Today in AgBioView:
* Monarch Butterflies Dying in Mexico
* EU green group urges tax breaks for organic foods
* EU farm commissioner criticizes European policy on biotech as muddled
* New U.S. Rice Variety Sets Standard for High Yields
* New Zealand: Moratorium On GM Risks R&D Investment
* Fed: Battle raging between GM opponents and food watchdog
* UltraRice, GoldenRice, and "What is to be done?"
* Report: EPA Gives $2B to Nonprofits
Monarch Butterflies Dying in Mexico
Wed Feb 13, 3:41 AM ET
By MARK STEVENSON
MEXICO CITY (AP) - A massive die-off of monarch butterflies in their winter nesting grounds has deepened the mystery surrounding their numbers, after researchers suggested a death toll twice as high as the previous estimate of the entire population.
"This data is telling us we have to go back to square one" in estimating just how many monarchs make the trip, said Lincoln Brower, a zoologist who may be the foremost expert on the 3,000-mile migration to Mexico. "We may be off by a factor of five to 10."
The monarchs' amazing migration has inspired thousands of schoolchildren and amateur scientists in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Although a single butterfly can spend its entire life in either the United States or Mexico, its children and grandchildren will know to migrate north or south.
Researchers are still trying to unravel the mystery, following the lead of a motorcycle-riding American expatriate who stumbled on a trail of dead butterflies to become the first outsider to discover the nesting sites in January 1975.
Both the government and monarch expert Lincoln Brower agreed that an unusual combination of freezing temperatures, rains, and clear night skies in mid-January killed a high percentage of butterflies in their winter nesting grounds in the central and western states of Mexico and Michoacan.
A similar but less brutal cold snap this week is expected to kill more of the creatures, who use a little-understood navigating system to take the same route their ancestors took to Mexico from the United States and Canada.
Brower estimated that 150 million to 250 million butterflies may have frozen to death, the worst die-off on record ó and twice the 110 million monarchs previously believed to have wintered here.
The manager of the government butterfly reserve, Roberto Solis, estimated the total death toll from the two freezes at 30 million to 35 million, about one-quarter of those believed to arrive but still well above the normal mortality rate of 10 to 15 percent.
Solis and Brower agreed that about 80 percent of butterflies died at one of five officially recognized mountain sanctuaries and about 40 percent at another. Three other sites remained largely unaffected.
Both agree the monarch's survival as a species is not at risk.
For almost a century, scientists were puzzled by the butterflies' winter route, which seemed to trail off in Texas.
Spurred by an article in a Mexico City newspaper, Kenneth Brugger and his Mexican girlfriend combed the mountains of western Mexico ó until they finally spotted an orange-and-black cloud.
The monarchs winter in massive clusters that hang like Spanish moss from the boughs of Michoacan fir forests, a habit Brower now thinks may be a defensive strategy.
"The only butterflies that remained dry (in the freezing rain) were the ones deep inside the clusters," Brower said. Describing the scene at the mountains in January, Brower described reaching into piles of dead monarchs a foot deep.
"Sticking my hand to gently pull out the beautiful delicate creatures I've worked with for 25 years, there was an almost overwhelming feeling of sadness," Brower said.
The issue is sensitive for Mexico, which has taken great pains in recent years to try to protect fir forests shrunken by 40 percent by illegal cutting.
Solis, the reserve manager, sticks by the lower death-toll estimate.
"The higher numbers must be an error, or bad faith," he said, adding that many immobile, hibernating butterflies died when the tree branches they were resting on fell because of high winds.
"This is a natural climate phenomenon, which has to be viewed as part of nature's balance," Solis said.
Brower said deforestation may have made the die-off worse by reducing temperature-regulating forest canopy. But Brower agrees that Mexico has taken important steps to protect the forest, and agreed with Solis that protection for the monarch should not be focused exclusively on Mexico, nor on the reserves here.
"In the past, they were all over the place, they were probably better distributed," said Brower. In the fall some monarchs can be seen flitting around Mexico City.
Solis said that "the numbers that come here each year depends more on what happens in their summer homes, in the United States and Canada."
Brower adds, "I think the big lesson is that in the United States ... the real threat are the herbicides killing the milkweeds and other plants the monarchs use for food."
From: "Mary Murphy"
Subject: EU green group urges tax breaks for organic foods
Date: Thu, 14 Feb 2002 11:20:44 -0500
Organic agriculture is lower yielding and thus more expensive; it uses dangerous chemicals such as copper sulphate, pyrethrum and rotenone; and it offers no extra nutritional benefits.
However, since fools are free to do whatever they want with their money, I have never had a problem with people who buy organic food. That is, until now.
Green groups now want to use taxpayer money to subsidize organic growers, which means it's not only fools' money that is being spent -- it's yours and mine as well. This means that the majority, who have no problems with conventional foods, will have to pay in order to satisfy a paranoid minority. No thanks.
EU green group urges tax breaks for organic foods
BELGIUM: February 14, 2002
BRUSSELS - Organic products should be given tax breaks throughout the European Union to help them compete with conventionally grown goods, a green lobby group proposed this week.
A study commissioned by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) - a federation of green groups in all EU member states - said some 2.6 billion euros ($2.28 billion) would be needed to ensure that 10 percent of EU farmland is devoted to organic production by 2006. Gerwin Verschuur, spokesman for the Dutch-based Centre for Agriculture and Environment, which carried out the study, said fiscal measures would help many conventional farms go organic.
"Instruments that stimulate demand for organic produce are particularly important and a VAT (value added tax) rate of zero percent may be one of the options," he told journalists at a briefing in Brussels.
The EEB has presented the study to European Farm Commissioner Franz Fischler, urging that the results be included in the Commission's plans on further reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy due in 2002/2003.
The EEB said a zero percent VAT rate on organic goods would cause consumer prices to drop, increase demand by 10 percent and bring into use an extra 300,000 hectares of farmland.
EU member states such as Germany, Denmark, Austria and Finland with the highest VAT rates would see the biggest changes. Denmark, for example, levies 25 percent VAT on food.
The EEB study also called for levies on the use of herbicides and nitrates, and for the money generated to be invested in organic farming.
EU farm commissioner criticizes European policy on biotech as muddled
February 13, 2002
By PAUL GEITNER
BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) - Europe risks being left behind in the booming biotechnology sector unless it finds a way to address public fears about genetically modified organisms, a top European Union official warned Wednesday.
We have to stop making decisions on such a difficult issue as biotechnology on a purely emotional basis, EU Farm Commissioner Franz Fischler said in a speech at a Belgian agricultural trade fair.
It is high time that Europe finds a way to address questions regarding the potential health or environmental risks of gene-altered products, he said.
Describing Europe's current response to biotech issues as muddling through, Fischler urged EU leaders to focus on finding a comprehensive policy at their summit in Barcelona, Spain, next month.
The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, released a broad strategy paper last month for the summit with recommendations for a common biotechnology policy.
It expects that by 2010, the global biotechnology market, not counting agriculture, could amount to more than 2 trillion euro (dlrs 1.76 trillion).
Yet while Europe today has more dedicated biotechnology companies (1,570) than the United States (1,273), those in Europe are relatively small, newer and undercapitalized. The U.S. biovtechnology industry employs 162,000 people, compared to 61,000 in Europe, and has far more products in the pipeline, according to EU figures.
The commission has proposed spending 2.15 billion euro (dlrs 1.9 billion) on biotechnology in its next research budget, which starts in January 2003.
But public resistance to biotech foods and crops remains high in Europe, making governments reluctant to embrace them.
Last October, European Union governments refused to lift a 1998 ban on the marketing of new genetically modified organisms in the EU, despite pressure from the commission and from Washington.
Some 70 percent of the world's genetically modified crops are grown in the United States.
New U.S. Rice Variety Sets Standard for High Yields
by Kristin Danley-Greiner
February 13, 2002
A new long grain rice variety called Francis has topped LaGrue and Wells, the University of Arkansasí highest-yielding varieties in performance trials in Arkansas and surrounding states.(ref.2546)
"Rough rice grain yields of Francis have consistently ranked as one of the highest in the Arkansas Rice Performance Trials, being either equal to or greater than the yields of LaGrue and Wells in all three years of the tests," said Karen Moldenhauer, University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture rice breeder. "It averaged 220 bushels an acre over three years in the Uniform Rice Regional Nursery."
The Uniform Rice Regional Nursery tests rice yields and other characteristics in five states. In the same test, LaGrue averaged 208 bushels and Wells averaged 203 bushels, Moldenhauer said.
Francis, designated during breeding as RU9901081, is a very-early-maturing variety with a growing season similar to Cocodrie. It has the same disease package as LaGrue.
"Francis, like LaGrue and Wells, is susceptible to common rice blast in greenhouse tests," she said. "As is the case for Wells, however, blast has not been a problem for Francis in field tests."
Francis is rated resistant to brown spot and narrow brown leaf spot, moderately resistant to leaf smut, moderately susceptible to sheath blight, susceptible to stem rot and false smut, and very susceptible for kernel smut. It also has strong straw, indicating resistance to lodging, Moldenhauer said.
Don Dombek, coordinator of the U of A crop variety improvement program, said foundation seed for Francis will be available to seed growers this year. Registered seed will be available in 2003 and certified Francis seed will be widely available to producers in 2004.
New Zealand: Moratorium On GM Risks R&D Investment
Press Release by Federated Farmers
February 14, 2002
Federated Farmers of New Zealand (Inc) has told the Select Committee considering the HSNO Amendment Bill that the proposed two year moratorium on applications for the commercial release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from containment is unnecessary and will stifle R&D investment.(ref.2537)
"The Royal Commission on GM considered the question of constraint on open or commercial release in considerable detail and recommended the introduction of a new "conditional" release category, as recommended by Federated Farmers," said Mr Polson.. "It is extremely disappointing that this Bill does not address conditional release."
"It is not necessary to further constrain the Environmental Risk Management Authority by removing the discretion to apply controls on field trials.
"The Federation is concerned that the two-year restriction will severely impact on investment in research and development, to the detriment of research and ultimately the competitiveness of primary industry.
"New Zealand farmers must produce in a competitive environment without government support and have to respond to market signals to survive. The cost of obtaining regulatory approval and then commercialising a GM product is likely to limit applications to those where there is an identified market.
"Imposing non-scientific restrictions on the commercialisation of products derived from gene technology will ensure capital flows into the New Zealand biotechnology sector are at best slow and at worst, negative. If this legislation proceeds the Prime Minister's vision that biotechnology will elevate New Zealand to a higher growth plane will never become a reality."
Fed: Battle raging between GM opponents and food watchdog
February 14, 2002
Genetically modified food opponents have accused the head of the nation's food safety authority of pandering to multinational food companies.
The head of the GeneEthics Network, Bob Phelps, said the Australia New Zealand Food Authority (ANZFA) had to do more to prove the safety of GM food rather than attack GM opponents. "Precaution is the best policy, but ANZFA is recklessly approving genetically engineered foods," he said.
"We are surprised and concerned that the federal regulator, Ian Lindenmayer, of ANZFA, so clearly sides with the chemical giants to promote gene technology and its food products."
This followed a stinging attack by ANZFA managing director Ian Lindenmayer, who said Dr Phelps and other GM opponents could not offer any evidence to support their criticism of genetically modified foods.
ANZFA last week backed the release of two more GM foods, genetically altered corn and canola oil.
Mr Lindenmayer said people such as Dr Phelps were happy to attack ANZFA and its scientific analysis of GM food, but baulked when confronted to provide evidence showing GM foods were dangerous.
"The continual sledging of GM food safety by these groups has gone beyond the bounds of ethical lobbying practice," he said.
"I now believe that these groups should be asked to put up or shut up. We have the evidence that approved GM foods are safe to eat. Where is their evidence that they are not?"
Dr Phelps said the onus was on Mr Lindenmayer and ANZFA to show the safety of GM foods, not organisations such as GeneEthics.
Date: 13 Feb 2002 19:32:26 -0000
From: "Red Porphyry"
Subject: Re: AGBIOVIEW: Red Porphyry, UltraRice, GoldenRice, and "What is to be done?"
Drew Kershen is under the mistaken impression that in dismissing Golden Rice in favor ofİUltra Rice, I have dismissed agriculture biotechnology completely. Nothing could be further from the truth. But it's high time the distinguished law professor from Oklahoma University face reality. As Drew himself points out, UltraRice has had a 20 year head start over Golden Rice with respect to solving the problem of micronutrient deficiency in Asia and around the world. In that time, all the technical, social, consumer and marketing "bugs" have been worked out for Ultra Rice. That's why Ultra Rice is now being put into commercial, mass production. Ultra Rice technology alsoİhasİthe very major benefit ofİextreme flexibility. In other words, ANY kind of rice (including Golden Rice, ironically) can beİtrivially fortifiedİusing Ultra Rice technology. By contrast, Golden Rice technology willİmost likely always have to be tailored to each particular kind of rice. That's what makes Ultra Rice technology a "killer app" and why, within a few years, Asian governments will inevitably pass legislation MANDATING the micronutrient fortification of all rice and rice products. Anyone who believes differently, who believes for one moment that Asian governments will refrain from such legislation purely in order to make sure that Golden Rice technology is "given a fair chance to compete on a level playing field in a free and open market" is whistling past the graveyard. Fortification of staple foods is mandated in the U.S., and has been for almost 100 years. Asian governments, with the appropriate technology now in hand, will follow suit. I'm in no way muzzling or thwarting Golden Rice technology. Anyone who wishes to work on it is free to do so (but is it a good career move?). As someoneİwho has at least a modicum of business acumen, it's very clear to me where the smart money is all going (and should go, frankly). It's all going to Ultra Rice, for all the reasons I wrote.
Does this mean that ag biotech operations should all be shut down, and the scientists dismissed? Of course not, but again, one must face reality and recognize where ag biotech technology is likely to make a meaningful contribution, and where it will not. Medicines, vaccines, fortified foods, and "nutraceuticals" are not the right venue for ag biotech. 250 years of traditional industrial experience in these areas will always, ALWAYS trump ag biotech, scarf up those markets, and the profits, without even so much as a "by your leave". Where the factory floor CAN'T effectively compete with ag biotech is in things like developing crops that produce higher yields, or that are more resistant to disease or insects, or that processes better or cheaper in a canning factory (I believe you call these agronomic and processing traits, yes?). THAT's the appropriate venue for ag biotech, and the one that will generate real, significant benefits for the Third World (yes, it's the Third World, not "developing countries". Deal with it). Golden Rice may not be all that, but papayas that are free of devastating viral infections ARE all that.
What's that, you say? "C'mon, Red. No agbiotecher worth his salt is going to waste his time on those papayas, 'cuz there ain't no real money to be made in them, and that's a fact". Well, maybe so (though the particular agbiotecher in question is presumably not a Catholic or Buddhist monk, and so will, in fact, be getting paid a salary for this work), but if making money is theİREAL point of the work, then I say go work on biomedical biotech, or get a law degree and become a patent attorney. No, the appropriate venue for ag biotech is not likely to ever be particularly profitable for the scientists involved. But the work will be very meaningful, and huge numbers of other people will benefit greatly from it, that I can guarantee.
So what's ag biotech REALLY about, Drew? Is it about the people and the wildlife, or is it about money?
Date: 13 Feb 2002 18:51:03 -0000
From: "Bob MacGregor"
Subject: Re: Ultra Rice
I know zip about Ultra Rice or how the fortification process works. However, it seems to me that what Red is advocating is nothing short of a revolutionary change in the structure of farming and marketing in much of Asia. What proportion of rice consumption currently moves through centralized channels that would easily be subject to Ultra-ricefication? My impression is that the majority of rice production is NOT handled that way-- it is either consumed locally (subsistance) or is marketed through many small, geographically-dispersed marketplaces. If I am wrong about the current structure of rice production and consumption, then I look forward to being corrected. Drew is right to say that there is nothing wrong with pursuing multiple solutions to a problem of this magnitude(vit A difficiency); Red declaring that Golden Rice is a non-starter and putting all the hopes on a mandatory rice fortification scheme is seriously premature and shortsighted in my view.
Report: EPA Gives $2B to Nonprofits
Tue Feb 12, 7:44 PM ET
By LARRY MARGASAK and JOHN SOLOMON
WASHINGTON - The Environmental Protection Agency (news - web sites) has given more than $2 billion to nonprofit groups since 1993, often without competitive bidding, an Associated Press computer analysis found. The agency's internal watchdog says some groups may have received favored treatment.
The grants went to a wide variety of groups including environmental lobbies that sue the agency and senior citizen centers that function like temporary worker agencies.
Among the grants listed in agency documents as awarded to nonprofits:
_A $1,500 grant to help a university group create a "solid waste board game" entitled the Can Man Game.
_More than $47,000 to help the Seattle Mariners professional baseball team, which had an $80 million payroll last year, develop a recycling program at its new stadium. The money was provided to the team by the grant recipient, the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce (news - web sites).
_$150,000 to research the "role of lighting in human performance and productivity."
_More than $300,000 over eight years for a "golf and the environment" project to encourage golf courses that rely on pesticides and fertilizers to be more environmentally friendly.
_Nearly $100,000 to study how to reduce methane gas emissions from livestock in the Ukraine. That was part of millions of dollars in grants that benefitted countries outside the United States.
The AP analysis of EPA grants and grant extensions to nonprofits found that six of the top 10 recipients between 1993 and 2001 weren't environmental groups or researchers, but rather seniors groups that received tens of millions of dollars to hire older Americans as temporary workers for environmental projects. About 1,800 seniors are currently employed under the program.
The AARP Foundation topped the list with $98.5 million, followed by the National Older Worker Career Center at $90.6 million, the National Senior Citizens Education and Research Center ($74 million), the National Caucus and Center on Black Aged ($72 million) and the National Association of Hispanic Elderly ($43.9 million).
The grants, created by Congress, cover the workers' pay and benefits as well as the groups' costs for arranging the employment.
Larry Anderson ran the seniors program for AARP until the senior lobby dropped out, and he now works for the Career Center. He said workers 55 and older were recruited for EPA jobs ranging from clerk to scientist, but few earned more than $30,000 a year.
"This allows the EPA to get experienced people while educating their managers on the value of younger people and older people working together," Anderson said.
Many of EPA's grants have been awarded without competition and left to the discretion of agency employees, the agency's internal watchdog has found.
In a scathing report last May, the inspector general said the EPA was unable to justify its award of more than $1 billion in noncompetitive grants in the 2000 fiscal year alone. The figure included awards to nonprofits plus grants to state and local governments.
There were "implications of preferential treatment in the selection of grantees," the report said.
It said EPA officials justified no-bid grants by calling recipients "uniquely qualified." The designation was "based solely on the project officers' beliefs, without any documented proof that no other organizations were able to perform the desired work," the report concluded.
Howard Corcoran, director of the EPA's grants office, said changes are being made to increase competitive bidding beginning Oct. 1. "The agency has become much more sensitive since (the report) of the need for competition in grants," he said. Corcoran added, however, that some projects with titles that sound trivial to some people in fact are important to protecting the environment.
"I understand pesticides in golf courses are a big problem," Corcoran said, addressing the agency's more than $300,000 in awards for the golf course research.
Some in Congress have become concerned at the growth of grants to nonprofit groups that also lobby federal officials, engage in politics or file lawsuits against the government.
The number of EPA grants to nonprofits more than doubled from $167.8 million in the first year of the Clinton administration in 1993 to nearly $350 million in 2001, George W. Bush's first year, the AP analysis found.
"We've learned that a very small fraction of these grants are ever audited," said Mark Levin, president of the Landmark Legal Foundation, a conservative law firm. "Most of them are awarded without competition, and with virtually no public notice."
Levin's group sued to obtain the grant records from EPA, and provided them to AP for its computer analysis. Landmark is pursuing litigation at other agencies seeking similar grant records.
The General Accounting Office (news - web sites), the investigative arm of Congress, said in a report last year that one problem with EPA grants is that nonprofit groups have been "spending funds for unallowable activities such as lobbying." Despite these concerns, the GAO noted, EPA hardly ever audited nonprofits that got grants.
Levin said his group also is concerned that nonprofit recipients could be using grant money to help pay for lawsuits against the government.
The AP review identified several EPA grants that went to organizations that had filed environmental lawsuits against the government.
For instance, the National Association of Homebuilders, whose research arm received $2 million in grants, sued to eliminate a rule barring developers from excavating in swamps, bogs and marshes without approval.
And the Natural Resources Defense Council, which received $4.9 million in grants, filed lawsuits over arsenic standards for water and pesticide regulations.
Elliott Negin, spokesman for the council, said the grant money cannot be used to sue the agency.
"EPA grants are for very discrete projects and you have to identify ahead of time what you're planning to do. We have to submit a report on a periodic basis and they reimburse us for what we spent. We have to verify what we've done," Negin said.
Groups that receive EPA money say the grants spur important research and conservation.
Brian Kealy, director of Bat Conservation International of Austin, Texas, said his $30,000 project produced literature on places where bats are endangered and forged an alliance of researchers and industry representatives from the United States, Canada and Mexico to preserve bats.
The North American Development Bank, the top nonprofit recipient with at least $125 million in grants, is helping to build water and sewer facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border.
And Seattle's new $500 million Safeco Field is now something more than a baseball park where a team won a record number of games last season. "We can now recycle cardboard, plastic, etc., right there," said Bill Anderson, who was involved with the EPA-funded recycling project.
On the Net:
List of top grant recipients available at http://wire.ap.org
Environmental Protection Agency: http://www.epa.gov
Landmark Legal Foundation, http://www.landmarklegal.org