Today's Topics in AgBioView.
* FAO to Postpone Food Summit
* EPA Allows Biotech Corn Farming
* Court Victory for Protesters Who Destroyed GM Crops
* Bob MacGregor on Detecting GM content
* India May Allow GM Crop Production By March
* VA Tech ... to Sort Out Social, Economic Impacts of Ag Biotech
* More 'Vive La Biotech'
* How Sweet It Is: Sugary Biotech Potatoes
* AMA Promotes Benefits of "Genetically Improved" Foods
* Chefs - Exploring the Issues of Food Biotechnology
* New Anthrax Cure
(Note from Prakash: My 'tusk.edu' email service is still down and so
please continue to send email to me at )
FAO to Postpone Food Summit
'More Than 150 Countries Observe World Food Day Under The Theme
"Fight Hunger To Reduce Poverty" FAO Names New Celebrity Ambassadors'
Rome, October 16, -- As World Food Day activities took place in more
than 150 countries, FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf announced that
he was seeking postponement of the World Food Summit: five years
later scheduled for next month. "Unfortunately the present
international circumstances and the loss of so many innocent lives
and the crisis that followed have led us to seek postponement of such
an event," Dr. Diouf said.
World Food Day activities this year focused on the theme "Fight
Hunger to Reduce Poverty" and included a global teach in, a concert
by performers from around the world and a news conference in Rome
detailing the extent of global hunger.
Other participants speaking at FAO Headquarters in Rome included
Germany's President Johannes Rau and Italy's Minister of Agriculture
Gianni Alemanno. The Rome observance also heard a message from the
Vatican relaying the Pope's concerns on World Food Day read by
Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, Apostolic Nuncio and Permanent
Observer of the Holy See to FAO. Belgium's Queen Fabiola was awarded
the Ceres Medal in recognition of her work to promote rural women in
It is because of the intricate connection between hunger and poverty
that the theme, "Fight hunger to reduce poverty" was selected for
this year's World Food Day, Dr. Diouf said. "Fighting hunger is a
moral obligation. The right to adequate food is a fundamental and
inalienable human right. Without biological integrity of the human
being which requires his daily bread, there can be no real and
lasting progress in the stuggle for more justice and equity in the
Dr. Diouf warned, "The fight against hunger may be difficult, but it
is a battle that can and must be won. Experience of several countries
has shown that hunger can be reduced, and reduced quickly. We have
learnt that hunger reduction can be swift where there is peace and
political stability. Increased investment for agriculture, in
particular in basic infrastructures of water control, rural roads and
storage facilities, but also a policy environment favourable to
increased farm income including social safety nets for the poor, are
essential conditions for success."
Germany's President Johannes Rau noted that trying to do something
about hunger is "not a hopeless task. Just twenty years ago, 29
percent of people in the so-called developing countries were
malnourished. Today the figure is 18 percent, although the world's
population has increased dramatically.
"While many in the rich countries fight against the consequences of
overeating and lack of exercise, others are fighting for grim
survival. That is not the fair world we all wish for!" said Mr. Rau.
"In the rich countries of the North no one can seriously believe that
he can live permanently on an island of prosperity surrounded by a
sea of sorrow and suffering. That is why it is in the rich countries'
very own interests to fight hunger. Barbed wire and walls are no
response to refugee flows, to poverty and suffering," he warned.
"We need not only the international coalition against terrorism. We
also need a global alliance against hunger and poverty." Mr. Rau also
warned against "using globalization as an excuse for doing nothing in
development policy terms and just sitting back and waiting. The
reality is quite the opposite: globalization brings new challenges
for development cooperation, challenges which we must tackle actively
in a spirit of partnership."
A message from the Holy See, read by Archbishop Agostino Marchetto,
warned that hunger is a serious offense against all stages of life,
on both the material and spiritual levels. The message urged a
profound effort to help the poor particularly in the wake of the
recent attacks on the United States. Accepting the Ceres Medal, Queen
Fabiola of Belgium said, "With its specific everyday activities, the
FAO contributes to rural development and to the fight agains famine
in the world, even though hunger and thirst have regrettably become
lethal weapons in the hands of the rich and powerful."
Speaking to reporters at a World Food Day news conference to launch
the State of Food Insecurity in the World 2001 (SOFI 2001), Hartwig
de Haen FAO Assistant Director-General, Economic and Social
Department, said, "On average, the number of hungry people during the
1990s declined by only 6 million people a year. This indicates that
at the current rate of decline, it would take 60 years to cut the
number of hungry people in the world to 400 million by 2015 as agreed
at the 1996 World Food Summit. In 1996, a decline of just 15 million
a year was needed to reach the target on time.
"Today, if we are to achieve the target, the average annual decrease
must reach 22 million people, far above the current level of
performance." Mr. de Haen added that "the target can be met if there
with increased political will. FAO is encouraged by the success of 32
developing countries, including China, which reduced the number of
hungry people by 116 million people. But the Organization is sad to
report that the majority of developing countriesfailed to stop an
increase in the number of hungry by 77 million people."
EPA Allows Biotech Corn Farming
- PHILIP BRASHER, AP Farm Writer, October 16
WASHINGTON (AP) - Farmers will be allowed to continue growing
genetically engineered corn after the government decided the crop
isn't a threat to human health or the environment.
The Environmental Protection Agency (news - web sites) is renewing
for seven years registrations for varieties of biotech corn that
produce their own toxin to kill an insect pest, a moth larva called
the European corn borer. The crop is known as Bt corn for a bacterium
gene that it contains. EPA said Tuesday it is acting to ensure that
farmers comply with planting restrictions designed to prevent the
development of insects resistant to the toxin. EPA also is requiring
additional research on the crop's environmental impact, including its
long-term effect on monarch butterflies.
"Bt corn has been evaluated thoroughly by EPA, and we are confident
that it does not pose risks to human health or to the environment,''
said Steve Johnson, assistant administrator of EPA's Office of
Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances. A laboratory study
reported in 1999 raised concerns that the corn could be harmful to
monarch caterpillars, which feed on milkweed in and near cornfields.
But studies published recently in the Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences downplayed the threat. The scientists estimated
that, at most, 500 in a million caterpillar larvae would die from
eating corn pollen that is deposited on the milkweed.
EPA has been reviewing the crop, first approved in 1995, for the past
two years. "For the consumer, my customer, they should feel at ease,
because this really reaffirms the safety of this product," said
Illinois farmer Leon Corzine, a spokesman for the National Corn
Biotech seed companies are being required to monitor use of the crops
to ensure that they do not lead to insect resistance or have
unexpected effects on human health or the environment. Farmers will
be required to sign papers each year stating that they are aware of
planting restrictions for the corn. To prevent insect resistance,
farmers must plant at least 20 percent of their corn acreage with
conventionally bred varieties. However, nearly a third of farmers
last year violated that restriction, according to a survey submitted
The plantings of conventional corn are designed to ensure that there
are plenty of corn borer moths susceptible to the toxin in the
biotech crop. Insects naturally become immune to the toxin as they
are exposed to it, but the trait won't be passed onto successive
generations if they mate with nonresistant moths.
"The safeguards incorporated into these registrations will ensure
that farmers can continue to use an effective, low-risk pest control
alternative, which helps to protect the environment by reducing the
amount of conventional pesticides used,'' Johnson said. The companies
must make sure that farmers comply with the planting requirements,
said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a spokesman for the advocacy group, Center
for Science in the Public Interest. "There needs to be clear
consequences if the compliance doesn't meet a high enough
Monsanto Co., DuPont Co., Syngenta AG, and Dow Chemical Co. all hold
registrations for Bt corn. EPA's decision does not apply to StarLink,
the biotech corn variety that was withdrawn from the market last year
after its discovery in the food supply led to recalls of taco shells
and other products. StarLink had never been approved for food use
because of unresolved questions about its potential to cause allergic
Earlier this month, EPA renewed Monsanto's license for Bt cotton. On
the Net: EPA: http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/biopesticides/
Court Victory for Protesters Who Destroyed GM Crops
- The Associated Press, AP World News via NewsEdge Corporation, Oct 17, 2001
LONDON - Handing a victory to those campaigning against genetically
modified foods, the High Court ruled Tuesday that Britain's
wide-ranging public order laws cannot be used against those who
destroy genetically modified crops.
Judge Anne Rafferty said the law stipulated that public order
offenses must be committed against people, preventing them from
carrying out a physical activity. Since there was no one in the
fields to be intimidated by the protesters, she said, public order
laws do not apply.
The landmark ruling follows months of legal wrangling between
protesters and the Crown Prosecution Service over conflicting
decisions issued by lower courts in different parts of the country.
Rowan Tilly, 43, of Brighton in southern England, and other
campaigners were charged in two separate cases with disrupting the
lawful activity of growing crops, contrary to Britain's 1994 Criminal
Justice and Public Order Act.
Trying one of the cases, a court in Cambridge found the protesters
guilty of public order charges for damaging crops at Great Chishill.
But in the other case, in Weymouth, southern England, magistrates
acquitted them of similar charges for damaging to crops near
Sherborne. Rafferty said the protesters could not be convicted in
either case because the 1994 Act required that other people had to be
engaged, or about to be engaged, in a ``lawful activity'' on the land
when protesters arrived.
Anti-GM campaigners said the ruling meant no charges can now be
brought against other protesters arrested under public order
legislation. Lawyers say authorities could charge protesters with
criminal damage, but protesters believe they are unwilling to do so
because that would lead to trials before juries, which may be
sympathetic to the protesters' aims. Polls consistently show most
Britons oppose genetic modification of food.
From: "Bob MacGregor"
Re: Detecting GM Content
The posting on EU response included this note: "EU officials are
feeling conflicting pressures from the United States, which is
considering a World Trade Organization challenge to the legislation,
and from European consumer and environmental advocacy groups, who
want to eliminate the 1% threshold for adventitious biotech content."
It is my understanding that detecting the origin (eg conventional vs.
GE) of vegetable oils, sugar and similar, highly-refined products
isn't possible. So any price differential favouring conventional over
GE would create tremendous incentive to supplement conventional oil
(for example) with GE-based oils; the whole concept of control over
an undetectable difference is ridiculous.
I would like to know whether it is technically feasible to detect
whether cheese was produced using chymosin vs. rennet or whether the
yeast used to produce a fermented product was GE enhanced? I can see
how ultrafiltratio n might remove virtually all particulates from
beer or wine, but I'm not sure if all traces of DNA or protein are
removed. Similarly, I can't imagine that the so-called "processing
aid", chymosin leaves absolutely zero trace of its use in cheeses. If
detection of traces of these processing aid is feasible and can
reveal the GE nature of the process, while detection of origin of
refined oils' from GE plants isn't possible, the hypocritical nature
of proposed EU labelling and traceability requirements would be
plain. ... - BOB
India May Allow GM Crop Production By March
- Atul Prakash, Reuters, 16 Oct 2001
BOMBAY, Oct 16 (Reuters) - India is likely to allow by March the
commercial production of a genetically modified (GM) crop for the
first time, a top government official said.
"Things are moving very fast," Manju Sharma, secretary in the federal
department of biotechnology in New Delhi, told Reuters by phone late
on Monday. The first approval is likely to be given to India's
Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (MAHYCO), which has been conducting
large-scale field trials of its GM cotton variety in collaboration
with U.S.-based biotech firm Monsanto .
The biotechnology giant also owns a stake in MAHYCO. The Indian seed
company had already received the first set of reports from its
trials, and was now collecting more data, Sharma said. "The data
collection and analysis should be over by December," said Sharma, who
is also a plant physiologist. She said approval for the company's GM
cotton variety could come "certainly by the end of this financial
year. This is my presumption, if nothing goes wrong."
The government had taken several steps to expedite the approval
procedure, and many firms were now seeking permission to develop and
introduce transgenic seeds locally, she said. MAHYCO started limited
field trials of its Bt cotton in 1996-97, but faced intermittent
opposition from environmentalists and farmers, who raised questions
about bio-safety and transparency of the trial data.
The Bt - bacillus thuringiensis - cotton hybrids, which contain the
'Cry 1 Ac' gene, is resistant to the cotton bollworm, which causes
heavy damage to the Indian cotton crop. Sharma said India needed GM
technology to improve yields. "We have serious crop losses due to
pest attacks," she said. Soil fertility in many parts of the country
had dwindled due to the excessive use of chemical fertilisers and
Farm scientists estimate that almost half the country's pesticide use
goes to protect cotton crops from pest attacks. Sharma said
apprehensions expressed by environmentalists had been clarified
scientifically. Concerns that transgenic seeds may develop resistance
in the long-term could be tackled by introducing another supporting
gene, she said. "Scientists are already working on gene management
strategy so that this resistance question can be countered."
Several scientific institutes in the country were developing GM seeds
to improve crop yields, Sharma said. Many have completed laboratory
work on transgenic seeds for several commodities like mustard, potato
and tomato, and are now conducting field trials, Sharma said. "There
are a large number of crops in the final stages of testing," she said.
India is also working on an international rice genome project for
sequencing the commodity. For instance, the country plans to
collaborate with Switzerland to develop a transgenic rice variety
with more vitamin content. "Swiss people have done it in a particular
variety. We would like to introduce it in the variety which is
maximally eaten by our poor people," Sharma said. "We are just
finalising the proposal." Sharma said India had enough laws to tackle
the adverse impacts of GM technology on crops, people and livestock.
"Our bio-safety guidelines are the best in the world today. We don't
need any further legislation," she said.
Virginia Tech Leads Global Effort to Sort Out Social, Economic
Impacts of Agricultural Biotechnology
BLACKSBURG, Oct. 15, 2001 Agricultural biotechnology holds the
promise of hardier, healthier, and more abundant sources of food for
people around the world as well as new sources for pharmaceuticals.
Biotechnology is also likely to produce winners and losers as a
result of social and economic impacts, says George Norton. The
professor of agricultural and applied economics at Virginia Tech says
sorting out these social and economic effects may be critical to
public acceptance of biotechnology. Without that acceptance, he
fears, many potential benefits may be lost. Norton is heading an
effort centered at Virginia Tech and including scientists worldwide
that will investigate the social and economic effects of
biotechnologies. The project is funded by a $1.1 million grant from
the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The scientific achievements of biotechnology have been occurring at
such an astounding pace that social and economic assessments have
lagged behind, Norton says. "There are major benefits that can be
expected from agricultural biotechnology, but we expect to see
distributional effects as well," Norton says. "For example, early
adopters of the technology may be in a stronger position than those
who adopt it later."
The four-year project will investigate the impacts of biotechnology
from a social science perspective. The faculty members involved will
be able to draw on the expertise of Virginia Tech researchers who
have pioneered key biotechnology procedures, especially in the area
of generating human pharmaceuticals from plants and animals. "We
can╠t look into economics or social issues in a vacuum," Norton says.
"We╠ll have to inform ourselves [about the scientific aspects of
biotechnology] as we go ahead, but we also want to keep our
perspective. We don╠t want to be an advocate for any side of this."
Other faculty members involved in the project at Virginia Tech
include Brad Mills, Dixie Reaves, and Mike Ellerbrock in agricultural
and applied economics; Laura Parisi in the Center for
Interdisciplinary Studies; and Colette Harris in the Office of
International Research and Development. Scientists at Virginia State
University, North Carolina State University, the University of
Tennessee, and at the International Rice Research Institute in the
Philippines are also participating.
"The complexity of the issues requires a team approach," says Norton.
"Our group brings expertise in environmental mediation, the economics
of tobacco and rice production, evaluation of agricultural research,
gender issues, international political economy, and the study of the
politics and economics of technology transfer and diffusion."
Much of agricultural biotechnology that has been marketed to date has
been aimed at enhancing productivity. But increasingly, biotechnology
is being applied to add to the value of crops, such as by increasing
nutritional value, adding certain vitamins, or in coaxing plants to
create substances that can be used in making pharmaceuticals.
The study is concentrating on tobacco and rice because those crops
are the focus of much biotechnology research. Tobacco is a plant
whose genetics are relatively easily manipulated, making it an ideal
candidate for producing compounds for use in creating pharmaceuticals
that treat human diseases. Rice is a staple food for much of the
world╠s population, especially the poor. Biotechnology might be a
boon to consumers around the globe, and it might help maintain the
viability of farms producing the crops.
"We say ╬might╠ benefit because no one really has studied in detail
who is likely to benefit and who is likely to lose," Norton says. He
says the research is expected to generate information for
policy-makers as well as the general public in the United States and
abroad. The public has been bombarded by hype from both proponents
and opponents of biotechnology. "More informed public opinion may
help smooth the way for adoption of socially-beneficial
biotechnologies, and hinder the spread of ones where the risks appear
to be unacceptable compared to the potential benefits," Norton says.
The research will begin by collecting information concerning
attitudes of producers and consumers through surveys and focus
groups. Researchers will then develop a framework to assess economic
and social impacts of agricultural biotechnologies. The group will
then develop educational materials about the benefits, costs, and
concerns associated with biotechnologies for students and the general
public. Those educational materials will be distributed in K-12
educational programs, college courses, and to the general public
through Web-based materials.
Commentary: Vive La Biotech
- Wall Street Journal Europe, 16 Oct 2001
Turns out genetically modified foods are actually safer than Mother
Nature's version. Says who? The biotech-squeamish European Union, no
Over the past 15 years the EU spent $64 million on 81 research
projects to examine the risks involved in genetically modified crops
and products. According to a report released last week, not a single
study found "any new risks to human health or the environment, beyond
the usual uncertainties of conventional plant breeding. . . . Indeed,
the use of more precise technology and the greater regulatory
scrutiny probably make them even safer than conventional plants and
foods." Now comes the hard part: rolling back the mountain of rules
and regulations that have kept new GM products off Europe's shelves
for the past three years. Back in October 1998, six EU nations (lead
by the biotech-paranoid French) vowed to block new GM permits until
regulations were tightened. Talk about bad science. Even as the EU
was folding to French pressure, the studies it had funded since 1986
were showing no increased risk to consumers of GM products. Zut alors!
So it was that David Byrne, EU consumer health commissioner, arrived
in Washington last week vowing to lift the three-year moratorium on
the marketing of new GM products. Moreover, Mr. Byrne appeared
willing to negotiate the EU's start-to-finish labeling guidelines
that would require growers and producers of GM foods to track the
products' every move, from seed to grocery-store shelf. As Mr. Byrne
told reporters, "We have agreed that the secret to moving ahead with
all this is to get the [new GM] authorizations moving ahead again."
That's a welcome starting point. But as U.S. Agricultural Secretary
Ann Veneman told reporters in Washington during Mr. Byrne's visit,
"We need to make sure that if systems are going to be adopted ... it
does not impede trade. At this point, the anticipation is that it
could be an impediment to product moving."
As the world's largest producer of GM crops and products, the U.S.
has a lot to lose if the EU goes ahead with its scare-tactic labeling
despite its own research. But so do the dozens of European biotech
firms that have been struggling in an environment of fear and
Mr. Byrne contends that the labeling procedures are not meant to
impede trade and are simply intended to "lift consumer confidence."
Hmm. Why then are labels not required on products such as wine and
cheese that are made with biotech enzymes? Ask the French.
From: "Muffy Koch"
Help needed regarding GM food safety
We need an electronic copy of a peer reviewed article on any aspect
of GM food safety that can be used for group discussion in local
training courses for non-biotech health professionals. Can anyone
help me with this? If so please send articles to directly to me at
firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.... - Muffy Koch, Innovation
Biotechnology, South Africa
you will find a list of many articles related to food safety.
How Sweet It Is
'A new variety of biotech potatoes could simplify sugar production.'
If you have a sweet tooth there is probably nothing you enjoy more
than finishing off a meal with a cup of rich, dark coffee and a slice
of sweet, delicious potato?
Using biotechnology, a group of French scientists are developing a
potato that contains 19 times more fructose - the sweetest of all
natural sugars - than a conventional potato. And while it is not
likely that potatoes will replace cakes and cookies in our daily
craving for a sweet "something," it could revolutionize how foods are
sweetened and how we fuel cars are fueled. Until now, corn has been
the main source of fructose, but extracting fructose from corn
requires complicated processing. Processors use bacterial enzymes to
convert the corn's starch into fructose. By contrast, the biotech
potato converts starch into fructose by itself when it is heated and
mashed, making expensive processing unnecessary.
Researchers at the University of Picardie in France developed the new
biotech potato by adding two enzymes that work together to convert
potato starch into fructose. By the way, potatoes already contain a
great deal of starch. Makers of soft drinks and sweeteners have
expressed interest in the biotech potato. Others are excited because
the biotech potato could lead to new production methods for low-cost
ethanol, a clean-burning, alcohol-based fuel for cars.
American Medical Association Promotes Benefits of "Genetically Improved" Foods
- Gene Therapy, 16 Oct 2001 ,
BMJ.COM -- Although biotechnology has produced greatly improved,
widely accepted drugs, there is still enormous controversy over the
development of genetically modified crops that increase yields, lower
costs, and offer better ways to feed the world, the director of
science policy at the American Medical Association has said.
Speaking at a New York press briefing last week, Dr Barry David
Dickinson, director of science policy for the American Medical
Association, said that biotechnological advances had improved human
insulin, growth hormone, monoclonal antibodies, tissue plasminogen
activator (TPA), and more.
"Why, then, is there controversy over genetically modified crops?" he
asked. The seminar was funded by an unrestricted grant from the
Council for Biotechnology Information, a group of six biotechnology
firms and two trade associations. They included Aventis Crop
Sciences, BASF, Dow Agrosciences, EI du Pont de Nemours, Monsanto,
Syngenta, the American Crop Protection Association, and the
Biotechnology Industry Association
Genetically engineered medicines offer lifesaving benefits, but
biologists are thought to be tampering with natural, God given foods,
said Dr C S Prakash, director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology
Research at Tuskegee University in Alabama, United States.
However, the developing world desperately needs to produce more and
healthier food, without cutting down rainforests for farmland, he
said. Africa must increase food production by 300%, Latin America by
80%, by 2050. Biotechnology could increase local food production (as
imports seldom reach those who need them), increase nutritional
content of food, decrease the loss from pests, and decrease use of
fertilisers and pesticides. Already, he said, improved foods had
halved the percentage of undernourished people in the past 20 years,
and food consumption had increased globally.
Dr Martina McGloughlin, director of the biotechnology programme of
the University of California, said that recombinant DNA technology
could improve plants, just as Native Americans developed modern corn
by cross breeding over thousands of years, and durum wheat was
developed by radiation mutagenesis. In the past 20 or 30 years,
recombinant DNA technology has been able to modify plants by
transferring a gene from one plant to another, improving nutritional
content and reducing pesticide used in cultivation.
Speakers defended the safety of genetically modified foods. Leonard
Gianessi, senior research associate of the National Center for Food
and Agricultural Policy in Washington, DC, said that genetically
modified crops in the United States were released only after rigorous
study by the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental
Protection Agency, and the US Department of Agriculture. Americans
trusted their regulatory agencies, he said. Europeans might distrust
their regulators because of mad cow disease.
European farmers, he asserted, used far more insecticides,
herbicides, and fungicides than Americans. They sprayed wheat up to
30 times more per acre than US farmers, thus getting wheat yields of
100 to 200 bushels per acre, compared with 25 or 30 bushels in the
Bacillus thuringiensis, which is present in certain types of corn is
found naturally in the soil and has been used as a spray since the
1960s to control insects, even by organic farmers, Mr Gianessi said.
Although no speakers put the views of the lobby against genetically
modified crops, Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace in the
United Kingdom, said that he hoped the American Medical Association's
stance had not been influenced by the funding for the seminar.
"Greenpeace oppose all release of genetically modified crops into the
environment and their use as human food because the effects are so
unpredictable." In May 1999 the BMA called for a moratorium on the
commercial planting of genetically modified crops and said this
should continue until a scientific consensus is reached about the
potential long term environmental effects.
IACP On Tour: Exploring the Issues of Food Biotechnology
Food Insight, July/August 2001, http://ific.org/
In early 2001, the International Association of Culinary
Professionals (IACP) conducted discussions on food biotechnology with
panels of experts in six U.S. cities: Los Angeles; New York; Chicago;
Dallas; Portland, Oregon; and Washington, D.C. Individuals ranging
from consumers and ethicists, to chefs and scientists, and to organic
farmers and opinion leaders held passionate dialogues in which they
presented their various perspectives and views. This article
highlights some of the views expressed at those sessions.
At IACP in New York, Dr. Peter Day, head of the Biotechnology Center
for Agriculture and the Environment at Cook College, Rutgers
University, described food biotechnology as follows: "We use living
organisms to make beer and wine and cheeseńOur ancestors were
continuously engaged in selecting the best plants and cultivating
their progeny, developing higher yields and improving their
resistance to insects, to drought and to temperature
extremesńBiotechnology speeds the accuracy of the process and creates
new opportunities for pioneer plant breeders."
The View of the Organic Industry: All six panels contained
individuals who represented the Organic Trade Association's (OTA's)
view of food biotechnology. In the discussion in Washington, D.C.,
OTA's view was summed up as follows: "All Earth's inhabitants have
the most to lose in the long run because little thought is being
given to the consequences of what genetically engineered crops will
do to the environment and to biodiversity. Earth's ecosystem could be
turned upside down. There will be no way to undo the damage or recall
new organisms that have been unleashed." OTA has called for a
moratorium on the agricultural production of crops through
Brian Halweil of the Worldwatch Institute stated that: "There is no
question that biotechnology contains some real potential for
agriculture, for instance as a supplement to conventional breeding or
as a means of studying crop pathogens. The biggest hope for
agriculture is not something biochemists are going to find in a test
tube. The greatest opportunities will be found in what farmers
already know, or in what they can readily discover on their farms."
Because Something Might Happen, Does Not Mean That it Will Happen
Passions were white hot among some advocates and critics of
biotechnology, although remarkably, many more found they could
comfortably support aspects of both sides of the debate. It became
increasingly clear that there is no "side" to be on.
There has also been some good news. According to the National Center
for Food and Agricultural Policy, herbicide-resistant crops have led
to an overall reduction in herbicide use and a switch to more
environmentally friendly herbicides. Therefore, in the words of Irena
Chalmers, culinary author and teacher at the Culinary Institute of
America, "It is difficult to understand why those who lined up
against the use of pesticides are now voicing their opposition to NOT
The View of Consumers: Despite all the ferment and angst among some,
the International Food Information Council's (IFIC's) fifth survey of
U.S. consumer attitudes toward food biotechnology found that more
consumers than before (64 percent) are expecting benefits from
biotechnology. In addition, the survey found that consumers may be
surprisingly oblivious to the discussion of labeling of foods
produced with the aid of biotechnology. The poll showed that three of
four consumers could not think of any additional information that
they would like to see on food labels. Support remained high (70
percent of respondents) for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's
labeling policy regarding food biotechnology, which requires no
special labeling except when the use of biotechnology introduces an
allergen or when it substantially changes a food's composition or
nutritional content. (The survey was conducted in January 2001 by
Wirthlin Worldwide, and was discussed in depth in the March-April
2001 issue of Food Insight.)
The View of Scientists: Research undertaken by more than 400
scientists from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the United States
has produced an improved strain of rice that will eventually better
the diets of nearly two and a half billion people. The rice's ability
to produce beta-carotene (provitamin A) will help reduce the risk of
severe vitamin A deficiency and the subsequent onset of blindness in
infants. The United Nations Children's Fund says that more than a
hundred million children suffer from vitamin A deficiency. The
"golden rice" also contains three times more iron than other strains
of rice, which will help prevent the anemia that is prevalent in
women suffering from malnutrition. The Rockefeller Foundation, a
nonprofit organization, provides the technology for golden rice at no
cost to developing countries. Martina McGloughlin, director of the
Biotechnology Program and Life Sciences Informatics Program at the
University of California, Davis, stated simply that "The many and
varied tools of biotechnology hold great promise for increasing the
efficiency and sustainability of agriculture, and assuring the
abundance, variety, quality, and safety of food."
The View of Ethicists: Dr. Richard Sherlock, a professor of
philosophy in the Department of Languages and Philosophy at Utah
State University, addressed the issue head on. He declared
unequivocally, "The central anxiety is not about the science but a
quasi-religious belief that may be nontheistic-or a thinking about
the natural way of being. Many consumers believe-largely
erroneously-that eating genetically enhanced food is dangerousń Few
people know what the data is. As a result, pastoral concerns are now
Is Food Produced Through Biotechnology Safe?: Those concerned about
biotechnology proclaimed that safety is a major issue, but it is one
that is almost impossible to quantify, partly because security is a
matter of perception. There are remarkable similarities between the
controversy over foods produced through biotechnology and the one
that raged in the early 1900s when evidence began mounting that there
was a link between the consumption of raw milk and tuberculosis. The
remedy (pasteurization) was bitterly criticized and tenaciously
fought by its critics who said that pasteurization is little more
than an excuse for the sale of contaminated milk and would discourage
efforts to produce pure, fresh milk. Nevertheless, with the single
exception of a clean water supply, this public health measure has
saved more lives than any other.
Caution is a good thing because genuine consumer concerns must be
addressed before new ideas can be accepted and risks are taken only
when they are outweighed by benefits. Safety concerns us all, yet as
Irena Chalmers observed, "While nearly 300 million North American
consumers have been eating several dozen foods enhanced through
biotechnology since 1994, not a single cough or cold or allergic
reaction can be attributed to foods produced through biotechnology."
The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, The
National Academy of Sciences, The European Federation of Science and
Technology, and dozens of other scientific and trade organizations,
including the 28,000-member Institute of Food Technologists, endorse
the safety of food produced through biotechnology.
However, although safety is paramount, it is not absolute. Food
choices have always been and will continue to be dictated not only by
wholesomeness and nutritive value but also by history or geography
and by custom or religious belief.
Conclusion: When the sequence of the human genome was released in
2000, scientists were able to glimpse the infinite possibilities that
lie ahead. Dr. Michael Lawton of Rutgers University summed up the
current situation saying, "When the dust has long settled on this
argument, both biotechnology and organic farming will be viewed as
useful and compatible approaches to improving agricultural produce
and practice. The term 'genetic engineering', which at present
induces a degree of discomfort in the publicńwill be viewed neutrally
as a technology that can be used for purposes both noble or base, for
profit or not, to improve the crunch in breakfast cereals or help
feed the world."
New Anthrax Cure
Quorex Pharmaceuticals announced that the company had come up with a
way to kill anthrax by sending the bacteria mixed messages. According
to the company, bacteria from an infection such as anthrax operates
much like a normal 'conversation' in the body. It communicates to
other bacteria through molecules and receptors. After a lengthy talk,
a quorum is established to attack the host. Dangerous toxins are
released and infection begins. This is where the drug Quorex comes
in: The drug's molecules interrupt this conversation to tell the
bacteria that everything is fine, so the bugs think that their
buddies went away. Once the toxins or bugs are disabled, the immune
system will take care of them. Antibiotics currently on the market
can effectively treat anthrax if it is diagnosed early. Quorex
believes that with federal funding, the company could develop a much
more effective means of destroying the anthrax bacteria.