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What a Scientist Didn’t Tell the New York Times About His Study on Bee Deaths

Katherine Eban, Forbes/CNN
Few ecological disasters have been as confounding as the massive and devastating die-off of the world’s honeybees. The phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) — in which disoriented honeybees die far from their hives — has kept scientists, beekeepers, and regulators desperately seeking the cause. After all, the honeybee, nature’s ultimate utility player, pollinates a third of all the food we eat and contributes an estimated $15 billion in annual agriculture revenue to the U.S. economy.

The long list of possible suspects has included pests, viruses, fungi, and also pesticides, particularly so-called neonicotinoids, a class of neurotoxins that kills insects by attacking their nervous systems. For years, their leading manufacturer, Bayer Crop Science, a subsidiary of the German pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG, has tangled with regulators and fended off lawsuits from angry beekeepers who allege that the pesticides have disoriented and ultimately killed their bees. The company has countered that, when used correctly, the pesticides pose little risk.

A cheer must have gone up at Bayer on Thursday when a front-page New York Times article, under the headline “Scientists and Soldiers Solve a Bee Mystery,” described how a newly released study pinpoints a different cause for the die-off: “a fungus tag-teaming with a virus.” The study, written in collaboration with Army scientists at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center outside Baltimore, analyzed the proteins of afflicted bees using a new Army software system. The Bayer pesticides, however, go unmentioned.

What the Times article did not explore — nor did the study disclose — was the relationship between the study’s lead author, Montana bee researcher Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk, and Bayer Crop Science. In recent years Bromenshenk has received a significant research grant from Bayer to study bee pollination. Indeed, before receiving the Bayer funding, Bromenshenk was lined up on the opposite side: He had signed on to serve as an expert witness for beekeepers who brought a class-action lawsuit against Bayer in 2003. He then dropped out and received the grant.
(10 October 2010)

What Monsanto’s fall from grace reveals about the GMO seed industry

Tom Philpott, Grist
… I did take note of Andrew Pollack’s Oct. 4 New York Times story on the recent plight of genetically modified (GM) seed giant Monsanto, long-time Wall Street darling and bête noire of the sustainable food movement.

… How did Monsanto go from the from Wall Street hero to Wall Street doormat?

According to The Times’ Pollack, Monsanto’s troubles are two-fold: 1) the patent on Roundup, Monsanto’s market-dominating herbicide, has run out, exposing the company to competition from cheap Chinese imports; and 2) its target audience — large-scale commodity farmers in the south and Midwest — are turning against its core offerings in genetically modified corn, soy, and cotton seed traits.

I agree with Pollack’s diagnosis, but I want to add a third and even more fundamental problem to the mix: Monsanto’s once-celebrated product pipeline is looking empty. As I’ll show below, its current whiz-bang seeds offer just tarted-up versions of the same old traits it has been peddling for more than a decade: herbicide tolerance and pest resistance.

… Here’s what I think, from years of listening to industry critics like Gurian-Sherman and the Center for Food Safety’s Andrew Kimbrell: It is one thing to splice a particular trait like herbicide or pesticide resistance into the corn genome. You isolate the gene in an organism like Bt that kills insects, splice it into the corn genome, and watch it express itself.

But transforming a crop’s way of taking up water and fertilizer — the goal of engineering crops that can withstand drought and use nitrogen more efficiently — are infinitely more complex. These intricate processes developed through millions of years of evolution. They don’t involve a single gene, but rather groups of genes interacting in ways that are little understood.

… From my perspective, what we’re seeing is signs that GMO technology is much cruder and less effective than its champions have let on. After decades of hype and billions of dollars worth of research, much of it publicly funded, the industry has managed to market exactly two traits. More devastating still, it has failed on its own terms: it has not delivered the promised dazzling yield gains.
(12 October 2010)

Russia backs away from plans to break up the unique Pavlovsk seed bank

Marie Jégo, Guardian Weekly
A backlash over this summer’s wildfires has derailed plans to redevelop the unique open-air gene bank established by the botanist Nikolai Vavilov outside St Petersburg

The Vavilov gardens sprawl down an exposed, gently sloping hill: 500 hectares of fertile soil planted with fruit trees, berries and flowers. This haven of biodiversity is located near Pavlovsk, about 30km south of St Petersburg, the site of a palace where tsar Paul I (1754-1801) liked to spend the summer. Hidden behind rusty fences and rampant weeds, the garden with its 12,000 plant species is an extraordinary place. It is the “open-air gene bank” for the Institute of Plant Industry founded in 1926 by the geneticist Nikolai Vavilov and based in St Petersburg.

But this unique collection is under threat. A federal housing agency is waiting impatiently for permission to auction off 91 hectares of the precious land, which should sell for about $33m. Developers are eager to make a killing by building cottage-style homes for rich buyers.

The 300-strong staff of the institute are in a state of shock. Since April the federal housing agency has been demanding they move out of the relevant plots. The first auction, due to be held on 23 September, has been postponed until at least the end of this month after widespread protests. “It makes me sick to think the bulldozers are going to destroy my collection of plum trees,” says Olga Radchenko, a slim woman with spectacles, wearing a lab coat and gumboots.
(12 October 2010)