The EU GM Battle Goes in the Next Round…

… or, alternative title: “Can anybody explain how the EU works?”

Have you heard the news? The European Commission is set to approve a new variety of genetically modified corn (a variety called Pioneer 1507 which was developed jointly by Dow Chemical and DuPont) despite the fact that 19 out of 28 countries oppose its introduction. Though the Commission declared the variety as safe, Greenpeace for example fears that its resistance to glufosinate ammonium, a strong herbicide, would lead to an increased use of such agrochemicals, with dire consequences for butterflies and moths and ultimately human health. On the other hand, some countries argue that since this variety is already being approved as animal feed in the EU, prohibiting its production within the continent’s borders would only hurt their farmers’ competitiveness in the global marketplace. Besides the pro- and contra-opinions on this particular crop, I found it particularly interesting that the decision of approving it happened against the clear popular sentiment prevalent in Europe – so let’s analyze policy-making in a European context for a change!

Spain is one of the largest producers of genetically modified corn, much to the chagrin of neighboring France, one of the largest opponents, who fears cross-border contamination.
Image by Pau Planas, via Flickr CC.

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The Seed Empires of Today

(via; click through for a larger image/to zoom in) This is really scary to me. Within my economics background (and despite the fact that I don’t always agree with all the axioms we learn there), such a concentration of any particular industry is generally seen as bad news. “Oligopolies” (a situation where a small … Continue reading The Seed Empires of Today

Sunday Reads – The Glyphosate Debate and “Agent Orange Corn”

Remember my last post that was defending genetic engineering when done right? Well, as you know I try to keep my blog as impartial as possible and look at things from multiple perspectives, which is why this post is all about the potential consequences of genetic engineering done wrong.

What is the right path towards responsible agricultural innovation?

In particular, I have two articles for you to read over your Sunday evening tea and/or Monday morning coffee – one from the New York Times that reflects on farmers’ misgivings on the herbicide Glyphosate, which is one the main ingredients of Monsanto’s weed killer Roundup; and another one on the possible next frontier in GMO and agro-chemical use, namely the development of 2,4 D – resistant corn and the subsequent use of this herbicide on fields around the world. The main controversy attached to this: 2,4 D was one of the components of Agent Orange, the defoliant and herbicide used by the US military in the Vietnam war which was linked to cancer and birth defects.

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The World Food Prize Winners 2013 – Anybody Surprised?

Have you ever heard of the World Food Prize? It is supposed to be an alternative ‘Nobel Prize for Agriculture’ that honors “outstanding individuals who have made vital contributions to improving the quality, quantity or availability of food throughout the world“. The 2013 laureates have just been announced, and have caused a splash – since they are leading biotechnological researchers working in the higher echelons of Monsanto, Syngenta and the like.

The World Food Prize has been awarded every year since 1987.
Image by C.VanHook, via Flickr CC.

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GMO Labeling Laws: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

This morning, I found an exciting piece of news in my inbox: “Connecticut Passes Nation’s First GMO Labeling Law“! That should be a cause of celebration, especially after the industry-financed defeat of a similar law in the California polls. However, wait until you hear all the stipulations attached to the bill. The main big catch: Connecticut’s bill won’t enter into force until at least four other states from the Northeastern region (spanning New England as well as New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania) also adopt a labeling provision. The entire population covered by such laws must amount to 20 million people. And at least one of the other states has to border Connecticut (meaning it would have to be Rhode Island, Massachusetts or New York). Um, what?

Connecticut citizens have long asked for their right to know about the contents of their food. Here some protesters with Senator John McKinney.
Image by SRO Photos, via Flickr CC.

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Sunday Read: Biotech Diplomacy

This Sunday, if you have an hour, I have a thoroughly interesting report for you to read. The NGO Food and Water Watch just published a document called “Biotech Ambassadors“, in which they analysed the 250,000 U.S. State Department cables that were publicized through Wikileaks (which represented around one tenth of all State Department cables between 2006 and 2009). Their finding: 926 U.S. State Department cables from 113 countries between 2005 and 2009 discussed agricultural biotechnology and genetically engineered crops. 

Biotechnology is an important research area for the US agricultural sector (even as here shown at Disney’s!), and clearly also of significant importance for its diplomacy.
Image by Scott R. Smith, via Flickr CC.

The main purpose of these communiques seemed, according to Food and Water Watch, to create a “concerted public relations strategy by the State Department to improve the image of biotech crops overseas, coordinate with biotech seed companies and press foreign governments to adopt probiotech policies“.

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Bowman vs. Monsanto: Upheld.

The decision that has been eagerly awaited by a great number of people might disappoint just as many. I covered the Bowman vs. Monsanto case earlier when the oral hearings were made, and commented that it didn’t seem to look too good for Mr. Bowman’s case. This impression has turned out to be true: in a unanimous decision, the US Supreme Court this morning decided to uphold the lower court’s ruling and ruled against Vernon Bowman, declaring that he violated Monsanto’s intellectual property rights by regrowing second-generation seeds.

What are farmers allowed to do with their soybeans?
Image by Carol Von Canon, via Flickr CC.

For a more in-depth analysis of the background, feel free to revisit my original post, but here is the short version: Vernon Bowman is a farmer from Indiana who bought soybean seeds from a grain elevator (which is not the usual way to get seeds, since they will be a mix of varieties and thus of heterogeneous quality), planted them, and then used Monsanto’s Roundup Ready pesticide to kill off all other non-GMO seeds, leaving the Roundup-resistant ones to be planted. This is extremely unconventional, but a great example for a patent-law case study. Under normal patent law, there is the Doctrine of Patent Exhaustion that lets you use the patented item any way you desire once you buy it – including to resell it. Once a company has sold its item, it thus cannot  claim patent infringement on subsequent uses (and owners) of that item.

Technically, that is what happened: other farmers bought Monsanto’s seeds, grew them, sold them to the grain elevator, and Bowman purchased them. What was in question now is whether Mr. Bowman was free to use the second-generation seed anyway he liked, including to plant them.

According to the Supreme Court, the answer is no.

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