Today's Topics in AgBioView
* Doubts Gnaw at World Food Trade
* EU: Difficulty In Labelling GM-free Products
* EU's Byrne Talks Up Public Health and Biotech
* Portrait of the Scientist as a Piece of DNA
* Insecticidal Corn: Agronomic and Ecological Rationale
* Attack of the Killer Mimosa
* Lords of the Harvest : Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food
Doubts Gnaw at World Food Trade
BRUSSELS, Sept 21 (Reuters) - From the ancient camel-borne trade in exotic eastern spices to modern high-tech agribusiness, man has sought to move crops around the world for profit. Yet the global food trade is in the firing line today because while some harvest huge profits, others starve. Arguments over exploitation, protectionism and the safety of what we eat are gnawing at the $500-billion a year industry.
"On balance, the internationalisation of the food trade has brought benefits to consumers and producers. But there is a lot of hostility because of the perceived dangers of the intensification of food production and trade,'' said Brian Gardner, an independent agriculture analyst
Anti-globalisation protesters have disrupted several recent international meetings, jeopardising chances of launching a new round of global trade negotiations later this year. And trade rows, born of a growing public anxiety over food safety in the wake of mad cow disease, show that the wheels of global commerce don't always run smoothly. " The food industry has a long way to row back to regain public acceptance,'' Gardner said. The United States and European Union have clashed over bananas and beef imports -- both rows have led to trade sanctions worth millions of dollars -- and Europe's reluctance to embrace U.S. grown genetically-modified crops continues to be a major irritant.
BASIS OF EMPIRES
In the past, countries forged vast empires in their quest for wealth and desire for strange new foodstuffs unavailable at home. Some, like Britain, experimented by introducing crops to new habitats, literally changing the face of the earth for ever. The British introduced crops such as pineapples, tea, sugar and bananas to newly exploited tropical countries -- South Africa, northern Australia and Rhodesia.
New Zealand, now well known for its lamb exports, originally had no indigenous mammals, except dogs, bats and rats. The British stocked it with sheep, pigs and cattle in the 1800s. "One of the several rationales of the Empire was the theory that its complete range of climate must enable the One Race, beneath the One Flag to make itself self-sufficient in foodstuffs,'' wrote James Morris in his book "Pax Britannica.'' Empires may have waned but one of their legacies was a healthy international trade in food products.
RADICAL POST-WAR CHANGES
The volume of trade has soared in the last 50 years. Its nature changed too, as Europe, needing to safeguard its own food supplies in the post-war years, established its first shared policy -- the much-maligned Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Swaths of Europe's agricultural land were destroyed during World War Two while the United States, Australia and Canada were unscathed, leaving them as the world's food suppliers.
Asia, traditionally heavily dependent on agriculture, also suffered in the post-war period and emerged as a net food importer for the first time with profound effects on global trade flows, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says. As a result, protectionist farm policies in industrialised countries flourished, coupled with hefty export subsidies, which by the 1980s were seriously distorting trade flows. Agricultural export growth slowed from an annual 15 percent in the 1970s to less than three percent in the 1980s, the FAO says.
Price-stabilisation regimes for individual commodities, in fashion during the 1960s, languished and collapsed. By the early 1980s, "it was widely recognised that world agricultural trade was in disarray,'' a recent FAO report said. So agriculture played a central role in world trade negotiations launched in 1986 amid increasing tension between agricultural trading nations. In a declaration opening the talks, ministers said there was an ``urgent need to bring discipline and predictability to world agricultural trade by correcting and preventing distortions... to reduce the uncertainty, imbalances and instability in world agricultural markets.''
TORTUOUS ROUTE TO LIBERALISATION
Negotiations lasted until 1993, largely because of problems over agriculture and haggling between the European Union and the United States over market access and export subsidies. But some of the developed world's protectionist barriers were lowered and the final agreement placed ceilings, to be lowered year by year, on agricultural tariffs and subsidies.
However, the accord failed to stop lingering trade disputes despite the creation in 1995 of the World Trade Organisation, a Geneva-based global watchdog with more than 140 members, accounting for more than 90 percent of world trade. It has the power to arbitrate in disputes and authorise sanctions if it finds rules have been broken.
But it has failed to stop the arguments. Attempts to launch a new trade round in the U.S. city of Seattle in 1999 ended in chaos. As WTO members prepare for another try in Doha, Qatar, in November, they still cannot agree on an agenda. Agriculture is again a potential stumbling block. Despite centuries of commerce and increasing liberalisation, the FAO says the world is still scarred by hunger and inequality. "It is difficult to find a more apt description for a world in which disparities and inequities are as striking as they are unjustified,'' FAO Director General Jacques Diouf said in a report on the global food situation.
EU's SCP Points Up Difficulty In Labelling GM-free Products
- Europe Agri September 21, 2001
The European Commission Health and Consumer Protection Directorate-General's Scientific Committee on Plants (SCP) has warned that it may not be possible to meet the new 1% labelling threshold for GM-free products laid down in recent EU legislation. But the SCP states that, with the scientific opinion currently available, the GM seed thresholds suggested by the Commission can only be achieved using ideal production practices. The Committee warned there are likely to be many instances where these values may not be achievable, due to pollen flow from neighbouring GM crops and 'spilled' seed from GM crops grown on the same site in previous years ('volunteers').
The SCP was asked for its Opinion following the adoption of a proposal on July 25 this year which stated that the accidental presence of up to one per cent of GM material in food and animal feed should be exempt from GM labelling obligations. In order for this target to be achieved, growers and companies would need to adopt measures which minimise the percentage of GM seed sown in crops and restrict pollen - and therefore gene - flow. In order to meet the 1% target, the Commission has suggested that the frequency of GM seed in planted seed lots should be no higher than 0.3% for cross-pollinating crops (e.g. sugar beet) and 0.5% for self-pollinating crops (eg: wheat, oilseed rape), which are less likely to be fertilised by pollen from neighbouring fields. The SCP has warned that these difficulties are likely to increase as GM-crop production in Europe rises and the risk of cross-contamination becomes proportionally larger. The committee suggested that the 1% 'GM-free' threshold may eventually need to be re-a
Other strategies considered by the Commission include doubling the current separation distances between GM and non-GM crops. The SCP threw doubt on the effectiveness of such measures, however, saying that additional precautions may be needed to ensure an acceptable level of crop purity. The Committee said that the effectiveness of isolation distances varied according to crop species, and called for further research into hybrid crops in order to clarify the necessary isolation precautions. The SCP suggested that further research is necessary on the impact of 'volunteers' on non-GM plants in order to determine the amounts that can be tolerated in seed and food crops.
The Commission also suggested the introduction of specific time gaps during which no GM plants of the same or closely-related species could be grown in fields to be used subsequently for non-GM crops. But the SCP cited a lack of clear data on the persistence times of some species of seed in the soil, making it difficult to calculate the chances of non-GM crops becoming contaminated by 'leftover' GM seed. The committee did, however, accept that there are three broad groupings of species which can be used as guidelines to suggest minimum cropping breaks between GM and non-GM crops: - short persistence (1 year; e.g. soya, maize and field peas) - medium persistence (2 to 3 years; e.g. wheat, field beans, barley) - long persistence (5 years; e.g. oilseed rape, potato, beet)
Byrne Talks Up Public Health and Biotech
- Europe Agri, September 21, 2001
Speaking at a Food Business Forum in Geneva on September 20, EU Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner David Byrne emphasised the importance of improving nutrition in the European Union. Mr Byrne signalled that the Commission is currently developing a set of recommendations on European dietary guidelines to combat problems such as obesity. These will advise European citizens on healthy dietary choices and "will support the Member States in their development of a nutrition policy at the national level", said Mr Byrne.
Mr Byrne also referred to the "enormous potential of biotechnology", particularly in the medical field. Expanding on his comments at the informal meeting of Agriculture Ministers (see separate article in Section II), Mr Byrne said there was "an increasing need for awareness and enlightened policy decisions based on rational fact". He called for a "high level of protection, consumer choice and transparent, uniform and efficient authorisation procedures" in order to foster "social acceptance and trust in the application of biotechnology to food and feed". The two new Commission proposals on GM food and feed and on traceability "are based exactly on these principles", said the Commissioner.
Gallery Unveils Portrait of the Scientist as a Piece of DNA
- Richard Brooks, Sunday Times, Sept 16, 2001; See the portrait at http://www.sunday-times.co.uk/news/pages/sti/2001/09/16/stinwenws02010.html?
THE National Portrait Gallery is to unveil its first conceptual portrait - DNA from the leading British scientist in decoding the human genome. Marc Quinn, one of Britain's most controversial young artists, took samples of DNA from the sperm of Sir John Sulston, former director of the Sanger Centre in Cambridge. The DNA was then placed in agar jelly, on which bacterial cultures were grown from the sample. Surrounded by a stainless steel frame, Quinn's work, about the size of a sheet of A4 paper, will be on display at the gallery in London from Wednesday.
"It's the most realistic portrait in the gallery," said Quinn, who rose to fame in 1991 in his mid-twenties with Self, a sculpture made from a cast of his head in nine pints of his own deep-frozen blood. Sulston headed Britain's publicly funded human genome project. "I see this portrait as demystifying science," he said. "It is science and art coming together."
Viewers of the portrait will see a reflection of themselves in the frame. They will then look at tiny spots in clear jelly that are the cultures from Sulston's DNA. The links between art and science are one of Quinn's areas of interest. His workplace in central London's Clerkenwell looks more like a laboratory, with its test tubes and refrigerators, than a traditional artist's studio.
Transgenic Insecticidal Corn: Agronomic and Ecological Rationale for Its Use
Letter to Editor of BioScience (Forwarded by: email@example.com)
We agree with Obrycki et al. (2001) that a broad-based ecological approach for new pest management technologies is desirable, but we unanimously and strongly disagree with some of their assumptions and conclusions about Bt corn.
Bt corn is corn that has been genetically engineered to produce insecticidal proteins from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Because Bt corn is important for effective and ecologically sound management of lepidopteran pests of corn, we provide here relevant data, some of which is new, to help clarify the issues raised by Obrycki et al (2001).
Obrycki et al. (2001), citing Barry and Darrah (1991), have claimed that traditional plant breeding has developed corn plants that adequately protect against European corn borer. However, Barry and Darrah (1991), reported only =93some resistance to whorl leaf feeding ... (or) some resistance to sheath and sheath collar feeding,=94 which is not comparable with the nearly complete protection provided by Bt corn. Carpenter and Gianessi (2001) estimated that nationally during =9310 of the 13 years between 1986 and 1998, European corn borer infestations were such that corn growers would have realized a gain from planting Bt corn.=94 Similarly, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (USEPA 2000) estimated a net benefit to growers of $8.18 per hectare on 8 million hectares of Bt corn planted in 1999, or a national benefit of $65.4 million (USEPA 2000). Even considering the inherent year-to-year variability in pest population density, the EPA estimated the annual benefit to corn growers at $38-219 million (USEPA
Bt corn has proven to prevent yield loss, reduce mycotoxin levels and reduce the use of insecticides on corn (Carpenter and Gianessi 2001, Munkvold et al. 1999, Munkvold and Hellmich 2000). Foliar applied insecticides are used to control populations of European corn borers and southwestern corn borers on non-Bt corn. But they are not used extensively due to difficulty in scouting and timing treatments to control the larvae before they bore into the plant. Consequently, growers have endured lower yields and higher mycotoxin levels. Obrycki et al. (2001) stated that the use of transgenic corn will not significantly reduce insecticide use in most of the corn-growing areas of the Midwest. On the contrary, a survey of Bt corn producers (n=3D7,265) from six states (Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania) documents that growers did reduce insecticide use for European corn borer during the first three growing seasons after commercial introduction of Bt corn. The percentage of Bt corn producer
In addition, contrary to concerns regarding monarchs (Losey et al. 1999), comprehensive new studies show that Bt corn pollen poses little risk to monarchs on a national scale (Hellmich et al. 2001, Oberhauser et al. 2001, Pleasants et al. 2001, Sears et al. 2001, Stanley-Horn et al. 2001). Collectively, these results validate the EPA=92s original and subsequent evaluations of the potential risks posed to non-target butterflies and moths. As for other potential non-target effects of Bt corn, the EPA risk assessments relied on laboratory and field trial data from representative organisms that are routinely used in assessment of ecological toxicity, including avian species (quail), aquatic species (catfish and daphnia), beneficial insects (honeybee, parasitic wasp, green lacewing, ladybird beetle), soil invertebrates (springtails and earthworms) and mammals (mice) (USEPA, 1995, 2000, 2001). These tests represent toxicological endpoints for single-species components of a larger ecological system and may not nec
Positive and negative impacts of new technologies must be compared with those of existing technologies. All possible impacts of any technology or farming practice are impossible to foresee, but we can focus on known and probable risks. When risks of a technology are characterized as low, based on actual data, then the potential impact should be evaluated proportional to that level of concern. This reasonable approach should reduce the chances of rejecting safe technologies simply because they are new and unfamiliar. Ultimately, the goal is to replace present pest management practices with ones that are more economical, more sustainable, and environmentally safer. A dynamic equilibrium between benefits and risks will be developed as a result of this ongoing process. Over time, this equilibrium will change as improved practices are developed. In the meantime, if unexpected problems should occur, failsafe mechanisms exist. Any pesticidal technology registered by the EPA can have its registration suspended or c
The scientific community has examined the risks and benefits of Bt plants more than any other novel agricultural technology developed over the past two decades, as demonstrated by the vast literature, scientific discussions, and numerous public meetings facilitated by the U.S. EPA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on this subject. We find the evidence to date supports the appropriate use of Bt corn as one component in the economically and ecologically sound management of lepidopteran corn pests.
1. Eldon E. Ortman, Agricultural Research Programs, Purdue University
2. B. Dean Barry, USDA-ARS
3. Lawrent L. Buschman, Department of Entomology, Kansas State University
4. Dennis D. Calvin, Department of Entomology, Pennsylvania State
5. Janet Carpenter, National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy
6. Galen P. Dively, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland
7. John E. Foster, Department of Entomology, University of Nebraska
8. Billy W. Fuller, Plant Science Department, South Dakota State
9. Richard L. Hellmich, USDA-ARS and Department of Entomology, Iowa
10. Randall A. Higgins, Department of Entomology, Kansas State University
11. Thomas E. Hunt, Department of Entomology, University of Nebraska
12. Gary P. Munkvold, Department of Plant Pathology, Iowa State University
13. Kenneth R. Ostlie, Department of Entomology, University of Minnesota
14. Marlin E. Rice, Department of Entomology, Iowa State University
15. Richard T. Roush, Department of Applied and Molecular Ecology,
University of Adelaide
16. Mark K. Sears, Department of Environmental Biology, University of
17. Anthony M. Shelton, Department of Entomology, NYSAES, Cornell
18. Blair D. Siegfried, Department of Entomology, University of Nebraska
19. Phillip E. Sloderbeck, Department of Entomology, Kansas State
20. Kevin L. Steffey, Department of Crop Sciences, University of Illinois
21. F. Tom Turpin, Department of Entomology, Purdue University
22. John L. Wedberg, Department of Entomology, University of Wisconsin
American Medical Association (AMA) Council on Scientific Affairs (CSA). 2000. Genetically Modified Crops and Foods (I-00). CSA Report 10 at the 2000 Interim AMA Meeting.
American Phytopathological Society (APS). 2001. Genetically modified insect resistant corn: implications for disease management.
<http://www.scisoc.org/feature/BtCorn/Top.html>. Accessed June 30, 2001.
Barry, D., and Darrah, L. L. 1991. Effect of research on commercial hybrid maize resistance to European corn borer (Lepidoptera: Pyralidae). J. Econ. Entomol. 84: 1053-1059.
Carpenter, J. E., and Gianessi, L. P. 2001. Agricultural biotechnology: updated benefit estimates. National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy. http://ncfap.org/pup/biotech/updatedbenefits.pdf
Hellmich, R. L., Rice, M. E., Pleasants, J. M., and Lam, W. K. 2000. Of monarchs and men: possible influences of Bt corn in the agricultural community, pp. 85-94. Proceeding of the Integrated Crop Management Conference, Iowa State University Extension, Iowa State University, Ames.
Hellmich, R. L., Siegfried, B. D., Sears, M. K., Stanley-Horn, D. E., Mattila, H. R., Spencer, T., Bidne, K. G., Daniels, M. J., and Lewis, L. C. 2001. Monarch larvae sensitivity to Bacillus thuringiensis purified
proteins and pollen. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA (submitted).
Losey, J. E., Rayor, L. S. and Carter, M. E. 1999. Transgenic pollen harms monarch larvae. Nature 399:214.
Munkvold, G. P., Hellmich, R. L., and Rice, L. G. 1999. Comparison of fumonisin concentrations in kernels of transgenic Bt maize hybrids and non-transgenic hybrids. Plant Dis. 83: 130-138.
Munkvold, G. P., and Hellmich, R. L. 2000. Genetically modified, insect resistant maize: implications for management of ear and stalk diseases. Online. Plant Health Progress doi:10.1094/PHP-2000-0912-01-RV. <http://www.planthealthprogress.org/Current/reviews/maize/
National Academy of Sciences (NAS). 2000. The Future Role of Pesticides in US Agriculture, ed. Pool, R., Esnayra, J., Washington DC: Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources. 301 pp. /books.nap.edu/books/0309065267/html/>
Oberhauser, K. S., Prysby, M., Mattila, H. R., Stanley-Horn, D. E., Sears, M.K., Dively, G., Olson, E., Pleasants, J. M., Lam, W.-K. F., and Hellmich, R. L. 2001. Temporal and spatial overlap between monarch larvae and corn pollen. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA (submitted).
Obrycki J. J., Losey J. E., Taylor O. R., and Jesse, L. C. H. 2001. Transgenic insecticidal corn: beyond insectidal toxicity to ecological complexity. BioScience 51: 353-361.
Pleasants, J. M., Hellmich, R. L., Dively, G., Sears, M. K., Stanley-Horn, D. E., Mattila, H. R., Foster, J. E., Clark, P. L., and Jones, G. D. 2001. Corn pollen deposition on milkweeds in and near cornfields. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA (submitted).
Sears, M. K., Hellmich, R. L., Siegfried, B. D., Pleasants, J. M., Stanley-Horn, D. E., Oberhauser, K. S., and Dively, G. P. 2001. Impact of Bt corn pollen on monarch butterfly populations: a risk assessment. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA (submitted).
Stanley-Horn, D. E., Dively, G. P., Hellmich, R. L., Mattila, H. R., Sears, M. K., Rose, R., Jesse, L. C. H., Losey, J. E., Obrycki, J. J., and Lewis, L. C. 2001. Assessing the impact of Cry1Ab-expressing corn pollen on monarch butterfly larvae in field studies. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA (submitted).
USEPA. 1995. Pesticide fact sheet for Bacillus thuringiensis susp. kurstaki CryI(A)b delta-endotoxin and the genetic material necessary for the production (plasmid vector pCIB4431) in corn. EPA publication number EPA731-F-95-004.
USEPA. 2000. Office of Pesticide Programs, Biopesticides and Pollution Prevention Division. Biopesticides registration document; preliminary risks and benefits sections; Bacillus thuringiensis plant-pesticides. Washington, DC, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
USEPA. 2001. Office of Pesticide Programs, Biopesticides and Pollution Prevention Division. Biopesticides registration action document; Revised Risks and Benefits Sections; Bacillus thuringiensis Plant-Pesticides. Washington, DC, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Attack of the Killer Mimosa
- Paul Simon. The Guardian, Sept 20, 2001
The whorl topping a triffid's stem "could lash out as a slender stinging weapon 10 feet long, capable of discharging enough poison to kill a man." John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids was published 50 years ago, a journey into the darkest corners of vegetable life in which plant breeders had coralled triffids for food, only to find the plants could bite back.
Some might argue that GM crops are starting to turn science fiction into fact, but there are already hundreds of plants with a hint of triffid about them. An exploding orchid, Catasetum, terrorises bees into cross-pollination by shooting a pair of sticky bags of pollen at them so violently that the bees are blasted out of the flower and never visit a male catasetum flower again. Instead, they seek solace in the female flowers where they unwittingly deliver the pollen.
Another flower uses quick reflexes for predicting the weather. High on the Rocky mountains of Wyoming, the trumpet-shaped flowers of the Alpine gentian beckon towards the sky for pollinators, then suddenly shrink and pinch tight if it turns cloudy. Botanists in earlier times thought the flower was trying to keep warm, but recently Michael Bynum and William Smith discovered it is protecting its pollen from getting soggy during thunderstorms, which would ruin pollination and seed set.
"Rainfall in the mountains can be an intense barrage so the plant needs to close very rapidly before the first rain drops," explains Smith. The plant forecasts bad weather from temperature changes - the air cools as a thunderstorm approaches, and the faster the temperature drops, the quicker the flower closes.
Carnivorous plants boast superb triffid credentials with their death traps. Take the cornet-shaped pitcher plants of America, featuring nectar guides, scent and nectar to fool insects into thinking they are visiting a flower. The nectar is spiked with a narcotic, so the visitor soon feels giddy, loses its footing and plunges into a vat of watery digestive juices where it drowns. Closer to home, your herbaceous borders may be harbouring killer plants. The seeds of the shepherd's purse ooze a slimy coat when they germinate, luring victims to a sticky death and digesting them with a larder of enzymes stored inside the seeds.
Petunia and tobacco plants ensnare tiny insects on their sticky leaves. Agriculturalists are looking at wild species of sticky potatoes and tomatoes for breeding insect-catching crops. "They're all killing machines," says carnivorous plant expert Barry Juniper of Oxford University, "and I wouldn't be surprised if they absorb decay products from their prey."
Even fungi have a taste for blood. Arthrobotrys dactyloides has an astonishing trick up its mycelium - it throttles passing eelworms with exploding nooses that inflate in a tenth of a second at the slightest touch. The fungus takes no prisoners, cleaning out its victim's innards with suckers so effectively that laboratory tests show it slaughters eelworm populations in soil samples. The wild fungus grows too slowly to control eelworm pests, so biotechnologists may consider breeding even more bloodthirsty strains.
Woodlands are another scene of mass carnage, where a carnivorous fungus has ganged up with trees to unleash mayhem on soil bugs. Canadian ecologists John Klironomos and Miranda Hart report that the fungus lives on the roots of the eastern white pine tree, slaying insects, then feeds the digested remains to the tree roots in return for a bit of sugary food. Similar fungi live among all sorts of other trees, says Klironomos.
Possibly the vegetable world's most brutal character is the Venus flytrap. It ambushes prey with lightning reflexes - a couple of brushes against its trigger hairs and a pair of jaws clamp shut in a crazy moment of vegetable violence. It can even remember how many times it has been stimulated over several minutes before it unleashes the trap - the makings of a rudimentary memory.
Another strong contender for a real triffid is Mimosa pudica. At the slightest provocation, its pairs of leaflets clasp together like praying hands, then the leaf stalk collapses, a disappearing act that reveals needle-sharp thorns on the stem to any passing animal thinking of taking a bite. The leaves also respond to light, temperature, air pressure, electrical shocks and they can even be anaesthetised with chloroform or ether. The whole performance is orchestrated with electric signals remarkably like our own nerve impulses. Last year muscle proteins were discovered tugging inside the leafy motors, making this the closest thing to a nerve and muscle system in a plant. Perhaps genetic engineering could, literally, take the mimosa one step further_ the Day of the Triffids may be a lot nearer than you think.
'Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food'
From: Daniel Charles
Greetings, My book 'Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food' (Perseus Publishing) attempts to tell the twenty-year story of how genetically engineered crops came to be, and how they became controversial. It's arriving in bookstores now, although the official publication date is October. So it seemed like a good time to send a note of thanks for all your help. For a taste of the book, you can turn to a rather primitive web site that I've set up. It includes a description, some excerpts, and a few early reviews. It's at: http://lordsoftheharvest.com
Once again, thank you for your help in this venture. And I do hope that you are finding your way through these troubled times safely and in reasonably good spirits.
Best regards, Dan
Lords of the Harvest : Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food
by Daniel Charles http://lordsoftheharvest.com
This book reveals the hidden stories behind "Frankenstein Fo ods" - the ones you won't hear from the biotech companies or their fiercest opponents.
It unearths the roots of the current controversy, embedded in events not just five years ago, but ten, fifteen, and even twenty years ago. That's where the book begins, in the scientific breakthroughs of the early 1980s and the decision by one midwestern chemical company, Monsanto, to dive headfirst into biotechnology.
Lords of the Harvest chronicles the cutthroat scientific competition and backroom business deals that led to the first generation of genetically engineered crops: Flavr Savr tomatoes, Roundup Ready soybeans, and insect-killing cotton and corn. It explains Monsanto's fateful crusade to re-write the rules of the seed business and how it ended up in a blood feud with the world's largest seed company, Pioneer Hi-Bred International. It outlines the forces and the personalities that drove Monsanto toward decisions that transformed the company, in the eyes of many, into a villain with ruthless ambitions that spanned the globe.
The book explores the motivations and the personal backgrounds of people on all sides of this conflict, from scientists and executives at Monsanto to the company's leading opponents. (For the author's own perspective and reasons for writing the book, read the Prologue.)
Along with high drama, readers will encounter moments of low comedy. There's the tragicomic tale of "the tomato that ate Calgene", for instance, or the stubborn researcher at Washington University in St. Louis who threatened to undress for the video cameras during a court-ordered deposition in a patent dispute.
Lords of the Harvest is a must-read for anyone wishing to understand how genetically engineered crops came to be, and why they became controversial. It also points the way beyond the current battle, toward a deeper understanding of agriculture and the environmental burden imposed on Earth by humanity's need for food.
A tale of boundless ambition, political intrigue, and the quest for knowledge, Lords of the Harvest is ultimately a story of idealism, and conflicting dreams about the shape of a better world.
Excerpts From the 'Prologue' of the book
I grew up in the middle of the American agrarian ideal, on a small family farm in Pennsylvania just like those that serve as the centerpiece of so many nostalgic childrenís books. My brother and his family live there now, and it hasnít changed much. Beside the house, thereís a big garden and a small orchard of apple and pear trees, plus some blueberry bushes. The tall wooden barn is hung on a frame of enormous rough-hewn beams, carefully pieced together in the old style with notches and pegs by long-dead craftsmen. About 50 Holstein cows wait patiently to be milked, half a dozen barely domesticated cats find shelter in the straw, and a dog paces distractedly. In back of the barn, a grassy pasture slopes gently toward a creek where my older sister and I built dams out of rocks. To the north, thereís more pasture and a hill perfect for sledding. To the east lie alternating strips of corn, soybeans, and alfalfa. Itís a tidy eighty acres, tiny by todayís standards, but for two hundred years itís been enough for
Last spring, as my brother David was planting corn, he ran out of seed. He drove up the road to a neighbor, the local Pioneer dealer. It was already late in planting season, so he needed a kind of corn that would mature quickly. There wasnít much to choose from. "How about trying some of this ĎBtí corn?" asked the dealer. "Now it does cost a little more." (The extra cost amounted to ten dollars for an acreís worth of seed.) "You think itís worth the money?" asked David. The dealer figured it probably was. And as simple as that, my brother carried home the latest in agricultural technology.
One gene - out of perhaps fifty thousand genes in each microscopic cell of a corn plant - made this corn seed different. Twenty years ago, scientists had discovered that this is the gene that makes certain bacteria poisonous to many caterpillars, including caterpillars that feed on the stalks of corn. (The bacterium is called Bacillus thuringiensis, hence, "Bt corn.") Almost ten years later, in the laboratories of a company called Monsanto, scientists redesigned that gene, creating a new version that worked better when it was inserted in plants. A year or two after that, the gene was blasted into a clump of corn cells growing in a petri dish, and new corn plants containing this gene grew from that clump of cells.
The plants that grew in my brotherís fields last year descended from one of those seedlings. When the seed sprouted, the new gene went into action. Throughout the plant, from roots to tassel, the plantís cells manufactured the new protein. If a European corn borer were unlucky enough to attempt to feed on one of these plants, it would die.
But animals or humans who ate the corn wouldnít notice. Suppose one of these plants were put through a chemical wringer, and all of its Bt toxin extracted. The result would be only a tiny speck of powder - like all pure protein, white and tasteless - weighing perhaps a hundredth of an ounce. Scientists have fed this powder to colonies of mice. Each day, the mice ate about a tenth of an ounce of it for every pound of their body weight. To consume an equivalent dose, a person weighing 150 pounds would have to eat about fifteen hundred whole raw corn plants. The mice suffered no apparent ill effects, either visibly while they were alive or when they were dissected and studied afterwards. This is what the people conducting these tests expected to see. When this Bt toxin enters the digestive system, it breaks down into small fragments, short strings of amino acids indistinguishable from any other digested protein that enters the body. Based on this knowledge, government regulators are convinced that this Bt toxi
Most corn grown in North American ends up in animal feed. A portion of the harvest, however, processed into cornstarch or corn meal, does become an ingredient in food on supermarket shelves. Soybeans, meanwhile, the other major crop thatís been genetically engineered, provide oil, meal, and emulsifiers that end up in a host of processed foods from chocolate to soups.
As it happened, there werenít many hungry caterpillars in my brotherís corn fields last year. None of the plants appeared to suffer much damage, whether they boasted the new Bt gene or not. The new, more expensive corn seed probably wasnít worth the extra money, but David isnít fretting too much over an extra ninety dollars for three bags of seed.
My brother knows more about the biology of plants than your average farmer. He has a university diploma in horticulture hidden away somewhere in the house and spent several years as a county agricultural agent, advising fruit and vegetable farmers. But heís a bit mystified by genetically engineered corn and soybeans. When he heard I was writing this book, he wanted to know: "So how do they put those genes into plants?" Anyone who reads on will learn the answer. Thereís also another, to me even more compelling question at the heart of this book: Why do they put those genes into plants?
I watched the rise of agricultural biotechnology not primarily as a farmerís son, but as a journalist covering science and technology. The high-tech community has its own view of the world and of history, nurtured by stories of its great triumphs. Engineers and scientists really believe that they have the power to change the world. Individual companies and particular technologies may stumble and fall, but this community is sustained by a powerful faith in the ultimate triumph of technological progress.
>From the 1980s onward, this faith burned brightly at biotech companies and in particular at Monsanto, a St. Louis-based company with a long history in the chemical industry. At those times when they were most caught up in enthusiasm for their technology, Monsantoís executives promised a revolution in agriculture. They sometimes spoke as if plants soon would become putty in the hands of science. There would be more productive corn, more nutritious rice, and tastier tomatoes. These plants, they suggested, would produce more food on less land, not just in North America but all over the world. Biotechnology would relieve world hunger and allow poor farmers in Asia and Africa to stop destroying precious forests and grasslands.
I came to believe that this was not simply the product of an overheated public relations machine. Many people at Monsanto want this to be true, and they believe that it still could be true. They dream, as all of us do, of doing something significant, of making a difference in the world. They hoped to do enormous good in the world while also doing very well. Some of the more ambitious ones dreamed of ascending to that Pantheon of technological pioneers who change the world.
Yet the revolution they hoped for could only be sustained through profits, and profits required control of products - genes - which are singularly difficult to control. So even before most of Monsantoís dreams of improved plants were close to reality, the company set out to dominate the businesses that provide genes to farmers - the seed industry. This attempt provoked similar moves on the part of Monsantoís corporate rivals.
When my brother buys seed corn these days, the bags still carry familiar company labels: DeKalb, Pioneer, or a small local company called Doeblerís Pennsylvania Hybrids. But DeKalb now is owned by Monsanto. Pioneer is owned by DuPont. Doeblerís breeds its varieties from parent varieties that come from a company in Iowa called Holdenís Foundation Seeds. Monsanto, in turn, owns Holdenís Foundation Seeds. Seed companies have become extensions of corporate laboratories in St. Louis or Wilmington.
There was something deeply mystifying about the rush of big biotech and chemical companies into the seed business, about Monsantoís headfirst dive in particular. These companies love control, efficiency, and predictability. Theyíve grown rich from the carefully tuned operations of climate-controlled factories that pump out products, rain or shine, according to fixed schedules. Agriculture is a holdover from an earlier era; it is dirty, messy, and unpredictable. Farmers are notoriously cranky and difficult to manage. Plants growing in open fields are subject to drought, disease, and windstorms that simply blow them over. Prices are set in far-off commodity markets; the farmer has no control over such things. It is not, in the lingo of Wall Street, a high-margin business. There is not a lot of extra cash sloshing around small farming towns in Indiana or Illinois.
Yet Monsanto spent at least a billion dollars on research before it had a single genetically engineered plant to sell, then billions more to control a handful of seed companies. At this writing in spring 2001, the companyís annual revenues from genetically engineered plants add up to a few hundred million dollars - but Monsanto spends more than that just on research aimed at creating new genetically engineered crops. The payoff seems embarrassingly meager. If this is a business, something about it doesnít add up.
"Robert Post, a historian at the University of Maryland, and former president of the Society for the History of Technology, isnít one bit mystified. "People believe that technologies are driven, more often than they really are, by completely rational considerations, and particularly by the idea of maximizing profits," he says. "But I am firmly of the view that technologies are driven by irrational considerations."
Take plans for defense against missiles, know as "Star Wars," says Post, or NASA's planned International Space Station, or a good proportion of the nation's computer purchases. There is no convincing rational reason for any of them. But there seems to be a powerful force behind them all. Call it the romance of new things or the irresistible attraction of unexplored terrain, a place where - who knows? - dreams may come true.
"A big aspect of it is something you see all the time in the history of technology, what we call 'technological enthusiasm'; simply getting caught up in the fun of it all," says Post. His grin suggests that this is by no means the most base of human motives. ..........
Fear of technologyís unforeseen consequences courses through debates and conversations about genetically engineered plants, especially in countries with strong environmental movements. In England, consumer protests and fears have forced most grocery stores to ban genetically modified ingredients from their shelves. Itís an enormous triumph for committed campaigners like Zoe Elford.
"Does this place serve food from genetically modified crops?" I ask her. Itís a vegetarian establishment where Elford goes regularly for lunch across from the Archway tube station. "I donít think so," she says, looking slightly surprised at the idea. "Did you ever ask?" "No. I have less of a problem eating it," she confesses. "I just think, yeah, it may harm me, but so what? Iím worried more about the big picture really."
What bothers Elford most is not so much the technology itself as the forces she sees behind it, the "grotesque juggernaut" of companies like Monsanto. "We are rapidly losing the natural world to multinational corporations and governments complicit in their myopic, manic scheme," she wrote in 1998, explaining her decision to rip out some of Monsantoís plants. She called on her fellow citizens to "act for democracy, for diversity, and to restore a land lush with fields free of genetic pollution and free of genetic contamination."
>From the vantage point of the farm, some of this rhetoric is as mystifying as the dreams of the biotech industry. Agricultural fields such as my brotherís are not "lush" and "free of genetic contamination", and they havenít been for centuries. Wherever crops are grown, competing vegetation is suppressed. Agriculture, in fact, is the single human activity that has most profoundly erased "nature" from the planet, with no help whatsoever from genetic engineering. The worldís grasslands have been plowed under and forests cut down, sacrificed for the purposes of food production for humans. The worldís major food crops, more often than not, grow in fields thousands of miles removed from their native habitats. Soybeans came from China, corn from Central America, and wheat probably originated somewhere in southwestern Asia. Perhaps such plants represent the original "genetic contamination" of Europe and North America. Whatís more, none of these plants are anything like their wild ancestors. Theyíve been manhandled,
When I first started working on this book, I thought my most difficult challenge would be to get people interested. Iíd written about the science and business of genetically engineered crops for ten years, and for most of that time, few people seemed to care about them. Then "Frankenfoods" exploded onto the front pages, and the partisan debate that engulfed them became a blessing and a curse. People started to care about this topic, which I liked. But I sometimes felt as though Iíd wandered by accident into no-manís land between two hostile barricades. Each side wanted to pull me to safety behind their particular fortress of ideology, information, and logic. I tried to resist them. It was confusing out there in the middle, but the view was better.
This book is not an argument. Itís the product of a personal search for understanding. The result of that search is not a set of conclusions, but a story of how genetically engineered foods came to be, and why. There is plenty here for the cynic: ambition, rivalries, battles over profits, and calculated exploitation of public anxieties. Yet again and again, surprisingly, itís a chronicle of idealism and conflicting ideas about the shape of a better world.
The combatants in this street battle over genetically engineered foods, in fact, often seem caught up in their own romantic visions. On the one side are those who ascribe a purity and wholesomeness to the production of food and a threatening novelty to human intervention in nature. Their nightmares are of scientific hubris and of unnatural creations akin to Frankensteinís monster. On the other side are scientists and companies, convinced that they hold in their hands the genetic tools that will solve agricultureís problems and unlock a glorious new age of plenty.
Again and again in this story, such dreams are rudely contradicted by reality, yet they never fall dead to the ground. Like ghostly apparitions, they reform into new shapes, their power over the human imagination as great as ever.
GMO Musical Theater In St. Louis
The Organic Consumers Association is supporting the following:
The San Francisco Mime Troupe presents EATING IT An original musical comedy about biotech food and corporate greed.
The Tony and Obie Award-winning San Francisco Mime Troupe tours with its hit musical satire Eating It. The play embodies the political wit that has earned this VERY VOCAL Troupe (They talk!) national and international acclaim for more than four decades. Original music played by a live band,original lyrics, and a script that won the Garland Award Honorable Mention combine to ask the question, "Are we at the day after Trinity in regard to genetic engineering?" With more and more genetically modified material appearing in wild plants and our food supply, it's clear that corporations have put the bottom line above human and environmental safety, and short-term profit ahead of the health of our planet. Will market influences bypass the use of scientific method to the point where important questions will never be asked?
Eating It is a science fiction satire set in the immediate future. Bio-engineers Synthia and Isaac Albright are the creators of Super Corn, a genetically enhanced neo-natural vegetable, which Synthia hopes will end world hunger, and Isaac knows will make them wealthy. On the day of Super Corn's unveiling at the world food conference, protestors are in the street, the new President wants to be "the man who fed the world", and an agribusiness CEO controls events for his own advantage. But who is the mysterious old man following Synthia, babbling about environmental disaster? And why does he look so familiar..?
October 5, 6 ST. LOUIS, MO (Friday and Saturday) Nerinx Hall High School (in Webster Grove)
Friday: 7:30pm Live Music/8:00pm Show; Saturday: 2:30pm Live Music/3:00pm Show
Info: (314) 771-8576; Tickets: The Natural Way: (314) 961-3541 & Left Bank Books: (314) 367-6731
The San Francisco Mime Troupe; For information call (415) 285-1717 ; OR http://www.sfmt.org