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September 16, 2001


Tax on Non-GM Products?; Rational Turn; Butterflies; Public


Archived at http://www.agbioworld.org/listarchive/list.php

Today's Topics in AgBioView.

* Looking for Past Articles from AgBioView?
* List of Experts in AgBiotech for Media Contact
* An Environmental Pollution Tax on Non-GM Products?
* GM Debate Takes a Rational Turn
* GMO Corn and Butterflies
* Public Sector Plant Breeding In a Privatizing World
* World Lacks Will To Conquer Hunger, UN Says


You can also perform keyword searches now to search past AgBioView archives at http://www.agbioworld.org/listarchive/searchform.php


List of Experts in AgBiotech for Media Contact


As posted last week, a roster of nearly three dozen experts has been set up on AgBioWorld site now. These include experts in plant molecular biology, food safety, environmental impact, regulation, developing country issues, trade, ethics, public perception and many other related disciplines. Please forward this information to the media professionals you know as they can they can now contact these experts are willing to provide assistance and information to the journalists for their stories related to agricultural biotechnology



An Environmental Pollution Tax 0n Non-GM Products?

From: Muffy Koch (South Africa)

Here is an idea that may be of interest to AgBioView readers. It arises as I see neighbouring countries sticking to heavy insecticide sprays rather than adopting GM corps: This is to keep their trade agreements with EU and Japan secure. Do the European and Japanese consumers know the environmental burden their non-GM status is having in Africa?

Is it time to consider an environmental pollution tax on non-GM products?

Data from GM enzyme producers and GM pest tolerant crop growers indicate a tangible environmental benefit to using this new technology. The producers of GM-derived enzymes use the technology because it is cost effective and it decreases waste production, energy use and water consumption. Growers of certain GM crops use the technology because it reduces costs, chemical pesticide use, energy consumption and soil erosion.

While opponents of the technology are quick to claim that these products have no consumer value, it is clear that the benefit to the environment is a benefit to all of us. Where safe, good quality, cheaper, environmentally friendly products are available, is it not time to tax the products that are sapping more of our resources and causing more pollution of our environment? Yes, as consumers we should have a choice, but choosing a chocolate 'not derived from GM ingredients' over a conventional chocolate imposes an environmental burden. This is a personal preference that forces unnecessary environmental pollution. We need to be responsible for the impact our choices have on those around us.

It is interesting that the organic industry has not considered this before. However, their products are seldom cheaper, due to labour intensive production methods, and the quality is often inferior, in keeping with their tolerance of insect damage and fungal contamination. As such, it would be socio-economically unacceptable for organic producers to request an environmental tax on the alternative, conventional cheaper, better quality products even if they are less environmentally friendly.

Clearly this is not the case for GM-derived foods. 'Better quality', 'cheaper' and 'more environmentally friendly' come in one GM package. Too bad the cost of implementing this proposal will prevent its introduction. But, this doesn't stop us, as consumers, from being responsible in our choices.


GM Debate Takes a Rational Turn

- The Scotsman, Sept 14 2001 http://www.thescotsman.co.uk/text_only.cfm?id=107734

An open forum on genetically modified crops would have - in fact has - drawn a bigger audience in a Highland village. But no-one is planting GM crop trials in an Edinburgh back yard. As a result, an international conference - Plant Breeding - Sustaining the Future - lasted four days in Edinburgh without a single GM protester and an expert-panel open forum attracted about 200 people.

It seemed that most of those were seekers after answers and some reassurance about science rather than outright opponents. As the keynote speaker on the opening day of the conference had suggested and hoped, the forum was a chance for plant breeders to put their case scientifically for the good points of genetic engineering and the potential benefits of GM crops.

It was also a chance for representatives of organic farming, the food industry, greens and the public to have a say. Most did. The result was interesting if not absolutely riveting except when retired research scientist, 25 years a plant pathologist, James Gilmour waded in. His first intervention was to state his support for bio-technology - then criticise a panellist for suggesting that a single gene transferred from one plant species to another would only have a single effect.

"You must admit," he said, metaphorically wagging a finger, "that one gene can have much more than one effect. Some do far more than you expect and cause unpredictable effects. It doesn’t further the cause of biotechnology by not admitting that." The panellist, and opening-day keynote speaker, plant breeder Professor Dick Flavell of Ceres Inc., said that genes in conventional plant breeding also produced unpredictable effects: "We’re looking for a new plant with the attributes we want in both conventional breeding and genetic modification."

Agh, said Gilmour - again metaphorically - unpredictable and variable results from transferred genes in GM plants was not how biotechnology is being sold to the public. Unpredictability surely undermined the regulatory framework round GM crops? Robin Harper, the solitary Green Party MSP, who chaired the forum with impeccable impartiality, said mildly to the panel: "It is a crucial question."

Later, however, Gilmour weighed in solidly on the side of GM crops. It was, he said, "ridiculous to put GM crops in a special box". Conventional plant breeding has produced crops, for example a type of celery and a potato variety, which had caused problems. They had simply been withdrawn.

He said forum: "If they had been GM crops, all hell would have broken loose. Now there’s a review on soil DNA in relation to these evil GM crops - what about the effects on soil DNA of 10,000 years of conventional farming and plant breeding? If there are problems with GMs there are problems with everything else we do with plants." The moderate tone of most of the questions, and of some unexpected replies, indicated that, away from areas where trial crops are growing, the ayes and noes for genetic modification might be moving towards each other.

Take panelist Dr Bruce Pearce, of the Elm Farm organic research centre, whose first tart response to criticism - that organic farming had no chance of feeding a world population heading for ten billion in the next half century - was that it might if it got the same research funds as conventional farming. Later he was asked if he was against the use of genetic modification in organic crops. It’s against European Union rules, he replied. But what about pest- or disease-resistant cultivars produced using GM? Surely that would help organic farming, which cannot use pesticides or chemicals?

Hmm, said Pearce, we can’t tell what might happen in future. He didn’t want to demonise GM technology. His personal view was that GM organic crops could be a way forward.

There’s a long way to go. But the debate might be moving to fresh, more rational, ground.


GMO Corn and Butterflies

- September 15, 2001; CBC Radio Transcripts (Via Agnet)

BOB McDONALD: Hello. Welcome back to Quirks and Quarks. I'm Bob McDonald. About two years ago, a paper was published in the journal Nature suggesting the pollen from a genetically modified corn called Bt corn was poisoning to monarch caterpillars. The opponents of GMOs raised this study as proof of what they'd always feared: genetically modified food may seem safe, but it wreaks havoc on wildlife. It became one of the central pillars in their arguments. But that may have to change. This week the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science published a group of six articles showing that monarch butterflies were not in any significant danger from the pollen of GM corn. Dr. Mark Sears is the Chair of the Department of Environmental Biology at the University of Guelph, and one of the authors of the new studies. Dr. Sears, welcome to Quirks and Quarks.

DR. MARK SEARS: Good morning, Bob.

McDONALD: What is exactly the Bt corn in question, and what effect was it supposed to have on the monarch caterpillars?
SEARS: Well the... the original study used one particular type - or as we call it, an event - of Bt corn pollen. It was called Bt 11. It represents one of several events or types of modification inserted from this... the genes from the bacterium, the syllus thuringiensis into corn, and therefore we get this term Bt corn as a description of that modified type of corn plant. Not all the corn is the same as we found, and we actually knew at the time that they all were somewhat different, especially in the... the amount or the expression of this toxin or the protein as we call it from the Bt organism in the pollen itself.

McDONALD: Okay, so the idea of modifying the corn in the first place was to put a natural pesticide in the corn so that the insects trying to eat the corn would be killed...
SEARS: That's correct.

McDONALD: ...but the fear was that it would affect other insects like these monarch caterpillars. So originally where did that fear come from?
SEARS: Well the fact that the pollen leaves the plant. In other words the only part of a corn plant that really moves from the plant itself into the field and neighbouring to the field is this pollen. And so the concern was does this pollen have a toxic level, or a... an impact on caterpillars of non-target organisms like a monarch butterfly that would normally be excluded from the corn plant? They don't feed on the corn, they feed on milkweed leaves which are a species of weed that's commonly found in and around corn and other crop lands and so on.

McDONALD: Well the original study got a lot of press, because it indicated that there was some harm to the monarch caterpillars. What have you found now that's different from that?
SEARS: Our studies were specifically after those two parts of what I call the risk equation, that is how toxic is the pollen itself from the various events, and the second thing is how likely is it that caterpillars would be exposed to it?

McDONALD: How did you go about doing that?
SEARS: Well we would take... examples of pollen that we would take from plants themselves, bring this to the lab and test them. We found that more than 1,000 grains per square centimeter of milkweed leaf surface - this is how we measure the dose - and we found that more than 1,000 grains was necessary before we began to see any effect at all.

McDONALD: So that's part of your equation. Now what about the other... the other part of the risk factor there?
SEARS: Yeah, so that's... that's the first part of the equation, that we need amounts well above 1,000 grains. On average, we see in the fields, we collected pollen on milkweed leaves in and around cornfields across North America, and the average amount of pollen we see on milkweed leaves turned out to be 170 grains per square centimeter, and rarely did we see values above 1,000 in the fields. It was less than 1% of all the samples we... we've taken over two years. There's five to ten thousand samples of leaves we've looked at. Now the other part of the equation that we're interested in is how many monarchs actually use milkweeds that would be exposed to this pollen. We find that not all cropland in North America grows corn, and another factor that's very important here is not all corn is Bt corn. The average across North America is about nineteen per cent in the year 2001, and about the same in the year 2000.

McDONALD: So when you put together all these factors, that the amount of pollen that you need on the leaf has to be over 1,000 and you're only finding 100 in the actual field, that not all fields have Bt corn in them and how many monarchs actually feed on this stuff... What... what are the numbers? What would you say is the actual risk to monarchs in the wild to the pollen of Bt corn?
SEARS: Well our... our estimate in the paper we submitted and is now published is less than two per cent of the population would be exposed to Bt corn pollen if all of the allowable acreage for Bt corn were actually planted. And rarely... rarely would it be above 1,000 grains, less than one per cent of the tines would be exposed to pollen levels above 1,000 where we measured some effect. If you consider the entire monarch population with these extreme examples, the impact is... we deem it negligible. There just is not enough likelihood of exposure above that amount with the... with the individuals that would actually use milkweed in corn, in Bt corn throughout the... the range of the monarch and the corn belt itself.

McDONALD: Now there's more than one type of modified corn. What about the safety of the other types?
SEARS: Okay, as I said, the primary amounts... forms growing out there currently are MON 810 and Bt 11 events. One event... the first one registered in fact and used commercially was what we call event 176. Its level of toxicity is extremely different than that of these other two. It... it expresses almost at the level of the rest of the plant tissues, therefore a lot smaller amounts of pollen need to be encountered. We actually can begin to see an effect on weight gain, or a very subtle effect around weight gain at around ten or so pollen grains per square centimeter, compared with a thousand grains or more for the other events. Obviously this is problematic. Event 176 never represented more... more than 2% of the Bt corn acreage in North America, and is currently not being registered or re-registered in the US, and will be phased out by 2003 I understand.

McDONALD: Do you think these reports will satisfy the critics of genetically modified foods?
SEARS: Well I... I hope to think they would. I think we've covered most of their questions around which hybrids are of concern, how exposure occurs, how much pollen is actually necessary. There's still some questions remaining about what is the long-term nature of exposure, just like humans exposed to new pharmaceuticals, new food types and so on. What's the long-term nature of exposure to...in this case monarch populations? And those are very difficult questions to answer because they take time, and they take a new approach to it. We are in fact continuing to investigate some of those questions about long-term exposure for caterpillars, and what's the subsequent fate of that exposure. I don't think the issues ever go away. As people think about them and begin to develop a new question, some research will take place. But I think for the most part, the issue is... is "Does this pose a significant risk?" has been answered. Whenever we think of risk, we always think of... the way we think of it is in compariso

McDONALD: So it's all just matter...
SEARS: All of these things need to be assessed in terms of risk, benefit and
comparative risks.

McDONALD: It's all a matter of perspective. Dr. Sears, thank you very much for your time.
SEARS: you're welcome, Bob.
McDONALD: Dr. Mark Sears is the Chair of the Department of Environmental Biology at the University of Guelph.


From: Klaus Ammann
Subject: Debate 2001'0916 a: PNAS publications: Field studies on the monarch larvae from the USA

Dear Friends,

Below the long awaited papers about Bt corn and butterflies published in an early edition of PNAS, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. All the articles show that there is a considerable difference between lab studies with their forced feeding strategies and field studies, which allow monarch larvae to live in various kinds of ecological niches, which makes them much less vulnerable to Bt pollen than one would expect from reductionistic lab experience.

Marc Sears preview (see Debate 2000'0331 b) is now finally confirmed and published with all data. A big thanks goes of course to May Berenbaum, who meticulously edited all the pieces.

Also it shows again, that the 176 event with its much higher toxicity in the pollen could pose (slight) problems, but it is, according to Syngenta, nearly phased out now and will be soon replaced by new, less toxic traits.

Lets follow up what all those institutions and authors will do, who wrote alarmist texts about the first publication of Losey. It would be only fair to see some of the statements corrected.

It also has to be repeated that we need a better baseline view, a view which correctly and fairly compares the new technology to traditional maize agriculture, which is still widespread and not likely to be replaced by methods of organic farming within the next years. This baseline comparison might well end up in some cases in favour of an amended traditional maize culture. But in the lowlands of Europe and the USA with warm climates, which are so favourable for the corn borers, the Bt endotoxins will undoubtedly be part of the pest controll strategy of the first choice.

Still, we need to know more about tritrophic processes and dynamics, we need to follow up what happens in the Bt fields on the long run. It will be a unique opportunity using those marker genes to study for the years to come how non-target and target insects and microorganisms will react, and how Bt proteins behave in the various cycles. After having seen all the below presented data I see no acute threat for the monarch larvae anymore and commercialisation should proceed also in Europe. Let us still bear in mind that there are so many butterflies which have not been studied regarding their reaction towards the transgenic Bt mais plants. But I see a priority: What about the pesticides, and last but not least: what is crop rotation doing to many of those non-target insects ? Summing up all our knowledge about Bt toxins and butterflies with regard to regulatory matters, we are already in the grey zone between the need-to-knows and the nice-to-knows: There is no need for an obligatory precommercialisation moni

As usual I have prepared most tables and figures as a powerpoint document below.



The six articles about butterflies and Bt corn are now published and available free to the public on the PNAS Web site at: http://www.pnas.org/papbyrecent.shtml


Public Sector Plant Breeding In a Privatizing World

- Paul W. Heisey, Chittur S. Srinivasan, and Colin G. Thirtle
Economic Research Service, USDA (via Agnet)

Full document at http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/aib772/aib772.pdf

Abstract: Intellectual property protection, globalization, and pressure on public budgets in many industrialized countries have shifted the balance of plant breeding activity from the public to the private sector. Several economic factors influence the relative shares of public versus private sector plant breeding activity, with varying results over time, over country, and over crop. The private sector, for example, dominates corn breeding throughout the industrialized world, but public and private activities in wheat breeding differ widely in Western Europe, different regions of the United States, Canada, and Australia. Public sector involvement in plant breeding may have benefits to society that the private sector's activities may not, fostering greater sharing of information and more work on traits of plant varieties (such as environmental suitability and nutritional characteristics) that may be under-researched by private breeding programs. Summary Intellectual property protection, globalization, and pr

However, public sector involvement in plant breeding may have benefits to society that the private sector’s activities may not. Furthermore, society benefits when there is public access to scientific knowledge that, when developed by the private sector, is subject to intellectual property protection. Intellectual property rights in life sciences are likely to be subject to debate and policy changes.

Arguments for public sector investment in plant breeding include: Furthering scientific knowledge, which may be a “public good” or benefit to society as a whole, but may not be a major research goal of private firms if it is not financially profitable; Conducting long-term research, which private firms may avoid in their desire to earn profits in the near term; Thoroughly researching traits of plant varieties (such as environmental suitability and nutritional characteristics) that are under-researched by private breeding programs; Public sector plant breeding will yield the largest social returns if it continues to focus on research directed at carefully identified problem areas, with clear “public good” components.

Areas that public research might pursue include: Educating and training plant breeders; Refining and testing methodology for variety selection; Increasing public sector commitment to germplasm preservation and development; Attending to minor crops; Solving technological bottlenecks; Identifying problems and limitations of existing agricultural biotechnology, including existing crop varieties. More economic analysis is necessary to improve both theoretical and empirical models of the influence of intellectual property rights on both private sector plant breeding investment and the public sector’s freedom to operate and collaborate with the private sector.


World Lacks Will To Conquer Hunger, UN Says

- David Brough, Reuters 13 Sept 2001

ROME, Sept 14 (Reuters) - The world lacks the commitment to feed its people and the war on hunger is being lost, according to the U.N. food agency.

A World Food Summit held five years ago set the goal of halving world hunger by 2015, and the number of undernourished people must fall by 20 million a year for this to be achieved. So far, the number is falling by just eight million and more than 800 million people, 200 million of them children, still go to bed hungry. The Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has called a follow-up summit for November 5-9 to try to galvanise the international community into action to achieve the 1996 target.

"The purpose of this event is to give new impetus to worldwide efforts on behalf of hungry people," said Jacques Diouf, director general of the FAO. "We must raise both the political will and the financial resources to fight hunger," the Senegalese official said.

The FAO believes that the world lacks the commitment to ensure all its population has enough to eat and that poorer countries must do more to eradicate want at home rather than rely on foreign aid, officials say. The United Nations estimates that 1.2 billion people - three-quarters of whom live in rural areas - survive on less than one dollar per day.

Hartwig de Haen, an FAO assistant director general, told Reuters the November summit would stress that the goal to halve the number of hungry people by 2015 was still within reach if the international community acted decisively.

Hunger must to be tackled on several fronts, according to FAO officials:
* Agricultural and rural development at international, national and regional levels. Poorer countries must help themselves and not just depend on foreign aid;
* Rich states need to open up their markets to poor nations. Poor countries cannot compete fairly in agricultural markets because of a trade imbalance as shown by $326 billion in annual state support to agriculture in the countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (year 2000 figures), compared with $12 billion in farm aid to developing nations (latest available 1998 figures);
* Assistance to poor nations to implement international quality standards for their products;

* The war against HIV/AIDS must be won. The disease is devastating the rural work force in sub-Saharan Africa, crippling household incomes;
* Resolving conflicts so that more funds can be spent on wealth creation;
* Overcoming a lack of awareness about the extent of hunger and the fact that hunger is not only the result, but also the cause of poverty. Hunger makes workers less productive;

* Saving biodiversity, so that valuable traits of animal and plant breeds resistant to disease and drought do not vanish;
* Using biotechnology to boost yields, as long as adequate safeguards are in place to protect health and the environment. Genetically modified crops may not need costly chemical inputs such as herbicides that many poor farmers cannot afford.

De Haen said the summit would stress that it was in the interest of rich countries to eradicate hunger. "Better nourished people are more productive and people with lower levels of hunger are more prosperous. As a result, they are better trading partners," he said. "Fighting hunger produces economic benefits, such as higher economic growth, less social spending, a better rural-urban balance with less pressure to migrate from rural to urban areas, and fewer conflicts."

The FAO will seek pledges from world leaders attending the summit to back a new war chest with an initial target of $500 million to battle world hunger. The so-called FAO Trust Fund for Food Security, which will receive voluntary contributions from governments and the private sector, will be used to teach people in poor countries how to feed themselves, for infrastructure and to combat pests.

"The focus at the summit will be to recall that there is this gap (in achieving hunger reduction) and to call on all parties to exercise more political will and more resources," De Haen said. "There is a need to recognise that hunger is a violation of basic human rights."