Thursday, October 29, 2015


Thu Oct 29, 2015 | 1:00 AM EDT

INSIGHT-GMO backlash threatens beet farmers as foodmakers swap sugars

By Chris Prentice
NEW YORK Oct 29 (Reuters) - America's sugar beet growers are under siege as U.S. food companies increasingly shun genetically modified (GMO) crops.
In the past seven years, the farmers - many in Minnesota, North Dakota, Michigan, and Idaho - have all switched to GMO seeds created by Monsanto Co and sold by others as they seek to increase yields and cut costs. Genetically Modified Organisms include plants that have had been created through gene splicing - the introduction of DNA from a different species to make a new one.
Now, as public sentiment moves against GMO crops and imports of cane sugar rise, sugar beet growers have seen their share of the U.S. sugar market slip to the smallest on record. Critics believe GMO crops contribute to the industrialization of farming and question promises of safety.
Beets' share of all U.S. sugar deliveries - which represent total demand to major users and customers - fell to less than 41 percent of the U.S. total of 11.8 million tons (10.7 million tonnes) in the last fiscal year, a record low, down from 47 percent of 10.4 million tons in the 2008 crop year, the year the biotech seeds were introduced on a commercial scale, according to U.S. government data dating from 1992.
Beets will account for almost 60 percent of this year's 8.8 million tons of sugar production in the United States. Any difference between what's been produced and what's been sold is generally inventoried and/or sold the following year. Though it's not clear that the erosion in demand comes from reaction against GMO food, industry sources said the trend is beginning to pressure the beet industry.
Food manufacturers are taking seriously the backlash from consumers, including Millennials, the generation of people now in their 20s and 30s, who are perceived to care more about the ingredients on their plates.
Companies including Hershey Co, Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc, Unilever Plc subsidiary Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc and General Mills Inc have pledged to ditch GMO ingredients in some products, bowing to customer pressure.
"Millennials care about the ingredients that are in our products," said Eric Boyle, director of responsible sourcing at Hershey. "Simple ingredients are a long-term trend. This is where things are going."
Hershey will stop using beet sugar in its Kisses and Milk Chocolate bars, two of its best-known products, by the end of the year.
Vermont has passed a law, due to come into effect next year, which requires food with GMO ingredients to be so labeled. It's the first such law in the nation and a move that some industry experts think could drive consumers toward organic and other non-GMO foods.
The U.S. protects the domestic sugar market through a network of import quota and marketing allotments, and guarantees U.S. growers a premium that's now about 4 cents a pound above global prices, which have been depressed due to oversupply.
Refined cane sugar typically trades at a slight premium over refined beet sugar. Raw sugar costs about 25 cents a pound in the United States.
It's easy to see why beet farmers made the switch to biotech. Within two years of the seed's launch in 2008, they were used in almost every U.S. beet farm, boosting yields to record highs and slashing herbicide costs. For most beet farmers, returning to conventional seeds is inconceivable.
"If we had to go back to conventional seeds, our cooperative couldn't survive," said Rebecca Larson, an agronomist with Western Sugar Cooperative in Denver.
Sugar from beets and sugar from cane look and taste the same. Proponents of GMO sugar say that the product is safe and identical to its non-GMO competition. Even so, consumers are turning to organic and less processed foods, said Billy Roberts, a senior food and drink analyst at Mintel.
"People are interested in avoiding Frankenfood and foods they don't understand," Roberts said.
For beet farmers, the situation has gotten so bad that they are boosting their lobbying efforts in Washington and launching their first major offensive to combat growing public opposition through a social media campaign.
Western Sugar, one of eight sugarbeet co-operatives in the United States, is already seeing a dent in sales as consumers turn away from GMO.
"We are seeing an impact," said Larson. "A lot of our customers are decreasing their orders because they want non-GMO sugar. It feels like it's more and more by the day." She declined to give specific details on volumes of sales lost or on customers that have moved away from their sugar.
As the debate over GMO foods drives customers away from beet sugar, it's also exposed a schism with the farmers who grow sugar cane in Florida, Louisiana, Hawaii, and Texas.
Cane growers have become the main beneficiaries of the shift away from beet sugar and many are embracing the trend. There are no genetically-modified cane seeds.
ASR Group, the world's largest vertically-integrated cane sugar refiner, owned by the politically connected Fanjul family of Florida, labels products such as household brand Domino Sugar as GMO-free through the Non-GMO Project, an organization that certifies and audits food.
AmCane Sugar Refining LLC and Cumberland Packing Corp, whose packets of "Sugar In The Raw" are used in thousands of Starbucks Corp's stores across America, have also signed up for the non-GMO seal.
Cane and beet farm groups declined to discuss the polarizing effect the GMO issue has on their industry, one of the nation's most powerful farm lobby groups in Washington.
Luther Markwart, head of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association that represents country's 10,000 beet farmers, acknowledged that on this issue, unlike most, sugar beet farmers are going it alone.
"This is simply a beet issue," he said.
The split is a contrast from the industry's usual cohesive stance on issues that affect farmers from policy to consumer tastes - two years ago, it fought off efforts to dismantle the country's generous farm subsidies and the industry has waged a successful decades-long campaign against a long-time foe, high-fructose corn syrup.
Markwart said the beet industry ignored the push against genetically-engineered foods for too long.
"It was never something that seemed like you needed to spend a lot of time on," he said.
That's no longer the case. He has enlisted 18 women, largely farmers and wives of farmers and including Larson, to defend sugar on Twitter and Facebook and persuade mothers that GMO seeds are safe. He said that because the message is being delivered by women, that consumers will trust it.
Last month, the group flew to Monsanto's St. Louis headquarters to learn about the seed technology and sharpen their social media skills, Markwart said.
The industry is throwing more cash at the issue too. This year, the U.S. Beet Sugar Association, a sister organization which represents sugar-beet processors, has started lobbying on biotechnology for the first time.
It spent almost $1 million in the first half of the year on issues including GMO labeling, according to U.S. Senate records reviewed by Reuters.
GMO critics "are trying to drive a wedge between the farmers and the consumers," said Laura Rutherford, a North Dakota-based farmer and the first recruit to the social media campaign. "We need to start pushing back."
(Reporting by Chris Prentice. Editing by Josephine Mason and John Pickering)


Suspended USDA scientist says agency tried to block his research into harmful effects of pesticides

Jonathan Lundgren says his superiors began to impede his research and resultant publications more than a year ago
Here’s more on the story we reported yesterday about the USDA scientist who was suspended after complaining the agency was trying to censor and block his research on the harmful effects of pesticides.

As the article below points out, Lundgren has published work suggesting that (GM) soybean seeds pretreated with neonicotinoid pesticide produce no yield benefit to farmers, who pay extra for the seeds.

Suspended USDA researcher alleges agency tried to block his research into harmful effects of pesticides on bees, butterflies

By Steve Volk
Washington Post, October 28 2015

A prominent Agriculture Department scientist is alleging that he was suspended after complaining that the agency was blocking his research into the harmful effects of pesticides on pollinators, such as bees and butterflies.

In a whistleblower complaint filed Wednesday, Jonathan Lund­gren, an entomologist and 11-year veteran of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, says his supervisors retaliated against him by suspending him initially for 30 days before reducing it to 14 days.

The complaint, filed with the federal Merit Systems Protection Board, says his superiors began to “impede or deter his research and resultant publications” more than a year ago. Lundgren has also previously alleged that the agency tried to prevent him from speaking about his findings for political reasons and interfered with his ability to review the research of other scientists.

The trouble began after he published research and gave interviews about the effect that certain common pesticides were having on pollinators, according to a statement by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which filed the complaint on his behalf. The whistleblower complaint says that Lundgren’s “work showed the adverse effects of certain widely used pesticides, findings which have drawn national attention as well as the ire of the agricultural industry.”

Over the past decade, there have been dramatic declines in the population of honeybees, which play an essential role in pollinating about one-third of the food Americans eat.

Christopher Bentley, a spokesman for the Agricultural Research Service, declined to discuss the specifics of Lundgren’s case but said the agency is committed to maintaining scientific integrity.

“We take the integrity of our scientists seriously, and we recognize how critical that is to maintaining widespread confidence in our research among the scientific community, policymakers and the general public,” Bentley said in a statement.

In suspending Lundgren, PEER says USDA cited two infractions: He provided some of his research to a scientific journal without proper approval, and he violated official travel policies in connection with lectures he delivered in Philadelphia and Washington.

In his complaint and related documents released by PEER, Lundgren says the submission of the journal article — which concerned the non-target effects of clothianidin, a widely used nicotine-based pesticide, on monarch butterflies — was not inappropriate. He calls the travel violations an inadvertent paperwork error.

Lundgren has published work suggesting that soybean seeds pretreated with neonicotinoid pesticide produce no yield benefit to farmers, who pay extra for the seeds. He wrote a paper on the potential hazards of “gene silencing” pesticides, which he said require further study to determine whether they could harm other organisms. He also peer-reviewed a report published by the Center for Food Safety called “Heavy Costs,” which was critical of neonicotinoid pesticides for providing little to no benefit to farmers and adversely affecting bees.

Lundgren, a 2011 recipient of the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, has given interviews on aspects of his research, including a widely distributed interview with Minnesota Public Radio, and spoke before the National Academy of Sciences. According to the complaint, his suspension was based in part on the paperwork associated with that trip.

“Having research published in prestigious journals and being invited to present before the National Academy of Sciences should be sources of official pride, not punishment,” PEER staff counsel Laura Dumais said. “Politics inside USDA have made entomology into a most dangerous discipline.”

The whistleblower filing culminates months of speculation about Lundgren in the small community of commercial beekeepers and researchers studying their decline. Earlier this year, Lundgren’s dispute with his superiors became evident in a scientific journal.

A paper published in Environmental Science & Policy, with the sole listed author Scott W. Fausti, includes the following footnote: “I would like to acknowledge Dr. Jonathan G. Lundgren’s contribution to this manuscript. Dr. Lund­gren is an entomologist employed by the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS). However, the ARS has required Dr. Lund­gren to remove his name as joint first author from this article. I believe this action raises a serious question concerning policy neutrality toward scientific inquiry.”

That paper suggests that the combination of federal mandates for corn ethanol production and the advent of genetically modified corn crops have produced a host of unintended adverse consequences, including rising environmental pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, stronger pest resistance and inflated corn prices.

Increasing pest resistance is of particular concern for beekeepers, whose bee populations have been declining at rates deemed “unsustainable” by Darren Cox, president of the American Honey Producers Association. Increased resistance creates a need for stronger pesticides, bringing potential harm to bees. “Beekeepers have been heavily involved in ensuring that all scientists are free to conduct unfettered research,” Cox says.

In the statement, ARS spokesman Bentley said: “As one of the world’s leading promoters of agriculture and natural resources science and research, USDA has implemented a strong scientific integrity policy to promote a culture of excellence and transparency. That includes procedures for staff to report any perceived interference with their work, seek resolution and receive protection from recourse for doing so.”

But Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director, said Lundgren’s whistleblower complaint adds to the debate about scientific freedom. He said USDA is essentially saying: “‘You can do whatever science you want, as long as it has no real-world applications.’ The rules allow for scientists to be silenced based on the content of their science.”

Volk is a freelance writer.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015


GMO Testing Pilot Project to Ensure Compliance with National Organic Program
Published October 26, 2015

It has been said that “California is the capital of organic.” The strength of that statement is a tribute to our state’s and our industry’s ability and willingness to lead, create and innovate.

California’s organic growers have put in the work, the time, and the investment to farm according to a set of practices that sets them and their crops apart. And the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) and its State Organic Program (SOP) have worked alongside those growers since 2003 to make sure consumers can trust the integrity of organic agriculture and the farmers who grow it.
We see these efforts reflected in consumer preferences, at the farmers’ markets and the supermarkets, and on the labels of a growing number of products that are certified organic. For our growers, there is a certain amount of pride involved in this accomplishment, and achieving it has not come quickly or easily. It has been the result of substantial investment, careful planning and a healthy helping of persistence.
The community of organic growers works daily with the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) and its State Organic Program (SOP) to ensure the integrity of this vibrant, still-developing segment of our agricultural industry. The SOP staff and the state’s network of county agricultural commissioners are responsible for verifying the organic certification of vendors at certified farmers markets, sampling organic produce for pesticide residue testing, and other activities that support organic growers and their expanding market. The SOP also applies regulatory sanctions and provides due process to ensure consistent application of the law.
These same farmers have approached CDFA to develop a pilot project to conduct “blind” sampling to detect genetically modified organisms (GMO) in organic products. Growers, through their representatives on the California Organic Products Advisory Committee (COPAC), have been working with our SOP in recent months to design and implement this project. We are putting the finishing touches on contracts, and we expect to begin sampling soon for a period of one year.
“The members of our advisory committee believe this is an important step for organic farming in California,” said Melody Meyer, a COPAC member who serves as vice president of Policy and Industry Relations at United Natural Foods. “We have worked with the staff of our State Organic Program to develop a pilot project that will help ensure compliance with the national organic standards. That’s good for growers and policymakers, and it will also give retailers and consumers added confidence in the decisions they make in the marketplace.”
One important factor that has expedited our progress toward the launch of the pilot project is simply that the National Organic Program (NOP) already prohibits the use of GMOs in organic products: “Compliance with the organic standards entails that operations have verifiable practices in place to avoid contact with GMOs. Since organic certification is process-based, presence of detectable GMO residues alone does not necessarily constitute a violation of the regulation. The NOP relies on organic certifiers and producers to determine preventative practices that most effectively avoid contact with GMOs on an organic operation.” (Policy memo 11-13).
The pilot project is being funded from the existing SOP budget, as recommended by COPAC, and does not impact the funds that are dedicated to ongoing regulatory efforts by CDFA staff and through contracts with county agricultural commissioners’ offices. Our existing efforts include more than 1200 inspections and up to 300 samples for pesticide residues each year, along with more than 90 complaint investigations.
For our state’s organic farmers who are used to the way we already test for pesticide residues, this pilot project will follow similar protocols, with the exception that samples collected and tested during the pilot project will be “blind” – that is, the results will be collected in aggregate form to show us whether and how much GMO material is present in our crops overall, without identifying individual farms or farmers. That’s because the goal of the project is simply to gain a basic understanding of the presence and extent of any GMOs in the state’s organic crops. To ensure uniformity of the testing process, all sample collection will be done by CDFA staff during the pilot project.
The collection and testing of samples will be conducted on a limited number of raw agricultural organic products with known risks for GMOs, including alfalfa, canola, corn, soy, zucchini and summer squash, cattle feed, and seeds/seed crops. That list could be expanded during or after the pilot project.
A final report on the findings from the pilot will be issued upon completion of the project, estimated to be late in 2016. These findings would be used by COPAC and the SOP to determine whether and how to proceed with any further work in this arena. Options would include incorporating the inspections into the ongoing SOP activities and under county contracts, expanding the list of commodities, considering additional labs/testing facilities, etc.
As we all work through this pilot project together, it is important to be mindful that the growers themselves stepped forward to make this happen. That kind of commitment and initiative is worth noticing. You have our commitment that CDFA will conduct this pilot project carefully and responsibly.
We look forward to this next step in the evolution of our oversight of organic agriculture in California. It truly speaks to the integrity of our farmers, and that’s something we can all be proud of.
By Karen Ross, Secretary, California Department of Food and Agriculture
and Jenny Lester Moffitt, Deputy Secretary, California Department of Food and Agriculture