Today in AgBioView: March 3, 2003
* Responses to Anders Buch Kristensen: Conko, Miller, Barber & Cross
* GM Food Debate Stirring Action As Well As Words
* Re: Zambia and Food Safety
* 'Selling Suicide': Author of 'Christian Aid' Report Responds
* Fighting Over Pharming
* Biopharming Could Reap Benefits But Must Be Regulated
* Planting the Seeds of Business Growth in Florida
* No Easing of US Stance on EU biotech Policy - US Aide
* Poverty Alleviation Key to Preserving Biodiversity
* African Doctor Says Biotechnology Could Help Feed the Hungry
* There are Better Ways to Feed Africa than with GM Crops
Response to Anders Buch Kristensen.....(1)
- Greg Conko
While it is true that the presence of detectable residues of bioengineered
enzymes is specifically contemplated by the Traceability and Labelling,
and the Food and Feeds rules, there still is a discrepancy in the
treatment of foods produced with the aid of bioengineered enzymes with no
detectable residue (and, presumably, those with detectable residues below
the 0.5% threshhold) and the treatment of products such as heavily
processed foods -- such as cooking oils -- produced from a bioengineered
organism. The latter must be labeled even if there is no detectable
residue of that which makes it "bioengineered", or in EU-speak
"genetically modified" -- namely, the presence of the novel gene and
protein. Why the difference?
Further, if the characteristic of bioengineered foods that makes labeling
"necessary" is the possibility of unanticipated negative effects, then
such would also be the case with foods produced from bioengineered
enzymes. The purpose of enzymes is to catalyze chemical reactions, and in
the case of food items produced with the aid of enzymes, those chemical
reactions change the biochemical characteristics of the food product. If
an unanticipated negative change has occurred in the bioengineered enzyme
(whether or not as a result of the modification process) then it is likely
to cause the chemical reaction in the end-product food to consequently be
changed in an unanticipated manner -- or, at least as likely as the
possibility of negative effects in foods "produced from" a bioengineered
Whether or not bioengineered enzymes were excluded from the labeling
requirement because of protectionist intent, it would seem to be incumbent
upon the proponents of the labeling requirement to explain the
discrepancy. And Kristensen's reply to my essay does a poor job.
Response to Anders Buch Kristensen.....(2)
- Henry Miller , The Hoover Institution,
Anders Buch Kristensen's response to Gregory Conko on the subject of the
EU's proposed labeling of biotech foods is risible. It splits hairs over
non-essential points and ignores the fact that the emperor has no clothes.
Compulsory labeling of gene-spliced foods is a bad idea for several
reasons. First, it implies risks for which there is no evidence and,
thereby, misleads consumers. The labeling requirements will reinforce the
notion -- created largely by the EU and individual European governments --
that biotech foods pose significant risk; thus unfairly burdened, they are
virtually certain to fail in the marketplace. Second, the labeling
requirements fly in the face of a broad scientific consensus about the
appropriate basis of regulation--that it should focus on palpable, genuine
risks, not the use of certain techniques.
Third, it will push the costs of product development into the stratosphere
(assuming that the technology continues to be used at all). Fourth, the
requirement constitutes, in effect, a punitive tax on a superior
technology. And fifth, such gratuitous and difficult to meet requirements
(because of the need to segregate products through the entire production
pipeline) can create legal liability for everyone in the production and
distribution pathway, in the event of inconsequential non-compliance. The
EU's food labeling and traceability requirements constitute, in effect, a
tax on a superior technology, whilst they offer no incremental protection
from genuine food risks. Consumers would be far better served by industry
expending its resources on research and development to create new and
For several reasons, the last paragraph of Mr. Kristensen's note is
ridiculous. There is a bloc of EU countries that appears determined under
any circumstances to block the lifting of the moratorium on approval of
new, gene-spliced plant varieties; and even if it were lifted, there would
still remain in place the EU's unscientific, arbitrary, process-based and
illegal (under WTO rules) regulation of gene-spliced plant varieties and
foods. Finally, as "president of the Council working group who [sic]agreed
on the" absurd new regulations, Mr. Kristensen seems hardly to be
qualified to comment on what will "liberalis[e] world trade."
EU regulators appear to be the logical successors to the academicians of
the city of Lagado in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels: Kristensen's
and his colleagues' deliberations appear to have a great deal in common
with an "operation to reduce human Excrement to its original Food, by
separating the several Parts, removing the Tincture which it receives from
the Gall, making the Odour exhale, and scumming off the Saliva."
Response to Anders Buch Kristensen.....(3)
- Simon Barber
Proposed EU labelling laws: As I understand it, Anders Buch Kristensen,
Minister Counsellor, Permanent Representation of Denmark is correct in
stating that if residues of GM processing aids remain in a food then it
should be labelled (of course these can be detected using sophisticated
detection tools). Even so, the proposed new EU GM Labelling and
Traceability Regulations can hardly be considered scientifically or
intellectually based. Consider the following:
Use microbes in a fermentation process to disassemble and reassemble C, H,
and O molecules from starch to produce the simple alcohol molecule
IF the starch ingredient used for this is from GM corn, then label the
alcohol GM and set up a costly paper based traceability trail for it right
through to the end consumer;
IF the starch ingredient used for this is non-GM corn, then do nothing
According to the EU Commission and Member State authorities who developed
the proposed new labelling requirement, the basis of the GM labelling is
how a substance to be used in food or feed is defined. Enzymes produced by
microbes for food processing purposes are classified as "processing aids"
and are not considered "ingredients." Corn starch used as a base for
multiple food processing purposes is considered an "ingredient." The
proposed new laws say that ingredients derived from GMOs must be labelled
and traced. The sensible option would be not to require any additional
labelling (and costly tracing) of identical processed products that
contain no novel DNA or protein, no matter how they are derived. There are
other ways, some already in place, to provide the "non-GM" choice option
for consumers in Europe.
- Simon Barber, Director, Plant Biotech Unit, EuropaBio, Brussels,
Response to Anders Buch Kristensen.....(4):
Where are those labels?- John W. Cross
Dear Ms Kristensen: With due respect to your position as an EU
Representative, I see some problems with your position as stated in your
"Answer to Gregory Conko" (see below).
If a GMO product imported from the US into the EU contains no DNA, as
would oil from transgenic corn (maize), then you would still label it.
Logically there is no reason to do so. 1) No DNA can be found in the
product, and 2) the product is indistinguishable by every conceivable
chemical and biotechnological test from the conventional product.
Therefore, we must look to politics for the answer. Why is this so
difficult for you to grasp?
Second, I am in my local supermarket every week. There are many EU
products to be found there, including French, Danish, English and Irish
cheeses, French, Italian, Spanish, German and Portuguese wines, and Dutch,
Irish, British and German beers. I have never seen any European cheese,
wine or beer labeled as "GMO". So where are your labels? Perhaps they put
special "export" labels on their products destined for the USA? Well, I
doubt it. I have been in London twice in the past year, and again, I saw
no such labels. Are the producers of your products not complying with the
EU law, or is the law just different for imported products?
It seems that a double standard is being applied.
Sincerely, John Cross
>> Response to Gregory Conko
>> Grethe Kristensen
>> Gregory Conko wrote the following as the main point in criticising the
GM Food Debate Stirring Action As Well As Words
- Laura Rance, Winnipeg Free Pres (Canada), March 1, 2003
If there's one good thing to be said about the ongoing debate over
genetically modified wheat, it's that it is engaging average Canadians in
a debate over food. Last week, the Council of Canadians linked up with
the National Farmers Union and a U.S. farmer-to-farmer campaign to launch
a speaking tour against Monsanto's Roundup Ready wheat.
They are urging farmers to boycott Monsanto's products and choose from the
generic glyphosates on the market this year as part of a "commercial
communication" to the company. These groups are also calling upon
citizens to lobby their local governments to pass resolutions opposing the
technology to send a message to the Canadian government.
Monsanto Canada has applied to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and
Health Canada for food and environmental clearance of a wheat variety that
has been genetically modified to be resistant to glyphosate. This allows
farmers growing the variety to spray the herbicide on their wheat, which
would kill all the other plants in the field.
Opposition from the Council of Canadians, which opposes genetically
modified foods, was as predictable as the recent statement from CropLife
Canada, which represents companies who develop this sort of technology.
CropLife Canada's perspective is that the science-based regulatory system
used by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada must remain
immune from marketing pressures.
While farmers have wholeheartedly embraced other Roundup Ready crops, the
majority of farmers and farm organizations in Western Canada are on the
record as opposing Roundup Ready wheat. This is completely out of
character. Farmers are born with the souls of techno-geeks and are usually
first in line to adopt the latest developments. The issue for farmers is
twofold. Eighty per cent of Canada's customers for grain say they don't
want to buy genetically modified wheat. Farmers may disagree with the
logic, but they aren't arguing with the marketplace reality.
The general consensus is that once this wheat is introduced, it will be
impossible to keep it segregated from non-GM types. But an even bigger
issue for farmers is the double-edged sword that glyphosate tolerance
creates in the field. It's great in the first year of production, but in
the years that follow, the farmer must contend with volunteer plants from
the previous crop that re-emerge as weeds.
Because glyphosate is such a commonly used herbicide, in so many
capacities on so many farms, there is a risk that normal farming practices
will select for those resistant volunteers -- giving them the opportunity
to flourish because the non-resistant plants are eliminated from the
competition for sunlight, nutrients and water. Before long, farmers find
themselves unable to count on glyphosate to protect their crops, unless
they mix it with other herbicides. That's already happened with canola,
but there are cost-effective alternative tank mixes available.
That isn't true for wheat. Some skeptics have noted this gives Monsanto
the opportunity to introduce a new product containing glyphosate, blended
with other herbicides, to solve just such a problem. And this new product
will be under patent, whereas Roundup is not. Interestingly, the company
has applied for patent protection on any and all such blends. These
agronomic issues are unique to glyphosate. Other forms of herbicide
tolerance and genetically modified wheat waiting in the wings don't face
the same opposition -- at least not from farmers.
The federal government's regulatory process isn't set up to consider
market risk when assessing plants with novel traits such as Roundup Ready
wheat. But it is charged with considering environmental risk. Questions
swirling around this potential for environmental contamination will test
the 'science-based' assessment process.
Ultimately the groups opposing its introduction may not be able to prevent
it from being commercialized. But nothing is stopping them from having
Laura Rance is associate editor of the Farmers' Independent Weekly. She
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Re: Zambia and Food Safety
- John W. Cross
Dear Mr. Simpson: Some of the other readers of AgBioView who answered
your query provided many more factual references than I could, so you
ought to study those. That will give you the detail you seek. But please
have a look at the websites of the anti-GMO group.
You will see that objections which have been thoroughly refuted years ago
still are prominently displayed as objections to GMO crops. I take that to
mean that the sorts of sceptics who are involved with the anti-GMO crowd
are the sort that, when one objection is refuted factually and logically,
then either continue to espouse that objection anyway or jump to a another
one which has already been refuted. There are never sufficient answers for
someone whose real agenda is not based on science, but on politics and
It is also of interest to just look and smell a GM plant and its seeds.
They look, smell and taste just like the conventional equivalent. Just
by your senses you never would know which is which. It takes extremely
sensitive DNA or biochemical analysis to detect the difference.
- Best wishes, John Cross
>> You wrote:
>> John, Many thanks for yr interest. It will take me a little time to
>"integrate" the various responses I have received into my overall
>understanding of the situation. Meanwhile pse be assured that I am keen
>to accept the pro-GMO position and hope it will prevail; but as a
>confirmed sceptic on most things I wd like to see the Zambian "scientific
>team's" arguments refuted one by one before I can be quite sure that they
>> - David
'Selling Suicide' : The Author of the 'Christian Aid' Report Responds...
- Andrew Simms
Dear Prakash, Thanks for your note. I should let you know that there is
no report called 'Hunger for Profit'. I wrote a report for Christian Aid 4
years ago called 'Selling Suicide' which was widely covered in the press
and debated publicly at the time.
You have picked up an email from id21 - an academic clearing house of
development related information. They decided to do a note on the old
report, inadvertently creating the impression that there is a new one. I
would just say that my report wasn't focused on the science of GM - but
on the politics and economics of GM in developing countries.
Perhaps I should also add that, obviously, all the information in the
report described the state of the debate 4 years ago. However, I do
strongly believe that the observations in 'Selling Suicide' on the likely
impact on market structures and poor populations are still correct.
Its kind of you to pass your collected comments on but, as I mentioned, we
had a major and vigorous debate at the time of publication and I don't
have the time to respond in detail to the comments that you have
encouraged from others. - Best wishes, Andrew Simms
>> Hunger for Profit: The Genetic Modification of Developing Country
>> - Andrew Simms, Christian Aid, Feb 6, 2003
>> Genetically modified food crops have been held up as a solution to
>> in the developing world. Are the claims of the seed companies a
Fighting Over Pharming
- Philip Cohen, New Scientist, March 1, 2003
As the US prepares to tighten its rules governing the production of
pharmaceuticals and chemicals in genetically modified plants, some
organisations are voluntarily going way beyond the existing regulations.
But there are suspicions that ensuring food safety isn't the only motive
for big companies such as Monsanto.
Fears that drug-laced plants could end up in food have led to growing
criticism of the US Department of Agriculture's regulations governing
pharming. The issue came to a head last year, when maize modified to
produce a pharmaceutical protein was found growing in fields of normal
soybeans in Iowa and Nebraska. This happened after the Texas-based company
ProdiGene left seeds in the field after harvesting a crop of modified
maize. In December, ProdiGene was ordered to pay around $3 million in
clean-up costs and fines for violating its permit.
The incident provoked calls for tougher rules, and the USDA is carrying
out public consultations as a prelude to revising its regulations. "We
have to restore public confidence," John Howard, a founder and now a
consultant for ProdiGene, told New Scientist at the Denver meeting. "We
need to stop treating these plants as value-added agriculture and treat
them like pharmaceuticals."
For example, Howard says ProdiGene did not do enough to make sure growers
were obeying the rules. As in drug manufacturing, he says, companies need
to monitor the whole process from beginning to end and get it checked by
an outside agency. At the moment they are not required to do this.
"There's too much latitude in the system" Howard says.
More controversially, Howard thinks the current policy of zero tolerance
for any contamination of food crops helps neither the companies nor
consumers. He says the risks posed by each pharm plant should be evaluated
and used to set a reasonable limit for contamination, in the same way that
limits are set for the contamination with pesticides, dirt and
microorganisms. "Then, if the system breaks down and a plant escapes we'll
know the level of risk," he says.
Howard cites two ProdiGene products that went on sale this year: the
enzyme trypsin and enzyme inhibitor aprotinin. These proteins are normally
obtained from cows, but fear of BSE has created a market for non-animal
sources. Howard argues that since the proteins are found in foods such as
beef offal, there is little risk if contamination does occur. He admits
that work is still needed to prove that they really are harmless. "But
I've always argued it would be worth it," he says.
Jon McIntyre of the agribusiness giant Monsanto says his company, too, is
willing to go well beyond existing regulations. Monsanto is setting up
production systems for growing antibody-producing maize plants for other
companies. The USDA's proposed guidelines require pharmed maize to be
separated from other corn by a distance of 400 metres, and not be planted
within two weeks of any corn crop nearby, to prevent any possibility of
cross-pollination. McIntyre says his team is already growing crops with
four times that physical buffer and double the time lag. If necessary, the
team would be prepared to increase the distance to more than 8 kilometres,
Indeed, according to McIntyre, Monsanto has put in place a surprising
array of safeguards that include the use of male-sterile plants that do
not produce pollen, daily satellite monitoring of adjacent fields to
verify the absence of maize, and dedicated harvesting and processing
equipment to prevent any mixing with food.
And as extra assurance against mistakes like ProdiGene's, the Monsanto
team ensures that no food crops are planted for two years in fields where
pharmed maize has been grown. Instead it plants a variety of cotton
resistant to a herbicide that kills any leftover maize plants. "This is a
closed-loop system completely outside of the commercial grain system,"
Academic institutions are also being extra cautious. Charles Arntzen's
team at Arizona State University in Tempe is inserting genes from Norwalk
virus, which can cause severe diarrhoea, into plants such as tomatoes to
create oral vaccines against the virus. To create the 80,000 or so doses
needed for a clinical trial, the university has built a sealed greenhouse
with fine-mesh screens, double doors, controlled airflow and many other
features that exceed current federal guidelines. "No insects or seeds can
get in or out unless we let them," Arntzen says.
The group intends to make its plants sterile, and as a further safeguard
it will use a white tomato that could never be mistaken for a food crop.
"Eating it is like chewing sawdust," he says. But Arntzen worries that
regulation could go too far. His oral vaccines would be most valuable to
poor countries, and he thinks there should be a worldwide standard for
pharming. "A strong regulatory framework is needed that can be implemented
in developed and developing countries," he says. "We don't want an
insurmountable entry barrier."
And while companies support some tough new rules, there are other aspects
of pharming that they don't want regulated. For example, the suggestion
that pharmaceutical proteins should be produced only in non-food plants is
resisted by many researchers. They argue that producing the proteins in,
say, tobacco would create new problems, such as the need to remove toxic
alkaloids and invent new processing methods. "One of the great things
about food is you can use off-the-shelf technology," says Arntzen. "If you
can make ketchup, you can make the vaccine." This could mean it may be
eventually be possible to create vaccines for the developing world for
pennies a dose, Arntzen and Howard say.
But Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists says that the
potential benefits of pharmed crops are no reason to restrict the
regulations governing their growth. "It's important to remember they've
yet to prove they can grow these crops safely anywhere, in any country,"
As the USDA starts to finalise its regulations, the debate is likely to
grow heated. Anti-GM activists are pushing for the toughest rules
possible, and Arntzen thinks Monsanto might want to do the same. "It
raises the entry barrier to their competitors," he says. "Looking at
satellite data every day and having all that dedicated equipment - a
little company can't do that."
Pharming products under development:
Vaccines - Norwalk virus, hepatitis B, E. coli, herpes simplex, HIV,
gastroenteritis in pigs
Antibodies - to treat cancer, autoimmune diseases, viruses, dental
Industrial Proteins - trypsin, aprotinin, avidin
Crops Used - maize, tomato, banana, potato.
Biopharming Could Reap Benefits But Must Be Carefully Regulated
'Pew Initiative/FDA/USDA conference explores emerging biotech sector:
looks at benefits, risks and adequacy of current regulatory framework
Government plans to release guidance document as early as March'
Washington, D.C. (February 28, 2003) -- Biopharming, an emerging sector of
the biotechnology industry that involves engineering plants with genes
that allow them to produce pharmaceutical substances, could provide a
cost-effective and abundant source of drugs, but both the industry and
government regulators must take steps to minimize the risks associated
with the technology, according to some of the nation's top biotech experts
who spoke at a conference sponsored last year by the Pew Initiative on
Food and Biotechnology, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S.
Department of Agriculture.
The proceedings of the conference, "Pharming the Field: A Look at the
Benefits and the Risks of Bioengineering Plants to Produce
Pharmaceuticals," were released today by the Pew Initiative.Government
regulators are also expected to release a proposal soon to tighten
restrictions on growing crops genetically modified to produce
Representatives from government, the biotech and food industry,
scientists, patient advocates and public interest groups gathered in July
to examine ongoing efforts to develop genetically modified (GM) crops
capable of producing specific human antibodies, enzymes and other
biological materials. The conference also explored whether the technology
poses risks to humans, animals and the environment (particularly if drugs
are produced in food or feed crops), and what steps industry and
government regulators are taking and should take to minimize these risks
and prevent these products from entering into the food supply.
Biologics, which are fast becoming a significant share of all
pharmaceuticals in development, are manufactured today with material grown
in mammalian cell cultures (usually Chinese hamster ovary cells) -- a
process that can be costly and inefficient. For this reason, alternative
production systems are in development, such as biopharming, which could
help speed new treatments for a range of conditions to market that are
currently unavailable. Engineering food crops, such as corn, to act as
pharmaceutical factories may help to fulfill that promise.
However, using food crops such as corn for non-food uses poses unique
problems on several levels. The food industry, environmental groups and
consumer advocates at the conference raised questions about how these
crops would be "contained" so that they did not inadvertently get consumed
by humans or animals, or spread into the surrounding ecosystem.
Indeed, several months after the conference, GM corn that contained a
protein for a pig vaccine made by ProdiGene Inc., a Texas biopharming
firm, accidentally contaminated soybeans intended for human consumption.
The soybeans were destroyed before reaching the consumer market, but the
incident highlighted concerns about the regulatory system's capability to
monitor this new frontier.
"Agricultural biotechnology is a powerful tool that continues to stretch
the bounds of the imagination," said Michael Rodemeyer, executive director
of the Initiative."Scientists can now take food crops like corn and turn
them into protein factories for drug production -- a process that promises
to transform the way medicines are made. But this power is not without
some risk. Therefore, it's important that we find ways to reap the
benefits of these products while safeguarding the food supply and the
environment. We can't afford any more near-misses."
Some of the key points that emerged from the conference included:
* Biopharming is promising and moving fast.Though there are not yet any
FDA-approved drugs containing material from pharma plants, presentations
at the conference revealed that a growing interest in developing
alternatives to mammalian cells systems has spurred industry to move
rapidly toward commercial applications of pharma plants, with a variety of
field tests and clinical trials now underway.
* A growing number of cutting-edge treatments for arthritis, herpes,
cancer and infectious diseases could be manufactured using
biopharming. Manufacturing these drugs today via mammalian cells is very
expensive and there is not enough capacity to meet current, not to mention
future, needs. For example, there are four pharmaceutical products
requiring human antibodies that now consume three-quarters of current
fermentation capacity. Some 20 to 50 products in the pipeline could be
delayed by lack of manufacturing capacity. Biopharming could solve these
issues by not only lowering costs (it is estimated that biopharming could
cut costs by one-eighth), but also by allowing companies to rapidly ramp
up capacity by merely planting more acreage (as opposed to having to build
new manufacturing facilities/plants, which cost $600 million on average
and take 5 to 7 years to build).
* The food industry has serious concerns about biopharming containment.
The food industry is unwilling to accept any amount of co-mingling between
pharma plant products and food products. Ideally, the industry would
prefer that the risk of contamination be eliminated by having biotech
companies only use non-food crops, such as tobacco and grasses, for
biopharming. But, if food crops such as corn must be used, other measures
for containment should be explored such as: engineering the plants so that
the desired proteins are not expressed in the food part of the plant (i.e.
in roots and other parts); using the "terminator" technology to engineer
sterility into these plants; using visual markers to distinguish these
crops from food; and cultivation in areas far removed from food crops.
* Government regulators are trying to keep pace with the technology. The
government regulators have instituted requirements for pharma plant
cultivation that are more rigorous than those applied to other GM
varieties. For example, unlike many other GM crops, pharma plants will
always be under USDA regulatory oversight. In addition, the USDA and FDA
intend to coordinate their oversight efforts. FDA will set its own
standards for field operations, as it plans to give field cultivation of
pharma plants the same sort of regulatory scrutiny that it applies to
conventional drug manufacturing facilities. (It is expected that the
government's soon-to-be released guidance will lay out these oversight
issues in more detail).
* There are questions about regulatory transparency.There is a tension
between the desire for public disclosure that would facilitate an
independent evaluation of potential health and environmental hazards, and
a company's right to protect confidential business information.
A PDF version of the report as well as a program are available on the Pew
Initiative's website at
Planting the Seeds of Business Growth in Florida
- Gregory Conko, C. S. Prakash and Sheila Anderson
Researchers, distributors, wholesalers, processors, packagers, retailers,
as well as aviation, space, fuel, and pharmaceutical industries are all
watching the same thing - the latest in crops! In China, recently, one
corportion invested $100 million in a new plant, in response to demand for
agribusiness products. And, Florida is getting attention from the same
Why? Well, Florida growers produce over $7 billion worth of food annually.
The state is 4th largest crop producer in the country, second largest of
fresh fruits and vegetables Over 50,000 people are employed on nearly a
third of Florida's 35 million acres of land. However, farming is producing
far more than merely crops.
Today, Florida's farm sector is benefiting from one of the most promising
new fields of science: biotechnology. Contributions to the economy are
many fold. Research is revealing ways crops can lead to new products, such
as innovative materials, fuels, and medicines. Supply chains are blooming.
And, property of various kinds - real and intellectual - is increasingly
Florida's 12 biotech start-up companies concentrate on a range of
applications, from food production and aquaculture to livestock health and
environmental remediation. All involve a variety of real estate uses, from
agriculture to recreation to development needs.
In the big picture, biotech represents such public purposes as preserving
environmentally sensitive lands and absorption of population growth. On a
specific note, one advance is a termite-resistant material, developed by
the world leading agribusiness, which can be built into walls of new
On a different level, Florida is the country's number one producer of
fresh market sweet corn, accounting for about one-fourth of national
production in a typical year. But Florida's warm humid climate makes pest
problems especially troublesome. Consequently, substantial amounts of
pesticide must be used to even make corn a viable crop. Pesticide run-off
is a big concern in wetlands, and preserving the water table.
The impact of pesticides can lead to reductions in the amount of available
potable water. That can mean moratoriums on real estate development. In
contrast, reduced use of pesticides means less pollution in lakes,
streams, and wetlands meaning more attractions for visitors, adding
visitor interests for hotel and restaurant businesses.
Thanks to new research, today, farmers can grow biotechnology-derived corn
varieties made resistant to chewing insects. One type tested in Florida
helped reduce insecticide use by between 42 and 84 percent. Those new
varieties add to the competitive advantages Florida farmers have when
facing the effects of NAFTA or the intense marketing of other states.
Obviously, the more agriculture thrives, the greater opportunities -
accountants, attorneys, Realtors, bankers, processors, grocers,
advertising agencies - for the typical list of occupants most commercial
landlords want to attract. In addition, as the agribusiness industry
grows, tax burdens on other businesses and land uses are offset.
Florida supports cutting-edge research in agricultural biotechnology at
various institutions, especially the University of Florida at Gainesville
and its many research stations across the state. Those research
laboratories attract the presence of a well educated work force, in itself
a critical component in urban areas.
No wonder, one global agribusiness is dedicating $700 million annually to
research and development. And, where universities are dedicated to this
science, big corporations often locate their facilities nearby, adding to
the demand for skilled workers. Thus, basic reserach by Florida
scientitsts is helping push the frontiers of science in areas such as
plant genomics. Each new discovery leads businesses in many new
And it's not just industries that gain. Consumers have more choices of
cheaper and safer foods. We all benefit from improved ecological
conditions. Floridians take great pride in the natural, scenic beauty of
our state. Reducing the use of pesticides, and limiting soil erosion can
help in our efforts to preserve the environment, as well as attract
visitors. As planting crops leads to a wealth of new and better products,
there is a harvest of business growth and absorption of property.
All have a direct impact on property values and jobs, making Florida an
even greater place to live and work, and enjoy interests in real estate.
It's food for thought..
(Gregory Conko, Director of Food Safety Policy, Competitive Enterprise
Institute; and C.S. Prakash, Professor of Plant Molecular Genetics,
Tuskegee University and President, AgBioWorld http://www.agbioworld.org
with Sheila M. Anderson, Commercial Property Services, INC.
No Easing of US Stance on EU biotech Policy - US Aide
- Randy Fabi, Reuters, March 3, 2003
Charlotte, N.C. - The chief U.S. agriculture negotiator last week assured
American farmers the Bush administration had not eased on its campaign
against the European Union's biotech policy.
Allen Johnson, top farm negotiator for the U.S. Trade Representative, said
the United States was "losing patience" with the EU and was still
considering filing a formal trade complaint for its refusal to approve new
genetically modified crops. "I know from the outside sometimes it looks
like we've stopped, but we haven't," Johnson told reporters after
addressing an annual convention of U.S. corn and soybean farmers.
There is broad support within the U.S. Congress and among agriculture
groups for filing a complaint. It is estimated that U.S. farmers lose
around $300 million a year in sales to the EU because of its refusal to
allow new types of biotech crops in. About 70 percent of U.S. soybeans and
one-third of U.S. corn is grown from genetically modified seeds.
Congressional sources and U.S. agriculture industry officials said
recently the Bush administration had apparently put off a decision to file
the WTO complaint against the EU because it did not want to further strain
relations with Europe in the event of war with Iraq. "We never gave a
timeline on when we were going to do this," Johnson said. "But I think the
issue is still very alive and we are still heading in the same direction."
However, on Jan. 21, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick told
reporters: "My guess is over the next couple of weeks we'll get together
and we'll have a sort of high-level discussion" within the Bush
administration on the matter. Zoellick has said he favors taking action
against the EU. Subsequently, Cabinet-level meetings to decide the
question were canceled, according to government and industry sources.
Johnson said the United States has the support of several countries should
it decide to file a complaint. European Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy was
expected in Washington next week to defend the EU's go-slow stance on
opening its market to biotech foods. The EU has said any U.S. action at
the WTO over biotech foods would only undermine consumer confidence in the
technology just as Europe is recovering from a series of food scares over
mad cow and foot-and-mouth disease.
Poverty Alleviation Key to Preserving Biodiversity
- David Dickson, SciDev.Net, March 3, 2003
Too often, efforts to conserve biodiversity pay insufficient attention to
human needs. A leading economist is now proposing a strategy by which this
There was unintended irony in an information note circulated last week by
the secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. The note
informed recipients that, in line with the spirit of last year's World
Summit on Sustainable Development, the theme of the next 'international
day' on biological diversity -- to be celebrated on 22 May -- had been
changed to 'biodiversity and poverty alleviation'. It then continued that
the secretariat "apologise(s) for the inconvenience caused".
One is tempted to add that no apology is needed. Admittedly the shift may
have caused some inconvenience to those who had already been planning
events around the previously agreed theme, namely 'mountain biodiversity'.
Nevertheless it is a welcome recognition of the fact that, in the words of
Mark Malloch Brown, administrator of the United Nations Development
Programme, "biodiversity is a development issue".
This fact is slowly growing to be acknowledged in the biodiversity
community, many members of which have been making welcome efforts in
recent years to ensure that the social relevance of protecting the
environment is placed high on its agenda. This has included making efforts
to ensure that local communities are fully integrated into biodiversity
protection strategies, and are convinced of their self-interest in helping
to promote such strategies (for example by benefiting from eco-tourism).
But it appears that there is still a long way to go until such insights
are integrated into mainstream development thinking.
One way of achieving this, however, has now been proposed by Jeffrey
Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York,
and an adviser to UN secretary-general Kofi Annan on strategies for
achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Sachs' suggestion, as outlined
in a speech in London on Sunday, would be to identify geographical
'hotspots' around the world where environmental degradation and grinding
poverty appeared locked in a downward spiral (see UN adviser urges focus
on environment 'hotspots'). These would then hopefully become top
priorities for international financing by agencies such as the World Bank
and the International Monetary Fund.
Introducing a human dimension
There is much to endorse in such an approach. Firstly, the process of
identifying such 'hotspots' would inevitably require natural scientists
and social scientists to work together in selecting areas in urgent need
of attention. Too often ecologists still fail to introduce the interests
of humans in their ecological models (the more conventional concept of
ecological 'hotspots', from which Sachs has derived his proposal, is a
case in point). Where they do, social behaviour is often still seen as one
more threat to the environment, rather than the prism through which
environmental degradation needs to be assessed and tackled.
Secondly, prioritising actions in this way would, as Sachs suggests,
provide both a rallying call and an "organising principle" for both
economic advisers and political leaders. The most effective aid
programmes, in terms of identifying goals and raising the funds to pursue
them, are often those that can be expressed in a way that those required
to fund them can easily comprehend. The technique is well known to both
conservation and aid groups, from Birdlife International to Oxfam.
Extending its geographical range while maintaining its focus -- as the
concept of 'hotspots' would achieve -- makes much sense.
Thirdly, Sachs is already building an enviable track record in devising
strategies that have been effective in catching the eyes of both headline
writers and policy makers. One of these, for example, has been the Global
Fund on AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, predicated on the basis that a
substantial increase in public funding is required into these diseases if
they are not to undermine the massive investments that the industrialised
world has been putting into promoting development elsewhere. Many --
including Annan -- are clearly hoping that Sachs can repeat this success
in the biodiversity field.
A need for reliable data
At the same time, there are also several weaknesses in his suggestions.
One of these, as Sachs himself is the first to admit, is the relative lack
of the kind of reliable data that is needed to accurately identify the
most critical 'hotspot's. Despite the massive efforts that have been made
in recent years to collect some types of data -- for example on the impact
of El NiŅo on earth surface temperatures, or the level of ozone in the
atmosphere -- other types -- such as the impact of watershed management
practices -- is noticeable by its absence.
A second weakness is that Sachs' approach remains wedded to a model of
globalisation that pays insufficient attention to the power structures
that are embedded in it. It may be a question of "better the devil you
know". But by focusing on the big picture, Sachs has a tendency to give
less weight than others to ways in which modifying the terms of global
trade -- for example by granting developing countries the ownership of
their genetic resources, as enshrined in the biodiversity convention but
challenged by the World Trade Organisation -- could achieve the same goals
of linking development and environment concerns.
A final, related, criticism, is that by promoting strategies that are
designed primarily to appeal to leading economists in institutions such as
the World Bank, Sachs risks paying insufficient attention to securing
grassroots support for his proposed strategy. It is increasingly clear,
however, that such support is essential if strategies that aim to defend
the environment, while promoting social and economic development, are to
Meeting the costs of development
None of this, however, detracts significantly from the need to follow a
path that is at least close to the one that Sachs lays out. His proposed
'hotspots' strategy -- which he and his team are already applying to the
Millennium Development Goals, identifying for example the key regions of
the world where high levels of infant mortality require urgent attention
-- seems a sensible attempt to express the human dimensions of
biodiversity preservation in a language that development economists and
politicians alike can integrate into their thinking.
Equally important is Sachs' message that implementing a successful
strategy that blends ecological and development priorities will require a
substantially increased injection of resources, and that these can only
come from the industrialised North. It is many years since these countries
pledged to increase their aid spending to 0.7 per cent of their gross
national product; some are now close to that, but many are not. For the
United States to reach that target, for example, would require an increase
in annual spending of about US$60 billion. An enormous sum, perhaps --
until one compares it to the amount that going to war with one country
alone, namely Iraq, is expected to cost.
African Doctor Says Biotechnology Could Help Feed the Hungry
Pediatrician says "there is something insane about food aid rotting while
In September, starving people in the village of Monze, Zambia, looted
storage sheds filled with thousands of tons of U.S. corn donated to help
ease southern Africa's worst food crisis in years.
Why were people who are literally starving denied access to food that
could save their lives?
Because Zambia's president considers the corn -- some of which has been
grown from biotech seeds -- unsafe.2 He and other African leaders say
anti-biotech activists told them the corn contains " poisons" that could
harm people and " contaminate" native crops.3
With more than 14 million people starving in Zambia and other African
countries, the controversy over whether to accept food that is eaten
everyday in the United States, Canada and other parts of the world has
raised the ire of people like Dr. Michael Mbwille, a pediatrician from
Tanzania and African editor of the Food Safety Network. The network is a
nonprofit coalition based in Washington, D.C., that seeks ways to improve
global food security.
"There is something insane about food aid rotting while people starve due
to disinformation campaigns," says Mbwille." Death by starvation and the
long-term costs of malnutrition have been deemed less offensive than
hypothetical, unsubstantiated food safety ills."
Zambia, which made its decision not to allow its citizens to eat U.S. corn
final on October 29, is the only African country to reject food aid
outright.5 So despite the fact that more than 2 million Zambians are
starving after two years of drought, tons of donated grain are locked away
in sheds like those in Monze.
Many biotech opponents who initially lobbied for Zambia's decision now say
they've changed their minds and would allow the U.S. grain into these
countries to help alleviate the famine.7 But many still oppose giving
African farmers access to biotechnology and argue that years of additional
testing is needed to ensure the safety of biotech crops and foods.
A growing number of African farmers and African scientists disagree.8 They
say the continent needs more than food aid to ease a famine; it needs
tools like biotechnology to improve agricultural productivity so that
fast-growing populations can see the same benefits realized by farmers and
"Biotechnology is an essential tool, along with other methods, if Africa
is to achieve food security," says Mbwille. In Zambia, the need is even
more immediate. "Zambians are not asking for fancy things like wheat flour
or apples, but mere maize to fill their stomachs," says Petronella
Chisanga, a Zambian civic leader and chair of the country's
Non-Governmental Organization's Coordinating Committee. " Can somebody
tell us what is wrong with eating the modified food?"
Famine in southern Africa Six countries -- Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique,
Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Zambia -- are experiencing famine, primarily
caused by a drought that's spanned the last two growing seasons. About
14.5 million people in those countries are at risk of starvation,
according to the United Nations.
None of the affected countries allow their own farmers to grow biotech
crops (South Africa is the only place on the continent that does). All
except Zambia, however, have accepted biotech food aid to feed their
people -- Mozambique and Zimbabwe on the condition that the corn is milled
before it's distributed, which prevents farmers from saving and replanting
Scientific groups, scholars, even American farmers have urged Zambia to
reverse its policy, noting that nonbiased observers from the United
Nations to the National Academy of Sciences are on record affirming the
safety of biotech crops. Zambia's President Levy Mwanawasa has maintained
the ban, however, despite the fact that the very same Bt corn donated to
his country makes up one-third of the corn grown in the United States, and
has been in commercial use since 1996. " I'm not prepared to accept that
we should use our people as guinea pigs," he's said. His controversial
position has sparked debate not only about the needs of his country, but
also the future of biotechnology in Africa -- a debate picked up by the
World Summit on Sustainable Agriculture which convened in August in
Johannesburg, a short distance from the epicenter of the famine.
At the summit, antibiotech groups such as Greenpeace and the Friends of
the Earth articulated why, in their view, biotechnology is wrong for
Africa and the developing world. Chief among those reasons is that the
technology has not been proven safe both for people and the environment -
either by producing unintended allergic reactions in people or by creating
" superweeds" through the flow of pollen to nearby weeds.
Those views were challenged by African scientists, farmers and other
biotech supporters as unsubstantiated by facts and inhumane in the face of
famine and chronic hunger problems. For African farmers and those who
depend on their crops, the challenges of daily life -- getting the tools
they need to grow successful crops and get enough calories to lead
healthy, productive lives -- are the primary concern.
Hypothetical risks vs. empty stomachs
The famine in southern Africa is not an anomaly, but a severe symptom of a
continent-wide hunger problem.
Simply put, African farmers aren't growing enough food. So many African
people don't have enough to eat. Over the last two decades, while Africa's
population has increased, agricultural productivity per farm worker has
declined.11 Corn yields in places like Zimbabwe are less than half what
they are in places like Iowa. One in three Africans is malnourished.
"As a medical doctor with a specialty in pediatrics who has worked
throughout Africa and Asia, I can personally attest that the ravages of
malnutrition and hunger in childhood are carried throughout the life of
the victim," says Mbwille. "Children will suffer throughout their lives
from illnesses due to the associated developmental impact of
To feed those who are malnourished, African farmers need to boost yields.
Biotechnology has helped farmers in other parts of the world do just that.
A June 2002 study by the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy
(NCFAP), for example, found that six biotech crops planted in the United
States produced an additional 4 billion pounds of food and fiber on the
same acreage, and improved farm income.
In South Africa, farmers like T.J. Buthelezi also have dramatically
increased yields by planting biotech crops. Buthelezi was one of a
contingent of African and Indian farmers who rallied at the World Summit
in Johannesburg to demand access to biotechnology for the developing
Buthelezi, Mbwille and other African proponents of biotechnology argue
that given the everyday suffering on their continent from lack of food,
it's imperative to take advantage of a technology that boosts productivity
with little or no demonstrated risk.
"Those who profess that there is a 'poetry' to subsistence agriculture and
promote a return to the past doom those in the present as well as future
generations to suffering," says Mbwille. "I would ask that the members of
Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and those that write them checks move to
places like Zambia and watch their own children die from starvation
facilitated by their ill-conceived views of the world."
Mbwille points out that biotechnology foods have undergone more testing
than any food product in history, and that no deaths or illnesses -- "not
even a single headache" -- has been associated with the technology.
Meanwhile, the death toll from famine and the debilitating effects of
malnutrition mount daily in Africa and other underfed places.
Developed world laws stifle developing world needs Supporters of
biotechnology say African farmers are being victimized by countries in the
developed world that have, in the face of all scientific evidence,
implemented tight restrictions on importing biotech foods -- restrictions
that keep Africa tied to what Mbwille calls "medieval farming practices."
Much of the resistance comes from the European Union (EU), which has a
history of food safety scares unrelated to biotechnology. While
acknowledging there's no scientific evidence of risk,16 the EU has imposed
a de facto moratorium on approvals of new biotech crops (several varieties
of biotech soybeans and corn were approved for import before the
moratorium). The EU also has pressured African growers to avoid planting
biotech crops if they want access to European markets.
The need to protect future exports to the EU is one reason cited by
Zambian President Mwanawasa for refusing biotech food aid, which he fears
will be planted by farmers eager to use the pest-resistant seeds. It's
also why Mozambique and Zimbabwe have taken the costly step of milling
donated biotech corn so it can't be replanted, a step some experts say is
keeping food from hungry people.
Europeans do not have to worry about having enough food to eat and
therefore feel less pressure to embrace a new agricultural technology,
Mbwille says. But their African neighbors need to improve farm
productivity as a partial solution both to chronic hunger and to poverty:
A more productive agricultural sector is a critical building block for
Europe's laws, in Mbwille's view, help keep Africa tied to conventional
crops and archaic methods that result in huge crop losses from pests,
disease and poor growing conditions when what the continent really needs
is the best technology available to grow more and better food for its own
"It's abhorrent that in opposing biotechnology, activist groups and the
organic lobby in Europe and also in North America argue that Africa risks
losing a currently nonexistent 'export' market," he argues. " In promoting
Africa as a source for their current food fad, they're promoting
starvation and suffering."
A recent editorial in Nature Biotechnology concurs with Mbwille's view,
noting that while developed countries can afford to approach new
technologies with extreme caution if they wish, " applying the same
Alice-in-Wonderland principle of zero risk to life in the countries of
sub-Saharan Africa is not only inappropriate -- it is unconscionable.
Wrangling over barriers to trade at the World Trade Organization is one
thing. Increasing the likelihood that millions will starve is an entirely
Overstressed resources, underfed people Opponents of biotechnology say it
threatens Africa's environment and may pose health risks. However, recent
studies on the effects of biotech crops after six years of use in the
United States show that they in fact help the environment. Biotech crops
have reduced pesticide use, for example, by 46 million pounds according to
the NCFAP study.
Farmers who plant biotech crops say that by reducing the need for some
chemical inputs, encouraging the use of conservation tillage and making
marginal land more productive, biotechnology enables them to grow more
while leaving a smaller imprint on the land. Meanwhile, scientists have so
far found little evidence for some of the specific claims made against
biotechnology, such as superweeds and loss of genetic diversity.
Africa's low-yield farming practices, on the other hand, can exact a stiff
environmental toll. Lacking access to new technologies, African farmers
have to clear more land and farm it more intensively with little hope of
moving beyond subsistence to profitability. Roughly 12 million acres of
African forest is lost every year.21 The Food and Agricultural
Organization (FAO) estimates that an average of 23,000 square miles of
damaged land goes out of production every year.22
"The rural environment is being devastated in Africa because farmers there
have not yet found any way to increase production other than through an
extension of their low-yield farming practices into the forest (which
means cutting more trees and destroying more habitat) or onto fragile,
drought-prone or sloping lands (which invites more soil erosion and
watershed destruction)," writes Dr. Robert Paalberg, a professor of
political science at Wellesley College.
Mbwille says that biotechnology offers a better, sustainable alternative.
"African scientists support biotechnology as a way we can address our food
security locally with virus- and disease-resistant crops, grow more food
with fewer chemicals and grow food in harsh conditions without relying on
"GM seeds would be a great solution for arid areas," says Kenyan scientist
Dr. James Ochanda. "We need to harness the technology for staples like
cassava, millet and sorghum." Indeed, a global partnership made up of 30
of the world's leading experts on cassava was just announced Nov. 5, 2002,
to promote and coordinate a global investment in the genetic improvement
While Zambia's President Mwanawasa worries about whether biotech food is
safe, researchers are also exploring ways biotechnology can proactively
address food-related health problems such as allergies. One team of
public- and private-sector researchers, for example, has just succeeded in
disarming the P34 gene in soybeans, one of nature's most widespread
With malnourishment affecting more than 30 million children in sub-Saharan
Africa alone, the greatest health risk is not doing everything possible to
improve their diets, says Mbwille.
Food security for the future When the famine in southern Africa eases, the
continent as a whole will still face long-term hunger and food-production
problems. By 2050, the world's population will increase by another 3
billion people. To feed its share of that increase, the FAO says Africa
needs to boost food production by 300 percent.
The "Green Revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s that introduced high-yield
farming to much of the developing world largely bypassed Africa.29 But
Mbwille and other experts think that biotechnology -- "technology in a
seed" that doesn't require farmers to buy expensive equipment or adopt
complex growing procedures -- will help Africa's small farmers
dramatically expand production in sustainable ways over the coming
"Biotechnology puts the information, resources and tools right into the
seed, making it much easier for subsistence farmers with less education
than Western farmers to gain the benefits of high-yield, low-input
agriculture," says Mbwille.
Some of the most innovative research going on in biotechnology could be
especially beneficial to Africans. Scientists are optimistic, for example,
that they can develop crops which are resistant to droughts like the one
affecting Zambia and its neighbors. So-called " edible vaccines" are also
in the works -- using staple foods to deliver inexpensive, effective
vaccines for hepatitis and other illnesses, many of which
disproportionately affect low-income Africans.
Edible vaccines and drought-resistant crops are in the future. Today,
Zambians need the biotech food aid that's been donated to help them
survive. And a growing number of Africans say that biotechnology is
essential for their continent to work its way out of poverty and achieve a
plentiful, stable food supply.
"I know of no true African farmer who does not desire technology tools,
from biotechnology to computer technology, as a way to help Africa break
its cycle of poverty and suffering," Mbwille concludes. "When addressing
hunger, poverty and despair, excluding options simply is sinful."
For more information and references:
There are Better Ways to Feed Africa than with GM Crops
- Dulcie Krige, Africa News, March 2, 2003 (via Katie Thrasher)
Can Africa feed itself? Many people will answer this question in the
negative, prompting the biotechnology industry to insist that genetic
modification is the way to increase crop yields. But this argument is
based on a lack of understanding of the realities of food production in
The problem is not a lack of food. It is that areas of surplus are often
deficient in infrastructure (roads, railways) to convey food to the places
where crops have failed. Ethiopia, often thought of as a place of famine,
has generally produced more than enough food to meet its needs. However,
droughts last year reduced crop production in some areas, and Ethiopia did
not have the transport infrastructure to redistribute the food.
Similarly, the European Union has pointed out that GM-free locally
produced grain is available in abundance in Southern Africa and that it is
EU policy to buy this grain and pay for its transport to the areas where
there are shortages. This has the advantage, for African farmers, of
providing a market for their crops.
A problem with using biotechnology to alleviate African famine is that no
GM seeds have been commercially developed with the purpose of increasing
yields. Some 80% of the seed produced commercially is designed to resist
herbicides. These can then be used extensively on crops to kill weeds.
However, this does not lead to improved yield but may decrease the labour
requirements for crop production - a distinct disadvantage in Africa.
The biotechnology industry has overlooked the high cost of GM seed. How
will farmers purchase seeds when poverty is the major limitation on small
farmer production throughout Africa? Without money to erect fencing, they
suffer neighbours' goats eating their crops. Without money for pipes and
small pumps, they have to carry water from rivers during periods of low
rainfall. Without transport they cannot get their crops to markets, and
without storage facilities they cannot keep a surplus from one year to the
GM seed does nothing to remedy these limitations.
Another problem is that GM seeds are patented. It is difficult for a
farmer who has used his own seed for generations to understand that, as a
result of policies determined in the US, there are intellectual property
rights over living organisms. Policing these rights on behalf of Western
multinationals would further deflect Africa's resources from where they
should be directed: at feeding the poor.
Another issue which needs attention is the impression that Africa's
rejection of GM crops and seeds has been instigated by Europe. In fact,
the seven Zambian scientists who recently investigated the acceptability
or otherwise of GM food aid visited the US and South Africa, in addition
to Europe. They made their decision on the basis of food safety issues,
including antibiotic resistance and the possibility of allergies. Dr
Mwananyanda Lewanika, a biochemist, pointed out that, as maize is a staple
food for the poor in Africa and people already have low immune systems,
deleterious effects of consuming GM food were more likely than in the US.
So is there a way in which Africa can increase its food output without
resorting to expensive technology? Scientists have developed a natural