Monsanto: it's all coming home to roost (14/5/2004)

Monsanto's difficulties don't stop with its massive wasted investment in GM wheat globally, GM beet in Europe and GM anola in Australia, nor in its main rival moving against its US corn market...

Monsanto: it's all coming home to roost
The Business Times, May 13, 2004

THE giant American corporation spearheading the development of genetically modified (GM) food and growth hormones is suddenly under fire in several countries.

First, Monsanto announced a 50 per cent cutback in the sales of its GM bovine growth hormone in late February. The cuts followed a rare admission by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that the drug, branded as Posilac, had violated sterility standards. The FDA's admission comes on top of the fact that Posilac has been one of the biggest-ever consumer food safety issues. The controversy over Posilac has raged in the US since the mid-1980s. Posilac has been on the market since 1994. More than 20 per cent of American dairy cows receive Posilac injections every two weeks in order to get them to yield more milk.

Monsanto's rbGH hormone, the key ingredient in Posilac, was the first major artificial method of enhancing food output to win FDA approval. But the hormone raised concerns in three areas: was it safe for human consumption?; was it safe for animal consumption?; and was it subjected to strict quality control?

The controversy was stirred up last November when, during a routine FDA inspection at the plant in Austria where the hormone is produced, violations of sterility codes were discovered. Monsanto admitted that a small number of the product was contaminated with bacteria. It also appears that the FDA erred in the mid-1980s when it did not impose a mandatory test for rbGH. In spite of the lack of such a test, Monsanto and US government officials have claimed that there is no difference in milk from untreated cows from that produced by rbGH-injected cows.

A few years ago, the FDA launched a defence of its policy through a 10-page document underlining that rbGH was safe. In time, it became apparent that the greatest human safety issue stemming from the consumption of milk from rbGH injected cows centred on a secondary hormone called IGF-1. The danger is that an increased dosage of growth hormones results in proliferation of IGF-1, spurring higher levels of metabolism in the body.

Medical journals have published research on the link between IGF-1 and the appearance of cancer. Some IGF-1 occurs naturally in cows, but data reveals that higher IGF-1 levels are found in rbGH-injected cow's milk than in normal milk. It is against this background that Monsanto's cuts in production of Posilac took place. Finally, some caution is being exercised, but the controversial drug continues to be widely used.

In a second blow to Monsanto, a court hearing is under way in Chicago centering on alleged price-fixing by Monsanto, but the case has wider ramifications than that, and recent events reveal that Monsanto's links run far deeper. On Jan 10, a judge in a Monsanto price-fixing trial in Chicago was asked to remove himself from the case owing to conflict of interest arising from the fact that he previously worked for a law firm that represented Monsanto and had been listed as a lawyer for the company. The class action suit alleges that Monsanto held frequent meetings with its key competitors and persuaded them to raise the price of GM seeds. Monsanto has admitted having meetings with executives of one big firm but insists these were legal discussions about seed-licensing agreements. Monsanto denies the claims made in the class action suit.

In a third setback, Monsanto has stopped selling soybean seeds in a major agricultural-producing nation, Argentina, because it cannot turn a profit. In mid-January, the company made the announcement, citing a massive black market for GM seeds that made it impossible for it to recover its investments. The reverses suffered in Argentina, the world's third-largest soybean producer, have forced the company to abandon research in new varieties for the local market.

A fourth blow was delivered when one of Monsanto's prized projects to develop GM crops for Africa failed. Three years of experiments have revealed that GM sweet potatoes, engineered to resist a virus, were just as vulnerable as ordinary varieties. In a major embarrassment for Monsanto, conventional breeding has produced a high-yielding variety both quickly and more cheaply than its GM counterpart championed by Monsanto. Moreover, the GM field trials have cost Monsanto, the World Bank and the US government about US$6 million over the last 10 years.

The failed project was touted as an instance of how GM crops would revolutionise agriculture in Africa. One of the causes of the failure was identified by Aaron de Grassi of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, who said: 'There was too much rhetoric and not enough good research.'

Toronto-based Harish Mehta contributed this article to BT and writes on environmental and IPR issues.

GM canola backs out of Australia
By Richard Black BBC science correspondent

The biotechnology company Monsanto is withdrawing plans to grow genetically modified canola (oilseed rape) in Australia.

The company says that recent legislation prohibiting the use of GM crops means further investment is unjustified.

The news comes just two days after Monsanto announced it was withdrawing its GM wheat globally.

read on at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3712241.stm

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