Pages tagged "Agrichemical"
An eye-opening look into a shadowy industry group that is shaping food policy around the world.
An eye-opening look into a shadowy industry group that is shaping food policy around the world. International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) is "an American nonprofit with an innocuous sounding name that has been quietly infiltrating government health and nutrition bodies around the world." Their work might be familiar to you.
After decades largely operating under the radar, ILSI is coming under increasing scrutiny by health advocates in the United States and abroad who say it is little more than a front group advancing the interests of the 400 corporate members that provide its $17 million budget, among them Coca-Cola, DuPont, PepsiCo, General Mills and Danone.
The organization, which championed tobacco interests during the 1980s and 1990s in Europe and the United States, has more recently expanded its activities in Asia and Latin America, regions that provide a growing share of food company profits. It has been especially active in China, India and Brazil, the world’s first, second and sixth most populous nations.
Over the past decade, ILSI has received more than $2 million from chemical companies, among them Monsanto, which was bought by Bayer last year. In 2016, ILSI came under withering criticism after a U.N. committee issued a ruling that glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s weed killer Roundup, was “probably not carcinogenic,” contradicting an earlier report by the W.H.O.’s cancer agency. The committee, it turned out, was led by two ILSI officials, one of them Alan Boobis, the vice president of ILSI-Europe who has done consulting work for the chemical sector.
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Photo by ilja Freiberg on Unsplash
GMO grass is creeping across Oregon
Missteps by agribusiness giants allowed the invasion. Now they're off the hook for cleanup.
In the failing light of an unusually warm January day, Jerry Erstrom and I race along a dirt track behind Rod Frahm’s white pickup. Here, near Ontario, Oregon, a stone’s throw from the Idaho border, Frahm grows onions, squash and corn. But today, he wants to show us something he’s growing against his will: a genetically engineered turfgrass designed for golf courses.
Frahm slams on the brakes next to a dry irrigation ditch, jumps out and yanks up a clump, winter-brown but laced with new green shoots. Beneath his gray fedora, his dark eyes glint with anger as he holds out the scraggly specimen. “I have it in a lot of my ditches,” he says.
Just to be sure, Erstrom produces a plastic vial the size and shape of a .22 caliber cartridge. He stuffs a few blades into it, adds water, and mashes the mixture with a wooden rod, like a bartender muddling mint. Then he inserts a plastic strip and hands it to me. It’s like a pregnancy test: One line confirms it’s working, while the other detects a gene that unmasks the intruder.
We wait, batting away gnats and breathing in the aroma of onions, whose colorful skins litter the county roads. Then the results appear: This is indeed the variety of creeping bentgrass that agribusiness giants Scotts Miracle-Gro and Monsanto engineered to tolerate the herbicide Roundup.
The grass arrived here uninvited, after crossing the Snake River from old seed fields in Idaho. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which vets most new genetically engineered products, had not approved the plant’s release. But in 2010, landowners discovered it growing in great mats throughout the irrigation system that stretches like a spider web across Malheur County.
Creeping bentgrass has not created a catastrophe, as some anti-GMO groups warned it would. But it thrives in canals and ditches, where it collects sediment and impedes water flow, and it has proved difficult to control. That makes it a headache for Frahm and other growers — like the heavy snows that crushed their onion sheds last year, and the host of other weeds they already battle.
No one believes the bentgrass can be fully eradicated, either. And as long as it’s around, some fear it could contaminate non-GMO crops and invade natural areas. “It just scares the bejeezus out of me,” says Erstrom, a retired Bureau of Land Management natural resource specialist who chairs the Malheur County Weed Advisory Board.
So far, Scotts has led the battle to rein in its escapee, with some recent success. But in a series of decisions over the last several years, the USDA has relieved Scotts of future responsibility in return for the company’s promise not to market the grass. Scotts has pledged not to turn its back on the problem, but after this summer, it no longer has to bankroll cleanup efforts. Now, Erstrom and others say there are no legal safeguards to keep the task — with its reported $250,000 annual price tag — from becoming the burden of local growers and the state and county governments.
To critics, the case laid bare glaring weaknesses in the country’s oversight of genetically engineered, or GE, crops. While biotechnology’s defenders say the process is already overly rigorous, others have long argued that regulations, which haven’t changed significantly since 1987, don’t do enough to protect agriculture and the environment. Neither the USDA nor any government agency must weigh the full social, economic and ecological impacts of GE products, says Jennifer Kuzma, co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University. “There’s really no place that’s looking at this broadly from a risk-benefit perspective.”
In Malheur County, landowners must reckon with the consequences. Erstrom says the USDA’s handling of bentgrass has forced a polarized community to grapple with a problem it didn’t create. “They took it out of Scotts’ hands and dumped it into the laps of the irrigation district and the farmers.”
Photo from Flickr.
A Precautionary Tale: How One Small Town Banned Pesticides, Preserved Its Food Heritage, and Inspired a Movement
It was the first day of two weeks’ voting. The rural alpine municipality of Mals was about to consider a revolutionary possibility – a vote for a “Pesticide Free Mals.” A “yes” vote would end all pesticide use in Mals and therefore initiate a full transition to diversified organic agriculture.The Malsers had awoken to find their township awash with bright yellow sunflowers. The flowers sat in doorways and floated in fountains. Some were painted on manhole covers, others were on sticks in public gardens. Their message was clear. Each sunflower had Ja! (Yes!) boldly printed in its center. The national police ordered them removed, but the flowers mysteriously “regrew” each night until the two weeks’ voting was finished.
This sunflower skirmish was the final exchange in a controversy triggered originally by the appearance of the first industrial apple orchards in Mals. With this new apple monoculture came an influx of highly toxic pesticides. These chemicals, directly and indirectly, posed an existential threat to the traditional rural culture of Mals and to the health and the wellbeing of its citizens. Yet to challenge “Big Apple” was to challenge the myth of progress — the nearly universal belief that the uptake of new technology is essential and inevitable.
A Precautionary Tale For All
Philip Ackerman-Leist published A Precautionary Tale in November 2017. Subtitled How One Small Town Banned Pesticides, Preserved Its Food Heritage, and Inspired a Movement, it could not have been better timed. Earlier in 2017, three separate U.S. groups publicly released large digitized chemical document troves (The Poison Papers, Toxicdocs, and the Monsanto Papers). These searchable databases expose not only the extreme toxicity of common synthetic chemicals, many used in industrial agriculture, but the collusion between industry and regulators necessary to keep these chemicals on the market.
The question therefore arises, “How can individuals and communities protect themselves when regulatory systems do not?” A Precautionary Tale provides a creative and inspiring answer.
The European Commission has launched investigation on Bayer’s intended takeover of Monsanto
The European Commission announced on Tuesday that it has launched an investigation on Bayer’s intended takeover of Monsanto.
Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager has expressed concerns that the proposed €56bn takeover will give rise to an oligopoly in the farming industry, rising costs for farmers and consumers. The Commission will announce the result of its investigation by January 8, 2018, Il Sole24 reports.
Monsanto has a bad reputation in Europe, both because of its role in the development and promotion of genetically engineered seeds – arguably increasing bio-dependency of states – but also for the use of controversial glyphosates.
The deal was sealed in September 2016, allowing Bayer to emerge as the dominant market player in the wholesale of both pesticides and seeds, making the company a one-stop shop. At the time, analysts projected a 50-50% chance of gaining regulatory clearance for the takeover.
Farmers lobby groups in Europe and the United States are concerned that market consolidation in the supply industry will mean increased costs. And US authorities are not likely to welcome the move of Monsanto’s head of operations in Europe.
Photo from Flickr.
Twenty-nine states have passed seed preemption laws
With little notice, more than two dozen state legislatures have passed “seed-preemption laws” designed to block counties and cities from adopting their own rules on the use of seeds, including bans on GMOs, according to a list compiled by the American Seed Trade Association. Opponents say that there’s nothing more fundamental than a seed, and that now, in many parts of the country, decisions about what can be grown have been taken out of local control and put solely in the hands of the state.
“This bill should be viewed for what it is — a gag order on public debate,” says Kristina Hubbard, director of advocacy and communications at the Organic Seed Alliance, a national advocacy group, and a resident of Montana, which along with Texas passed a seed-preemption bill this year. “This thinly disguised attack on local democracy can be easily traced to out-of-state, corporate interests that want to quash local autonomy.”
Seed-preemption laws are part of a spate of legislative initiatives by industrial agriculture, including ag-gag laws passed in several states that legally prohibit outsiders from photographing farms, and “right-to-farm” laws that make it easier to snuff out complaints about animal welfare. The seed laws, critics say, are a related thrust meant to protect the interests of agro-chemical companies.
Nearly every seed-preemption law in the country borrows language from a2013 model bill drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The council is “a pay-to-play operation where corporations buy a seat and a vote on ‘task forces’ to advance their legislative wish lists,” essentially “voting as equals” with state legislators on bills, according to The Center for Media and Democracy. ALEC’s corporate members include the Koch brothers as well as some of the largest seed-chemical companies — Monsanto, Bayer, and DuPont — which want to make sure GMO bans, like those enacted in Jackson County, Oregon, and Boulder County, Colorado, don’t become a trend.
Seed-preemption laws have been adopted in 29 states, including Oregon — one of the world’s top five seed-producing regions — California, Iowa, and Colorado, according to the American Seed Trade Association. In some cases, the preemption is explicit, and in others implied and subject to interpretation. In Oregon, the bill was greenlighted in 2014 after Monsanto and Syngenta spent nearly $500,000 fighting a GMO ban in Jackson County. Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences, and Syngenta also spent more than $6.9 million opposing anti-GMO rules in three Hawaiian counties, and thousands more incampaign donations. (These companies are also involved in mergers that, if approved, would create three seed-agrochemical giants.)
Montana and Texas were the latest states to join the seed-preemption club. Farming is the largest industry in Montana, and Texas is the third-largest agricultural state in terms of production, behind California and Iowa.
Monsanto Emails Raise Issue of Influencing Research on Roundup Weed Killer
Documents released Tuesday in a lawsuit against Monsanto raised new questions about the company’s efforts to influence the news media and scientific research and revealed internal debate over the safety of its highest-profile product, the weed killer Roundup.
The active ingredient in Roundup, glyphosate, is the most common weed killer in the world and is used by farmers on row crops and by home gardeners. While Roundup’s relative safety has been upheld by most regulators, a case in federal court in San Francisco continues to raise questions about the company’s practices and the product itself.
The documents underscore the lengths to which the agrochemical company goes to protect its image. Documents show that Henry I. Miller, an academic and a vocal proponent of genetically modified crops, asked Monsanto to draft an article for him that largely mirrored one that appeared under his name on Forbes’s website in 2015. Mr. Miller could not be reached for comment.
A similar issue appeared in academic research. An academic involved in writing research funded by Monsanto, John Acquavella, a former Monsanto employee, appeared to express discomfort with the process, writing in a 2015 email to a Monsanto executive, “I can’t be part of deceptive authorship on a presentation or publication.” He also said of the way the company was trying to present the authorship: “We call that ghost writing and it is unethical.”
A Monsanto official said the comments were the result of “a complete misunderstanding” that had been “worked out,” while Mr. Acquavella said in an email on Tuesday that “there was no ghostwriting” and that his comments had been related to an early draft and a question over authorship that was resolved.
The documents also show internal talk about Roundup’s safety.
“If somebody came to me and said they wanted to test Roundup I know how I would react — with serious concern,” one Monsanto scientist wrote in an internal email in 2001.
Monsanto said it was outraged by the documents’ release by a law firm involved in the litigation.
“There is a standing confidentiality order that they violated,” said Scott Partridge, vice president of global strategy for Monsanto. He said that while “you can’t unring a bell,” Monsanto would seek penalties on the firm.
“What you’re seeing are some cherry-picked things that can be made to look bad,” Mr. Partridge said. “But the substance and the science are not affected by this.”
R. Brent Wisner, a partner at Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman, the firm that released the documents, said Monsanto had erred by not filing a required motion seeking continued protection of the documents. Monsanto said no such filing was necessary.
“Clearly Monsanto’s lawyers made a mistake,” Mr. Wisner said. “They didn’t properly take action to preserve the confidentiality of these documents.”
He added, “Now the world gets to see these documents that would otherwise remain secret.”
Photo from Flickr.
ChemChina completes Syngenta takeover, targets emerging markets
Swiss agrochemical giant Syngenta said on Tuesday it is now officially owned by the state-owned China National Chemical, or ChemChina.
ChemChina Chairman Ren Jianxin, who has been elected Syngenta's chairman, said in a recent interview with The Nikkei that "our aspiration is to create another Syngenta ... and double [its size] in the next 5-10 years."
ChemChina said in February 2016 that it would buy Syngenta for $43 billion. U.S. and European regulators had approved the deal by April.
Syngenta, which generated sales of $12.8 billion last year, plans to expand sales of its agricultural chemicals and seeds in emerging markets through ChemChina's sales channels.
Photo from Flickr.
Monsanto's Influence in Oregon
Corporate Ag Watch: Agrichemical Company Influence in Oregon – Part I
Pesticide maker and biotech crop developer Monsanto is based in Missouri, not Oregon, but they have invested a lot of money here – often through innocuous sounding front groups – to ensure their interests are represented in debates on the regulation of pesticides and genetically engineered crops.
According to publicly available state campaign finance reports, Monsanto has spent nearly $6.4 million on Oregon political campaigns over the past decade. Much of this money – $5.95 million – was spent in 2014 to oppose Ballot Measure 92. Measure 92 was a consumer right-to-know citizen initiative that would have required the labeling of genetically engineered food on store shelves. It ultimately lost by 837 votes out of more than 1.5 million cast.
The second biggest beneficiary of Monsanto political money in our state is the Oregon Farm Bureau Political Action Committee (PAC). The Oregon Farm Bureau PAC has received $133,500 from Monsanto over the past decade, often raised during an annual fundraising golf tournament that the Oregon Farm Bureau uses to raise money for its political activities. The tournament prominently sponsored by Monsanto for many years.
Other major recipients of Monsanto political funds in Oregon include the Oregonians for Food and Shelter PAC ($24,500) and FirstVote PAC ($48,500), which is directed by the staff of Oregonians for Food and Shelter. Oregonians for Food and Shelter is a pesticide advocacy group whose Board of Directors includes representatives of Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow AgroSciences, and DuPont, in addition to the Oregon Farm Bureau and a number of large timber companies.
As the seed industry consolidates, open source breeders hope to preserve important varieties for the farms of the future
The Open Seed Source Initiative (OSSI) is a direct response to the fact that many of the world’s crop varieties are being developed, patented, and sold by the Big Six seed and chemical companies. Five of the Big Six are likely to merge into just 3 very powerful seed and chemical giants (ChemChina & Syngenta, Bayer & Monsanto, Dow Chemical & DuPont), and would own more than half of the world’s seed supply.
In only 80 short years (from 1903 to 1983), the U.S. has lost about 93% of our unique seed varieties to industrial agriculture.
Our food security is at risk. “Having so few people making decisions about what biodiversity is planted on the agricultural landscape is scary. We’ve been shown that when many people rely on too narrow a germplasm pool, we know the risk of plant disease is much higher.” -Claire Luby, plant breeder and executive director of OSSI
Most plant breeding used to take place in the university setting, particularly at Land Grant Universities,which are publicly funded agricultural and technical educational institutions. Now, in many cases, those universities’ influence on the marketplace have been overshadowed by the big seed companies.
As a result, according to a2014 reportfrom Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), the U.S. has lost over a third of its public plant-breeding programs in the last 20 years, and the number of public seed breeders continues to decline. For example, “there are only five public corn breeders left, down from a peak of 25 in the 1960s,” according to the report’s authors.
University seed research is also often tied up by intellectual property restrictions. Under the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, all inventions that come out of universities must go through designated technology transfer offices. so academic breeders don’t often retain the rights to the seeds they breed. In addition, Deppe notes that, “University plant breeders are increasingly having trouble getting access to the germplasm they need to breed new varieties.”
Claire Luby, a plant breeder and postdoctoralresearch associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the executive director of OSSI. She has spent years breeding seeds and studying intellectual property rights, and has released eight open-source carrot varieties through OSSI. Luby says that around a third of all carrot germplasm is private. And while it’s tough to say exactly how much publicly available, unpatented seed exists outside OSSI, the overall trend is alarming.
For one, says Luby, food security is at risk. “Having so few people making decisions about what biodiversity is planted on the agricultural landscape is scary. We’ve been shown that when many people rely on too narrow a germplasm pool, we know the risk of [plant] disease is much higher.”
In response, Deppe, who is on the board of OSSI, says the group wants “to create a protected commons in which at least a substantial part of all the germplasm needed to create new seed crops is kept available for everyone’s use.”
Six companies are about to merge into the biggest farm-business oligopoly in history
Big farms are about to get a lot bigger.
With six agricultural giants on the verge of merging into three separate companies, consumers and farmers are feeling uneasy about the global implications and how it might impact the food system.
Top executives from Bayer, Monsanto, DuPont, Dow Chemical, and Syngenta today (Sept. 20) testified before the US Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, making a case for why federal regulators should approve the mega-mergers, which stand to fundamentally reorganize global agriculture. (Executives from the sixth company involved in the consolidation, China National Chemical Corp., declined an invitation to appear at the hearing.)
The executives in attendance argued that the proposed mergers would combine their companies’ expertise and allow for greater efficiency in serving farmers and consumers. But whether that efficiency is worth the side effects of massive consolidation—possible price hikes and less competition in the marketplace—is an open question. In essence, should people put faith in three big companies to shepherd consumers and farmers into a world that can responsibly feed a growing global population?
Here’s what’s on the table
- On July 20, shareholders at Dow Chemical and DuPont agreed to a $59 billion merger that would bring under one umbrella two of the largest US chemical makers. The deal is awaiting US antitrust clearance.
- On Aug. 22, Chinese state-owned China National Chemical Corp. was cleared by US regulators to proceed with its $42 billion purchase of Swiss chemical and seeds company Syngenta. The deal, subject to US scrutiny because of Sygenta’s American business interests, marks the largest purchase of a foreign firm in Chinese history.
- On Sept. 14, Bayer, the German pharmaceutical and chemical giant, said it had reached an agreement to purchase US seed company Monsanto for $66 billion. If the deal is approved by US regulators, it would create the world’s largest seed and agriculture chemicals company.
The consolidation of these six highly competitive companies into three juggernauts has left many farmers and consumers uneasy. Consumers advocates say they worry the mergers will usher in a “new era of sterile crops soaked in dangerous pesticides.” Farmers worry that less competition in the marketplace will give the merged companies an ability to increase prices of seeds and chemicals—something that would be particularly harmful during a time when US farm incomes are dropping.