Today in AgBioView: March 13, 2003
* China: A Little Protectionism Goes A Long Way
* Chinese Agribiotech: Against The Grain
* Burdensome Regulation
* Should Labelling be Mandatory? .. Bureaucratic Muddle
* Report Finds GM Crops are Good for Environment
* GM Sense Needed
* GM Discoveries May Get Lost In The Ethical Debate
* The Strain Gain
* Twelve German Food Organizations Support Biotechnology
* New: Plant Biotechnology Journal
* Biotech, Science and Society at a Crossroad
* AgBiotech & Sustainability: Food for Thought
* UN Warns Africa's Forest Area Could Further Decline
* S. Africa: KwaZulu Farmers Boosted by GM Cotton
* How Markets Benefit the Poor
* 'World Consumer Rights Day' All Wrong on Biotech
* Starch-free Protest
A Little Protectionism Goes A Long Way
- Editorial, Nature, March 13, 2003 (Courtesy: Julia Moore of the
China's stalling on introducing transgenic crops may frustrate outsiders,
but helps it nurture its own biotechnology industry.
It is highly unusual for a developing country to assume a leading position
in an important field of scientific endeavour. But China says that it
intends to do just that in agricultural biotechnology Û and all the signs
are that its plan should be taken seriously.
China has already devoted a considerable research effort to plant science,
including the development of transgenic crops (see page 111). Its public
programme is making progress on many fronts, from sequencing the rice
genome to producing hundreds of promising crop varieties. The programme is
characterized not just by the nation's customary determination, but also
by talent, imagination and a strong outward orientation that engages
Chinese scientists in collaboration with colleagues overseas.
Amid all this activity, Chinese regulators have recently been reluctant to
approve the commercial planting of transgenic food crops (genetically
modified cotton is already well established). The government claims to be
worried about whether Europe will accept exports of transgenic food, and
about public reaction at home. Neither argument is convincing: its
agricultural trade with Europe is small, and the public reaction is firmly
under the state's control.
What China really wants is some breathing space to enable its own
transgenic technology to catch up with that abroad. There's nothing
inherently wrong with this: unless the United States wants to fight a war
to open up China's markets, as Britain once did to force it to accept
opium imports, it needs to recognize China's strategic need to develop its
own agricultural biotechnology. Advocates of US agricultural
biotechnology, such as Senator Chuck Grassley (Republican, Iowa), probably
want the United States to take China to the World Trade Organization for
protecting its markets in this way. But this heavy-handed approach will do
the technology no favours.
Like all developing countries, China needs time to assess and develop
agricultural biotechnology on its own terms. The stranglehold on patents
for methods and genes that Western corporations and universities have
obtained in this arena is already making life hard for agricultural
scientists across the developing world. At least China has the political
and financial clout to overcome these obstacles and develop the technology
in the interests of its own farmers.
An old Chinese proverb says that if you sit on the banks of the river long
enough, the bodies of your enemies will float down past you. It is not
clear if the author had President Bush, Senator Grassley or the board of
Monsanto in mind. But China's patience will, in the long run, be the best
way to assure the fruitful introduction of agricultural biotechnology into
the world's most populous nation.
Chinese Agribiotech: Against The Grain
- Colin Macilwain, Nature, March 13, 2003, www.nature.com (Sent by Julia
China has long been a keen supporter of transgenic agriculture, and is
still pouring money into developing the technology. So why are
applications to market new genetically modified crops in limbo? Colin
Last June, the China Daily - the English-language mouthpiece of the
country's ruling Communist Party - published an article by Greenpeace,
describing the alleged ecological risks posed by transgenic crops. It
wasn't quite as though Amnesty International had been asked to write a
piece on China's treatment of its political dissidents, but for those who
are familiar with Beijing's official line on transgenic agriculture, it
still marked a dramatic turnaround.
Since the mid-1980s, the Chinese government has ploughed hundreds of
millions of dollars into developing the technology, and in the late 1990s
it swiftly authorized the commercialization of a handful of transgenic
crops. At that time, Chinese agriculture seemed to be on the highway to a
genetically modified future. Indeed, at the lab bench, that is still the
case: universities and government labs are bursting with ideas, talent and
investment. "Plant science is a major activity, because it is so important
to China," says Jiayang Li, director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences'
Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology in Beijing.
But in the past couple of years, agricultural biotechnology in the world's
most populous nation has taken a detour into a cul-de-sac. No new
transgenic food crop has been approved for commercial use since 2000 Û
although candidate crops continue to move into field trials. And given
signals such as the Greenpeace article, the outlook for approvals seems to
be worsening. "My personal view is that the current discussion is biased
against agricultural biotechnology," says Zhixue Wang, the official in
charge of the Ministry of Science and Technology's Rural Technology
Development Centre in Beijing.
What's going on? It is hard, in a country that only allows free debate
within carefully prescribed bounds, to put your finger on the answer.
Chinese agribiotech researchers cite "public concerns" about biosafety, as
well as doubts that export markets in Europe and elsewhere will accept
genetically modified produce. But circumstances suggest an alternative
explanation: that the Chinese government is exploiting the biosafety issue
to frustrate the commercial ambitions of Western agribiotech firms,
because it realizes that its own research programme needs more time to
The Greenpeace article, like much of the China Daily's contents, carries a
coded message. And in this case, that message seems to be: "Monsanto, keep
out." The world's leading agribiotech firm, based in St Louis, Missouri,
has already carved out a sizeable share of China's market for cotton seed,
selling varieties that are engineered to produce an insecticidal toxin.
And China's farmers - or at least those who can afford it Û are prepared
to pay a sizeable premium for the high-yielding Monsanto products, in
preference to cheaper homegrown varieties.
Cornering the market In the circumstances, say some Western observers, it
makes sense for Beijing to close the door on new commercial approvals
until its domestic products can compete effectively. In the meantime, at
least viewed from an American perspective, China is using European public
concerns about the safety of transgenic crops to keep imported varieties
at bay. "China is trying to make major investments in biotechnology
research," says Julia Moore of the Smithsonian Institution's Woodrow
Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, who follows the
global trade in transgenic crops. "But it is also taking advantage of
biotechnology concerns in Europe and elsewhere to limit its imports of the
Given the scientific effort that is currently under way in Beijing, one
would hardly think that this is a country that is putting the brakes on
transgenic agriculture. Research laboratories run by the Chinese Academy
of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), plus
those at Peking University and the China Agricultural University, are well
equipped and generously staffed. At Li's institute, for example, some 25
principal investigators and 300 other staff and students are engaged in
plant science, mostly related to wheat and rice.
China has a long-standing relationship with transgenic technology: as far
back as 1993, its farmers were growing genetically modified tobacco that
was resistant to insect attack. But when Philip Morris, the US tobacco
company, heard farmers boasting about the crop, they barred its purchase
for use in their cigarettes. That episode, several researchers say, led to
establishment of a formal approval system for genetically modified crops.
Under the system, transgenic crops that have been approved for sale
include a tomato modified for increased shelf-life, and sweet peppers
resistant to cauliflower mosaic virus. But in economic terms, by far the
most important are several varieties of 'Bt' cotton, which produce an
insecticidal toxin derived from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis.
In the early 1990s, almost one-third of China's vast cotton crop was being
lost to bollworm, the voracious caterpillar of the moth Helicoverpa
armigera. In 1997, the government approved commercial planting of a
variety of Bt cotton developed by Monsanto and designed to combat the
pest. Since then, more Bt varieties, some from Monsanto, others produced
by the CAAS and other domestic labs, have also won approval.
According to one survey published last year, farmers growing Bt varieties
in 1999 reported yields that were 6% higher and production costs some 28%
lower than farmers cultivating conventional cotton. Most strikingly, the
transgenic farmers had slashed their use of synthetic pesticides by more
than 80% (J. Huang, S. Rozelle, C. Pray and Q. Wang Science 295, 674Ò676;
China's own Bt cotton varieties are subtly different from Monsanto's
versions. Most Bt crops contain only one of two related B. thuringiensis
genes, called cry1Ab and cry1Ac, but the Chinese varieties include both.
The genes were also introduced using a different method. Like most
transgenic crops, Monsanto's Bt cotton was made by bombarding plant tissue
cultures with tiny particles of tungsten or gold coated with DNA
containing the transgenes - a process patented by the seed company Pioneer
Hi-Bred of Des Moines, Iowa. But the Chinese varieties were created using
a different technique, which has not been published in the international
literature but was patented in 1998. The method involves injecting DNA
into the seed embryo in the plant ovary Û through the tube created by the
pollen that fertilized the ovum Û within 24 hours of the cotton flowering.
Homegrown talent This go-it-alone approach is a source of considerable
pride for Chinese researchers. "China was the second country in the world
to develop a genetically modified crop and get intellectual property
rights to it," boasts Dafang Huang, director of the CAAS's Biotechnology
Research Institute in Beijing. Today, 0.6 million hectares of the total
Chinese crop of 4 million hectares consists of the homespun transgenic
Monsanto's products, however, account for a similar cultivated area Û even
though its seed is up to ten times costlier. The reason that farmers are
prepared to pay a premium for the imported varieties, Chinese researchers
admit, is their superior quality.
One solution would be for Chinese researchers to collaborate with Monsanto
to address the country's agricultural needs. "In 1999 I held talks with
the president of Monsanto in the Far East," recalls Wang, "and we hoped to
use their expertise to develop crop varieties here in China." But neither
Monsanto nor the Beijing government is a shrinking violet in the field of
intellectual property negotiations, and the talks reached deadlock Û
leaving the company with near-pariah status among Chinese scientists.
"Monsanto seems to want its products in China, but not its research,"
Li and other institute heads speak more warmly of Swiss-based Syngenta and
Pioneer Hi-Bred, both of which have set up several collaborations with
individual research groups. Even still, no Western firm has yet
established a broad-based collaborative research agreement with a Chinese
Most observers agree that the current hiatus in commercial approvals for
transgenic crops is likely to deter Western agribiotech companies from
broadening their links with Chinese labs. Such approvals are the
responsibility of a subcommittee of the National Biosafety Committee,
which meets twice a year. Its meetings are closed, and no account of its
workings has been published since the brakes were put on new approvals.
"At the moment it is difficult to get approved," says Guoying Wang, head
of the molecular-biology department at the China Agricultural University
and a member of the subcommittee, rather vaguely. "Most scientists support
biotechnology but some scientists are opposed, including some senior
The subcommittee's decisions, at least in theory, are underpinned by a
biosafety research programme that was launched in 2001. According to Yufa
Peng, a plant pathologist at the Institute of Plant Protection in Beijing
and the CAAS's chief scientist on the biosafety programme, the effort
involves 125 researchers at 23 laboratories. It includes research into the
ecological impact of transgene flow to crops' wild relatives, and the
effects of transgenic agriculture on biodiversity.
Beijing's official policy, meanwhile, is deliberately equivocal. As Liu
Xu, vice-president of the CAAS, puts it: "China will abide by the
precautionary principle and substantial equivalence." The former is
usually invoked to reject transgenic technology on grounds of caution; the
latter implies acceptance on the grounds that transgenic crops are not
significantly different to those produced by conventional breeding.
Conveniently enough, this ambiguity leaves China free to embrace the
commercialization of transgenic crops once more, when it feels that its
own technology can compete with Western imports. If this is the real
reason for Beijing's current position, then the progress of China's
research on rice may be the crucial factor. Already, Chinese researchers
have published a draft genome sequence for the indica subspecies of rice
(J. Yu et al. Science 296, 79Ò92; 2002). The government is now investing
heavily in rice functional genomics and in efforts to genetically engineer
the crop. "Chinese institutions still have a lot to learn," says Huang.
"But hopefully the situation with rice will be better than it was with
- Charles Rader , AgBioView,
Several regular contributors have been engaged in a discussion with Anders
Buch Kristensen about European regulations for genetically modified food.
The central point in dispute seems to be whether these regulations are
logical and consistent, or irrational and self-serving.
I think that issue is irrelevant. It is not to be expected that
regulations be logically unassailable. In part, at least in a democracy,
they must reflect the wants of the population. Europe's GMO regulations
are surely no more illogical than the American legal system, which coerced
the Norwegian manufacturer of my Jotul wood stove to affix a label warning
that it can be hot.
What has been left out of the dialog with Mr. Kristensen is a discussion
about whether these regulations are too burdensome to be justifiable.
I know very little about the economics of food production. On the other
hand, my wife conducts a small business, turning wooden bowls on a lathe,
and I can use her business to illustrate the effects of a range of
different potential regulations. Carol gets most of her wood for free when
trees that have been damaged by severe storms are cut down. She jokes that
she can hear a chain saw a mile away.
After a fresh log has been cut to a convenient size, she coats the end
grain with wax so that it will dry out slowly. That's because wood turned
before it is dry will warp, and wood dried out too rapidly will split. Our
garage holds a few dozen logs in various stages of drying. Drying takes at
least a year, and often much longer.
Suppose there were a new regulation that required her to label each bowl
she sells according to the type of wood she used. This would be very
little burden. She can look at a piece of wood and tell whether it is
maple, pine, oak, cherry, etc. Also, some of her customers want to know
On the other hand, suppose the new regulation required her to record lots
of information about the source of the wood. Suppose she needed to keep
records of when, where, and why it was cut, and whether the tree was
originally planted as nursery stock or grew naturally from a seed. Carol
is a woodturner, not a record keeper. She has no system for preserving the
identity of each log, and besides, nobody really wants the information.
There is an exception. Sometimes a tree has emotional significance. A
customer who courted his spouse underan old apple tree wanted a bowl
turned using its wood. It was worth her while to keep track of that piece
of wood, so she did.
But a new regulation requiring traceability would immediately make
unsalable all the bowls already turned, and would render useless the
entire stock of logs drying in the garage. She would have no salable wood
for at least a year, even assuming that she could track each new piece
from its origin. Similarly a traceability requirement would probably make
all grain currently in storage unsalable.
These comments are meant to suggest that excessive labeling requirements
can be very burdensome. Burden translates into cost, or can even drive a
product off the market. It seems to me that Europe's proposed GMO
regulations put an exceptional burden on GMO products and put no burden at
all on traditional foods. We should ask not whether this is illogical. We
should ask whether it is burdensome. A substantial cost can only justified
by a substantial benefit.
- Charles M. Rader (MIT)
Should Labelling be Mandatory? Select Reader Responses from Sp!ked
More at http://www.spiked-online.com/gmfood
The Muddle Over Food Labelling
- Derek Burke, UK
I think that we in the EU are making a complete muddle over food
labelling. All governments have a responsibility to ensure that food on
sale to consumers is safe, and there is a whole network of regulatory
committees to ensure this. They also have a responsibility to warn
particular groups of consumers who may be sensitive to a particular food,
for example to those suffering from a peanut allergy. Such labelling is
enforced by law from Brussels, but it is now being extended to substances
to which consumers might object for ethical or ideological reasons. In
this case it is genetically modified food or products from genetically
modified crops, but in the future it could be almost anything.
The boycotting of South African oranges is an example of an effective
boycott by consumers, but no government has ever contemplated making such
labelling enforceable by law. A number of religious communities, notably
the Jewish and the Islamic communities, have strict rules controlling the
slaughter of animals for food, and in these cases the regulations are
enforced by the communities themselves. So why did the governments of the
EU allow themselves to be dragged into this position of enforcement?
The argument is always put in terms of the consumer's right to choose, but
with rights come responsibilities, as Onora O'Neill reminded us so
trenchantly in her Reith Lectures last year. What then are the
responsibilities of consumers? Surely to inform themselves, and to use
choice responsibly, while choice also implies that there are at least two
products from which to choose.
However the campaigns of the NGOs, the action of the supermarkets, and the
Brussels legislation have all contributed to removing the option of
choosing GM products. Now the legislation is running into deep trouble,
particularly about the levels below which food does not need to be
labelled. Is it one percent, 0.9 percent, 0.5 percent, or zero? The green
groups want it to be zero, which is both impractical and unnecessary.
Impractical because achieving zero content is very difficult and notably
in other areas, for example in pesticide control, the limit is set at
practical, safe levels, not zero.
We are now into an infinite regress; a process that lacks any logical
basis. It is unnecessary because there is no evidence of harm to consumers
from any of the foods that have been licensed or of environmental harm
from any of the crops that have been licensed for growing. So the whole
thing it is driven by consumer perception. A second paradox is over
products derived from the genetically modified crops. The new EU
legislation means that all products have to be labelled even if they do
not contain any detectable DNA or protein from the crop.
So oil from GM rape will be labelled even though it is indistinguishable
from oil from non GM rape, and labelling has to involve complete
traceability of the food concerned. This is expensive and easily open to
abuse. So I submit that we have no logical basis of labelling, we have an
infinite regress over the lower limit, and we have legislation which is
unenforceable. It's time we started again. I suggest that:
1. Two different types of labelling should come into use, one to denote a
possible hazard to health, and another which should be voluntary, not
legislated, to inform consumers who have any ideological objection to
eating a particular food, in this case GM foods 2. The UK should refuse to
put unworkable legislation into practice. We know that some members of the
EU are already refusing to put into practice regulations over GM crops
which have been agreed in Brussels. Why then should the UK not join them?
Bureaucratic and Unnecessary Scheme
- Neil Kitchen, Australia
It should not be the role of the government to enforce religious or
ethical labelling schemes, such as kosher or halal foods. This type of
food standard is enforced by the leaders of the religious communities
involved and those communities pay the premium to ensure that their food
meets the required standards. Imagine the uproar if the Jewish or Muslim
communities wanted ALL food to meet their religious standards and wanted
the secular/Christian communities to pay for their religious beliefs!
Similarly, the belief that GM food is dangerous is not a scientific fact -
far from it. Wherever GM foods have been sold in the world they have had
to meet the same, if not tighter, government food safety standards than
conventional foods. If you believe the foods are not safe, then improve
the food safety standards - but to do that you are going to need some hard
scientific evidence. Until then, the opposition to GM food is
ethical/religious, not safety, and therefore a mandatory labelling scheme
is an unnecessary expense.
The fairest solution is to create a 'GM-free' label where the cost burden
is on those people who want GM-free food. After all, why should I pay to
subsidise your ethical/religious/pseudo-religious beliefs? The real reason
for this GM-labelling regime is that the hard scientific evidence does not
exist and so the environmental groups, who are using their 'good'
reputation to scare the everyday consumer, are lobbying for a mandatory
pseudo-warning labelling regime in the hope that it pushes these products
out of the market. Why would they do that? Because these GM-foods are the
products of large multinational companies - and environmental groups
blindly and reflexively oppose anything that comes from a multinational
The problem is that blindly opposing this technology because you don't
like the fact that multinational companies are making a profit from it is
putting politics before good science. If the food is not safe, then
improve the food safety standards - this labelling regime is bureaucratic,
expensive and does nothing to improve food safety.
Labelling Will Not Reassure People
- Jan Bowman, UK
Numerous surveys worldwide report growing public unease about GM foods.
GM's opponents brandish these surveys as proof that the UK should ban the
technology. But surveys also show increasing support for organic foods -
another issue where the science lags far behind the propaganda. Organics
are now big business. As the marketing man at Small Planet Foods in the
US, recently taken over by multinational conglomerate General Mills,
explains their slogan: 'Taste you can believe in': 'All you have to say is
"organic" - you don't need to provide any more information'. 'Taste you
can believe in' is an empty signifier. It allows consumers to mentally
include whatever concepts they want to hear - purer, safer, more
sustainable - none of which are verified by science. The same is true, in
reverse, of GM, which is now overloaded with negative connotations.
How can people not be wary, when anti-GM stories in the press vastly
outweigh those in favour? Look up Golden Rice on a search engine and
critics outnumber supporters by at least five to one. Scare stories that
were refuted years ago in the scientific press get dragged out,
unchallenged, in every debate - that GM kills monarch butterflies; that GM
has been a disaster for farmers, especially in China; that GM is a danger
to Mexican maize.
Campaigners against GM crop trials in Scotland terrorise the locals with
meaningless but scary-sounding statements such as: 'When the experimental
crop flowers the villagers have no option but to inhale the pollen as it
will come into the village, making them part of the experiment'. No wonder
even my elderly mother is suspicious of GM food.
Yet when GM tomato paste first went on sale here in 1986 - before the
campaign against it was launched - it outsold conventional tomato paste,
just by being cheaper. Opinion polls don't take place in a vacuum. On
issues that are already high profile and contentious, they inevitably
confirm existing prejudice.
For government to base policy on such surveys is shocking. It shows a
cavalier attitude to science and an embarrrassing lack of principle. And
labelling will not reassure people - least of all on something as steeped
in subjective, emotional notions as diet. Imagine the conundrum facing
shoppers, forced to choose between the cheap tin of GM baked beans
(apparently so risky that it carries a health warning), the more
expensive, but traditional non-GM one, and the even more expensive, but
supposedly purer, safer, and vastly more ethical organic one.
Shopping is hassle enough without this, especially when you are probably
buying the baked beans for your valuable offspring. (Which is why more
than a third - in some places over half - of baby food sold in the UK is
now organic, while adult consumption of organics remains stuck at 2%.)
Gilland is right.
We need a robust defence of science from the people who head government -
not a dumping of responsibility on the hapless consumer.
Positive GM report from the UK press
- Denis Murphy, Biotechnology Unit, University of Glamorgan
The following recent report in a leading UK paper is interesting because
the journalist takes data published in Nov 2002 by the National
Environmental Research Institute (at Riso, Denmark) and actually stresses
the positive aspects of GM crops, even though the same report contains
other data on biodiversity which could have been given a negative spin. So
not all the UK press is necessarily anti-GM as we are sometimes led to
believe. However, it does show how depressingly easy it could be to take
an objective piece of science and interpret it to suit your own prejudices
- the negative (for GM crops) aspects of the report will doubtless be
quoted widely by some people to support continued bans on GM crops. Others
may dismiss the whole report because, although carried out by a vigorously
independent agency, it was partially financed by Monsanto. Meanwhile the
science gets lost in all the hot air. The original report is available
from Riso on
Report Finds GM Crops are Good for Environment
- Charles Arthur, Independent (UK), March 13, 2003
Genetically-modified crops might be better for the environment than the
unmodified form, allowing insects and spiders to flourish around their
edges and providing more food for birds, according to new research.
The finding could hint at the results that will emerge from the farm-scale
trials of GM crops now being carried out in Britain. Those will end this
summer and be used by the Government to decide whether to allow commercial
planting of GM crops, in which a key consideration is their effect on
surrounding plant and animal life.
Tests at Denmark's National Environmental Research Institute discovered
that when GM sugar beet was used precisely according to the instructions
from the manufacturer, Monsanto, the plots had twice as many weeds
compared with those planted with conventional beet. Beate Strandberg, who
led the research, told New Scientist magazine that the GM plots also had
more animal life than the conventional ones.
She thinks that the results from her tests will foreshadow those from the
UK's farm-scale trials. Research at the Broom's Barn Experimental Station
in Suffolk found earlier this year that if less herbicide is used than the
manufacturers recommend, then the wildlife does even better. Dr Strandberg
said that this confirmed her own work, which found that holding back on
the use of weedkiller produced 10 times more weeds, and twice as many
insects, but did not reduce the beet yield. "We have had very similar
things going on," she said.
In the British farm-scale trials, which have been running for five years,
the farmers have been told to follow the manufacturer's label instructions
precisely when spraying GM crops so that the effect of widespread growing
will be clearer.
Not all the findings were positive. The use of GM crops seemed to affect
the balance of weeds species in fields: many died in late summer before
they could produce seeds. The use of Monsanto's glyphosate weedkiller, to
which the GM beet is resistant, could also help weeds such as dwarf
nettles over those such as meadowgrass, and hence have "unpredictable"
effects on the biodiversity within farm areas, the researchers said.
The Danish team has been working since 1990 on the effects of GM crops
that are resistant to particular weedkillers. GM crops hold the promise of
potentially higher yields, because their genetic modification means
farmers can spray them with weedkiller without harming them; only the
weeds die. But this has raised questions about the effect on animals and
weeds that grow in the margins around the crops themselves.
Another issue that was not tackled directly in this study was whether the
genes from the GM crops could pass to weeds. The British farm-scale trials
will also investigate that, and try to rank its importance.
* Polluting pine trees could be as bad for the world's environment as
emissions from factories and motor vehicles, Finnish scientists warn. They
report in the science journal Nature that in the right conditions of
sunlight combined with high levels of ultraviolet radiation, Scots pine
trees can release smog-making nitrogen oxides directly into the air. They
say the source of the nitrogen oxides is unclear. It could arise from
plant metabolism, or the effect of sunlight hitting pine needle surfaces.
GM Sense Needed
- Rick Roush, Herald and Weekly Times (Australia), March 12, 2003,
There are many myths surrounding GM canola, writes Rick Roush.
Of the many debates that have raged in Australian agriculture, few can be
as important - or emotive - as the current debate about the adoption of
genetically modified canola. However, to date, it has been characterised
by a deliberate and sustained campaign of misinformation, personal attacks
and the routine scattering of half-truths designed to confuse and scare,
rather than inform.
As is generally the case when ideology drives debate, rather than a
practical consideration of an argument's pros and cons, a host of seasoned
activists have jumped on the bandwagon. These groups are highly skilled
at muddying the water and creating an environment of mistrust, doubt and
But spare a thought for ordinary canola growers as they try to sift
through the debate and make rational decisions on a range of important and
complex commercial and environmental farm management issues. The current
debate about buffer zones between GM and non-GM canola is a case in point.
I was involved in extensive research conducted here in Australia that
studied the movement of pollen between different varieties of canola with
a view to establishing a scientific basis for determining appropriate
distances between different crop varieties. The scientists involved in
these trials had no agenda other than to bring a factual basis to the
debate about co-existence.
Our research showed that, in Australian conditions, a distance of five
metres between GM canola and non-GM canola would yield an average rate of
0.009 per cent co-mingling, well below current market requirements for
non-GM canola of approximately 1 per cent.
Confronted by hard evidence and fact, what has been the reaction of the
anti-GM lobby? Rather than contest the figure or debate the practicalities
of managing buffer zones, they distort the research and attribute the
proposed minimum five metre buffer distance as between GM canola and a
largely hypothetical GM-Free canola crop. Fear of change and concerns
about the impact this new technology may have on farming systems is real
and deserves a better response than slogan politics and distortion.
Un-aligned, responsible farming organisations, scientists and industry
commentators deserve better than being automatically accused of pandering
to US corporate interests if they express views that are not aligned with
the anti-GM cause.
No one would deny that groups are entitled to express their views, but the
place for the anti-GM debate lies in Canberra, not in undermining the
Canola Industry's efforts to develop a workable model for co-existent
farming of GM and non-GM canola. The current prominence being given to
activists in the mainstream media does not augur well for reasoned debate
in the future on any technological development, GE or otherwise, that does
not meet the approval of an activist minority.
There are undoubtedly important issues to be addressed in this debate, but
the constructive way forward for the Australian canola industry will be
through careful consideration of the facts, negotiation and discussion.
Unfortunately, sabotage and scare tactics have proved more effective tools
for ideological opponents of GM.
In my experience, Australian farmers are no mugs and quickly see through
the posturing and rhetoric of sides engaged in a polarised debate. What
ordinary growers and the industry deserve, in the apt words of an English
commentator on GM issues, is for an immediate and sustained "outbreak of
common sense" in this important debate.
Professor Rick Roush is a former chief executive officer of the
Cooperative Research Centre for Australian Weed Management.
GM Discoveries May Get Lost In The Ethical Debate
- Cathy Bolt, Australian Financial Review, March 13, 2003
The GM debate again rages as a decision on whether to release GM crops
looms, reports Cathy Bolt.
One of the most controversial and emotional debates in Australian
agriculture over the use of gene technology is set to scale even more
passionate heights over the next three months as a decision looms on the
release of the country's first genetically modified food crop.
The impending decision by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator on
whether to permit the release of canola varieties genetically modified to
resist particular herbicides is whipping both opponents and advocates of
GM technology into campaign mode.
Since the start of this month, a loosely aligned group called the Network
of Concerned Farmers has been hosting a tour of four states by four
speakers opposed to the expansion of GM crops in Australia, currently
limited to an insect-resistant cotton and a carnation with extra blue
During the NSW election campaign, the opposition is pledging to join
Tasmania in imposing an immediate moratorium on the commercial release of
GM crops in the state, pending a review by a task force of its
environmental and marketing implications and the logistics of segregation
and identity preservation.
"We are committed to continuing research into the benefits and effects of
GMOs, but believe the commercial release of GM food crops should be
delayed until further information is available and the release has greater
support among farmers and consumers," says the NSW opposition agriculture
spokesman, Ian Armstrong.
Meanwhile, another group of interested bystanders is seriously concerned
the confusion generated by the GM debate may start to spread to, and
derail, the extraordinary agricultural potential of other forms of
Such is the concern held by the Grains Research and Development
Corporation, the main funding arm for grains industry research, that it
has commissioned a publication, Feeding Tomorrow's World, to be released
Its editor, Brad Collis, argues Australia's $6 billion crop sector is at
the dawn of a new age of biotechnology-led discovery with traditional
crops like wheat being made drought-resistant, salinity-tolerant and less
reliant on chemicals and tillage, while other new crops are being
developed that will offer direct health benefits and pharmaceutical
He says GM technology, which involves adding, altering or removing genes
to modify an organism's characteristics, sometimes involving another
species, is just one component of that technology. Others, such as gene
markers traceable fragments of DNA that allow scientists to speed up the
selection of genetic traits are more aids to conventional breeding.
"Various biotechnologies offer answers to some of farming's most serious
problems, including salinity, as well as opening up new markets, products
and industries," he says. "However, confusion over GMOs, which as yet
don't even exist in Australian food production, is threatening the
deployment of other science, such as the use of molecular markers, that
could be crucial for breeding crops that are more environmentally
"The danger is that the anti-GM mood becomes anti-knowledge."
But the publication remains doubtful it will be considered balanced by
strong opponents of the technology. GeneEthics director Bob Phelps also
takes issue with the references in the publication to the 45 to 50 per
cent reduction in pesticide use in Australia on genetically modified
"Only 30 per cent of Australia's cotton crop is genetically engineered, to
try and head off the problem of insect resistance, so the real savings in
sprays is under 15 per cent overall," he says. "Moreover, including the Bt
toxin produced in the crop, the amount of toxin in the environment
actually increases and that has serious ecological impact."
According to Richard Bawden, former director of the Centre of System
Development at the University of Western Sydney Hawkesbury, the strategic
challenge for all industries at the interface between nature and society,
including agriculture, is to take the inclusion of ethics and ecology as
seriously as economics into their plans for the future.
The Strain Gain
- Bob Beale,The Bulletin, Vol. 21; No. 10, March 11, 2003, ;
Genetically modified cotton has succeeded so well commercially and
environmentally in Australia that transgenic strains will largely dominate
the national crop within two years, a prominent Australian scientist
predicts. About 30% of cotton grown in Australia is transgenic but that
proportion will soar to "80% or more" by 2005, according to Jim Peacock,
president of the Australian Academy of Sciences.
Peacock made the forecast at a recent high-level meeting in Brussels -
called by European Research Commissioner Phillipe Busquin - to discuss how
life-science research may be applied to agriculture to help alleviate
global hunger and starvation.
Peacock, who is chief of CSIRO Plant Industry, warns that the introduction
of trans-genic crops must be managed carefully but adds that the cotton
story in Australia shows that major benefits can flow from their strategic
use. They have put the industry back on its feet, restoring its value to
between $1.3bn and $1.6bn annually, he says. "This is one of the success
stories of gene technology in agricultural practice."
Previously, aggressive pesticide treatment of conventional cotton to
control cater-pillar pests encouraged insect resistance to the chemicals
and devastated about 300 other species that live in the cotton crop. But
research by CSIRO and Monsanto has made it possible to modify cotton
plants to express a toxin-producing -bacterial gene that kills
caterpillars when they eat the leaves. After six years of growing this
so-called Bt cotton, farmers are achieving a 60% reduction in aerial
sprays against caterpillars, with dramatic environmental benefits, Peacock
The latest step in the strategy is to insert a second bacterial toxin gene
to generate a new double-Bt cotton strain. This will give cotton plants
two independent defences so that even if a mutation gives some
cater-pillars resistance to one toxin, the back-up will still kill them.
"The two-gene system has allowed a 90% reduction in spray," Peacock says.
"Already, the aerial sprayers are going out of business."
Jennifer Thomson, professor of molecular and cell biology at the
University of Cape Town, South Africa, dismisses fears that gene
technology will lead to a loss of diversity in the types of cotton being
grown. About 15 different varieties of Bt cotton are being grown in
Australia, she notes.
South Africa, Kenya and Egypt are -growing genetically modified plants and
six more nations are preparing to join them. Ben Ngubane, the South
African Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, predicts that
in 10 to 15 years, the entire African continent will be growing GM crops.
Twelve Organizations Representing the German Food Supply Chain Have Issued
a Joint Policy Statement Supporting Biotechnology
- Food Chemical News, February 17, 2003, Vol 45; Issue 1
Twelve organizations representing the German food supply chain have issued
a joint policy statement supporting biotechnology. While not granting a
blank check to biotech, they advocated evaluating proposed uses on a
case-by-case basis with field trials and parallel monitoring.
The organizations said that scientific evidence and international
experience "appear to confirm that agricultural biotechnology is a
valuable, beneficial method, which poses no additional, uncontrollable
risks." The statement was signed by the Federal Association of German
Plant Breeders, Federation of Food Law and Food Science, National
Association for the German Food Industry, National Association of German
Wholesalers and Import/Export Firms, and Federation of German
Plant Biotechnology Journal
- Edited by: Keith Edwards Published in association with the Society for
Experimental Biology and the Association of Applied Biologists; Print
ISSN: 1467-7644; Online ISSN: 1467-7652; Frequency: Bi-monthly; Current
The first issue of Plant Biotechnology Journal is now available FREE
online (link at http://www.plantbiotechjournal.com )
The aim of the new Plant Biotechnology Journal is to publish substantial,
world-class primary research articles in applied plant science, involving
applications of plant biotechnology and plant biology across all
industrial sectors. Publishing original research, Plant Biotechnology
Journal will report on significant new contributions to the field,
providing a forum for the best papers in applied plant science. Published
articles will report novel and exciting findings in strategic research in
plant biotechnology, combining curiosity-driven studies with the potential
Applications may involve agriculture, horticulture, food and
food-processing, paper, pulp and timber, pharmaceuticals, medical,
phytoremediation, marine applications, non-food uses of plants and
industrial crops. With the rapid developments in genomic sequencing and
analysis, and availability of new technologies to analyse functional
genomics and proteomics, the combined powers of genetics, biochemistry and
cell biology are leading to the very rapid production of new information.
Plant Biotechnology Journal welcomes the results of these programmes when
the outcome is likely to enhance the application of plant science to the
Biotechnology, Science and Society at a Crossroad
- Seattle, Washington, June 1-3, 2003. (NABC 15 )
Topics to be discussed at NABC 15 include the following: * Public
Perceptions of Agricultural Biotechnology * Biotechnology and Sustainable
Agriculture * Biotechnology and International Trade * Impact of
Biotechnology on World Agricultural Production
Program Organizing Committee: Sandra Ristow, Associate Director, WSU
Agricultural Research Center and Mike Burke, Associate Dean and Director,
Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station
Agricultural Biotechnology and Sustainability: Food for Thought - A
- Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI; April 25 - 26, 2003
http://www.calvin.edu/scs/2003/agbiotech/ (Sent by David Koetje,
Agricultural biotechnology (agbiotech) and sustainable agriculture are
often portrayed as opposing practices. Agbiotech is usually aligned with
genetically modified (GM) foods and corporate farming. In contrast, most
people associate sustainable agriculture with organic farming. Are these
practices mutually exclusive?
Participants in this stakeholders? conference will explore this question
by analyzing current practices and developing systems in agbiotech.
Featured speakers - including leading scientists, policy advisors, and
ethicists - will address: * Potential risks and benefits of agbiotech *
Underlying assumptions of agbiotech and sustainable agriculture * Ethical
considerations for agricultural scientists, producers, consumers, public
policy leaders, and other stakeholders
This conference is intended for a wide range of stakeholders in food
production: farm & food industry groups, scientists, policy-makers,
economists, ethicists, environmentalists, development agencies, students,
educators, clergy, consumer & human rights groups - anyone who is
concerned about food production!
UN Warns Africa's Forest Area Could Further Decline
- Reuters, Italy, March 12, 2003
Rome - The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned
yesterday that Africa's forest area could decline further in the next 20
years and progress to protect forests for future generations will be slow.
"In the absence of any fundamental change, the forestry situation in
Africa will be marked by continued land-use conflicts and loss of forest
cover at roughly the current rate, and slow progress in applying
sustainable forest management," FAO said in a report.
The report, called "Forestry Outlook Study for Africa", also warned that
depleted forestry would harm the environment, increasing land degradation
and desertification, with the loss of biological diversity, including
medicinal plants. It said dependence on wood as a source of energy could
increase woodfuel consumption from about 635 million cubic metres in 2000
to about 850 million cubic metres in 2020.
The population in Africa in 2020 is expected to have increased to 1,186
million from 798 million now, FAO said. "Illegal logging will remain a
major problem and Africa will not be in a position to produce wood
competitively," it said.
The report said the best way to save forests in Africa was for governments
to take steps to alleviate poverty by generating income to meet basic
needs, and to protect the environment by halting land degradation and
desertification and preserving biological diversity.
KwaZulu Farmers Boosted by GM Cotton
- Shaoni Bhattacharya, NewScientist, March 7, 2003;
The first genetically-modified crop to be grown commercially in
sub-Saharan Africa has proven a great success, scientists have told New
The GM cotton boosted the yields of black farmers in South Africa's
KwaZulu-Natal province by between 50 and 89 per cent compared to its
conventional counterpart, the researchers found. The yield per kilogramme
of seed was even higher, with increases up to 129 per cent, as fewer seeds
are needed for the GM variety. In addition, labour and pesticide
poisonings were reduced.
"This was the first study in sub-Saharan Africa. It's not trial data, it's
real farm data," says Stephen Morse, at the University of Reading, UK. "We
were not expecting differences as big as this. The farmers were glowing,
they were very happy."
However, environmentalists remain unconvinced. Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss,
of Biowatch in Cape Town, says the GM variety used matures earlier in the
season than the conventional variety, meaning that late flooding in
2000-2001 exaggerated the yield difference.
High relative yields of GM cotton have also been reported recently from
India, though the South African yields are higher. Yield increases in the
developing world now appear to be many times higher than the 10 per cent
for GM cotton seen in the developed world.
Farm records. The GM cotton used was "Bt cotton". It contains a gene for a
bacterial toxin that kills bollworms, a major cotton pest in the
developing world. Morse and colleagues, funded by their university,
studied the records of 1300 farmers in the Makhathini region, as well as
carrying out individual interviews
The farmers, 60 per cent of whom are women, typically have between one and
three hectares. The farmers buy all their supplies from the Vunisa Cotton
company, which also buys the cotton produced. Use of the GM variety grew
from only 0.1 per cent of farmers in 1997/98 to over 90 per cent of
farmers by 2001/02. As well as increasing yields, the GM cotton reduced
the need for pesticide spraying. This saves substantial labour, the team
calculated, important in a region ravaged by HIV/AIDS.
Solely reliant. The number of pesticide poisonings also fell. In 1997/98
there were 51 reported cases. If all farmers use Bt cotton, the number
would fall to two a season, say the researchers.
But Pschorn-Strauss argues: "It's a short term strategy, it may work for
three or four years but then [bollworm] resistance would develop." She
also notes that Bt cotton seeds are twice the price of conventional cotton
seeds and that small farmers who become solely reliant on the Bt strain
would be particularly vulnerable to changes in market conditions.
Morse agrees that reliance on a single company restricts farmers: "Bt
cotton is not going to address these things, but so far the message is
How Markets Benefit the Poor
- Thompson Ayodele, February 22, 2003 http://www.ippanigeria.org (via IPN
The market is constantly despised and castigated for aggravating the lot
of the poor and for increasing their poverty levels. This has been the
rhetoric of the self-appointed friends of the poor. Their solution is for
government to allocate resources and regulate the economy. They perceive
government as all-knowing, all-merciful, and all-wise, and assume that it
is charitable to take charge of people's needs the way government
officials think is appropriate while disregarding the ability and talents
'World Consumer Rights Day' All Wrong on Biotech
- Consumerfreedom.com, March 12, 2003; From Agnet
When we first heard that "World Consumer Rights Day" was this Saturday, we
dusted off the barbecue, bought a six-pack, some steaks and a few
wholesome ears of genetically enhanced corn. We were ready to eat, drink,
and celebrate our rights all day long. But then we found out that
organizers had something else in mind.
Activist group Consumers International has declared the theme of this
year's World Consumer Rights Day to be "Corporate Control of the Food
Chain -- The GM Link." To celebrate, the group is coordinating a "global
wave of actions on genetically modified foods to assert the principle that
consumer rights come before profits and corporate control in determining
what food we eat."
Two comments from their press release caught our eye. Campaign suggestions
focus on ways of challenging current patent regimes that protect the
interests of GM seed companies rather than consumers and farmers.
Actually, yesterday's Washington Post reported that "four of the world's
largest agricultural companies have agreed to share their technology [for]
free with African scientists in a broad new attempt to increase food
production on that continent, where mass starvation is a recurring
Say again about greedy multi-nationals abusing their patent privileges to
the detriment of farmers and consumers? It looks like breakthroughs in
biotech will support struggling farmers and hungry people -- free of
It is increasingly clear that GM crops currently being grown offer no
benefits to consumers and nothing to most farmers. While genetically
enhanced crops in fact lower prices, improve quality and reduce pesticide
use, biotech crops might in fact be more beneficial to farmers than to
research companies. According to yesterday's AgriNews, "Demand almost
certainly will outstrip supply for Monsanto's new biotech corn designed to
fight rootworm." Clearly, farmers think they'll benefit from this new
strain a great deal. And because there will only be so much of the
rootworm-resistant corn to go around, "Monsanto's initial release will
focus on areas where rootworm problems are most severe."
Other biotech firms are racing to introduce their own anti-rootworm corn.
When they do, competition will drive down Monsanto's margins -- leaving
the farmer as the primary beneficiary. And when it costs less to produce
food, it also costs less to buy it. That's how biotech helps consumers,
whatever global activist groups like Consumers International has to say
about their "rights."
Unfortunately, Consumers International's anti-biotech campaign isn't just
a little glib PR. It has real-world consequences. Zambia is starving. But
the hungry African nation's leadership rejected U.S. food aid, and labeled
it "poison," because it partly came in the form of genetically enhanced
corn. For its part, Consumers International played cheerleader to Zambia's
paranoia, organizing a conference in Zambia's capital to hype absurd fears
about biotech food. You can read about the consequences for one region in
last week's government-controlled Times of Zambia.
Perhaps more disturbing, Consumers International's anti-corporate rhetoric
is motivated in part by self-interest. The group is funded by the European
Union, which nurtures fears of biotech so it can maintain its trade
barriers against U.S. food imports.
- The Christian Science Monitor, March 13, 2003 (Via Katie Thrasher)
Green protesters have more rings in their trunk than you might think.
Twenty years before Brother Mendel published the first sprouts of genetic
research about the peas in his garden, Nathaniel Hawthorne was already
warning about the dangers of interfering with nature. In 1844, the Concord
writer didn't know anything about genes, or cloned sheep, or bug-zapping
corn, but he published a weird short story called "Rappaccini's Daughter."
Besides giving birth to the mouthwash industry (Rappaccini's daughter can
kill people with her breath), the story stands as one of the earliest
American protests against meddling with an organism's traits.
Now, Monsanto and other biochemical companies are concentrating hard on
genetically modified food, while spraying herbicide on mandatory labeling
laws to keep consumers worry-free. Hippies screaming about "Frankenspuds"
are easy to weed, but a new literary threat may be harder for the industry
Hog farmers are getting skinned alive by Annie Proulx's "That Old Ace in
the Hole." And now Ruth Ozeki takes a whack at genetic engineers with a
wonderful new novel called "All Over Creation." Along with Barbara
Kingsolver, these politically oriented authors form a persuasive
triumvirate. Their immense popularity among sophisticated women readers
and book clubs means that the consumers who are most valuable to food
manufacturers are being fed a diet high in anti-industry sentiments.
While Proulx's latest novel squeals like propaganda, Ozeki balances
intimate and global concerns perfectly. She tells the story of a
frustratingly irresponsible woman named Yumi who ran away from her parents
when she was 14. A history teacher had seduced her and then pressured her
into having an abortion. When her father, a fundamentalist potato farmer,
discovered what she had done, it shattered their relationship and sent her
Now, 25 years later, hearing that her parents are near death, she's
returned for the first time to Liberty Falls, Idaho. Her Japanese mother
has descended into the fog of Alzheimer's, and her proud father is
struggling through the ravages of cancer and heart failure.
They're desperate for help, but so was Yumi once, and coming home
scratches open old resentments on both sides. "People said I was the apple
of Lloyd's eye, the pride of his heart," Yumi remembers, "until I went
rotten." Returning to this conservative farm community from Hawaii with
three children from three different fathers, she feels that old sense of
condemnation immediately: "I was a random fruit in a field of genetically
Cass, her best friend from middle school, has hung around, married a
hardworking farmer, and gradually fallen into taking care of Yumi's
parents. Now that their medical needs are so involved, though, she expects
Yumi to shoulder that familial duty herself. But it's clear that Yumi has
no aptitude for geriatric care. Or child care. Or even self-care. After a
series of miscarriages, Cass has to swallow her resentment toward this old
friend who treats her own kids so casually. The battle of love and candor
between these two women is just one of many superbly drawn relationships
in this novel.
Yumi's reckless life is a testament to the lingering effects of shattered
affection. Having nursed her hatred for her father so long, it's not easy
to nurse him. At first, they both see what they're convinced they'll see:
a licentious woman determined to flaunt her offensive lifestyle and a
Christian control freak full of condemnation.
Very gradually, though, Yumi is amazed to discover that her father has
developed into someone far more complex. As potato farming fell by the
wayside during her absence, her parents grew more and more involved in
specialty seeds, running a mail-order business dedicated to preserving
rare and antique plants amid the march of monoculture.
Just when Yumi can't imagine how she'll cope with her parents' medical
needs (described here in graphic detail), a band of ecohippies arrives to
worship her father. Calling themselves The Seeds of Resistance, this weird
family of Internet-savvy Luddites has been drawn to Liberty Falls by her
father's newsletter, a mixture of homespun wisdom, rants against genetic
engineering, and quotations from the Bible. Rallying from his deathbed, he
welcomes this strange crew with open arms. While Yumi falls back into old
self-destructive habits, the Merry Green Pranksters and her Old Testament
father plot to save the world.
Ozeki handles all this with a winning mixture of wit and tenderness. It's
a jungle of a plot, a riot of literary species, sown with strains of
deadly satire and heartrending tragedy - winding around kitchen table
discussions about family duty and through the international debate on
genetically modified food. She's as good with the broad comedy of wacky
political protests as she is with the terrifying ramifications of genetic
manipulation. She can skewer the industry's PR flaks in one chapter and
serve as the midwife for long-deferred affection in the next. And she
tends a thicket of metaphors about gardening, seeds, and biodiversity,
describing the promiscuity of plants with as much frankness as the
promiscuity of her characters.
But even after growing all over creation, Ozeki returns to her roots: the
love between parents and children, a relationship beyond the sight of
microscopes, more complex than any double helix, never susceptible to
engineering, but always in need of careful cultivation like this.
* Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the
book section to email@example.com.