Today's Topics in AgBioView.
* Comparing Farming Systems: 'Organic, Conventional and Genetic Engineering'
* EC Research on Safety of GMOs - Review of Results
* Increasing Public Sector Funding for Ag Biotech Research
* FAO Biotech Web Site For Government, Industry, Interest Groups
* Intellectual Property Clearinghouse for Agricultural Biotechnology
* Philippines Biosafety Bats on Bt Corn Testing
* Rick Hellmich: A Monarch Man in the Making
* Getting To Market: Commodities or Oddities?
* Americans Unlikely to Bear Extra Cost of Creating Segregation System
* Growing Demand in the U.S. for Segregated Food Chains
* Biotech Companies Focusing On Germ-warfare Remedies
* Science, Knowledge and Humanity: Debating the Future of Progress
Health-relevant and Environmental Aspects of Different Farming Systems:
'Organic, Conventional and Genetic Engineering'
InterNutrition, the Swiss Association for Research and Nutrition, has carried out a comparison based on published scientific papers concerning the biological, conventional and genetic engineering methods used in agriculture and nutrition. The findings of this study, which was carried out in close collaboration with Professor Klaus Ammann, Director of the Botanical Garden of the University of Berne, were presented to the Swiss media in November 2000. Today, InterNutrition would like to present the English summary of the study.
In view of the fact that today's discussion about organic and genetically modified foods is frequently conducted emotionally, it was our aim to make more accessible a scientific comparison of the health-relevant and environmental aspects of the various agricultural systems and their products. The scientific literature published so far shows that all the methods currently available have the right to exist. The specific combination of all useful approaches offers the greatest potential for sustainable agriculture and healthy foods. This means that the unilateral rejection of genetically modified plants would be unjustified and short-sighted.
The full summary in English as well as the complete study in German can be
downloaded from: http://www.internutrition.ch/in-news/mediainfo/index.html
1. Summary of the findings: For many consumers organic products have the reputation of being healthier, safer and better tasting than conventional foods, whereas genetically modified (GM) foods are often seen as unnatural, a threat to health or a potential risk to the environment. The key question in this study was whether these perceptions agree with scientific findings. - A scientifically sound risk-benefit assessment leading to an objective discussion requires that the various agricultural production systems be objectively compared with each other instead of being individually assessed in isolation. Based on published scientific papers, InterNutrition presents a summary of the facts that must be taken into consideration when comparing organic, conventional and genetic engineering farming strategies.
1.2. The most important findings
- From a scientific viewpoint, organic foods are neither healthier nor safer than conventional or genetically modified products. Some studies show that organic foods may contain more fungal toxins than foods produced by conventional methods. Transgenic Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) maize varieties, on the other hand, occasionally exhibit noticeably smaller quantities of mycotoxins in the kernels than conventional varieties do.
- In terms of nutritional composition and the effects on animal feeding, there are no significant differences between conventional and genetically modified feeds. Meat, milk and eggs from animals given GM feeds are just as harmless for human consumption as if they had come from animals fed on conventional feeds.
- The problem of cross-fertilization by pollen (gene transfer) between genetically modified plants and related wild species as well as between transgenic and conventional crop varieties only arises with few important species of cultivated plants. Detailed studies must be undertaken on a case-by-case, place-by-place, plant-by-plant and transgene-by-transgene basis. Growing crops by various agricultural systems side by side has always been possible and will continue to be so in future.
- The field studies carried out so far with transgenic, pest resistant crops do not confirm the environmental risks predicted by critics. For example, Bt maize varieties do not result in a temporary reduction in the number of beneficial organisms in the field, as can be observed with some synthetic pesticides.
- Already shortly after their introduction transgenic plants prove to be a valid option for a farming approach that sustains resources and protects the environment. The savings achieved so far in pesticide use and the improvements in ground flora and fauna can be ranked alongside the efforts of integrated production and organic farming on behalf of a more sustainable agriculture.
EC-sponsored Research on Safety of Genetically Modified Organisms - A Review of Results
I would like to draw your attention to a new publication of ours, which I think readers of AgBioView would be interested in and which you might like to mention in a future issue.
The publication is: "EC-sponsored Research on Safety of Genetically Modified Organisms - A Review of Results" EUR 19884 This publication provides a comprehensive review of the results of EC-supported research into the safety of Genetically Modified Organisms. It presents research carried out under successive EC Framework Programmes for Research and Technological Development from 1985 (Biotechnology Action Programme) to 2000 (Fifth Framework Programme).
During this period, 81 projects, involving over 400 research teams, have been supported with a combined Community financial contribution of about EUR70 million. The research projects cover plants, plant microbes, biocontrol, food, bioremediation, tools, fish and vaccines. These represent chapters in the book, which contain summaries of each project and an introduction written by a scientist prominent in the field and providing an overview of results, trends and issues. In his introduction to the review, Phillipe Busquin, EU Research Commissioner, states "In today's debate on the use of GM technology in agriculture, food and the environment, it is sometimes suggested that we lack knowledge on possible impacts and how to handle them.
The primary objective of this review is to demonstrate how the EC has tackled this need; to show that it has made a sustained effort, building up a sizeable community of researchers and contributing to the world's fast-accumulating knowledge and experience in the field." The publication is available online at: http://europa.eu.int/comm/research/quality-of-life/gmo/index.html
Hard copies can be obtained on request from Nathalie Feyaerts (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Charles Kessler, European Commission, Research Directorate-General, Square de Meeus 8, Brussels, Rue de la Loi/Wetstraat 200, B-1049 Brussels
Increasing Public Sector Funding for Ag Biotech Research
'Strengthening NSF Sponsored Agribiotechnology Research'
- Robert Paarlberg' s Statement to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science:
Professor of Political Science, Wellesley College; Associate, Harvard University Weatherhead Center for International Affairs; Rpaarlberg@wellesley.edu; September 25, 2001
First I would like to thank Chairman Nick Smith and Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson for scheduling these hearings on agribiotechnology research, and for giving me an opportunity to make a statement. To introduce myself, I am an independent scholar who has recently conducted research for the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) on policies toward modern agribiotechnology, and especially genetically modified (GM) crops, in developing countries. One central challenge in my research has been to understand why the planting of GM crops has not yet spread in any significant way to the developing world. This is the question I would like to address today in my statement.
We are all aware that genetically modified crops (such as glyphosate tolerant soybeans or Bt corn and cotton) have been grown widely and successfully by farmers in the United States, Canada, and Argentina for the past five or six years. Farmers have been attracted to these crops because they save production costs by allowing weeds and insects to be controlled through use of fewer, less toxic, or less persistent chemical herbicides and insecticides.
We are also aware that farmers in Europe and Japan have decided not to plant GM crops. Government regulators there initially gave GM crops complete approval on both on food safety and biosafety grounds, but because of significant consumer resistance farmers have so far decided not to use this technology. In Europe and Japan because most farmers are prosperous and food supplies are abundant, it is perhaps no great loss that this new technology is meeting a hesitant reception.
But what explains the failure of this new technology to spread into the developing world? There are today no countries anywhere in Africa growing any GM crops commercially other than the one nation of South Africa, which has allowed the planting of Bt cotton and corn. There are no developing countries anywhere in Asia growing GM crops other than China, which has since 1997 been growing Bt cotton, and Indonesia which is just now starting to grow some Bt cotton as well. In South or Central America, the only country other than Argentina that has planted a significant area to GM crops is Brazil, yet here the farmers planting GM crops have been doing so illegally, in defiance of a Brazilian federal court order.
This failure of the GM crop revolution to spread more widely into the developing world is surprising. As of last year, 98 percent of all the world's GM crop acreage was still confined to just three countries - the United States, Argentina, and Canada - the same three countries that originally launched the GM crop revolution 5 years ago.
One problem in the developing world has been a shortage of research on the basic tropical food crops grown by poor people in these countries. The private companies that have led so far in GM crop research feel little commercial incentive to invest shareholder funds in improved varieties of cassava, millet, or cowpea. Yet this can't be a full explanation, because many poor farmers in the tropics do grow crops such as corn and cotton, and attractive GM varieties of such crops are now readily available.
In the last two years I have conducted field research on this question of why GM crops have not spread more quickly in the developing world. My complete findings are published in a new book available just this month from the Johns Hopkins University Press. If I may summarize these findings very briefly, I find that a mix of at least three different factors has so far prevented poor countries from embracing GM crops:
1. Governments in many poor countries (especially in Africa) have not yet approved GM crops for use by farmers because of their weak capacity to give those crops a case-by-case screening for biological safety.
Poor countries seeking productive new technologies have traditionally paid only marginal attention to the issue of biological safety, but in the case of GM crops foreign assistance agencies (including USAID), international environmental organizations (such as UNEP), and countless environmental NGOs have been telling biosafety regulators in poor countries that they must be just as careful as regulators in rich countries. Unfortunately, most regulators in poor countries haven't the technical, financial, or infrastructural capacity to measure up to such high standards, so they are erring on the side of giving no approvals for any GM crops at all.
2. In some developing countries the technical capacity to regulate for biosafety is strong, but approvals for GM crops have been delayed under political pressures from local and international anti-GM activist groups.
In Brazil, regulatory authorities wanted to approve Roundup Ready soybeans in 1998, but were blocked from doing so when a lawsuit filed by two anti-GM activist groups (a local consumer protection organization joined by the Brazilian office of Greenpeace) challenged the authority of Brazil’s national biosafety committee to make an approval decision on constitutional grounds. Three years have now passed and this legal challenge has still not been resolved. In the meantime it remains illegal for farmers to plant any GM crops in Brazil.
In India, competent national regulatory authorities have not yet given final approval to Bt cotton despite several years of highly promising field trial results, in part because of intense opposition from local and European-based NGOs. Anti-GM activist groups have intimidated regulators by filing public interest litigations, by making inflammatory but erroneous charges about terminator genes or the alleged inability of farmers to save and reuse GM seeds, and by staging media events such as illegal invasions of field trial plots to uproot and burn GM cotton plants.
3. Uncertainty regarding consumer acceptance of GM products in international markets.
Government officials in some developing countries which export commodities are now hesitate to approve GM crops for fear of losing export markets. They worry not only about reduced export sales to Europe and Japan, where consumers have an aversion to GM foods, but also loss of sales to other developing countries, some of which have officially announced themselves - in response to NGO pressures - as "GM-free."
If these are the most fundamental reasons why GM crops have not yet spread in any significant way into the developing world, then what can we hope to gain from the larger public investments in crop biotechnology research here in the United States that are envisioned in the legislation before this committee? I strongly support the legislation before this committee, because I am convinced that only by funding more crop biotechnology research through the public sector can we overcome some of the political inhibitions that are now keeping useful applications of modern biotechnology away from poor farmers in poor countries. Relying on the private sector does not work for this purpose, for several reasons.
First, the private sector does not have enough incentive to conduct research on poor people's crops, as noted earlier.
Second, new GM crop technologies when created by private companies tend to be encumbered by privately held intellectual property rights, which can restrict technology transfer to poor farmers in poor countries.
Third, GM crop technologies created in the private sector and offered for sale by private multinational seed companies are often more difficult for poor countries to accept politically.
In much of the developing world, resistance to GM seeds is in part an outgrowth of local resistance to the presumed power of foreign multinational corporations. Even before the advent of GM crops, the presence of giant U.S.-based multinational seed and agribusiness companies always generated suspicion and anxiety in poor countries, especially among those on the political left and among anti-corporate NGOs. The fact that most GM seeds have recently been offered to the developing world as commercial products by large multinational business firms has helped stigmatize the technology.
If at the outset more GM crops had been developed using philanthropic or public sector resources, rather than corporate resources, and if more of the intellectual property rights had been placed in the public domain, and if the focus had been on improved varieties of tropical subsistence crops such as cassava, sorghum, or cowpea, rather than on commercial crops grown mostly by prosperous temperate zone farmers (such as soybeans), less political or ideological resistance to this technology would have grown up in the first place.
In trying to steer the modern "gene" revolution toward helping poor farmers in poor countries we should take a lesson from the justifiably celebrated "green" revolution of four decades ago. When the starving countries of Asia needed improved wheat and rice seeds in the 1960s and 1970s nobody waited for private companies to take the lead - and it is a good thing because they never did. The job had to be financed instead by private philanthropic foundations (like the Rockefeller Foundation), plus public sector donor governments (especially USAID) and international financial institutions (like the World Bank). This non-corporate funding not only ensured the appropriate emphasis on poor people's crops; it also greatly eased the task of gaining acceptance for the new seeds. It would have been far more difficult for authorities inside India’s Ministry of Agriculture to say yes to importing these new seed varieties if they had come not from private foundations or the international assistance community, but inst
I found in doing my research last year that it is extremely difficult for politically cautious leaders in poor countries to be seen welcoming GM seeds if they are coming from a private corporate lab in the United States. In fact, a strong pattern emerges. One reason the National Biosafety Committee in Kenya has not yet given final biosafety approval to the virus-resistant sweet potato is that the technology came originally from the Monsanto Company. One reason it has been hard in Brazil to get approval for RR Soybeans is that, once again, this is a Monsanto product. One reason India has not yet given a final release to Bt cotton is that it is, once again, a Monsanto product. And one reason China did go ahead with a biosafety approval for Monsanto's Bt cotton in 1997 was the fact that it could also approve, at the same time, Bt cotton varieties which it had developed with public sector resources within its own national agricultural research system.
So it is clearly time to rebalance agribiotechnology research away from the private sector and back into the public sector. I see the two proposed pieces of legislation before this committee as a good way to pursue that objective. The small proposed increase in NSF funding envisioned in this legislation certainly will not remove all of the impediments currently standing between modern applications of crop biotechnology and poor farmers in the developing world, but it is a useful start.
FAO Web Site Will Serve As Resource For Government, Industry, Interest Groups
http://www.fao.org/biotech/ (Source: Agnet)
ROME--The United Nations Food and agriculture Organization on Sept. 21 unveiled a new Web-based resource on biotechnology that gives government officials, policy makers, nongovernmental organizations, private sector firms, and other interested groups one-stop access to all of FAO's information on the subject.
The site includes a wide variety of resources, including links to key news sources; general information on biotechnology as it relates to agro-industry, crop, fisheries, forestry, and livestock sectors; FAO's official statement on the use of biotechnology; an electronic forum; and links to other relevant resources. According to FAO, the collection of data and resources makes the FAO site the world's most comprehensive site dedicated to all aspects of biotechnology issues. "For any person or organization interested in biotechnology, we believe this collection of data represents an unprecedented umbrella resource," an FAO official involved with the creation of the site told BNA Sept. 26. According to a statement about the site from FAO, the organization is in a unique position to provide member countries with "policy advice on biotechnology issues related to food and agriculture, assistance on specific technologies and legal and technical advice on regulatory issues" as well as the exchange and dissemination
On the site itself, biotechnology is referred to as a wide range of key factors related to the sustainable development of various food sources, "allowing for multiplication of virus-free plants; marker-assisted selection applied to conventional breeding, or genetic engineering, for the production of genetically modified organisms with new, improved traits." Though the technology is referred to in positive terms--a contrast to the view taken in host Italy, where strict laws limit the use of most kinds of biotechnology--the site also cautions that "FAO may provide advice and assistance to countries on [biotechnology] matters ... [but] final decisions on the use of biotechnology remain a national responsibility." "Ultimately, the use of this new site should be as an online resource," the FAO official said. "It is important to note that it is not intended to set policy for any group." The biotech site represents the second online food safety resource unveiled by FAO in less than a month. Earlier in September, t
The biotechnology site can be accessed at <http://www.fao.org/biotech/ via the FAO Web page. It is available in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, and Spanish.
Towards an Intellectual Property Clearinghouse for Agricultural Biotechnology
- Graff, G. and D. Zilberman. 2001. IP Strategy Today No. 3-2001, pp 1-11; Full Text at http://www.bioDevelopments.org (From: Anatole F Krattiger )
Much of the critique of patent systems for hindering research has focused on the scope or definition of what is patentable. We suggest, rather, that by focusing on the exchange of existing patent rights, significant improvements in freedom-to-operate can be achieved regardless of the state of patent reform.
Historically, in other industries, when IP congestion has threatened productivity, both government and industry groups have intervened, forming collective rights organizations such as patent pools and royalty clearinghouses that have provided freedom to operate with substantial savings for whole industries. Furthermore, today's advances in information technology have created new tools,IP informatics and online IP exchanges which provide interesting new organizational possibilities for collective intellectual property rights organizations.
The goal of an 'intellectual property clearinghouse' for agricultural biotechnologies would be to reduce transaction costs and other market failures that hinder the exchange of IP, creating pathways through the patent thicket and giving freedom-to-operate with proprietary biotechnologies. Such an institution has the potential to benefit all currently unsatisfied parties, in both the public and private sectors, in both the biotechnologically advanced industrial economies and in the biodiversity rich developing countries.
Philippines Biosafety Bats on Bt Corn Testing
21 Sept 2001 (From: Ms. Sonny P. Tababa; email@example.com http://www.searca.org/~bic )
The National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines (NCBP) urges anti-GMO groups sobriety to allow farmers and scientific community to evaluate the Bt corn technology now being field tested in limited scale. S&T undersecretary Rogelio A. Panlasigui issued the statement following the uprooting of genetically modified corn plants in Barangay Maltana, Tampakan, South Cotabato, one of the ten (10) field trial sites approved by NCBP.
Panlasigui stressed that ìthe Bt corn field trials are being undertaken to generate concrete answers to questions regarding Bt cornís efficacy, safety and benefits to Filipino farmers. The destruction of the field trial in South Cotabato and threats to other trial sites in Bukidnon and Isabela deprive our farmers and scientific community of much needed answers on the subject of GMOs . Monsanto Phils. applied for 31 trial sites, the NCBP approved only 10 sites after thorough assessment. Site selection was based on several factors such as climatic conditions, geographic location, distance from populated areas and proximity to bodies of water, presence of animals that can transmit pollen and the value of data that may be generated on corn borer damage to corn plants.
He further assured that the application went ìthrough a process of long months of discussion and evaluation with the members of the NCBP and after all biosafety guidelines have been satisfactorily complied by the proponent.î In South Cotabato, the conduct of the field trial in Tampakan was endorsed in separate resolutions by the Barangay Council of Maltana, Tampakan and the Sangguniang Bayan of Tampakan.
Rick Hellmich: A Monarch Man in the Making
You can't un-ring a bell. That's a lesson insect researcher Rick Hellmich has learned since the furor arose over the possibility that pollen from genetically modified corn might kill Monarch butterflies.
The bell took the form of a letter to the journal Nature from Cornell University researchers in May 1999. In the letter, researchers reported Monarch caterpillars could be killed by Bt protein—a toxin intentionally produced by genetically modified Bt corn to stop attacks of insects called corn borers.
The Nature letter was just a preliminary study, involving very large doses of Bt toxin. It was, however, seized upon by activists opposed to genetic engineering. Soon demonstrators were donning Monarch butterfly costumes. But were these concerns correct? What really happens when a Monarch caterpillar crawls onto milkweed near a Bt corn cornfield?
Those are the sorts of questions Hellmich and his colleagues wanted answered—and they did so with a series of studies published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that found Monarchs were not, in fact, harmed by Bt corn.
Hellmich began his career as an entomologist in Louisiana with doctoral and postdoctoral work on the genetics of Africanized honey bees—an aggressive hybrid of European and African bees created in South America. To aid his wife's academic career, he and his family moved to Ames, Iowa in 1994, where he began working on the European corn borer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.
"I thought I was going to a less controversial insect with the corn borer," he said. He even worried that he'd never find another insect as interesting as Africanized bees. Then the Monarch butterfly rose to national prominence, and it was clear more science was needed.
"We got as many of the stakeholders together as we could," he recalled. It was a consortium of scientists that included representatives from public interest groups, academia and industry. They then set about deciding what experiments were needed to determine whether Bt corn was a hazard to Monarch butterflies. The result was five studies evaluating the chances a caterpillar has of encountering Bt corn pollen on a milkweed plant and at what amounts the pollen is harmful to them. (See News In Brief.)
"What most people don't realize is that pollen only sheds one or two weeks in the summer," said Hellmich, pointing out just one real world factor not considered in the original Cornell laboratory study. The subsequent research also demonstrated the chances of a caterpillar encountering Bt corn pollen doses as high as in the Cornell study in the real world are almost zero. What's more, the toxicity of lesser amounts of pollen on milkweed leaves in and near real cornfields is so low that it had virtually no effect on the caterpillars. "The question of whether Bt corn poses a threat has been answered," said Hellmich.
The Monarch studies were good news to growers and the environment, although the threat to Monarchs, had it proven correct, would have likely forced growers to revert to non-Bt corn varieties which require large quantities of pesticides to control corn borers.
"That's one of the ironies of the whole story," said Hellmich. Those pesticides are far more indiscriminant insect killers than Bt corn—taking out butterflies, corn borers and most other insects in the areas they are sprayed. They also pose threats to water supplies. "Growers want to be good stewards of the land. They would very much like to reduce the insecticides they are using."
Bt corn, along with other GM crops now in development, really help, he said. "We feel that the technology that's coming can have a major environmental benefit." That's a big step towards making sure agriculture will flourish in the future, he said. That makes corn borers and butterflies every bit as interesting to Hellmich as "killer" bees. "It's one reason I enjoy being an agricultural scientist: I help develop sustainable agriculture."
Getting To Market: Commodities or Oddities?
The U.S. marketplace generally doesn't segregate genetically modified (GM) food products from traditionally grown crops. So far, it hasn't had to.
In the existing food distribution chain, GM soybeans, for example, aren't different from conventional soybeans. But, pressure is mounting to distinguish between biotech and non-biotech crops. In Europe, consumers have become increasingly opposed to biotechnology, leading a push for "biotech-free" foods. At the same time, the biotech industry is busily developing crops with enhanced nutritional value and other desirable traits. In effect, all soybeans are no longer the same from a marketing perspective.
"In time, there are going to be those kinds of differences," said Rob Johnson, vice-president of Cargill Inc. in Minneapolis, a food processing company. "The issue needs to be settled whether that part of the marketing stream will develop around principles of marketing on the basis of the presence of attributes or marketing on the basis of absence of attributes."
But segregating GM crops from conventional crops throughout the growing, storage, transportation, processing and exporting chain isn't simple in a system that generally treats all crops as commodities. Some of the problems came to light in last year's StarLink contamination incident, where GM corn approved only for animal feed appeared in human foods, despite efforts to keep it out of the human food chain. "To segregate these crops, you would have to police every field, silo, train and cargo hold in the country and world forever," said Martina Newell-McGloughlin, director of the University of California, Davis Biotechnology Program. "It's not an easy task."
Shifting demands from consumers may challenge the current marketing system to develop a means to segregate biotech from conventional foods. One option is to test all foods for the specific DNA and proteins produced by GM crops. But, testing crops can be tricky. There is no test, Johnson said, that can detect the presence or absence of all GM traits in the market place. Part of the problem is the evidence of GM food traits is lost in processing. When Roundup Ready soybeans are made into oil, the oil won't contain the biotech proteins or DNA fragments.
The StarLink episode demonstrated the current technology's ability to detect minute amounts of mixing of foodstuffs. As a result, some producers are looking to a process method of verification. Under such a system, sometimes called "identity preservation," a food producer would guarantee a consumer that from seed to table, a food had been handled in certain way. For example, a producer making non-GM corn oil would buy corn from a farmer planting non-GM seeds in a field with appropriate buffers, and the corn would be processed in a facility that separates biotech from conventional corn. Such a method would provide records that could be audited, and testing may be used for verification in some instances.
"The system would be monitored by documentation with the appropriate checks and balances in place," said David Shipman, acting administrator for the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration at the USDA. "But it wouldn't guarantee no biotech... Essentially, it wouldn't manage that because technology has pushed the detection limits too low." Such a scheme could also verify that foods contain nutritional or other enhancements. Shipman noted process verification currently exists, and his office is exploring whether there is a role for the USDA in standardizing them. "We just don't want to duplicate what industry is already doing," Shipman said.
Segregation will cost money. Crops providing direct benefits to consumers will likely command a premium. The question remains who will pay for an avoidance system - and those costs would likely hit consumers. Shipman notes if someone wanted to buy heirloom corn rather than a conventional hybrid corn, they would have to pay a premium for it because hybrid corn just yields so much more. "I think the same thing is likely if you want food that is free from biotechnology," Shipman said.
Everyone along the food chain must share the responsibility in making sure the marketing system for GM and non-GM crops works, said Angela Dansby of the Alexandria, Va.-based American Seed Trade Association. But if the system fails and a large number of biotech seeds are mixed in with traditional seed, the grower takes the blame. "When it comes to producing seed, certainly the seed producer has a responsibility to meet the needs of the customers within realistic standards," she said.
However, Johnson believes any party in the food chain that has the ability to pay may be financially liable when the system doesn't work. "People will go after whoever they can with the deepest pockets, unless they can show one party introduced the misrepresentation and had accurate information about the nature of the product," he said.
Can we create a segregation system for biotech foods that America could afford? And, should we?
Americans Unlikely to Bear Extra Cost of Creating Segregation System
—Dirk E. Maier, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Extension Agricultural Engineer at Purdue University's Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering.
The unexpected controversy over biotechnology-based crops has forced the U.S. grain production and marketing system to examine how it would handle large amounts of specialty (non-commodity, trait-specific, identity-preserved) products. Market analysts have long been predicting growth of specialty markets, but few foresaw that the avoidance of transgenic characteristics, as opposed to the promotion of special properties, would be the initial driving force.
Market preferences and export requirements associated with transgenic crops have created new marketing opportunities, but also have placed additional burden on the entire grain supply system. To capture the full benefit of future trait-specific crops (which may or may not be transgenic), the U.S. grain industry (from producer to consumer) must be prepared to ensure quality while retaining economies of scale and efficiencies for all operations. Specialty markets involve production and distribution networks more complex than our hallmark high-efficiency, non-differentiated commodity market.
Specialized marketing is perhaps more easily understood at the handler level and beyond, than at the producer level. Many moderate-sized producers regard niche production as their edge in maintaining viability in the face of declining commodity margins. However, a large-scale shift from commodity trading systems to product marketing networks will affect nearly all phases of grain production and distribution.
Nearly all of the purity risk falls on production agriculture in maintaining isolations, clean equipment, genetically pure seed, and other considerations. Additionally, the introduction of specialty traits challenge traditional formats of agronomic data and communication, such as public yield trials. Stability over growing conditions and stresses have long been key components of high yield, but now the potential for yield and trait impact exists. From a marketing perspective, trait-specific grains run counter to the traditional sell-anytime marketing patterns of commodity markets.
The costs of constructing new storage, gentler handling systems, and potential lost arbitrage because of physical delivery requirements are likely to be substantial. In addition, specialty grains marketing requires the development of quality certification systems that are intended to lead to control over the product, and establish barriers for entry of competitors. Clearly, individual producers or handlers (at various levels) may not be able to participate in multiple quality systems, possibly mutually-exclusive systems. Thus, a national effort is needed to achieve agreement on operating procedures within the grain production, handling, and transportation system that would provide some standardization among options before market practice is solidified.
Can we create a segregation system for biotech foods? Yes, we can, but do we really need to? Can America afford a system that reimburses producers and handlers for the extra costs? The answer is clearly yes. However, is the American consumer willing to bear those extra costs? I think this remains to be seen.
Growing Demand in the U.S. for Segregated Food Chains
—Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes, Associate Professor of Agribusiness at The Economics and Management of Agrobiotechnology Center (EMAC), University of Missouri-Columbia.
America can afford a segregated food system today, though the extra costs associated with such a system would generally vary with its scale and standards. As the scale of such systems increases and relevant standards and thresholds become stricter, segregation costs multiply.
Over the last few decades, the US has built an expansive food infrastructure with efficiency in mind. The bulk commodity system has been built for scale and has located in places that minimize logistical costs. Grades and standards have been developed to facilitate large volume transactions in the absence of expensive information exchanges. Food manufacturing processes have organized around commodities and minimum costs while meeting certain quality and safety standards.
All these processes and infrastructure cannot be changed or replaced overnight without substantial costs. Segregation systems entail entirely new ways of organizing the food supply chain. Some trail individual foodstuffs throughout the supply chain, describing their production conditions (e.g. organic) or their geographic origin. Others require testing and re-testing or separation in storage, transport and processing. Some require contracts or certificates. Simply put, segregated systems are more complex and costly than the existing commodity handling system.
Of course, segregated systems need not be prohibitively expensive. Segregated systems that occupy small portions of the total food supply and operate under relatively liberal thresholds will not require significant changes in the existing agrifood supply chain and will not be overly costly. A variety of such systems already exist and operate efficiently (e.g. food grade soybeans). Well-positioned suppliers operate in such specialty markets for relatively low premiums.
On the other hand, if a large-scale segregation system were adopted, especially one with strict thresholds and standards, it would imply significant disruption and costs. For instance, if legislation were adopted in the European Union today requiring feedstuffs to be labeled for GMO content, it would mean segregation for a very large part of the commodity crop market and would give rise to substantial costs all along the agrifood industry.
At this point, there is a small but growing demand for segregated supply chains in our food system. A variety of small and large companies are positioning to satisfy such demand. This gradual adjustment allows the food industry to invest carefully in the development of a relevant infrastructure and innovate as it prepares for the future. As long as there is genuine and sustained consumer interest in food products that require identity preservation, traceability and segregation, the food industry will be ready to bring such products to the market at increasingly reasonable cost.
Biotech Companies Focusing On Germ-warfare Remedies
Copley News Servic, September 28, 2001 http://pewagbiotech.org/newsroom/summaries/display.php3?NewsID=9
Former Salk Institute scientist Glen Evans recalls vividly two odd requests from behind the Iron Curtain that he received after publishing research on the deadly toxin ricin.
The requests, for samples of the toxin gene that Evans managed to clone in the 1980s, came from two unknown laboratories in Bulgaria. But Evans, remembering that Bulgarian agents had used ricin-tipped umbrellas to kill several Bulgarian defectors, firmly declined. "I realized, and others did too, that there were some awful things people might do with it," said Evans, now chief executive of Egea BioSciences, a privately held San Diego biotechnology company. Today, Evans concedes, obscure Bulgarians and a little Cold War intrigue seem tame compared with the potential for terrorist groups or rogue nations to turn technological advances into weapons of mass murder.
That realization came home this week for biotech executives who took part in a national survey commissioned by federal agencies. The survey sought to identify security weaknesses within the biotech industry, as well as new technologies that might help counter a bioterrorism attack. The survey, conducted by the national association for the biotech industry, came as federal law enforcement agencies acknowledged a concern that terrorists might strike U.S. targets with biological or chemical weapons.
That concern prompted the temporarily grounding of crop-dusting aircraft this week, and the arrests Wednesday of 10 Middle Eastern men who fraudulently obtained licenses to transport hazardous materials. Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said federal officials commissioned the survey to find out if biotech companies have sufficient safeguards to thwart attempts to steal hazardous materials, or an alert system to flag unusual orders.
The survey also seeks to identify potential technologies that might aid the government in countering a chemical or biological attack. "The government is interested in a wide range of things - vaccine development, antibiotics, antidotes," said Feldbaum, who will present survey results to federal officials next week. "And the government also wants to raise awareness about security."
The survey underscores both the promise and the potential pitfalls of cutting-edge technologies developed by biotech companies. It also signals a new drive to develop products to combat bioterrorism. Biotech observers agree that more federal funds are likely to flow to companies and universities that are developing devices or potential drugs to detect or treat deadly chemical and biological agents.
"It is about time we pay more attention to this - unfortunately, it takes something like the Sept. 11 attack to bring it to the surface," said Joseph Panetta, president of Biocom, the local biotech industry association that represents 216 biotech San Diego County companies. A handful of local biotechnology companies and research institutions are already involved in anti-bioterrorism projects, many of them funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research arm of the Department of Defense.
Two efforts focused on germ-warfare remedies are being developed by San Diego's Isis Pharmaceuticals and Egea BioSciences. At Isis' subsidiary, Ibis Therapeutics, scientists are trying to develop a new class of anti-microbial drugs that could treat infectious bacteria that have been genetically altered to resist treatment.
Ibis' strategy is to find structures in RNA common to all species of bacteria, but absent in mammals. If those structures can be identified, a drug might be developed that would bind to them and destroy the bacteria, no matter how it was modified, without harming humans or animals. At Egea, scientists have developed a "designer biology" technology that allows them to splice together DNA sequences to create new molecules. But the company also has a $1 million grant from the Defense Department to develop a way to rapidly identify the genetic makeup of engineered bacteria.
"One of the concerns is that it doesn't take that sophisticated a scientist to do these types of things, to manipulate organisms and create bad things," Evans said. "But if it can be identified, it's possible to synthesize an antibody, a vaccine, to it." Nanogen, a San Diego biotech company that develops tools for analyzing genes, is working with a $1.1 million grant from the Army to develop a small, portable "lab on a microchip" device to detect biological or chemical warfare agents.
And at the Univeristy of California San Diego, two biochemists who are working on a portable nerve gas sensor said they have been approached since the Sept. 11 attack by a few companies that want to develop it. The device, developed by Michael Sailor and William Trogler, uses silicon chips to detect nerve agents such as sarin. It was sarin that the Japanese terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo released in a Tokoyo subway system in 1995, killing 11 people and injuring more than 5,500.
The scientists said the goal is to develop small, inexpensive units that could be used by police after a terrorist explosion to rapidly detect and track the movements of the deadly gas plumes. Though researchers agree that most of the projects are years away from producing a product, there is a renewed commitment to getting it done.
"If there hadn't been a Sept. 11, it was probably going to be a while before any of this was put in place," said Michael Heller, a UCSD professor of bioengineering and co-founder of Nanogen. "Now there is going to be a movement to do it very quickly. "We have to look at all the ways terrorists can approach us, every weak-link scenario, and we have to cover it all," Heller said. "And technologically, we are equipped to handle it."
Science, Knowledge and Humanity: Debating the Future of Progress
October 26 to 28, 2001, New York City
'Science, Knowledge and Humanity' is a major series of public debates about the future prospects for human innovation and progress, organized by the London-based Institute of Ideas (www.instituteofideas.com) and New York's Wolfson Center for National Affairs at the New School University (www.newschool.edu).
Debates run from the evening of Friday, October 26th, 2001 through Saturday 27th and Sunday 28th, and take place at the New School University's Tishman Auditorium, 66 West 12th Street, NYC.
Bruce Ames, author of 'Environmental Chemicals Causing Cancer and Birth
Jean Bethke Elshtain, author of 'Who Are We?'
D Graham Burnett, author of 'Masters of All They Surveyed'
Napoleon Chagnon, author of 'The Yanomano'
James Chatters, paleoanthropologist, author of 'Ancient Encounters'
Jon Entine, author of 'Taboo'
Francis Fukuyama, author of 'The End of History and the Last Man'
Frank Furedi, author of 'Culture of Fear'
Joseph LeDoux, author of 'The Emotional Brain' and soon to be published,
Virginia Postrel, author of 'The Future and Its Enemies'
Edward Rothstein, 'critic at large', New York Times, author of 'Emblems of
Charles Secrett, Director of Friends of the Earth UK
Jace Weaver, Yale (American Studies and Religion), author of 'Other Words:
American Indian Literature, Law, and Culture'
Click here for full program: http://