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GM news escalates: ‘whitewashing’ glyphosate, Monsanto papers, Michael Gove persuadable?

12 Nov

Der Spiegel reports that a court in San Francisco ordered U.S. agrochemical giant Monsanto to provide internal emails as evidence after about 2,000 plaintiffs demanded compensation from Monsanto in class-action suits. They claim that Roundup has caused non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of lymph node cancer, in them or members of their family.

More than 100 documents have revealed that Monsanto’s strategies for ‘whitewashing glyphosate’ have been revealed in internal e-mails, presentations and memos. They suggest the company concealed risks, making their publication a disaster for the company. The matter is also likely to be a topic of discussion at Bayer, the German chemical company in the process of acquiring Monsanto.

“The Monsanto Papers tell an alarming story of ghostwriting, scientific manipulation and the withholding of information,” says Michael Baum, a partner in the law firm of Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman, which is bringing one of the US class actions. According to Baum, Monsanto used the same strategies as the tobacco industry: “creating doubt, attacking people, doing ghostwriting.”

On October 11th, the European Parliament’s Environment and Agriculture committee held a public hearing on The Monsanto Papers. 

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Despite this, the BBC reports that an EU vote has failed to resolve a controversy over the use of glyphosate, the world’s biggest-selling weedkiller. Glyphosate was introduced by US agrochemical giant Monsanto in 1974, but its patent expired in 2000, and now the chemical is sold by various manufacturers.

The European Commission said the vote fell short of the majority needed to renew the license for five years when it expires December 15, as only half of the 28 member states voted for its proposal. “Given that a qualified majority could not be reached … the result of the vote is ‘no opinion,'” said the commission, the EU’s executive and regulatory arm. An EU appeal committee will now try to rule on the issue. A qualified majority requires that 55% of EU countries vote in favour, and that the proposal is supported by countries representing at least 65% of the total EU population.

The UK was among the 14 states backing the Commission position on glyphosate. Nine voted against – including France and Italy. Germany was among the five who abstained.

But a reader sends the information that the environment secretary, Michael Gove, now says the UK will back a total ban on insect-harming pesticides in fields across Europe . . . Perhaps he can be persuaded to ban human-harming, resistance-forming glyphosate as well.

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Will Delhi University’s Dr Deepak Pental eventually agree with his British-based counterpart that GM crops are not ‘the answer’?

31 Oct

In July, India’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) – the government’s regulator for transgenic products – recommended GM mustard for “consideration for environmental release and cultivation”.

GM food has long been actively opposed by activists and politicians in India because of fears that it could compromise food safety and biodiversity. Some experts have also questioned claims that GM crops are more productive than normal varieties. Bt cotton production has declined and pests are proliferating.

There is also political opposition: the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS – national volunteer organization) and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, both of whom share the ruling party’s ideology also oppose GM food and want to promote local varieties instead.

First Post reports that Dr Mira Shiva, widely respected for her medical work with children, wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi endorsed by 34 doctors and medical experts from across the country.

She asked him to reject the “environmental release” application for the genetically modified (GM) mustard crop. Dr Shiva said the nation should not be forced to face the risks and dangers associated with GM mustard and gave a detailed and scientific explanation of its probable impacts on health. One point:

“There is ample scientific evidence available that GM foods (often in combination with herbicides that are used on GM crops which are mostly herbicide tolerant given that 81% of the GM crop extent world over is planted to herbicide tolerant GM crops) result in numerous adverse health impacts starting from allergies, to impaired immunity, organ damage, affected growth and development of an organism, reproductive health problems, and even carcinogenic effects.”

Similar objections are voiced at length on the website of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, an international association of physicians and other professionals interested in the clinical aspects of humans and their environment, which provides research and education in the recognition, treatment and prevention of illnesses induced by exposures to biological and chemical agents encountered in air, food and water.

The Hindustan Times now reports that GEAC has deferred approval of the commercial release of the genetically modified mustard developed by the Delhi University-based Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants – or ‘frozen’ it, according to Reuters.

 

 

 

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Encouraging lack of enthusiasm for GM technology at China’s national congress

21 Oct

Those who totally oppose all GM adoption in China because of concerns about the damage caused by the herbicides and pesticides used with the crops and a loose coalition of left-wingers, environmentalists and retired officials will be encouraged by the lack of enthusiasm for GM technology at this week’s national congress of China’s Communist Party.

Lucy Hornby in Beijing, writing in the FT, says that Mr Xi has ‘historically fudged’ his position on GM — urging advocates to be “bold in research, careful in promotion”.

Ms Hornby notes that the coalition had written letters to the top leadership last year opposing ChemChina’s purchase of Swiss seeds and agrochemicals group Syngenta. Reuters put the number of signatories at 400.

Currently – despite US Dow Chemicals’ persistent and energetic lobbying – only GM papaya is planted on a small scale in China, due to domestic fears that foreign GM technology poses a security threat. In addition, at present (June 17th report) GM cotton is grown in China and GM animal feed is imported. Very few genetically modified foods are allowed on the market in China and labelling GM foods is strictly enforced there.

The safety of GMOs is widely debated in China through traditional media and the emerging online social media, where the public expresses deep concerns about the safety of GMO foods.

In 2015, there was a report of a conference on “GMOs and National Security” in Beijing, where scholars warned that the issues relating to GMOs were not just about science or technology, but also about food security, ecological security, and even national security.

A study of a GM grain carried out in China in 2012 caused great concern to the public; a US researcher and her team were accused of feeding Chinese children a GM grain, golden rice, and measuring the effects without telling their parents.

Chinese researchers are vying to promote new plant strains they have developed, while not revealing whether they are genetically modified or developed using traditional breeding practices. Many are grown in demonstration fields but have not been commercialised.

Frank Ning is the head of ChemChina’s rival Sinochem, which markets some Monsanto products. He said that the future direction of Chinese agriculture is the gradual improvement of seed quality and more targeted application of fertiliser and pesticides, which are big sources of soil and water pollution in China:

“Sinochem has transformed. We used to be just a sales operation: selling seeds, selling fertiliser. Now we are a modern agricultural platform: service oriented, promoting better seeds and teaching people to use less fertiliser.”

So far, so good.

 

 

 

 

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Forty-six farmers spraying Monsanto’s GM Bt cotton died after inhaling the pesticide

14 Oct

Pradip MaitraHindustan Times, reports that in Vidharba, 46 farmers growing Monsanto’s Bt cotton died after inhaling poisonous pesticide whilst spraying the crop.. As pests had become resistant to pesticides formerly used, stronger formulations were being used with little or no protection – as Devinder Sharma points out in an earlier post.  

Most of the deaths were reported from Yavatmal, a major cotton-growing district that has often been in the news for farmers’ suicides.

More than 500 others have inhaled the poisonous spray and fallen sick, and are admitted in various hospitals. A few have already lost their vision, hearing or speech. More may die during treatment. As the death toll continues to rise, the chief minister Devendra Fadnavis ordered an inquiry under a special investigation team (SIT) to probe the matter.

The Quality Control of the state’s agriculture department on Wednesday raided 12 different godowns of pesticide companies and sealed those stocked to prevent further sales, seizing pesticides worth Rs 14.31-crore from Akola in western Vidarbha.

The Maharashtra State Agriculture Mission chairman Kishore Tiwari demanded a ban on chemical farming and encourage organic farming in the region. Tiwari, who is camping in Yavatmal after the incident, dubbed the entire episode as “genocide” and demanded to book the concerned multi-national manufacturers and concerned department, in this regard.

Tiwari has appealed to the state government to stop the use of harmful products to put an end to farmer fatalities and give compensation of Rs 5-lakh to the victims’ families. He alleges that the deaths are due to the vested interests of the regulatory officials in the agriculture department and administration’s negligence.

 

 

 

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“Playing with poison” – pesticides in India and Europe

11 Oct

The report on the sustainable use of pesticides adopted today by the Commission takes stock of progress made by the EU Member States in applying measures to reduce the risks and impacts of pesticides. It covers a wide range of topics such as aerial spraying, information to the public or training of professionals. The report indicates insufficient implementation of the Directive on the sustainable use of pesticides and Integrated Pest Management systems, in which various control methods are combined to limit the use of chemicals.

Commenting on the report, Vytenis Andriukaitis, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, said: “I know first-hand that citizens are concerned about the impact of the use of pesticides on their health and the environment. We take these concerns into consideration and we are working with the Member States to achieve sustainable use of pesticides in the way we grow and produce our food. I will continue encouraging and supporting Member States in their task of implementing the measures to reduce risks derived from the use of pesticides”.

A few days earlier Devinder Sharma (New Delhi), writing in the Orissa Post, remembered a field trip in the 1980s, organised by the Pesticides Association of India:

“Taking me around the crop fields, they showed me the protective gear that the pesticides industry was providing to farm workers engaged in pesticides spraying. It was so reassuring to see farm workers spraying the crop dressed up in protective clothing – hand gloves, face mask, a cap and in gumboots”.

Nearly 40 years later, he has been shocked to read a news report of 50 farm workers dying of suspected pesticides poisoning and another 800 admitted to various hospitals in Maharashtra. About 25 have lost their eyesight, and an equal number are on life support system. After activists highlighted the tragedy, the Maharashtra government has belatedly launched an inquiry. It has also announced an ex-gratia grant of Rs 2 lakh to the nearest kin of the deceased.

 Sharma: the next time you see a farm worker spraying the crops, just stop your vehicle and watch. Chances are you will see him without any protective gear/clothing

The Maharashtra tragedy primarily occurred because the Bt cotton crop had failed to resist the dreaded bollworm pests for a couple of years now as a result of which farmers resorted to sprays of deadly cocktails to curb the insect menace.

“This poisoning adversely affects the poorest of the poor, often leading to fatalities or permanent disabilities, and society is not even remotely bothered”, Sharma comments.

Since the sprays are invariably done by daily wage workers, very few farmers ensure that the labourers take precaution. They push the labourers to complete the job as quickly as possible, and are least bothered about the safety and health of the workers. The pesticide residues that seep into the body take time to show the harmful impact, and by that time the labourer has finished the job, taken his money and gone. Most of the time, pesticides poisoning is not even considered as a possible cause when these labourers have to be taken to the hospital.

After describing the most favourable times and conditions for administering pesticides and advocating that companies which already provide hand gloves, should also place a cap and protective face mask in every package. Sharma adds that farmers should be directed to purchase gum boots for the labourers. And that pesticides companies and agricultural departments should be directed to jointly organise training camps every fortnight on the use and application of harmful pesticides.

International standards recommend three grades of full body protective clothing (left), to suit the danger levels of the pesticide being applied.

Most importantly he believes that agricultural scientists must now shift the focus to crops which require less or no application of chemical pesticides.

For example, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, considered to be a Mecca for rice research, has established that “pesticides on rice was a waste of time and effort in Asia“ and has gone on to suggest that farmers in the Central Luzon province of the Philippines, in Vietnam, in Bangladesh and in India have shown that a higher productivity can be achieved without using chemical pesticides.

He ends by asking, in view of these findings, why haven’t agricultural universities recommended a complete end to the use of chemical pesticides on rice, commenting that this failure to act defies any and every scientific logic.

 

 

 

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The effects of agro-chemicals have been largely ignored by regulatory systems

22 Sep

Richard Bruce has drawn attention to news of an article published in the journal Science, which records the findings of Prof Ian Boyd, a chief scientific adviser to the UK government’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and his colleague Alice Milner, who also works there on secondment. They find:

“The current assumption underlying pesticide regulation – that chemicals that pass a battery of tests in the laboratory or in field trials are environmentally benign when they are used at industrial scales – is false. The effects of dosing whole landscapes with chemicals have been largely ignored by regulatory systems. This can and should be changed.”

Spraying pesticides near homes and gardens: the Ecologist, Georgina Downes’ February article.

The scientists’ article also criticises the widespread use of pesticides as preventive treatments, rather than only when needed.

The UK government has repeatedly opposed increased European restrictions on widely used insecticides that are linked to serious harm in bees, but a partial ban was backed by other nations and introduced in 2013. However, the environment secretary, Michael Gove, said in July that changes to pesticide regulation were being considered: “Certainly, it is the case that anyone who has seen the [recent] scientific evidence must inevitably contemplate the need for further restrictions on their use.” After Brexit, he said: “Informed by rigorous scientific analysis, we can develop global gold-standard policies on pesticides and chemicals.”

A March UN report which denounced the “myth” that pesticides are necessary to feed the world was severely critical of the global corporations that manufacture pesticides

It accused them of the “systematic denial of harms”, “aggressive, unethical marketing tactics” and heavy lobbying of governments which has “obstructed reforms and paralysed global pesticide restrictions”.

Research also indicated that 78% of farms would be equally or more profitable when using less pesticide of all types

Prof Dave Goulson, at the University of Sussex, led research published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Plants, which analysed the pesticide use, productivity and profitability of almost 1,000 farms of all types across France. By comparing similar farms using high or low levels of pesticides, the scientists found that 94% of farms would lose no production if they cut pesticides and two-fifths would actually produce more. The results were most startling for insecticides: lower levels would result in more production in 86% of farms and no farms at all would lose production.

Prof. Goulson said: “While we have a system where farmers are advised by agronomists, most of whom work on commission for agrochemical companies, then inevitably pesticides will be massively overused. Even the few independent agronomists struggle to get independent information and advice to pass on to farmers . . . The UK has no systematic monitoring of pesticide residues in the environment and gives no consideration to safe pesticide limits at landscape scales; the lack of any limit on the total amount of pesticides used and the virtual absence of monitoring has meant that it can take years for the impacts to become apparent. This can and should be changed”.

Alice Milner concludes: “We want to start a discussion about how we can introduce a global monitoring programme for pesticides. It can take years to fully understand the environmental impact.” Many readers would welcome more urgency – to put it mildly. Richard comments, “Many readers would welcome more urgency; Richard comments: “A bit late in the day to spot the obvious, surely?”

 

 

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Out in the open: Monsanto’s involvement in the retraction of the Séralini paper

22 Sep

Claire Robinson reports that internal Monsanto documents released by attorneys leading US cancer litigation show that Monsanto attempted to suppress a study showing adverse effects of Roundup herbicide. The full report may be read here.

She writes: “The study, led by Prof GE Séralini, showed that very low doses of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide had toxic effects on rats over a long-term period, including serious liver and kidney damage. Additional observations of increased tumour rates in treated rats would need to be confirmed in a larger-scale carcinogenicity study”.

The New York Times has published some of the emails mentioned by Claire. In the documents released by the American law firm, Monsanto scientist David Saltmiras admitted orchestrating a “third party expert” campaign in which scientists who were apparently independent of Monsanto would bombard the editor-in-chief of the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology (FCT), A. Wallace Hayes, with letters demanding that he retract the study. In one document, Saltmiras reviews his own achievements within the company, successfully facilitating numerous third party expert letters to the editor which were subsequently published, alleging numerous significant deficiencies, poor study design, biased reporting and selective statistics employed by Séralini. Another Monsanto employee, Eric Sachswrites in an email about his efforts to galvanize scientists in the letter-writing campaign.

Sachs refers to Bruce Chassy, a scientist who runs the pro-GMO Academics Review website (and has ‘form’)

Sachs writes: “I talked to Bruce Chassy and he will send his letter to Wally Hayes directly and notify other scientists that have sent letters to do the same. He understands the urgency… I remain adamant that Monsanto must not be put in the position of providing the critical analysis that leads the editors to retract the paper.”   Chassy (left)was the first signatory of a petition demanding the retraction of the Séralini study and the co-author of a Forbes article accusing Séralini of fraud. In neither document does Chassy declare any link with Monsanto. But in 2016 he was reported to have taken over $57,000 over less than two years from Monsanto to travel, write and speak about GMOs.

The disclosed documents show that the editor of Food and Chemical Toxicology, A. Wallace Hayes, entered into a consulting agreement with Monsanto in the period just before Hayes’s involvement in the retraction of the Séralini study.

Clearly there was a conflict of interest between Hayes’ role as a consultant for Monsanto and his role as editor for a journal that retracted a study determining that glyphosate has toxic effects. The study was published on 19 September 2012; the consulting agreement between Hayes and Monsanto was dated 21 August 2012 and Hayes is contracted to provide his services beginning 7 September 2012.

A Monsanto internal email confirms the company’s intimate relationship with Hayes (right). Saltmiras writes about the recently published Séralini study: “Wally Hayes, now FCT Editor in Chief for Vision and Strategy, sent me a courtesy email early this morning. Hopefully the two of us will have a follow up discussion soon to touch on whether FCT Vision and Strategy were front and center for this one passing through the peer review process.” Monsanto got its way, though the paper was subsequently republished by another journal with higher principles – and, presumably, with an editorial board that wasn’t under contract with Monsanto.

Some regulatory bodies have backed Monsanto rather than the public interest. In fact, the EU is considering dispensing with the short 90-day animal feeding studies currently required under European GMO legislation.

Now that Monsanto’s involvement in the retraction of the Séralini paper is out in the open, FCT and Hayes should issue a formal apology to Prof Séralini and his team. FCT cannot and should not reinstate the paper because it has been published by another journal. But it needs to draw a line under this episode, admit that it handled it badly, and declare its support for scientific independence and objectivity.

 

 

 

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