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August 2008 Updates

USDA Gift to Monsanto

By Prof. Joe Cummins
ISIS Press Release
August 26, 2008

The US Department of Agriculture's give-away insurance rates for GM crops risk bankrupting the public coffers.

The Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC) is part of the Risk Management Agency (RMA) that serves under the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), a Federal Executive Department (or Cabinet Department).The USDA-FCIC safeguards the economic stability of agriculture through a system of crop insurance and provides the means for research in devising and establishing such insurance. It is managed by a Board of Directors, subject to the general supervision of the Secretary of Agriculture.

On 12 September 2007, the FCIC Board of Directors approved a Biotech Yield Endorsement (BYE) pilot programme submitted under section 523(d) of the Federal Crop Insurance Act. The result is that farmers growing Monsanto's genetically modified (GM) maize receives crop insurance at a greatly reduced cost of between 20 and 70 percent.

The BYE programme was crafted by the Monsanto Corporation and its first beneficiary is limited to its GM maize. This insurance bonanza is intended for farmers planting Monsanto's GM maize that has Bt genes against corn borer and root worm stacked with a gene for tolerance to Round-up herbicide. The FCIC Board of Directors, at its 14 August 2008 meeting, approved additional seed technologies for premium rate reduction for producers planting certain corn hybrid varieties; i.e., those containing Bt genes for corn borer and rootworm stacked with genes for tolerance to herbicides such as glyphosate and glufosinate. The companies benefiting from the largesse of the USDA give-away insurance include besides Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta and Pioneer Hi-Bred [1, 2].

The crop insurance policies insure producers against yield losses due to natural causes such as drought, excessive moisture, hail, wind, frost, insects, and disease [3]. It is clear that the stacked GM maize lines are protected against corn borer and rootworm, but not particularly well protected against drought, excessive moisture, hail, wind, frost and disease, nor against the numerous insect pest that are likely to take advantage of reduced competition from borer or root worm. It may be that the stacked maize lines will benefit from a USDA give-away insurance that specifically protects against any such secondary insect pests; for they have indeed already emerged in China and India as the result of growing Bt cotton [4, 5] (see Why Prince Charles is Right, SiS 40 and Deadly gift from Monsanto to India, SiS 39)

FCIC is presuming that the stacked GM maize lines will consistently produce more than conventional or organic maize, but that has not been proven scientifically. It is based solely on an act of faith on the part of the USDA bureaucrats.

Why then do these new GM constructs deserve the gift of reduced insurance cost at the US taxpayers' expense? Have the taxpayers been consulted before such egregious largesse has been doled out to well-heeled farmers and the corporations who licence the GM seeds?

The rest of the farming community may feel especially aggrieved at this blatant display of favouritism on the part of the FCIC. After all, insured organic farmers were not compensated for damages from epidemics of fungal disease, even though the conventional fungicides were ineffective against the fungus disease. It seems that FCAC is taking on the role of sugar daddy to the GM industry and compliant farmers. And that may go a long way towards promoting universal GM farming practices and bankrupting the public coffers.


  1. Pugh, S. FCIC Board Extends Biotechnology Pilot Coverage Areas and Qualifying Hybrids 2008
  2. Witt,T Pilot biotechnology yield endorsement Insurance Standaards Handbook 2008 and Succeeding Years,
  3. Crop Policies Risk Management Agency Actual Production History 2008
  4. Shiva V and Ho MW. Why Prince Charles is right. We need GMO-free food and agriculture for food security. Science in Society 40 (to appear).
  5. Kalaspurkar R. Deadly gift from Monsanto to India. SIS 38 - Letters to the editor. Science in Society 38, 51, 2008.


Genetically Modified Diplomat

By Tom Philpott
August 25, 2008

About a week ago, The New York Times ran a brief interview with Nina V. Federoff, official "science and technology adviser" to the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Not surprisingly, Condoleeza Rice's science czar has a special place in her heart for genetically modified organisms. In the Times interview, Federoff defends GMOs:

"There's almost no food that isn't genetically modified. Genetic modification is the basis of all evolution.... The paradox is that now that we've invented techniques that introduce just one gene without disturbing the rest, some people think that's terrible."

Right; GMOs merely mimic nature, and are thus no different than any other organisms. But if that's true, then why do GMOs require such draconian intellectual property protection? Why should Monsanto be able to enforce patent claims on, say, Round Up Ready soybean seeds?

Perhaps Federoff is pushing an open-source approach to GMOs -- the idea that a handful of of companies shouldn't be able to lock up ownership of globe's most widely planted seeds. But given her corporate affiliations -- which the Times didn't see fit to divulge -- that's doubtful.

On taking the job at State in 2007, Federoff stepped down from her post on the "scientific advisory board" of Evogene, an Israeli agriculture-biotech firm. She had held the post for five years. What does Evogene do? According to the company's "about us" page, it's "geared toward developing improved plants for the agriculture and biofuel industries through the use of plant genomics."

And that means working with the very few companies that control the GMO-seed business:

"A number of improved plant traits are in relatively advanced stages of development through deals and collaborations with world leading companies, such as Monsanto Company, Pioneer Hi-Bred, Bayer CropScience, Syngenta and other [sic]."

At the same time, Federoff was also serving on the board of Sigma-Aldrich, a transnational biotechnology company. According to its "about us" page, Sigma-Aldrich's "biochemical and organic chemical products and kits are used in scientific and genomic research, biotechnology, pharmaceutical development, the diagnosis of disease and as key components in pharmaceutical and other high technology manufacturing." In other words, like Evogene, Sigma-Aldrich provides services to the big ag-biotech companies.

At gets up to all manner of dodgy stuff, like projects to "develop cell-lines and transgenic animals that have targeted modifications in a specified gene in a specified species."

In this day and age, it seems perfectly natural that U.S. ag-development policy should be dominated by the agenda of such companies. Let's hope that changes soon.


Monsanto's Bane: The Evil Pigweed

By Andrew Leonard
August 27, 2008

Remember the boll weevil? A new terror is stalking the cotton fields of the American South.

Trouble is brewing for King Cotton, and it goes by the name of Roundup-resistant Palmer amaranth, aka the dreaded pigweed. Some weed specialists are calling pigweed the worst threat cotton has faced since the boll weevil. Reports first started surfacing a few years back about cotton fields in Georgia getting hammered by a fast-growing, drought-resistant, incredibly prolific weed that scoffed at Monsanto's best attempts to quash it, but this summer, the pigweed menace has exploded.

From South Carolina's Times & Democrat:

Palmer amaranth crowds out cotton plants, starving them of sunlight, nutrients and water, and is a very productive weed. Each female produces as many as 500,000 seedlings, meaning just one plant can birth an entire field.

Unlike other pests, pigweed can continue to grow an inch a day even without water, making it particularly adept during the drought gripping the region. It also thrives in hot weather, continuing to grow when temperatures top 90 degrees and other plants shut down.

The weed can even damage cotton pickers, the huge machines that pluck natural fiber from the cotton bolls.

From the Delta Farm Press:

The rapid spread of the resistance has "absolutely shocked" [University of Tennessee weed specialist] Larry Steckel. "It's hard to believe how quickly and strong the resistance has become and spread."

Having been an Arkansas Extension weed specialist for years, Ken Smith thought he'd "quit being surprised at what weeds are capable of. But, let me tell you, these resistant pigweeds are so much worse than we thought they'd be."

How did this happen? Simple -- over-reliance on a single herbicide -- Roundup -- used in conjunction with genetically modified cotton that included built-in resistance to Roundup. Both products, incidentally, brought to you by Monsanto. At first, it seemed like a great deal for farmers. Plant the cotton, douse the field with Roundup, and watch everything besides the cotton seedlings die. But just as many scientists have long predicted, monocrop agriculture in combination with reliance on just one herbicide turned out to be the most effective way to develop super-weeds that would spit in Roundup's face that farmers could have devised.

There are a host of other deadly chemicals that can be applied, and experts are hard at work across the South devising strategies to contain pigweed devastation. They'll probably come up with something -- either that, or cotton's tenure in the South might be over. But if one of the main reasons why farmers were paying extra for Roundup-ready cotton was because of Roundup's efficiency at killing off everything else, you have to wonder if those same farmers still think the premium grade seeds are worth their high price. And you also have to wonder if anyone is listening to the bottom-line message: that relying on a single solution -- one strain of seed, or one brand of herbicide -- is inherently risky.


The Truth About GM

By Colin Tudge
New Statesman, UK
August 28, 2008

Will GM technology feed the world - or destroy farming, and human health, in the name of corporate profit? How can we tell, when the science is up for sale?

Genetically modified crops might once have proved useful. In the early days, in the 1980s, scientists I spoke to in India hoped to transfer genes from groundnuts (which are very resistant to heat and drought) into sorghum, the staple cereal of the Sahel, which is also drought-resistant but succumbs in the worst years. In California, there were advanced plans to produce barley that could thrive in brackish water of the kind that is spreading worldwide in the wake of overzealous irrigation. In Brazil, just a few years ago, I found GM being used to make disease-resistant papaya - which grows everywhere in the tropics and is an instant, free source of succulence, energy and Vitamin A. I was all for it.

Of course, the scientists anticipated snags. The GM plants might develop undesirable traits, possibly hazardous to consumer health, not necessarily in the first generation but down the line. That things could go wrong was evident from some of the early forays into GM livestock, which produced sad monsters. Perhaps the GM plants would escape into ecosystems and become pests - as many a crop has done in the past - but the GM super-crops might prove to be super-pests. Perhaps the insect-resistant types with built-in insecticide would kill non-target insects, with disastrous knock-on effects.

Nevertheless, the mood I encountered then was optimistic, essentially altruistic, and cautious. There was no need to hurry, because the conventional techniques of the day, properly deployed, could do what needed doing. Today, the world isn't like that: food production is now private enterprise, controlled by corporations and banks. The main purpose of farming is no longer to feed people but to maximise profits, raise GDP and maintain economic growth.

Critically, farming geared to making money differs in all significant ways from farming that is committed to providing good food today and for the future. Farming that feeds people well and sustainably must in general be mixed (many kinds of livestock and crops all interacting). It is complex and labour-intensive. Chemical inputs should be minimised, especially inputs of non-renewables; and, as far as possible, most food should be produced locally. The overall target is to ensure resilience: a steady supply of varied and high-quality crops, even in difficult times.

Cheap food is an illusion

In contrast, farming that is designed to make money must be maximally productive, but at minimum cost. So the systems must be simple: big machines and industrial chemistry instead of husbandry, and the farms on as large a scale as possible and monocultural, with just one crop or one kind of animal. Balanced diets in any one place can therefore be ensured only by mass imports. Labour - usually the most expensive input - must be cut to the bone and then cut again, with the workers paid as little as possible.

Finally, there must be maximal "value-adding" by processing, packaging and contrived exoticism, but above all by turning cheap yet good staples of the kind that have supported the great cuisines into meat for fast food. So we feed half the world's wheat to animals, and 80 per cent of the maize. But if something else should turn up that makes more money than food - for instance, biofuels - we'll grow that instead.

It works, does it not? While the food technologists and retailers have grown rich beyond all dreams of avarice, the masses have had, at least until recently, cheap food: it takes up just 8 per cent of the average Briton's income. Yet cheap food is an illusion. It is made to seem cheap by creative accountancy that ignores the vast quantities of oil needed, the collateral damage to soil, rivers, lakes, forests, wildlife, climate and, indeed, to human life, as well as the most blatant injustice as farmers across the globe are made bankrupt. According to the UN, one billion people now live in urban slums worldwide; and most of the shanty-dwellers are former farmers or their immediate descendants and dependants. The multinationals assure us there are "alternative industries". No, there aren't. When and if there are alternatives, it may be sensible to encourage people to leave the land. Not until. And it's a big "if".

As long as GM was part of an economy and a morality that had the well-being of humanity at heart, it had the potential to become what Ivan Illich in the 1970s called "a convivial technology", truly improving the human lot. As things stand, it merely serves to consolidate the status quo: to strengthen the arm of the corporations, which alone will control the seed and the inputs that the new seed requires; and to promote all the agro-industrial strategies that are so obviously destructive.

To be sure, the biological risks of GM remain, and should not be underestimated; but given time, and due caution, they could have been minimised. Commerce, however, demands immediate results, such that organic farmers already find it hard to buy feed for their animals that is not made from GM maize or soya. Yet reports that all is safe in the world of GM technology are greatly exaggerated. Nor is it true that it simply replicates the "horizontal" transmission of genes that occurs in the wild, and hence is "natural". Natural genes contain stretches of DNA known as "introns" that modify and regulate their function. Genetic engineers strip out the introns before they transfer them, to make life simpler. The difference could be significant, but we just don't know. I have yet to hear an advocate of GM technology even raise this issue.

Indeed, there has been so much hype and obfuscation in the promotion of GM - Prince Charles's recent warning about the looming environmental disaster aside - that it would be foolish to believe a word of it. Here are three quick examples. We have heard much, of late, of the "golden rice" made by Syngenta. It is fitted with a gene that produces carotene, which is the precursor of Vitamin A - the lack of which is a prime source of blindness among children worldwide. Therefore, Syngenta tells us, golden rice is a good thing - a sentiment echoed subsequently in the media and in the House of Lords by Dick Taverne. But carotene is the yellowish pigment in green leaves (such as spinach) and in all yellow-orange roots and fruits (carrots and papaya among them) and is one of the commonest organic molecules in nature. Poor people do not need handouts from Syngenta. All they need is horticulture - which, before the days of corporate-owned monocultures of commodity crops, they had.

We are told that GM crops yield more, and that the technology's opponents are irresponsible. Yet yield is rarely what really matters: very few famines in modern history have been caused by an inability to grow enough food; it has always been secondary to wars and economic breakdown, often caused by the west's destruction of subsistence farming. And anyway, the idea that GM crops can be relied upon to yield more than conventional crops is simply not true. Some GM crops do sometimes yield more than most standard crops in some circumstances and in some years; often they do not. In the long term, we have yet to see. The published results which seem to show that GM crops consistently outstrip their conventional counterparts are highly selective, with unfavourable results not made public. More and more, we are urged to rely on the "objectivity" and unimpeachable integrity of science. But when science itself is up for sale, there is no court of appeal.


California's GE Bill Passes

GE Policy Alliance
August 30, 2008

California Legislature Passes Bill Protecting Farmers Against Monsanto Lawsuits

First State Bill Regarding Genetically Engineered Crops Awaits Governor's Signature

A landmark piece of legislation protecting California's farmers from crippling lawsuits was passed through both legislative houses this week in an end-of-session flurry. The Senate voted 23 - 14 to support it, and the Assembly was unanimous in their support. The bill, AB 541 (Huffman, D-Marin/Sonoma), is now headed to the Governor's desk for his signature. Sponsored by diverse organizations, some of whom are traditionally opposed on farm issues, AB 541 is the first bill passed by the California legislature that brings much-needed regulation to genetically engineered (GE) crops.

"I am very pleased that my office, working with the stakeholders on both sides of this historically divisive issue, was able to find common ground and pass California's first legislation on genetic engineered crops," stated Assemblymember Huffman. "While there is still work to be done on other aspects of genetic engineering, AB 541 is an important step in establishing basic protections for California's farmers."

AB 541 enacts protections against lawsuits brought against California farmers who have not been able to prevent the inevitable - the drift of GE pollen or seed onto their land and the subsequent contamination of their non-GE crops. Currently, farmers with crops that become contaminated by patented seeds or pollen have been the target of harassing lawsuits brought by biotech patent holders, particularly Monsanto. The bill also establishes a mandatory crop sampling protocol to prevent biotech companies that are investigating alleged violations from sampling crops without the explicit permission of farmers.

AB 541 has the support of organizations traditionally on opposite sides of the GE issue, and its sponsors are confident that the Governor will sign it. The bill was sponsored by a thirteen-member coalition including Community Alliance with Family Farmers, Earthbound Farm, California Certified Organic Farmers, United Natural Foods Inc., as well as California Farmers Union and the California Farm Bureau, and several others.

"AB 541 is a move in the right direction," stated Renata Brillinger, director of the Genetic Engineering Policy Project, the coalition of organic and conventional farmers, food industry, environmental, and faith organizations sponsoring AB 541. "It provides much needed protection for farmers who typically lack the resources to fight lawsuits brought by biotech conglomerates."

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