Today in AgBioView: May 24, 2002
* GM demonstrators are ignorant, says Blair
* Science must not be stifled - Blair
* GM food labelling row could mutate into trade war
* BIOTECH FOODS NO RISKIER THAN OTHER FOODS - STUDY
* INDIA'S MAHYCO CONDUCTS TRIALS ON MORE GM SEEDS
* GM CROPS TO BENEFIT EGYPTIAN FARMERS
* Charles Arntzen: Edible Immunity
* NEW ZEALAND'S PRIME MINISTER RULES OUT FORMING NEW COALITION WITH GREENS
* REAL THREAT IS SPRAWL, NOT BIOTECH
GM demonstrators are ignorant, says Blair
By Melissa Kite and Mark Henderson
May 24, 2002
TONY BLAIR described GM protesters yesterday as ignorant and said that he
saw no serious evidence of health risks in genetically modified crops.
The Prime Minister also came down in favour of animal testing for medical
research in a speech aimed at re-igniting interest in science, which he
said was vital to Britainís future prosperity.
In a speech to the Royal Society in London, Mr Blair said that to oppose
scientific research was to retreat into a culture of unreason. While
voicing some sympathy with those who had genuine fears, Mr Blair made
clear that he would have no truck with those who destroyed crops or
vandalised research laboratories.
ìThere is only a small band of people, I believe, who genuinely want to
stifle informed debate,î he said. ìBut a small group can, as has happened
in our country, destroy experimental crops before we can determine their
environmental impact. I donít know what that research would have
concluded. Neither do the protesters. But I want to reach my judgments
after I have the facts and not before.î
He listed developments that he found inspiring, including the use of
microscale robots in surgery and digital mammographs for breast cancer
diagnosis. ìBut precisely because the advances are so immense, people
worry and of course many of these worries are entirely serious,î he said.
ìIn GM crops I can find no serious evidence of health risks, but there are
genuine and real concerns over biodiversity and gene transfer. Human
cloning raises legitimate moral questions. Advances in arms technology
makes the world less safe. Humanity has, for the first time, the capacity
for vast prosperity or to destroy itself completely.î
Peter Briggs, chief executive of the British Association for the
Advancement of Science, welcomed the Prime Ministerís sentiments, but said
that they would have to be backed by major investment.
ìThe rhetoric has got to be matched by resources,î he said. ìWe have a
spending review coming up and I hope Gordon Brown will read the speech.î
Green campaign groups said, however, that the Prime Minister was wrong to
equate protest with hostility towards science. Doug Parr, chief scientist
at Greenpeace, said: ìThe British are not anti-science but simply
pro-democracy. All of the new technologies that Mr Blair promotes are
entirely controlled by private enterprise and released into the world
without any form of democratic mandate or public consultation.î
Science must not be stifled - Blair
BBC News Online
23 May, 2002
Britain risks being overtaken by other countries if it lets unjustified
protests stifle vital scientific advances, Tony Blair has warned. In a
speech on Thursday, the prime minister told the Royal Society in London
that science was crucial to the UK's economic success.
His speech included attacks on protests against animal experiments and GM
crops, as he urged people to judge new ideas on the scientific facts.
But Charles Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth, said ministers
seemed willing to accept scientific argument when it backed business but
was less open when evidence suggested dangers and difficulties.
And Lord Melchett, the Soil Association's policy director, accused the
prime minister of "regurgitating chemical industry propaganda".
Mr Blair said he understood that people were worried by some scientific
advances but he pressed for a more mature debate which needed science to
establish the facts.
"My plea is really very simple," he said. "It is: let the debate be won
between open minds, not a retreat into the culture of unreason."
The prime minister said ideas that scientists were developing some kind of
"Dr Strangelove" were based on misunderstanding.
A new "robust, engaging dialogue" with the public was needed to restore
confidence in science, which had been damaged by episodes such as the BSE
The prime minister told how a group of scientists in Bangalore, India, had
told him: "Europe has gone soft on science; we are going to leapfrog you
and you will miss out."
Mr Blair continued: "I believe that if we don't get a better understanding
of science and its role, they may be proved right."
Britain was at a crossroads where it could choose timidity or a confident
approach to the modern world, he added.
Although many scientists applauded Labour's £2bn investment in science
after it came to power, others believe salaries are still too low and more
must be done to bolster the profession.
In a letter on Wednesday, 29 top scientists called for more investment so
schools and universities could recruit and keep good teachers and
They said the country's science, engineering and medical research base had
been crucial to the social, economic and environmental success of the UK.
But its future depended on science education in schools and universities,
Mr Blair said getting bright youngsters interested in scientific careers
was a "clear challenge for Britain in the next 10 years".
On Wednesday, the government's Chief Scientist told the BBC that funding
would be found for a new laboratory in Cambridge researching neural
The local authority had said it couldn't afford security for the centre,
which will use monkeys for testing.
The government has previously backed Huntingdon Life Sciences, the medical
research company repeatedly targeted by violent animal rights protests.
But Michelle Thew, of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection,
said: "I am shocked by Tony Blair's defence at all costs of the interests
of the animal-testing industry and his complete dismissal of the fears and
concerns of an increasingly anxious public."
And Greenpeace Chief Scientist Dr Doug Parr said: "The British are not
anti-science but simply pro-democracy. All of the new technologies that Mr
Blair promotes are entirely controlled by private enterprise and released
into the world without any form of democratic mandate or public
"Even after the recent tornado of criticism over GM food, Mr Blair is
still trying to stop genetically engineered food from being labelled for
consumers. He just doesn't learn."
Mr Blair's comments have, however, gone down very well in the UK's major
Professor Sir Brian Heap, Master of St Edmunds College, Cambridge, said:
"Thank goodness the Prime Minister is taking the initiative in seeking to
reverse the potentially dangerous trend that has developed against
And Professor Philip Dale, from the John Innes Centre, said: "The
pro-science comments by the Prime Minister are very welcome. The
anti-science campaigns propagated by some organisations seriously risk
paralysing innovation in UK science.
"The recent destruction of field crop experiments, which were designed to
generate knowledge on which sound decisions can be made, has parallels
with book-burning in supposedly less enlightened times."
GM food labelling row could mutate into trade war
May 24, 2002
By bronwen maddox
ARE we heading for a new American-European trade war over genetically
modified food? It would be no bad thing if we were.
A House of Lords select committee yesterday sided with the US against the
European Union on the latest wrinkle in the row, mainly for the right
reasons, spelling out the several inescapable weaknesses of the European
ban on GM imports.
The issue at the heart of the row is how food produced from genetically
modified crops should be labelled in Europe. It is not about whether food
is safe for people to eat or safe for the environment.
Those two questions are often fused by campaigners, for good reason. Where
people are nervous of GM, it is mainly about health, hence the potency of
the ìFrankenfoods panicî. The answer is yes. As Tony Blair said yesterday,
in a speech to promote confidence in science: ìIn GM crops, I can find no
serious evidence of health risks.î
There is much less popular concern about impact on the environment and
biodiversity, although as Blair again said, this is where the questions
are more open.
The subject of the trade row is neither of these, however. The EU has had
an effective ban on any new GM foods since 1998, because some member
states ó France, Denmark, Italy, Austria, Greece, Belgium and Luxembourg ó
have refused to co-operate unless there is a system for tracing their
origin and labelling them accurately.
The starting point of the US Food and Drugs Administration case is that GM
food is ìsubstantially equivalentî to normal food and there is no need to
give consumers the choice because it is not a health and safety issue. The
US argues that it is so expensive to label food as the EU would like ó
even where it is possible ó that this is a restraint of trade under the
rules of the World Trade Organisation. The British Government has broadly
taken the US line.
The Lords started from the position ó not shared by the US ó that people
have a right to know what they are eating, whether their apprehensions are
based on good science or not. But the application of this principle is
impossible, it argues. Its conclusion is forthright: ìWe support the
ending of the present ad hoc moratorium, which we consider to be an
unfortunate abuse of community procedures and could expose the EU to
The core of its argument is that tracing where food comes from and how
exactly it has been grown is impossible. You cannot do it by analysis of
the food itself. The report makes the entirely accurate point that ìa
variety of products produced with GM technology are not merely
substantially equivalent to existing products but are actually identical
(oils, sugars).î It adds: ì Not only is there now, but there never can be,
any scientific means of identifying their source.î
So it is fair to conclude, as it does, that the ìaudit trailî that the
European Commission dreams of would not be reliable either for bulk
commodities (soya, maize, wheat) or for what it coyly calls ìproducts from
countries with less sophisticated supply chainsî.
The effect would be that the high costs of these attempts would be added
to all food bills, to no benefit. The Lords committee is also rightly
convinced of the general principle that bringing in unenforceable law
devalues the wider regulatory framework.
As this row has been building up over the past couple of years, the US,
with some justice, has accused Europe of turning to barely hidden
protectionism to help its own farms and food industry. But after the new
US Farm Bill, showering $190 billion of subsidies on US farms in the next
decade, the US has lost the moral force of this argument, and perhaps much
of the legal weight too.
A casualty of President Bushís reflex in a tough congressional election
year may then be the acceptance of a calmer and more pragmatic approach to
GM in Europe.
BIOTECH FOODS NO RISKIER THAN OTHER FOODS - STUDY
May 23, 2002
By Randy Fabi (via Agnet)
WASHINGTON - A new report by the U.S. General Accounting Office and
prepared for Congress was cited as saying that genetically modified foods
pose no greater health risk than conventional foods, but the U.S.
government should scrutinize more closely the safety of new biotech
products. The report was further cited as saying that consumers who ate
bioengineered foods were not at a higher risk of allergies or toxic
reactions and that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had adequately
tested the safety of new biotech foods before allowing them to be sold.
However, there was room for improvement, it said. The General Accounting
Office said the FDA should validate more frequently the accuracy of food
safety data provided by food companies. The FDA was cited as agreeing with
the study's recommendations, but said it should not be forced to do so on
a regular basis. The agency said the risk of criminal penalties for
submitting false data was a significant deterrent for biotech companies.
An FDA risk assessment for a new biotech product averages between 18
months and three years, according to FDA officials.
INDIA'S MAHYCO CONDUCTS TRIALS ON MORE GM SEEDS
May 24, 2002
By Atul Prakash (via Agnet)
BOMBAY - India's Mahyco, the first company allowed to sell genetically
modified seeds in the country, was cited as saying it was conducting field
trials on more transgenic cotton hybrids containing technology from U.S.
giant Monsanto. The story says that earlier this year, the government
permitted Mahyco or Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company, which is 26-percent
owned by Monsanto's unlisted Indian arm, Monsanto Holdings Private
Limited, to produce and sell three varieties of genetically modified (GM)
cotton hybrids. GM technology could help boost abysmally low farm yields
in a country of more than a billion people, agricultural scientists say.
Raju Barwale, managing director of Mahyco, was quoted as telling Reuters
on Friday that, "We have started field trials for two more GM cotton
hybrids that will be best suited for northern India," adding the results
would be ready before the next planting season begins, in June 2003. "The
new seeds could be sold to farmers from the next season, provided we get
government approval before that." The three cotton hybrids that it is
already selling, the Mech 12 Bt, Mech 162 Bt and Mech 184 Bt, are ideal
for central and south India, which have different agro-climatic conditions
from the north, Barwale said.
GM CROPS TO BENEFIT EGYPTIAN FARMERS
An advance report from the Agricultural Policy Reform Program (APRP) in
Egypt concludes that farmers who will plant genetically modified (GM)
crops will benefit from reduction in pesticide application and
concomitantly lesser production costs.
Lawrence Kent of APRP and Motaz Moniem, APRP associate consultant, studied
the potential benefits of GM crops for Egypt. This was a response to the
request of the Secretariat of the National Biosafety Committee to quantify
the potential benefits of five GM crops where research by the Agricultural
Genetic Engineering Research Institute (AGERI) is most advanced. These
crops include cotton, squash, potato, tomato and corn.
Highlights of the researchers' results include:
* Farmers who plant GE cotton will no longer need to spray for leaf worms
or bollworms, allowing them to decrease their expenditures on pest
management by 160-360 LE per feddan. They can also expect increases in
harvests by 5 to 10 percent. As a result, adopters can expect their net
income to increase by 460 LE per feddan per year, even after paying a
premium for the GE seed.
* Farmers who plant GE squash will no longer need to spray pesticides to
slow the spread of problematic viruses. By switching to GE squash, a
farmer can expect an increase in net income of 325 to 535 LE per feddan,
even after paying for the GE seed.
* Farmers who plant GE potatoes will no longer need to spray pesticides
against the potato tuber moth (PTM), one of several problems harming
potato yields. By switching to GE potatoes, the farmer can expect to
reduce his expenditures on pest control by 76 LE per feddan on average
(during the summer). He can also anticipate yields that are 2 to 10%
higher. Overall, a farmer who switches can expect an increase in net
returns of 213 to 423 LE per feddan, taking account of the higher price of
* Farmers who plant GE tomatoes will no longer need to spray pesticides to
control the whitefly which is a carrier for the devastating tomato yellow
leaf curl virus (TLCV). By switching to GE tomatoes, a farmer can expect
to reduce his expenditures on pest control by 700 to 1,755 LE per feddan.
He can also anticipate yields that are 7 to 15% higher.
For more information contact: Motaz A. Moniem, Research Assistant /
Associate Consultant Agricultural Policy Reform Program (APRP) Reform,
Design and Implementation Unit (RDI), USAID at Tele: +202-3375712, 3370473
or cellular: +2010 617 3477
Charles Arntzen: Edible Immunity
Charles Arntzen has an argument for genetically modified (GM) foods that
few can resist. He's developing GM fruits and vegetables containing edible
vaccines that could save the lives of millions of children worldwide.
"It is hard to be pro-infant mortality," says Arntzen, who has found
environmental groups dropping their criticisms when he explains his work.
By eating one of his vaccine-containing bananas, potatoes or tomatoes, for
instance, children one day may be immunized against everything from
measles to polioówithout the need for sterile injection needles or
refrigeration of the vaccine. Not only are these food-vaccines easy to
transport to remote, undeveloped areas, but they often mesh better with
the local traditional customs, which involve the use of medicinal plants.
Formerly of Cornell University, Arntzen is now the founding director of
Arizona State University's fledgling Arizona Biomedical Institute in
Tempe. It's a position that will allow him to continue to straddle
agriculture and medicine. In some ways it harkens back to his Minnesota
farm roots even though his work in Arizona means planting in isolated
desert fields, miles from the nearest farm, to minimize the chances that
GM plants can escape and interbreed with conventional crops.
Back in western Minnesota the crops were corn, soybeans, oats and others
combined to hedge against changing markets. "My father and the rest of the
family worked 20 hours per day," he recalls. "I remember farming as very
hard work." Arntzen's return to the business of crops is a bit of an
In college, he dreamed of working in the great outdoors as a geologist,
sleeping in a tent and exploring for oil. Then he met a woman he wanted to
marry and his plans changed. "She thought that was a bizarre way to live."
So he switched to molecular biology, graduating from University of
Minnesota in 1965. Arntzen earned a doctorate in cell physiology from
Purdue University and spent five years at the University of Illinois after
which he joined DuPont to work on its bioengineered crops program.
Arntzen's mix of talents led to a dual appointment as the dean of the
school of agriculture at Texas A&M University and adjunct professor of
physiology at the University of Texas Medical School.
The idea of vaccinated foods didn't come to him until 1992 on a trip
abroad. In Bangkok he observed a mother applying a bit of banana to a
baby's lips to stop its crying. It made perfect sense, he thought, to put
useful medicines into such fruit, because children like it and fruits are
essentially sterile packages that can be grown inexpensively in the
countries where they are needed.
Since then, Arntzen has succeeded in producing GM bananas that produce a
protein found on the outer surface of the Hepatitis B virus. It's the sort
of protein against which the human immune system can produce antibodies. A
person who ate the banana would have an immune system capable of attacking
any infecting hepatitis virus.
Non-biotech vaccines are made with attenuated viruses - dead viruses or
non-disease-causing strains of virusesóto prime the human immune system.
In either case, whole viruses are involved in making the vaccineówhich
always involves some degree of risk. Genetically engineered vaccines,
including plant vaccines, on the other hand, cannot cause the diseases
because the engineered bacteria, cell or plant is just creating a protein
that exists on the surface of a virusónot the whole virus. While the
Hepatitis B vaccine currently used is biotech in origin, the banana
vaccine makes for a more stable and convenient package.
Despite the promise of plant vaccines to fight major child-killers like
dysentery, Arntzen is aware the road to acceptance will not be easy. But
he's also determined to pass all the regulatory tests in the U.S. and
avoid any appearance of "dumping" the technology on developing countries.
In the meantime, he says, the matter of GM foods in general may be passing
out of the hands of the U.S. and Europe, as China and other developing
countries move forward to meet the demands of their populations.
Note: The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology will hold a conference
on the topic of transgenic plants, "Pharming the Field: A Look at the
Benefits and Risks of Bioengineering Plants to Produce Pharmaceuticals,"
July 17-18, 2002 in Washington, D.C. This two-day workshop will permit
participants to explore some of the benefits as well as some of the
ecological and human health concerns posed by plant pharmaceuticals and
other novel products from the next generation of biotech plants. For more
information or to register online for the event visit the Pew Initiative
NEW ZEALAND'S PRIME MINISTER RULES OUT FORMING NEW COALITION WITH GREENS
May 23, 2002
Associated Press (Via Agnet)
WELLINGTON, New Zealand - Prime Minister Helen Clark was cited as ruling
out on Thursday the possibility of forming a coalition with the Green
Party, calling its lawmakers "just plain silly" for storming out of
Parliament over a new law regulating research into genetic engineering of
plants and animals. The story says that expectations had been mounting
that Clark's center-left Labor Party would join forces with the Greens to
strengthen her government's hold on power, loosened by the woes of its
junior coalition partner, the Alliance Party. The left-leaning Alliance
has been wracked by infighting that has alienated supporters ahead of
general elections due by November. But the prime minister was cited as
saying in a radio interview that she had squashed the idea of inviting the
Greens into her weakened coalition after seven of its lawmakers walked out
of Parliament on Wednesday during the final vote on a law that imposes a
two-year moratorium on field trials of genetically modified crops. The
Greens, who support the government on budgetary issues and votes of
confidence, instead demanded a permanent ban. Clark was quoted as telling
National Radio, "Let's be clear, this statement rules the Greens out of
coalition. What I am saying is that they can't go into a coalition with
REAL THREAT IS SPRAWL, NOT BIOTECH
May 21, 2002 (Via Agnet)
Alan McHughen, a biotech specialist at the University of California,
Riverside, asks in this op-ed, is biodiversity in Mexico under threat?
Yes, but not by biotech corn. Emotional excitement is clouding the real
issues. First was the publication of a short paper in Nature, a
respectable British scientific journal, showing Monarch butterflies, an
insect, might be harmed by eating pollen containing insecticide provided
by a type of biotech corn. McHughen says that popular wisdom, if not the
authors, concluded that the survival of the migrating Mexico-based
monarchs was therefore threatened by these plants. Thus the hand-wringing
began, along with calls for banning biotech crops because of the apparent
threat to biodiversity as exemplified by the lovely Monarch. The angst
subsided only after a blue-ribbon panel of public scientists conducted
experiments and published a series of research articles showing that the
biodiversity threat to Monarchs from biotech corn was negligible; that a
much greater hazard to monarchs was actually car windshields. Since no one
seemed too willing to campaign against windshields on cars, the furor died
down. Then came a report arguing that the genetic integrity of Mexican
teosinte, the ancestor of modern corn, was being contaminated by genetic
material from biotech corn. Once again, hand-wringers were out in force,
demanding an end to modern plant breeding because this paper, also
published in Nature, showed biotech crops threatened biodiversity in
Mexico. And once again, the angst subsided when Nature disowned the paper
last month, agreeing with technical experts that the research findings
were flawed and that the paper should not have been published in the first
place. With all the media coverage and anxiety over threats - real or
imagined - to biodiversity in Mexico, a more crucial issue is overlooked.
That is, does cross-pollination constitute a threat to biodiversity? To
some, cross-pollination is genetic pollution and the offending corn must
be banned, because, according to the argument, the philandering corn genes
dilute the genetic purity, and therefore the biodiversity, of the
teosinte. To others, moving genes from plant to plant, even species to
species as with corn and teosinte, is completely natural, does not
constitute a threat to biodiversity, and is a phenomenon we need not be
too concerned with. The scientific evidence indicates that ordinary
pollination between modern corn and teosinte does not constitute a
significant threat to biodiversity. Modern corn varieties have been
available to Mexican farmers for half a century. Yes, there is evidence
that some cross-pollination events have occurred over that time. And yes,
the modern genes can persist in the populations. But the modern genes do
not overtake or crowd out the ancestral genes. Biotech corn does not
cross-pollinate with any greater efficiency than modern non-biotech corn.
In short, biodiversity in teosinte is not jeopardized by genes or pollen
from modern corn, including biotech varieties. The real threat to teosinte
and maize landrace populations emanates from human populations, with their
increasing demands for land and food. As cities grow, they encroach on the
best farmland. As remaining farmers attempt to meet the demand for more
food, they replace older, less productive varieties with new,
high-yielding hybrids. Both activities displace traditional plants. If
society wants to preserve teosinte and old landraces, we must support
well-funded and organized gene banks and reserve lands, where the genetic
heritage can be protected. We must establish a regulatory system for new
crop varieties based on their health safety and ecological fitness, not on
the breeding method used. Finally, we must encourage the cultivation and
consumption of biotech varieties with higher nutritional quality and
yields, to satisfy the demand for more and better foods without converting
more land. Biodiversity in Mexico - and elsewhere - is certainly under
threat. Emotional distractions accelerate the problem by delaying the
implementation of real solutions.