White House ignores landmark cancer report; Europe restricts Monsanto; Syngenta in PR panic; Dole dirty deals in Nicaragua

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Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)

A Weekly News Update on Pesticides, Health and Alternatives
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Support Panups!July 16, 2010


Cancer report: White House disappoints scientists again

Cancer reportScientists conducting research with public policy implications report that politics is still trumping science under the Obama Administration. "We are getting complaints from government scientists now at the same rate we were during the Bush administration," said Jeffrey Ruch, a lawyer who heads an organization representing scientific whistle-blowers, to the Los Angeles Times. Government scientists were hopeful in Obama's first weeks as the President directed his administration to "guarantee scientific integrity throughout the executive branch." Yet from national reviews of toxic chemicals to development in the Florida Everglades and oil and gas drilling in Alaska, concerns of federal scientists continue to be brushed aside.

The latest example involves the President's Cancer Panel report, Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now. After reviewing the latest scientific evidence on environmental causes of cancer, the Bush-appointed scientists on the Panel concluded that human cancers could be significantly reduced by eliminating exposures to environmental carcinogens. In early May, the Panel delivered a letter with the final report strongly urging Mr. Obama to use the power of his office to “remove carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water and air.” A group of public health experts met with White House officials following the report's release, and were sorely disappointed with the lack of plans to respond to the scientific findings. “Our sense is that the recommendations in a remarkable report are being actively ignored by the Administration,” reports PAN board member Dr. Ted Schettler of the Science and Environmental Health Network, in a joint report on the meeting with his colleagues Dr. Sandra Steingraber and Dr. Richard Clapp. “A great opportunity to prevent cancers through better environmental protections may be lost.”

Dr. John P. Holdren, President Obama's Science Advisor and Director of the White House Office on Science and Technology Policy, told the Los Angeles Times that stronger policies on scientific integrity are "coming soon."

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Europe restricts Monsanto's patent policing

NonsantoA ruling by Europe’s highest court last week has the potential to limit the scope of gene patents held by companies like Monsanto. The European Court of Justice ruled that DNA patents only apply to live plants (not derived products such as soy meal), “when the DNA is performing the function for which it was originally patented,” according to Nature. The ruling comes as a result of a suit by Monsanto against Dutch companies who were importing soy meal from Argentina – where Monsanto doesn’t hold a patent and farmers can grow RoundupReady soybeans (designed to withstand heavy applications of Monsanto’s flagship herbicide, Roundup) without paying any of the licensing agreements or fees imposed on American and European farmers. After Monsanto found traces of its RoundupReady DNA in soy meal imported from Argentina to the Netherlands, the company filed suit in a Dutch court, demanding seizure of the imported soy meal. The Dutch court asked for a ruling, but Monsanto decided to settle out of court for an undisclosed amount after a preliminary opinion indicated that they would probably lose the suit. The European Court of Justice decided to proceed with its ruling in order to clarify the European Union’s biotechnology directive, which was passed in 1998.

To be sure, Monsanto had hoped for a broad interpretation of the law, but the court’s decision restricts patent enforcement to what is known as purpose-bound protection, and said that patent protection, “is not available when the genetic information has ceased to perform the function it performed in the initial material from which the material in question is derived.” The court’s support of a narrow interpretation of biotechnology patent law strikes a blow to Monsanto’s strategy of aggressive patent enforcement. The company has said “The ECJ decision is very limited and will have no impact on Monsanto’s global Roundup Ready soybean business.”

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Syngenta in a PR panic

Boy at water fountainWith the controversy over atrazine's safety in a nonstop media maelstrom, Syngenta's PR tactics are getting more and more frantic. A year ago the New York Times ran an exposé on how the company's flagship herbicide has pervasively contaminated Midwestern water supplies, and in its wake newspapers large and small have been tracking the fate of the weed killer. Just last week, a Huffington Post article chronicled the EPA's over-reliance on industry-sponsored studies in its current safety review of atrazine. The week before several papers covered the contamination of a Missouri town's water supply with atrazine levels sufficiently high to cause authorities to advise residents not to drink or cook with it.

In response to all this negative attention, Syngenta is rallying its troops to deploy deceptive messaging to the public. LegalNewsLine.com quotes a Syngenta spokesperson as saying "EPA has stated that activist pressure and media reports prompted this unplanned evaluation of atrazine," while the EPA actually says that the review was prompted by "the new body of scientific information as well as the documented presence of atrazine in both drinking water sources and other bodies of water." In the same article, Gilbert Ross from the chemical industry front group American Council on Science and Health is quoted promoting a conspiracy theory as the explanation for EPA's interest in atrazine: "We believe [EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson] is cooperating with, if not spearheading, a broad-based activist agenda to implement an official anti-chemical approach which has no basis in protecting anyone's health, nor doing anything measurable or perceptible for the environment, but is designed to promote a political anti-chemical, anti-business agenda."

Earlier this week, the "Triazine Network" (an industry front group charged with protecting triazine pesticides from regulation) released an inflated analysis of the economic consequences of an atrazine ban by University of Chicago economist Don Coursey. Coursey's previous analysis -- which was commissioned by Syngenta -- was thoroughly debunked in a peer-reviewed article by Tufts economist Frank Ackerman, and his latest work builds on this flawed foundation. Coursey predicts massive job losses and several billion dollars in lost revenue. Both conclusions are at odds with analyses by the EPA and USDA, as well as with the experiences of farmers in Europe, where atrazine was banned years ago with negligible effects on yields or on the agricultural economy. Coursey's latest analysis draws criticism from some observers in the usually sympathetic farm press, with Richard Keller, editor of AgProfessional, writing "How many times can the ag industry cry wolf?" 

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Dirty Dole dealings surface in Nicaraguan sterilization case

Banana workerThe world’s largest fruit and vegetable grower continues efforts to sidestep its responsibility to workers who were harmed by decades of exposure to toxic pesticides while working on Dole's banana plantations. Dole's latest attempts involve allegations of fraud in a court case appearing before the Los Angeles Superior Court. According to Associated Press, Dole is seeking to have the 2007 verdict from the Tellez vs. Dole thrown out, having produced anonymous whistleblower witnesses who allege that lawyers from Nicaragua and Los Angeles recruited plaintiffs to lie about having worked for Dole on a banana plantation in the '70s and '80s and about their sterility. The judge who presided over the original case in 2007 dismissed two similar cases in 2009 after Dole claimed that the plaintiffs were paid by their attorneys, and that only one of the 11 had ever worked on a banana plantation.

The issue at hand is Dole’s use of the highly toxic pesticide dibromochloropropane (DBCP), commercial name Nemagon. In 1977, EPA banned DBCP on all fruit besides pineapples when it became clear that DBCP was directly linked to male sterility. But Dole continued to use it through 1980 in Nicaragua, exposing tens of thousands of workers there and in other Central American countries. In a 2007 case against Dole, the jury awarded 6 of the 12 plaintiffs $3.2 million in compensatory damages and later added $2.5 million in punitive damages. But in 2008 those punitive damages were reduced to $1.58 for four workers on the reasoning that Dole used, but didn’t market, the pesticide. Lawyer Steve Condie, who now represents the 6 plaintiffs who stand to lose their compensation if the verdict is thrown out, said last week, “There is no question that there were fraudulent plaintiffs, but my clients are all legitimate. They were sterilized.” He argued in court that Dole had bribed its whistleblower witnesses, and that the sterility tests had not been faked as Dole claimed, but rather, that some of them men had partially recovered from the damage caused by DBCP. Condie also pointed to one witness who was brought to court but never testified, because Dole refused his demand for $500,000 at the last minute. Outside of court, a Dole attorney admitted that Dole relocated witnesses to Costa Rica and provided housing, jobs, and a stipend. The Nicaragua Network reports that several such whistleblower witnesses have recanted their claims of fraud and revealed that Dole bribed them to testify.

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