from Claire Robinson, WEEKLY WATCH editor

Dear all:

This week we have reports of yet more biotech companies biting the dust (THE AMERICAS), a sign of the general industry slowdown pointed out in an article for Inter Press News Agency (BIOTECH SLOWDOWN). This article is one of several recent press reports that have taken the trouble to look behind the industry hype at the unedifying facts of GM farming.

Another example of this heartening trend is that Scripps Howard news service has fired GM lobbyist Michael Fumento for writing pro-Monsanto articles without disclosing the fact that the company was funding him (LOBBYWATCH)!

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"I know that GM Watch's work is particularly valued by people working to defend the rights of marginalised farmers." - Dr Tom Wakeford, biologist and action researcher at the Policy Ethics and Life Sciences Research Institute, University of Newcastle


An excellent article with this title for Inter Press Service News Agency says, "Long trumpeted as the solution to world hunger, some biotech supporters have scaled back their claims and now say the technology will make a substantial contribution to ending hunger. But just when or if that contribution will ever arrive is not clear."

The article criticizes industry body ISAAA's inflated figures for GM plantings:

"In the ISAAA's annual global status report issued on Jan. 12, it claimed that 90 million hectares of GE crops were planted in 21 countries in 2005. Although labeled an 'anti-poverty group' by some media, the ISAAA is in fact a biotech industry-supported lobby organisation.

"'No one has any idea where they are getting their numbers from,' said David MacDonald of the Polaris Institute, a Canadian NGO. Where there is solid independent government data, such as in the United States, the ISAAA numbers are inflated by five to 10 percent, he charged.

"MacDonald told IPS that the group's reports do not cite any sources or references, nor would most governments have this kind of information. 'We and other NGOs have been trying to get independent confirmation of this data for years, without success,' he said."

The article also casts a cool eye on the supposed benefits of biotech:

"Despite billions of dollars invested in research by governments and industry over more than 20 years, only three crops -- cotton, maize and soy -- account for 95 percent of GE acreage. These three crops are either herbicide-resistant or contain Bt insecticide.

"All that does is make life simpler for large farm operations to spray any amount of a particular herbicide without harming the crop, says MacDonald. Yields are not directly affected, nor are there additional nutritional benefits, improvements to the soil or environmental benefits."


Maine farmers cannot be sure that the non-GM canola seeds they purchase to grow on their farms do not contain GM traits, University of Maine agriculture research professor John Jemison said.

Tests conducted last fall on research crops in northern Maine and Vermont indicated that the conventional crops and seeds contained genetically engineered DNA - DNA altered to allow crops not to be affected by herbicide applications - even though separated from GE plots.

Jemison's findings mirror those released in a study in 2004 by the Union of Concerned Scientists that found GM DNA is contaminating traditional seeds in three major US crops - corn, soybeans and canola.

Speaking at the Maine Agricultural Trades Show in Augusta, Jemison said that after harvest, tests were conducted on 4,500 conventionally grown canola plants. "We found contamination, or genetic resistance to herbicides, in five out of the six [genetic] lines," Jemison said, a condition that could not have been caused by current-season drift from GM crops.

This means that conventional canola seeds already are contaminated with GM-resistance traits, he said, and farmers cannot be 100 percent sure they are getting purely organic seeds. Maine's organic industry represents more than $10 million annually and is the state's fastest-growing agriculture segment.

Biotech firm Phytodyne Inc., based in Ames, Iowa, has folded. The company had wanted to market what it claimed was a faster, more precise way to genetically engineer crops.

State and federal government and private investors poured millions of dollars into the biotech startup. State officials touted Phytodyne as a poster child for the burgeoning biotech economy. Early in 2004, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack announced a three-year, $5 million financial assistance package for Phytodyne, saying the company had the potential to revolutionize agriculture.

By late 2004, Phytodyne had been dissolved, its workers laid off, its laboratories disassembled and its investors left holding the bag. People who had championed Phytodyne's potential were crestfallen. Those who once had spoken with pride of Phytodyne's promise now pause and look down when asked about the company.

In an article that reported Phytodyne's demise, a state official is quoted saying biotech is booming. In fact, since its inception in 1976 the biotechnology industry has lost a combined $40 billion.

Large Scale Biology Corp. of Vacaville, one of the first biotech companies focused on genetically engineering plants to produce medicine, has filed for protection from its creditors under the bankruptcy code.

The company ceased operations in December, having lost $25.3 million in 2003 and $17.4 million in 2004. In the nine months ended Sept. 30 2005 the company lost $11.6 million, or 37 cents per share, on revenue of $2.2 million.

Robert Erwin, a founder and the chairman of Large Scale, has said the main problem for the company was the reluctance of drug companies to have their products developed in crops. He is quoted as saying, "There are very few corporate executives willing to bet on an unproven process."

He has also said GM pharma crop developers were wrong in assuming that lower production costs are an important consideration for drug companies. With high prices for their drugs, Erwin said, "cost is not really an issue for them." The claim of lower production costs has always been held out as the big selling point for pharma crops.

An article in The Scientist puts Large Scale Biology Corp's failure into a wider perspective.

EXCERPT: A decade ago more than 180 companies and organizations, including many of the big pharmas, were involved in pharming research. Since then, Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Novartis, and others have spun off or disposed of their agricultural-biotech drug divisions. Today, fewer than 75 companies worldwide - and only a handful in the US - are engaged in any form of plant-based therapeutics.

"Pharmaceutical and biotech companies have enough risk taking a new drug through the approval process. To add to that an as-yet unproven plant-based technology is not something they are willing to do," said Roger Wyse, managing director of Burrill and Co., a San Francisco-based life sciences venture capital firm. "That's adding risk on top of risk".

Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope has addressed a letter to USDA, APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service), the FDA and others on the "pharm" issue. In the wake of the USDA Inspector General's recently released report, Pope calls not just for better implementation of the present ineffective system but for a better, more effective system.

As a way of pushing commercialization of GM crops while sidestepping the issues of food safety and consumer rejection, the US government has joined forces with industry group BIO to promote GM soybeans as a biodiesel crop that will help solve the problem of global warming.

The Department of Energy said that its Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, California will be the lead facility in sequencing the soy genome. To date, the Institute has sequenced and released a total of 150 microbial organisms.

"Biotechnology is creating a new industrial revolution based on biology instead of petroleum," said Brent Erickson, executive vice president of BIO's Industrial and Environmental Section.

He also made clear the industry's greenwashing pitch, "What could be anti-environmental about trying to figure out how to produce the energy that we all consume in a sustainable way that doesn't produce the greenhouse gas emissions that produce global warming? We're on the side of the angels on that one."

A national food controversy is simmering in Michigan, as the state Senate considers a bill that would bar towns and counties from enacting local legislation to regulate GM seed. Fourteen states already have passed these bills into law; Michigan's version, SB 777, is scheduled to get another committee hearing Thursday.

Native American Ojibwe wild rice growers are worried that GM rice could infect their crop. They cite work by the University of Minnesota on new strains of rice, including GM strains, that may benefit large commercial farmers, but could harm native wild rice crops.

The taro plant, used to make poi, is a sacred ancestor of the Hawaiian people that can't be owned, say protesters. Activists and farmers urged the University of Hawaii to give up three of its patents on varieties of taro genetically enhanced by crossbreeding. About 20 people rallied in a small field of taro growing on the university's Manoa campus.

"The taro is our ancestor. It's not a commodity," said longtime Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte. "The University of Hawaii cannot own our ancestors. They're setting the precedent for the rest of the world to come here and start patenting things." Traditional Hawaiian belief says that the first man was created from a taro plant.

"The idea that one generation of people could claim ownership of something that's much older than we are is ridiculous," said David Strauch, a taro farmer who grows traditional varieties on Oahu. "Taro is so central to Hawaiian culture."

Ritte has gone to battle with the university before over the genetic modification of taro. As a result, the university agreed in May to stop experiments on Hawaiian varieties of taro because of cultural concerns that it was tampering with native species.

The commendable French newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique reports that GM soya has been smuggled into the fertile state of Parana in southern Brazil, where itis still banned. The smuggling may suit the owners of agribusinesses that cover 70% of the land but it endangers the survival of the remaining small farmers, who provide most of the agricultural jobs and key national foodstuffs.

At the beginning of the 20th century, forest covered 16m of Parana's 19m hectares. Because of immigrant axes and chainsaws, it now accounts for barely 1.5m hectares, just 8% of the state's total area. Meanwhile Parana has the dubious honour of being Brazil's leading consumer of pesticides and chemical fertilisers. The state also has the country's highest rate of liver and pancreatic cancer. It is becoming clear that these two records are related. Unsurprisingly, more and more people, especially the MST [Landless Movement], are denouncing the green revolution dream as false.

... The model of the UDR [Democratic Ruralist Union, a body created in 1986 by the big landowners to resist land reform and the MST] has not proved effective. One recent study showed that conservative modernisation of farming drove costs up twice as fast as productivity, meaning that gross added value actually fell. There are other, hidden costs. Pollution of the water table has been confirmed as the cause of 6,000 poison cases, and is thought to have caused as many as 30,000. Another cost only now being recognised is the soil exhaustion that soya monoculture engenders. The drive to produce, produce, produce is not compatible with crop rotation or set-aside. Frei Sergio Gorgen, deputy for Lula's Workers' party (PT) in Rio Grande do Sul, joins the MST in arguing that agribusiness "only survives today thanks to subsidies and facilitation from the Brazilian state".


Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant is meeting India's president and prime minister next week. According to the Indian Express, high on his agenda should be the stink raised by the Andhra Pradesh government on the pricing of Bollgard cotton seeds for the Indian market - see below.

Andhra Pradesh's agriculture minister N. Raghuveera Reddy has written letters urging six states to take action against Mahyco Monsanto and other companies on the lines of Andhra Pradesh (the AP state government is taking Monsanto to court) over the high prices charged by these companies.

Reddy, who said the stand taken by the government was "in the interest of farmers", sought the support of the other states as it would go a long way to further strengthen "our resolve to get justice for the common farmer." Reddy also said Bt cotton farmers were at "high risk of disaster".


A group of activists who destroyed a crop of GM maize in France in 2003 have been acquitted by a Versailles court. The nine people -- all members of the Farmers' Confederation previously headed by anti-globalisation campaigner Jose Bove -- were the second lot of activists to have charges against them dismissed in France.

A court in the central French city of Orleans last month acquitted 49 people who had been charged with organised vandalism for uprooting GM maize planted in France by the US biotechnology group Monsanto.

The judge said in that December case that the activists were justified in their action because "the unbridled distribution of modified genes... constitutes a clear and present danger for the well-being of others, in the sense that it could be the source of contamination and unwanted pollution."

The European Commission has again ignored environmental and health concerns of member states and approved the import and use of three Monsanto GM maize.

Helen Holder of Friends of the Earth Europe said: "The EU Commission is going against the wish of European citizens, and does not have the required majority support from Member States for GMO approvals."

Since August, three other GMOs have been authorized by the Commission. "In all six cases, Member States' concerns were ignored because of the undemocratic EU system allowing the Commission to take a decision despite there not being a qualified majority in favour of GMOs in food and animal feed", Holder said.

Feel confused about what's going on with GMOs in the EU? You are not alone!

Although no new GMOs have been approved for cultivation in the EU since 1998, there have of late been a series of approvals of GMOs for import for consumption - see above, even though these GMOs are very unlikely to end up being intentionally incorporated into food products in shops because of labelling and consumer opposition to GMOs.

The recent approvals of GMOs for import into the EU have not been made as a result of decisions by a clear majority of EU member states, but by the EU Commission, which is headed by non-elected bureaucrats who appear to want to free up biotech development.

So what is the Commission's real agenda? A commendably clear article on this by Helen Holder of Friends of the Earth Europe is at

Reuters reports that Europe may suffer a bruising next month when the World Trade Organization delivers its verdict on whether the EU's six-year blockade on GM crops and foods was tantamount to a protectionist trade barrier. While most observers say the WTO is unlikely to issue a clear-cut condemnation of EU policy, it may well criticize areas like the string of national bans on specific GMO products in several EU countries.


South Africa's faith communities are planning to petition major food retailers to label all genetically modified foods, according to Bishop Jeff Davies from the SA Council of Churches.

The labelling of GM, or genetically modified, food is not compulsory in the country.

"We believe it is essential to know what we are eating. We hope you, in parliament, will help us," he told members of parliament.

Davies was one of many representatives from religious and civil society organisations, including small-scale farmers, environmental groups and lobbyists, who participated in parliament's public hearings on its Genetically Modified Organisms Amendments Bill.

Davies told MPs, "Many scientists and biotechnologists are very naughty. They're not making a distinction between selective breeding, which human beings have been doing for millennia, and genetic engineering."

He said all faith communities - Christians, Hindus, Jews and Muslims - had the same concerns regarding genetically modified products.

"With genetic engineering, we are tampering with the structures of life that have taken millions of years to evolve and we have the arrogance to think that we can improve on them in 10 years... to transfer a gene from one species into another."

Referring to the impact of GMOs on religion Davies said: "You know we have kosher and halaal food. How, then, do we define a tomato with a fish gene?"

He said he knew that many people were concerned about genetic modification because humans were playing God without knowing what the consequences would be.

He also called for a moratorium on the use and importation of genetically modified food until SA itself had tested the products and not just accepted the word of Monsanto that it was safe.

According to Davies, it was important that "we should do things the African way and not try to emulate Big Brother in America".

Pick 'n Pay's deputy chairperson David Robins welcomed the call for labelling on Wednesday, saying the supermarket chain would support the campaign 100% so that customers would know what they were eating.

Earlier this week, chain store Woolworths said: "All Woolworths products that contain ingredients that could be derived from GM crops are labelled."

The group said it had undertaken to remove or replace ingredients derived from GM crops wherever possible.

"Does Africa need GMO foods?" asks an article in the Nigerian press.

The answer is No. What Africa needs is to improve on the way we practise agriculture. We have enough natural seeds to last us another lifetime. We don't need genetically modified seeds that would, rather than lead to a food boom, kick-start a revolution of dependence on a giant corporation to supply us seeds and chemicals. This is nothing but slavery... Africa cannot afford to surrender its food security to some faceless giant corporation.


Dr Arpad Pusztai has responded to a statement by the UK's Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) on the GM soy feeding study carried out by Dr Irina Ermakova from the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Here are ACNFPs closing remarks and a link to their full statement:

"In conclusion, there are a number of possible explanations for the results obtained in this preliminary study, apart from the GM and non-GM origin of the test materials. Without information on a range of important factors conclusions cannot be drawn from this work. The Committee Secretariat is contacting Dr Ermakova to obtain further information on this study and the Committee will consider any further information that can be obtained and review the position if a full report of the study is published in the peer-reviewed literature.

"The Committee also notes that Dr Ermakova's findings are not consistent with those described in a peer-reviewed paper published in 2004.1 In a well controlled study no adverse effects were found in mice fed on diets containing 21% GM herbicide-resistant soya beans and followed through up to 4 generations."

- Statement on the effect of GM soya on newborn rats. Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (5.12.05).

ACNFP follows the industry line in citing a paper by Brake and Evenson that found "no adverse effects" in mice fed GM soy. Dr Pusztai comments:

"I shall have to draw the attention of the ACNFP experts to the fact that Brake and Evenson actually studied testicular development in male mice and, that, unless these animals had a sex change, the results can have limited value and relevance to the pregnant female rats in Ermakova's study.

"The ACNFP's nutritional expertise comes as bit of a surprise to me. Although it is quite true that we know very little about the GM and the non-GM soybean samples Ermakova used in her study, at least she tried to keep the animals on a feeding regime that is better described than in the Brake and Evenson paper which is being held up as the "gold standard". I know that two poorly described experiments do not make a good one but the ACNFP's experts should not have referred to a paper that was not even as good as Ermakova's description of her experiment.

"... Unfortunately, the authors should have consulted someone with a firm grasp of nutritional principles and design because their flawed design of feeding (as described in the paper) from the start has made it impossible for them to draw any meaningful conclusions."

Dr Pusztai also points to the way in which the issue of lack of peer reviewed publication is being used by the ACNFP against Dr Ermakova, when in fact the head of the ACNFP and others, including a former head of the ACNFP (Derek Burke) and the Royal Society, have in the past sought to fudge the issue of peer review when they have found it useful as a means of contradicting research in the peer reviewed literature that raised questions about GM. In particular, they cited research that had been presented verbally at a conference as "peer reviewed", though when Dr Ermakova did the same, suddenly this means of presenting research did not count as peer review!

In an article for BioSpectrum, Dr Arpad Pusztai argues that artificial gene constructs may undergo mutation and evolution, thereby making the safety assessment of GM crops an exercise without a firm predictive scientific basis.

It is ... not unreasonable to suggest that the environmental and health risks or safety assessments of GE crops/foods should not be carried out only by biotechnology companies but it must also be verified by independent scientists through a transparent funding system ... In democracies it is the people's inalienable right that they should be able to decide whether society can afford to take on the very real risks and the possibly dangerous consequences of genetic engineering for the possibly vain hope of some future benefits for society.


Columnist Michael Fumento's failure to disclose payments to him in 1999 from the GM giant has now caused Scripps Howard to sever its ties to him, reports Business Week.

Scripps Howard News Service announced January 13 that it is severing its business relationship with Fumento, who's a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute. The move comes after inquiries from BusinessWeek Online about payments Fumento received from Monsanto - a frequent subject of praise in Fumento's opinion columns and a book.

Scripps Howard News Service Editor Peter Copeland said Fumento "did not tell SHNS editors, and therefore we did not tell our readers, that in 1999 Hudson recieved a $60,000 grant from Monsanto." Copeland added: "Our policy is that he should have disclosed that information. We apologize to our readers." In the January 5 column, Fumento wrote that Monsanto has about 30 products in the pipeline that will aid farmers, "but also help us all by keeping prices down and allowing more crops to be grown on less land."

In his career at Hudson, Fumento has carved out a speciality debunking critics of the agribusiness and biotechnology industries. In 1999, he says, he solicited $60,000 from Monsanto to write a book on the business. The book, entitled BioEvolution was published in 2003. A spokesman for Monsanto confirmed the payments to the Hudson Institute.

Asked about the payments, Fumento says, "I'm just extremely pro-biotech." He says he solicited several agribusiness companies to finance his book. "I went after everybody, I've got to be honest," Fumento says of his fund-raising effort. "I told them that if I tell the truth in this book, the biotech industry is going to look really good, and you should contribute."

The Monsanto grant, he says, flowed from the company to the Hudson Institute to support his work. A portion went to overhead and "most of it" went into his salary. He says the money was simply folded into his salary for that year, and therefore represented no windfall to him personally.[!!!]

GM Watch comment: Fumento doesn't just connect to the Hudson Institute - the well-known home of Dennis and Alex Avery - but to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which co-founded AgBioview.
Fumento's bio is at:

The news that the pro-biotech columnist Michael Fumento has had $60,000 worth of support out of Monsanto has raised questions about what other public commentators may enjoy similar backing.

A piece for on this topic draws extensively on the work of GM Watch editor Jonathan Matthews and is best read on the web page for the multiple links:

Lord Taverne, chairman of lobby group Sense About Science, has done a GM-promotional for Monsanto.

The video can be seen via:

Transcript of the interview here:

In the video Taverne claims that Bt cotton is "benefiting small farmers all over the world"! This in spite of countless reports of the crop's damaging agronomic and economic failure in countries like Indonesia, India and South Africa.

Although Taverne heads Sense About Science, he has no background in science. One well-known scientist told GM Watch, "This self-promoting joker has neither sense nor science, and for an opinion on GM we may as well consult our milkman. He may well be more sensible."