Today in AgBioView: February 28, 2003
* How Two Guys Found DNA and Changed Everything
* Thailand to Allow GMO Field Tests
* Re: Request from David Simpson of Zambia: Kershen
* Re: Liability of 'Contamination': McHughen
* Eliminating the Risks Associated with Gene Flow
* Christian Aid: Hunger for Profit - Genetic Modification of Dev Country
* ....Response by Parrott, Kershen and Apel
* Linus Pauling and the Race for DNA
* New Poll Shows Dramatic Rise In Americans' 'DNA I.Q.'
* Environmental Biosafety Research - A New Journal
* Mandatory Labelling Is A Bad Idea
* Consumers' Right to Choose GM-free Food: Rules Should Be Tougher
* FAO-BiotechNews - Codex, Biosafety Clearinghouse...
* Bio-Era Releases Report on Agri-biotech Industry
* Toxic Shock Syndrome
* The Case of the Mute Scientists
How Two Guys Found DNA and Changed Everything
- Newsday (NY), Feb 28, 2003 http://www.newsday.com/
Fifty years ago today two brash young scientists discovered the secret of
life. Buoyed by the arrogance of youth, James Watson and Francis Crick
divined the chemical structure of DNA, the now-familiar double helix that
is the blueprint for all life on earth. Their discovery, announced in a
matter-of-fact scientific paper, has revolutionized man's understanding of
It has also saddled humanity with some of its thorniest ethical dilemmas,
involving no less than where to draw the line between the provinces of man
and God. The ethical quandaries, now centered on cloning and genetically
modified foods, won't get any easier, so some wish this new science would
just go away. It won't.
Something once known can't be unknown. This genie can't be put back in the
bottle no matter how much of the research seeded by Watson and Crick's
seminal work Washington may try to outlaw. The better course is to embrace
the breathtaking possibilities of molecular biology while regulating,
rather than banning, most of its more worrisome aspects.
Some benefits of that approach are already apparent. DNA fingerprinting
has convicted the guilty and freed the innocent. Genetically modified
foods are helping to feed the world. Other applications, such as
genetically tailored medicines and gene therapy, appear to be just over
the horizon. But altering a gene to prevent disease is one thing. What
about to make our children thinner or more beautiful, or to make them
powerful, remorseless soldiers?
And how about genetically engineering longer lives and perfect health?
What would that mean for the evolution of the species, which relies on
mutations and death for progress?
The pace of genetic discovery has been extraordinary, from discovering the
structure of DNA in 1953 to mapping the entire human genome in 2001.
Here's to Watson and Crick: Two cocky young men who changed the world.
Thailand to Allow GMO Field Tests
- Reuters, Feb 26, 2003
Bangkok - Thailand said on Thursday it will allow field testing of
genetically modified crops but continue to ban bio-engineered products
from being sold. Thailand currently bans the import of genetically
modified food and other products and only allows testing of bio-engineered
cotton seed in laboratories.
"We will allow field tests of GMOs (genetically modified organisms), but
the government still bans GMO products from being sold for commercial
purposes," Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told reporters "We will allow
testing because we do not want to lag behind other countries in terms of
development," Thaksin said. He gave no further details.
Many environmental and consumer groups oppose genetically modified foods,
and some countries impose tight controls on imports, saying more research
is needed to ensure they are safe.
Re: Request from David Simpson of Zambia
- Drew Kershen
Dear Mr. Simpson: Thank you for you query on AgBioView about who to
believe -- Mr. Charles Benbrook or Mr. Alex Avery?.
I am responding to the list as a whole but I am also sending you a
separate message that will have each of the documents mentioned in this
message as attachments to your personal message. I did not want to
overload the AgBioView system with attachments.
First, I suggest that you listen to Africans knowledgeable in this area.
More particularly, I suggest that you read the comments of African
biotechnologists like Florence Wambugu (Kenya), James Ochanda (Kenya),
Lucas Sese (Kenya), Jennifer Thompson (South Africa) -- to give four names
that easily come to my mind. I also suggest that you listen to Ismail
Serageldin (Egypt) and Calestous Juma (Kenya/USA-Harvard Univ.)
Second, I would urge you to learn about Zambia's previous experiences with
transgenic crops and food aid. If my information is correct, Zambia has
received US-AID food aid, which included transgenic corn, several times
since transgenic corn became commercially available in the United States
in 1996/1997. From everything that I know, no Zambian suffered adversely,
no Zambian environment suffered adversely, no Zambian national interest in
trade suffered adversely from these prior uses of transgenic corn in food
Hence, the question becomes: why the rejection this time? I answer that
the difference this time was pressure from anti-biotechnology NGOs and
European implied rejection of potential future trade opportunities. I find
it sad that NGOs -- that complain loudly and bitterly that seed companies
put their commercial interests ahead of human needs -- pressured the
Zambian government to reject the US-AID food aid because of the potential
loss of future trade with Europe. In this crisis situation of starvation,
the NGOs put trade over human needs, over human life itself.
Third, I send you several articles on the advantages of agricultural
biotechnology directed specifically to food security and human health in
developing nations. I send you a PowerPoint presentation by Ingo Potrykus,
a co-inventor of Golden Rice. I also urge you to go to the website of
Prof. H.J. Atkinson, Dept. of Biology, Leeds Univ., UK at
http://www.biology.leeds.ac.uk/nem/publications . At this website, Dr.
Atkinson has a number of excellent articles available that relate to
agricultural biotechnology and developing nations. But most importantly,
you should read H.J. Atkinson et. al, The case of genetically modified
crops with a poverty focus, TRENDS in Biotechnology, Vol. 19, No. 3 (March
2001) pp. 91-96. Prof. Atkinson's article is an incredibly insightful
article about the importance of agricultural biotechnology for developing
nations, although its particular focus is on transgenic potato for
Fourth, I send you an article by Thomas Redick, Report from Zambia and
Johannesburg: Biotechnology and Food Security, ABA Agricultural Management
Committee Newsletter, v. 7, # 1 (Jan. 2003),
http://www.abanet.org/environ/committees/agricult/newsletter. Mr. Redick's
article is a very thoughtful and compassionate discussion of the impact of
the Biosafety Protocol upon poor people. He ends his article by suggesting
that there needs to be a Biosafety Protocol Body Count because its
influence, as in Zambia, will be to starve many.
I hope that these resources are helpful to you. - Best regards, Drew
Re: Liability of 'Contamination'
- Alan McHughen
Bob McGregor, as usual, raises a good point. I'd like to take it a bit
Consider the following background facts:
Some consumers prefer GM foods because they are seen as superior
(especially in China. See, e.g. McCluskey, J. and T.I. Wahl, 2003.
Reacting to GM Foods Consumer Responses Surveyed in Asia and Europe.
Agrichemical and Environmental News #201. Washington State Univ. January,
2003) or because they may be safer than conventional or organic foods
(e.g. Bt corn with reduced mycotoxin content; see Munkvold, G.P.,
Hellmich, R.L., and Rice, L.G. 1999. Comparison of fumonisin
concentrations in kernels of transgenic Bt maize hybrids and
non-transgenic hybrids. Plant Dis. 83:130-138, and subsequent
Now consider this hypothetical but realistic scenario:
In order to serve this small but growing market segment, a group of farmer
entrepreneurs establish a farming system based on government approved,
safe, environmentally sustainable GM crops. They market their product as
exclusively GM, with reasonable tolerances for contamination by
conventional crops (say 5%), but zero tolerance for organic contaminants.
Sooner or later (almost certainly sooner) a GM farmer finds in her crop a
contaminant pollen grain. Genetic analysis proves the errant pollutant
originated in an organic neighbor's farm. The GM crop has lost all premium
value due to the presence of this reckless neighbor's unwanted and
potentially hazardous organic contaminant. Can our GM farmer sue the
organic farmer for damages based on loss of market value?
Alan McHughen, is a Biotech Specialist at Univ of California, Riverside
Eliminating the Risks Associated with Gene Flow
- Arne Frantzell, California Aggie, Feb 28, 2003
February 27, 2003 - For one week in February, scientists across the nation
converged at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Denver, Colo. for the
American Association for the Advancement of Science conference to discuss
emerging ideas in their disciplines.
On Feb. 15, UCD professor of agronomy Paul Gepts talked about possible
strategies to eliminate the risks associated with gene flow between
genetically modified crops and their natural counterparts. Gene flow --
the transfer of genes between plants through pollen and seeds -- carries
many risks, and gene flow between genetically modified "transgene" plants
and their wild antecedents has sparked debate throughout the world. The
foremost concern with gene flow from transgenes is that it decreases
genetic diversity. Though it is a widely publicized phenomenon, Gepts said
that decreased genetic diversity is not a risk specifically associated
with transgene plants, but rather with all varieties of plants.
"It is not, per se, to do with transgenes; it happens to plants in
general," Gepts said. Documented risks include the swapping of herbicide
and insect-resistant genes, which can make wild plants increasingly
"weedy." By gaining immunity to parasites and disease, these plants can
out-compete other plants for natural resources and proliferate with
unnatural fecundity, the same way antibody-resistant bacteria can share
beneficial traits with other bacteria to promote antibody-resistant
strains that eventually lead to uncontrollable outbreaks.
Most of the methods for preventing genetically modified gene flow revolve
around neutralizing the dispersal vessels. Eliminating pollen can be
insured by making all plants bred female, but this method, like inducing
male sterility, has been pronounced impractical by many scientists, since
pollen is required to produce more plants. Without it, breeders would
reach an industrial dead end. Also controversial is the method of
producing nonfunctioning seeds that, like grocery chicken eggs, can be
processed for food but not cultivated.
Gepts said, however, that all of these methods carry their own risks.
"There's a fair amount we don't know about the ecological consequences,"
Gepts said. Transgenes, whose inclusion in the seed industry has been
questioned since their introduction, remain controversial, but Gepts said
that does not leave him pessimistic about their future. "I think, to make
a contribution, we need to take a careful look at the advantages and
disadvantages, as with any technology," he said.
Hunger for Profit: The Genetic Modification of Developing Country
- Andrew Simms, Christian Aid, Feb 6, 2003 (Forwarded by Vivian Moses and
Julian Kinderlerer of UK)
Genetically modified food crops have been held up as a solution to hunger
in the developing world. Are the claims of the seed companies a practical
reality? Is this 'second green revolution' taking place in the interest of
farmers or the multinational corporations that produce and sell seeds,
pesticides and herbicides around the world?
Christian Aid looked into the biotechnology industry's involvement in the
rural economies of three developing countries and concluded that genetic
modification is being used to increase farmers' dependence on the
companies themselves. It also found that production for export to the
markets of the developed world is being promoted at the expense of food
production for local consumption.
Experience in Brazil and India shows that most biotechnology patents are
for seeds that produce crops with resistance to specific herbicides,
rather than higher yields. The same companies that register the seed
patents are also the producers of the herbicides, revealing a
consolidation of control over the food chain in the hands of a small
number of companies whose primary motivation is profit and not the best
interests of developing country agriculture.
Farmers are losing control over their crops and are becoming locked into
dependence on the seed companies. Traditional practices of saving seed for
planting the next season's crops are threatened by patents on seed
varieties, short-term pest resistance, built-in sterility and genetic
uniformity. Natural predators and companion plants are wiped out by the
agrochemicals, thus reducing biodiversity, and a dangerous monoculture of
a single variety of the plant brings the risk of devastating crop failure.
The example of Ethiopia, where agriculture is dominated by small-scale
farms producing food crops for local consumption, also supports this
finding. The agrochemical companies that produce and promote genetically
modified (GM) seed have largely stayed away from this country, where there
is little scope for intensive farming of export cash crops and
adaptability is essential in the face of increasingly severe droughts.
Research findings include: A concentration of ownership of the world's
food supply is taking place, with no effective means of controlling the
emerging international monopolies. All major corporations are promoting or
developing 'genetically sterilised or chemically dependent seed' which
ends farmers' ability to develop their own crops. The evolving
international legal framework is allowing the effective 'biopiracy' of
developing country plants and animals by US biotechnology corporations.
Three-quarters of the world's food plant varieties have already been lost,
while many GM crops work with herbicides designed to wipe out other
plants. GM crops banned in the UK are being promoted in developing
countries, while trade rules may be used to force governments to accept GM
crops and food. Expansion of GM soya in Brazil threatens one of the
remaining sources of unmodified soya for the UK market. There has been a
general failure to assess GM technology against the potential positive
contribution of sustainable agriculture towards tackling poverty, in
addition to conventional high input farming.
The report offers the following policy recommendations: * Genetically
engineered crops must be treated with caution because of uncertainty about
their impact and an absence of regulation. A strong bio-safety protocol
should ensure producers and suppliers take responsibility for their
products and protect the right to choose. * Public investment and aid
should promote sustainable farming that meets the needs of hungry people;
subsidies for inappropriate technology, that strengthens the market
control of big agri-chemical corporations, should be brought to an end.
* Life must remain a public resource - the patenting by biotech companies
of poor country plant and animal resources is unacceptable biopiracy. *
Food plant biodiversity must be protected. * Action is needed through the
World Trade Organisation to prevent the world's food supply falling under
monopoly corporate contro
Source(s): 'Selling Suicide - farming, false promises and genetic
engineering in developing countries', Christian Aid, by A. Simms, 1999
Soil Association report on the economic costs in North America of
introducing GM; http://www.soilassociation.org/
Andrew Simms, New Economics Foundation,London UK; Email:
firstname.lastname@example.org; Further Information: Christian Aid PO Box
100 London SE1 7RT UK; Email: email@example.com
Response from: Wayne Parrott
Christian Aid is painting a scenario where they accuse multinationals of
conjuring technology whereby they can separate subsistence farmers around
the world from their meager allotment of expendable cash. The funny thing
is that those farmers around the world who could afford it started
becoming dependent on agrichemical companies some time after WWII, as new
generations of pesticides started coming on to the market.
Yet, the irony today is that the advent of genetically engineered crops is
finally allowing some farmers to become less dependent on multinationals
for their inputs.
One has but to move away from major commodities with major traits -
herbicide resistance in cotton, soybean, and maize, to realize that the
market is not there to entice multinationals. The market for
vitamin-enriched oilseeds is far too small to ever recover the cost of
development and de-regulation, particularly given the high overhead costs
So will transgenics make a positive impact on developing country
agriculture? I have no doubt they will. The very multinationals vilified
by Christian Aid actively make their technology available to International
Research Centers and Universities in the developing world. These types of
institutions are much better positioned to deliver genetically improved
staple crops than multinationals ever will be. Organizations such as
International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications
(ISAAA) and the Syngenta Foundation play an active role in transferring
technology to the places where it is needed. As a result, there are
already a variety of products in the pipeline - from vitamin-enriched,
disease-resistant rice in Asia to acid and aluminum-tolerant maize in
Mexico to virus-resistant papaya in many tropical areas. Hopefully, this
is only the beginning.
Christian Aid seems unable or unwilling to understand why an
herbicide-tolerant crop might be desirable to anyone other than a
multinational. It is not just about yield. It is about quality of life. A
substantial percentage of Brazilian farmers would not be defying the
governmental ban against planting GM soybean if it yielded the same as the
non-transgenic version and offered no other advantages. The fact is that
GM soybean is in high demand by farmers because it makes their life easier
and it gives them a higher profit. And while farmers have an easier time
of it, the rest of us can enjoy the environmental benefits of everything
that comes with herbicide resistance: less erosion and sedimentation, a
switch to more benign chemicals, and more habitat for wildlife.
It is time for a reality check. If anything, the experience in Brazil and
elsewhere shows us that farmers cannot be forced to use seed types that
they do not want to use. The same will apply to 'genetically sterilised or
chemically dependent seed.' Short of going through the country side and
removing farmersĒ existing seeds stocks at gunpoint and replacing them
with self-sterilizing seed, there is no way to completely switch farmers
to seed types they do not want.
I disagree that "there has been a general failure to assess GM technology
against the potential positive contribution of sustainable agriculture
towards tackling poverty, in addition to conventional high input farming."
There is nothing mutually exclusive about GM technology and
sustainability. In fact, the opposite is true, to the extent that GM crops
reduce the need for chemical inputs and can help ensure stable production
at the local level.
I strongly agree that "Public investment and aid should promote
sustainable farming that meets the needs of hungry people." I am equally
convinced that, if you want to empower and improve the lot of hungry
people, give them the tools that they need to feed themselves and ensure a
decent quality of life. Make it easier to deploy transgenics where they
are needed most, without disproportionate regulations, without
disproportionate expenses, and most importantly, without hysteria.
My final thoughts to Christian Aid: "Why do you notice the little piece of
dust in your friend's eye, but you don't notice the big piece of wood in
your own eye? How can you say to your friend, 'Let me take that little
piece of dust out of your eye'? Look at yourself! You still have that big
piece of wood in your own eye. You hypocrite! First, take the wood out of
your own eye. Then you will see clearly to take the dust out of your
friend's eye." (Matthew 7:3-5).
From: Drew Kershen
The news release from Christian Aid entitled "Hunger for profit: the
genetic modification of deevloping country agriculture" rehashes a 1999
report. The news release is an attempt to generate publicity based on a
four year old report. Nothing -- absolutely nothing -- new is contained in
this news release.
As for two of the three country examples (Brazil and India) that Christian
Aid cites, their news release is clearly out-of-focus and out-of-date.
Brazil has not legally allowed the growing of trangenic crops. Yet,
despite this legal ban, Brazilian soybean farmers have planted a
significant percentage of their soybean crops to transgenic soybeans. Due
to the "underground market" of these seeds, no seed company makes a single
penny from these transgenic soybean seeds.
Hence, in Brazil, in contrast to the Christian Aid concern about monopoly
control, 100% of the benefits go to Brazilian farmers. The true message in
Brazil is how these farmers have shown by their actions that they have
confidence in and desire to use transgenic soybeans. These farmers have
shown a willingness to defy the law. Moreover these farmers have shown
that want no part of any moratorium on transgenic crops. Christian Aid is
enfatuated with calling for a moratorium on transgenic crops and proudly
proclaimed its allegiance to that moratorium in the 1999 report upon which
this news release is based.
As for India a similar pattern to that in Brazil has emerged. Under
pressure from groups like Christian Aid, the Indian administrative
agencies have been very slow to approve the commercial release of
transgenic crops -- transgenic mustard and transgenic rice (a la Golden
Rice). India also has well-advanced transgenic crops in chickpea,
groundnut (peanut), and other crops. What is most intersting about these
examples from India is that all are from the public sector of the
agricultural research institutions that exist in India. If the regulators
would allow these marvelous agricultural research institutions to
commercialize their transgenic crops, Indian agriculture would flourish in
terms of food security, return on taxpayer-funded research, and as a
competitor to the private seed companies that Christian Aid so dreads and
despises. India does have one transgenic crop in commercial use --
India allowed the commercial sale of transgenic cotton only after farmers
in India -- as in Brazil -- began to use the "underground market" in order
to obtain transgenic cotton seeds. In the face of the fact that thousands
of hectares were planted to transgenic cotton, the Indian regulatory
agency gave permission to a Mahyco-Monsanto partnership for the
commercializaton of transgenic cotton. The actions of the Indian farmers,
like the actions of the Brazilian farmers, directly contradicts the claims
of Christian Aid. Indian farmers defied the law to plant a crop in which
the farmers had confidence. Indian farmers show that they too abhor a
moratorium and that they too desire to use transgenic crops.
Christian Aid may appeal to anti-capitalist Luddites in the UK (a very
small percentage of the UK population) but Christain Aid has no appeal to
Brazilian and Indian farmers. By their actions, these farmers have shown
Christian Aid to be irrelevant to their interests and their needs.
From Andrew Apel:
If this kind of "Christian aid" is regarded as legitimate, I'm dropping
out. Christians who countenance starvation for the sake of political goals
sicken me. The Vatican, aside from its Pontifical Academy, is silent. The
Knights of Columbus are mute. But then, Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, BASF,
Bayer and the other corporations have nothing to say, either.
If conscience won't move people, we're screwed. A pox on all your houses.
(Note from Prakash: I have forwarded these comments to Mr. Simms and will
post his reaction to it, if he responds.)
Linus Pauling and the Race for DNA: A Documentary History
- Oregon State University (Forwarded by Toby Horn; District of Columbia
Utilizing over 800 scanned documents, photographs, audio clips and video
excerpts, this website narrates the breathless details of the pursuit of
the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. Scattered throughout
the project are images of a number of very important and extremely rare
items, all of which are held within The Valley Library's Ava Helen and
Linus Pauling Papers, and many of which have not been previously
New Poll Shows Dramatic Rise In Americans' 'DNA I.Q.'
- EurekAlert, Feb 27, 2003 (Sent by Andrew Apel)
Richmond, VA - A new Harris poll released today shows that the "DNA I.Q."
of American adults is much higher expected. The poll found that 60% of US
adults got the right answer when asked 'what is DNA?': the genetic code
for living cells. When given the multiple choice question, 'what does DNA
stand for?,' adults did even better. Two thirds chose deoxyribonucleic
The findings show a dramatic rise in genetics awareness since 1996, when a
National Science Foundation survey showed only 21% of adults could define
DNA. The recent poll also contrasts with other recent surveys that found
Americans notably lacking in awareness of or knowledge about science.*
"That's a terrific increase" said Paul Hanle, president of The
Biotechnology Institute, of the new DNA poll. "The challenge now is to
take that growing popular interest to the next level, giving kids and
adults the tools to deal with complex issues like human cloning,
genetically modified food, regenerative medicine, genetic screening, etc."
"With these results and shows like CSI, we don't have to worry so much
about getting people's attention any more," said Tom Huff, Vice Provost
for Life Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University. "My only question
is: is that enough? The tricky part will be finding ways to use that
attention to help people take an active part in what really is turning out
to be the Century of Life Sciences."
Environmental Biosafety Research - A new Journal
- S. Fischer, http://www.bio-scope.org, Feb 20, 2003
A new Journal for Environmental Biosafety Research In October 2002, the
new scientific journal "Environmental Biosafety Research" (EBR) appeared,
dealing with issues which are of broad scientific, societal and also
economic relevance: Biosafety of GMOs. Many "unspectacular" but
nevertheless important results of GMO biosafety research do neither raise
broad international awareness among the scientific community nor in the
public. Additionally, quite many researchers experienced that such
research is difficult to publish in respected journals and even the "big
and honest" journals sometimes seem to grab for some hastily sensational
However, the results of sound research work should be realized and
published as they may become essential puzzle pieces in the comprehensive
biosafety evaluation of a given GMO and its release into the environment.
To support the dissemination and consideration of biosafety research
results, an unique scientific journal was conceived and launched with
financial support by the European Union under its so-called Fifth
The EBR is also the official journal of the International Society for
Biosafety Research (ISBR) recently founded at the 7th International
Symposium on the Biosafety of Genetically Modified Organisms in Peking in
late 2002 and in October 2002, the fist issue of this quarterly journal
In general, the EBR will focus on GMO research aiming in investigating and
evaluating potential environmental effects in the broadest sense: * GMO
research on plants, fungi, animals, microorganisms * GMO effects on
population dynamics * GMO effects on farming practise * Economical and
sociological impacts of GMOs * Studies on non GMOs mimicking or
paralleling GMO issues
The international editorial team of this peer-reviewed journal is of
outstanding scientific quality and experience and includes among others:
Mark Tepfer (INRA, France), David A. Andow (University of Minnesota, USA),
Klaus Ammann (Botanical Garden Bern, Switzerland), Lynn Frewer (Institute
of Food Research, UK), Deborah Letourneau (University of California Santa
Cruz, USA), Bao-Rong Lu (Fudan University, China), Joachim Schiemann and
Kornelia Smalla (both Federal Biological Research Center for Agriculture
and Forestry, Germany).
Biosafety researchers all over the world are invited to submit their
results for publication in EBR and to contribute to the success of this
important journal. Review articles, scientific correspondence and book
reviews are welcome as well. EBR will take care to maintain scientific
objectivity and balanced views even of controversially discussed issues.
For more information about EBR, the author's instructions, the electronic
edition of EBR, etc. please edp Sciences visit
http://www.edpsciences.org/journal/index.cfm?edpsname=ebr. A 3 Months free
trial offer is also available.
"Should Labelling be Mandatory: Spiked Online Debate on GM"
Mandatory Labelling Is A Bad Idea
- Gregory Conko, Spiked Online, Feb 27, 2003
'New rules will not help consumers to make informed choices.'
Until mid-February 2003, the US government was readying a World Trade
Organisation (WTO) challenge to the European Union (EU)'s moratorium on
new GM crop approvals. The EU hasn't approved any new GM varieties since
1998, and the two varieties that are approved have virtually disappeared
from supermarket shelves due to consumer concerns.
European politicians have acknowledged that the moratorium may not
withstand a WTO review. But they have suggested that the moratorium
probably will be lifted in the next few months anyway - once new rules are
in place for GM crops and foods.
Among the new rules - now being finalised by EU member states - is a
requirement that GM foods be labelled and GM ingredients be 'traced'
through the food chain, from plant-breeder and farmer, to shipper,
processor and retailer. EU politicians boast that their health,
environment and labelling rules comprise 'the toughest GM legislation in
the world', and tout them as just the trick to restore public confidence
in food biotechnology.
Although GM food labelling is already mandatory, advocates claim that the
stronger new labelling and traceability rules will ensure that consumers
have more complete information, enabling them to make informed choices. In
truth, the measures will do no such thing.
Both the existing and the proposed labelling regulations only require
certain categories of GM foods to be labelled, and provide no context for
why some are to be labelled and others exempt. So to make truly informed
choices, shoppers must rely upon other sources of information. It is more
likely that mandatory labelling will merely raise the cost of GM products,
and add to many consumers' groundless fears about GM foods.
Consider the existing European Commission 'novel foods' regulation and the
Council of the European Communities GM labelling regulation, which came
into effect in 1997 and 1998 respectively. These require any food or
animal feed to be labelled if DNA or proteins from a GM organism can be
detected in the final product. In practice, products like oils from GM
maize or soya usually do not have to be labelled, because heat from the
crushing process breaks apart DNA chains and breaks down proteins, making
it impossible to tell the difference between GM and non-GM oils.
Consequently, some GM-derived products - including cooking oils, maize
sweetener, and the soy lecithin in chocolate - still appear unlabelled on
Some see this as a flaw in the current laws, which will be remedied by new
rules expanding the labelling requirement. Under these regulations, foods
and animal feed will have to be labelled if they are produced from a GM
organism, regardless of whether or not the end product can be
distinguished from conventionally produced items. To facilitate this
change in policy, seed breeders, farmers, shippers, processors and
retailers will be required to keep detailed records of GM products so they
can be traced all the way through the food chain. Nearly two billion
metric tons of cereal grains are grown in the world every year. And the
food supply's continued affordability depends upon the commoditisation
process, in which shippers treat all maize, soya and wheat alike. To
shippers, food processors and, more importantly, the human body itself,
maize is maize whether it is harvested in Britain, France or the USA, and
whether it is grown from GM or conventional plants. Segregating
genetically modified organisms (GMOs) out of the commodity stream to
comply with the traceability requirement would disrupt this efficient
process, at immense cost. Moreover, perfect compliance would be
impossible. The traceability provision could raise the bar for GM products
so high that the market would abandon them - a point that may have
motivated GM opponents to support labelling.
Of course, if the strict segregation of GM from non-GM were necessary to
protect consumer health, such a cost might be worth bearing. But these
measures are not necessary, because there isn't a single identifiable risk
of genetic modification that doesn't also exist with one or another form
of conventional breeding. And the fact that GM foods are now commercially
available in EU member states - and will be available even after
implementation of the new GM rules - shows that the driving force for
labelling is not concern for consumer health. Labelling supporters counter
that there may be unidentifiable risks, and that their goal is simply to
provide consumer choice. How, then, do supporters explain provisions in
both the current and proposed labelling schemes that exempt entire classes
of GM foods from the labelling mandate?
The distinction revolves around the seemingly innocuous phrase 'produced
from GM'. That is, if oil is produced from GM maize, or if tofu is
produced from GM soya, then the final product is also considered to be
genetically modified and must be labelled. However, foods that are
'produced with' a GMO - including cheeses produced with the aid of the GM
clotting-agent chymosin, or wines and beers produced with GM yeasts - are
not considered to be genetically modified and need not be labelled, even
though residues of the GMOs often remain in the final products.
And animal feeds must be labelled if they are produced 'from' GM grains,
providing a choice for farmers and their livestock. But meat from animals
fed GM food is exempt - human consumers have less choice. If unanticipated
or unidentifiable risks are the problem that makes labelling necessary,
why exempt so many obviously 'GM foods'? Perhaps it is because there is so
much disagreement over what really is and is not genetically modified -
some GM critics have opposed the labelling and traceability rules because
they are too lax. Or perhaps it is because European politicians are trying
to carve out an exemption for domestically produced wines, beers and
cheeses, while erecting an almost insurmountable barrier against imported
Whatever the motivation, mandatory GM labelling is a bad idea. And one of
the most compelling arguments against it is that European consumers will
not be able to rely upon information provided to them. This or any other
political solution will necessarily be a compromise that takes too long to
implement, too long to change, and leaves too many unsatisfied. There is,
however, another option.
Already, thousands of negatively labelled non-GM foods appear on shop
shelves throughout the EU. Why? Because information has value, and like
other valuable items, consumer demand can drive producers to make it
available to those who genuinely want it. As we see in the case of GM
foods, that information doesn't necessarily come in the form of labelled
GM products. But it can, and does often come in the form of labelling
designed to attract consumers who want certain attributes.
Label information about GM status is primarily used by those trying to
avoid GM foods. Consequently, a vibrant market has developed for foods
negatively labelled as 'GMO-free' or 'organic'. No mandate was necessary.
Because they must compete for the attention of shoppers, food packagers
and supermarkets long ago responded to consumer demand for non-GM products
- and they did so with labelling policies that are actually better at
providing real consumer choice.
Read on... Eat, Drink and Be Merry: Why Mandatory Biotech Food Labeling is
Unnecessary, by Gregory Conko [.pdf 520KB]
Gregory Conko is director of food safety policy at the Competitive
Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC.
Consumers' Right to Choose GM-free Food
- Tony Juniper, Spiked Online, Feb 27, 2003
'EU labelling rules should be even tougher.'
Over the past few years there has been growing public concern about the
impact of genetically modified crops on the environment and people's
The latest Eurobarometer opinion poll, published by the European
Commission in December 2001, showed that 94.6 percent of European citizens
want the right to choose GM-free food, and 70.9 percent simply do not want
GM food. In the UK, recent opinion polls have shown that most people are
opposed to GM crops and food. In September 2002, a survey in the Grocer
magazine found that 58 percent would avoid products containing GM
For the past four years, as a response to customer demand, the majority of
UK food manufacturers, retailers and fast-food outlets have not been using
GM ingredients. Despite the best efforts of the US government, the US Soya
Association and biotechnology companies, UK food companies and many
European Union (EU) companies have been able to source GM-free ingredients
from around the world.
EU companies have developed identity-preserved food-chain systems to
supply non-GM, where ingredients for processed foods and animal feed are
sourced from non-GM farmers. The movement of the harvested crop is
documented all the way from the field to the processing factory and then
to the food manufacturer. Companies ensure that their systems are GM-free
by taking samples, and most companies are operating at a detection limit
of 0.1 percent. The UK government's central science laboratory has
confirmed that GM can be accurately detected at this level.
Since spring 1998, no new genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been
authorised for planting or use in the EU. This moratorium effectively was
put into place by a group of countries who declared that they would block
any new GMO approvals until strict labelling legislation was in place.
A new European Regulation on Traceability and Labelling of GMOs is now in
the process of being agreed. Its purpose is to ensure the traceability of
GMOs from operator to operator, in order to facilitate comprehensive
labelling of GMOs and to enable withdrawal of GMOs from the market should
problems occur. This is crucial, because concerns over GM crops and food
include: -- GM foods may cause new allergies; -- Genetic engineering can
interfere with the function of existing genes in the crop plant,
potentially producing unexpected toxins and/or nutritional changes; --
Antibiotic resistance could be passed on to pathogens and lessen the
effectiveness of important drugs; -- Genes from GM crops can be
transferred to wild relatives and non-GM crops, creating new weed problems
for farmers and crop contamination; -- Herbicide-tolerant crops may
seriously threaten biodiversity in agricultural areas; -- Insect pests
rapidly may develop tolerance to pest-resistant GM crops, shortening the
useful life of such crops and compromising the effectiveness of existing
insecticides; -- Pest-resistant crops may have adverse impacts on
beneficial insects and other invertebrate populations.
Under the current EU proposals for a Traceability and Labelling
Regulation, all GM food and animal feed products will have to be labelled.
This includes derivatives like refined oils that do not contain GM DNA or
protein in the final product. No 'GMO-free' label is proposed, which the
biotech industry is pushing for instead of GM labelling. This would
increase the cost of GM-free food, making consumers pay more for something
they have always had previously.
This is good news for consumers who want the right to choose GM-free food.
But there are significant weaknesses in the current proposal. Effectively
it legalises contamination by unapproved GMOs by setting a threshold of
0.5 percent for their 'adventitious' or 'technically unavoidable' presence
(although this provision will expire after three years). This is
unacceptable. Friends of the Earth is calling for the threshold for
unauthorised GMOs to be set at the lowest detectable level, which is
currently 0.1 percent.
In addition, it sets a labelling threshold of 0.9 percent for the presence
of authorised GM ingredients in food or feed products. This is an
arbitrary level. Again, Friends of the Earth is calling for it to be set
at 0.1 percent, which many supermarkets are already operating to.
Other weaknesses in the proposed regulation include: -- medicinal products
for human or veterinary use are not included, leaving open the issue of
traceability of GM plants grown for the production of pharmaceuticals; --
animal products such as meat, milk and eggs from animals fed on GMOs are
excluded; -- traceability of non-food GMO derivatives is not covered,
although several GM plants are intended for non-food uses, such as oilseed
rape (fuel), cotton (fibre) and tobacco; -- traceability is dependent on
the assignment of unique identifying codes which have not even yet been
In addition, Friends of the Earth believes that tough liability
legislation should be in place before GM crops are grown commercially in
the UK. Currently there is no legislation to require biotech companies to
pay compensation or clear up any damage caused by their crops, and current
proposals for an Environmental Liability Directive exclude GM, as they
contain both a permit and a 'state of knowledge' defence. Biotech
companies are fighting liability legislation, but if GM food and crops are
as safe as the industry says, then why won't it accept liability?
Learning lessons from the USA For the past decade, consumers in the USA
have been subjected to the largest uncontrolled feeding trial of GM foods,
without their consent. There are over 40 GM foods, containing at least 28
novel proteins, on sale in the USA. Anything from fresh tomatoes to soft
drinks could contain GM materials, and the consumer is none the wiser
because the US government has always resisted the concept of labelling gm
It is often said that there have been no adverse health effects of eating
GM foods in the USA. But the effects might not be apparent immediately; or
it is possible that health effects occurring now will not be picked up
unless they are extremely dramatic. There has been no effort by the US
authorities to look for health impacts. This is a simple case of 'don't
look, don't find'.
Most US consumers do not even know whether they are eating GM foods -
according to a poll in May 2000, only 43 percent were aware that GM
products were sold at all. So there is no reason why they should connect
GM foods with any health impacts - ruling out self-reporting of GM-related
The only cases of self-reported illness linked to GM food have come in the
wake of the StarLink contamination. In 2000, it was found that a GM maize
called StarLink, which was not approved for human consumption, had
contaminated foods across the USA. Suspected allergic reactions were
reported and more than 300 brands of taco shells, crisps and other maize
products had to be withdrawn from shops. In this case, the widespread
publicity alerted people to exactly what foods contained a specific GM
The US government, heavily influenced by the biotech industry, is so keen
to force GM food and crops on to European countries that it has threatened
to take action against the EU under WTO rules. US officials believe that
new EU legislation for traceability and labelling of GM foods will present
a barrier to trade. In other words, they do not believe that consumers, in
the USA or in Europe, have the right to choose GM-free food.
Friends of the Earth believes that it is too soon to be going ahead with
widespread import and growing of GM crops in the UK and in the EU, as
there are still too many uncertainties about their impact on our health
and the environment. Labelling legislation is already well on the way to
being agreed in the EU, and although it needs strengthening, its
introduction is the absolute minimum needed to protect consumer choice if
GM crops and food are to be marketed and grown across the EU.
The US government and the biotech industry are finding EU proposals for
labelling legislation hard to swallow because they know that European
consumers want to exercise their right to choose GM-free food. The only
way European consumers will eat GM produce is unwittingly - just as has
happened in the USA. If the US government does take action against the EU
under WTO rules, it is likely to provoke a significant political backlash.
Tony Juniper is the executive director of Friends of the Earth - England,
Wales and Northern Ireland.
Bio-Era Releases Report on Agri-biotech Industry
- Crop Biotech Update, www. isaaaa.org
Companies need to adopt new, collaborative, multi-stakeholder strategies
for product development, risk management, public education, and advocacy.
This was a recommendation of Bio Economic Research Associates (Bio-Era), a
US-based research and advisory firm. Bio-Era recently released its report
on "Agricultural Biotechnology at the Crossroads, Part I: The Changing
Structure of the Industry" written by Bio-Era directors Gregory Graff and
Bio-Era founder and CEO Stephen Aldrich said that "By now, all
biotechnology companies should realize that no amount of "benefits
jawboning" will, by itself, overcome the objections of a public that
responds emotionally to genetically modified (GM) products. Companies need
to develop strategies that fully respect the power of other legitimate
stakeholders to influence the political, regulatory, trade and consumer
choices that will ultimately determine their success or failure." Aldrich
added that if these obstacles are overcome, the "third wave" of commercial
GM products will move well beyond the initial generation of products. The
next generation products will include:
* GMO crops with pest and disease protection traits for parts of the world
where chemical pesticides are very expensive * Plant-based plastics,
polymers, and films including other bio-based products like lubricants and
functional fluids * High value-added pharmaceutical crops. The full report
is available at http://www.bio-era.net
Latest from FAO-BiotechNews
- FAO Biotechnology website http://www.fao.org/biotech/index.asp (in
Chinese, English, French and Spanish)
3) Codex Task Force on Foods Derived from Biotechnology
The 4th Session of the Codex Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Foods
Derived from Biotechnology takes place in Yokohama, Japan on 11-14 March
2003. The Joint FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission is an
intergovernmental body set up to establish international standards on
foods. The agenda and working documents are available at
http://www.codexalimentarius.net/current.asp (in English, French and
Spanish) or contact firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.
4) Agricultural commodity markets - GM crops
FAO's Committee on Commodity Problems is holding its 64th Session at FAO
Headquarters, Rome on 18-21 March 2003. One of the reports prepared for
the meeting is entitled "Major developments and issues in agricultural
commodity markets" and it reviews some of the major factors that have
influenced international agricultural markets during the past few years,
including the development of genetically modified crops. See
http://www.fao.org/UNFAO/Bodies/ccp/ccp64/ccp64-e.htm (document CCP 03/7 -
in Arabic, Chinese, English, French and Spanish) or contact
email@example.com for more information.
5) Biosafety Clearing-House
At its first meeting in December 2000, the Intergovernmental Committee for
the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety recommended the development of a pilot
phase of a Biosafety Clearing-House (BCH). This was launched in April
2001. Version 2.0 of the pilot phase of the BCH has now been launched (1
February 2003). New developments include, inter alia, improved search
facilities and faster download times, expansion of the capacity-building
databases, additional help functions and access to more databases. See
http://bch.biodiv.org or contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Toxic Shock Syndrome
- Herbert Inhaber, TechCentral, Feb 26, 2003
Toxicology may sound like the most boring of subjects, but it governs most
of the environmental laws and regulations on the books. Thus if it
miscalculates, society may spend billions too much to clean up toxic
substances. Indeed, it may be possible to save billions without
jeopardizing health - and even improving health - by loosening overly
The field was thrown into turmoil recently by an article on Feb. 13 by
Edward Calabrese of the University of Massachusetts in the prestigious
science journal Nature. Prof. Calabrese is not a bomb-thrower by
profession, and he is the author of many books on toxicology, air
pollutants and related subjects.
'The Dose Makes the Poison'
Toxicology operates on the principle that enough of any substance can
injure or kill you. This was known to the natural philosopher Paracelsus
about half a millennium ago, who said, "the dose makes the poison". To put
it simply, every human needs some salt in the diet, since we are descended
from sea creatures of billions of eons past. But one hardly has to be a
graduate toxicologist to know that a diet of say 10% salt, besides being
unpalatable, would make you sick or even send you to the cemetery.
Since experiments on humans are out, for obvious reasons, toxicologists
feed high percentages of mercury, lead, arsenic and other toxics to rats,
mice and other creatures, Some of them develop tumors, lesions or die. But
then comes the public policy problem: The unfortunate rodents are being
fed hundreds or even thousands of parts per million of the toxic
substance. But humans are almost invariably exposed, if they are exposed
at all, to perhaps a few parts per million or even parts per billion of
If rats were given food or water with these small concentrations,
scientists might need millions of them to prove what the mathematicians
call "statistical significance". Nobody has the time or money to have vast
colonies of rats being fed tiny amounts of arsenic or lead, so the
toxicologists make a giant leap of faith. They extrapolate down from the
high doses that the rats get to low doses that humans receive, making
corrections for body size and other variables.
This is how, with other complications, we get the rules that are published
in the Federal Register for a myriad of potential pollutants. But Prof.
Calabrese, toxicologist himself, says, "The field of toxicology has made a
terrible blunder. A lot of high-powered people need to take the time to
explore (what I discovered)".
'Mild Chemical Stress Is Beneficial'
Quoting about 5000 studies, Calabrese notes that in small quantities, many
toxics are actually good for you. Dioxins in tiny concentrations, regarded
by many as about as appealing as anthrax or the bubonic plague, can reduce
tumor growth in some species. Calabrese quotes many examples and refers to
his vast array of past studies.
Calabrese has support from others in the field. Anthony Trewavas from
Edinburgh University says, "What we call 'toxic chemicals' is a misnomer.
Mild chemical stress is beneficial". In one sense, Calabrese is
reiterating the principles of homeopathy, pioneered by Hahnemann many
years ago. The principle of that science is that a small amount of an
otherwise dangerous substance, say arsenic, can provide some medical
The principle was brought up to date by the coining of thew word
"hormesis" about 60 years ago. This again refers to a possibly beneficial
effect of small amounts of something that's lethal in high concentrations.
For example, after Hiroshima everyone on Earth knows that high radiation
doses are extremely hazardous. But some of us go out of our way to avoid
even the slightest radiation dose. Some will drive miles out of their way
to avoid passing near a nuclear reactor, although the dose they would get
by driving by the gate could not be detected by the most sensitive
But Prof. T. D. Luckey has performed the same service for radiation as
Calabrese has for toxicology, noting that hundreds of studies have
demonstrated that small doses of radiation either cause no effect or may
promote health. To give a simple example, Coloradans get more radiation
than most Americans. Because of their elevation, they get more cosmic
rays. Yet the Colorado Chamber of Commerce promotes the state as one of
the most healthful.
So Prof. Calabrese has performed a great public service by thinking out of
the box. It will not be easy to change allowable levels of toxic
substances, because of the powerful special interests that profit from
present standards. But the good professor has thrown a pebble down the
mountainside that may eventually become an avalanche.
The Case of the Mute Scientists
- Elizabeth M. Whelan, Washington Times, Feb 27, 2003
Science -- today and every day -- is under assault. The assailants are
members of the media, trial lawyers, self-appointed consumer-activists and
The science being mutilated pertains to a wide spectrum of health topics
-- including "facts" on the purported health hazards around us, including
acrylamide (a chemical formed in cooking high-carbohydrate foods), breast
implants, PCBs, phthalates (plasticizers), aspartame (Nutrasweet), Olestra
(Procter & Gamble's doomed fat substitute).
In these instances -- and so many more -- outright blatant
misrepresentations of the available science are made, health hazards that
do not exist are claimed and picked up by the news media, and ultimately
by lawyers intoxicated with the possibility of a cash reward in court from
a corporate deep pocket.
Sherlock Holmes once solved a murder mystery by asking why the watchdog
did not bark. It is time to ask why, in light of this ongoing distortion
of scientific reality, American scientists are not barking in protest.
Take, for example, the ongoing regulatory and legal wrangling over PCBs,
synthetic chemicals used, because of their insulating, flame-retardant
nature, as coolants and lubricants in transformers and other electrical
equipment. (PCBs, which were disposed of legally in rivers , were banned
in 1979). Any review of the scientific literature will reveal that (a)
PCBs at high dose are toxic and carcinogenic in rodents and (b) no human
study -- including workers who were very heavily exposed, and individuals,
including pregnant women, who ate substantial amounts of fish with
measurable levels of PCBs -- has ever shown any major significant
long-term negative health effects.
Studies at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have
shown that even those workers with PCB blood concentrations much higher
(300 parts per billion) than the national background level (10-20 parts
ppb) did not manifest any health effects PCBs at very high dose can cause
a severe,temporary form of acne -- but that is it.
Yet the Environmental Protection Agency, prodded by environmental
activists. is compelling General Electric to spend more than $500 million
to remove PCBs from the Hudson River. Why? EPA tells us it wants to
prevent cancer. But even the National Cancer Institute concedes it knows
of no evidence that eating fish from a PCB-contaminated river contributes
to the toll of cancer in the United States.
And while the EPA is busy protecting us from cancer risks that don't
exist, attorney Johnnie Cochran is busy at work in Anniston, Ala.,
claiming "the lives of just about all the families living (in this small
town) have been ripped apart" by Monsanto's release of PCBs years ago.
Mr. Cochran argues that cancer cases galore are caused by trace levels of
PCBs in the environment. And, he opines, that even people who are not sick
deserve compensation from Solutia (the new name for Monsanto's chemical
business) because they might get sick in the future.
CBS' "60 Minutes" picked up recently on the Anniston story featuring an
"expert" who argued "there is no debate whatever" in the scientific
community that PCBs cause cancer. The segment left viewers with the clear
impression the poor people of Anniston were dropping dead like flies and
that PCBs were responsible.
Given that these claims are the mirror image of the facts about PCBs and
human health, why are American scientists not outraged? Why aren't
physicians and scientists picketing in front of CBS -- or at least writing
letters in protest (My letter to "60 Minutes" was neither answered or
acknowledged). Why aren't American scientists barking? Why do they remain
First, most scientists feel more comfortable in labs and classrooms than
on op-ed pages and TV studios -- and they have no real clue about how to
go about challenging what they read and see. Second, in virtually 100
percent of cases where scientists have stepped forward to debunk the
"carcinogen scare de jour," they have been subject to ad hominem attacks
and labeled "paid liars" for industry. That threat of humiliation is
enough to cause many to bite their tongues. Third, science these days has
become so very specialized, that the overwhelming portion of our country's
scientists have very narrow areas of expertise. Those with a Ph.D. in
entomology, biology, veterinary medicine or physics might possibly be as
duped as the average citizen when Mr. Cochran talks about the PCB-induced
epidemic in Alabama.
These obstacles must be addressed and overcome because the consequences of
the silence of the scientific community (interpreted as assent) are
profound. The assault on science not only distorts health risks, but it
threatens innovation, jobs -- and our country's enviable high standard of
living. Only scientists can effectively counter scientific misinformation.
May the barking begin.
Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan is president of the American Council on Science