Today in AgBioView: August 7, 2002:
* Silent revolution across Africa
* Firm creating salt-resistant crops
* Dignity in hunger
* New Zealand debate over gene-modified food heats up
* US May Set Guidelines for Biotech-Free Crops
Silent revolution across Africa
August 6, 2002
It is a paradox that one of the most contentious sciences ñ biotechnology
- has become the unifying factor for African scientists.
However, given the controversies relating to the science, arriving at a
consensus position has not been easy, says Dr. Florence Wambugu, Founder
and Executive Director of California-based A Harvest Biotech Foundation
International, which has offices in the US, Kenya and SA
Biotechnology has gained acceptance because there is consensus that it is
a global opportunity, Wambugu says.
Both multinational groups and farmers stand to gain, as confirmed by
experiences in China and Africa.
While the focus has been on private sector benefits, programmes such as
the tissue culture banana project in some east African nations have
demonstrated that biotechnology can have a positive effect on hunger,
malnutrition and poverty.
In some cases, rural farm incomes have tripled as a result of biotech
The question then arises: should the agricultural sector remain unchanged
while every other aspect of life on the continent is changing?
The antibiotech lobby asserts the continent needs to be protected from
large multinational biotech companies.
This often Eurocentric view is founded on two premises: the view that
Africa has no expertise to make an informed decision, and the suggestion
that the continent should focus on organic farming.
These perspectives do not represent the African scientists` view. African
scientists meeting in Maputo, Mozambique, in March this year pointed out
Africans themselves must decide the way forward for agricultural
The meeting organised by the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa
brought together African countries, development agencies, national
agricultural research institutes, nongovernmental organisations, donors,
bilateral and multilateral development agencies, global financial
institutions, donor agencies, the scientific community and other
At the end of the meeting, biotechnology was adopted as one of the key
things that will jump-start the agricultural sector in Africa. The Maputo
meeting noted that the forum and Nepad share common goals in particular,
the need to achieve a 6% a year growth in the agricultural sector over the
next 20 to 25 years.
Based on what is happening on the continent, it is clear biotechnology is
causing a silent revolution in Africa.
Farmers have embraced the new technology because it makes them more
efficient and protects or increases yields and reduces their reliance on
The debate on biotechnology and its effect on the continent has already
moved to a higher level. The issue is not whether to adopt biotechnology,
but how to adopt it.
Africa is already in the biotechnology revolution. The challenge now
surrounds substantive matters related to the technology and specific
policies and institutions required to enable Africans to maximise the
benefits and minimise risks associated with biotechnology.
For example, African policymakers and scientists need to urgently identify
specific areas of biotechnology in which their countries should invest.
Debate must shift to the nature of innovative policies and investments to
encourage the growth of local and private sector companies. Other
important areas of focus include mapping global trends in biotechnology,
its socioeconomic benefits to African countries, and intellectual property
protection in promoting the transfer of safe biotechnology techniques and
products to Africa.
Africa needs to increase its biotech expertise and prevent brain drain.
Other areas that need attention include policy analysis to enlarge the
region`s ability to participate effectively in international negotiations,
and long-term biotechnology policies to successfully participate in global
Africa has advantages in biotechnology, which include its enormous genetic
diversity and prior scientific knowledge in agriculture. Biotechnology
provides new opportunities to transform rural agriculture, without
undermining local ecologies and socioeconomic landscapes. Instead of
treating the science as a threat, Africans need to come on board as
stakeholders and as partners.
Firm creating salt-resistant crops
The Arizona Republic
By Kerry Fehr-Snyder
July 15, 2002
A biotech start-up backed by millionaire and University of Phoenix founder
John Sperling has signed its first major licensing deal to develop
Seaphire International, based in Phoenix, has acquired the exclusive
license to a technology developed at the University of Toronto in which
genes are inserted into plants to regulate the uptake of salt in their
fruits and seeds.
"It's applicable to Arizona, Texas, Australia, but also Ethiopia, Pakistan
and other countries," explained Roy Hodges, Seaphire's president and chief
About one-quarter of all U.S. crops is irrigated by water with high levels
of salinity that tamp down their yields. Crops in China, Europe and
Australia are affected at similar rates, ultimately hindering food
Seaphire's goal is to improve the efficiency of crops in stressful
environments, including drought, heat and areas with poor water quality.
But Hodges said the 3-year-old company is driven by an ethic that prevents
it from exploiting the technology to improve the yield of tobacco and
other non-food crops. It's too early to tell which types of crops the
technology could be used in or what the cost to farmers would be. Research
has been conducted on tomatoes and canola crops, among others.
The technology, which marks the first significant agreement for the firm,
could improve the yield of nearly 200 million acres of agricultural land
worldwide. That's the equivalent of the size of Texas or the worldwide
area of soybean crops.
The technology is based on inserting into the DNA of plants a sodium
antiporter gene, which improves the ability of plants to store salt in a
part of their cells known as vaculoes. Instead of blocking the uptake of
salt, the gene stops salt from being passed into its fruit or seeds.
The only downside of the transgenic plant could be that it would bear
smaller fruit. But Hodges said that is offset by faster growing time that
saves farmers money in the long run.
"This technology is several years away until a farmer is actually growing
it," Hodges said. "It's a question of biology" and the ability to
reproduce crops several generations out.
Seaphire is expected to produce some of the seeds containing the
salt-resistant gene and sublicense the technology to other firms.
Seaphire, a privately held agricultural biotech firm, would not disclose
financial terms of the deal.
The first market Seaphire envisions for the technology is reviving
previously productive crop land that is now fallow. The second market is
composed of land that has never been fertile enough to grow food,
primarily that in Third World countries. Seaphire then hopes to sell the
technology for land that is irrigated by progressively saltier water.
"We're not yet to growing crops at full-strength seawater," Hodges said.
Eduardo Blumwald, a University of Toronto professor who helped invent the
technology, said the licensing deal marks a step in the quest to end world
"We are very happy because we feel that Seaphire's mandate fits the
technology and sustainable agriculture," he said. "The outcome of the
research has huge implications to help agriculture worldwide."
From: "de Kathen A."
Subject: RE: GE advantages, Africa, Improved food, Tomato and heart
disease, GM myths
Date: Tue, 6 Aug 2002 18:28:49 +0200
I would have appreciated if you would have added the paper I forwarded (or
at least the website) because my opinion was not really the issue here but
the article "Dignity in hunger" from The Post, Zambia, Editorial, July 30,
2002 at http://www.zamnet.zm/zamnet/post/editcom.html.
Dr. Andre de Kathen
Biotechnology & Biosafety Adviser / CIM
Ministry of Higher Education, Training and Employment Creation
Directorate of Research, Science and Technology
Cell 081 257 9481
Dignity in hunger
No 2113 Tuesday, 2002
AID and general assistance in times of need is an appreciated gesture. But
this kind of gesture can only be appreciated if indeed it is genuine and
aimed at helping to alleviate the sufferings of recipients.
Today, Zambia like most countries in the South African region is faced
with a major humanitarian crisis. This crisis without the necessary
support from all external partners may result in a serious catastrophe
ever faced by the nation in which over two million people are threatened
with famine and starvation.
After a disastrous farming season caused by natural weather phenomenon and
compounded by the poor policies of Frederick Chiluba's administration, we
still feel that Zambians need to have dignity even in times of suffering
It is a fact that the agricultural sector had been on the decline due to
the several poor policies that were implemented by Chiluba's government.
Chiluba had managed to reduce Zambia's agricultural potential from being
self sustaining to being dependent on food imports.
Even the move to establish the Food Reserve Agency to enhance food
security has been a lamentable failure and left farmers in a more
There is no doubt that this desperate situation in the agricultural sector
calls for immediate corrective measures. But while this is being done,
there is a serious threat of hunger to be addressed, also urgently.
Zambia has a large maize deficit and needs assistance which under our
situation can only be offered by the international community and partners.
Zambia's plea for aid has been well received and we appreciate the
international community's favourable response to this crisis that is
But as they offer their assistance, they should also acknowledge that even
the beggars deserve some dignity.
Of concern to most Zambians and all other countries affected by the food
deficit in the region is the issue of the Genetically Modified Maize from
While the gesture of assistance may be well meant, it is a matter of
concern that the US has set as a condition that it would only provide
funds to purchase the genetically modified grain. However, the worry among
Zambians and most people in the world is the effect of this same unnatural
food on human beings.
What the people are simply asking, and the US should appreciate the
concerns, is whether this food is safe for their consumption and if at all
this food would have further adverse effects on humanity.
It is in this vein that we support President Levy Mwanawasa's position on
the genetically modified food offers currently being made.
President Mwanawasa deserves support for his statement on behalf of the
hungry Zambians, that we would rather starve than feed on the genetically
modified food before conclusive investigations on its effects are
President Mwanawasa has clearly stated that before Zambia accepts the
grain, government needs to consult and examine the maize and "if it is not
fit then we would rather starve."
What is of paramount importance is the safety of the nationals. If the US
insists on imposing this genetically modified maize on our people, we will
be justified in questioning their motive.
New Zealand debate over gene-modified food heats up
A genetic engineering ban disrupts the new government's efforts at
The Christian Science Monitor
August 7, 2002
By David Cohen
On most days, Stephen Rainbow likes to voice his support of genetically
modified food to anyone who will listen.
"It's a bit of an obsession for me," he admits, smiling.
Mr. Rainbow is not alone: Everyone in this self-styled "environmental
superpower" seems to be consumed by the topic.
The issue dominated recent national elections after the ransacking of a
biotechnologist's experiment involving more than 1,300 plants. Now, the
country's once-obscure Green Party is leading a campaign to extend a
national moratorium on the commercial use of genetically modified food,
scheduled to expire in October. Meanwhile, newly reelected Prime Minister
Helen Clark - who, like most political leaders here, opposes the ban -
struggles to cement a coalition.
While debates over the risks and benefits of genetic engineering still
rage across much of Europe, the potential impact is especially great in
New Zealand. Here agriculture accounts for more than 50 percent of
exports. Moreover, because New Zealand provides one-third of the world's
dairy exports and more than half of the world's lamb exports, how this
country ultimately decides the issue could have affects well beyond its
Also intensifying the debate is a strong tradition of environmental
awareness. This South Pacific capital, for example, first attracted
worldwide attention nearly 20 years ago after banning US warships because
of environmental risks posed by their nuclear arms and propulsion.
Rainbow is, as he says, in an unusual position to appreciate the
He was the first student in this country to complete a doctoral thesis on
New Zealand's green politics. He was also the first political aspirant to
win public office - as a three-term city councilor - running on an
explicitly Green ticket. And his work was instrumental in establishing the
Greens as a political force after the party was formed in 1992.
However in recent years, his "maturing" views have led him away from his
political bedfellows, even as environmental issues have surged back into
the national consciousness.
These days, Rainbow says, he "despises" the Greens for their unbending
opposition to genetic engineering. He characterizes the collective
mind-set of the party and its well-wishers as "antiscience ...
anti-American, antibusiness, anti-first world" and altogether against
human progress in any form.
For the Greens, however, and the party's thousands of supporters in this
island nation of 3.9 million, not enough is known about the potential
effects of genetic engineering to justify the government opposition to a
moratorium on any commercial use of genetically engineered crops.
"We do not know the long-term impacts," says Annette Cotter, a Greenpeace
activist, echoing a widely shared criticism. If and when genetically
modified crops enter the New Zealand food chain, "society at large and the
environment will take the risk," she warns.
The risks, opponents say, include the ever-present chance of new
technologies mutating into potentially deadly forms in nature.
They cite cases such as one in the United States involving StarLink, a
genetically modified corn. StarLink inadvertently contained a new protein
[???] which caused severe allergic reactions among some users [???] and
had to be recalled from the market.
But most farmers, who would like to see New Zealand become more
science-friendly, say the benefits, such as potentially improved
nutritional value of some foods, outweigh the risks.
Francis Wevers, the director of Life Sciences Network, a pro-genetic
engineering lobby group, routinely presses into service the case of Ingo
Potrykus, a European scientist, who inserted a gene from a daffodil into
rice, giving the food a vitamin A component which was a lifeline for
hundreds of thousands of people in the underdeveloped world who suffer a
deficiency of the vitamin.
Declaring it a "nonnegotiable" political stance, the Green Party waged its
recent electoral campaign by vowing to use its parliamentary numbers to
bring down any government that backed field trials of any genetically
modified crops, such as potatoes, a favorite among scientists currently
doing their genetic engineering work behind closed laboratory doors.
The Greens would ordinarily have been the obvious coalition partner for
Ms. Clark's ruling Labor Party. Since the general election July 27, it
seems all but certain the Green Party will not be able to make good on its
threat, although its leaders say they will continue trying to extend the
For now, the political tide seems to be in one direction. Clark, herself
the daughter of a farmer, has promised that creating and sustaining a
research- friendly environment will continue to be a priority for as long
as she remains premier.
"We cannot afford to turn our back on science," she says, adding that if
her countrymen are to continue enjoying 21st-century standards of living,
"then we cannot afford to be left behind as science makes new
US May Set Guidelines for Biotech-Free Crops
Aug 6, 2002
By Randy Fabi
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Amid growing global demand for biotech-free food,
the U.S. Agriculture Department said on Tuesday it may create a voluntary
system to verify if shipments of U.S. corn, soybeans and other crops were
The move comes as the United States begins market-opening talks with its
World Trade Organization partners, many of whom oppose or are ambivalent
about biotech crops.
The proposed industry-funded system would stop short of labeling U.S.
crops as "biotech-free," which agribusinesses oppose. Instead, it would be
a voluntary federal program that U.S. companies could use in order to
assure foreign buyers their conventional grains, oilseeds, rice and seed
products did not contain any biotech crops.
The United States is the world's largest producer of crops that are
genetically modified to make them resistant to pests, or to withstand
herbicides that kill nearby weeds.
Critics of biotech crops, which include the European Union, China and a
growing number of African countries, contend that not enough research has
been done to ensure the new technology is safe for the environment and
"Commodity segregation to meet various customer needs is becoming
essential to capture markets and value," the USDA said.
In a Federal Register notice on Tuesday, the USDA said it would formally
propose the new system within the next few months.
SEGREGATING U.S. CROPS
Under the planned program, companies could choose to detail to the USDA
how they keep their products separate from gene-altered crops at all
levels of the food chain -- from farm harvesting equipment to storage bins
to processing plants.
Federal inspectors would review a company's system and verify that minimum
requirements for crop production, handling and processing were followed.
A USDA spokesman said the program would be similar to the federal
inspection system for the meat industry.
The USDA's Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration would
certify the program and monitor compliance through routine documentation
reviews and internal audits.
The new system would verify "the process and not the final product," the
USDA said. Participating companies would be able to market their crops as
"USDA Process Verified."
A similar voluntary program could be created for seeds. However, U.S. seed
exporters could have the option of including a USDA-approved label on
their biotech-free products.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization said it supported USDA's overall
proposal, but was closely reviewing some of its details.
"Our biggest concern is how it may be interpreted," said Michael Phillips,
executive director of agriculture for the trade group.
The proposed system stems from public comments received by the USDA in the
wake of the StarLink incident two years ago. The unapproved biotech corn
crop was detected in U.S food products, sparking a nationwide recall of
snack foods and tortillas due to fears that the tainted food could cause