Today's Topics in AgBioView.
* Trewavas, the Herald, and Greenpeace shakedowns
* And The Winner of This Year's Most Biased Headline Is ....
* Tomorrow's Bounty
* Biotech and Development in the Andean Countries
* Humans Doomed Without Space Colonies, Says Hawking
* Dear Professor Hawking....
* Knowledge of Anthrax Put to the Test
* Protracted Introduction of New Technologies In European Agriculture
From: "Mary Murphy"
Subject: Trewavas, the Herald, and Greenpeace shakedowns
Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes, as it has been with Greenpeace's "libel" suit with the Herald.
The Herald published a letter saying that Greenpeace engaged in "corporate shakedowns," and how did Greenpeace react?
By shaking down the Herald with a lawsuit!!!!!!!!!
It's almost comic in a grotesque kind of way, but it gets even better. It was reported that Lord Melchett, being the fine gentleman that he is, was going to donate the money he received from the suit to charity. But now, according to a message from NGIN at planorganic.org (http://www.planorganic.com/news&comment.htm - scroll down to October 11), it seems these "charities" are Gene Watch and NGIN, Melchett's leading cheerleaders.
NGIN has been shouting this story from the top of every tower it could find, and now -- surprise, surprise -- they are set to benefit financially from the "undisclosed sum" the Herald is to pay Lord Melchett!
Good job, Melchett and NGIN. Keep shaking them on down! It beats working.
And The Winner of This Year's Most Biased Headline Is ....
'French Court Permits GM Crop Contamination'
- Environment Daily 1081, 15/10/01
French activists campaigning against genetically-modified (GM) agriculture have lost an important court case, it was revealed on Friday. The country's highest administrative court has come out in favour of a government decision last year not to pull up and destroy about 4,500 hectares of conventional maize showing low-level GM contamination (ED 17/07/00 www.environmentdaily.com/articles/index.cfm?action=article&ref=8044 Two organisations mounted legal challenges following the controversial decision, Greenpeace France and the National rural coordination union. Both argued that the government had contravened the law by ignoring the precautionary principle.
The Council of state has disagreed, ruling that the level of contamination was so low that destruction in the name of the precautionary principle was unnecessary.
The court's decision has prompted virtually no public comment from either side, however French finance daily Les Echos reported that the agriculture ministry considers the ruling of "the highest importance" because it could contribute to the establishment of a legal right to a "variable [GM] impurity threshold" in conventional crops.
This web site is provided as a resource for producer-members of U.S. agricultural commodity organizations. Other visitors also are welcome to browse this site to learn about crop biotechnology and the benefits of this agricultural science.
As a producer, you already know about the benefits biotechnology delivers on your farm and to everyone in the food chain. Biotech products are helping you do an even better job of producing safe, nutritious food and high-quality fiber, while enhancing your stewardship of our nation?s critical land and water resources.
The information on this site is designed to help you communicate to others the value and safety of biotechnology so that as a farmer, you will be able to capitalize on the benefits agriculture?s new technologies deliver today, and the promises they hold for tomorrow.
The Benefits of Biotechnology As an American farmer, your role is to provide high-quality food and fiber for your family and families around the world. Biotechnology is an advancement in science that helps you in this role. It allows you to bring safer, more nutritious foods and higher quality fibers to your customers, while enhancing the stewardship of our nation's critical land and water resources.
American farmers have experienced first-hand the benefits biotechnology delivers to everyone in the food chain. Together, we need to reassure consumers of the value and safety of biotechnology so that we'll all be able to capitalize on the benefits agriculture's new technologies deliver today, and the promises they hold for tomorrow.
One common goal unites us as American farmers with our partners in the food and fiber industry: To provide our customers with safe, high-quality products. Biotechnology is helping all of us do an even better job of attaining this goal. And it is an important scientific advancement that promises to deliver even greater future benefits to everyone in the food and fiber chain.
Farmers for the Benefits of Biotechnology As farmers working together, our objective is to share our outlook on the value and benefit of biotechnology with everyone in the food chain. We do so from two valuable perspectives:
1.) We have years of first-hand, practical experience with these tools. We have seen how they can help us do a better job of producing and delivering more nutritious and safer foods and higher-quality fibers to our customers, while enhancing our stewardship of the land and water resources with which we work.
2.) We are both producers AND consumers of the food and fiber that comes from our farms. This dual position helps us recognize that biotechnology is another in a long line of technology advancements that have helped make our supply of food and fiber the safest and healthiest in the world.
As farmers, it is important that we advance our beliefs that the debate on the effectiveness and usefulness of biotechnology should be driven by sound science, not by emotions, and particularly not by those whose only arguments against biotechnology are based on unfounded fears.
Most major commodity groups in the agricultural market are participating in this education and information effort. We all have various issues that are important to our members, but we recognize how critical it is for us to stand united when it comes to the accessibility of biotechnology.
Take a tour of the following pages to learn more about the specific benefits of biotechnology at http://www.tomorrowsbounty.org/benefits/index.htm including topics on
Biotechnology Benefits the Environment; Food Safety, Nutritional and Pharmaceutical Biotechnology is Highly Regulated; Biotechnology is a Revolutionary Technology; Biotechnology Benefits World Hunger
Learn what Opinion Leaders are Saying about Biotechnology:
*Watch a 'Video News Release' series about Biotechnology*
Biotechnology and Development in Andean Countries
Seminar Organized by UNIDO, CamBioTec, CIP and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Peru November 18 - 20, 2001, Centro Internacional de la Papa (CIP), Lima - Perú
Biotechnology is becoming an emerging technology with broad commercial applications in all sectors of economic activity, especially in agriculture, agri-food, human health care, industry and the environment. However, the benefits of biotechnology are not yet accessed by most developing countries due in part to the important gaps existing in their internal capabilities to deal with the complex and varied areas of biotechnology activity. Indeed, biotechnology development requires that countries develop internal capabilities in a variety of areas such as policies and regulations, scientific research, biosafety, technology transfer, industry-research linkages, public awareness and other. The reality is that most developing countries, lack most of these capabilities.
In Latin America, the group of Andean countries (Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Perú and Venezuela) has some common cultural, ecological, economical, and political similarities. This group represents a market of over 100 million people. Currently, biotechnology development in Andean countries is generally limited to some research and industrial activity in the fermentation and micropropagation areas, with notable exceptions, such as Chilean bioforest and biomining applications. However, these countries have developed stable economies and government institutions, qualified universities and research centres, and strong industries. Thus, Andean countries have a potential to rapidly adopt policies and assimilate the tools required to empower them to properly manage the introduction of biotechnology applications. Centrally located in the Andean region, Peru is a representative and ideal place to start promoting biotechnology development, as it has a great part of the genetic mega-diversity of the region.
Building on the previous efforts developed by UNIDO1, CIP2 and CamBioTec3 and in harmony with their current plans in Latin America, it is proposed to joint efforts to organize a high level event gathering Andean decision-makers to present biotechnology developments in the World, to discuss the situation in Andean countries and their capacity building needs, and to design suitable cooperation programs with national governments/institutions. Considering that Peru has a central location, it has a lower awareness on biotechnology issues, and that a newly elected democratic government will be soon in place, it is suggested to hold the event in Lima, Peru, by the end of November 2001. A tentative outline of this event is described below.
Participants: Peruvian decision-makers of the government, academia, and industry, with representatives from Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.
Speakers: Experts from North America, Europe, Peru and Latin America countries.
Objectives: a) To present an overview of the status of biotechnology research and applications. b) To discuss the basics of regulations and international relevant agreements, such as the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, and the status in Peru and Andean countries. c) To discuss the issue of public perception and communications in biotechnology d) To analyze the Peruvian and Andean countries needs for international cooperation in biotechnology, especially on building biosafety regulatory capacities & public awareness.
Outcomes: Expected outcomes from the Workshop sessions: 1. A clear overview of the status of biotechnology in Peru and Andean countries. 2. Recommendations to the Peruvian government and UNIDO about regulatory policies. 3. Recommendations about priorities for international cooperation in building regulatory capacities in the Andean sub-region.
Humans Doomed Without Space Colonies, Says Hawking
Reuters, Monday October 15
LONDON (Reuters) - The human race is likely to be wiped out by a doomsday virus before this millennium is out unless it starts to colonize space, top British scientist Stephen Hawking warned on Tuesday. Hawking's comments came as the United States teetered on the brink of panic over possible germ warfare after anthrax-laced letters were delivered in the capital Washington and the states of New York, Nevada and Florida.
"I don't think the human race will survive the next thousand years unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet," Hawking told Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper.
Hawking, Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University in England, said Armageddon threatened not in the form of a Cold War-style nuclear holocaust but could arrive in a more insidious and invisible form. "In the long term, I am more worried about biology. Nuclear weapons need large facilities, but genetic engineering can be done in a small lab. You can't regulate every lab in the world," he said.
Investigators have not pinned down who is behind the U.S. anthrax attacks, but fears are growing they could be retaliation for U.S. military strikes against Afghanistan (news - web sites), which followed last month's suicide attacks on New York and Washington.
Hawking, a leading theoretical physicists who hit the best-seller lists with his book "A Brief History of Time," said the chances of humanity pulling through looked good. "I am an optimist. We will reach out to the stars," he said. A Star Trek-style "warp drive" might be one way to relieve the tedium of lengthy journeys between stars in spacecraft traveling below the speed of light, Hawking said.
To: Stephen W Hawking
Dear Professor Hawking:
I read your comments from a 'Reuters' report on bioterrorism and the need to reach out to the stars. You are somewhat justified in your fear of misuse of 'Genetic Engineering' as a weapon by the terrorists but in reality these evil people are employing the simple 19th century microbiology to spread this terror right now. As you well know, one does not need a sophisticated genetic engineering to develop deadly microbes that can simply be isolated in nature and cultured. Bioterrorism is not new either - In the medieval times, plague-infected mice were catapulted into enemy forts in Europe to spread the disease and fear.
If we are really forced to colonize the space and "reach out to the stars", then genetic engineering of our crops is the only hope to raise food in those harsher environments.
While it may be a good 'back-up option' to dream of living in the stars, we must not be distracted from using modern science to address the real terrors plaguing a sixth of humanity now in this planet - poverty, hunger, and infectious diseases. We must endeavor to use our knowledge (including genetic engineering) and wisdom to make life better and secure for every one on this planet - this is our only realistic hope for survival, now!
From: Stephen W Hawking
Your mail has been received and will be read and dealt with appropriately over the next few days.
Professor Hawking very much regrets that due to the severe limitations he works under, and the huge amount of mail he receives, he may not have time to write you a reply.
Neel Shearer, Graduate Assistant to Professor S W Hawking CH CBE FRS
Lucasian Professor of Mathematics Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, CB3 0WA., United Kingdom. http://www.hawking.org.uk
Bioterrorism: This Time It Was Real
Knowledge of Anthrax Put to the Test
- Martin Enserink, Science, October 19, 2001; http://www.sciencemag.org/
Was it organized terrorism or just a madman with a grudge? Where did the attacker get the bugs? And how do you protect against anthrax anyway?
These questions were begging for answers early this week after the United States experienced what appears to have been a series of attacks with anthrax. Several contamination incidents frayed the nerves of a nation already jittery from the 11 September massacres and moved biodefense to the top of the political agenda.
As Science went to press, federal officials said anthrax-laden letters or packages had been mailed to the offices of American Media, a publishing company in Boca Raton, Florida; the NBC News desk in New York City; and the office of Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) in Washington, D.C. Robert Stevens, a photo editor at American Media, had died of what appears to be inhalation anthrax, the most severe form of the disease, and a co-worker was diagnosed with the disease. Two other people had the milder, cutaneous form. At least eight others had been exposed but showed no signs of infection. The reports also spawned a series of hoaxes and false alarms; by last weekend, almost any powdery substance found anywhere was being treated as a potential bioweapon.
The apparent assaults posed a rare test of the country's capability to deal with a real bioterror attack--albeit a modest threat compared with the medical catastrophe that spraying a fine mist of anthrax over a big city could have wrought. But the crisis also trained a spotlight on the disease itself and the considerable investment in studying it. Thanks in part to the mounting worries about anthrax's use as a biological weapon, "there has been an explosion in knowledge," says Martin Hugh-Jones, an anthrax expert at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. "It's marvelous." Over the past 2 decades, researchers have puzzled together in detail how Bacillus anthracis makes humans sick and kills them. Even its genome of 5 million base pairs is about 95% sequenced and should be completed within a couple of months, says Timothy Read, who leads a team at The Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Maryland.
That molecular expertise is now being put to use on many fronts. Researchers familiar with the organism's DNA are being called on to help "fingerprint" the samples that arrived by mail in hope of identifying their origins. Others are looking at vaccines that can be administered conveniently. The old standby, the only anthrax vaccine licensed for use in the United States today, requires six shots and an annual booster. It's also in short supply, and the limited stocks are reserved primarily for military use (see p. 498). Still other researchers are developing better diagnostics to determine who is infected and who is not, as well as drugs that can block the anthrax toxin, which remains lethal even after antibiotics have killed the bacteria. All these requirements seem likely to get increased attention in the coming months.
Tough and lethal. Anthrax is a disease of livestock that occurs almost everywhere in the world. One reason it's hard to eradicate is that it forms hardy spores that can lie dormant in the soil for decades; they are found in many places in the United States. Although many researchers have worked with anthrax in animals and in the lab, precious few have ever seen anthrax in people. Even fewer have seen the pulmonary infection, caused by the same anthrax strains that cause cutaneous anthrax, provided that the spores are dispersed in minuscule particles that can descend deep into the lungs. Only 18 cases of inhalation anthrax are known to have occurred in the United States in the entire 20th century.
When the first case of the 21st century appeared this month, authorities turned to biologists for some detective work. One way to help identify the perpetrators of the attacks is to study the DNA of the spores found at the three sites and compare it to that of known strains. This could reveal whether they all came from the same source and whether they are run-of-the-mill strains available from dozens of labs or are rare varieties. Several anthrax researchers say that the FBI has enlisted the help of Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, an expert in the identification of anthrax strains. Together with Hugh-Jones, Keim has built a collection of more than 1300 strains from across the globe. Keim declines to confirm or deny his participation in the investigation, but he does point out that his lab would be better equipped than any other to do the job.
Telling anthrax strains apart is not an easy task, says Keim, because the genetic differences between strains are extremely small. One reason for their similarity may be that anthrax bacteria spend much of their time as spores, which act as evolutionary time capsules. As a result, the disease may have been around since the dawn of agriculture, but the organism has been actively evolving for only a fraction of that time, limiting its genetic variability.
Keim has developed a technique to identify different strains by focusing on a number of so-called variable-number tandem repeats, rapidly evolving spots in the microbe's genome where a small stretch of DNA is repeated multiple times. The work has already paid off in another forensic study: Keim's team was the first to identify the strain used in a 1993 anthrax attack by the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan. As it turned out, the cult had sprayed a nonvirulent vaccine strain into the Tokyo air, says Keim--which explains why this attack, in contrast to the later release of nerve gas in a subway, was a flop. There's no official word yet on the origins of the strains found in the United States, however.
One of anthrax's most insidious qualities is that it produces a toxin aimed at thwarting the immune system that continues to do harm even after the source is eliminated. "You can kill the bug with no effort at all," says Hugh-Jones, "but people will still die, because they're exquisitely sensitive to the toxin." Some researchers have focused on new ways to stop this process. For instance, Harvard University's R. John Collier, who has long been fascinated by the ingenuity of anthrax's aggressive toxin, has discovered ways to disarm it.
The toxin has three components, Collier explains. One of them, called edema factor (EF), prevents cells called macrophages from gobbling up bacteria. Another, called lethal factor (LF), kills the macrophages and eventually the host, too. The third component, protective antigen or PA (so called because it can be used as a vaccine), helps shuttle the other two into macrophages. The latter process could also be the bug's Achilles' heel, says Collier. Seven PA molecules must bind to receptors on the surface of a macrophage and come together to form a doughnut-shaped complex (see figure). Then they bind EF and LF, after which the entire complex is engulfed by the cell membrane and shuttled to a so-called endosome inside the cell. Once there, the PA molecules form a special pore that pierces the endosome's membrane and lets EF and LF out to do their grisly work.
In a paper published in Science last spring (27 April, p. 695), Collier showed that a mutated PA molecule could form part of the dough- nut like normal PA but could also disrupt the membrane pore, preventing the escape of EF and LF. Indeed, he found that rats died quickly from an injection of LF with normal PA, but survived when LF and mutant PA were injected. He hopes to create a drug based on mutant PA.
There could be a bonus, Collier says. PA is the most important component of the licensed human anthrax vaccine. Because the mutant PA elicits antibodies just as well as the normal form does, it might do double duty: "You would have wrapped into one molecule a therapeutic and a potential vaccine." This would be valuable in a major attack, he says, when thousands of people would need immediate treatment and a vaccine to prevent infection later by lingering spores.
"It's an interesting and very important approach," says Columbia University public health expert Stephen Morse. Harvard biologist Matthew Meselson agrees that Collier's work is "marvelous," but at the same time, he cautions against relying on high-tech solutions to bioterrorism. Developing a new drug often takes years, if not decades, says Meselson. For now, he thinks simple, generic solutions are the best--from installing highly efficient air filters in many buildings to educating the public about do's and don'ts during an outbreak.
Protracted Introduction of New Technologies In European Agriculture: Plant Biotechnology
- Bernard Auxenfans , CEO of FOL Networks Ltd, UK (1)
Lecture to Rabobank UK Food & Agribusiness Adv Board meeting ; Sept 22, 2001 Foxhills, UK
The issues surrounding the introduction of GMOs into international grain trading are having, and will continue to have, a significant and negative impact on agricultural trade. On a broader note, the introduction of new agricultural technology will likely continue to be one of the most serious bones of contention in the WTO agricultural negotiations over the next 3 to 5 years. To put it in some perspective, for example the loss of the European corn exports market has cost the US an estimated US$200 million per year since 1998.
More tragically for the developing countries, there is now an unprecedented breakdown in the harmonization of procedures across major agricultural countries to develop, assess, approve and market new technologies used in agriculture, such as Plant Biotechnology.
Per Pinstrup-Andersen, Director of the International Food Policy Institute (IFPRI), an independent food research center of the CGIAR group -- the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, lead and partially funded by the World Bank -- recently stated that, "Developing countries do not understand why the Europeans authorize the use of biotechnology in human medicine and refuse them in agriculture. We handicap the poorer countries and prevent them from using plant biotechnology techniques." In Andersen's opinion, neither Industry nor Greenpeace should be the ones dictating to the developing countries what they have to do with adopting or not the new agricultural technologies.
In April, the headline of the daily evening Belgium newspaper "Le Soir" read: "GMOs: Belgium Wants a Debate." Jaak Gabriels, then Belgian Minister of Agriculture -who was to preside over the EU's Council of Agriculture Ministers starting on July 1rst - had thrown a line to the US. In a conversation with his American counterpart Ann Veneman (herself a former full-time IPC member until her nomination by President Bush as the new US Secretary of Agriculture, early this year), Minister Gabriels said: "The Europeans are on the point of constructively re-opening discussions on the role of biotechnology in agriculture."
The informal meeting of the fifteen EU Member States which was held last week-end at Alden Biesen in Limburg, Belgium, was dedicated partially to plant biotechnology, with the prospect of easing restrictions on planting GMO crops in the European Union. No doubt, it was a move in the right direction. However don't hold your breath. Firstly in the meantime, Minister Gabriels has changed portfolio before July, and secondly not much progress has happened at that informal meeting.
One needs only to look at the growing challenges around the world, such as escalating, complicated and more costly pesticide regulations, heterogeneous plant variety legislation for seeds, differing national organic food production schemes, more recently the fierce controversy across the EU on animal vaccinations in light of the recent foot and mouth disease epidemic, and the overall lack of harmonization in procedures across the globe. Even more disheartening and trade-distorting now are the present "principles of traceability, labeling, precaution and liability," being promoted by the European Union's officials in global forums, such as the Codex Alimentarius.
In spite of the Codex's international agreements, the manipulation of the regulatory process to discriminate against new technologies in agriculture by international environmental NGOs, or national interests --mostly in the European Union -- has allowed a surge of unfortunate regulatory and politically-motivated scandals. These scandals have become a growing obstacle to free- and fair-trade in agricultural products.
First, I will review the status of some key agricultural technologies being developed worldwide, and look at their lower level of acceptance in the EU. Second, I will reflect on the ideological and political background which has led to the present suspicious and anti-technology environment, especially in European agriculture. Then, I will attempt to outline the present irrational plant biotech gridlock, resulting from the confused European legislation. In conclusion, I will propose a few possible exit routes out of this puzzle. I intend to emphasize that all of them must be handled with courage and with a vision for a long-term future.
What are some of the key agricultural technologies, being introduced and promoted around the world?
1. The use of animal hormones -- both the scientifically-tested synthetic hormones and the hormones produced through bioengineering techniques -- to increase the production of beef and milk has been a growing controversy and source of friction between the EU and the US. For example, BST, the Bovine Somatotropine which stimulates milk production, has been used safely in more than 25 countries for the past 10 years. Still, the EU has denied the use of BST to its dairy farmers without offering sound scientific evidence of any danger. The blockage on US exports of hormone-treated beef is still up for discussion, despite a European proposal to pay compensation to the US for losses suffered as a result of the prohibition on hormone-treated beef in Europe. The EU is wrong. And its governments know it. However, they will deny it vehemently and will not move from their position.
2. Conservation tillage farming techniques (such as no-till or minimum tillage) are generally yield-neutral or positive. These techniques save moisture, nutrients, CO2 emissions and input costs, while providing habitats for wildlife and protecting the soil from destructive erosion. For example in the US, they benefit farmers by up to US$40-90 per hectare in reduced input costs, including machinery, fuel and labor costs.
These farming techniques were launched some 20 years ago, in the US, Latin America and Australia. In 2000, conservation-tillage land has covered 110 million hectares globally. Due to the fast adoption of this technology in many diverse countries around the world, future prospects point to adding nothing less than another 30 million hectares to that figure in 2001 alone.
For example, conservation tillage techniques are used on approximately 35% of the corn and soybean planted acreage in the US, and 45% of the soybean crop in Brazil. Downunder in Australia, C.T. is used on more than 70% of the rapeseed, 80% of the wheat and 90% of the cotton crops. With less than 10% of the EU arable land using these environmentally sustainable conservation techniques today, it is evident that they are still not as widely used in Europe as they should be. This is mostly due to highly subsidized grain prices and the entrenched conservatism of the European agriculture sector.
3. Low dose applications of safer pesticides, promoted by the global agrochemical industry over the past 15 years, have brought a true reduction in the amount of pesticides being applied per hectare.
In developed agricultural economies, it has also allowed the introduction of safer molecules into the environment. Only recently have these techniques been promoted in the EU, under stricter pesticide regulations.
4. Irrigation, as well as water management in general, is currently an acute problem in many developing countries, often opposed by some irresponsible anti-irrigation environmentalists. Due to the degradation of water quality, the need for water preservation is now felt in Europe. Recently, a lot of attention has been devoted to more efficient irrigation systems. It is imperative that water management be given a higher priority in the European agricultural context.
5. The fast adoption and satisfactions by farmers -- outside of the EU -- of new varieties of Genetically Improved Plants launched over five years ago in the US, is unequivocally confirmed by the 11% global growth rate of planted GMO crops in 2000, versus the 1999 season. This growth has occurred in spite of Greenpeace threats and French activist Jose Bové's well-publicized, but deceitful repeated statements during last year, that: "GM crop areas [are] in decline in 2000."
Overall, 17% of the total world's arable crop area (293 million hectares) is planted to transgenic crops: 34% of the soybean, 16% of the cotton, 11% of the rapeseed and 7% of the maize crops worldwide. The number of countries producing and/or importing biotech crops now reached 13, while 29 countries are conducting biotech field trials.
It has been projected that in 2001, new transgenic varieties of maize, soybean, rapeseed and cotton will be planted on 55 millions hectares, another 11%+ growth from 2000, mostly in the US, Argentina, Australia, Mexico, Canada, Brazil and China.
Paradoxically, all five of these essential agricultural technologies are fully compatible and in line with the sustainable agriculture criteria, invoked by the so-called environmental NGOs and European consumer associations. In this context, it is crucial to understand some of the emotional and political background, which has created such an anti-technology environment in European agriculture.
Why does Europe NOT promote these new agricultural technologies?
1. Since the 1980's, some European media have introduced and convinced a large portion of the public that its agriculture is "self-serving." This is an introverted vision of agriculture. The idea can be summed up as "we-know-it-better-than-you-do," a not-too-humble syndrome, claiming bluntly that: "High-productivity farming methods are basically bad for the environment and mankind." At the same time, they have disregarded the needs of importing countries, relying on agricultural exports for their basic food needs; including Egypt and other African countries, as well as many other countries around the world.
If not counter-balanced soon by reason, this self-centered approach will have eventually over time a serious negative impact on global grain production and trade, but in reality, concealing agricultural trade barriers behind concerns for high safety or other standards.
2. The French romantic Rousseau-iste view of the "rural concept" -- while legitimate when expressed at a rational level -- is successfully being hyped. It is forcefully proposed by environmental and consumer NGOs as an alternative to the so-called "productivist agriculture" achievements, which are constantly being targeted as diabolical, obsolete and un-sustainable.
3. Thus, the age-old "nourishing role" of agriculture is being thrown away and downgraded by many opponents of modern agricultural practices, unfortunately without much resolute reaction to defend it from the now politically weak European agricultural sector. This is a clear case of "intellectual terrorism."
4. In at least four major European countries - Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands - the political clout of left-wing green parties has strengthened their position. They are unseating or replacing traditional agriculture ministers. Now the hard-core greens themselves represent agriculture at ministerial, government and EU levels, often arbitrating key-decisions between centre-left and centre-right political parties, usually to the lowest common agricultural denominator level. The pressures to elevate NGOs' regulatory status to that equivalent to national regulatory bodies must be opposed; the democratic representation of the people can only lie with elected national governments. 5. Strong sentiments against the adequacy of current food safety regulations have arisen in the European public. The reasons for this are widely different from one another, and from nation to nation.
For example: * The concept of genetic change is laden with reminiscences of the second world war in Germany; * In France, there is the tragic memory of AIDS-contaminated transfusion blood, which was severely mishandled by French politicians and bureaucrats; * The BSE epidemic and its aftermath in the UK; * In Belgium, the adulterated Coca-Cola drinks and the dioxin-contaminated chicken incidents; * Across Europe, the unexpectedly severe floods in cities this year and late last year, often blamed on perceived bureaucratic mismanagement of rivers and dams in the countryside; * The costly outbreak of foot and mouth disease across Europe; and * The poor handling of the StarLink corn launch in the US, approved as animal feed, but not yet approved for human consumption.
Each of these incidents has been swollen out of proportion and unjustly manipulated and linked by environmental and consumer NGOs to provoke irrational fears toward agriculture in general, and often to plant biotechnology in particular. The European green political parties are all playing an electorally-rewarding, vote-catching political game, often with the support of the popular media, which is always ready to boost stories with a high emotional content. Even, appalling lawlessness against obvious destruction of private property is now prevailing and growing with the country authorities in hiding.
5. Grain price supports and income protection for European farmers have often allowed them to get away with NOT immediately adopting new technologies to lower costs, reducing pesticide use, adopting conservation tillage techniques, etc? As CAP reform continues and is transformed in the way EU Agriculture Commissioner Fischler has been talking about, European farmers will have soon to respond to world market prices. They will want to embrace these sustainable agricultural technologies, which lower their costs of production and are more considerate to the environment and to the countryside.
6. The developing countries are being somewhat "colonialized" again by being denied access to technology that could help them develop. This appalling manipulation was evident at Seattle from two assertive and opposing fronts. On one hand, the EU environmental NGOs -- Greenpeace and others - were dictating to the LDCs how they should farm their countries. On the other hand, the US labor unions did not want any competition for US farmers.
The most severe impact of these European anti-agriculture policies by the NGOs-including opposition to the reasoned, optimized, integrated use of fertilizers, agrochemicals and new biotech crops-is now being felt in developing countries, such as sub-Saharan Africa, India, Egypt and those countries which need these technologies most in order to produce food in a more economic and sustainable way. A few more countries, such as New Zealand, Thailand and Brazil, are now hesitant to plant or slowly planting commercial biotech crops, under heavy pressure tactics from environmental NGO groups and the retaliatory threat of funding reductions by some powerful developed countries, despite the vocal support of the FAO and the World Bank for considering the timely adoption of these technologies.
What has created the present irrational plant biotech regulatory gridlock and the crisis of confidence between the EU and the US?
1. The regulatory approach between the US and Europe differs considerably. In the US, the agencies that existed to monitor the safety of agricultural products on a scientific basis took on a similar role for biotechnology products. Reviews are done by existing regulatory agencies (USDA, EPA, FDA) and are conducted on a product-by-product basis under a set of published, coherent, scientific guidelines. In the US -- even though it is becoming clear that consumers are asking more and more questions -- government and industry are following the same line. "[American] consumers put their trust in government-controlled organizations," says Phyllis Johnson, Director of the Agriculture Research Center (ARC), the biggest agricultural center in the world, located some hundred of kilometers north of Washington D.C.
2. Historically, the European Directorate for Environment was assigned the new task of regulating the contained use and deliberate release into the environment of genetically modified micro- and macro-organisms, later abbreviated to GMOs. It was EU legislators who introduced the term "GMO" -- not industry -- as it is unfortunately too often reported. This designation is not only imprecise, but also highly damaging to the perception of biotechnology. Some environmentalists have even equated the perceived potential dangers of biotechnology with that of a nuclear apocalypse! As was to be expected, the resulting European 90/220 Dissemination Directive, in its original first drafts, focused on the presumed dangers of invisible and widely disseminating micro-organisms. Subsequently, this 90/220 Directive was also applied to cultivated plants, which in contrast, are macro-organisms that are visible, static, under constant supervision and remedial actions by farmers, and which, as food plants, are by definition fi
The new 2001/18 Directive will soon replace the 90/220 Directive. The new directive is currently being blocked by a de-facto regulatory moratorium imposed by a blocking majority of only SIX countries: France, Austria, Greece, Italy, Denmark and Luxembourg. They are requesting more extensive rules on labeling and traceability. Some have indicated that it may take as long as four more years to put in place the traceability regulations, which the EU is currently developing. This would mean at least another four-year delay in commercial crop approvals and import restrictions of these new genetically improved grain varieties, which have been approved abroad, but not in the EU yet.
3. Focused on management of the CAP, the EU Directorate for Agriculture appeared originally to have little interest in plant biotechnology. It is a pity to note that during most of the past ten years, the EU Directorate for Agriculture has simply disengaged itself from the promotion of advanced agricultural technologies.
The Agricultural Directorate has preferred to focus its considerable resources solely on production, commercialization and external trade issues, thus leaving room for others to fill the resulting political and regulatory vacuum. Meanwhile, the Agricultural Directorate has continued to fine-tune the plant variety legislation. However, it did NOT encompass plant biotechnology applications in due time. This is unfortunate, as this was the obvious legal framework in which to develop specific plant biotech regulations.
4. Today there are no universal standards for acceptable GMO content in food products, due to serious philosophical differences between the US and the EU governments, which hold the key to any regulation. As in the beef hormone situation, GMO labeling risks provoking serious trade disruptions when the European regulations/guidelines start to be implemented, since they would act as non-tariff barriers to trade. Illegitimate regulations will drag countries into the little-tested area of WTO mechanisms for resolving disputes.
5. The un-scientific so-called "precautionary principle" is unfortunately being successfully and constantly misused as justification to immobilize science and its applications, as well as to confuse the public. While no one contests the need for great precaution in regulating new products or processes, its application should not go beyond its own spirit. The so-called principle, which is in fact a concept rather than a principle, is indeed a wonderful tool to avoid making delicate and courageous political decisions.
Overall, European agriculture is facing the most fundamental challenge to its very existence since World War II. Several macro-factors are at work, stemming from different rationales, but adding up to a very difficult position for European farmers At a general level, the CAP policies are being heavily criticized by a combination of European political gaming and by environmentalists opposed to modern agricultural practices. Certainly, the time is ripe to jump on the present agricultural financial crisis and make swiping changes and adaptations to agriculture and regulatory structures across Europe.
However this past May, the present French President has again strongly rejected the possibility of reforming the CAP !
The so-called agricultural or green biotechnology-or more precisely, the plant varieties ameliorated by genetic engineering-has suffered in Europe from an extraordinary conjunction of some of these negative influences, unrelated events and broad misconceptions. While the complex and chaotic EU regulatory process is continuing its slow pace of development, massive external events, reported earlier, can also contribute to escalating negative attitudes towards plant biotech products. With this most negative combination of factors, improved plant cultivation has been taken hostage with the defamatory branding of "GMOs," and as such, they have unfortunately become easy icons of international manifestations.
In a nutshell, they are part and parcel of a serious societal CRISIS of CONFIDENCE between the farmers and the rest of European society, which is largely due to a lack of political courage and coherent agricultural policies. In conclusion, how can we return to Reality?
The future effective use of new agriculture technologies in Europe is for the least uncertain. However, some tentative ways to break the current deadlock-most prominently the de-facto moratorium in the EU on the commercial planting of genetically improved plants- may negatively impact the WTO agricultural trade negotiations and seriously risk dividing the world into three regional agricultural trade zones: the EU, the Americas and the rest of the world. Ultimately, one is afraid that European farmers will be left with archaic technology, and will be even less able to compete in world markets if the EU's anti-technology attitude wins the day.
Let us consider some possible remedial actions:
1. Courageously advance the severely needed re-structuring of European agriculture around a more visionary Common Agriculture Policy. A CAP, whose policies are facing the most fundamental challenge to its very existence since World War II. This might take the shape of a further reduction of support for major crops, a clear split between 'productive' policies and 'rural beautification' policies, and acceptance of modern technologies under a re-aligned supervision body, which would be strict, but fair and unbiased. Overall policies would be developed to rehabilitate the farmer's role as the "Nation's Food Provider." 1.
2. Support studies on the extent of the true objectives and influences of the anti-technology lobbies on the overall viability of the agricultural sector of the world economy.
3. Better understanding of the origin of the funds that finance environmental NGOs and other movements across the world, which oppose systematically the introduction and adoption of these new agricultural technologies. Transparency of structures and financial accounts of lobbies, NGOs and the like, should be made mandatory and public in line with those required by law from any private corporations.
4. One essential improvement in the regulatory field would be moving away from horizontal regulation of so-called GMOs and reverting to the much more sensible idea of regulating by trade/industry sector in a harmonious vertical way. Then, the regulation and marketing of genetically improved plants could be done in a way which is consistent with the operation of the seed industry and downstream industries-from plant breeding, to biotech applications, seed multiplication, sales and so forth, via farmers into the respective food or feed chains. As a matter of principal, such legislation should always place consumer health as its primary objective, be strict, and based on sound science. 5. Such a vertical system would be facilitated by one single safety assessment for the cultivation and all uses of the derived downstream products.
The various required assessments -- the environmental, human and animal safety assessments -- should be integrated into one single coherent procedure, conducted by an independent, scientific body, such as the European Food Authority announced to be established in 2002. The current authorization procedures, involving scientific reviews by all 15 Members States, are inefficient: they are blatantly open to political interference; they have undermined confidence in the whole regulatory process, and they are clearly non-functional. The famous "One Door, One Key" concept, originally conceived by the EU Commission should be revived and implemented.
6. The question of informing consumers is one which nobody contests. The European Union has promoted labeling as an important tool for informing consumers about the use of biotechnology in food production and to facilitate consumer choice. Labeling regulations do require all products containing traces of DNA or protein resulting from the biotechnology process to indicate that the food or food ingredients have been genetically modified. Perhaps not surprisingly, under pressure from influential NGOs, major food manufacturers and retailers in the EU have elected to avoid the use of biotechnology-derived ingredients from their premium products.
Again, we are in favor of a labeling-based on information, not a labeling-based on unfair discrimination. Those European consumers who recognize the societal benefits of agricultural biotech and are prepared to purchase downstream food products, have been deprived of that choice by the European regulations that designed to provide it. Furthermore, developing countries with an interest in adopting plant biotechnology products have been discouraged from doing so, for fear of losing traditional export markets.
New European proposals - still on the table today - will extend the current labeling requirements to all food and feed products developed using biotechnology, including those products identical to conventional products. This move away from detection-based labeling to process-based labeling, risks further confusing European consumers, increasing fraudulent practices and disrupting international trade in foodstuffs and feedstuffs. It is shocking to point out that other GMOs such as yeast, enzymes and the like, should have fallen within the same framework. Until today, the EU has been very inconsistent in clearly excluding from the regulation the only GMOs that it now uses practically in its food preparation for quite many years: those in cheese, wine and beer, no less!
To be consistent regulatory-wise, so-called "organic foods" should also be labeled, but subject to an equally strong European-wide regulatory process. There is a need to develop harmonized global labeling criteria and standards which accommodate all consumers' rights to choose, and which do not discriminate against technologies or disrupt the international trade of food.
7. Lack of legal thresholds for "adventitious levels" of GM products in conventional seed and other products has led to disruption of international and local seed supplies to European farmers, as well as several food product recalls.
Presently, certified seed sold to farmers is the result of numerous breeding and production steps. While rigorous procedures are followed to ensure the identity and purity of varieties, it is recognized that absolute purity is unattainable in biological systems. International seed schemes-such as the OECD's-and European regulations recognize that seed impurities are unavoidable and have established rules for allowable levels of such impurities. These rules have been successfully implemented for decades. With the authorization of GM seeds and varieties for research and commercial purposes in Europe and elsewhere, the "adventitious presence" of GM seed impurities is now as likely as non-GM seed impurities. The European seed industry has proposed that allowable levels of "accidental or technically unavoidable traces" of GM seed be established for each crop. This is of particular importance for GM seeds which have yet to be authorized for commercial planting in the European Union, but which may be present in v
The European Commission is now considering such proposals to establish allowable thresholds for seed and downstream products and such a solution would remove this obstacle to the international trade in seed, and other agricultural and processed products. It is interesting to note the existing 5% authorized content-threshold level for 'other contaminants' in organic grains in Europe. If this is technically appropriate for so-called "organic grains," why shouldn't a 5% threshold level per plant ingredients be agreeable too?
8. The internationalization of the food chain demands that identification, registration, tracking and tracing systems also become internationalized. However, there is no central database or any automatic coupling systems between national databases in the EU, and it will take many more years to make this a reality. Today, fast, real-time accessibility to data is very restricted in Europe, mostly due to different and often manual databases in different EU countries. While most food chain databases are related to the origin of produce and products, the future consumer will demand a lot more registration of new data.
9. Overall, a continuous, well-structured public information program on biotechnology and its benefits in agriculture should be conceived, led and sponsored jointly by the EU Directorates for Agriculture, for Technology and for Consumers; so as to gradually achieve the degree of public awareness that is necessary for any novel product or technology to be socially accepted in Europe. Many sectors of the media and various NGOs have repeatedly claimed that Industry "must" spend its profits to promote plant biotech benefits. This is simply unrealistic and cannot be done effectively by the biotech or agricultural industry itself. Industry has never been, and cannot be credible with the public, due to its obvious, inherent conflict of interest: industry has to turn a profit to re-invest in R&D. Educating consumers must be a combined responsibility, not only of the biotech industry, but also of public authorities, retailers, food manufacturers, consumer organizations and others.
10. And last but not least, the so-called precautionary principle -- in reality a concept rather than a scientific principle -- should not be used as a tool to stop innovation, even under the guise of a moratorium, which is what has happened in the EU today. There will always be scientific uncertainty in any scientific field and reasonable approaches to risk management must be adopted to manage this uncertainty. Prohibition must only be used as an extreme risk management tool. Abuses of the precaution concept to justify political positions, or to cloak distorting import restriction policies, should equally be avoided and expressively exposed. The European Commission's recent white paper was helpful in clarifying the limits to be set on the use of the so-called "precautionary principle."
In summary, an acceptable and balanced future for global agriculture and harmonious trade is highly dependent on a common global set of policies, rules and regulations covering, among others:
* clear policies on the role of technology in agriculture, * globally harmonized, science-based safety assessments, * practical threshold levels for unavoidable traces of GM elements, * science-based labeling schemes, coupled with identity preserved supplies to facilitate consumer choice, * public information disclosure and public educational schemes, * intellectual property rights protection, * technology transfer guidelines, and * coordination of genomics programs.
All of the above possible action courses are feasible, but they will need basic common sense, clear actions, and political courage-quite a rare currency these days. To continue endorsing the current stalemate in the development and introduction of any new agricultural technology in Europe-plant biotechnology developments being only one of many, although the most visible to the large public today-would, in my mind, be fatally shortsighted and intellectually dishonest.
If the current situation continues, the trade in seed, raw agricultural products and processed foods across regions will probably become even more distorted than before, with international trade conflicts erupting one after another, brought on by politically-motivated, self-interest groups on the basis of arbitrary emotions and dogmatism, instead of being science-based and socially-responsible actions. These are serious challenges that agriculture and food trade are facing today. Thank you.
(1) After 31 years with Monsanto, Mr. Auxenfans, retired from the Monsanto Corporation at the end of 1999 as the former Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the Global Agricultural Company, and its Chairman for the Europe-Africa operations. He is a member of the Board of Directors at the IPC, the IAMA and FOL Networks.
In 2000, he became the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of FOL Networks Ltd, based in the UK - the leading European e-business solutions software company, specialized in Agriculture.
IPC: International Policy Council on Agriculture, Food and Trade.
IAMA: International Food and Agribusiness Management Association