ­ December 14, 2005

By the end of the decade Monsanto’s revenues from its cotton traits - which account for approximately 10% of overall seed and trait revenues - could be in severe decline. The reversal is likely to happen because competitors are indicating they plan to replace Monsanto traits with their own and others’ newly developed technology.

According to a just-released report by the Polaris Institute (attached), the trend can’t help but have a negative effect on the company’s revenues. The stock price is currently near an all-time high, based on short-term earnings potential. But the report’s forward-looking statistics reveal those earnings, particularly in cotton, may not be sustainable.

Polaris looks at the cotton business in the United States, the current consolidation among seed companies and competition over which traits are inserted into which seeds. With the number of acres planted to cotton stable across the country, future industry revenues will increasingly go to seed companies that choose the most commercially viable traits, based on productivity and cost.

The report analyzes the three main industry players ­ Delta and Pine Land, Bayer and Monsanto ­ and their prospects for growth. A main focus is on how Delta and Pine Land says it will drop Monsanto’s traits over a three-year period starting in 2009. Bayer is also in the process of switching away from Monsanto traits. The two companies control 75 percent of the cotton-seed business.

The report also provides information on the cotton pipeline and field trials and how these can affect market share, with market-share estimates through 2012.

"Although the actual situation will undoubtedly differ from projections, it’s likely there will be a significant change in trait market share in the not-too-distant future," says David Macdonald, Polaris analyst.

"Big seed companies are already starting to flex their muscles as new non-Monsanto traits become available. This trend is likely to continue into the future."

Changes in cotton-trait adoption will pick up speed in 2008, marking the first time Monsanto has been faced with real competition in the GE-crop industry. With no new products to introduce in the face of this competition, the company will have a difficult time protecting what today accounts for $300 million on its balance sheets.

For more information, contact David Macdonald at 613 237-1717 or 613 725-7606 (cell).

Polaris: The Polaris Institute is a public interest organization doing research, education and action on the role of corporations in public policy.

6. Seeds of doubt still strong on biotech crops

Wall Street Journal
December 15, 2005

We can all sympathize with Felix Ballarin of Spain, who spent 15 years altering the genetics of corn so that the kernels are red and then finds that some are yellow because pollen from a neighboring farm had affected his kernels ("Out of the Lab: Biotech-Crop Battle Heats Up as Strains Mix With Others1," page one, Nov. 8). However, if one wants to understand how this happens, it helps to consider biology.

Cross pollination has been going on since time immemorial. I wonder if any of Mr. Ballarin's neighbors have complained of finding red kernels in their otherwise solid-color ears. Would it have been better if yellow kernels had come from a neighbor's "organic" corn? Biologically there would have been no difference. The only difference is the artificial, and now political, idea that modifying crops with new scientific techniques is fundamentally different from modifying crops by other breeding techniques, including techniques that totally disrupt a plant's genetic information.

Crops have been modified and have modified neighboring crops for at least 10,000 years. Fear of what is probably the safest technique ever discovered is perhaps natural because it is new, but it makes little sense.

William H. Danforth, M.D.
Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
St. Louis

It was clear in your article that organic producers and the European Union want to transfer all liability onto conventional producers. Yet there was no mention of organic producers sharing the premium they receive for their crop with their conventional neighbor. In case they haven't noticed, the wind blows their pollen and weed seeds into our fields as well.

Martin Barbre
Biotechnology Working Group
National Corn Growers Association
Carmi, Ill.

The growth in popularity of biotech crops demonstrates the need for an international standard that accepts the reality of diverse biologic systems in which trace amounts of one crop may end up in another. The U.S. government, through international regulatory bodies, is urging other nations to adopt a science-based international standard that would replace the current arbitrary rules that exist among global markets.

I believe your article perpetuates the mistaken belief that organic growers can't market their crop as "organic" if it contains trace levels of biotech traits. The reality is that the Agriculture Department's National Organic Program is a process-based marketing scheme, not a program of health, safety or environmental benefits, and not solely determined by the crop content. The NOP concerns itself with the process of how crops are grown in the field, not with the final product. As a result, if an organic grower meets the required steps, the crop can be certified as organic even if there are trace levels of biotech traits in the resulting crop. It's the process, not the content, that matters. All growers, whether conventional or organic, who produce premium products for niche markets understand that extra effort, time and care are necessary to achieve their market goals.

James C. Greenwood
President and Chief Executive Officer
Biotechnology Industry Organization

As the leading researcher on the discovery of genetic contamination of Mexican maize discussed in your article, I would like to share my perspective. The wholly unscientific and oft-heard statement that "there's no evidence to date that biotech crops have caused any health problems" is unconvincing, given that the lack of labeling of biotech crops negates any possible epidemiological research to link GM foods to health problems. Quite simply, absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence of health risks.

We only have to look as far as the Human Genome Project to be reminded that gene expression and function is dependent on the complex, dynamic and interactive ecological and biological contexts in which the genes exist. These concepts weren't even conceived in mainstream science some 20 years ago when the idea of genetic engineering was brought from the lab to the field. Nevertheless, the now outdated "central dogma" of genetic engineering, that genes behave in a linear fashion independent of the biological and environmental context in which they are introduced, continues to dominate the research and development of agricultural products. But why? This is due to the massive economic investment into this principle in the form of genetically engineered organisms.

In my discussions over the international deliberations of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, I am often reminded that compared with countries like Ethiopia, Thailand or China, the U.S. is considered a biosafety "Third World country" because of the lack of robust regulatory standards, such as peer-reviewed and publicly shared safety testing results. Many of my international colleagues find it inexcusable that our government would let the American people become the guinea pigs of a massive biological experiment with our food supply. I tend to agree with them.

David Quist, Ph.D.
Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology
Tromsø, Norway