Obama, Bush and agbiotech
1.Obama, like Bush, may be ag biotech ally
2.USDA Rushing Through Dangerous New Rules
3.Monsanto Beets Down Opposition
4.Vilsack won't be named ag secretary
1.Obama, like Bush, may be ag biotech ally
Des Moines Register, 23 November 2008
Washington, D.C. - The agricultural biotechnology business could hardly have had a better friend than George W. Bush.
His administration challenged the European Union's anti-biotech regulations and avoided imposing rules domestically that would hinder the industry's growth, with the exception of the most controversial products, such as pharmaceutical crops.
But there are clues President-elect Barack Obama could be an ally of the industry, too, especially in the effort to put biotech crops into widespread use in Africa. These hints come from both statements of policy and the type of people from whom he's taking advice.
*Obama explicitly endorsed genetically engineered crops in an answer to a candidate questionnaire initiated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and other scientific groups. He said biotech crops "have provided enormous benefits" to farmers and expressed confidence "that we can continue to modify plants safely."
*His top scientific advisers during the campaign included Sharon Long, a former board member of the biotech giant Monsanto Co., and Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate who co-chaired a key study of genetically engineered crops by the National Academy of Sciences back in 2000.
*Obama has endorsed the idea of a second Green Revolution, a concept understood to include biotechnology, to feed the world's growing population. In an exchange of letters last June with Norman Borlaug, the Iowa-born plant breeder who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the first Green Revolution, Obama said he was "deeply committed to greater agriculture research and global agricultural development."
*Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, an outspoken proponent of agricultural biotechnology, is considered a leading candidate to become Obama's agriculture secretary. The Biotechnology Industry Organization named him its governor of the year in 2001.
*Obama has called for doubling foreign development aid to $50 billion and establishing a special initiative to provide farmers in poor countries with affordable fertilizer and "improved seeds."
Obama's official statements on development are "pretty strong on agricultural science," said Robert Paarlberg, author of the recent book "Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa."
"I certainly haven't seen any sense of opposition to technology."
Obama's administration will be closely watched to see whether he follows through. Public and congressional interest in boosting world food production could wane, given the recent plunge in commodity prices and the global economic slowdown.
"We need an across-the-board revival of our agricultural development work," said Paarlberg, a Wellesley College professor.
A doubling of government spending on agricultural research over five years could lift more than 280 million people out of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute.
However, U.S. spending on foreign agricultural research has fallen dramatically since the 1980s. And even though Congress inserted $150 million in agricultural development assistance in an emergency spending bill this year at a time when food prices were soaring worldwide, that extra money only compensated for a cut that lawmakers had made earlier in the aid budget.
Paarlberg says U.S. agricultural aid is needed to help African scientists to do their own modification of food crops.
"Let them get comfortable with the technology, and let them sell it to their governments," he said.
In the long run, he says, that would make biotechnology more acceptable in Africa than continuing to push the biotech products from U.S. seed companies like Monsanto and Johnston-based Pioneer Hi-Bred.
Africa is home to more than 900 million people, or 14 percent of the world's population. Regardless of how it's done, the U.S. industry would surely count any president a friend who opens that continent to biotechnology.
2.USDA Rushing Through Dangerous New Rules on GE and Pharmaceutical Crops
True Food Network / Center for Food Safety, 21 November 2008
In the waning months of the Bush administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has joined the ranks of federal agencies rushing through new regulations that weaken protections for human health and the environment. USDA has released a proposed rule that would significantly weaken oversight of all genetically engineered crops, and which continue to allow companies to grow food crops engineered to produce drugs and industrial chemicals.
The USDA began this process over four years ago by promising stricter oversight. Unfortunately, improvements considered early on have been dismissed, and the proposed rule now has the same gaping holes as the policy it is replacing, and creates a few new ones, as well. For instance:
*USDA has created a huge loophole allowing biotech companies to assess their own crops to determine whether USDA should regulate them.Ã And the criteria are open-ended, very subjective, and will certainly reduce USDA's oversight of GE crops.
*The proposed rules could also allow companies to grow untested GE crops with no oversight whatsoever: "Over time, the range of GE organisms subject to oversight is expected to decrease...," a move which USDA itself admits will make contamination of conventional/organic crops with untested GE material more likely.
*To add insult to injury, USDA has proposed to write into law its "Low Level Presence" policy, which excuses it from taking any action to remove untested GE crops from conventional or organic food, feed and seed.Ã This contamination often occurs through cross-pollination or seed dispersal, and has cost farmers hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales and lowered profits.
*USDA rejected options that would have banned outdoor cultivation of pharmaceutical-producing GE (food) crops, the only way to ensure that untested drugs don't end up in our food, despite strong support from citizens and the food industry.
*USDA has refused to propose any controls on pesticide-promoting GE crops, despite increasing pesticide use and an epidemic of resistant weeds that have been fostered by these crops.
*Finally, USDA snuck in a last-minute "correction" that bars state or local regulation of GE crops more protective than its own weak rules. CFS strongly opposes such preemptive language that would bar local or state authorities from putting meaningful regulations or restrictions on GE crops in place that best suit their communities. This last-minute change should be cause to extend the public comment period.
The USDA is treading dangerous new ground here. The structure of the new proposal opens loopholes that can be exploited by biotech companies and expose consumers to more untested and unlabeled genetically engineered foods.
After denying requests for an extension to the short comment period given for the proposed rules, USDA's comment period closes on Monday.
Sign our petition to the USDA today and demand stronger-not weaker-regulations for genetically engineered crops!
Full Petition Text:
Docket No. APHIS-2008-0023
Regulatory Analysis and Development
PPD, APHIS, Station 3A-03.8
4700 River Road Unit 118
Riverdale, MD 20737-1238.
Re: Docket No. APHIS-2008-0023, Importation, Interstate Movement, and Release into the Environment of Certain Genetically Engineered Organisms.
I am very concerned about the risks genetically engineered crops--especially those engineered to produce drugs and industrial chemicals--pose to human health, family farmers, wildlife, and the environment. I urge USDA to close the gaping loopholes in its proposed rules, and put stronger--not weaker--regulations in place. In particular:
1. Please follow the advice of the National Academy of Sciences and make genetic engineering the trigger for USDA oversight so that ALL experimental GE crops are properly regulated. This approach is scientifically sound, administratively efficient, and more protective of public health, the environment, and the interests of farmers. Eliminate loopholes that exempt any GE crop that has not undergone a determination of non-regulated status from USDA regulatory oversight.
2. Please do NOT incorporate the "Low Level Presence" policy in the final rule. Instead, make zero presence of experimental GE crops in food and feed your management goal, and gear your implementing regulations to achieve it as fully as possible. In particular, make all field trials of experimental GE crops subject to strict gene containment standards at least as stringent as those now applied to pharmaceutical-producing GE crops.
3. Please reconsider your "business as usual" pharma crop policy, and instead adopt one of two alternatives you proposed in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement - a simple ban on outdoor cultivation of all pharmaceutical-producing crops, or at least pharmaceutical-producing food crops - to best protect public health and the environment.
4. Please regulate as necessary pesticide-promoting, herbicide-tolerant GE crops in order to address the rise in pesticide use these crops have fostered, and to mitigate the growing threat posed by herbicide-resistant weeds to farmers and the interests of American agriculture.
5. Remove any preemption clause that bars state and local authorities from enacting laws or regulations to control GE crops as they best see fit.
Please sign the petition here: http://ga3.org/campaign/GMOregs
3.Monsanto Beets Down Opposition
In These Times, 21 November 2008
WILLAMETTE VALLEY, Ore. - The sugar beets growing in farmer Tim Winn's fields do not look menacing. But other farmers in Oregon's fertile Willamette Valley fear the beets could devastate their crops.
Winn's sugar beets have been genetically modified to allow them to survive application of Monsanto's Roundup Ready herbicide. The modification allows Winn to kill weeds in his field with two sprayings of Roundup, rather than the multiple applications of various herbicides he used to use.
Winn and other sugar beet farmers across the country say Roundup Ready sugar beetÃ³which are being grown on a commercial scale for the first time this yearÃ³make farmers' work easier and more profitable. And, they claim, there will be environmental benefits because farmers will make fewer passes through fields with a tractorÃ³a point that was made in a 2003 British study published in New Scientist magazine.
But Kevin Golden, staff attorney for the Center for Food Safety, says the unknown long-term environmental risks of genetically modified crops outweigh short-term benefits.
"We admit Roundup is a less toxic alternative than a lot of the herbicides, but weed resistance is developing really fast," Golden says. "Eventually, Roundup becomes obsolete and farmers have to use these really nasty herbicides. It's a self-defeating prophecy to use this as a silver bullet."
And, he notes, the possible human health consequences of genetically modified organism (GMO) crops have not been adequately studied.
"GMOs are only 12 years old. It's a human experiment we don't know the answer to yet," says Golden.
Frank Morton, who distributes organic seeds all over the world from his farm in Philomath, Ore., says Roundup herbicide alters the local soil ecology, including suppressing beneficial fungi that kill pathogens.
"The whole farm system can be affected," Morton says.
Sugar beets supply about half the nation's sugar, and represent a $21 billion industry. Packaged sugar on grocery shelves contains sugar beet and sugar cane. Because sugar is produced in large factories, if Roundup Ready becomes the sugar beet industry standard, it is unlikely any sugar would be available to consumers that does not come partially from GMO beets.
Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, the industry trade group, claims that in most farming areas, contamination would not be an issue because sugar beets are harvested before they go to seed.
But in the Willamette Valley, where sugar beets are grown specifically for seed, it is a different story.
In January, several environmental and public health groupsÃ³including the Center for Food Safety, the Organic Seed Alliance, the Sierra Club and High Mowing Organic SeedsÃ³filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in federal district court in northern California. They demanded a permanent injunction against planting GMO sugar beets until the agency studies closely their environmental and health impacts, and the risk of cross-pollination.
The ongoing suit was filed in the same court that in February 2007 issued a permanent injunction against the planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa, pending further study by the USDA.
Controversy continues over how far apart farmers' crops must be to avoid the risk of cross-pollination.
In the Willamette Valley, the industry standard is one mile for beets. But many farmers say the windborne seeds can travel up to five miles.
Because many farmers are part of cooperatives that grow sugar beets on contract for companies that supply seed, Winn says individual farmers have little choice on whether to plant Roundup Ready sugar beets.
If the court rules against Roundup Ready beets this season, Winn says his crop will be destroyed, though he will still get paid.
"As a businessman, it's easier on my stomach if I can predict the outcomes," he says. "I just want to harvest my crops. I get emotional about all the politics around this."
But Morton and other growers of organic chard and table beets fear Roundup Ready beets will wipe out their industry, regardless of whether it is contaminated from nearby GMO sugar beets.
Chard is closely related to sugar beets, so genetically modified sugar beet seeds could contaminate the crop, thereby obliterating the chard's organic certification and market.
"There's a problem with perception," Morton says. "If word gets out that we're contaminated with GE [genetic engineering], we're no better than any place else." Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive.
4.Vilsack won't be named ag secretary
By PHILIP BRASHER
Des Moines Register, November 23 2008
D.C. Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack today said that he won’t be the next agriculture secretary, ending speculation that an Iowan would snag the post important to a large swath of the state’s economy.
In an e-mail, Vilsack said he had never been contacted by aides to President-elect Barack Obama about that position or any other.
“I would have to speculate that I was in fact in the running and further speculate as to why I was no longer. I do not think it prudent or appropriate to speculate about either,” Vilsack said.
Vilsack had been linked repeatedly to the Agriculture Department position in news reports. The Washington Post at one point called him a “near shoo-in” for the job. Obama’s staff had never confirmed that he was being considered.
Obama “has many interests he has to consider, and we have an abundance of talent in both parties from which to satisfy those interests,” Vilsack said today.
Other names that have been mentioned included those of Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union, and Rep. Collin Peterson, the Minnesota Democrat who chairs the House Agriculture Committee. Peterson told the news service DTN recently that he wouldn’t get the job.
Vilsack campaigned for Obama in several states and promoted his agricultural views in contacts with farm leaders. He published newspaper essays in October offering renewable energy plans that paralleled Obama’s. The articles helped fuel speculation about the former governor’s possible role in the Obama administration.
USDA plays a role in many facets of Iowa’s economy. The state is often the largest recipient of crop subsidies, collecting up to $2.3 billion in some years, and is home to much of the crop insurance industry, which also is heavily supported with taxpayer money. USDA regulates meatpackers and has helped finance an array of rural businesses, including biofuel plants.