Today in AgBioView - Feb 1, 2002
* Maize Uncertainties Create Political Fallout * Rethinking Substantial Equivalence
* Increasing Biotech Acceptance Through Public Awareness and Education * The Most Specious Argument Against GM So Far * GM Crops in the Centres of Crop Diversity - Lesson To Be Learnt * Sad Death of Two Agricultural Scientists in the Ecuador Air Crash * Why Natural May Not Equal Healthy
* Letter -- Local Label It
* Feminists Consider Biotechnology (Uh!) * Leaders of the Year 2002 in South East Agriculture: Man of the Year
Maize Uncertainties Create Political Fallout
- John Hodgson, Nature Biotechnology, February 2002 Vol 20 No 2 pp 106 - 107
(Reproduced in AgBioView with permission from the Editor of NB)
Cambridge, UK- The political implications of results purporting to show that DNA from commercial transgenic crops has entered landraces of maize in Mexico are already starting to be felt, even though the issue remains unresolved scientifically. Though the political response in Mexico itself has been relatively sober and considered, the precautionary instincts of Europe's politicians may mean the loss of yet another opportunity to lift the de facto moratorium on commercial plantings of GM crops in Europe.
The controversy over Mexican maize stems from work performed by David Quist and Ignacio Chapela, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, whose analyses indicated that DNA sequences presumed to have come from commercial transgenic maize had found their way into a small number of farmer-bred maize plants in Mexico. The researchers conjectured that the flow of transgenes might represent a threat to biological diversity. Their paper, published in Nature at the end of November after an extensive period of review and revision, stimulated environmental groups to urge governments to step up their restrictions on GM crop activity (Nat. Biotechnol. 20, 3, 2002).
Such reactions reflect genuine concerns about threats to genetic diversity, especially in areas such as Mexico which, as the origin of maize-based agriculture, is the center of genetic diversity for that crop. At the beginning of December, the Mexican senate took up Greenpeace's cry and called for its Department of Agriculture to stop all Mexican imports of US corn. President Vicente Fox and his government have resisted these calls. Luis Herrera-Estrella, Director of CINVESTAV Irapuato, Mexico's leading center for plant biotechnology, believes that the Mexican government will not be rushed into decisions until scientific investigations are complete. "People generally are not really worried about this and, unless there is huge amount of public pressure, the political response in Mexico will be rational," says Herrera. That is not to say that that there are no implications within Mexico. Its own moratorium on commercial planting of GM materials was due to end in April 2002 but will now probably be extended, a
The real extent of any gene flow from commercial transgenics in Mexico is still unclear. Continuing work at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT; El Batan, Mexico) has so far not turned up any evidence of the suspect transgenic sequence in over 40 samples from CIMMYT's gene bank. The center's latest analyses, reported in a press release in mid-December, indicated that it has also not found the promoter in 42 samples of seeds collected in 2000 from the same region, Oaxaca, in which the Berkeley researchers had operated.
At the same time, Mexican government laboratories seem to have confirmed Quist and Chapela's basic finding. A preliminary announcement was made in September by the Mexican Instituto Nacional de Ecologia that landrace maize collected in Oaxaca and elsewhere contained transgenes. Although those results might have been due to contamination of the field or laboratory samples, Herrera says it looks as if at least some of the positive results were real. In other words, as widely anticipated by environmentalists and biotechnologists alike, gene flow has occurred between the various types of maize present in Mexico.
Confusingly, however, the data from the Berkeley study may be scientifically flawed, perhaps seriously. Peggy Lemaux from the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology at the University of California, Berkeley is just one of the researchers who are aware that scientists from various institutions are preparing scientific challenges to the data in Quist and Chapela's paper. "Graduate students and postdocs spotted problems with the papers," she explained. "The methods used in their paper are common practice to students, and seeing possible errors was not difficult." She believes that the arguments have scientific validity and that both sides of the story need to be heard. People are entitled to different views on the desirability of GM crops, she says, but they should start consideration of the issues from solid data. "We must address the issues brought up by the Quist and Chapela paper head on," says Lemaux, "but our consideration of the issues should be based on solid data."
Herrera is confident that Mexico will respond appropriately to the scientific findings. The appropriate response to concerns about gene flow is not, he says, to prohibit GM maize imports, but to police the practical measures designed to minimize gene flow. Imported seed is supposed to be heat treated to prevent germination, but tests performed on mixed transgenic and non-transgenic corn that came into Mexico at the end of 2000 showed, Herrera says, that 80-90% of seeds could germinate. He points out that the government has already established an expert committee that will consider not only the impact of gene flow on landrace maize but also studies that examine the way that small-scale farmers incorporate new traits into landraces.
In Europe, the response seems destined to be less sober, and some senior European officials believe that the reported findings are likely to affect discussions at the European heads-of-state's meeting in March in Barcelona. For instance, pressure had been mounting on the leaders of Europeean nations to discuss lifting the de facto moratorium imposed by Europe's Council of Environmental Ministers on the commercial growing of GM crops; the US has been threatening to take the European Union to the World Trade Organization over the issue, and the USDA has called on the European Commission (Brussels) to ensure that the lifting of the moratorium is on the Barcelona agenda. However, the maize story appears to have greatly diminished the chances that the moratorium will be discussed. According to one insider in the EC, the environmentalist message quickly circulated around the administration, putting officials in the research and entrepreneurial divisions of the Commission immediately on the defensive. "Anything li
This, in turn, may serve to undermine the impact of the Europe Union's "Strategic Vision" for biotechnology (see following story), another planned item on the Barcelona agenda. As one Commission official put it: "How can we be going forward with a positive strategy on the one hand and at the same time maintain a moratorium?"
Rethinking Substantial Equivalence
- Piet Schenkelaars, Nature Biotechnology, Feb 2002, Vol 20 No 2 p119 (Reproduced in AgBioView with permission from the Editor of NB)
Schenkelaars Biotechnology Consultancy, Niels Bohrweg 11–13, 2333 CA Leiden, The Netherlands e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
To the editor: In 1993, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD; Paris) introduced the concept of substantial equivalence as a guiding principle for safety assessment of food containing a GM component. Since then, several meetings of experts sponsored by the OECD or jointly by the Food and Agricultural Organization (Rome) and World Health Organization (Geneva, Switzerland) have endorsed the use of this concept in regulatory decision-making. Under European Union (EU; Brussels) "Novel Food" Regulation 258/97, establishment of the "substantial equivalence" of a GM food (component) also is used to determine whether a "light" notification procedure or a "heavy" authorization procedure is followed for a particular product.
In recent years, scientists concerned about the potential health risks of GM foods have challenged substantial equivalence as inadequate for assessing food safety. In 1999, for example, a commentary in Nature1 labeled the concept "inherently anti-scientific because it was created to provide an excuse for not requiring biochemical and toxicological tests."
Against this background, our consultancy was commissioned by the Dutch Consumentbond and the European consumer organization Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs (BEUC) to study the application of substantial equivalence in the EU, so as to provide input to a workshop organized by BEUC in September 20012.
To that end, we analyzed several notification dossiers for products derived from GM varieties of maize and refined oil derived from GM varieties of oilseed rape. Our analysis showed that compositional data submitted on the content of macro- and micronutrients, vitamins, inherent plant toxins, and anti-nutrients lacked consistency from case to case. Furthermore, the design of the GM crop field trial, the geographical locations and seasons of planting and harvesting, and the choice of control differed considerably from case to case. These case studies illustrated the lack of an operational definition of the concept of substantial equivalence in the EU.
As an alternative model, we have proposed that an operational definition for food-safety assessment should include a minimum list of macro- and micronutrients, anti-nutrients, inherent plant toxins, secondary metabolites, and allergens to be analyzed for each GM crop species and of their baseline concentrations in conventional varieties. It is also necessary to create detailed protocols to guide the design of field trials, to establish validated techniques that can reliably ascertain the content of these compounds in plants, and to use common methods to analyze the data statistically.
The participants at the BEUC workshop concluded that "substantial equivalence" has been a controversial and misleading term for consumers that should not be used in regulatory decision-making. They recognized that it remains crucial to systematically detect unintended changes in the composition of GM crops compared with an appropriate control, as such changes may be of toxicological, immunological, or nutritional concern.
The OECD, the European Commission, EU member states, and the European biotechnology industry association (EuropaBio) are now drafting "minimum lists" to underpin "substantial equivalence." Although this is a good first step, there are some discrepancies among these drafts. For example, in the case of GM maize, the Dutch authorities have required additional data about five secondary metabolites that have not been included in the list proposed by EuropaBio. Despite these differences, the efforts made by different bodies to standardize these lists should be welcomed.
In July 2001, the European Commission proposed to abandon the "light" notification procedure, which would mean that all GM food (components) would need to undergo a full authorization process. Their safety assessment obviously still requires a systematic detection of unintended changes GM food (components) compared with an appropriate control. But whether it is useful in that context to cling the term "substantial equivalence" is doubtful.
1. Millstone, E., Brunner, E., & Mayer, S. Nature 401, 525-526 (1999). 2. Schenkelaars Biotechnology Consultancy. GM food crops and application of substantial equivalence in the European Union. Commissioned by Consumentenbond and the Dutch Foundation 'Consument & Biotechnologie' (SBC, Leiden, The Netherlands, June 2001). The full report can be downloaded at http://www.consubiotech.nl/
Increasing Biotechnology Acceptance Through Public Awareness and Education
- Workshop (Sept 16, 2002) at Int Rice Congress (IRC2002), 16-20 September 2002, Beijing.
Convenor: Paul S. Teng, Monsanto Company Co-Convenors: Ms. Y.A. See, Malaysian Biotechnology Information Center; and R. Hautea, International Service for the Acquisition of AgriBiotechnology Applications
The tools from modern biotechnology are overwhelmingly acknowledged by scientists and scientific organizations in the rice growing world to be essential for developing rice varieties and pest management systems that will contribute towards food security and poverty alleviation. Yet this technology, and its products, have come under more intense scrutiny and public debate than any other new agricultural technology introduced in the past century. The global area grown with genetically-modified (GM) crops reached 44 Million ha in 2000, and this area is anticipated to greatly increase in the developing world in the near future. While there is general public acceptance of biotechnology and its products in north America and GM crops are grown by farmers in fourteen countries, blocks of countries such as those in the European Union have been reluctant to allow their farmers access to the technology due to concerns raised by consumer groups in those countries. In Asia, where most of the world’s rice is grown, four
Studies by respected academic institutions have shown that the general public has become very aware of biotechnology. The same studies show that the knowledge level remains very low throughout the world about biotechnology’s tools, their products such as GM crops, and about the stringent regulatory processes involved in assessment of food, feed and environmental safety. This low knowledge level in a situation of heightened awareness has resulted in the cautious approach taken by government bodies in many rice growing countries to allow farmers access to this technology. Education programs have been proposed by respected scientists as the key for increasing public acceptance.
More information from
From: Alan McHughen Subject: Leisa
I have to share this- the most specious argument against GM so far this year:
In “Genetically modified soybeans: Blessing or curse for Brazilian agriculture?” (Leisa, Dec 2001, pp.19-20), the authors claim production costs of GM soybeans are higher than for conventional soy, saying “In 1998/99, GM soybeans cost 611 US$/ha…whereas conventional soybeans cost 373.80US$/ha...”.
Of course, the higher figure is for GM crops grown in Illinois; the lower is for Mato Grosso, Brazil. Unfortunately, the authors didn’t provide information on average hourly wage rate for farm workers in the two disparate locations.
Leisa is a “magazine on Low External Input and Sustainable Agriculture, published out of the Netherlands. http://www.ileia.org This was a special issue dedicated to their investigation on the impact of biotech on small farmers and sustainable agriculture.
- Alan McHughen, D.Phil.,, Biotechnology Specialist, University of California, Riverside, CA 92507
(From CSP: Dr. McHughen—author of "Pandora's Picnic Basket"— recently moved from Saskatoon to the University of California. AgBioView wishes him the best in his new job. Canada's loss is gain for US!)
Workshop: GM Crops in the Centres of Crop Diversity - What Lesson To Be Learnt From, and Beyond, Oaxaca?
Florence, Italy. February 7 - 9 , 2002; http://biodiv.iao.florence.it/news.php
Events of genetic contamination by genetically modified varieties of native maize varieties (landraces) nurtured by Mexican farmers along hundreds of years have been reported on the most authoritative science magazine, Nature. Although the article's results and the inferences from them are strongly disputed, it seems that genetic contamination can occur in spite of the ban of GM maize enforced by the Mexican government.
The aim of the workshop is to analyse, from the scientific point of view, what kind of impact that genetic contamination might have on maize landraces and on the wild cross fertile relatives, the former ones of utmost importance for local farmers for their food security and cultural values embedded into them, both of them crucially important for present and future improvement of this world wide strategic food crop. Following the scientific dissection of the questions associated with genetic contamination, a number of key stakeholders, including representatives of Food and Agriculture Organisation of United Nations, the Inter-governmental Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, national and international agricultural research institutions, biosafety infrastructures in developing countries, local and international NGOs, private biotech companies, will be invited first to discuss with the scientific panel, and then present their point of views. A specific session will be devoted to the sensitive issu
Finally, the participants will be invited to draft and adopt a statement, in which, inter alia, the areas of future research needed for a safe utilisation of biotechnology in the centres of origin of crop diversity would be identified.
Sad Death of Two Agricultural Scientists in the Ecuador Air Crash
'In Memoriam Chusa Gines and Veronica Mera' From: Bernadette Delannay
It is with a broken heart that we confirm the death of our two colleagues, Chusa Gines, Coordinator of the Cassava Biotechnology Network (CBN), and Veronica Mera, Research Associate of CBN. They lost their lives in the Tame airline accident, when the plane crashed in the mountainous region close to the frontier between Colombia and Ecuador. There were no survivors.
All our warmth and solidarity are with Patrick Hunt, Chusa's husband, and Fred Conny, Veronica's husband, and their families, to provide them unconditional support in the face of a situation that only time and love will soothe.
The CIAT family is a team of men and women dedicated to improving the well being of mankind. Chusa and Veronica chose to join this cause and died in the fulfillment of this mission. In honoring their memory, we will double our efforts so that research and work conducted by CBN may benefit small farmers even more so than ever. This was the dream of our colleagues.
Today we will gather at 3 p.m., Colombian time, in a symbolic ceremony. Our out-posted staff will do the same in their respective countries. We know that a similar activity will take place at IDRC, where both Chusa and Veronica worked before. We want to thank the innumerable messages of condolence that have been received from those who knew them in person or through their untiring work. We will share these with their families.
We know that we must face this immense loss with courage, and we pray for the strength to do it with dignity and respect.
Why Natural May Not Equal Healthy
- John Krebs, Nature 415, 117 (2002) 10 January 2002 (Book Review)
'Many believe that the natural toxins in their food are safer than synthetic ones.'
Naturally Dangerous: Surprising Facts about Food, Health, and the Environment by James P. Collman ; University Science Books: 2001. 280 pp. $29, £19.99
If you ask people what they fear about their food, typically the top half-dozen concerns are food poisoning, BSE, growth hormones used in animals, animal feed, pesticides and genetically modified (GM) food (http://www.food.gov.uk). But how do these perceived risks stack up with the estimates of deaths caused by food? Acknowledging that these are only approximate, and that great uncertainties surround some of the numbers, two food risks tower above the rest — the dietary contributions to cardiovascular disease and to cancer. These risks, taking a fairly conservative estimate, probably account for more than 100,000 deaths per year in Britain. Food poisoning probably accounts for between 50 and 300 (similar in range of magnitude to the risk of choking to death on food or suffering a fatal accident while getting into or out of bed). As far as we know, growth hormones (banned in Europe) and pesticides in food, as well as GM food, are not responsible for any deaths.
A generally accepted psychological explanation for the discrepancy between perceived and actual risk is the one based on Paul Slovic's identification of the range of factors that make risks seem more frightening. Thus, for example, risks that are under someone else's control, potentially catastrophic and unfamiliar are perceived as greater than those with the opposite features. That is why most of us view riding our bicycle in a busy street as a more acceptable risk than living near a nuclear power station, although rational analysis says that you should stay off your bike.
James Collman writes about another important dimension of risk perception — naturalness: "Many Americans are under the mistaken impression that if something is 'natural' it is safe." As far as food is concerned, Collman covers similar ground to that in Julian Morris and Roger Bate's Fearing Food (Butterworth-Heinemann, 1999) and Douglas Powell and William Leiss's Mad Cows and Mother's Milk (McGill-Queens University Press, 1997).
Perhaps one of the most telling arguments against the 'natural equals safe, man-made equals dangerous' view of foods is the one put forward by Bruce Ames and colleagues. Fundamental to the safety assessment of any potentially toxic substance is the maxim attributed to Paracelsus, that the effects on the body of any substance, good or bad, depend on the dose. Ames pointed out that if the same precautionary criteria that are used to set pesticide safety levels — toxicological data, including tests on rodents for carcinogenicity — were applied to the natural toxins in plants that have evolved to deter predators, many foods would be deemed unsafe. For example, potatoes, grilled food and peanuts would be banned if they underwent the same kind of scrutiny as pesticide residues.
According to Ames, half of the natural toxins that have been tested (most have not) are rodent carcinogens, and each year the average American consumes about 10,000 times more of these natural pesticides than of synthetic residues. A single cup of coffee contains natural carcinogens equal at least to a year's worth of carcinogenic synthetic residues in the diet. The organic sector has claimed that its produce is lower in synthetic residues (fewer pesticides are used) but higher in natural toxins. From Ames's line of argument, consumers of organic produce may well be trading a minute amount of synthetic residue for equally — if not more — dangerous natural pesticides. This should, of course, be kept in perspective: any potentially detrimental effect of natural pesticides or synthetic pesticide residues is far outweighed by the health benefits of consuming five portions of fruit and vegetables per day.
Collman's quirky and erratic account, more a series of vignettes than a narrative, makes an effective case for not accepting the simple equation 'natural = safe'. In addition to food, he covers herbal medicines, environmental pollution, global warming, electromagnetic radiation and radioactivity. I would have liked a slightly less triumphalist tone, in recognition that there are still many uncertainties in our understanding of both environmental and diet-related impacts on human health. For instance, the toxicological consequences of exposure to cocktails of residues and the potential effects of long-term exposure are not well documented. As new data emerge, the experts, quite correctly, sometimes change their minds about safety limits. This recently happened for dioxins, for which the safety level has been reduced by a factor of five.
When viewed from the perspective of scientific uncertainty, some of the fears about unknown consequences may seem less irrational. A challenge for those responsible for translating science into regulatory policy is to find an effective way of taking people's concerns into account without straying from the bedrock of scientific evidence. There are no easy answers, but a start may be for scientists both to explain the uncertainties more fully, and to emphasize that evidence is dynamic and evolving rather than a set of ineluctable facts.
Claude Combe's previous book Parasitism: The Ecology and Evolution of Intimate Interactions, has recently been published in an English translation (University of Chicago Press, $55). John Krebs is chairman of the UK Food Standards Agency and in the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3PS, UK.
Letter -- Local Label It
- John R Brezovar, The Press Democrat, Jan 30, 2002
Editor: In a Jan. 19 'Close to Home' piece about genetically altered plants, Henry I. Miller claims that the process is not new, only the technology has changed. But genetic mutation in nature occurs in small steps, and man's efforts to cross-breed plants has, until recently, been among the same species or families of plants. When was the last time nature allowed for the co-mingling of tomatoes and cold water fish just so the tomatoes could survive a frost?
Mr. Miller claims the new technology behind genetically altered plants is "more precise and predictable than its predecessors and yields more versatile and predictable products." If this technology is so precise and predictable, then why are Monarch butterflies dying from corn pollen that has been genetically altered to include genes from caterpillar-killing bacteria?
He further claims that herbicide-resistant soybeans permit the use of lesser amounts of more environmentally friendly herbicides. This claim makes no sense at all to me. Wouldn't the soybeans be made resistant to herbicides in order that more could be used without actually killing the soybean plants?
Finally, if this gene-altered world view is so wonderful, you would think the industry would be trumpeting its virtues with banners and signs in our grocery stores. Instead, we are not allowed to know which foods contain genetically altered products so we can decide for ourselves.
- John R. Brezovar, Santa Rosa
(From Prakash: I have read some where that it takes ten positive stories in the press to counter one negative story with misinformation. Looks like we have an uphill task to remove the ghosts of Monarch butterfly and fish-tomato from public's perception of agricultural biotechnology.) +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Feminists Consider Biotechnology
- Posted by Robt Mann to an Activist newsgroup
I've repeatedly remarked upon the strange gap in WimminsLib rhetoric: they haven't yet started moaning that the genes-insertion processes - especially the 'gene gun' - are distressingly masculine, penetrative, violent etc. and therefore PinC. We can safely assume the rhetoric will now catch up.
P.S for furriners - 'Aotearoa' was an ancient name for the North Island, now used as a PC name for the whole country.
------- Forwarded message follows -------
Call For Papers: Women's Studies Journal: Feminists Consider Biotechnology
Guest Editor: Stefanie Rixecker. Aotearoa New Zealand has seen an increase in political activism and research around biotechnology, and genetic engineering in particular, over the past five years. The national political psyche and the public were recently focused upon this topic through the Government's instigation of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification which reported in July 2001. This Report and the subsequent policy decisions by the current Government illustrate that a number of issues and concerns remain with regard to genetic modification, and biotechnology more broadly defined. Clearly, further decisions and politics will unfold, and these will be more evident as the nation moves towards another general election in 2002. At the same time, the international dimensions of biotechnology and genetic modification change daily, and this (in turn) affects Aotearoa New Zealand.
In order to record current views and to continue the discussion and debate concerning biotechnology, the Women's Studies Journal invites manuscripts that address the diverse topics and issues associated with biotechnology from a feminist perspective. Manuscripts are invited which address topics such as: *The Royal Commission on Genetic Modification *Biotechnology/GE as practice, science or politic *Reproductive Technology/IVF *Public Participation/Democracy/Governance *Human Rights *Wahine Maori *Economics/Political Economy/Globalisation *Environmental Management & Sustainability *Ethics & Spirituality *Feminist Epistemology & Philosophy of Science *Ecofeminism? *Embodiment *Lesbian Perspectives & Identity Politics *Health & Biomedicine *Risk *Future Scenarios
Manuscript deadline: 5 June 2002; Inquiries & Submissions to: Dr. Stefanie Rixecker Environmental Management & Design Division, Lincoln University PO Box 84 Lincoln, Canterbury New Zealand. Check out the Women's Studies Journal web site at: http://www.womenz.org.nz/wsj/
And now for some continued shameless self-promotion by the moderator........
Leaders of the Year 2002 in South East Agriculture Man of the Year - Alabama: C. S. Prakash
- Progressive Farmer, February 2002. http://www.progressivefarmer.com
A man carrying on in the tradition of famed researcher George Washington Carver, Channapatna S. Prakash has emerged as a leading state, national and international advocate for modern agricultural biotechnology.
Whatever the topic—be it Bt corn, protecting butterflies, golden rice, edible vaccine or the recent flap over the discovery of modified DNA in corn from Mexico—Prakash is a voice of reason who provides a sound scientific perspective.
Prakash, a native of India who obtained his Ph.D. in Australia, is a professor of plant molecular genetics and serves as director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University. And he is the driving force behind the AgBioWorld Foundation, which was founded in January 2000. Since that time, Prakash has collected endorsements from more than 3,200 scientists, including Nobel Prize winners, in support of ag biotechnology as a means of improving conditions in the developing countries. This petition drive is his response to those would distort the public perception of biotechnology.
Prakash also was an early advocate of utilizing the Internet as a powerful tool enhance research and teaching. He has followed through by persuading biotech experts from around the world to contribute to the foundation's electronic news group.
Prakash's current research focuses on transgenic plants, gene expression, tissue culture and plant genomics. His group at Tuskegee developed high-protein transgenic sweetpotatoes and contributed to DNA studies and gene mapping of peanuts.
He once told an interviewer that "it has been a startling experience" to find he and his colleagues attacked as "mad scientists run amok" for their inventions, which were labeled as "Frankenfood". He and his colleagues maintain that more than 2 billion people have eaten genetically modified food during the past five years without becoming ill. Prakash says, "There is no scientific evidence to believe that genetically engineered foods are any less safe than the foods we've been eating for centuries."
Progressive Farmer is proud to name C. S. Prakash as its 'Man of the Year' in Service to Alabama Agriculture.