Today in AgBioView: July 23, 2002:
* A Dogged Silence
* Re: Public Distrust and Labelling
* Berridge comments on DNA in the gut story
* Re: Japan variety approval
* GM moratoriums, regulations, may cost lives
* Marian Hobbs: Hager confused over GE testing
* Muzzling the Lords: Charles leaves them speechless
* Rice going hi-tech to meet world's food demands
* Zambia urged to accept genetically modified food aid
A Dogged Silence
Tech Central Station
By Duane D. Freese
July 22, 2002
The American and British media in their coverage of genetically modified
crops lately have acted much like the dog in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's
story "Silver Blaze."
The tale is about a racehorse that disappears from his paddock, with his
trainer found in a field, killed by a blow to the head. Sherlock Holmes is
called in, and after he examines the evidence, his fictional chronicler,
Dr. Watson, asks: "Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my
"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
"The dog did nothing in the night-time."
"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.
Like the dog, the media have been pretty quiet in their reporting about
biotechnology in agriculture lately.
Good News: The Bad News Is Wrong
In some respects, this is a good thing, since when newspapers and the
media highlight something, it's usually like a dog howling in the night:
It's to complain that something bad, or what they imaginatively think
might be bad, is happening. "Science panel urges closer study of biotech
crops" and "Panel Urges U.S. to Tighten Approval of Gene-Altered Crops"
are typical recent headlines.
And now a recent review of media coverage of agrobiotechnology in the
current issue of AgBioForum (http://www.agbioforum.missouri.edu/) this
winter describes what's happening. Examining press accounts from 1990
through 2001, researchers Leonie A. Marks and Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes of
the University of Missouri-Columbia found that when news is hottest about
agbiotechnology it tends to emphasize potential, even if improbable,
They noted that "coverage linked the potential for GM foods as a repeat of
the UK experience with BSE or 'mad cow disease'" when that worry reached
its peak in 1998 and 1999. In the United States, the Washington Post, USA
Today and Wall Street Journalagbiotech coverage peaked in 2000 and 2001
with fears about damage to Monarch butterflies and the release of a
non-human tested transgenic feed corn, Starlink, into the food supply.
But six studies last fall demonstrated GM corn posed no threat to Monarch
butterflies, and most recently the U.S. General Accounting Office
(http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d02566.pdf) - Congress' primary adviser on
technical issues - concluded that the safety regimen for ensuring safety
of GM crops into human foods. And as far as windblown contamination, an
Australian study published in a recent issue of Science involving a canola
variety genetically modified using standard breeding techniques found that
the amount was minimal -- less than 0.2% of seeds in any of the other
fields. That's no threat to biodiversity or health, except in the mind of
someone who has no understanding that nothing in nature is pure.
Now For the Real Good News
But while the media isn't drumming up fears with overly dramatic coverage,
it also isn't doing much reporting or investigating the benefits of
genetically modified crops - particularly the environmental benefits they
When a coalition for the Declaration in Support of Protecting Nature with
High-Yield Farming and Forestry (http://www.highyieldconservation.org)
held a news conference April 30, major news outlets such as the Washington
Post, USA Today, and The New York Times took a pass. Why will they cover
protesters dressed up as butterflies, but not cover two Nobel Prize
winners; former Democratic presidential candidate, George McGovern; a
World Food Prize winner and the founder of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore
(http://www.cgfi.com/new_detail.cfm?Art_ID=307), talk about the need for
biotechnology and other tools for feeding the world's millions of starving
The same went for a report issued by the Council on Agricultural Science
"Comparative Environmental Impacts of Biotechnology-derived and
Traditional Soybean, Corn and Cotton Crops." The report notes GM crops are
now planted on 46 percent of the world's soybean acreage, 7 percent of its
corn acreage and 20 percent of its cotton acreage. Indeed, in the case of
cotton, that will quickly grow faster, as India this spring took off its
anti-GM blinders, approving by referendum import of GM cotton seeds after
some farmers, who illegally imported some, proved its pest resistant and
What kind of environmental benefit? Well, if you don't have to spray as
much pesticide, you don't risk killing as many good bugs as well as pests.
If you don't have to plow up as much land to keep weeds down, you have
less soil erosion. If you can grow more of a crop on fewer acres, you can
turn more land over for other beneficial uses - as buffer zones and for
trees. All this leads to improved water and air and soil quality, without
having to sacrifice yields as happens with intensive organic farming.
GM crops, the report concluded, actually can increase biodiversity, which
is why the authors of the study recommend strongly that agricultural
biotechnology continue to be developed "to enhance environmental
Let Them Know
If GM can be good for the environment - and 19 Nobel Prize winners who
support the Declaration for High Yield Farming and Forestry believe that
is true, too - then doesn't the public have a right to know about that as
much as risks that have yet to pan out?
The curious thing about the media is that it barks so much about risks,
real or imagined, but fails to balance it with full reporting of such
If only the dog in Silver Blaze had made some noise despite seeing only a
familiar face, it might have prevented the horse's trainer from trying to
hobble it to win a bet, and getting clobbered by the horse in the process.
If the press would draw as much attention to the benefits of biotechnology
as it does to perceived risks, perhaps it would awaken the public to the
need to keep this vital science from being hobbled by anti-biotech
extremists who pass themselves off as friendly environmentalists.
Date: Mon, 22 Jul 2002 11:18:52 -0400
From: "Wayne Parrott"
Subject: Re: Public Distrust and Labelling
>>Greg Conko wrote:
>>Bob MacGregor asked about survey research regarding the public's desire
to label mutation-derived foods. I don't know about mutation-breeding, but
in a survey commissioned by the Center for Science in the Public Interest
(http://www.cspinet.org/new/poll_gefoods.html) completed in the Spring of
2001, 40 percent of respondents said they favored mandatory labeling of
products containing hybrid corn. Only 44 percent of respondents said that
they would buy products containing hybrid corn. And more respondents
wanted food labels to mention pesticide residues than wanted labels to
mention genetic engineering (provided that they could add only one item).
Wayne Parrot responds:
The above answer illustrates why it is *not* correct to say that surveys
show that the public demands GM labeling. Bottom line is that the question
"should GM foods be labeled?" predisposes people to a positive answer
because the very fact it is asked implies that there is reason GM foods
should be labeled, and thus opposing it is perceived as irresponsible or
morally wrong. The question then falls into the same category as "Do you
think wife-beating should be prohibited?" Who would ever answer no????
There are ways to survey the public without biasing the answer. I use as
an example, a question that IFIC (International Food Information Council),
uses, and which may be found on their web site at
The question is: Can you think of any information that is not currently
included on food labels that you would like to see on food labels? And
what types of information would that be? Asked in this fashion, only 1-2%
of consumers bring up genetic engineering. The vast majority (abt 75%)
don't want anything else on the label.
Bottom line: properly conducted surveys in the US do not show consumer
demand for GM labels.
Berridge comments on DNA in the gut story
New Zealand Life Sciences Network
July 24, 2002
The report by John Vidal in the Guardian newspaper of July 17 indicating
that researchers at the University of Newcastle had shown that DNA from
genetically modified crops can find its way into human gut bacteria must
be regarded with a degree of scepticism. Not only are the researchers not
named, but there is no indication that the research has been peer-reviewed
or published, a prerequisite for having confidence in the validity of
scientific results, said Mike Berridge, President of the NZ Association of
The study, commissioned by Britain's Food Standards Agency, showed that
low numbers of a herbicide-resistant gene from food was found in the
bacteria excreted by 3 of 7 volunteers who had had their lower bowel
removed, but not in gut bacteria excreted from 12 normal volunteers. "In
these studies it is important to know whether the herbicide-resistance
gene or the DNA was assayed and what controls were used to ensure
herbicide-resistance genes were not being selected for" said Dr Berridge.
The UK Food Standards Agency described the results as "insignificant" but
Friends off the Earth described the results as "dynamite" and demanded
that GM food be withdrawn from the market. The NZ Association of
Scientists advised caution in overinterpreting these preliminary results
until the full story was available.
Date: Mon, 22 Jul 2002 11:14:22 EDT
Subject: Re: Japan variety approval
To: email@example.com CC: firstname.lastname@example.org
>> Bob MacGregor wrote:
The headline said, "JAPAN APPROVES BIOTECH CORN, SOY VARIETIES FOR FOOD".
Do Japan and the EU require their stamp of approval for any and all new
crop varieties before they may be imported there, or does this requirement
apply only to genetically-engineered varieties? If a new ("conventional")
variety has traits that differentiate it from its predecessors, I presume
that a test could be devised to detect this difference. Would the ability
to differentiate, say, wheat or corn by variety make it desirable to do
so? It seems to me that the logical extension of the consumer choice
arguments of the labelling folks is farm-to-fork tracking of each crop, by
variety; soon, the labels will be bigger than the products, if all
relevant details about the origins of all the food components are to be
included on them!
Paul Christensen responds:
The EU has more restrictive system for the registration of new varieties
than does Japan. In Europe most new varieties of field crops must go
through a process of testing for 2 to 3 years to show that there are
improvements in performance relative to standard varieties. In most cases
varieties that have a new non-biotech single gene trait added have an
abbreviated testing process if the base variety was approved. Neither the
food quality of the new varieties or the conversions are routinely checked
for field crops.
Following the approval of a new biotech trait, one substantive discussion
in Europe is whether a new variety which has had a biotech trait added by
backcrossing should go through the testing procedures for a new variety,
or through the abbreviated procedure for a single gene trait.
Japan has a more variable procedure for registration. Registration
requirements depend on the crop and location within the country.
Given that both traditional breeding and biotechnology are capable of
generating quality changes, there is unequal treatment in the labeling
provisions. I am not sure that it does the community that is in favor of
biotech usage much good to point out this inconsistency. The community is
certainly not going to ask for more labeling of the products of
traditional breeding. If biotechnology is successful, it will develop
products that should be labeled: vegetables with drugs or vaccines for
example. The community cannot be against all labeling.
The basics of the labeling discussion are that there is no need to label
products that are safe, and that any labeling of safe products that does
occur should not interfere with trade in products that are safe. The
fundamental position is that a well staffed regulatory agency is fully
capable of determining what is safe and what is not, and by extension what
needs to be labeled.
Emphasizing the similarity of biotechnology to conventional plant breeding
is a good thing to put the general customer's mind at ease. It is good to
emphasize that it is the product not the process that is important.
However, when it comes time to deal with the regulations, the community in
favor of biotech usage needs refined arguments that preserve the
credibility of the community and emphasis that the regulations cover all
2736 Greenwood Acres Dr.
DeKalb, IL 60115
GM moratoriums, regulations, may cost lives
New Zealand Institute of Crop & Food Research
19 July, 2002
As little as 200 g of GM Golden Rice a day is now thought to be sufficient
to save lives and prevent blindness in millions of children suffering from
pro vitamin A deficiency. But moratoriums and regulations will mean that
many malnourished children continue to suffer because they canít get
access to the new technology. Vitamin A deficiency affects around 400
million children in developing countries and is also known to occur in
New Zealand scientists Dr Margy Gilpin and Dr Colin Eady of Crop & Food
Research were stunned to learn this from Swiss scientist Dr Ingo Potrykus
in the USA recently. Dr Potrykus led the project team that introduced
Beta-carotene, or pro vitamin A genes into rice. Three genes are involved
in synthesising Beta-carotene, which gives the GM rice a distinctive
Dr Potrykus said that he was fearful that Greenpeace and other
non-government organisations (NGOís) might prevent the poor in developing
countries from benefiting from the technology. Some NGOís see Golden Rice
as a ěTrojian Horseî that may open the road for GM crops in developing
countries. ěThe NGOís are trying to bypass their moral dilemma by claiming
that children would have to eat 9 kg of rice a day. But vitamin A
nutritional specialists believe that the1.6 micro grams per gram per day
of vitamin A contained in 200 grams of Golden Rice should be sufficient to
prevent vitamin A-deficiency disorders and are conducting clinical trials
which should clarify the situation early in 2004,î he said.
Dr Potrykus explained that Golden Rice has been freely given to public
research institutes in the Philippines, India, China, Indonesia, Vietnam
and South Africa for crossing with locally adapted rice varieties. One
locally adapted variety, Indica IR64, is already available in the
Philippines and others will be available in the near future.
However, Dr Potrykus has become increasingly concerned that regulations
and moratoriums may seriously delay, or even prevent the use of Golden
Rice to alleviate malnutrition. ěThe regulatory framework has become so
extensive, so sophisticated and so expensive that it becomes a question
whether this level of regulation can be scientifically and morally
justified when malnutrition is causing 24,000 deaths per day and thousands
of others are going blind, ě he said.
Dr Potrykus and his colleagues successfully negotiated royalty-free use of
the technology for humanitarian purposes, which means that it is free to
farmers or traders whose income is below US$10,000 per annum. The
inventors solved potentially difficult patent access problems thanks to an
alliance with the agbiotech industry.
Detailed nutritional studies of Golden Rice are underway and should be
concluded in 18 months. Meanwhile, a Golden Rice Humanitarian Board has
been formed to supervise further improvements of the technology, evaluate
bio-availability and bio-safety, assess socio-economic and regulatory
issues and raise funds to support this work.
The New Zealand scientists said that Dr Potrykusís work was inspiring and
they were amazed to learn that he now has another new rice, which has
assembled nine trans-genes in one plant to provide ěpro vitamin Aî plus
ěhigh ironî plus ěhigh quality proteinî plus ěinsect resistanceî. This is
an exciting step towards the production of nutritionally superior foods
developed from traditional staple foods.
However, advisors experienced in regulatory affairs believe that it may be
impossible to gain approval to release such a GM plant. Dr Potrykus said
that weak politicians in well-fed European countries were giving in to the
pressure of activists. In his opinion, activists operating extremely
successfully on an emotional level, may prevent the development of
sustainable solutions for malnutrition in developing countries because
they influence the development regulations that developing countries copy.
The consequence is that many thousands are dying, or have severe health
problems (e.g. irreversible blindness), who otherwise could live healthy
and productive lives.
ěWe may need to decide what is more important to our society - a
regulatory framework for minor and mostly hypothetical risks, or the life
and health of underprivileged human beings,î he said.
CONTACT:Dr Margy Gilpin
Tel 03 325 6400 (03 357 9255 a/h)
Dr Colin Eady
Tel: 03 325 6400 (03 324 2711 a/h)
Marian Hobbs: Hager confused over GE testing
July 23, 2002
Nicky Hagar, in his Dialogue article last week, again attempted to justify
the wrong conclusions he reached in his book Seeds of Distrust. He broke a
basic rule of journalism by making assumptions. He failed to test his
theories with balancing views before launching his book in a secret,
well-planned marketing blitz. He made no attempt to seek comment from the
Government or officials.
Before responding to the allegations, we checked our facts and reviewed
the processes that had taken place almost two years earlier.
I gave a considered response. Officials briefed the media. The Prime
Minister undertook to release all documentation. The sheer logistics of
compiling, analysing and copying the hundreds of pages of documents
involved meant they were not delivered to the media until the Friday
It is important to remember the following points:
First, the Government never deviated from its policy of zero tolerance for
genetically modified contamination in seed imports. If any GM is detected,
the shipment will be rejected. Also, it is impossible to test 100 per cent
of seeds in a shipment because the act of testing destroys the seeds.
Therefore, scientists have to take a representative sample.
Faced with a test that had an ambiguous result, authorities took the only
responsible course - to undertake further tests. None of these tests
showed evidence of GM contamination. We now know the likely cause of the
ambiguous result. The seed originally tested came from a bag that had been
opened and mixed with talcum powder.
Mr Hager has confused "tolerance" and "confidence". The size of the sample
taken for testing determines the level of confidence the Ministry of
Agriculture and Fisheries can have that it is representative of the whole
shipment. If no GM is found, the ministry can say with a high degree of
confidence that there is no detectable GM contamination.
Dr Bas Walker, of the Environment Risk Management Authority, did refer on
November 24 to "positive tests results that could hardly be ignored". But
further tests were carried out after November 24. Five samples were tested
at Crop and Food on November 28 and all tested negative.
The Royal Commission on Genetic Modification was fully briefed on the corn
issue and the Government's report is publicly available.
There was no cover-up. I held a news conference in December 19, 2000,
where a statement was distributed detailing the case. That public
statement was not written by a public relations agent. If Mr Hager
actually reads the press release, he will see the corn is mentioned
The Evening Post newspaper used the "scare" in the headline of its story
Making a public statement earlier on a scare such as this would have been
highly irresponsible, risking damage to the New Zealand economy. We have
many unfounded scares - foot and mouth, for example - which we do not
publicise until the full facts are known.
When the facts were known in the corn case the media was told and the
royal commission advised.
There was no cover-up. The facts do not support Mr Hager's claims.
Muzzling the Lords: Charles leaves them speechless
The Guardian (Leader)
July 22, 2002
It comes as a surprise, in a parliamentary democracy, to find that the one
place where the monarchy cannot be discussed is, er, parliament itself.
Last Monday, in the House of Lords, Lord Taverne asked if the government
agreed with the Prince of Wales's recent views on GM foods. Then, in a
supplementary question, Lord Taverne went on to ask if it was "quite
wrong" for the prince to make controversial speeches without renouncing
his claim to the throne. He was slapped down by Lord Williams of Mostyn,
leader of the Lords. What was wrong, Lord Williams said, was "for any
aspersion or reflection to be cast on the sovereign or any member of the
royal family". Lord Williams's ruling was a strict one, but it accords
largely with precedent. It was based on Lords standing orders, which rule
such topics to be inadmissible. Erskine May, the procedural bible,
confirms that in both houses "reflections must not be cast in debate upon
the conduct of the sovereign, the heir to the throne, or other members of
the royal family". Elsewhere, it says that "Her Majesty cannot be deemed
to have a private opinion, apart from that of her responsible advisers"
and that "this rule extends also to other members of the royal family".
Any attempt to use the Queen's name (or the prince's) "to influence the
judgment of parliament is immediately checked and censured". Lord Taverne
now knows these are not idle threats.
This is a preposterous situation but it is not hard to see how it has
arisen. Parliament's rules are rooted deep in the tradition that saw the
monarch, or even the existence of a "King's party" as a threat to the
sovereignty of parliament. As long as the monarch and the heir avoided all
controversy, the rules made sense and held firm. But Prince Charles has
chosen to be a controversialist, and has left parliament looking silly.
Parliament therefore needs to make a choice. It can challenge the prince's
attempt to make himself a political figure; or it can accept it. Either
way, something has to change. Britain can have a purely formal head of
state, in which case the prince should either give up the succession or
stop making speeches. Or we can accept that hereditary rulers and their
heirs have independent views too, in which case it is ludicrous for
parliament to be the one place where those views cannot be mentioned or
discussed. What we cannot have, with any dignity or credibility, is the
present absurd system.
Rice going hi-tech to meet world's food demands
Agence France Presse
July 23, 2002
Rice, the world's most important food staple, is the focus of intensive
new research aimed at creating "super" strains of the cereal that would
provide a much-needed boost in production, experts said Tuesday.
Scientists are pulling out all the stops in a technological blitz that
would ultimately see the introduction of genetically modified (GM) rice
strains into commercial use in the Asia-Pacific, the world's largest
"We have to produce 50 percent more food with less land, less water, less
labour and less chemicals," Gurdev Khush, a renowned expert and plant
breeding consultant to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
said in summarising the Herculean challenges ahead. Khush, speaking at the
FAO's International Rice Commission which opened Tuesday in Bangkok, told
experts from 61 countries that rice production must increase by half by
2030 in order to meet the demands of a growing global population.
In order to achieve such imposing growth, scientists are creating rice
varieties with higher yield potential, durable resistance to diseases and
insects, and tolerance to environmental stresses such as flooding and
"Scientists are using all the tools in their toolkit," Khush told AFP on
the sidelines of the session.
The three main approaches include the use of hybridised breeding, a
process which creates strains which have come to be known as "super rice",
hybrid strains, and GM strains.
Super rice and hybrid rice use a complex but uncontroversial molecular
marking system to breed disease-resistant or climate-accommodating
strains, and they have already shown impressive results, experts say.
"The yield potential is there," said Sant Virmani of the International
Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the world's largest rice research agency.
Normal rice yields in Asia currently average up to five tonnes per
In China, the world's largest rice producer, researchers have recorded
hybrid rice yields of 15 to 16 tonnes per hectare under "ideal
conditions," Virmani said.
About 50 percent of Chinese rice under cultivation today is hybrid rice,
with yields averaging 1-1.5 tonnes per hectare higher than non-hybrid
"In China, millions of farmers are growing it. But in the tropics and
subtropics, the suitable hybrids are not available in large quantities as
yet," Khush said.
Some 800,000 hectares outside of China are under hybrid rice cultivation,
a miniscule percentage of the total 152-million-hectare world rice area.
Khush believes it will take three to four years before hybrid rice and
super rice make a significant commercial impact.
"The impact will continue to grow slowly," he said.
Farmers would have to shell out an additional 30-40 dollars per hectare in
seed costs for the hybrid varieties, but the extra yield would translate
to 100-150 dollars per hectare in additional profits, the IRRI's Virmani
The more controversial GM rice, which incorporates genes from distant
organisms such as bacteria, is being heavily researched and tested but may
still be years away from commercial use in Asia, he said.
"There remains opposition from certain segments of society," Khush added.
The Philippines, where the IRRI is based, has seen violent protests by
activists and farmers against GM crop testing.
Zambia urged to accept genetically modified food aid
July 22, 2002
A U.S. official urged the Zambian government Monday to quickly make a
decision on genetically modified (GM) grain, warning the deteriorating
situation in the country would soon lead to more starvation deaths.
"This famine is very dangerous and it's going to kill a lot of people if
decisions are not made quickly," Roger Winter of the U.S. Agency for
International Development Assistance (USAID) said.
Due to health concerns raised over GM food, Zambia and its southern
neighbour, Zimbabwe has in the interim rejected GM food aid. Agriculture,
Food and Fisheries Minister Mundia Sikatana told a donors meeting last
Thursday that cabinet would make a policy in September. Winter, who was
conducting a two-day food assessment in the Zambia said the U.S.
government was ready to avert full-scale famine as long as the Zambian
government agreed to the supply of genetically modified grain.
He said the U.S. had the potential of being the major food provider if
only the governments of the famine stricken countries were willing to
consent to the offer.
Zambia and Zimbabwe, two of the southern African countries hardest hit by
the food crisis sweeping the sub-region said they would accept GM grain if
it came fully processed. Food relief agencies have said that they cannot
force governments to accept GM food aid.
But Winter said it would be difficult for the U.S. to start producing
non-GM foods at this particular time when a serious food crisis was
He said the grain was produced by bio-tech means and that as far as they
were concerned GM foods were not a health hazard and had no negative
effects because they were subjected to stringent tests.
In the meantime food agencies have made passionate appeals to the
international community to respond generously and quickly to avert a
humanitarian crisis in southern Africa.
Food stocks in some of the affected countries have completely run out
while water reserves have dried out and animal populations depleted.
Southern Africa is experiencing its worst drought in a decade following
two running seasons of poor crop output due to a combination of floods and
severe drought. More than 13 million people Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi,
Lesotho, Mozambique and Swaziland face potential famine.