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A Banana A Day...
Eryn Brown, Fortune 14-May-2001
Charles Arntzen, white-haired and engaging, has dropped in on the vaccine
research project he brought to Cornell's Boyce Thompson Institute for
Plant Research back in the mid-'90s. He runs from meeting to meeting, room
to room. The tomato plants in the greenhouse are growing nicely, although
a few have been infested with mites and placed in quarantine. Baby plants
are germinating in the growth rooms- -some withering, others thriving. The
visit is only his first in eight weeks. It's not that he doesn't care
about the mites in the greenhouse or the tomato plants in the growth
rooms. It's just that, with as much chatty energy as he has, the way he
can help most is to be away, pounding the pavement.
For ten years now Arntzen has been evangelizing a new, inexpensive vaccine
(it costs less than 1 cent per dose) that he believes could prevent the
occurrence of hepatitis B, one of the top two causes of cancer in the
developing world. You'd think Arntzen's PR job would be easy (who's
against helping sick people?), but there's a twist: The vaccine he's
championing doesn't come in a pill or in an injection or on a sugar cube.
It's grown in genetically modified fruits--and that scares the heck out of
people. Some of those people are concerned that fiddling with the genes
could make food dangerous to eat. Others worry that genetically modified
crops could disrupt ecosystems if they crowd out or cross- pollinate with
nonmodified crops. So Arntzen--who is convinced the potential benefits
outweigh the risks--has to spend about a quarter of his time trying to
sway skeptics and win the approval and the money he needs to complete his
work. "I'm a cheerleader," he says.
Arntzen, 59, came up with the idea for his vaccine project in 1990, around
the time he took a trip to Thailand and watched a young mother feed a
banana to her infant. A plant biologist, he had just begun to turn his
attention to vaccine research. He knew that injectable hepatitis B
vaccine, which is beyond the means of 40% of the world's population, was
cultured in yeast cells. "I thought, If yeast can do it, why can't a green
plant?" he says. "Why couldn't that mother vaccinate her baby with that
Rejiggering plant DNA to generate vaccine was a far-fetched notion,
associates told him, but not beyond the realm of possibility. The idea has
obvious advantages. Traditional vaccines, cultured in yeast or animal
cells, require expensive purification and refrigeration; plant-based
vaccines do not. Standard vaccines must often be injected; plant vaccines
are simply gobbled down. And even if it sounded crazy at first, within
five years it seemed doable. By 1995, Boyce Thompson researchers, led by
longtime Arntzen collaborator Hugh Mason, had gotten plants to produce an
E. coli vaccine that worked in mice. By 2000 they had performed their
first human trial using potatoes that had been engineered to stimulate
immune responses against the Norwalk virus, which causes intestinal
disease. And today they are analyzing data from human trials of the
hepatitis B vaccine.
But the successes haven't translated into bigtime backing. The team has
drummed up scant interest from deep-pocketed pharmaceuticals companies,
which generally don't get Viagra-sized profits from lowly vaccines,
especially when they're destined for sale in the Third World. Vaccines
make up just 1% of pharma's $145 billion in annual U.S. sales, according
to IMS Health in Westport, Conn. A 1998 joint venture between Arntzen's
institute and British biotech firm Axis Genetics ended in bankruptcy,
partly because of political resistance in Europe to modified crops. Some
believe Arntzen's focus on developing nations (he's working with public
health groups in Mexico, China, and India) is little more than a scheme to
test out a risky technology on disenfranchised people.
The technology is not yet ready for prime time, either. Dosing is
difficult; it's hard to know how to deliver the right amount of fruit
vaccine to people--not to mention how to get the right amount of the right
protein to grow in the fruit in the first place. The dream was a mother
feeding her child a sweet banana; the reality in trials thus far has been
nurses feeding steel-stomached volunteers baseball- sized portions of
uncooked potato. "We had a naive notion in the beginning that the village
shaman would hand these [bananas] out from his backyard garden," says
Mason. Most likely, both Mason and Arntzen now say, the vaccine will need
to be processed in some way--it might be whipped into a banana pudding or
freeze-dried into a banana chip-- and will have to be distributed by
medical professionals in a controlled fashion.
The roadblocks don't seem to bother Arntzen. If his critics accuse him of
pushing unsafe medicines on poor people, he'll silence them by winning
approval in the U.S. first. "What I want to do in the next five years is
get at least one of these products licensed by the FDA," he says. "Not
produced. Just licensed. All I need is $10 million to $20 million to do
this. That's cheap."
Arntzen is also making headway with his bananas. He retired from Boyce
Thompson in the fall of 2000 to head Arizona State's Arizona Biotechnology
Institute, in Tempe. The new job has proved a boon to his work in an
unexpected but important way. "It's easier to get large plots of land
there," he says. Arntzen already has plans to build 10,000 square feet of
greenhouses for his next generation of bananas.
On Backyard Biotech
I think Charles Rader's idea is great. The network of gardeners is even
better than he noted. Every state has at least one Land Grant College,
with Cooperative Extension. Most CE offices support a community outreach
Master Gardener Program. MG's are volunteers who go through a training
program and then do for home gardeners what the extension agent does for
I am not only an MG myself, I also play a big role in the annual statewide
MG continuing education program in Virginia. If seeds were available that
had advantages for backyard growers, I would personally see that every MG
in the Commonwealth knew about the pros and cons. I'm sure every Land
Grant is working on GM viral resistance in various veggies. Land Grants
can also distribute seeds more cheaply through the extension network than
can the private sector by packaging seeds for retail sale. I suppose the
real question is, which of them can afford to get clearance through the
Coordinated Framework for widespread small scale releases of these seeds
into the environment?
Follow up from Prakash:
I agree that it is a terrific idea. However, your last point is very
relevant here and 'regulation' is the most serious constraint to the
release of any bioengineered product from the public sector or for any
small scale crop. It is relatively easy to develop transgenic plants but
almost impossible to release it. The tools and traits are easily portable
across similar crop plants. A Bt gene or prolonged freshness trait
developed for tomato may easily be applicable to capsicum. Thus, the
development costs for orphan, backyard garden and third world crops are
small in most cases but it is not a trivial task to get it through the
regulatory system and to satisfy the enormous biosafety requirements.
That is it is even more worrisome to hear the calls for more regulation
based not on science but to provide more 'assurance'. Every regulation
comes with a price tag.
The situation is similar to developing country public sector research
institutions where many good transgenic crops with useful traits are
being developed but release efforts are thwarted by not only the huge
costsand administration involved but also the multi-disciplinary expertise
in food safety, biochemistry, nutrition, ecology, toxicology etc. that it
takes to meet the regulatory requirements. The huge regulatory burden
for biotech crops has made it almost impossible for small 'mom & pop'
operators or the public sector to bring any viable products for niche
Of course, the next big impediment is the IPR - patents on these
technologies held by companies and universities, and the labyrinth of
negotiations one must do get your product released, even if you are going
to give it away for free. IPR was one of the reasons that drove industry
consolidation where it was easier for big life science companies to buy a
smaller R&D companies than to license or cross license a string of
Again, it favors the bigger commercial players and crops with high
critical mass of the market.
Food and Business
In his response to my previous post, Chuck Benbrock missed my points
entirely, and perhaps on purpose.
1. I am not frustrated over why the food industry and consumers "have not
seen the bright light of biotech as illuminating the one and true path."
Biotech is a tool for improving the efficiency of agriculture, and such
tools are largely irrelevant to food companies and consumers unless
targeted by scaremongers.
2. The "new science" Mr. Benbrock refers to is irrelevant to food
companies and consumers. It might be relevant to farmers, except for the
fact that the Roundup Ready system is still a very efficient way to
produce soybeans. The "pounds per acre" argument he uses regarding
herbicide applications in the Roundup Ready system has been debunked so
often here and elsewhere that I won't bother with it.
3. I lament the delays occurring in the commercialization of maize
designed to combat the rootworm because the delays cost farmers millions
of dollars for pest control, while resulting in continued use of
pesticides which have effects on non-target species. The argument that the
Bt toxin in this type of maize is expressed in plant tissues where they
are "likely to hammer nontargets" is worthless. Any insect that eats any
part of a crop is a pest and it should die if it does so. Such a system
(which amounts to giving crops the insect protection enjoyed by simple
weeds) is vastly superior to chemical sprays, which affect any insect
unlucky enough to find itself in a farmer's field. Any claims regarding
the effects of Bt crops must be compared to the use of chemical sprays to
be worthy of any attention.
4. The only "profound structural question" regarding genetically modified
crops is that crops with agronomic traits are the weak link in the food
marketing system. Consumers and food companies are merciless in their
disregard for the farmer, which makes the farmer an easy victim of
scare-mongering and makes agronomic traits an equally cheap target.
Because of these factors, maligning improved crops and the companies that
produce them is similarly cheap and easy.
5. In the US, the indifference to the farmer and the way our food is
produced (coupled with the fact that we have the world's safest food
supply) runs so deep that there is no ``loss of public confidence`` in
crop improvement. Surveys show that scare-mongering has distorted the
outlook of those prone to food phobias, but otherwise, the public doesn't
6. I shouldn't even need to take the time to respond to Mr. Benbrock's
comments, when the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) and the
Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI), said to be well-funded and
overflowing with expertise, could do far better. Sorry, folks, but slick
commercials about engineered pharmaceuticals with lush crops for a
backdrop is pretty lame and your ënet presence is undetectable.
7. Charles Rader has an excellent idea - - making GM seeds available to
the home gardener. I live in the agricultural heartland, where the use of
chemicals over the years has bred the most ferocious insect pests
imaginable, and controlling them in a garden with chemical sprays would
require that the vegetables be so severely fumigated that it's hardly
worth the bother. We even have an insect larva that bores up the inside of
the tomato stem, killing the plant outright. But being inside the stem,
sprays can't reach the critters. Theoretically, one could soak the soil
with a toxin that the roots would take up and suffuse the plant, killing
them. Fine, but I'd rather not eat the resulting tomato. Monsanto
developed a Bt tomato that would solve the problem, but I asked, and they
wouldn't sell me any seed. And I'd gladly sign their contract.
Food Safety - Response to Robert Vint
From: Malcolm Livingstone
So you think that I espouse a reverse precautionary principle?
First of all, I am no corporate lackey and all my life I have been
concerned for the environment and the socially disadvantaged. I have
taught of the dangers of the Greenhouse Effect and Ozone depletion in the
early 1990's. I have marched against nuclear tests. I am not rich (I'm
sure I am not as well off as yourself). Why do I tell you this? Well it
seems to me that you think that anyone who thinks that GM crops are safe
is right wing. That we have a political agenda. I can assure you that my
concerns are for the application of scientific logic and reason to these
issues and I am motivated to be involved in this debate only for these
reasons. I can not abide psuedo-science and I can not sit idly by while
people like Marcus Williamson refuse to do their homework, learn some
molecular biology and use some commonsense.
So you think that food is tested in the same way as pharmaceuticals? No
food is tested for safety in any way at all except for GM crops. Every
morsel you eat is eaten with a great deal of faith. Now I don't know
whether that faith is the leading cause of death in Western society or
not. It doesn't matter because we can't live without it. If you really
want to be safe then you must eat only wild game and berries indigenous to
Europe (if you are of European ancestry) because these are the only foods
you have co-evolved with. It is disingenuous of you and Marcus to
continually ignore this fact.
There is no scientific reason why GM crops should be treated any
differently and I stand by my claim that it is a waste of public funds to
treat normal food like a drug. Why should the public fund these
experiments when only a minority are concerned about these safety issues?
If a large body of the public are concerned why should they not fund the
research as they already do with cancer, heart disease, mental health and
myriad other issues? I once worked on cancer research and guess what? I
was funded by the Queensland Cancer Fund - a charity that relies on
concerned members of the public to raise funds. This is normal. Is it
right for scientific bodies to fund research into every possible imagined
quackery? No. Should I apply for money to research the efficacy of
iridology, homeopathy etc.? No I shouldn't and I wouldn't have a
snowball's chance in Hell of getting funding for that. It is the
responsibility of the alternative health industry to do that research just
as it is the responsibility of Monsanto to test the safety of GM crops.
If there are enough concerned members of the public out there they can put
their money where their mouth is and fund some research. This is
admittedly harder than writing letters on the internet but infinitely more
- Malcolm Livingstone Ph D
Meredith Lloyd Evans v. Genetic-ID
Sender: "David J. Heaf" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Having given prominence to Genetic ID's triple test in a survey for the
United Kingdom Register of Organic Food Standards as part of its
preparations for implementing EC regulation 1804/99 which requires that
GMOs should not be used in organic agriculture, I was somewhat dismayed to
read Meredith Lloyd Evans' post to this list about Genetic ID in which he
says that the company "is not an independent and disinterested
organisation. It has links with anti-technology and anti-GM groups with
beliefs that are closer to X-files and discredited 'bio'-theories than to
serious monitoring science. Genetic ID's activities are based on anti-GM
policies and their work and pronouncements should always be understood in
this context. They do not operate to a null hypothesis but to a 'no-GM'
propaganda. It is hardly surprising that other, independent, laboratories,
often fail to replicate their findings."
The incautious reader might be led to think that Genetic ID fiddles its
results to fit in with its alleged 'no-GM' propaganda. So I raised the
matter with Bill Witherspoon at Genetic ID. His response was:
"There is no truth whatever in Meredith Evans' claims regarding Genetic I
1. Genetic ID is an independent and objective organization. (We are
entirely self-financed and do not contribute to the support of any anti-
2. We have no economic, contractual or other kinds of links to
anti-technology or anti-GM organizations. (In fact we are actively
developing new biosensor and DNA chip technology in our R & D division).
(Activist organizations have occasionally used us for their testing needs
as they use our competitors).
3. Our GMO detection technology is respected as one of the best in the
world. (We consult to numerous governmental bodies and have helped in th e
development of their GMO detection methods).
4. We frequently cooperate with other independent laboratories and only
rarely find different results-generally caused by sampling errors rather
than flaws in either PCR method."
Of course, the sceptics may respond 'he would say that, wouldn't he'.
Indeed the kind of criticism that Meredith Lloyd Evans brings against
Genetic ID will be difficult to counter unless there is an accepted
inter-laboratory accreditation system similar to that used by clinical
Is any list member aware of any such accreditation scheme either in
progress or under development?
David Heaf, Wales, UK
Response From Prakash:
on the issue of accreditation of companies conducting such biotech
detection in food, I am familiar with the American system. Here, the
USDA's GIPSA Division has the authority over it - It evaluates test kits
for accuracy and also accredits the lab. Visit
http://www.usda.gov/gipsa/biotech/evalaccredit.htm you will see a list
of labs who have submitted their test kits for evaluation. There is also
a special section on Starlink cry9c with guidelines on sampling. To my
knowledge, USDA does not look at the conflict of interest of these labs or
their financial ties .
See below for more info on Biotech Testing from USDA's GIPSA:
GIPSA to Offer New Biotech Services
The USDA Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration will
offer two new biotechnology services to facilitate grain marketing. GIPSA
will (1) evaluate rapid test kits for the detection of biotechnology
derived grain and (2) accredit independent analytical laboratories that
test grains for the presence of biotechnology-derived grains. The services
will be initiated in late spring 2000.
Test Kit Evaluation. GIPSA will evaluate rapid test kit technology based
on the manufacturer’s claims and notify the public of its findings. GIPSA
has invited manufacturers of rapid test kit technology that determines the
presence of biotechnology-derived grains in grain to submit both their
test kits and supporting data. Rapid test kits normally require about 5-10
minutes or less to complete the analysis and use antibody-based technology
to detect minute levels of expressed protein from modified DNA in the
Laboratory Accreditation. GIPSA will evaluate and verify the capabilities
of independent laboratories using Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) testing
to determine the presence of modified DNA in grain. PCR tests require a
special laboratory setting and highly skilled personnel. Unlike rapid test
kits, this technology detects the presence of the modified DNA in the
grain, and requires hours and sometimes days to complete. Laboratories
that meet GIPSA standards will be communicated to the public.
Cost. These services will be provided on a fee basis. A fee schedule is
currently being developed.
Other GIPSA Biotech Activities:
* GIPSA is establishing a biotech reference laboratory in Kansas City, MO.
The laboratory will be the center of program evaluation for methodology in
biotech grains. GIPSA may offer analytical services for biotech grains in
the future through its network of official agencies throughout the United
States. The laboratory is scheduled to open by late summer 2000.
* GIPSA is establishing sampling guidelines for diagnostic testing for
biotech grains. The largest single source of error in the analysis of
grains generally is the sampling procedure.
Conclusion. GIPSA’s new biotech services respond to the grain market’s
need for independent sources to verify the reliability and credibility of
biotech analyses for grain. GIPSA is undertaking these initiatives in
keeping with the Agency’s mission to facilitate the marketing of grain and
standardize the testing technology to promote fair trade. Grain trade is
predicated on accurate and repeatable analyses of quality and other
relevant factors. GIPSA’s new biotech services will help ensure that the
market has reliable methods to distinguish biotech grains from
Information Systems For Biotechnology: ISB News Report; May 2001
- Covering Agricultural And Environmental Biotechnology Developments
The .pdf version at http://www.isb.vt.edu/news/2001/may01.pdf
IN THIS ISSUE: "Harvest of Fear"; Transgenic Insect Release 2001;
Reexamination of Pest Resistance Management Models Advised; Fate and
Effects of the Insecticidal Toxins from Bacillus thuringiensis in Soil
Arabidopsis Research Bears Fruit in Orange Trees; GNA Expressing Potatoes;
Impacts of adopting genetically engineered crops in the United States
Genetic engineering is a technique used to alter or move genetic material
(genes) of living cells. (A number of the terms used in this article are
defined in Agricultural Biotechnology Concepts and Definitions). U.S.
acreage using genetically engineered crops has increased from about 8
million acres in 1996 to more than 67 million acres in 1998, in major
states where data have been collected. Has adoption of this technology
benefited farmers and the environment?
Answering this question is not easy, even though survey data have been
collected on the characteristics and performance of farms adopting biotech
crops. Attributing differences in yields, pesticide use, and profits
between adopters and nonadopters observed in the data solely to adoption
of genetically engineered crops is nearly impossible because many other
factors also affect yield and pesticide use. For example, producers with
more favorable soils and climate may have higher yields than those
operating under less favorable conditions, whether they used
herbicide-tolerant varieties or not. Producers in areas of greater pest
pressure may use more pesticide applications than those with fewer pest
problems, despite adopting Bt crops.
However, the impacts of GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) adoption can
be explored by statistically controlling for other factors that also
affect the impact. Multivariate regression modeling in effect decomposes
the influence various factors exert on the decision to adopt GMO
technology, and the influence of other factors on yields, pesticide use,
and variable profits. The report Genetically Engineered Crops for Pest
Management in U.S. Agriculture summarizes preliminary findings from such
models using 1997 survey data.
Factors affecting adoption: What combination of producer characteristics
and resource conditions are associated with greater probability of
adopting GMO technology? Variables examined included farm size, operator
education and experience, target pest for insecticide use, seed price,
debt-to-assets ratio, use of marketing or production contracts,
irrigation, crop price, and use of consultants. The statistical
significance and importance of these variables varied among crops and
technologies, illustrated by the cases of herbicide-resistant soybeans and
Herbicide-resistant soybeans: Larger operations and more educated
operators are more likely to use herbicide-tolerant soybean seed. As
economists have observed in other cases, expected profitability positively
influences the adoption of agricultural innovations. Thus, average crop
price is a statistically significant and positive factor influencing
adoption. Use of conventional tillage is another significant factor that
reduces adoption, since farmers use conventional tillage to help control
weeds, while herbicides are used with conservation or no-till practices.
Weed infestation levels and seed price were positively correlated with
adoption, with adopters preferring more expensive, higher quality seed,
even excluding technical fees for herbicide-resistant varieties.
Bt Cotton: Adoption of insect-resistant cotton was modeled only in the
Southeast (AL, GA, NC, SC) because insecticide use in this region was less
affected by routine spraying regimes unrelated to the use of Bt cotton,
such as boll weevil control in other producing regions, notably
Mississippi. Production and marketing contracts and seed price were
statistically significant variables positively associated with the
adoption of Bt cotton. Presence of insect pests targeted for insecticide
use was also statistically significant, but negative: more target pests
treated with traditional synthetic insecticides are associated with lower
Bt cotton adoption levels.
Modeling impacts of adoption: Given a specific level of GMO adoption, the
impact can be assessed by controlling for the many factors that also
contribute to that impact, in addition to using GMO seeds.
Herbicide-tolerant soybeans and cotton and Bt-enhanced cotton crops are
modeled individually. In each model, pest infestation levels, other pest
management practices, crop rotations, and tillage are controlled for
statistically. Geographic location is included as a proxy for soil,
climate, and agricultural practice differences that might influence
impacts of adoption. In addition, the impact model includes correction
factors (obtained from the adoption model) to control for self-selection
of the technology due to differences in producer characteristics between
adopters and nonadopters.
Results of such modeling can be interpreted as an elasticity—the change in
a particular impact (yields, pesticide use, or profits) relative to a
small change in adoption of the technology from current levels. The
results can be viewed in terms of aggregate impacts across the entire
agricultural sector as more and more producers adopt the technology, or in
terms of a typical farm as they use the technology on more and more of
their land. As with most cases in economics, the elasticities estimated in
the quantitative model should only be used to examine small changes (say,
less than 10 percent) away from current levels of adoption.
Impacts from adopting herbicide-tolerant crops: Cotton production relies
heavily upon herbicides to control weeds, often requiring applications of
two or more herbicides at planting and post-emergence herbicides later in
the season. Close to 28 million pounds of herbicides were applied to 97
percent of the 13 million acres devoted to upland cotton production in the
12 major states in 1997. In 1997, increases in adoption of
herbicide-tolerant cotton are estimated to have increased yields, leading
to increased variable profits (see table, Impact of Adoption of
Herbicide-Tolerant and Insect-Resistant Crops). However, no statistically
significant change in herbicide use on cotton was observed in 1997.
By contrast, increased use of herbicide-tolerant soybeans (17 percent of
1997 soybean acres) produced only a small increase in yield, and no
significant change in variable profits in 1997. Soybean production in the
United States uses a large amount of herbicides, and 97 percent of the
66.2 million acres devoted to soybean production in the 19 major states
were treated with more than 78 million pounds of herbicides in 1997.
Genetic engineering produces tolerance to glyphosate herbicide in
soybeans, of which 15 million pounds were used in 1997. However, almost
two-thirds of the herbicides used on soybeans were other synthetic
materials. As GMO adoption increased, use of glyphosate herbicide (such as
Roundup©) also increased, but use of other synthetic herbicides decreased
by a larger amount. The net result was a decrease in the overall pounds of
Impacts from adopting insect-resistant cotton: Cotton production uses a
large amount of insecticides, and 77 percent of the 13 million acres
devoted to upland cotton production in the 12 major states were treated
with 18 million pounds of insecticides in 1997. Malathion was the top
insecticide used on cotton, with farmers applying more than 7 million
pounds of this chemical in 1997. Aldicarb was second (2.4 million pounds),
followed by methyl parathion (2 million pounds), and acephate (0.9 million
In 1997, an increase in adoption of Bt cotton in the Southeast (to 22
percent of cotton acres) led to an increase in cotton yields and variable
profits (see table, Impact of Adoption of Herbicide-Tolerant and
Insect-Resistant Crops). While use of organophosphate insecticides and
pyrethroid insecticides did not have significant changes associated with
an increase in Bt adoption, there was a significant decrease in other
insecticides, such as aldicarb.
Impacts on pesticide use: Herbicide-resistant and Bt varieties appeal to
producers because they promise to simplify pest management and reduce
pesticide use, while helping to control costs, enhance effectiveness of
pesticides and increase flexibility in field operations.
Reducing pesticide use through genetic engineering could also appeal to
consumers. A Farm Bureau/Phillip Morris poll of farmers and consumers in
August 1999, for example, indicates that 73 percent of consumers were
willing to accept genetic engineering as a means of reducing chemical
pesticides used in food production, and 68 percent considered farm
chemicals entering ground and surface water to be a major problem.
The question remains: does adopting genetically engineered (GE) crops for
pest management reduce use of chemical pesticides? To offer several
perspectives on estimating changes in pesticide use associated with
adoption of GE crops, ERS researchers analyzed this question using three
statistical methods (see "Genetically Engineered Crops: Has Adoption
Reduced Pesticide Use?").
* Same-year differences. Compares mean pesticide use between adopters and
non-adopters within 1997 and within 1998 for a given technology, crop, and
region, and applies that average to total acres producing each crop in
each year. * Year-to-year differences. Estimates aggregate differences in
pesticide use between 1997 and 1998, based on increased adoption of GE
crops between those 2 years and average total pesticide use by both
adopters and nonadopters. * Regression analysis. Estimates differences in
pesticide use between 1997 and 1998, with an econometric model controlling
for factors other than GE crop adoption that may affect pesticide use.
Changes in pesticide acre-treatments resulting from the adoption decision
range from -6.8 million acre-treatments to -19 million across the three
estimation methods. Reductions in pounds of active ingredients vary more
widely, from a net drop of just 0.3 million pounds in 1997 (using the
same-year method to compare adopters and nonadopters) to a net
8.2-million-pound decrease (using the year-to-year method to compare
changes in total pesticide use between 1997 and 1998). Because the results
include only statistically significant differences in pesticide use by
adopters and nonadopters, many relatively small differences in particular
regions were not included, thus underestimating overall differences.
Assessing change in pesticide use associated with adoption of GE crops is
confounded by the same difficulties associated with pesticide use
generally. Comparison of different mixes of pesticides involves evaluating
tradeoffs between the amounts used and their environmental
characteristics, primarily toxicity and persistence. The answer to the
simple question, "Does adopting genetically engineered crops for pest
management reduce pesticide use?" lies not just in more or less but in
more or less of what.
Summary Statistically controlling for factors other than adoption of
genetically engineered seeds allows an understanding of the likely impacts
of marginal changes in adoption on yields, profits, and pesticide use.
Impacts vary with the crop and technology examined. Increases in adoption
of herbicide-tolerant cotton were associated with significant increases in
yields and variable profits, but were not associated with significant
changes in herbicide use. Increases in adoption of herbicide-tolerant
soybeans were associated with small increases in yields and variable
profits, and significant decreases in herbicide use. Increases in adoption
of Bt cotton resistant to insects in the Southeast were associated with
significant increases in yields and profits and decreased insecticide use.
Links *"Genetically Engineered Crops: Has Adoption Reduced Pesticide
Use?," Agricultural Outlook, August 2000. *Genetically Engineered Crops
for Pest Management in U.S. Agriculture. AER-786, May 2000.
*"Value-Enhanced Crops: Biotechnology's Next Stage," Agricultural Outlook,
March 1999. *"Update on Bt Corn and Other New Technology," in Feed
Yearbook, April 1999, published by ERS. *Agricultural Biotechnology, a
USDA website. *New Crops, New Century, New Challenges: How Will
Scientists, Farmers, and Consumers Learn To Love Biotechnology and What
Happens if They Don't, a July 13, 1999, speech by Secretary of Agriculture
Hot Rhetoric Clouds Food Fight
Michael Smith CNEWS Science; (From Agnet May. 04, 2001);
Columnist Smith writes that he picked up his morning paper this week, to
learn that the Canadian food supply is in danger of being "contaminated"
by genetically modified crops. Relieved to find (near the end of the
article) that there have not been any "health disasters" yet, although
experts fear creation of "superweeds." Finish my (possibly contaminated)
coffee and bran flakes and ruminate on the importance of terminology.
Smith says that the science fiction author Robert Heinlein (if memory
serves) once described a juicy, char-broiled steak as a burned slice of
ruminant quadruped muscle. Put that on the menu down at The Keg and see
how many takers you get.
The debate -- if that's the word -- over genetically modified crops is
going the same way. Words like "contamination" and "superweeds" are taking
the place of rational discussion.
Take, for instance, "superweeds." Smith says these hypothetical creatures
are supposed to occur when genes for herbicide resistance, inserted into a
crop plant, spread to the crop plant's wild relatives. These wild
relatives -- weeds, by definition, since we're not growing them -- are
then resistant to the herbicide in question. That this is possible, no one
doubts, although there is little evidence that it is happening. That it is
undesirable is also true. On the other hand, would it be a disaster? Or
just an inconvenience?
Can we expect superweeds, like killer tomatoes, to march on our cities?
Will they ravage our daughters and slaughter our sons? Will Civilization
As We Know It fall apart? Not likely. The herbicide-resistant crops now
being planted -- canola mainly, but there are others -- take advantage of
what might be thought to be a defect in the herbicide itself: it's not
very toxic, compared with some weed-killers. So, instead of sterilizing a
field with some serious poisons, and then planting canola, a farmer can
now plant, wait for the canola and a bunch of weeds to grow, and then
spray with a relatively mild chemical. The weeds die, the canola lives,
the farmer and the environment are less exposed to toxic chemicals.
But here come the marching superweeds, we're told. Is This The End? No. If
worst comes to worst, these weeds still die if you plow them under. They
still die if exposed to other weed-killers. They still die if you pluck
them from the ground. Smith says that for his money, the "health disaster"
we're facing right now is overuse of agricultural chemicals -- pesticides
and herbicides, which are, in the last analysis, poisons that we spray on
our food. (Smith says he is not the only one of that opinion, by the way
-- check out http://www.agcare.org/.)
An opponent of the technology told Smith a few weeks ago that we don't
need genetically modified crops. That may be so -- although I'd hate to
tell a farmer that he or she has to go back to using the old methods. But
what we do need is less inflated rhetoric, a moratorium on people dressed
up as genetically modified corn cobs, and more analysis of exactly what
are the risks and benefits of this extraordinarily powerful technology.
Biotech and Me: A Cotton Tale
Donna Winters, a cotton farmer in Louisiana, discusses biotechnology's
impact on her farm and the environment. My name is Donna Winters, and I'm
a third-generation family farmer in Louisiana. In fact, I live and raised
my family in the same farmhouse where I grew up. My husband and I operate
a diversified farming operation with cotton as our major crop. Recently, I
began using a tool that makes our farm healthier, helps me produce better
cotton, and leaves our land and the environment cleaner. This innovative
tool is called biotechnology. Biotechnology - the practice of improving
the genetic characteristics of crops - has revolutionized cotton farming
in just the few years since the first biotech cotton strains were
introduced. Today, 90 percent of Louisiana's cotton acreage is planted in
varieties that have been improved through biotechnology.
I plant a strain of cotton called "Bt" - so named because it includes a
gene that causes it to produce a naturally occurring protein called
Bacillus thuringiensis. Bt kills bollworm and budworm, two common cotton
pests that have plagued farmers for decades. Bt is both safe and natural.
In fact, organic farmers have used it as a spray for years.
Bt crops, which are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
to ensure their environmental safety, are a revolutionary step forward.
Since they produce the protein within their tissues, they are highly
effective against pests that feed on cotton plants without harming other
beneficial species. That means I can use fewer pesticides - spending less
while raising a better crop. Those benefits explain why farmers like me
have embraced Bt cotton with extraordinary speed. Bt cotton has only been
on the market since 1995, but it already accounts for more than 60 percent
of cotton acreage in Louisiana. And it's working for farmers like me. As
recently as 1992, bollworm and budworm destroyed more than 7 percent of
Louisiana's cotton crop. By 1999, the damage was less than 1 percent.
And pests aren't the only things we're seeing less of. Farmers are using
fewer pesticides too. In 1999, Bt cotton helped farmers use 2.7 million
pounds less of chemical sprays than in 1995. Here in Louisiana, use of
insecticides on cotton is down by 25 percent. And a recent U.S. Department
of Agriculture study found almost no insecticides in water runoff from
fields planted with Bt cotton in Mississippi.
What does that mean for cotton farmers? For starters, it means a better
bottom line. Simply put, we can spend less and grow more. Nationally,
cotton farmers are saving around 14 percent on insect-control costs.
Estimates say Bt cotton was responsible for producing an extra 260 million
pounds in 1999. Taking its costs into account, the net economic benefit of
Bt cotton was $99 million.
Biotechnology is an indispensable tool for my farm. But it's even more
important for my family. I may be a businesswoman during the workday, but
my most important job is being a grandmother. Biotechnology is helping to
make farming - an age-old family tradition - more profitable for my
grandchildren. And it's helping to keep our workplace - the land - cleaner
for generations to come.
Colombian Ag Ministry Defends Transgenic Soybean
EFE Nes Service; May 3, 2001
Bogota, May 3 (EFE).- Colombian Deputy Agriculture Minister Luis Arango
Nieto defended Thursday the use of genetically modified soybeans to feed
children in state-run homes.
Food prepared from genetically modified ingredients should not be
stigmatized, Arango Nieto said during a debate on transgenic soybean
imports from the United States. Some 2,000 tons of the soybean were
imported from the United States last year by the Colombian Family Welfare
Institute (ICBF) and used to make other food products.
In April, the ICBF suspended consumption of the soybean product due to
complaints that the product was a health hazard. The more than 1.2 million
children receiving care at these homes ate the soybean products.
Genetically modified foods an unknown risk
By Richard Buchholz The Reveille (Louisiana State U.) 05/01/2001
We have come finally to the last week of classes. Soon it will be time
(unless you are one of those sad souls doomed to summer school) to pursue
our desires further afield. Here with some food for thought on a troubling
topic: Conservatives argue that the best government is a hands-off
government. In forceful language, they allege that government is
inherently wasteful and inefficient. They decry almost all regulation and
say we ought to leave it up to businesses to police themselves.
Like communism, that sounds fine on paper. But out here in the real world,
where people live, breathe, drink and eat, it doesn't strike sensible
people as sensible. Can we really trust businesses to look out for the
good of the community of which they are members? Won't their focus on
profits, on the almighty bottom line, make this the impossible dream? The
problem is that businesses are essentially amoral. They're neither good
nor evil. They have their own agenda, and if it does not coincide with
that of humankind, then so be it.
Case in point: the burgeoning amount of genetically modified material
flowing from the giant agri-businesses to the food and drink manufacturers
to the supermarkets to our stomachs. With little hesitation and no
long-term clinical studies, the Food and Drug Administration has given the
green light to GMO ("genetically modified organisms") food. The FDA
accepts industry's argument that genetic manipulation of plants is no
different from artificial selection, man's breeding of plants over
thousands of years to promote desirable characteristics. Some scientists
disagree. Harvard biologist Stephen Palumbi argues that "brute-force
engineering," as he calls genetic manipulation, is not only qualitatively
different from artificial selection, but may lead to unforeseen and
undesirable consequences. Certain genes forced into plants now used as
food crops, he points out, have already "escaped" from farmers' fields and
entered wild plants as a result of pollen hybridization. This may be
harmless or disastrous -- we just don't know.
The standard conservative response to problems like this: if you don't
like it, don't buy it. Let the marketplace decide. Well, that might be
possible if the food companies would label their GMO products as such, but
they are fighting tooth-and-nail against every proposal to do so. Polls
have shown, by the way, that most Americans want to know if they are
eating GMO food. Industry wants to keep them in the dark. And the FDA, so
far, refuses to intervene.
Now, some smaller food manufacturers, to gain an edge in an increasingly
competitive marketplace, are touting their products as the old-fashioned
kind. A few years ago they might have called it "Home Style" or "Just Like
Momma Made It." These days, "non-GMO" is the label du jour, plastered
prominently on box or can. But take heed before you rush out to your local
supermarket. A recent analysis showed that more than half the non-GMO
products studied contained some genetically manipulated material. So many
GMO plants are already out there, mixing with normal plants and
contaminating the food supply during harvest and storage, that producing
GMO-free food -- in this country at least -- is almost impossible.
The stuff is out and loose upon the land. And the nightmare scenario is
this: the Frankenfoods monster has escaped and is rampaging through the
countryside, leaving behind an empty cell in a corporate laboratory and an
iron door swinging to and fro with a rusty, ominous creak.
So thanks a lot, agri-businesses and food manufacturers. Thanks for your
concern with profit and your disregard for the health of the community.
And thank you too, government, for your utter failure to police
potentially harmful new genetic technologies.
The only thing we can do now is hope for the best. Maybe, just maybe
everything will turn out fine and dandy. We don't know at present, and we
may not know for many years. In the meantime, have a nice summer.