No Way Around Roundup
Monsanto's bioengineered seeds are designed to require more of the company's herbicide.
By Mark Arax and Jeanne Brokaw
Monsanto's efforts in plant biotech are aimed not only at boosting crop yields but at helping the company retain a market for its cash cow, the herbicide Roundup. As the biggest-selling weed killer in the world, Roundup accounts for 17 percent of Monsanto's total annual sales of $9 billion. Roundup is what's known as a broad-spectrum herbicide, because it kills nearly anything green. But its main ingredient, glyphosate, breaks down quickly in soil, so that little or no toxic byproduct accumulates in plant or animal tissue -- a detail that Monsanto highlights when describing itself as an environmentally friendly company.
Monsanto's U.S. patent on Roundup runs out in three years, and if the company is to keep its dominant market position beyond the year 2000, it needs a new spin. Enter Roundup Ready soybeans and Roundup Ready cotton, seeds genetically manipulated so that they can survive direct applications of Roundup. Farmers who once confined their use of the weed killer to the borders of their planting area can now douse entire fields with Roundup instead of using an expensive array of sprays that each target just one or two weeds. "It expands the Roundup market," says Gary Barton, a Monsanto spokesman.
The only catch: Farmers using Roundup Ready seeds can only use Roundup, because any other broad-spectrum herbicide will kill their crops. So, with every Roundup Ready seed sale, Monsanto sells a season's worth of its weed killer as well. The company also keeps close tabs on the crops' progress: Farmers must sign a contract promising not to sell or give away any seeds or save them for next year's planting, and the company inspects its customers' farms for violations.
Monsanto says that the new technology will benefit the environment, arguing that the more farmers rely on Roundup, the less they will need harsher herbicides.
But studies show glyphosate, which has been described by the Environmental Defense Fund and by Vice President Al Gore as safer than other herbicides, is not as benign as it is billed. Glyphosate is less toxic than many other herbicides, but it's still the third most commonly reported cause of illness among agricultural workers in California. For landscape maintenance workers, it ranks highest. And, according to the Journal of Pesticide Reform, the herbicide also damages the ability of bacteria to transform nitrogen into a usable form for plants, and it harms fungi that help plants absorb water and nutrients. Residues of the herbicide have been found in lettuce, carrots, and barley that were pla nted a year after the soil was sprayed.
Critics also contend that as farmers plant more Roundup Ready seeds and spray their fields with increased doses of Roundup, herbicide "drift" may increase significantly. If this happens, neighboring farms may be forced to switch to the Monsanto seeds in order to keep their crops from being destroyed by the airborne herbicide.
Monsanto needs a big win with Roundup Ready seeds because the company has invested so heavily in biotech. James Wilbur, an analyst with Smith Barney, told the Wall Street Journal that "if genetic technology doesn't work on a product like this, it calls into question the whole long-term strategy of the company." But it may be human nature rather than Mother Nature that puts a dent in Monsanto's marketing plans for biotech products. The United States sells about 40 percent of its soybeans to Europe, where consumers and environmentalists are in an uproar about Roundup Ready soybeans. Even though these soybeans have been approved by the European Union, many consumers aren't convinced they are safe. In fact, surveys show up to 85 percent of Europeans would shun genetically altered food if given the choice. EuroCommerce, a trade group representing one-third of European wholesalers and retailers, has demanded that gene-altered soybean products at least be labeled -- a task that U.S. companies and officials say is impossible under current distribution methods, since soybeans from different sources are mixed together for shipment.
Furthermore, the German subsidiaries of packaged food companies Unilever and Nestl=8E said last year they will not buy Roundup Ready soybeans, and canceled their U.S. soybean orders -- an amount that equaled 7 percent of total U.S. soybean exports to Europe in 1995.
The threat of a European boycott of genetically altered food products is significant, says Tim Galvin of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Labeling is a hot topic, and far from played out." But the USDA opposes labeling, claiming that gene-altered foods are no different from other foods. And Galvin thinks the issue will blow over.
But will it? "Companies like Monsanto were caught off guard," says Ron Barnett, president of Genetic ID, a small Iowa company that produces a test capable of detecting genetic alterations in crops. Barnett said the test has generated considerable demand from overseas importers who want to avoid buying altered crops.
So far, American consumers have been mostly silent. But the Washington, D.C.-based Pure Food Campaign, which was founded to combat bovine growth hormone, is organizing a telephone campaign aimed at getting companies such as Coca-Cola and McDonald's to shun genetically altered soy and corn. Greenpeace ran a full-page ad in USA Today on Halloween, accusing Monsanto of playing "tricks" with children's chocolate bars. And Central Soya, one of the nation's biggest soybean processors, has barred Roundup Ready soybeans from one of its grain elevators so that the different beans can be compared.
U.S. officials say that consumers here and abroad are being irrational. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, speaking on behalf of the United States at the World Food Summit in Rome last year, said, "Biotechnology can give us a quantum leap forward in food security by improving disease and pest resistance, increasing tolerance to environmental stress, raising crop yields, and preserving plant and animal diversity."
"As world leaders, we shouldn't fight sound science," Glickman argued. "Countries that choose to turn away from biotechnology should recognize the consequences of their actions to the world."
But critics insist the government and companies like Monsanto are missing the point. "I'm not scientifically qualified to say whether the crops are safe or not," says Dan McGuire, former executive director of the recently disbanded Interstate Grain Commission, which arranged grain sales between the United States and Europe. "But how can you be market-oriented if you don't give the market what it wants?"
MONSANTO APPLIES FOR A 200-FOLD INCREASE IN ALLOWABLE RESIDUES OF ROUNDUP
"Monsanto's application to the Food Authority for a 200 fold increase in allowable Roundup residues - from the present Standard of 0.1mg/kg to 20mg/kg - will be decided late next year," Bob Phelps said.
The Guardian Weekly for week ending 1998.4.19
International News -
US chemical firm admits to PR errors, by John Vidal
MONSANTO, the huge United States chemical company that is facing mounting opposition in Europe as it spearheads the rush to hi-tech foods, has called for genetically modified (GM) crops to be separated at source from traditional foods and has admitted that it has misjudged consumers' concerns. ...
As Monsanto prepared to mount a multi-million dollar public relations campaign to convince European shoppers of the ecological and global benefits of GM foods, it admitted that it had underestimated ethical and scientific concerns and had pushed its products on to the market without explanation.
"We made mistakes which we regret. We should have listened more carefully," said Philip Angell, Monsanto's US director of corporate communications. The scale and speed of the GM food revolution has astonished observers and worried critics, who see a further global intensification of farming and no choice for consumers.
From: Richard Wolfson <[email protected]
USDA Organic Decision Delayed -- clips from Reuters article follows (See website http://www.agriculture.com/agpoll/index.shtml for full article)
Monsanto joins debate on organic foods By Julie Vorman
WASHINGTON, (Reuters) - After tens of thousands of angry consumer letters to the U.S. Agriculture Department over standards for organic food labels, Monsanto Corp. urged the department to defer any decision on bioengineered plants.
The USDA's proposal to create national standards for organic food labels has emerged as the most controversial food issue ever tackled by the department, pitting U.S. agribusinesses against organic farmers and consumers. To date, a staggering 100,000 comment letters have been posted or e-mailed to the USDA on its plan. Nearly two weeks still remain before the USDA ends the mandated comment period and most major companies and agri-business groups have yet to make their views public. Most oppose the proposal to allow organic food labels to include bioengineered material, leading some industry experts to fear the USDA might be paralyzed into taking no action at all.
Monsanto, the St. Louis-based giant seed and biotechnology company, told USDA it should go ahead with its organic food standards but defer the biotech issue for three years.
Monsanto Asks USDA to Delay Decision On Whether Genetic Crops Are Organic
By REKHA BALU, WALL STREET JOURNAL April 17,1998
Monsanto Co., in a move likely to please consumer groups, is asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to delay for at least three years a decision on whether genetically engineered crops could qualify as organic.
In a letter to the department, the St. Louis company noted that both the use of biotechnology in agriculture and the production of organic food are still evolving. It added that after such a delay, "a better, more informed decision can be made as to whether and how to make plants improved through biotechnology eligible for organic certification."
Many consumer and organic-farming advocates contend that organic means that the crop and the growing conditions should be naturally occurring, and thus genetically altered crops shouldn't be considered organic.
Others, such as Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. and the American Seed Trade Association are submitting comments in favor of including genetically altered products in the organic standards.
Because it is an industry leader, Monsanto's position could slow some of the momentum others have gathered in their attempt to get the government to broaden the definition of organic. While Monsanto's letter still supports the idea that organic farming could be compatible with biotechnology, the biotech leader wants to avoid a fight with consumer groups.
POWER LIES IN THE GENES - Pat Hanning NZ Herald 5 April 1997
Two giant companies may well control the future of world farming through their ownership of materials essential for developing plants.
The companies, Hoechst and Monsanto hold a, huge number of patents on transfer materials and plasmas needed to achieve genetic changes in plants.
The significance of the near-monopoly is explained by a Karapiro nursery- man, Andy:McGrath who says that he was offered reciently a genetic development to prevent apple flesh going brown ofter being cut. 'I had to ask, are you offering me just the genes, and do I have to go and deal with Monsanto for the transfer material and pay a separate royalty?" he says. -- The transfer materials and plasmas are essential for causing genes inserted into cells to bond with the cells. Control of these agents, rather than other genetic technology, is a simple way of gaining awesome power by the two companies, which grew to be multi-nationals by manufacturing chemicals. There is concern in some quarters diminishing biodiversity means that the world is coming to rely for its food supply on fewer species of plants, and that these are being managed by large companies. Critics say this raises the risk of worldwide famine should one of a limited number of species fall. McGrath has just returned from the United States where he says industry colleagues are finding that in just about every aspect of modern horticulture they are forced to deal with either Hoechst or Monsanto.
Genetic engineering of plants in New Zealand is, in some areas, "as advanced as anything in the world," says an Institute for Crop and Food Research staff member, Jan Grant, of Lincoln in Canterbury. She confirms that institute researchers have had to deal with owners of gene transfer materials in their work on peas, potatoes, brassicas, lettuce, onions and pinus radiata. She says that the genetic transfer work of the institute was aimed solely at improving plant quality. "It is a matter of negotiating for the use of the materials, and so far that has not been a problem," she says. 'At present it is in their [the companies'] interests to have as much research work being done as possible because it might increase the market for their materials. "But there is concern at what might happen in future, particularly if an area of research appears to be in competition with anything that they are doing." There is also concern that the companies might be reluctant to provide material for plant species that could compete with seed lines ahd cultivars in which they deal. For instance, Monsanto markets its own genetically engineered species of potatoes, cotton and soybeans, and has two new varieties of corn under regulatory review. Apart from grains, those are the most widely grown commercial crops in the world. A new range of Monsanto plants may be not far off, after an announcement by the company on March 20 that it had just been granted a patent for synthetic genes which enable plants to protect themselves from insects. The synthetic genes are derived from proteins in a naturally occurring soil bacterium known as bacillus thurungiensis.
McGrath says that although he deals in the intellectual property of horticulture - the rights to "ownership . of biological material - he disagrees with the principle of such ownership.
"Nevertheless the black, and white of the law is that such rights exist and I have to operate in it," he says.
His private contention is that biological material, is a natural . resource and the property of mankind, "After all, you haven't created the materials," he says. "They were there all along, and you simply discovered their presence by applying technology and science. 'If this totara tree is found to contain the miracle cure. for cancer, who does it belong to - Maori who were the original settlers, or me, who has assumed the role of custodian of the land for the present time, or to everyone? My I feeling is that it belongs to everyone'
'It can affect food sources world- wide, he says, giving the example of wheat rust, which once threatened crops everywhere. Eventually a strain of resistance was found in a grain in Siberia and bred into wheat to save the world's crops. "Who got rich out of that?" McGrath asks. 'You can bet it wasn't the Siberian peasants." The issue has been canvassed by a Waikato Univergity law lecturer, Dr Alexander Gillespie, to a paper for the Environmental and Planning Law Journal. He outlines what he describes as a chasm between the so-called poor south of the world, which claims it provides most of the genetic niaterial on which the world's food is based, and the rich north, which claims private ownership of such genetic material - He says that the chasm, which caused the refusal of the Bush Administration in the United States to sign the 1992 , Convention on Bioversity, stem from basic conflict over what is common as opposed to private, property - Gillespie traces statements through the Food and Agriculture Organisation and international conventions, summed up as: "Plant genetic resources are a heritage of mankind and consequently should be available without restriction" ... "this included elite and breeding lines (for example, genetically altered biological materials) [which are] within the rubric of common heritage."
Gillespie says that eight industrialised nations have reserved their positions on such contentions in international forums because these northem countries saw, the undertaking as "a blatant attack on the principles of private property." He says that the confrontation over biological diversity seems set to continue into the indefinite future. The German company, Hoechst, markets its biological products through a subsidiary, Agrevo, whose licensed agent in New Zealand is BASF. The BASF New and agriculture manager, Ross Hore, says that it does no business in biological materials in New Zealand.
MONSANTO BUYS HOLDEN'S TO SUPPLY 35% OF CORN SEED IN U.S.
"Monsanto Will Buy Holden's, Seed Firms," JOURNAL OF COMMERCE,
In early January, Monsanto bought Holden's Foundation Seeds Inc., which supplies the germplasm and parent seeds for more than 35% of the corn acres planted in the U.S., for $1.02 billion. Such a high price had "very little to do with Holden as a seed company," said an advisory report of the investment banking firm Dain Bosworth, "and a lot to do with the battle between the chemical giants for future sales of herbicides and insecticides... tying up germplasm so that it works only with your chemical products."
AgrEvo, Monsanto's main competitor, recently bought Plant Genetic Systems for $750 million. AgrEvo is about to market a genetically engineered seed that is tolerant to its own brand of herbicide, Liberty.
In the first nine months of 1996, Monsanto's worldwide agrochemical sales increased by 21% to $2.48 billion, due largely to increased sales of Roundup. The patent for Roundup, which accounts for 17% of Monsanto's annual sales of $8.6 billion, will expire in 2000. Sales of Monsanto's new Roundup-Ready Soybeans require growers to sign a contract prohibiting them from using any herbicide other than Roundup and to allow Monsanto's agents to randomly inspect their fields for three years.
BALONEY ABOUT BIODIVERSITY
Monsanto's director in New Zealand claimed in the New Zealand Herald that the use of genetically-engineered products such as roundup-ready soy-beans was the only way the world would be able to produce enough food for the increasing population within existing agricultural lands and thus still have any natural conserved ecosystems left.
This is sheer baloney - Chris King
MIXING OF PRODUCTS MAKES LABELLING OF GENETICALLY-ENGINEERED FOODS IMPOSSIBLE
We are now faced with a different problem: labelling may no longer be an option, largely because of the creation of a genetically modified soya bean by the chemical multinational Monsanto in America. With the sanction of the US food authorities, this has been mixed with natural soya and put into world-wide distribution, and it will thus become impossible for manufacturers and retailers to know the true source of the soya in their products and to label them accordingly.
SUPERWEEDS RESISTANT TO ROUNDUP
A review published in the Winter 1996 issue of the journal Resistant Pest Management describes how the use of crops genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate (also called roundup) could lead to superweeds that are also resistant to the herbicide. The author of the study, Dr. Jonathan Gressel, systematically refuted several common arguments that weeds would not develop resistance. These herbicide resistant weeds would make weed management more difficult and compel farmers to move on to other, often more toxic pesticides.
Dr. Gressel described how weeds can react to extensive spraying with the herbicide by developing resistance. He noted that since crops already exhibit resistance in varying degrees, variation will also likely occur in the weeds and lead to stronger weeds surviving. Dr. Gressel also explained biochemical processes leading to herbicide resistance. He challenged the argument that glyphosate's low persistence precludes development of resistance, because of the short life cycle of some weeds. He also referred to a recent case in Australia where ryegrass weeds developed resistance to roundup after only 10 sprayings of the pesticide. An additional mechanism for development of herbicide resistant weeds is cross-pollination between genetically engineered crops and wild relatives.