Today in AgBioView:
* RAFI - different name, same schtick
* ATTITUDES OF CONSUMERS LIVING IN WASHINGTON REGARDING FOOD BIOTECHNOLOGY
* EU attempts to soothe fears and boost biotech
* Manure & Escherichia coli O157:H7
* Delegation of North American farmers to Slovenia and Croatia
* Colombian Coffee variety
* CHINA'S GMO RULES TO TAKE EFFECT ON SCHEDULE
* USDA releases translation of new China biotech rules
* UN attempts to boost biosafety in developing world
* WHO to examine safety of GM foods
* FAO Listserv
* DROUGHT-TOLERANT COTTON
* Colleges Conduct Biotech Study
* Embrace the future
From: "Mary Murphy"
Subject: RAFI - different name, same schtick
Probably in an attempt to seek credibility, RAFI has changed its name to the ETC Group (ETC stands for Erosion, Technology and Concentration), and they now have a slick new web site, which you can see at www.etcgroup.org.
But remember, despite the new uniforms, these are the same people who put out false information about golden rice (see http://www.agbioworld.org/listarchive/view.php?id=1061), and who support IP rights for developing countries yet are against researchers patenting their inventions.
Their latest diatribe concerns the Mexican maize situation, and the scientists who have "become spin doctors for a frightened biotech industry." In other words, any scientist who questions the validity of the study published in Nature, or the seriousness of the situation, is simply a corporate stooge according to RAFI, the ETC Group or whatever they want to call themselves. Now they are "warning that the maize gene bank at the International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT) outside of Mexico City is already contaminated with GM material." Two PFD documents concerning this are available at their web site.
The homepage of their website says "the ETC Group supports socially responsible developments in technologies useful to the poor and marginalized," yet they would deny farmers in the developing world from benefitting from the same technologies which are used in the developed world.
Let us hope that no one is fooled by them, especially the legislators who will decide the fate of Mexican farmers and the technology they use.
ATTITUDES OF CONSUMERS LIVING IN WASHINGTON REGARDING FOOD BIOTECHNOLOGY
Journal of American Diatetic Association Jason W Heffernan;
Virginia N Hillers
Uses of biotechnology in agriculture are widespread in the United States. In 1999, more than half of the U.S. soybean crop was genetically modified to be resistant to the herbicide Round-- Up and about one third of the corn crop contained the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene to resist damage by corn borers (1). Food manufacturers use corn and soy in many processed foods; thus, use of biotechnology-derived ingredients is widespread in the U.S.
food supply (2).
National surveys indicate that consumers in the United
States have been generally supportive of food biotechnology (3-- 5).
In surveys conducted between 1997 and 2001, 50% to 60% of consumers stated that they were likely to purchase vegetables that had been modified by biotechnology to taste better or fresher, and more than 70% stated they were likely to purchase vegetables modified to be protected from insect damage (5).
EU attempts to soothe fears and boost biotech
January 23, 2002
BRUSSELS - The European Union needs to overcome concerns over frontier biotechnology industries if it wants to capture the sector's full potential and catch up with the United States, the European Commission said on Wednesday. (ref.2414)
Despite rapid growth since 1998, Europe's biotech industry -- often associated with controversial end-products such as genetically modified food -- is today worth only 7 billion to 8 billion euros, roughly one-third as much as its U.S. counterpart.
The Commission admitted in a strategy paper unveiled on Wednesday that public fears towards this fledgling industry were a major hindrance to its development and set out a 30-page action plan to remedy the problem by 2010.
"Uncertainty about societal acceptance had stifled our competitive position, weakened our research capability and could limit our policy options in the longer term," the commission said in its strategy paper.
Biotechnology, a priority of the EU's 10-year strategy to increase competitiveness, is a cutting-edge industry which brings together life sciences, material sciences and information technology, with applications in the pharmaceutical, manufacturing, food and environmental sectors.
But the science has become tainted in Europe, where the public -- frightened by "mad cow" disease and other major food scares -- associates it mostly with genetically modified (GM) foods. Many fear GM foods may pose unknown risks to human health.
Public concerns have been so high-profile that the EU has adopted an informal block on new GM strains, although many are widely cultivated in the United States and elsewhere.
The commission forecasts the combined value of biotechnology industries could reach two trillion euros by 2010.
But the 15-nation bloc could fail to capture this vast potential if governments did not rapidly implement strategies to foster the sector.
"Europe has a base of excellence to build on. But it has not been terribly efficient at turning scientific excellence into economically competitive products," European Commission President Romano Prodi told a press conference.
"We are running behind our main competitors. It is clear we are lagging four or five years behind (the United States)."
The Commission's strategy suggests that member states strengthen specialized education, foster research and development, and channel more risk capital to the industry.
The commission, which has already committed part of its 2002-2006 research budget to such technologies, is also calling on the European Investment Bank to strengthen the capital base of the industry.
Date: Wed, 23 Jan 2002 11:54:29 -0600
From: "Tom DeGregori"
Subject: Manure & Escherichia coli O157:H7
The following study appeared in the January issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology. An interpretation of it saying that there is no problem was immediately posted on CropChoice news as long as the manure has been composted, a view supported by the senior author of this USDA funded study. The clearly stated assumption is that the composting is done properly by all "organic" farmers. We already know from work done by the Averys that few farmers actually check the temperature of their compost to see that it reaches 160 degree F. before using it. Even if they do, I have some questions for the biologists on our list.
1) Since we have micro-organisms that can withstand extreme heat (as well as some that can withstand extreme cold), what is the likelihood that even with proper composting that strains of Escherichia coli O157:H7 (or other dangerous pathogens) might emerge that can survive the maximum achievable temperatures of composts? Do we have a case here where the anti-technology believers see a world in which micro-organisms behave as they wish them to do by "respecting" organic agriculture and conspiring against "unnatural" conventional agriculture? AgBioView has taught me to be skeptical about the alleged dangers from mutating micro-organisms but it would seem that this type of mutation would be as likely (if not more so) than than those that are dreamed up by the anti-GM crowd. E. Anne Clark is out front arguing that the uptake of E. Coli 0157:H7 is "not a concern."
2 Would it be valid for us to use this article as another example of there not being any absolutely safe alternatives and to counter the wild speculations of the Luddites with the challenge that you can not be "absolutely certain" that a mutation might not emerge? Since absolute certainty about future events is impossible, let us talk about current realities and future probabilities?
3) Isn't this the time for all of us to call for research that would bring done the cost of food irradiation so that it could be done for meat and produce at a lower cost (which is not unreasonable but would still raise the price for those who cannot afford it) than today? If the cost were low enough, it might even be "free" in the sense that the cost of irradiation might be offset by the reduced spoilage. Since Ralph Nader and others who are allegedly promoting food safety, are against irradiation, this should become a major point for public education.
Solomon, Ethan B.; Sima Yaron and Karl R. Matthews. 2002. Transmission of Escherichia coli O157:H7 from Contaminated Manure and Irrigation Water to Lettuce Plant Tissue and Its Subsequent Internalization, Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 68(1):397-400.
The transmission of Escherichia coli O157:H7 from manure-contaminated soil and irrigation water to lettuce plants was demonstrated using laser scanning confocal microscopy, epifluorescence microscopy, and recovery of viable cells from the inner tissues of plants. E. coli O157:H7 migrated to internal locations in plant tissue and was thus protected from the action of sanitizing agents by virtue of its inaccessibility. Experiments demonstrate that E. coli O157:H7 can enter the lettuce plant through the root system and migrate throughout the edible portion of the plant.
Thomas R. DeGregori, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics
University of Houston
Department of Economics
204 McElhinney Hall
Houston, Texas 77204-5019
Ph. 001 - 1 - 713 743-3838
Fax 001 - 1 - 713 743-3798
Web homepage http://www.uh.edu/~trdegreg
Date: Wed, 23 Jan 2002 13:55:14 -0500
To: Tom DeGregori
From: Alex Avery
Subject: Re: Manure & Escherichia coli O157:H7
Well, sure. If we're playing by the rules as set by the activists, then "certainty of no harm" is a prerequisite for permiting the use of a given technology. The precautionary principle, as interpreted by the activists, demands it. Composting technology has been poorly studied, and even if studied for years, one could not garauntee that allergenic or microbial food safety risks would not arise after 30-50 years of continued use.
I think that long-term independent (no organic research concerns, such as OFRF, allowed) safety testing should be required. We'll have to study the food for microbes and allergens, then feed the food to rats, mice, rabbits, etc. Then we'll have to let the rats critters have children and grandchildren and study them for any possible secondary genetically transferred taratogenic impacts--hey, they're theoretically conceivable.
Moreover, I don't think that it would be fair to fob the expense for this onto consumers. No, the industries profiting from the technology--organic composters, ie. organic farmers -- should pay the costs.
I'll go along with all that.
Date: 24 Jan 2002 14:11:15 -0000
From: "Borut Bohanec"
Subject: Delegation of North American farmers to Slovenia and Croatia
Last week North American farmer couples Schmeiser in Wiley visited Slovenia and Croatia (probably also other states). The press introduced them as representatives of American farmers having exprience with GMOs.
The message that P. Schmeiser told for the press was the following:
Monsanto promise to farmers was to reduce the amount of pesticides used, but in fact what happened was just the oposite. "Farmers now use six to ten times more chemicals, since canola in many cases turned out to superweed," was the message told to farmers by Percy Schmeiser.
The reason was that by interpollination a wild type canola was formed, resistant to all kinds of chemicals used for weed elimination. So farmers are faced with new weed that can be removed very difficultly. Chemical industry is now developing new chemicals to destroy this new kinds of weed.
Borut Bohanec, Biotechnical Faculty, Ljubljana, Slovenia
From: "Kershen, Drew L"
Subject: Colombian Coffee variety "Colombia"
Date: Wed, 23 Jan 2002 14:58:33 -0600
I queried the readers of AgBioView about a Reuters article that stated that the Colombian Coffee Federation had "genetically-engineered" the Colombia variety of Colombian-grown coffee. The Colombia variety came into commercial production during the 1980s.
I have now heard from two well respected plant breeders who informed me that the Colombia coffee variety was breed through classical breeding techinques that did not involve (and even predated) rDNA plant transformations. Hence, the Reuters article using the term "genetically engineered" was inaccurate.
I provide this information because I do not want the Colombian coffee growers to become enmeshed in consumer-damaging misinformation about the Colombia variety.
Drew L. Kershen
Earl Sneed Centennial Professor of Law
University of Oklahoma College of Law
Norman, Oklahoma 73019-5081 U.S.A.
Date: Wed, 23 Jan 2002 14:42:20 -0500
From: "Herb Aldwinckle"
Subject: The Colombia Variety of Coffee
In Drew Kershen's posting "Query concerning coffee", he quoted a Reuters article (which I have not yet seen) as follows:
"Among Cenicafe's [the Colombia Coffee Federation Scientific Research department] major achievements is the genetically-engineered ''Colombia'' bean, which is resistant to a local weevil called ``roya.'' The bean was handed over to growers in the 1980s after nearly 30 years of research."
There are some serious errors in this quote. First, Colombia is a multiline variety that was produced ENTIRELY by old-fashioned classical breeding. Secondly, "roya" is the coffee rust disease, caused by a fungus, not a weevil. Cenicafe published a whole book on La Variedad Colombia in 1988 (before GE of coffee had been achieved).
Herb S. Aldwinckle
Dept. of Plant Pathology
Cornell University - NYSAES
Geneva, NY 14456 USA
From: "Edo Lin"
Subject: Re; Coffee enquiry
Date: Wed, 23 Jan 2002 18:01:26 +0100
I refer to Drew Kershen's enquiry regarding Roya in coffee and the transgenic plants that according to a quoted source would have been introduced in Colombia. Wrong end of the stick or just sloppy reporting. Roya is not an insect but a fungus (Hemileia vastatrix) and one of the most devastating diseases of coffee.
As far as I have been able to check the literature, there is no report available on any transgenic solutions.
27, rte de Bombon
tel & fax : +33 164387844
mobile : +33 671632666
e-mail : email@example.com
CHINA'S GMO RULES TO TAKE EFFECT ON SCHEDULE
January 23, 2002
BEIJING - China's Ministry of Agriculture was cite as saying on Wednesday it will implement new rules on genetically modified organisms (GMO) as planned on March 20, contrary to market talk of a possible delay. "We will surely implement the rules as planned," said an official at the ministry's GMO safety department. Soybean traders in the United States speculated on Tuesday that China could delay implementing the rules as some domestic crushers run out of supplies of foreign beans. But the Chinese official, who declined to be identified, said the ministry had no plans to make exceptions to the rules even though crushers, especially those in the south, rely on foreign beans to survive. In early January, the ministry issued details for GMO rules requiring all foreign firms to obtain safety certificates for GMO cargoes arriving at Chinese ports from March 20. Another ministry official said the ministry had not received any applications for GMO safety certificates from overseas firms.
USDA releases translation of new China biotech rules
January 24, 2002
WASHINGTON - The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has made public its translation of China's new regulations governing the import of genetically modified foods, a series of rules USDA Secretary Ann Veneman last week said could have a troubling impact on U.S. soybean sales.
The 16-page "unofficial" translation was posted on a USDA Foreign Agricultural Service Web site Monday. The Chinese regulations were translated into English by USDA officials in Beijing.
U.S. soybean industry and government officials have expressed concern that the long-awaited regulations were vague and could cause future delays in soybean exports to China unless they were clarified.
Nearly 70 percent of U.S. soybeans are grown from genetically modified seeds.
On Jan. 16, Veneman said she continued to be concerned over China's vague rules governing the import of biotech foods, such as soybeans.
The new regulations are set to go into effect on March 20.
One section of the translation dealing with applications to ship GMO products into China states, "The Ministry of Agricultural shall respond whether the application is accepted or not accepted within two months of receiving the application. A decision on the application will be made within three months after the application deadline."
The USDA translation can be read on the Internet by going to the following Web site: http://www.fas.usda.gov/scriptsw/attacherep/attache - lout.asp and clicking on a Jan. 21 entry, "China, Peoples Republic of, Ag GMO Implementation Measures."
UN attempts to boost biosafety in developing world
January 24, 2002
A scheme launched last week will help up to 100 of the world's poorest nations to obtain basic technical knowledge about genetically modified crops.(ref.2417)
The US$38-million scheme, unveiled in Nairobi on 16 January by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), is designed to help the countries protect their interests more effectively in negotiations with agricultural suppliers, the food industry and drug companies.
Advocates of the scheme say it will help to conserve biodiversity and foster economic development. But critics argue that the money will not go very far and that the increased knowledge may confuse countries about the risks of transgenic technology.
The three-year programme will centre on "building capacity for assessing risks, establishing adequate information systems and developing expert human resources in the field of biosafety", says Christopher Briggs, manager of the project.
But with funds of only around US$400,000 per country — provided by the Global Environment Facility, a joint venture of the United Nations and the World Bank — Briggs concedes that this is just a "first step". Follow-up funds of up to $1.4 million will be available to countries that create the necessary administration, he says.
The initiative follows a trial scheme with several developing countries. In one of them, Namibia, officials report that the money will eventually enable local scientists to test for transgenic crops independently.
But the project's small scale makes it "like offering swimming lessons to people in the Sahara", says Calestous Juma, director of the Science, Technology and Innovation Program at Harvard University, which focuses on the role of research in developing countries. He fears that resources may be diverted "from areas where the risks are known to areas where they are still being debated".
Participation in the scheme should allow countries to adhere to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, an international agreement on approaches to agricultural biotechnology . Under the protocol, exporters must identify genetically modified crops so that importers can judge the risks associated with them. The protocol comes into force when 50 countries ratify it. Only 10 have ratified it so far, but the UNEP programme is expected to encourage others to do so.
WHO to examine safety of GM foods
Times of India
January 24, 2002
NEW DELHI: With biotechnology being discussed majorly in both developed and developing countries, the World Health Organisation along with the Food and Agriculture Organisation will start evaluating the safety and nutritional aspects of food derived from genetically modified plants, micro-organisms and animals.
A WHO statement on food safety said on Wednesday it had already initiated work to establish a knowledge base focusing on a ‘‘broader evaluation of risks, benefits and other considerations related to the production and consumption of foods derived from biotechnology.’’
The WHO said such an assessment would consider health benefits as well as possible negative health implications. Crops modified to resist pests, foods with allergens removed or food with an increase of essential nutrients are possible examples of the former, while anti-microbial markers in some genetically modified foods have been suggested to be an example of the latter.
WHO would also be looking into several other areas of food safety. For instance, if not properly monitored and assessed, changes in animal husbandry practices, including feeding, may have serious implications for food safety. The increased use of ruminant bone and meat meal in the western countries as feed supplement for cattle appear to have played a role in the emergence of mad cow disease. In addition, low levels of antibiotics added to animal feed in order to increase growth rate has also raised concern about the transfer of antibiotic resistance to pathogens that infect humans from this practice.
Modern agricultural practices, it said, contribute to increasing the availability of affordable foodstuffs and the use of food additives can improve the quality, quantity and safety of the food supply. However, appropriate controls are necessary to ensure their proper and safe use along the entire food chain.
Other challenges, which need to be addressed to help ensure food safety, include the globalisation of trade in food, urbanisation, changes in lifestyles, international travel, environmental pollution, deliberate contamination and natural and manmade disasters. The food production chain has become more complex, providing greater opportunities for contamination and growth of pathogens.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has launched an Email list called FAO-BiotechNews “containing news and events items that are relevant to applications of biotechnology in food and agriculture in developing countries.
The aim of FAO-BiotechNews is to inform policy makers and technical decision-makers about current developments and issues in agricultural biotechnology, with a particular emphasis on developing countries, as well as to inform scientists of the wider policy/regulatory/agricultural development aspects of their work. The news and events items will focus on FAO's work and the work of its main United Nations (UN) and non-UN partners.
Each update will contain a small number of short items (roughly 4-6 lines) and, where relevant and possible, a weblink and/or e-mail address will be provided for each item to allow users to get further information. The list is free of charge and updates will be sent periodically (at least once a month and at most once a week).
If you wish to subscribe please send an e-mail message to:
leaving the subject blank and entering the one-line text message as follows:
No other text should be added to the message (e.g. mail signature) otherwise
FAO's mailserv facility will reject the subscription request.
The Coordinator of FAO-BiotechNews
E-mail address: FAO-Biotech-News@fao.org
FAO website http://www.fao.org/
FAO Biotechnology website http://www.fao.org/biotech/index.asp
January 23, 2002
By Elliott Minor
ALBANY, Ga. -- Scientists in Georgia and Israel have, according to this story, identified genes in cotton plants that could pave the way for drought-tolerant varieties -- and help farmers save on irrigation costs. Andrew Paterson, a University of Georgia geneticist who headed the research, was cited as saying the six-year, $280,000 study showed that by changing the genetics of cultivated cotton, scientists could give it the traits that help wild cotton survive in semiarid conditions, adding, "Many of these genes were thought to have been lost in the process of domesticating cotton for high yields under well-watered conditions." Paterson was further cited as saying that with additional research, scientists might be able to incorporate the genetic changes into cultivated cotton within five years, with a conservative goal of increasing cotton's water efficiency by 10 percent. Hugh Earl, a University of Georgia plant physiologist, was cited as estimating that Georgia cotton farmers could save 12 billion gallons
Colleges Conduct Biotech Study
January 24, 2002
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) A national study examining the way universities and private industry share the agricultural biotechnology they develop will be led by Oregon State and Portland State.
The $2 million, three-year study funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture will look at how researchers share information with each other and with the public, as well as the social and economic support for biotechnology research programs and the long-term effects of university relationships with private industry.
Nobody has documented this before, said Terri Lomax, an Oregon State botanist who will lead the study with Dave Ervin, a Portland State environmental science professor.
Ervin said he and Lomax proposed the study last year after they were invited to speak about biotechnology following a report about genetically modified crops.
We got some very strong questions from the audience suggesting that we had sold out to the biotech industry, Ervin said.
He declined to name the group, but he said that he and Lomax knew many in the audience and were surprised that they had lost trust in the university community.
Ervin said public concern over biotechnology has been growing as private industry moves to patent and license various inventions.
He noted recent criticism over a five-year, $25 million deal the University of California at Berkeley struck with Swiss-based agriculture giant Syngenta, a Novartis Corp. spinoff, to fund biological research with the agreement that Syngenta can license whatever is invented by most of the Berkeley scientists.
Ervin said such private agreements invite criticism that universities also using federal grants public money are helping to invent technology that is privately licensed.
The OSU-PSU study will include extensive interviews of university and industry experts, a survey of scientists, technology officers and administrators, and biotechnology research models.
The study also will include workshops, state and national policy briefings, and a national conference.
Embrace the future
January 19, 2002
Regulatory strangleholds must not be allowed to stifle innovation crucial to the future of food says Unilever chairman Niall FitzGerald.
The principle underlying food safety regimes in Europe is deceptively simple. Consumers are entitled to the greatest possible reassurance that what they buy and eat will be safe. In the vast majority of cases the food and catering industries deliver. But when we descend from principles to practice we find a situation of costly inputs and ineffective outputs. Recent food controversies have damaged public confidence in the regulatory process, the food industry, and the authority of science. Regulations are scattered and hard to understand. Procedures are lengthy and unpredictable.
So I look forward to the establishment of a European Food Safety Authority with great hope but with some apprehension. The hope comes from the clear need for an independent science-driven body. The apprehension stems from a concern that the legislative framework within which the authority will have to work must be clear, transparent, and swift. If the new authority learns from the approach of our own Food Standards Agency then I shall be encouraged. The FSA's broadly based board, its commitment to openness, and its willingness to work with all food stakeholders have helped it to operate effectively.
The real test will come if there is another food safety crisis in Europe. In such an event, the European Food Safety Authority must play a key role. If we create a Europe-wide system then we must handle crises on a Europe-wide basis. The temptation for member states to undermine that system by erecting their own additional controls and regulations must be resisted.We are hardly likely to get immediate agreement on these lines. Member states already have enforcement bodies like the FSA here in the UK. The reaction of other countries to BSE in the UK demonstrated how politically difficult it can be to abide by the rules of the European club in the face of domestic pressures. The danger is that national regimes will create their own agendas, leading to loss of focus and further regulatory confusion.
But the hardest tests for the new European authority will not just come from issues over the safety of existing foods, but in its attitude to new and innovative products. It is vital we get the balance right between risk and safety when dealing with innovation in food. The prospect of the inflexible use of the so-called precautionary principle' is particularly worrying.
If properly used, the precautionary principle makes sense. But, as some have argued, it could be used to require authorities to work on the basis that if there is any uneliminated risk from a product, however unlikely, no green light can be given. This might be attractive to politicians and regulators. It is dangerous, though, because it immediately creates a playing field which is fundamentally not level. New foods must satisfy criteria that simply do not apply to the existing market.
I'm told, for example, that if the humble potato were being introduced in Europe now it would never get through the regulatory regime. Given a choice between the precautionary principle and a plate of fish and chips, which would you rather have? It seems a pity that we now have to regulate common sense.
Mention the word innovation in food and everyone thinks genetic modification. We have become so hung up on GM that other innovations, such as functional foods, are being caught in the same net.
Regulators must appreciate that we are interested in these innovations because there is consumer demand for them. The fact is consumers increasingly care about how the food they eat supports their lifestyle and health choices. We accept and support the need for a rigorous approach, but it must be coupled with a more predictable and transparent approach to product approvals, one which all member states will support.
We are just at the beginning of the road as a far as functional foods are concerned. The pace of scientific research in this area is relentless. Take the science of genomics the collective name for the technologies involving DNA sequencing, the functional analysis of genes, and the processing of the resulting knowledge via bioinformatics. The practical result of this knowledge will be the ability to provide life-enhancing functional foods which will help to counteract the harmful effects caused by external factors such as poor lifestyles, lack of exercise and so on. It is the new frontier of technology. We must be involved. If such innovation is not to be choked off, or moved elsewhere, we need streamlined approval procedures with strict deadlines. Do Europe's politicians have the courage to seize the opportunity to rebuild public confidence and create the conditions to meet consumer demands for food which delivers health and vitality? If they do, they may be surprised by the reaction from consumers.
Most regulatory regimes in food are predicated on two questionable assumptions.
First, the ideal is a system which permits no risk whatsoever. The second assumption is that consumers are passive recipients of official advice. Therefore, trust can be established by providing more and more information and reassurance, enabling people to make absolutely rational choices about food consumption. The fact is, a no-risk system is unachievable, but in an effort to deliver it we are in danger of erecting barriers to innovation. And, as a result, consumers have developed a strong degree of scepticism about advice from any quarter: from scientists, governments, companies, and indeed from NGOs. Why? Because the authorities feel that we have to try to offer definitive risk-free guidance. Yet, consumers make their own estimation of the risk involved in following guidance arriving at a decision which may be rational, emotional or a mixture of the two.
Food safety authorities must engage in dialogue with their citizens and deal with them on an adult-to-adult basis, providing clear and frank estimates of risk, and remembering that people value choice in food as everywhere else. Inflexible use of the precautionary principle is not good governance.
Agricultural practices and food processing have never been static. To cease to innovate is to accept stagnation and failure.
One recent positive development is the growth of organic farming. As an alternative to environmentally damaging agricultural practices, organic food has many attractions. My own view is the success of organics must be governed by the twin priorities of expanding the amount of land under organic production in the UK and the consumer market share. Proponents of organic methods cannot defend a position in which access to organic food is limited, not least by price. Furthermore, if organic food is seen as a disguised method of protecting inefficient producers, it will be little better than the present system of subsidies for intensive production.
We also need greater realism from the organic movement on world food issues. The movement's standard response to the question Can organics feed the world?' is apparently to argue that there is already sufficient food to feed the world but it is inequitably distributed.
But we are not likely to have the redistribution of food on such a colossal scale. The organic movement represents a positive step for agriculture and the environment, and I welcome it. But if organic methods are not in themselves able to cope with increasing population and hunger, wherever it exists in the world, then we must look elsewhere.
That is one of the reasons why in Unilever we have undertaken pioneering work in the area of sustainable agriculture. This seems to me to offer a third option dare I call it a third way between unsustainably intensive agriculture and organic methodology.
We are eager to share what we have learnt. Our long-term aim is to help promote a common benchmark set of indicators for sustainable agriculture that can help those farmers who want to move away from over-intensive methods. That would also have appeal to consumers who are increasingly interested in what lies behind the food that they see on their plates.
This consumer interest does, I believe, offer a real opportunity to the UK's farmers. In a post-CAP reform world, there will still be opportunities for farmers to produce added value produce whether it is marketed as sustainable, organic, local, or traditional.
We have to be realistic. For very nearly half of UK consumers, according to research by the FSA, price remains the most important factor when buying food. In fact, price was a staggering four times more important than anything else. Taste and quality were very poor seconds.
There are those who argue that the regime of cheap, plentiful food must come to an end to restrict demand and put the brake on unsustainable agricultural production. That may be so, but we must tread very carefully. Cheap food has meant children in Europe have immeasurably improved their nutritional standards compared to the pre-war period. There are people in the UK who still live in relative poverty, and price increases would still hit them hard. And price increases could only be justified on the basis of promoting sustainable agriculture. There is no argument in favour of protecting producers who are simply uncompetitive. We must be wary that this is not just a new way to achieve the same discredited approach.
I have spoken so far about two developments that give me hope: the growth of the organic food market, and the development of sustainable agriculture. The third is likely to be more controversial: I believe it is time for a fresh start on genetically modified organisms.
There have been many understandable questions about the effects of GM crops on the environment and on people's health. I welcome these because they are the foundation of a good debate. There have also been numerous instances of alarmist and hysterical reporting, law-breaking, and pseudo-science.
We face the barrier of deep public suspicion in Europe. Can it be overcome? I believe that it can if we remember the importance of working with consumers and speaking their language.
The mistake that has been made with GM crops is the failure to reach the consumer. So far we have badly misjudged the public mood. We need to begin afresh.
That does not mean following public opinion. It means setting a lead, communicating directly and honestly with consumers, and answering all the questions that people have. If there are areas of doubt, then let us say so.
At the same time, European leaders should place dialogue with the public and an increase in public understanding of the GM issue at the top of their in-trays. I know this is not a task that politicians will relish. But if science, consumer requirements, and the need to have a competitive European food sector are all pointing in the same direction, then our leaders should take heed.
It would be fatal to leave the field open to those who would whip up hysteria without a rational response from those entrusted with the welfare of our society. It requires courageous leadership, not comfortable populism.
* This feature is based on a speech this week by Niall FitzGerald at the second City Food Lecture sponsored by Sainsbury.