Today in AgBioView: March 28, 2003
* Starving Africans held Hostage over US/EU Agribusiness Wars
* Compared to War, Feeding World's Hungry Has Modest Price Tag
* GM Pays the Bills
* Food Fight
* Brazilian President Authorises GM Soy Sale, Export
* Diploma in Biosafety
* Response of Young to GM - Ongoing Research in the UK
* Inaccurate Report of Nobel Prize-winner's Lecture
* Biotechnology: Science and Society at a Crossroad
* First Anniversary of Bt Cotton Approval in India
* Error In the Second Article of March 27 AgBioView
* Sustainable Farms, Sustainable Food - Free CD ROM
* GM Foods and Reckless Reporting; The Gambia Independent
* Allison Snow: Of Weeds and GM Crops
* An Export Crop Hits a Critical Juncture
* Florence Wambugu Statement at the US House Ag Committee: Review of
Artificial Barriers to US Agricultural Trade and Foreign Food Assistance
Food Fight: Starving Africans held Hostage over US/EU Agribusiness Wars
- Janice Henke, Anthropologist, IWMC World Conservation Trust March 2003
The more the world changes, thanks to an explosion of new technology, the
more the affairs of humans stay the same. It used to be that agricultural
people experimented with plant breeding, using a hit and miss method of
hybridization until they happened upon new varieties that were either
improved, or not. This basic concept has been taken to new levels with
techniques that, among other things, "inject" genes into plants that would
never be a part of their DNA makeup without human manipulation. Thus, rice
has been genetically modified to supply vitamins that otherwise would
never be available to those who eat it. Another example is modification
of corn so that it is resistant to various bacterial and fungal diseases,
or to cause it to be offensive to various insect pests.
Some genetic modification of food plants causes the plants to produce
larger crops of seeds in a shorter time, or in conditions such as drought,
that would have prevented crop germination in the "natural state" of the
Naturally, some of those nations whose farmers are in competition with
those whose crops are genetically modified, are opposed to the import and
general increased use of such "GM" crops. The US has been developing,
growing, and consuming GM foods for the last ten years. As a world
drought appears to be on the horizon, some nations in Africa have found it
impossible to grow the crops that have sustained them for centuries.
Sub-Saharan African nations are experiencing catastrophic drought and
impending widespread starvation, to add to their other ills of extreme
poverty and a ravaging AIDS epidemic. Under such conditions, it makes
humane sense to send to those nations, surplus supplies of the same foods
that have been safely consumed in the US for years. This food would be
used to save lives and possibly, some would be used for seed crops. While
the Vatican encourages such agricultural charity, the EU is adamantly
opposed to the import into African nations of US crops that might be or
actually are, genetically modified in any way. Is this eco-altruism, or
"business as usual"?
Allegedly, EU authorities have told some African nations that if they
allow the import of US crops for hunger alleviation, their foreign aid
from the EU would be terminated. This may be why Zambia's dictator has
refused US food aid - some of the products are GM. The US Trade
Representative, Mr. Robert Zoellick, is quoted in the Washington Post; "it
is immoral" that Africans are denied food because some "people have
invented dangers about biotechnology". Mr. Zoellick calls the European
perspective "anti-scientific" and this is perhaps at the heart of the
matter. There has been a growing EU dispute with the US over GM foods,
and some have perceived basic competitive concerns to be the reason why US
imports to the EU or to its many markets, have been opposed. Business has
trumped science in political decision making.
Interestingly, Switzerland has recently announced that field tests of a
certain strain of GM wheat have resulted in a "safe" designation for that
product to be used in Switzerland. Of course, "Greenpeace is outraged",
according to Consumer Freedom.com, who report on this entire wrangle. The
incident recalls the Swiss tradition of standing alone in Europe and being
independent on yet another issue while the rest of the continent broils in
its own vitriolic juices.
IWMC takes the position that practical experience and on-going science
should be the bases for decisions of such great importance to human
welfare and ecological safety. Starving people should be fed safe and
abundant foods without regard for the competitive and political realities
among other nations. They should not be denied this basic human right
while at the same time, they are attacked in the world press for
"poaching" animals with which to feed themselves.
We applaud Switzerland for standing alone in this EU food fight, and for
using science, rather than political correctness, in making their own
decisions. It may be that the WTO has to get into this "Food Fight"
before starving Africans can get US food imports - perhaps the WTO can
persuade Europeans to stop pressuring African leaders to refuse the food
that can save their people and indirectly, can help to save some of their
Compared to War, Feeding World's Hungry Has Modest Price Tag
- John L. Allen Jr. (Rome), National Catholic Reporter, March 28, 2003
As the world stood on the brink of a war whose cost one team of
researchers has pegged at $600 billion, a Rome conference was told March
19 that a principal source of global conflict, chronic hunger, could be
cut in half for the comparatively modest sum of $24 billion.
Speakers at the conference, sponsored by Rome's Lay Centre and attended by
a cross-section of diplomats, activists and journalists, suggested that in
the context of fears that war in Iraq may leave the world in flames, a
successful campaign to curb hunger could help ease tension.
The estimate of war costs comes from two Australian researchers, Reserve
Bank board member Warwick McKibbin and Centre for International Economics
director Andrew Stoeckel, who have pegged the price tag of a short war
followed by a year or two of rebuilding at $600 billion. Using models
based on the 1991 Gulf War, McKibbin and Stoeckel estimate that such a
short war would shave 1 percent off global GDP over the next few years.
Dianne Spearman of the United Nations-sponsored World Food Program told
the March 19 conference that the number of chronically malnourished people
in the world today is 840 million. That's roughly equivalent, she said, to
the combined population of the United States, Canada, Russia, France,
Germany, the United Kingdom and Japan. Of the 840 million hungry, 799
million are in the developing world.
"This is a scandal," Spearman said. "Starvation in a world of plenty is
The United Nations' 1996 World Food Summit adopted a commitment to cutting
the number of hungry people in half by 2015, an aim that Spearman said
could be achieved for roughly $24 billion, split between direct food aid
programs and investments in agriculture and rural infrastructure.
Despite the fact that progress has been registered in a few traditional
crisis zones such as China and Nigeria, Spearman said that overall trends
are not encouraging. In the 1990s, she said, 96 million people were added
to the rolls of the chronically hungry in 47 nations. The global community
has yet to follow its commitment to hunger reduction with a new infusion
of resources. Six southern African nations are today facing the very real
danger of famine.
If present trends continue, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture
Organization, it will require 100 years to achieve the goal of cutting
hunger in half. "We are losing the battle," Spearman said.
She said that while $24 billion may seem a great deal of money, by way of
comparison industrialized nations spend more than $300 billion each year
on agricultural subsidies. It's not a question of resources, Spearman
argued, but priorities.
Tony P. Hall, currently U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agriculture
Organization and a former Democratic congressman from Ohio, told the
conference that the United States has private agricultural sales each year
of $56 billion, and spends some $38 billion annually on domestic
anti-hunger campaigns. In that context as well, he suggested, the amount
being proposed for global efforts is modest.
American economist Jeffrey Sachs has argued that in a global economy
measured in the trillions, $24 billion could be considered a "rounding
Hall said that the struggle against global hunger is for him a means of
uniting his professional activity and his Christian religious beliefs. He
said that he sees a lack of will, both political and spiritual, to deal
with hunger at the international level.
Among the causes of hunger, Spearman cited war, a lack of infrastructure
and distribution systems in the developing world, and, more recently, both
HIV/AIDS and climate change. The number of "natural disasters" registered
in the world -- earthquakes, hurricanes, mudslides and the like -- was
three times higher in the 1990s than the 1960s, Spearman said, reflecting
global warming and the other results of human intervention in the
environment. That trend is expected to intensify over the next 30 years.
James Nicholson, U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, took the conversation on
hunger in a different direction. Nicholson said that he feels a special
passion on the issue because he knows what it's like to live on an empty
stomach. Growing up in Iowa, he said, his alcoholic father was frequently
absent from the family, and Nicholson, his six brothers and sisters, and
his mother sometimes didn't have enough to eat.
In this context, Nicholson argued that opposition, mostly from Europe, to
the use of genetically modified organisms in food production is
"irresponsible. " He noted that 40 percent of the corn Americans eat today
is the result of genetic modification, as is 75 percent of the soybeans,
so far without a single report of a stomachache or allergic reaction due
to genetically engineered foods.
Nicholson charged that European opposition has more to do with protecting
agricultural markets than concern for health consequences. He said that
some European governments have intimidated African nations against
adopting genetically modified grains, for example, saying that European
nations won 't import the crops that result.
Later speakers, however, suggested that American companies pushing
genetically modified crops may also have less-than-noble motives,
especially the desire to assert patent rights over both seed and crops.
Rome's Lay Centre is a residence and formation center for lay students at
the city's various pontifical universities. Its coordinator, Donna Orsuto,
is an American lay scholar who teaches at the Jesuit-run Gregorian
John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is
GM Pays the Bills
- Alex Hetherington, Mail & Guardian (Johannesburg), March 27, 2003
Seven of every 10 South African cotton farmers have switched to
genetically modified (GM) varieties. The others still plant conventional
cotton and use pesticides and chemical fertilisers. South Africa has no
market for organic cotton. The GM farmers produced 25 130 tonnes of cotton
in the 2001/02 growing season.
On the Springbok Flats, north of Pretoria, Willem van der Walt runs a
mixed farm producing sorghum, cotton, rotational crops and pigs. He is a
firm GM convert. "It is absolutely essential," he says. "Our production
costs have decreased 40%. Zero tillage allows for greater water retention
in the soil, we use fewer pesticides and our maintenance costs for
machinery are less."
Van der Walt insists his farming methods are environmentally sensitive
because he uses less pesticide. "The production of organic cotton is
possible, but you need long-term market agreements to make it attractive,"
Klaus Sall, a Danish organic cotton specialist who works with a
foreign-funded project that hopes to introduce cleaner technology to the
South African textile industry, reinforces the point. Cotton-growing is
the first point in a long production line that produces the clothes we
wear. "If the customer wants it, South Africa can make it," says Sall.
A small but growing demand for organic cotton is creating viable niche
markets in the United States and Europe. Nike marketed its first 100%
"organic" range of clothing last year and now wants 5% of all its products
to be made from certified organic cotton by 2010. The company buys 600
tonnes of organic cotton a year, but this is increasing by 100 tonnes
Other companies that are following the trend include LL Bean (US), Mabrouc
(Switzerland), Ikea (Sweden) and Marks & Spencer (Britain). Though South
Africa has no market for organic cotton, Sall believes local producers
should not be discouraged because there is already a global demand for 10
000 tonnes a year.
Turkey is the world's largest producer of organic cotton, though it has no
local market for the crop. It hasn't been an easy ride for the Turks,
whose small-scale farmers have relied on contracts with foreign companies
committed to the organic varieties.
Uygun Aksoy, chairperson and founder of the Turkish Association for
Organic Agriculture, says the government was pessimistic about the project
and farmers resisted converting their land to organic farms, which took
three years. Yields first declined by 15% to 20% before stabilising. "But
these losses were offset by long-term price increases of 20% to 26%,
because buyers were prepared to pay a premium for the organic materials,"
Bo-Weevil, a Dutch organic manufacturer, believes customers in Europe are
prepared to pay more for the environmental benefit of organic cotton, but
this has not yet been the experience of countries such as South Africa and
Australia. Thabo Tshabalala, national education secretary of the South
African Clothing and Textile Workers' Union, says local consumers will be
prepared to pay more for organic products once they know the costs of
using chemicals in the manufacture of textiles.
"It's like medical insurance," says Tshabalala, citing the inherent
environmental and health risks of non-organic production methods, "you are
prepared to pay for it, though you never know when you will need it."
Karen Lundbo, the coordinator of the Textile Cleaner Production project
who is trying to encourage local retailers to introduce organic ranges,
also believes that a local demand will be established. "Price is an
important factor, but the fact that companies like Nike are mixing organic
with conventional cotton shows that the manufacturers are actively doing
something about it."
Time can be a fickle agent, but farmers such as Van der Walt know that GM
now pays the bills.
- Henry I. Miller, Forbes.com, March 27, 2003
Crop plants like corn and tobacco can now be programmed with gene-splicing
techniques to produce precious pharmaceuticals. Will the U.S. welcome this
godsend--or be cowed into outlawing it?
Biopharming is not as science-fictiony as it sounds. People have been
extracting medicinals from plants for a thousand years. Morphine comes
from the opium poppy; an ancient willow bark remedy is similar to aspirin.
But biopharming's great promise lies in the ability of gene-splicing
techniques to make old plants do new things. Scientists are testing crops
that would produce blood thinners, insulin and herpes treatments. And it's
hard to beat the economy of the process. The raw materials for these drugs
are the plants themselves, water and carbon dioxide; the energy comes from
The fear, as propagated by the food processing industry and other critics,
is that drug genes will hop to the chromosomes of plants used for food,
contaminating the food supply with vaccines and drugs, in turn triggering
costly recalls and potential legal liability. Food producers are demanding
stringent federal regulation--a quite literal example of Nimby (Not in my
back yard!) syndrome--and are close to getting it.
In March the Department of Agriculture proposed a set of rigid,
one-size-fits-all rules. Land used to grow biopharmed corn, for example,
would have to lie fallow for the following season, a requirement that
would promote soil erosion and whose expense would discourage many farmers
from biopharming. Also proposed is an expensive requirement of separate
equipment for biopharming.
It is understandable that the food industry wants to protect our efficient
and safe systems of food production and distribution, but their anxiety
takes into account neither the realities of contemporary agriculture nor
the nuances of biopharming.
All crop plants have relatives somewhere on the earth, and some gene-flow
commonly occurs when two plants are grown close together. Although that
could happen with a crop that has been modified to synthesize a
pharmaceutical, it's unlikely. It would happen only if a certain gene from
the crop confers a selective advantage on the recipient--an occurrence
that should be uncommon with biopharming, where most often the added gene
would make the plant less fit and less able to proliferate.
Gene transfer is an age-old concern of farmers, who've learned how to
prevent pollen cross-contamination when necessary for commercial reasons.
For example, in order to maintain the highest level of genetic purity,
distinct varieties of self-pollinated crops such as wheat, rice, soybeans
and barley need to be separated by at least 60 feet.
The sophistication of modern agriculture enables us to safely cultivate
crops for both food and new pharmaceuticals, and to ensure that ne'er the
twain shall meet, at least in a way likely to cause injury. Having said
that, one must realize that human error is inevitable. Last year
biopharmed corn that was synthesizing a vaccine to prevent diarrhea in
pigs contaminated 500,000 bushels of soybeans. The soybeans were destroyed
and the company testing the corn, Texas-based ProdiGene, was fined.
What is the likelihood of consumers sustaining injury, even in a
worst-case scenario? Several highly improbable events would have to occur.
First, the active drug would have to be present in the food at sufficient
levels to exert an adverse effect via direct toxicity or allergy. Second,
the active agent would need to survive milling and other processing, as
well as cooking. Third, it would need to have a biological effect when
None of this is likely. If only tiny amounts of biopharmed corn had been
combined with the entire soybean harvest, the toxicity would have been
diluted. The drug produced by the ProdiGene corn is not pharmacologically
active, except in the sense that it is intended to elicit antibodies.
As the field begins to demonstrate its potential, reasonable,
science-based public policy must ensure that we all reap the potential
benefits sown by biopharming.
Brazilian President Lula da Silva Authorises Grown GMO Soy Sale, Export
- French News Digest, March 28, 2003
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has signed a decree
authorising the sale and export of already grown genetically modified
(GMO) soybeans, the president's spokesman said on March 26, 2003.
The measure will allow farmers from Rio Grande do Sul state, southern
Brazil, who have already planted about 6.0 million tonnes of transgenic
soy worth $300 mln (280 mln euro), to sell it. Lula made the decision
despite the resistance of some members of the government and the strong
criticism of non-governmental organisations, opposing to GMO products
growing and sale. Future transgenic crops growing remains banned in the
country, Brazilian Minister of Agriculture, Roberto Rodrigues said in the
Diploma in Biosafety
An international academically accredited course by distance learning
jointly organized by the United Nations Industrial Development
Organization (UNIDO) and the University of ConcepciÛn, Chile. The course,
based on sophisticated distance-learning techniques, is intended for
professionals engaged in biological risk assessment at the research,
government or industry level, but is also tailored for individuals engaged
in public policy, legal and ethical aspects of biotechnology.
It is a contribution of UNIDO to international efforts, within the context
of the implementation of the Cartagena Protocol, aimed at building
institutional capacities and professional competence in dealing
effectively with the complexity of issues related to the assessment and
management of biological risks. For more information, please view the
website at http://binas.unido.org/UDEC_biosafety
(Sent by David Kryl, PhD; Biotechnology Unit; UNIDO, PTC/PEM Email:
Response of Young People to GM Crops - Ongoing Research in the UK
- Denis Murphy
Further to your recent report in Agbioview (on March 27) entitled "UK:
Young People Debate GM (and most vote in favor of it!)", you may be
interested in a longer term study my unit has been doing here in Wales.
The following note was sent to the DEFRA GM discussion site on March 19
(http://www.gmpublicdebate.org.uk/postviews/index.asp), but this site only
seems to be upgraded every few weeks so this is probably its first public
DEFRA GM debate article, 19 March 2003-03-19: On Wed 19 March the BBC
Farming Today programme presented a piece on the role of the Food
Standards Agency in our national GM debate. During the interview, the
Director of the FSA, Prof John Krebs, mentioned schools debates, as a way
of contributing to this important dialogue.
I wholeheartedly endorse John Krebs' positive views on involving young
people - our future citizens - in a serious way in the GM debate. Indeed,
for the past year, the Biotechnology Unit at the University of Glamorgan
has been running a progamme of masterclasses and debates on GM crops for
schools throughout South Wales (focusing on 15-19 year-olds).
We have also been carrying out research on the way these pupils respond to
the information presented in such debates, and whether they change their
views on GM issues as a result.
So far we have only presented preliminary data from these studies at
conferences in the USA (July 2002) and in Birmingham, UK (Jan 2003), but
we hope to write up the results for wider publication in the near future.
Meanwhile, you may be interested in some preliminary findings (survey of
pupils from 9 schools in S Wales)
* Many pupils were initially undecided about GM foods * The 5-10% who were
strongly against GM foods tended not to change their views, even after the
debates * The initially undecided pupils were much more likely to switch
their views to a more pro-GM stance if they felt that there were real
benefits from such crops * Pupils valued potential benefits to poorer
countries as much as or even more than potential benefits in the UK (ie
they are altruistic) * After the debates, the proportion of pupils who
said that GM foods could be healthier and therefore more nutritious more
than doubled from 20% to 50% * After the debates, the proportion of pupils
who said that GM foods could be useful for developing countries also more
than doubled from 22% to 45%
I must stress that these are early findings, but they do represent the
kind of results we are getting in now from well over a dozen schools. We
are currently doing follow-up studies to determine whether the changes in
pupils' views remains stable over the longer term. We are also writing up
these data and hope to publish a more complete version in the future.
-- Professor Denis J Murphy, Biotechnology Unit, School of Applied
Sciences, University of Glamorgan CF37 1DL United Kingdom
Inaccurate Report of Nobel Prize-winner's Lecture
- Mark Cantley, European Commission
In AgBioView, 27 March 2003, you carry a report of the speech given by
Professor Kary Mullis at the European Parliament on 25th March, and of the
This includes the statement, "UK MEP David Bowe drew attention to soya
beans, enhanced with Brazil nuts, which cause allergic reactions and had
to be withdrawn from the market." This is inaccurate both as a report of
what was said by Member of the European Parliament David Bowe, and as a
matter of history.
The potential allergenicity resulting from transferring one gene from the
Brazil nut into soya was identified during the testing conducted during
the project, and the project was stopped; no such product was marketed,
therefore no such product needed to be withdrawn.
As this story is one of the enduring myths of critics of biotechnology,
AgBioView should not be further amplifying its distribution.
NABC 15: Biotechnology: Science and Society at a Crossroad
June 1ñ3, 2003, Seattle, WA http://www.cals.cornell.edu/extension/nabc
- Michael Burke, Oregon State University Corvallis, OR; Eugene Rosa &
Sandra Ristow, Washington State University Pullman, WA
The 2003 annual meeting -- Biotechnology: Science and Society at a
Crossroad--will highlight not only the intersection of scientific advances
with societal choices, but also the historical recurrence of this
intersection. Advances in genetic manipulation of plants, animals and
microorganisms are opening avenues of discovery of unprecedented
However, historically, periods of revolutionary change have stirred
resistance and motivated opposition. Applications of biotechnology to
agriculture, resulting in genetically modified (GM) crops and foods
containing GM ingredients, have not only spawned scientific debate but
also public resistance and open opposition. Not all scientists agree that
benefits from these altered organisms outweigh perceived risks to human
health and to the environment, and attentive members of the public have
similar concerns. This is not the first time that rapid advances in
science and the results of scientific experimentation have generated
controversy: an historical theme is repeating itself!
One of the earliest such crossroads occurred in the fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries when scientific discovery was at odds with the
prevailing belief system. Well documented are the arguments by the
established Church against the works of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473ñ1543)
and Galileo Galilei (1564ñ1642) who postulated a heliocentric rather than
geocentric astronomical system. In those early times, the crossroad was
clearly set between the proponents of scientific theory and established
societal beliefs. In the nineteenth century, the theory of evolution
promulgated by Charles Darwin (1809ñ1882) once again placed science and
the Church at a crossroad --a crossroad that, to this day, remains a
challenge to the religious beliefs of many.
So, with a long historical lens, present-day controversy over GM crops and
foods may be seen as an extension of a timeworn process of scientific
controversy. With a shorter historical lens, it may be seen as the
aftermath of societal concerns over the fluoridation of water, over
nuclear power and the generation of radioactive waste, over the
irradiation of foods, and as the consequence of a growing mistrust of
scientists, of government, and of corporate agriculture.
Unlike earlier crossroads, those opposing agricultural and other
applications of biotechnology are not necessarily closely associated with
an established church or government. Their concerns are wide-ranging and
their objections are often strongly held. Problems associated with the
applications of biotechnology range from gene pollution of important food
crops and livestock to concerns over ownership of genes, industrialization
of the food system, corporate control of agriculture, and the demise of
the family farm and of local food systems.
For information about the program contact: Sandra Ristow, Associate
Director Agricultural Research Center 403 Hulbert Hall Washington State
University Pullman, WA 99164-6240 509-335-4563 fax 509-335-6751
First Anniversary of Bt Cotton Approval in India
- Kameshwar Rao
All of us, including Monsanto Bangalore, forgot that March 26, 2003, is
the anniversary of GEAC approval of Bt cotton in India. But the Greenpeace
gratefully remembered it and celebrated it in a very unique manner.
This is what I gathered:
Two young students climbed to the first floor (?) of a building in front
of Monsanto Research Centre, (Indian Institute of Science Campus),
Bangalore, and were chained to the wall fixtures. Two young girls were
chained to a ladder and locked. Two others photographed the exciting
event while two or three others walked away with the keys of the locks
that were used for the chains. No crowds, no slogans, no rabble, nothing.
There does not seem to be any responsible person from the Greenpeace
around. When the police came, they had to saw off the chains to release
the girls, since there were no keys to unlock. The press statement of
Greenpeace (reported by NDTV) was obviously given from the comfort of an
A photograph published in Times of India of March 27, 2003 had a caption
to the photograph "A Greenpeace activist stages a suicide demonstration
demanding compensation for farmers who cultivated BT cotton in Karnataka.
The demonstration was staged in front of the Monsanto office in Bangalore
on Wednesday". One can see the two girls on the ladder and the Police
Officer using a saw to cut the chain. The expression 'suicide
demonstration' sounds odd. There was no news item on this incident in the
This is the most irresponsible and most cowardly manner of protesting, I
have come across. It exposed young people to risk, without visible
support. I never expected of such a thing from an international NGO,
though it may seem to have provided an ingenious mode of summer employment
to the students.
Error In the Second Article of March 27 AgBioView
- Kim Nill
Dear Dr. Prakash: Within the below article entitled "Planting A Seed", it
states (Mendel Biotechnology) "produced a strain of Arabidopsis that
tolerated 17ƒC of frost". Should it perhaps have instead said "17ƒF"??
Sincerely, Kim Nill, American Soybean Association, St. Louis, Missouri
Sustainable Farms, Sustainable Food - CD ROM
- Produced by the United Soybean Board.
Following your suggestion we have posted this video to our Web site and
would be pleased to have you cite the location in your newsletter. The URL
is http://www.talksoy.com and the posting is right on the home page.
FYI, the piece was created by the United Soybean Board for use and viewing
by our friends in the food and fiber industries. We will be producing a
new batch of CD ROMs soon and anyone who would like a copy can e-mail my
colleague Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Thanks, and best regards, John Bissell
GM Foods and Reckless Reporting; The Gambia Independent
- Tawanda Zidenga
The article carried in The Independent of Gambia on March 25 2003,
entitled "No GM foods please " was a clear display of ignorance on the
part of the editorial of the newspaper. It is not advisable to make noise
about an issue about which you know nothing. There is more wisdom in
The article was written in the usual style of an enthusiastic journalist
excited by the language more than by the facts. But behind this there was
no substance. In other words, it was nothing but rhetoric. The editorial
team would have done their nation a better service had they sought the
comments of an expert.
The article describes GM foods as "unfit for human consumption, " but
does not explain to the readers how they differ from conventional foods.
Clearly, the writer does not have the slightest idea of what a GM food is.
All they give is the usual hogwash that "GM foods are the products of an
unnatural process which contain unnatural composition ëeven rats ' have
found inedible. " Little does our writer know that there is nothing
"natural " about modern agriculture and there never will be. That "even
rats " have found GM foods inedible obviously derives from the dubious
conclusions of Dr Pusztai after his work on potatoes and the gene for
Those who followed the work know that Dr Pusztai 's conclusions were not
consistent with his data. Again the writer showed ignorance of the facts
and decided to copy a statement from an activist pamphlet.
The Independent says that it 's a pity that Africa is so hopeless as to
fail to refuse gifts that even animals do not find useful. What I find a
pity is the fact that ignorant people like the writers of the article tend
to have loud mouths and platforms to perpetuate their ignorance. Clearly
that is not the way for Africa.
If the writer was genuinely worried about GM foods, then he/she could have
addressed the major concerns about the technology. Then it would be easy
to initiate a healthy discussion. But the writer 's pre-occupation seemed
to be the bedeviling of America. Cooking up conspiracy theories is not the
way for Africa.
As if all this was not enough, the writer went on to claim that nobody
eats GM foods in America!!
Plant Biotechnology research student, Crop Science Department, University
Allison Snow: Of Weeds and GM Crops
For Ohio State University plant ecologist Allison Snow, what started as
childhood wanderings in a Connecticut salt marsh has led to a career
exploring how weeds play a sort of gene-swapping game with both
conventional and genetically-modified (GM) crops.
Not many years ago, tracking a gene as it moved through a field full of
plants was a near impossibility. Today, says Snow, technology has made it
possible to study precisely how genes are spread or extinguished in wild
and domesticated plant populations.
Her interest in how plants swap genes started out as an interest in how
humans and nature place strong selection pressures on plants. "It was
while I was in graduate school," she recalls. "I just got fascinated by
how artificial selection and natural selection were so similar."
Charles Darwin, in fact, recognized that human attempts at breeding --
aka artificial selection -- exerted the same types of pressure that
nature did. In On the Origin of Species he used artificial selection to
explain the principle of natural selection as an important aspect of how
species diverge and become new species.
But Darwin knew nothing about genes -- the basic carriers of inheritance
-- and he couldn't have imagined that someday Snow and her students would
be tracking genes as they flowed from domesticated plants to weeds and
Snow's work began as a seemingly esoteric, basic science interest, but the
introduction of GM plants into fields in the early 1990s thrust her and
her work into the thick of the debate about how to evaluate the risks of
introducing GM plants into agriculture.
"My whole mission right now is to provide really good science that can be
used in risk assessment," says Snow. And like so many other matters
involving genetically modified organisms, she has discovered that there
are no easy, across-the-board answers.
There are some basic principles that seem to apply, however. For instance,
many genetic modifications made by humans probably don't have much chance
of surviving in the wild, she says, because they are not helpful in the
wild. A good example is a sunflower that some researchers are coaxing to
produce rubber. There is no obvious reason rubber would be an advantage to
wild sunflowers, so the trait would likely die out quickly in a wild
On the other hand, a trait that may offer some benefit to wild sunflowers
will likely survive. For example, domestic sunflowers that have been given
the insecticidal gene from the soil bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt)
can spread the gene to wild sunflowers. The gene might persist because it
offers the sunflowers an advantage in the wild -- bugs don't survive if
they eat the wild sunflowers with the Bt gene.
"We found that with the Bt sunflowers there were benefits," Snow explains.
"We think that because we saw a benefit, the transgene would persist and
spread. (But) it's going to depend on the trait."
GM plants could be of particular value to developing countries because
insecticides are too expensive for farmers to use. In these areas, Bt
crops could be a boon to production. Snow's work has taken her to many
other countries to help train local people. "I'm working with people in
Vietnam, Africa, China, and elsewhere," she says.
Her travels have taught her that it'll take more than a few US scientists
to deal with the weed-crop problems in the developing world. "It's really
hard to get things going in other countries," she says. "There is a lot of
need for training. It's a huge problem."
One example of an international crop/weed problem is rice grown in
Vietnam. Since rice growers there, and in other countries, have moved away
from the rice-paddy-style method to a more intensive slope cultivation, a
weedy form of the rice has become an increasing problem. People want
herbicide-resistant rice so they can spray and kill only the weedy rice,
she explains. Because both types of rice are the very same species, "the
gene will cross," she says. It's just a matter of time. When that happens,
the weedy rice will come back and there will need to be another strategy.
Back in her lab, Snow and her students are also taking a closer look at
wild radishes. "They're pretty, but they're a very serious (weed)
problem." The seeds of the radish can live in soil for 10-20 years. Like
many weeds, they are closely related to crop plants. In fact, says Snow,
some crops can turn into weeds if you just leave them alone for a few
generations. Nature selects the traits that help the plant survive -- not
necessarily what make the plants useful to humans -- and before you know
it, it's a weed.
Although GM radishes currently don't exist, the lessons Snow and her
colleagues are learning from the interaction of such weeds with related
crop plants is supplying researchers with a fundamental understanding
about how genes really flow among plants. That understanding will likely
help make it a lot easier to make sound, scientific judgments about the
potential risks of various GM plants in the future.
An Export Crop Hits a Critical Juncture
Biotechnology companies have been working on genetically modified wheat
for years. Now, GM wheat is beginning to move through the regulatory
system. Even if approved, GM wheat may not be embraced by the markets and
consumers. This month we look at whether the world is ready for a future
with GM wheat. Have an opinion on this or any issue with GM foods? Join
our Forum. For more information on ag biotech, visit the Pew Initiative on
Food and Biotechnology online at http://pewagbiotech.org/buzz/
A Wheaty Issue: GM Wheat Enters the Regulatory Arena. Late December,
Monsanto submitted its Roundup Ready Wheat for regulatory approval. With
other wheats in development, GM wheat is clearly on the horizon. But, are
consumers and export markets ready?
Are the Markets Ready for GM Wheat? Syngenta's John Bloomer and the
National Grain and Feed Association's Kendell Keith look consider the
acceptance of GM Wheat.
Review of Artificial Barriers to United States Agricultural Trade and
Foreign Food Assistance
- Statement of Dr. Florence Wambugu
President, A Harvest Biotech Foundation International, Nairobi, Kenya;
March 26, 2003 Submitted to the Committee on Agriculture United States
House of Representatives (Thanks to Andrew Fish for forwarding this )
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I am grateful for the opportunity to submit
testimony to the Agriculture Committee on critical issues in
biotechnology, foreign food aid, and African agriculture.
I am a passionate believer in the power of biotechnology to boost food
production and fight hunger and poverty in the developing world. As one
of nine children growing up on a small farm in Kenya, I know that African
farmers need more tools for fighting plant diseases and overcoming other
barriers to increased crop production. I do not believe that
biotechnology is a silver bullet for African agriculture, but it is an
indispensable tool that can have dramatic benefits.
The African continent, more than any other, urgently needs agricultural
biotechnology, including transgenic crops, to improve food production.
This is why the debate over providing genetically modified (GM) corn in
food aid shipments is so troubling. The primary accomplishment of the
mainly European anti-biotech lobby, through gross misinformation and
political maneuvering, was only to keep safe and nutritious food out of
the hands of starving people.
However, these cynical organizations also used famine as an opportunity to
promote an anti-biotech message that not only undermines the most
promising developments in African agriculture, but also further distorts
the global debate over biotechnology. African scientists, who
overwhelmingly support the development of biotechnology for African
agriculture, have a common interest with you in fighting for open minds
and markets around the world.
It is a paradox that one of the most controversial sciences
--biotechnology --has become a unifying factor for African scientists.
Given the controversies surrounding the science, arriving at a consensus
position has not been easy. But biotechnology has gained acceptance
because there is consensus that it is a global opportunity. Both
multinational companies and small-holder farmers stand to benefit as
confirmed by experiences in China and Africa. While the focus has been on
benefits to the private sector, programs such as the tissue culture banana
project in some East African countries have demonstrated that
biotechnology can have a positive impact on hunger, malnutrition and
poverty. In some cases, rural farm incomes have tripled as a result of
The question then arises: Should the agricultural sector remain unchanged
while every other aspect of life on the continent is changing? The
anti-biotech lobby asserts that the continent needs to be protected from
big multinational biotech companies. This often Euro-centric view is
founded on two premises: that Africa has no expertise to make an informed
decision and that the continent should focus on organic farming. These
perspectives, even if well intended, do not represent the African
Throughout my career I have been dedicated to realizing the promise of
biotechnology for small farmers and communities in Africa and other areas
of the world where producing sufficient food is a constant struggle. I
bring global experience and a global perspective to my work. I obtained a
bachelors degree in Biological Sciences from the University of Nairobi in
Kenya, a masters degree in Plant Pathology from the University of North
Dakota, a PhD in Plant Virology and Biotechnology at the University of
Bath. I also spent a three-year post doctoral fellowship in genetic
engineering with Monsanto here in the United States, during which time I
worked on developing a genetically modified, virus resistant sweet
Most recently I was Director of the African Region Office of the
International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications,
and earlier I was the Senior Research Officer and Coordinator of Plant
Biotechnology Research with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute.
Among other international activities I serve on the Dupont Biotech
Advisory Panel, the Board of Trustees of the International Plant Genetics
Resource Institute, and the private sector committee of the Consultative
Group on International Agricultural Research.
I founded and became President of A Harvest Biotech Foundation
International in 2002 to improve the quality and impact of biotechnology
communications and to help facilitate the development and adoption of
biotech crops in Africa. A Harvest is focused on biotechnology education
and facilitating the delivery of biotechnology benefits to farmers. I
travel frequently around the world to speak about the crop production
problems facing Africa and the solutions that biotechnology offers.
Did Zambia have any valid reasons for rejecting GM food? No. But Zambia
did have valid reasons for asking questions about trade and food safety
issues. First, brushing aside the issue of trade with the European Union
(EU) is simplistic. But total rejection of GM food is equally simplistic.
For historical, political and economic reasons, Africa's main trading
partner is Europe. In view of the EU moratorium on GM food, African
countries that favor the use of GM crops must put on their thinking caps
and decide how best to deal with the trade issue. My country, Kenya, has
discovered that in the last five years, neighboring Uganda has become our
largest trading partner, overtaking Britain. Regionally, the Common
Market for Eastern and Southern Africa has recently surpassed the EU as
Kenya's main trading bloc. These are relevant lessons for Zambia.
The second issue is one of safety. As a scientist, who has been in the
lab and have been involved in biotechnology for over 10 years, I can
confirm that rigorous testing takes place to ensure GM foods are safe.
Indeed, a number of the foods that we eat would fail miserably if passed
through the rigor of GM food testing. There are no proven dangers from GM
foods, although even pro-GM scientists would agree there are always
potential dangers. Mobile phone technology is spreading like wild fire in
Africa, despite the alleged danger of cancer-causing effects. Should we
stop using cell phones? The simple answer is that the benefits far
outweigh any potential dangers.
The needs of Africa and Europe are different. Europe has surplus food and
does not experience hunger, mass starvation and death on the scale we
frequently and sadly witness in Africa. The priority of Africa is to feed
her people with safe foods and to sustain agricultural production and the
environment. Based on what is happening on the continent, it is a
foregone conclusion that biotechnology is causing a silent revolution in
Africa. Farmers have embraced the new technology because it makes them
more efficient, protecting --or increasing --yields and reducing their
reliance on chemicals.
The debate on biotechnology and its impact on Africa has already moved to
a higher level. The issue is not whether to adopt biotechnology, but how
to adopt it. The challenge now surrounds substantive matters related to
the technology and specific policies and institutions required to enable
Africans maximize the benefits and minimize potential risks associated
Most African countries lack the necessary expertise and information to
engage in the formulation and implementation of long-term biotechnology
policies and laws. At the moment they are merely reacting to political and
ethical issues being raised by anti-biotechnology lobbies around the
world. Africa needs a critical mass of African expertise in biotechnology
policy analysis in order to enlarge the region's ability to participate
effectively in the international negotiations, such as the Protocol on
However, it must also be emphasized that Africa has comparative advantages
in biotechnology. We can participate in this global opportunity as equal
partners. While the industrialized countries bring technology to the
table, Africa is bringing its enormous genetic diversity, indigenous
knowledge, local field ecosystems for product development, capacities and
infrastructure required by foreign multinational companies. Africa has
local germplasm, some of it already well-characterized and clean, being
held in gene banks in trust by centers run by the Consultative Group of
International Agricultural Research.
Our interest is in unpacking the emerging opportunities with a view to
transforming rural agriculture without undermining local ecologies and
socio-economic landscapes. Instead of knee-jerk reactions to
biotechnology, African governments must now move aggressively to establish
technology policies that enlarge their --and the continent 's
--comparative advantages and competitiveness in the technology.
Critics of biotechnology claim that Africa has no chance to benefit from
biotechnology, and that Africa will only be exploited by multinationals.
On the contrary, small-scale farmers in Africa have benefited by using
hybrid seeds from local and multinational companies, and transgenic seeds
in effect are simply an added-value improvement to these hybrids. Local
farmers are benefiting from tissue-culture technologies for banana, sugar
cane, pyrethrum, cassava and other crops. There is every reason to believe
they will also benefit from the crop-protection transgenic technologies in
the pipeline for banana, such as sigatoka, the disease-resistant
transgenic variety now ready for field trials. Virus- and pest-resistant
transgenic sugar cane technologies are being developed in countries such
as Mauritius, South Africa and Egypt.
Kenya ñ which is currently drafting laws to govern GM foods ñ has opted to
build capacity in every area necessary to adopt biotechnology, while
moving with care. We appreciate that there could be potential dangers,
but we also know very well the benefits. For example, let's look at the
effect of GM technology on three important crops in Africa.
Crop World (Ave Yield: tones/ha) Africa (Ave Yield: tones/ha)
Maize 1.7 4.1
Sweet potatoes 4.8 14.7
Bananas 6.0 48.1
As is clearly evident, with GM technology Africa can quadruple its maize
output, more than triple sweet potato output and increase banana output by
eight times. Anybody who cares about hunger should be interested in this
technology. It is my considered opinion that biotechnology is already
having a major impact on agricultural and public policies in Africa from a
The Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) recently adopted
biotechnology as one of its three main goals. FARA is important in the
current GM debate because it brings together Africa's key decision makers
in agriculture. It is also through FARA that the New Partnership for
African Development (Nepad) will shape a continental agricultural
strategy. Both FARA and Nepad share the common goal of achieving a
continent-wide 6% per annum growth in agricultural sector over the next 20
to 25 years. There is no doubt at the continental level that
biotechnology will play a critical role in shaping the future of Africa.
In my view, African policy-makers and scientists need to urgently identify
specific areas of biotechnology in which their countries should invest.
Debate must shift to the nature of innovative policies and laws to
regulate the application of genetic engineering to ensure that potential
risks are reduced or altogether eliminated. Other important areas of
focus include mapping global trends in biotechnology, the socio-economic
benefits of biotechnology to African countries, and the role of
intellectual property protection in promoting the transfer of safe
biotechnology techniques and products to Africa.
Needless to say, Africa has many problems--a shortage of skilled people
(especially in biotechnology), poor research funding, lack of governing
policies, and civil strife. Nevertheless, countries such as South Africa,
Egypt, Zimbabwe and Kenya are taking practical steps to ensure that they
can use biotechnology for sustainable development.
African countries need the right policies and agencies, such as
operational biosafety regulatory agencies and an effective local public
and private sector, to interface with multinational companies that already
have the technologies. Consumers need to be informed of the pros and cons
of various agricultural biotechnology packages, the dangers of using
unsuitable foreign germplasm, and how to avoid the loss of local germplasm
and to maintain local diversity.
Other checks and balances are required to avoid patenting local germplasm
and innovations by multinationals; to ensure policies on intellectual
property rights and to avoid unfair competition; to prevent the monopoly
buying of local seed companies; and to prevent the exploitation of local
consumers and companies by foreign multinationals. Field trials need to
be done locally, in Africa, to establish environmental safety under
The main goal is to find a balanced formula for how local institutions can
participate in transgenic product development and share the benefits,
risks and profits of the technology, as they own the local germplasm
needed by the multinationals for sustainable commercialization. New
varieties must not simply replace local ones. The removal of genes that
were in the public domain into the private sector raises concern in
All these issues mean that Africa must strengthen its capacity to deal
with various aspects of biotechnology, including issues of biosafety,
creating and sustaining gene banks, and encouraging the emergence of a
local biotechnology private sector.
We may have missed the green revolution, which helped Asia and Latin
America achieve self-sufficiency in food production, but we cannot afford
to be excluded or to miss another major global technological revolution.
The people of Africa cannot wait for others to debate the merits of
biotechnology -- and we look to America and other developed nations to
help us allocate technologies that can prevent suffering and starvation.