News Round-Up: Monsanto, Water, Fish Farms

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Monsanto's Last Roundup

In 2003, after losing nearly $2 billion the previous year, Monsanto bet its corporate life on a genetically modified future, much of which would be built on GM seeds for corn, soybeans, cotton, and other crops that could survive being sprayed with the company's brand-name herbicide Roundup. It was a good bet. Between 2003 and the end of 2007, shares soared by more than 1000 percent.

But it looks like the ride may be over. Last week, the gigantic seed and agricultural chemical company announced dramatically lower-than-predicted profit expectations, laying much of the blame on sluggish sales of Roundup. Its once high-flying shares are now down 40 percent from last year's levels. Monsanto told Reuters that it would "drastically narrow" its Roundup portfolio, which alone brought in nearly $2 billion in profit in 2009.

Although so-called Roundup-Ready crops have recently come under pressure from scientists because they lead to the creation of herbicide-resistant weeds, the reason for lower sales was competition from much cheaper generic products, mainly manufactured in China, based on Roundup's active component, glyphosate.

This is the second time in two years that Monsanto has backed away from a fundamental building block of its GM business. In 2008, it sold Prosilac, the trade name for the artificial bovine growth hormone rBST, to Eli Lilly and Co. after consumer pressure caused many leading retailers to stop carrying dairy products from cows treated with the GM hormone, which increases milk output.

Explaining his decision to downplay Roundup last week, Monsanto Chairman Hugh Grant told Reuters, "By reducing the uncertainty associated with Roundup, we free Monsanto to grow on its fundamentals. What matters to our long-term growth is our seeds and [genetic] traits business, which is on track."

That may be true. But if Mr. Grant looks down the track, he might see an obstacle or two there as well. The U. S. Department of Justice and some state governments are looking into anti-trust allegations, and their crosshairs are aiming directly on the very fundamentals Mr. Grant now wants to emphasize.

Bottled Bacteria

Along with doses of the potentially hormone disrupting plastic bisphenol-A, bottled water contains another ingredient you might think twice about swallowing--bacterial contamination.

Researchers at C-crest laboratories in Montreal bought and tested several popular brands of bottled water (they declined to say which ones). More than 70 percent of the samples tested exceeded the safe levels for bacteria set out by United States Pharmacopia, an agency that sets standards for consumer products. The good news is that none of the bacteria were of the sort that normally cause illness in healthy humans. The bad news was that some of the bacteria counts were in excess of 100 times the limit.

Gulp!

Off-Shore Aquaculture: There Had to Be a Catch

As oil continues to befoul the Gulf of Mexico, US. Senator David Vitter (R-LA) introduced a bill last week that may prevent another ecological disaster in the area.

The new law would require a three-year study on the impact of off-shore aquaculture's potential environmental impacts before any permits can be issued, dealing a blow to an attempt by the Obama administration to fast-track deep-water aquaculture outside the normal channels of environmental review.

Attempts to allow open-water aquaculture in the Gulf have had a brief but ignominious history. In 2008, frustrated by failed attempts to get off-shore aquaculture approved through normal channels within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) due to lobbying by environmental groups and serious questions about safety from its own Government Accountability Office, the Bush White House decided to give oversight of offshore aquaculture to the Minerals Management Service (MMS), which has responsibility for overseeing off-shore oil drilling activity and is the same group recently in the news for its "oversight" of BP's practices. The justification was that abandoned drill platforms would make ideal sites for fish farms. Those attempts came to nothing when the Inspector General produced a report claiming that MMS employees drank alcohol, consumed cocaine, smoked marijuana, and had sex with the very officials in the oil industry they were supposed to be overseeing.

Under Obama, the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Council last fall presented NOAA with a recommendation that allowed for off-shore fish farms. A loophole in the regulations says that if NOAA fails to act on a Fisheries plan before a set deadline, the plan goes into effect automatically. The deadline came and went. Guess what NOAA failed to do.

Vitter's bill would put a hold on NOAA's rush to farm fish offshore. "It's clear that the marine environment, particularly off the coast of Louisiana, cannot handle any more stress as it begins its recovery from the ongoing oil spill," Vitter said in a statement.

Some would add that the beleaguered Gulf was ill-equipped to handle additional stress before the spill.

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.
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