Holy crap! You can patent that!?

Well, here we are on February 1st and our catalog is at the printers, keeping us on track to be the latest seed catalog available. Cutting edge. Our catalog may be late, but our website is up to date and we have been hard at work cranking out orders, cleaning seed we grew last year, and planting our gold beets that spent the winter in bags in a cooler. Everything is looking good, no massive floods to wipe out our overwintered crops this year, and the time to start seeds is fast approaching.

Here is a teaser from the new catalog, just to hold you over until you receive it. A number of developments in the past few months inspired Frank to write this piece on plant patenting:

Pant Patents on Common Vegetables                                                    Frank Morton

What We are Up Against

Holy Crap! You Can Patent That!?

I remember the first time I saw the words ‘Utility Patent Applied For’ in a seed catalog description. It was 2008. We had just filed court papers to try to keep GE sugar beet seed production out of the Willamette Valley, and now seed patents had sprouted up in familiar ground. I was stunned. A patent on what? This was not a Monsanto, Dupont, or Syngenta catalog, this wasn’t GE corn or soy being described—this was the catalog I had been ordering seed from since I began farming. This was LETTUCE being described. The time had arrived that only the most paranoid among us would have anticipated in 1980, when I made my first seed order from this catalog, which included a small booklet published by the catalog founder about saving one’s own seed. It was the first seed saving book I ever read. Now, ‘Utility Patent Granted.’ Nobody would be saving seed from these lettuces…

How times have changed. In 1980 there were no patents on life—living organisms were specifically excluded from patent protection at the US Patent Office. The advent of bioengineering changed that by creating a Supreme Court case around whether a gene insertion into a bacterium (to clean up oil spills, the patent proposed) constituted a novel invention. Well, Yes—the Supreme Court decided that moving genes from one unrelated species to another constituted a feat of engineering, and deserved the stamp of novelty as much as any invention. This decision broke the ice for intellectual property incursion into the life sciences, and neither medicine nor agriculture have been the same since.

In 1980 there were two ways to get proprietary rights on plant innovations. Since 1930 a breeder could get a US Plant Patent on trees, roses, fruits, and other perennials that are propagated by cuttings and other clonal methods. The US Congress specifically excluded potatoes (all tubers, in fact) and all seed propagated plants from patent protection. In 1961, European governments and seed interests succeeded in creating an international agreement (UPOV) that allowed for the first intellectual property (IP) rights on plant varieties, but allowed for a “breeder’s exemption,” meaning that protected varieties were still available for anyone to use for breeding purposes. This assured that companies would be able to control the sale of seed varieties that arose from their breeding and development investments, but society would continue to benefit from new crop innovation, much of which originated in publicly funded universities and public breeding programs worldwide. The US created its own Plant Variety Protection Act in 1970, the first protection of seed-propagated plants recognized by US law. This IP protection also contained a breeder’s exemption, allowing for ongoing breeding and research with PVP varieties, but also a “farmers exemption,” allowing farmers to save seed for replanting, and to sell to neighbors—the so called “brown bag exemption” (seed could be sold in unprinted bags).

The Europeans have never allowed the farmer exemption, and have actually maintained prohibitions on the growing or sale of “unauthorized varieties” (any variety not recognized as worthy for inclusion on an official “white list”). If you can imagine commercial horticulture without heirloom varieties and seed saving gardeners and farmers, that’s Europe. The US is a freewheeling seed fair compared to the restrictions of the EU, and it has been pointed out to me that Wild Garden Seed could not have been born in Europe—most of our varieties would be illegal. Frenchman Dominique Guillet and his Kokopelli Seed organization have done the most to reverse EU laws against selling unauthorized seeds (mostly by just doing it and confronting the consequences), but it has meant going against the interests of multinational seed corporations and the French government in Court, and even enduring a police raid and confiscation of property. This is an ongoing battle, but at last report, it appeared that restrictions on unauthorized varieties were being overturned, at least to some degree.

In 1980, as the first GMO bacterium earned its patented credentials in the Supreme Court, PVP vegetables were just being noticed by seed savers. Horticulture Magazine ran a small article—“What is PVP and Why Are People So Upset About It?” People of the time were used to keeping and selling garden pea seeds through catalogs like Abundant Life Seed Foundation, and here was a new thing called ‘Sugarsnap’ (PVP) peas—the best thing since sweet corn—and you couldn’t sell the seeds without a license from the company that owned the variety. Remember, we weren’t yet conditioned to the idea of “ownership of life,” and “the freedom of the commons” was still a persuasive argument. Seeds were considered part of all people’s common heritage, and seeds reproduced themselves. Some pretty righteous people were pretty pissed off for a couple of decades. In hindsight and in fact, the PVP concept and practice is similar to a copyright (but infinitely more expensive, since copyright costs nothing), and I have always been able to understand copyright and publishing rights, having been conditioned to it. PVP covers a complete work of the breeding art—a variety of PVP lettuce is like a finished poem. Anyone can enjoy it, reproduce it for themselves and their friends by voice or copying machine, use it as inspiration, or rearrange the words or letters—but to publish it, sell it, put it on a greeting card, requires permission (maybe money), for 20 years from the time of introduction. This was still not a popular argument in organic grower circles in 2000, but it was made.

The Rise Of Utility Patenting In Plants

A glyphosate-resistant soybean was the first food crop to be genetically engineered, and thereby, in 1985, became the first plant candidate for a utility patent from the US Patent Office. Using the same logic, that GE = Novel Invention, the Patent Office continued to grant plant patents for GE herbicide resistance and Bt-traits in corn, cotton, soy, and canola at an increasing rate throughout the next 20 years. Quietly though, a new trend began with a vaguely appreciated 2001 US Court decision (J.E.M. Ag Supply, Inc. v. Pioneer Hi-Bred) that proposed that conventionally bred varieties were candidates for utility patent protection, and furthermore, the traits of conventionally bred plants were candidates for patenting if they were novel. The complex problem of defining what a novel trait might (or might not) be apparently did not fall upon the Court, and the ambiguity of this has begun to haunt the claims of patents on plants.

In a mental act of denial, I have never fully let the implications of this decision sink in. It is too discouraging to consider for too long at one stretch. The implication of the J.E.M. decision is that every thing, every trait, every breeding technique, that has a utility patent on it is removed from the common breeding pool of agriculture for the duration of the patent. Not just whole varieties, but significant traits, like insect and disease resistance, yield, tolerance to various environmental stresses, colors, leaf shapes and sizes. Utility patented plants, their pollen, genes, or any aspect of the plant, may not be used for any purpose at all (breeding, research, trade, personal use, etc.) without the express permission of the patent holder. This means that useful, perhaps critical, innovations in plant breeding and research (resistance to important pests and diseases, for example), can be monopolized by single parties for 20 years. The consequences of this were more obvious to breeders than to IP lawyers, and complaints have never ceased.

A small group of corporations control the largest portion of the world’s utility patents on plants, and there are big misunderstandings between these players and the public about exactly what these patents cover, and to what extent the bewildering flurry of claims are overreaching rather than legitimate. The worldwide coalition, No Patents On Seeds, reports on several EU Patent Court cases involving challenges to patent applications from public NGOs as well as competitive corporate interests. The grounds for challenge include lack of novelty, lack of originality in the claims, claims made on what are essentially biological processes, the existence of prior art, etc. The outcomes of some court cases have not been a comfort to the challengers, with the courts finding novelty, originality, and invention where challengers did not. Though limiting the reach of some outrageous claims, EU Courts have allowed patents on disease and insect resistance to stand.

But what does it even mean when Syngenta makes a patent claim for “pleasant taste” in a conventionally bred melon? Isn’t this what all melon varieties make some claim to possess? Why is such a patent worth the cost? Can it keep others from describing their melons as “pleasant tasting?” At some point such patents bring to mind Apple’s claim that a rectangle with rounded corners is a novel, patentable, design element. Most people laugh at the idea, but Samsung is paying big money over it after a US Court agreed with Apple. It strikes most plant breeders as obvious that beneficial traits like pest and stress resistance, good flavor and bright colors, high nutrition and glossy leaves, would be combined (their traits would be “stacked”) to create ever more desirable varieties of produce. I am not able to understand, and I have not been able to find a written explanation, why such products of the breeding process are not “obvious to anyone practiced in the art.” Nor can I understand how plant breeding can proceed when I read patent after patent claiming that stacked traits for resistance, color, shape, size, earliness, fruit pH, taste, and brix—as well as the fundamental methods of the breeding process—are claims for novelty, uniqueness, and utility. You may as well patent products that people will swallow after chewing. In fact, that appears to be the bottom line.

Recently, the European Union and its major seed companies seem to have realized that the seed patenting laws that were intended to spur innovation by promising returns on investment in breeding, have instead thrown up barricades to innovation by creating the threat of lawsuits over claims on traits and methods of breeding. The companies themselves are not certain what they own, and they realize that lawsuits over trait infringements could cost more than the patents are worth. Indeed, one source estimates that the average cost of challenging utility patents is $500,000, and the average cost to manage cross licensing agreements between multiple patent holders (in order to allow a challengable breeding project to begin) is $100,000. That is a lot of lettuce. Unlike patents on row crops like corn and soy, the costs of patents and litigation on horticultural seed (vegetables, flowers) are less likely to be justified by the crop base of any one variety. The costs are greater than the potential profits. As a result, seed patent holders in Europe have recently suggested offering breeders rights exemptions to one another, reducing the reach of their claims over a noodle pile of counter-claims, and reducing the effect of the utility patent on conventional plants to what the international varietal protection agreements already do. This appears to be an admission that utility patents are not an appropriate means for managing intellectual property rights on plants.

Seed Nightmare comes to Oregon

Today I am posting a writing by Wild Garden Seed owner Frank Morton, fully explaining the current and immediate canola crisis:

ODA Introduces Seed Nightmare To The Willamette Valley

     Oregon’s Department of Agriculture has made good on it’s determination to shrink the Willamette Valley Canola Control District, despite ongoing objections from Willamette Valley specialty seed growers, seed companies, clover growers and the Clover Commission, fresh market vegetable producers, organic growers, and Oregon Tilth, the State’s largest certifier of organic crops. Each group has its own specific objections to canola, ranging from genetic cross contamination of specialty Brassica seeds, to increased insect and disease pressures for all growers, to weed issues that in turn contaminate clover, grass and specialty seeds with canola seed that cannot be removed from crop. Organic farmers and certifiers are doubly concerned about the introduction of GMO canola, as this opens up multiple routes for contamination of organic foods through seed, animal and dairy feed, and pasturage.

This ODA decision comes as a turnaround to it’s 2009 determination that canola production represents a substantial risk to the specialty seed industry in the Willamette Valley, a $34 million business with global reach. After a three year study involving OSU scientists and specialists in agronomy, weeds, insects, diseases, and genetic drift, ODA Director Katy Coba ordered that a Protected Zone be established to keep canola production out of the area traditionally covered by the Willamete Valley Specialty Seed Association’s pinning and seed isolation maps and associated rules. ODA’s statutory authority to create control areas is based on protecting the agriculture industry from diseases, insects, animals, or noxious weeds that may be a menace. The 2009 rule contained a sunset clause requiring the agency to revisit the rule at the end of 2012.

Instead, in spring of 2012 ODA notified the specialty seed industry that it wished to reconvene the Canola Advisory Committee, and hoped to find opportunities for Willamette Valley growers to produce  canola within the Protected Zone. This left specialty seed producers wondering what had changed in three years that would warrant a change in the pest, disease, cross pollination, seed contamination, or weediness status of canola in relation to other Valley crops. When it became clear that fresh market vegetable and seed interests, including clover growers, were not willing to change their positions from 2009, the ODA representative came back with a threat—either work with the agency to modify the boundaries of the Control Area, or Director Coba would make changes herself, or do away with the Control Area altogether. When the Canola Advisory Committee was next called to Salem, it was told by the same ODA representative that the State Ag Board had voted “unanimously” at their quarterly meeting in Ontario to deliver a “mandate” to the Willamette seed industry that the Canola Control area boundary needed to change in order to provide an opportunity for Valley farmers to grow some canola. No reason was given for a change to the existing rule—it just needed to change.

At this point in the process, ODA became assertive in controlling the negotiations. Each side of the negotiating team was limited to three people (leaving fresh market and organic growers unrepresented), and these people were instructed to keep negotiations confidential between meetings. Clover representatives objected that they needed to convey negotiating terms back to their growers, and a commissioner called the Oregon Department of Justice in to advise the ODA representative that requiring confidentiality in a public process was against the law.

It turns out that this was not the only rule-, ethics-, and truth-bending that ODA has engaged in during the process. Minutes of the State Ag Board meeting where canola was discussed have not been released to the public in the 2 months since that meeting (now the subject of a Freedom Of Information Act request to ODA), but a member of the Board and another witness at the meeting have stated that there was no “unanimous” vote (or in fact, any vote) regarding canola, and there was no Board “mandate” to change the canola rule or boundary set in 2009. There was in fact disagreement on the Board about the wisdom of reversing the rule. Notably, there was no agenda item for canola at that meeting, so most Board members were not prepared to discuss it. None-the-less, the manager of the Rickreal oilseed crushing facility crossed the width of the state to give the Ag Board a 15 minute presentation in favor of changing the canola rules in time for autumn planting. Once these facts became known to specialty and clover seed negotiators, it was clear that ODA was acting in bad faith to force an outcome favoring the introduction of canola into areas where existing agricultural interests will be displaced by canola impacts. Regardless of what specific rules or boundaries may yet come out of the ODA’s canola  introduction to the Willamette Valley, those most affected by the rule change feel railroaded by the process, and the legitimacy of the process is being questioned and challenged.

In a news release made just before 5 pm Friday, August 3, 2012, ODA Director Katy Coba  said, “We are adopting a temporary rule to allow Willamette Valley growers to make important planting decisions by the first of September as requested by both specialty seed and canola growers.” In fact, specialty seed growers did not request a September 1 decision—only canola proponents made this demand, so that they can get a crop in the ground before a public hearing can be held on the issue, which would be a statutory requirement for a permanent rule change.

This press release reminds the public that “ODA created the most recent canola control area through administrative rule in 2009 to protect specialty seed crop production by restricting the growing of canola.” But the release does not go on to explain why ODA thinks this is no longer necessary, or why it has taken such an active role in accomplishing a reversal of the 2009 rule. OSU scientists who were part of the three year canola study advising the 2009 decision were not even notified by ODA that canola was back on the table for introduction into the Willamette Valley. By all appearances, this decision was political–not agronomic, scientific, or caused by any emergency.

The rule does not address the production of genetically modified canola within the protected district. GM canola has been deregulated by the US Department of Agriculture, and so, said Director Coba, “It is not within the purview of ODA to address GM organisms, nor does the agency have the expertise and resources to review federal decisions on deregulations. Since canola has been deregulated by USDA, ODA does not differentiate between conventional and GM canola or treat them differently.” The same cannot be said of seed buyers, who view contamination of seed lots by GMOs very differently than they do contamination by conventional seed or genetics, and who place very different requirements on seed growers at risk for GMO contamination. Brassica seed growers sharing a production area with GM crops will be required to test every seed lot for GMO traits before overseas or organic customers will pay for them. This will place a “gene testing tax” of $300 per seed lot on every Brassica or contamination-prone seed species grown here.

Dr. Carol Mallory-Smith, Ph.D., is the OSU specialist on gene flow between crops, including the movement of GMO traits into non-GMO crop relatives. She has stated in public hearings related to the introduction of Roundup Ready sugar beets into the Willamette Valley (and interviews related to the ongoing escape of Roundup Ready bentgrass in eastern Oregon) that while she is not against the adoption of GMO crops in agriculture, she does not believe that coexistence is possible without contamination of conventional (or organic) crops by their GMO counterparts. Contamination is an inevitability during coexistence. Dr Mallory-Smith was part of the OSU canola study team, but she was not notified by ODA of the pending rule changes to the canola control district. After she was alerted to the impending canola rule reversal, she did go speak to ODA on Monday, July 30, to convey her concerns. Her concerns did not have any influence on the ODA decision to press ahead with canola this time around.

For the Willamette Valley specialty seed industry with its heavy emphasis on valuable Brassica seed crops being grown for a global customer base, coexistence with canola production is an existential issue with a bad prognosis. During the 2009 Canola Advisory Committee hearings, there was one meeting where the entire committee listened to a speaker phone as seed company representatives called in from all over the world to convey their own experiences with canola introductions to their own (former) seed production areas. In their many accents these people all told the same story—in Denmark, Germany, France, Great Britain, Korea, Australia, and Japan there was once a fine seed growing industry, until canola or rapeseed was introduced for oil production. Now they buy from Oregon what they used to grow themselves. Dan Hilburn, ODA plant regulatory administrator, who led the Canola Advisory Committee during 2006-2009, told a meeting of the specialty seed association in January of 2012 that he can still hear one of those voices over the phone saying, “You there in Oregon have yourselves a jewel—don’t blow it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shots from Spring

Well, I am not quite sure what happened the last couple months. We had the gnarliest spring in the past ninety years, complete with three floods, surprise snow storms, and a fair dose of no sun. All that is behind us now after the grand finale this afternoon with a lightning bolt and a deafening thunderclap. No more rain, no more cold, only sun forever, right?

Aaron and myself crack a beer after navigating waist-deep snow in the coast range on a no-work day.

Organizing our Chicory selections

Chicory selections (never mind that two days later the river jumped its banks and Hank and I risked our necks in a tiny kayak attempting to save them blah blah blah)

The scoopmobile, the prized scoopmobile, the valiant, the proud, the defiant, the noble, the scary, scoopmobile! Oh, and some snow.

James dreams of a better Spring, on the coldest/wettest planting day in history.

But at least we still got to eat cake.

 

Right to Know

The Center for Food Safety filed a legal petition last September asking the FDA for labeling of foods that contain genetically modified organisms. Well, the petition now has just shy of 1,000,000 signatures and public statements and has about 6 or so days left. Sign it! Make your public comment! Spread the word! Go here to sign.

Hank, calling everyone he knows, encouraging them to sign the petition.

Organic Farmers v. Monsanto: Things you should know

Dan Ravicher, attorney for the Organic growers, at a rally outside the courthouse

It has been widely reported in the last couple weeks that a Federal judge in New York City has thrown out the OSGATA v Monsanto case, where Organic farmers sued to protect themselves from patent infringement lawsuits by Monsanto. News sources such as the Capital Press printed headlines that read, “Monsanto Beats Organic Lawsuit”, and Monsanto strangely declared it “a win for all farmers as it underscores that agricultural practices such as ag biotechnology, organic and conventional systems do and will continue to effectively coexist in the agricultural marketplace”. Perhaps they forgot that their company was just sued by over 300,000 of those non-biotech farmers. In light of the sentiment that this lawsuit has been defeated, here are some things you need to know about the case:

1. It is not over yet. The plaintiffs have around 30 days to decide whether or not to appeal the federal judge’s decision, and Wild Garden Seed, for one, supports an appeal. Citing the failure of the judge to “address the purpose of the Declaratory Judgment Act and mischaracterize the Supreme Court precedent that supports the farmers’ standing”(Enews Park Forest),  The attorney for the Organic growers side, Dan Ravicher of Public Patent Foundation, had this to say:

“While I have great respect for Judge [Naomi] Buchwald, her decision to deny farmers the right to seek legal protection from one of the world’s foremost patent bullies is gravely disappointing… Her belief that farmers are acting unreasonably when they stop growing certain crops to avoid being sued by Monsanto for patent infringement, should their crops become contaminated, maligns the intelligence and integrity of those farmers.”

Occupy Wall Street joined Organic farmers outside the courthouse in January

2. Protecting farmers from the possibility of being sued by Monsanto for possessing their patented genetic material, inadvertently, is the main aim of the lawsuit, but it has some interesting, lesser-known arguments to defend this. Primarily, that “patents on transgenic seed fail to satisfy the requirement of both the Constitution and the Patent Act that only technology with a beneficial societal use may be patented” (OSGATA v Monsanto Complaint). Additionally, a patent must be “new and useful”, and “not injurious to the well-being, good policy, or sound morals of society”. Ravicher argues that Monsanto has improperly used its patents, and that some of its patents should not be valid at all due to the failure to meet basic standards of patent law.

3. We have a great lawyer. Dan Ravicher is a leader in patent law reform, and is most recently well known for his work on the lawsuit challenging patented breast cancer genes, which resulted in the courts finding the patents invalid. Here is a video of him last year, explaining quite simply why Organic farmers do in fact have standing in the current OSGATA v. Monsanto case:

We Organic farmers are as diverse and resilient as the crops we grow in our fields, and those crops do not give up easily.

Feb. 28. 2012

A sea of possibilities, and Hank, armed to the teeth with a sharpened butter knife to remove those plants with unwanted characteristics.

First test of hardiness: surviving the bumpy ride from propagation house to unheated greenhouse.

 

Incredible, quite edible, no-nonsense, "I can survive the worst flood in farm history", Red Ursa Kale.

James displays his hoeing prowess; the hoe moves so fast my camera cannot capture it clearly.

Cold, hard rain + no rain pants= let's get outta here

No Patents on Seeds: some ideas from Europe

We Oregon and Washington farmers just had a great mid-week idea sharing session at Breitenbush Hot Springs outside of Salem Oregon, where we met up with a lot of farmers we had not seen since last year’s Farmer to Farmer Exchange. We enjoyed workshops,

Hard at work, networking and socializing at the spiral tubs.

great food, and most of all, discussions in the hot healing pools and sauna. Especially when it decided to snow five inches on Tuesday afternoon. We met up with our friends at Uprising Seeds, from Bellingham, Washington, and despite the difficulties of rounding up five seed people long enough to snap a photo, I did manage to arrange this.

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Getting back to the farm, we were welcomed by 300 flats of happy, freshly germinated lettuce and mustard plants. Next week we will have plenty of thinning and making our first selections, getting rid of plants that do not belong.

Mind the minotaur if you stray from the spiral tubs or yurt.

 

We have come across a couple exciting and ponder-inducing morsels from Europe in the past few weeks that we would like to share, hopefully they will get the gears rolling in brains far and wide. The first is from Germany, where last week there was a discussion in Parliament on the problems farmers face due to the patenting of plants and animals. An open letter was sent to members of parliament, with the core request being :  “We ask you to call for an urgent re-think of European patent law in biotechnology and plant breeding and to support clear regulations that exclude from patentability plants and animals, genetic material and processes for breeding of plants and animals and food derived thereof.” The co-signers, and there are a lot, cited market concentration in the seed industry due to patents, higher prices to farmers for using patented seeds, and the negative impact to innovation in plant breeding when genetic material is patented. The plea seems to have fallen on sympathetic ears, because the next day the German Parliament unanimously adopted a resolution against patents on plants, animals, and traditional breeding methods. We need to do the same thing, for we are facing the same difficulties listed by the Germans.

Secondly, we recieved a great video from our friends at Real Seeds in the UK. They have been doing some seed cleaning innovation, and have shared the product of their latest attempt to duplicate an expensive piece of equipment, at home:

Keep it up, folks, together we could soon be building more affordable, scale-appropriate seed equipment and ensuring that corporations do not privatize the genetic resources that have been owned by no one, or everyone, since forever.

2011: A photo odyssey

 

Well, last week we got a decently sized flood out at Gathering Together Farm, and as we are waiting for the waters to seep back into the soil we are cleaning seed and pondering the new season. Part of that process is sharing some of my favorite images/moments of last year, so here we go in no particular order:

 

Strawberry Spinach berries after a good smashing. The dark black on the tarp is the seed, which sinks, while the pulp floats.

Me screening strawberry spinach to remove leaves and stems

A shady afternoon screening session

Radish stomping grounds

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Morning light on drying chicory

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cutting my malting barley plot.

 

 

Half the crew contemplating a truckful of orach, half contemplating the sunflower guardian.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Orach, at varying levels of cleanliness

 

Beginning of the Sucrine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lettuce breeding project

Rafting to work, early in the season

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking down the barrel washer at Hank: removing delicata seed

 

 

 

 

A stout set of smashed squash, supposedly stationed for speedy seed separation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, that seems to cover it from my camera’s perspective, but I know there are more images floating out there somewhere. I will do my best to document more fun things this season. Stay seedy!

Dear USDA,

A little while ago, the USDA came to town to hear public comments on their draft

The author, looking for the reason why Roundup Ready Sugar Beets are not a fully regulated crop.

Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) of Roundup Ready Sugar Beets. It was a full auditorium on the Oregon State University campus, with attendees ranging from Roundup Ready Sugar Beet growers from the Midwest to local organic farmers and concerned citizens. If somehow you missed one of the three nationwide public comment sessions, you still have your chance to speak out online, by visiting the USDA- APHIS website, where you will also find the EIS itself.

For some pointers, here is a summary of what I said at the public hearing:

To USDA-APHIS,

I hardly know where to start with this draft EIS, I found so many points of contention. However, I would like to focus on three main aspects.

First, I would like to address the negative socioeconomic impact on Roundup Ready Sugar Beet (RRSB) growers, who would lose money if the crop is regulated. These impacts are caused in large part by the limited availability of conventional sugar beet seed and corresponding herbicides due to the widespread adoption of a crop that should not have been approved for use before an EIS was completed. The USDA allowed this shift to RRSB, and had the EIS been done when it was supposed to be, economic impacts due to short supply of conventional seed could not have been used as a reason to deregulate. It is unfair to include this issue as a defense for RRSB now.

Secondly, the EIS states that “Total pounds of herbicide applied per acre is expected to be greater under alternatives 2 and 3″, although the number of different herbicides is dropped. I have to disagree with the notion that using glyphosate is an acceptable safe alternative to other herbicides. Consider the European Journal of Agronomy, Volume 31 Issue 3, which deals with issues of “Glyphosate Interactions with physiology, nutrition, and diseases of plants”. In an article entitled Glyphosate and Resistant Crop Interactions with Rhizosphere Microorganisms, the authors document a rise in fusarium and antagonistic bacteria following glyphosate applications, while other articles in the journal document weed population shifts, and negative effects to plant health due to glyphosate’s fundamental restructuring of soil communities. The EIS specifically states that the use of Roundup in the production of sugar beets will have no negative impact on humans, other mammals, and microorganisms, however, I have just referred to several papers that demonstrate this is untrue. More research needs to be done, and all the current research must be taken into account here.

Lastly, there is a recurring claim that genetic contamination is very unlikely when isolation distances are set, the pinning map is adhered to, and all sorts of precautions are taken to keep the RRSB from getting into organic and conventional fields. However, it has been shown over and over that GM traits will get out of even tightly restricted areas. In the sugar beet court case, there is a redacted document listing multiple instances of contamination of sugar beet fields, although the names and information are withheld so that the farmers do not lose business when their customers drop contracts. In the public hearing in Corvallis, Ted Hake of Universal Seed revealed that their company has recorded contamination levels of 20% in last season’s crop. 20% contamination for Universal Seed is no small matter, and is definitely higher than the 0% contamination which the EIS advertises. The point is that this contamination does happen; it has happened under partial deregulation and will happen more if fully deregulated.

Please reconsider the option supported by this EIS, and please look further into scientific research on all aspects of this crop before a regulatory decision is made.

 

Ride the Lawn!

Picture this: You are a large seed and fertilizer company who has been trying to get a glyphosate resistant grass approved for general use for years. The only problem is, genetically modified crops have to go through a regulatory process which is quite slow, and at every corner somebody is just waiting to file a lawsuit. Oh, and also your test plot escapes the assigned area and ends up contaminating the irrigation ditches of nearby farms. Minor issues. You feel like you have been doused in honey; your prize crop is pretty sweet but moving slow and getting stuck on everything. How frustrating!

Until now, that is. Scotts Miracle Gro demonstrated late last week that it is easy to simply side-step the big vat of honey. All you have to do is explain to the USDA that you used nothing in your engineering process that could be considered a “plant pest” and that your glyphosate resistant plant cannot be considered a noxious weed because the conventional form of the plant is not a noxious weed. Voila, no regulation. Easy as pie and quick as a whip, congratulations, you are in business.

Wait, what?

Read “Wait, Did the USDA Just Deregulate All New GMO Crops?” By Tom Philpott, explaining this stunning new concept.

Also, read “Going rogue: USDA may have just opened the GMO Floodgates” By Tom Laskawy.

Also Also, here is the announcement straight from the horse’s mouth: APHIS Kentucky Bluegrass Press Release.