Today in AgBioView: April 1, 2003 (the real one!)
* Australia: GM Canola Gets the Green Light
* Lost in a Maize
* Poll: What People Really Think About Genetics
* 'Unsound' Science Underlies Trade Barriers
* India: US Food Aid Still Under GM Cloud
* Do Rats Prefer Non-GM Maize?
* A User's Guide to Your Genetically Modified Future
* A View From a Developing Country
* Ecological Agrarian: Agriculture's First Evolution in 10,000 Years
* Biotechnology Provides New Tools for Plant Breeding
* Who is Driving Biotechnology Acceptance?
Dear Readers: I hope you enjoyed the April Fool's version of AgBioView
sent earlier today and also not too offended by some of its contents. In
the "Mickey Mouse Potato" story I forgot to mention that you can see this
I thank Dr. Piero Morandini for the picture and for the idea.--- Prakash
Australia: GM Canola Gets the Green Light
- Sydney Morning Herald, April 1 2003
Australia's gene technology regulator has found GM canola does not pose
any risk to human health or the environment. In the biggest step towards
approving the release of GM canola for general use, regulator Sue Meek
today said she found no reason to prevent the crop being grown.
"The risk assessment concludes that this GM canola does not present any
risks to human health, safety and the environment that are greater than
the low level posed by conventional (non-GM) canola," she said in a
"As with the non-GM product, the genetically modified crop is of minimal
risk. "Therefore, only ongoing oversight requirements are included in the
proposed licence conditions that I have set down."
Bayer CropScience (formerly Aventis) first put to Dr Meek its application
for GM canola last year. Only two GM crops are grown in Australia,
carnations and cotton, and GM canola would be the first genetically
altered food crop available to farmers. The canola has been altered to
make it resistant to the herbicide glufosinate ammonium, enabling farmers
to spray the plant directly with the chemical.
Traditional canola had to be treated with a more extensive program of
chemical spraying. Dr Meek said there was no evidence the GM canola proved
any more dangerous to the health of people, or the environment, than
"I have closely examined an extensive range of possible risks including
potential for toxicity, allergenicity, gene transfer to other crops, the
likelihood of creating problem weeds and possible impacts on wildlife and
soil micro-organisms but have found no appreciable risks that would
adversely affect human health or the environment," she said.
Bayer said it only envisaged a small initial release of the GM canola, but
expects it to capture a large share of the market in coming years. Canola
is Australia's third biggest crop, and is often used by wheat farmers as a
break crop to improve soil quality. Dr Meek has now put out for public
comment the risk management plan covering the use of the GM canola until
Lost in a Maize
- Craig Winneker, Techcentralstation.com, March 19, 2003
In the topsy-turvy, sometimes near-Orwellian world of EU politics,
something that appears to be bad news can often be good, and vice versa.
Consider recent developments in European policy on genetically modified
Earlier this month the European Commission, the EU's executive body,
released a report on the co-existence of GM and non-GM crops. In effect,
the Commission argued that GMOs are a fact of life and no amount of
legislation requiring traceability or labeling of them would ensure that
some products or crops would be "GM-free". Therefore, it concluded, the
burden of proof should be on food producers who want to label their
products as "GM-free" to show this to be the case. The same standard is
used for "bio" or organic food producers.
This was a significant change in direction for the Commission, but you
wouldn't know it from most of the press coverage, which tended to focus on
the issue as one of the EU leaning towards allowing "GM contamination" of
conventional crops - even though the report said nothing of the kind. And
even though, it has become tiresome to repeat, there is no evidence
whatsoever that GMOs pose any health risk to consumers.
What accounted for the double-think?
The so-called "green" groups in Europe won the spin control on this issue
by leaking a copy of the report to the press before the Commission
released it. This is a not uncommon occurrence in Brussels, where
nongovernmental organizations have significant policymaking power and
frequently vet EU documents before they are made public.
Typical was the response of Lorenzo Consoli, Greenpeace's EU adviser on
GMOs. "Coexistence is about guaranteeing that non-GM farmers in Europe can
keep growing their traditional or organic products while avoiding
contamination and without additional costs," he told European Voice
The Commission, to its credit, frames the issue differently, promising "to
decide on a course of action in order to ensure that farmers will be able
to cultivate freely the agricultural crops they prefer, be they GM,
conventional or organic crops."
In fact, despite the EU's continuing de facto moratorium on approvals of
new GM products - which is being propped up by a handful of member states
that continue to block efforts to lift it - the Commission has generally
pushed for acceptance of biotech foods. Several key members of the
institution - including Food Safety Commissioner David Byrne of Ireland,
Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler of Austria and Trade Commissioner
Pascal Lamy of France - have indicated their support for ending the
moratorium (Sweden's member of the Commission, environment chief Margľt
Wallstrom, favors keeping it). Recently Research Commissioner Philippe
Busquin of Belgium and Enterprise Commissioner Erkki Liikanen of Finland
added their voices to the debate, calling on member states to intensify
their efforts to promote biotechnology.
Still, EU environment and agriculture ministers, the ones with the real
power to change policy, continue to refuse to act to lift the moratorium
until unrealistic labeling and traceability rules are put in place, and
there's no guarantee they'll do it even then.
There was more (unpublicized) good news for GM producers in the EU this
month. The latest comes from the European Court of Justice (ECJ), where a
chief legal advisor has issued a recommendation to Europe's highest
judicial body in a case filed by Monsanto and other biotech companies
against the government of Italy, which since 1998 has blocked the
marketing by those companies of certain GM products. Those products were
approved before the EU's moratorium and are on the market elsewhere in
Europe. But Italy "entertained doubts as to the absolute safety" of the
products and banned them. An advocate-general's report is not a ruling,
but ECJ judges usually follow its recommendations.
At first glance, the report appears to be a victory for Monsanto and other
GM producers. The advocate-general "considers that novel foods may be
placed on the market under a simplified procedure even when they contain
traces of transgenic protein, provided they are absolutely safe in terms
of health." Further, the report points out, the foods in question pose "no
risk whatsoever to human health."
And, therefore, it concludes, Italy can continue to block the products in
Say what? Yes, you read that correctly. Italy was right to ban the
Monsanto products "provided it had detailed grounds for considering, as a
result of new information or a reassessment of existing information, that
the use of the food in question endangers human health or the
environment." Even though it hasn't yet proved that and almost assuredly
will never be able to, the ban can stay in place.
Forget 1984, this is Catch-22.
Discovery Channel Announces Results of Global Poll Revealing What People
Really Think About Genetics
- Discovery Channel, March 31, 2003
'Only 8% of People Understand Genetic Science Very Well - But the Vast
Majority Still Has Strong Opinions on Its Uses Public Shares Optimism of
the Promise; Still Wary of the Price '
Silver Spring, Md.,/PRNewswire/ -- The structure of DNA is arguably the
most significant discovery of the 20th century -- paving the way for
disease prediction and treatment, cloning, stem cell research and many
other extraordinary advances for humans. But what does the public really
think -- and know -- about this science and its implications on our lives?
Discovery Channel specially commissioned the world's first global poll to
assess attitudes about DNA and genetics around the world. The results are
presented in the upcoming film DNA: The Promise and The Price, premiering
on Discovery Channel around the world on April 6th, and airing in the US
on April 10th at 10:00 p.m. (ET). The survey aimed to uncover what the
average person knows about the impact of genetics on their lives, and how
informed people are of the current progress. Conducted in eight countries
around the world (UK, Denmark, Poland, Mexico, Brazil, Taiwan, Turkey and
the US), the survey reveals some surprising conclusions.
Level of understanding of genetic science: A very low number -- only 8% --
of those surveyed feel that they understand developments in genetic
science very well. However, our poll found that many people share the
overwhelming optimism of scientists that genetics will decide the future
of the human race. Most support was found in Brazil, while the least was
found in the UK and US. But even in these two countries, 2 out of 5 people
agreed. Public opinion is overwhelmingly in agreement that new genetic
developments will bring cures for most diseases -- with 8 in 10 people
Although people like the idea of what genetic science can do to help them
in their lives, they are still wary that "Human genetic research is
tampering with nature and as such is potentially dangerous." A majority of
all surveyed nationalities agree with this, except for the Danes, some 52%
of whom disagree. The highest levels of agreement are among the British
and Poles (65% in both countries agreeing, most of them strongly).
"Do you think that the rules and regulations governing genetic
developments and research are lagging far behind the pace of developments,
are not too far behind or are keeping pace?"
A great majority -- 62% of people overall -- say that rules and
regulations are not keeping pace with the rate of developments. 70% of
British respondents feel the rules are lagging behind, with 72% of Poles
and 70% of Americans agreeing. UK respondents demonstrate the greatest
level of concern that governance is 'lagging far behind the pace of
developments,' with almost half (46%) giving this response. On the other
hand, 48% of Mexicans and 45% of Brazilians are confident that the rules
and regulations are keeping pace with developments.
Cloning: The issue of cloning received some of the strongest reactions
from the respondents, with 8 in 10 people (83%) against cloning a family
member if they died, most of them strongly opposed. Opposition to this use
of cloning is greatest in Denmark (97%), the UK (93%) and the US (88%).
Overall, 82% believe there will be, or has already been, a successfully
cloned human. Yet a majority of people (71%) are in favor of a government
ban on human cloning.
Designer Babies and Stem Cell Research: There was little support for the
idea of 'designer babies' -- where gene technology is used to satisfy a
personal, cultural or aesthetic desire, with only 2 out of 10 people
agreeing with the concept. A majority (83%) feels that gene technology
should only be used for purely medical conditions that threaten life or
quality of life.
In the survey, 8 out of 10 people said that if there were a history of
genetic disease in their family they would choose to be tested for it. For
a large majority (78%) confirmation of a genetic disease would cause them
to consider never having children.
"Parents should have the right to screen out embryos that are found to be
carrying an hereditary disease, so that only those free from the condition
are allowed to be born."
Some three-quarters of Turks (80%), Poles (77%) and Taiwanese (73%) would
welcome having the right to screen out embryos that are found to be
carrying a hereditary disease. Americans are least keen on parents being
given this option, with only 42% of them agreeing and some 44%
disagreeing, most of them strongly. British respondents tend to agree with
the statement (55% agree compared with 33% who disagree).
Yet just over half the respondents (52%) feel that research using human
stem cells, extracted from embryos and resulting in their destruction,
should be banned. In Brazil and Turkey, 2 in 3 people believe it should be
outlawed, and in the US, 2 in 5. In the UK, half of those polled think it
should be banned. Opinions are clearly divided on this complex issue.
Gene Therapy: 8 in 10 respondents said that if they were ill, they would
be willing to receive gene therapy -- treatment that alters and replaces
genes -- to potentially be cured. "If you were being treated with an
experimental treatment like gene therapy and you found out that people had
died from the treatment, would you continue?"
When posed with this dilemma, knowledge of the potential danger and that
people had died from the therapy, the Taiwanese would be most likely to
persist with the treatment (39%), compared with only 14% of Danes and 16%
of Britons and Americans. Significant proportions of those interviewed in
Mexico (60%) and Brazil (47%) would not continue to receive gene therapy.
Genetically Modified Food: A majority of those polled in all countries
(58%) are unwilling to eat Genetically Modified (GM) food. However, just
over half the people (55%) in the countries surveyed feel it would be
acceptable to send GM food to countries in need, where the population is
starving. Two-thirds (66%) support GM crop developments if they make
'Unsound' Science Underlies Trade Barriers
- Doreen Muzzi, Primedia Business Magazines & Media Inc. March 31, 2003
Washington ˝House Agricultural Committee members listened as industry
members and others described the harm being caused by artificial trade
barriers, which they say are not based in sound science.
The Hearing on Artificial Barriers to U.S. Trade and Food Aid focused on
the European Union's moratorium on agricultural biotechnology and how it
may have influenced some developing African countries to reject
much-needed U.S. food aid because the shipments contained corn produced
"There has been a concerted campaign by some international
non-governmental organizations based in Europe to convince hungry African
countries that food that has been safely grown and consumed for years in
the United States is unsafe, and if they permit their citizens to consume
this food aid they will somehow loose export markets in Europe," said Leon
"While we are concerned about the potential disruption in this outlet for
U.S. corn, we are more concerned at the prospect of scare mongering about
the safety of U.S. corn affecting the livelihood of citizens in the
region," said Corzine, chairman of the Biotechnology Working Group for the
National Corn Growers Association.
John Kilama, president of the Global Bioscience Development Institute,
said there is no credible scientific evidence that any foods derived from
genetically modified crops have an adverse impact on human health or any
"Despite the fact that there is abundant information about the safety of
genetically modified foods, many countries in Africa continue to be
reluctant to move quickly to acquire the biotechnology to support their
agricultural programs," he said. "Africans are concerned that Europe will
retaliate against African exports if Africans accept genetically modified
organisms from the United States." Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte,
R-Va., said he too is concerned about what he calls the politicizing of
"We can no longer underestimate the importance of this issue," he noted.
"Not only are U.S. farmers and ranchers hurting, but the lives of
millions, primarily in Africa, are in the balance as a result of policy
which is not based on sound science, as is evidenced by the fact that
American consumers have been consuming genetically enhanced food for
years. This is something that the Committee and the agricultural community
take very seriously."
Rep. Charlie Stenholm, D-Texas, the committee's ranking minority member,
said "I believe that the US and the EU have a responsibility, as developed
nations, to lead by example in developing regulatory systems that not only
promote safe food, but also promote a better and more secure food supply.
"I am disappointed that Europe has so far been unable to construct a
science-based regulatory system for food that encourages development of
new technologies that can benefit developed and developing countries
around the world."
The European UnionÝs moratorium on genetically-modified products
translates into an annual loss of over $300 million in corn exports for
U.S. farmers, according to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. During the
hearing, Speaker Hastert called for the end of the European Union's
"protectionist and discriminatory" trade policies.
The use of non-tariff barriers, he said, represent an imminent threat to
the cause of free trade. "Over the last few years, we have seen country
after country implementing protectionist, discriminatory trade policies
under the cloak of food safety ˝ each one brought on by emotion, culture,
or their own poor history with food safety regulation. Simply put,
non-tariff protectionism is discriminatory and detrimental to the free
movement of goods and services across borders.
Hastert called the European UnionÝs moratorium on genetically modified
products "indefensible. This is a non-tariff barrier based simply on
prejudice and misinformation, not sound science. In fact, their own
scientists agree that genetically modified foods are safe.
"We should all be concerned that this irrational and discriminatory policy
is spreading. China, for example, has developed new rules for the approval
and labeling of biotech products. An overwhelming portion of the entire $1
billion U.S. soybean export crop is genetically modified. Although
implementation has been delayed, such a labeling program would certainly
result in higher food costs for consumers and higher production costs for
There is general consensus, he says, among the scientific community that
genetically modified food is no different from conventional food. What's
different, Hastert said, is not the content of the food, but the process
by which it is made. "Labeling genetically modified products would only
mislead consumers and create an atmosphere of fear. "Biotechnology
products are screened by at least one, and often by as many as three,
federal agencies. From conception to commercial introduction, it can take
up to 10 years to bring a biotech variety to market.
Throughout the process, the public has ample opportunity for participation
and comment, and data on which regulatory decisions are based are readily
available," Hastert said. "Still, regardless of the overwhelming evidence
to the contrary, bans on genetically modified products continue to persist
and multiply. The worldwide impact has been staggering.
"Clearly, the long-term impact of these prohibitive policies could be
disastrous for U.S. farmers in terms of competitiveness and the ability to
provide food for the world's population," he said.
Hastert said the U.S. government should immediately take a case to the
World Trade Organization regarding the current EU moratorium. "After all,
the price of inaction is one we can no longer afford to pay," he said.
India: US Food Aid Still Under GM Cloud
- K.S. Jayaraman, Nature Biotechnology, April 2003 Vol. 21 No. 4 pp
346-347; www.nature.com. Reproduced in AgBioView with the permission of
New Delhi, India -- Controversy over whether India should import a
shipment of food aid from the US that is suspected to be contaminated with
genetically modified (GM) corn has become murkier.
A consignment of 1,000 tonnes of corn-soya blend from the US is lying in
Kolkata port awaiting clearance from the Environment Ministry's Genetic
Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), which regulates the large-scale
introduction of GM drugs, plants, or food stuff. The shipment is the first
of a 23,000-tonne food package that CARE-India and the Catholic Relief
Services (CRS)--two American nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)--had
proposed to import into India for distribution to school children under
the 'midday meal' program.
Last November, the GEAC refused to clear the shipment as the two agencies
failed to produce US government certification in writing that the
consignment did not contain StarLink, a variety of GM corn that is
approved as cattle feed in the US but not for consumption by humans. At
that time, there were already reports of traces of StarLink corn slipping
into US consignments to Japan, South Korea, and Australia. "We didn't want
to take chances," the then GEAC chairman A.M. Gokhale says. "All we asked
was a US government undertaking saying it was free of StarLink." As this
was not forthcoming, GEAC refused permission for the import.
At its second meeting on March 6 to reconsider the issue, the GEAC stuck
to its earlier decision disallowing the import. But the committee, which
now has a new chairman, made a significant concession by allowing
importers to produce a certificate from "any accredited laboratory (AAL),"
not necessarily from the US government.
"This is the catch," says Ramesh Bhat, head of the Food & Drug Toxicology
Research Center at the National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad. "On
one hand the government insists that local food samples should be tested
for adulteration only in government laboratories. If this is the case, how
can GEAC accept GM-free certificate for imported food from AAL?" Bhat says
AAL certification would provide an "escape route" for the American NGOs to
bring in the corn-soya blend through the "back door."
Indian NGOs allege that the US administration has been arm-twisting India
into accepting the food aid. "Senator Christopher Bond was recently in
India, trying to exert political pressure for lifting the ban," says
Vandana Shiva, a well-known activist in New Delhi. Suman Sahai, a
geneticist and convener of Gene Campaign, another NGO, says the US food
aid "is nothing but a prelude to opening the doors for commercial dumping
of GM foods by the US multinationals that are unable to find markets in
Europe." CARE and CRS officials were not available for comment.
Meanwhile GEAC's new chairman, Sushma Choudhary, has made it clear that
the government is not against GM foods per se. At an interministerial
meeting called by Choudhary on February 26, GEAC decided to allow imports
of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on a "case-by-case basis." What
this means is that only approved varieties, such as Bt-cotton, will be
allowed, says Vasantha Muthuswami, who represents the Indian Council of
Medical Research (ICMR) at GEAC. "Those GM products that are not yet
evaluated in India or approved by the GEAC will not be allowed." Bhat says
ICMR had reservations about the corn-soya blend mainly because StarLink is
not approved for human food even in the country of its origin.
The new policy on GMO imports also states that a company exporting GM
material should provide comprehensive information (e.g., the gene
construct inserted into the transgenic) and answer all technical queries
about biosafety. "The Indian government will not spend its money or
resources in conducting studies to find the answers," says Bhat. "The
rationale for this is that the onus of safety rests with the company, just
as in the case of drugs." Bhat says once the basic information is
available the decision to import or not will depend on the outcome of risk
assessment analysis carried out by GEAC. Bhat admits that no risk analysis
would be possible for GM material imported clandestinely. "I know prawn
farmers in Andhra Pradesh have imported GM cyclops as prawn feed, but how
can we detect these [GM Cyclops] if we do not know what genes have been
As part of the GMO policy agreed on at the interministerial meeting, the
government has given priority to building capacity and strengthening
institutions for detecting GMOs and setting up an operational mechanism
for risk assessment and post-approval monitoring. The health ministry has
decided to establish GMO testing facilities in all ports. The ICMR has
created a GM cell in its Delhi headquarters and is also putting in place a
post-marketing surveillance system, while the Department of Biotechnology
is creating four new facilities for developing technologies for GMO
"Our facility at NIN will start functioning in a few weeks," says S.
Vasanthi, who has just returned after training at RIKIL, the state
institute for quality testing of agriculture products in the Netherlands.
Other GMO testing facilities are coming up at the Center for DNA
Fingerprinting and Diagnostics in Hyderabad, the Industrial Toxicology
Research Center in Lucknow, and the Central Food Technology Research
Institute in Mysore.
Do Rats Prefer Non-GM Maize?
From Andrew Apel:
Dear Mr./Dr. Preston: This is to follow up on your posting to AgBioView
regarding the alleged preference of rodents for non-GM maize. The
allegation first came to my attention through the anti-biotech discussion
group GenTech at http://www.gene.ch/gentech-arc.html
The link to the specific discussion is found at
The discussion is based on a paper presented elsewhere, at
The paper concludes: "Thus I can conclude that, scientifically, I have not
actually proven anything."
Chris, I saw your comments on the Soil Association "Seeds of Doubt" report
and the report about unusually fastidious rats. The quotes from the report
on animals' apparent preferences are:
* "If a field contained GM and non-GM maize, cattle would always eat the
non-GM first"- Gale Lush, Nebraska
* "A neighbour had been growing Pioneer Bt maize. When the cattle were
turned out onto the stalks they just wouldn't eat them"- Gary Smith,
* "I saw an advert from a farmer who was looking for non-Bt corn, as he
was getting lower milk yields from the cattle that were eating Bt corn"-
Tom Wiley, North Dakota
* "A captive elk escaped and took up residence in our crops of organic
maize and soya. It had total access to the neighbouring fields of GM
crops, but never went into them"- Susan & Mark Fitzgerald, western
* "While my cows show a preference for open pollinated maize over the
hybrid varieties, they both beat Bt-maize hands down"- Tim Eisenbeis,
* "A student placed two bales of maize in a rodent infested barn. One was
Roundup Ready and the other was conventional. Apparently the rodents would
not touch the Roundup Ready crop".- Roger Lansink, Iowa
The sources of these are many and various, including the infamous Percy
Schmeiser (responsible for the "captured elk" quote). The rat incident was
reported in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, 11 February 2002.
As for the report itself, this had very little credence even in the UK,
where it was issued. Not only is it blatant propaganda (broad conclusions
are derived from a few interviews with disgruntled farmers) but they tried
to charge ú12 for the privilege of reading it! Most of the information
which appeared in the press was therefore drawn from press releases, and
few serious scientists would have taken the trouble to mount a rebuttal
given the weakness of the case. At one point, the report claims that US
farmers are actually losing money by sowing GM crops. If anyone can tell
me the secret used by seed companies to increase the market penetration of
a product which is disadvantageous to the customer, please tell me and I
will make my fortune.
The reason the organic activist had heard no other criticism from a
scientist is that the report really wasn't taken seriously by the
scientific community. Also, of course, many activists live in a fairly
self-contained world, speaking mainly to like-minded people and reading
material which confirms their own beliefs.
Finally I should say that the report was funded by a grant from the
Greenpeace Environmental Trust, and had the approval of Peter Melchett, ex
Greenpeace UK head and now an advisor to the Soil Association (and Burson
With best regards, Martin Livermore
>> More on GM Foods and Reckless Reporting; The Gambia Independent
>> -Chris Preston"
>> Tawanda, I too was surprised by the tone of this article and the obvious
>> failure to check the facts. I also saw the mention to rats, but thought
>> more likely to be a reference from a report from The Soil Association of
New and Improved! A User's Guide to Your Genetically Modified Future
- Charles C. Mann, Wired, April 2003
The Promise: As global population rises and a less-poor Third World wants
more meat in its diet, demand will explode for staples and feed crops like
wheat, rice, and corn. Because little arable land remains unused, hope for
nourishing tomorrow's world rests on biotechnology, provided environmental
leaders will allow it. (If activists torpedo agricultural biotech in rich
nations, less-developed countries will naturally be suspicious of products
unwanted in their country of origin. Last November, such anxiety led
Zambia to refuse US food aid - in the middle of a famine.)
Biotech on the farm means more than genetically modified crops. One
example: As much as half the grain and legume harvest in sub-Saharan
Africa is lost to three species of parasitic weed in the genus Striga,
which Africans call, aptly, "witchweed." A perverse case study in the
power of natural selection, witchweed has evolved tiny, tenacious seeds
that scientists have never figured out how to remove from the soil. Until
recently, that is, when gene-mapping techniques cracked the parasite's
chemical weaponry. Biotech will also create plants that can resist pests,
deliver better nutrition, and thrive in tropical soils now too acidic and
full of aluminum for agriculture. Geneticists in Mexico have already begun
work on the last objective.
The Peril: Biotech could speed up the ongoing loss of agricultural
biodiversity. Ancient farmers developed hundreds of native crop varieties
(so-called landraces), each suited to a particular climatic regime,
geographical niche, or cultural need. But Big Agro relies on ever-fewer
strains. The lunacy of this course was demonstrated in 1971, when a newly
mutated fungus marched through vast swaths of genetically similar corn in
the American South. Catastrophe was averted only when scientists found a
resistant landrace of corn in Africa. "Seed banks" were established, but
it's vital to preserve genetic diversity in crops' "centers of origin" -
the Americas in the case of corn, the Fertile Crescent for wheat.
The Prediction: Technology will provide the seed capital to rebuild
agriculture's genetic base.
The Promise: The trees around us are more or less wild - the only plants
extensively used by people that have not been bred to a fare-thee-well.
From a lumber perspective, trees are inefficient: Almost two-thirds of the
wood is tied up in roots and branches, neither of which are useful to
people. (In contrast, wheat has almost half its weight in highly useful
grain.) By manipulating the genes that control root and branch
development, scientists may be able to collapse thousands of years of
cultivation into a generation or two to create stubby, wide supertrees
that look nothing like their ancestors. Packed almost as close together as
wheat in a field, supertrees would suck up more carbon per unit of land
than any other plant - a living barricade against global warming.
They could also take some pressure off of the world's oil fields: Many
already produce toxic, petroleum-like hydrocarbons as natural defenses. As
Freeman Dyson has argued, it should be possible to enhance their
production of these compounds, then tap trees as an energy source,
maple-sugar style. Because the immediate return on silvicultural
biotechnology is so low, the government will have to step in by offering
funding or incentives. One suggestion: To gain popular support, begin by
backing the American Chestnut Foundation's efforts to splice
blight-resistance genes into the American chestnut. Now almost extinct,
this extraordinarily beautiful tree was a major feature of the American
landscape until the introduction of chestnut blight in 1904.
The Peril: Genetically modified plants could interbreed with their wild
relatives. Consider Johnson grass, an invasive cousin of sorghum that
farmers and the government spend millions a year to control, mainly with
herbicides. The prospect of genetically engineered sorghum transferring
its powers to Johnson grass is an activist's nightmare. Short, nearly
branchless trees would be fine in remote paper plantations, but if they
spread to real forests they could unleash an ecological disaster.
The Prediction: Extremely strange-looking forests in extremely strange
places - like the Outback and the Pampas.
The Promise: As biotech begins to give people longer, healthier lives, it
will become an economic pacesetter, much as computers have been since the
1970s. The combination of a demographic wave of aging boomers, the most
affluent generation in history willing to spend it all on health, and an
unprecedented pipeline of new drugs, will make Big Pharma the biggest
industry of all. When that happens, some Biotech Alley could replace
Silicon Valley as the destination for the brightest, most ambitious PhDs.
By investing in and nurturing nimble biotech startups, and then helping to
market the products they create, today's pharmaceutical giants, like Merck
and Pfizer, will become the General Electrics and Microsofts of tomorrow.
One of the brightest hopes is rapid genomic analysis: instantly
identifying pathogens and tailoring treatments to avoid side effects. But
for that to happen, the drug industry must stop marketing "me too"
products and playing licensing games, a strategy that has led to
short-term profits, stock analyst approval - and rising public anger.
The Peril: Call it Carl Sagan syndrome, after the self-proclaimed
ultra-rationalist who spent millions on unproven - and ultimately
pointless - cancer treatments. But as the desire for longer life fuels the
biotech industry, that attitude could bankrupt the larger economy.
Already, a huge percentage of the budgets of developed nations, especially
the US, is directed toward taking care of the old, and as societies tie up
a greater proportion of their resources in postponing death, Generations
X, Y, and Z could begin to resent the baby boomers - a scenario envisioned
in Bruce Sterling's gerontocratic novel, Holy Fire. Meanwhile, the ancient
wealthy will live in fear that their insurance companies will refuse to
cover the newest life-extension methods. Just as Marx predicted: the
dictatorship of the actuaries.
The Prediction: With any luck, the new pharma economy will catalyze a long
boom greater than that of 1982-2000.
A View From a Developing Country
- Vibha Dhawan, In Vitro Report. Vol. 37 no. 1. Jan-March 2003;
Mankind is facing the challenge of increasing food production from
shrinking per capita land availability. In developing countries, the
recent past witnessed technological advancements of the green revolution
which have saved many from starvation, and in many countries have lead to
self-sufficiency in terms of food production. However, the benefits of the
green revolution are coming to a plateau, and the increase in food
productivity today is not matching the population growth. Even today, the
striking reality is that more than 800 million people cannot afford two
course of meals a day.
The extent of malnutrition in many countries today is beyond imagination,
and approximately 30,000 people die each day due to hunger or
malnutrition. Developing countries are typically characterized by high
population growth, limited resources and small land holdings, all leading
to low agricultural productivity coupled with serious problems of
affordability to procure food, leading to uneven distribution of food.
Unlike developed parts of the world where less than 5% of the population
is producing food, in developing countries as many as 70% of population is
engaged in the farming. Thus agriculture still remains the main source of
Unfortunately, agriculture, which was once identified as key driver for
economic growth, and thus investments were made by the government, is also
witnessing declining government support, both in terms of investments and
farm subsidiaries. The fear is that in the years to come with
globalization, small and marginal farmers may not be able to compete with
other global players in terms of quality food production at
internationally competitive prices. The comparison is between individual
farmers with small land holdings who are dependent on the mercy of
monsoons and still suffer major losses due to diseases, pests, weeds,
droughts, etc., on one side, with well-educated farmers in developed parts
with large land holdings, mechanized way of managing farm, having access
to latest technology and best of the planting material on the other side.
In years to come, perhaps no subsidies will work and only option available
before developing countries is to empower the farmer with the best quality
planting material and the latest technology. Technologies need to be
developed which are scale-neutral and help farmers increase their income
in a sustainable way. The subsidies are to be provided year after year,
but investment made on technical empowerment will make farmers competitive
in all times to come.
Biotechnology is one of the tools which has great potential. Is many
forums today, biotechnology is referred as synonymous to genetic
engineering. Under the vast umbrella of biotechnology, there are various
technologies which are well acceptable to the public. However, one has to
distinguish between traditional biotechnologies from modern biotechnology.
The traditional biotechnology is well tested and is usually
non-controversial. However, due to lack of efforts and unsatisfactory
extension, traditional biotechnologies still have not percolated to small
and marginal farmers. Technologies such as biofertilizers, biopesticides
and micropropagation are some of the examples. This is an urgent need to
commercialize these technologies as they have enormous potential,
especially for small and marginal farmers.
The growing demands of organic food can sustainably be met if farmers have
technology for increasing their production. Application of Rhizobium in
case of leguminous crops; mycorrhizae, for practically all the crops; and
blue green algae in paddies, etc. are some of the examples. Many areas in
developing countries today are producing food in an organic way, not by
choice but out of compulsion. Here, farmers are too poor and thus cannot
afford buying synthetic fertilizers. The traditional biotechnology can
help farmer in these areas to increase their productivity and thus their
economic upliftment. For example, the use of micropropagation can
considerably increase production by planting to superior quality genotypes
which are certified against known viruses.
Modern biotechnology has potential to produce designer crops to match
crops with sites and individual's preferences. Technology has enormous
potential in producing plants which are resistant to pest and diseases,
have longer shelf life; are nutritionally improved, etc. The potential of
genetic engineering is enormous and one has to weigh the benefits of the
technology against the risks. For example, the benefits (in terms of
increased food production) outweighs the risks (associated with excessive
use of pesticides/fertilizers etc.) associated with green revolution
By designing crops resistant to pests and diseases, resource-poor farmers
with a low level of education will be enormously benefited. Because of
their lower literacy level and non-availability of finances, such farmers
are not in a position to take preventive measures and apply chemicals only
to cure/prevent further spread of the disease. This causes enormous loss
in terms of crop productivity. Further, pesticide's residue and excessive
leaching from fertilizers gets into the ground water. In many areas, which
still don't have access to portable water, this water is consumed directly
by the local population thus exposing them to higher doses of chemicals,
some of which are carcinogenic. While the indirect economic burden in
terms of increasing instances of diseases is totally ignored, there are
direct measurable economic gains to the farmer in terms of productivity.
Bt Cotton is one such success story. In India cotton is the single crop
that consumes more than 50% of the total pesticides used in the country.
Developing resistant varieties through genetic engineering is helping the
farmers in increasing their productivity with less applications of
pesticide. Developing countries, which also typically lack cold chains,
witness as much as 30-40% post harvest losses. By increasing shelf life of
perishable products, one can expect high realization price by the farmer
and increased availability of food to the deprived population. The
importance of consuming balanced diet is recognized all over the world.
Balanced diets provide the basic calorific needs, minerals, vitamins, etc.
required for the normal growth and development of the body. Unfortunately
the poor section of the society, even though it realizes the importance of
having balanced foods, is unable to afford such diets. Typically the fat
intake is low and so is that of vegetable and fruits. While cereal
provides them of basic calorific need, it does not provide the essential
amino-acids, vitamins etc. The USAID initiative to put 'Beta-carotene'
gene in rice and mustard is a bold initiative to fight vitamin A
The argument put forth that there are many foods which contain vitamin A
is well taken, but is definitely over-ruled by the fact that Vitamin A
deficiency still remains major problem in many parts of the world. We have
to look into traditional foods consumed by the section of the society
which suffers from Vitamin A deficiency and modify them so that without
changing their food habit the dietary requirements are met. The option of
incorporating gene for 'Beta carotene' synthesis is perhaps better than
supplementation or fortification. The later options calls for a recurring
expenditure, and are only in processed foods, which again are not
affordable by the poor section of society. In contrast, investing in GM
technology is a one-time expenditure. Further, the high dose of Vitamin A
can be toxic while the conversion of beta-carotene to Vitamin A is
regulated by the human body. Body converts only as much as is required.
Thus it is an excellent delivery system especially for pregnant woman and
Thus crop biotechnology has enormous promises for the human kind. It is a
tool which must be used to supplement on going efforts for crop
improvement. The technology being scale neutral, has enormous potential in
terms of improving farm production in a sustainable way and thus not only
help in improving income of the farmer's but of the entire mankind - the
Vibha Dhawan, Ph.D Director, Bioresources and Biotechnology T E R I New
Delhi - 110 003 India
Ecological Agrarian: Agriculture's First Evolution in 10,000 Years
- J. Bishop Grewell, Clay J. Landry
From: "Bishop Grewell"
Hey all, Purdue University Press is releasing a new book, Ecological
Agrarian, in two weeks. There is a wonderful chapter on the environmental
benefits of biotechnology as well as a good critique of organics by Greg
Conko in the book. As the rest of the book is written by myself and
coauthor Clay Landry, it's not too bad either. The book is available for
pre-order on Amazon as well as Barnes and Noble. A quite nice,
complimentary endorsement from Professor Tom DeGregori also graces the
Cheers, J. Bishop Grewell
Amazon.com price $17.47, Hardcover , Publisher: Purdue University Press;
(March 2003) ISBN: 1557532966
Biotechnology Provides New Tools for Plant Breeding
Recombinant DNA is still a relatively new technology. This publication
gives a basic introduction to how it works and how it's being used in
plant breeding. Free publication that you can download.
(From Prakash: A well illustrated brochure which explains genetics and
biotechnology in a simple manner. Very useful for introducing
biotechnology to novices and at your public lectures. A must download!)
Related Products: Biotechnology: A Better Understanding Language - Video
Who is Driving Biotechnology Acceptance?
- Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes and Jos Bijman, Nature Biotechnology, April
2003 Vol.21 No 4 pp 366 - 369, Full article at www.nature.com. Excerpts
reproduced in AgBioView with the permission of the editor.
Incentives and strategies of key players in the global food industry may
be driving public acceptance of agrobiotechnology as much as consumer
Nothing has underscored the public acceptance woes of agrobiotechnology
more strongly than the widespread bans imposed by food companies on
genetically modified (GM) foods in Europe and elsewhere. Food companies
have explained that they merely responded to consumer concerns. As we
argue here, consumer concerns may not be the only, or even the principal,
factor behind their actions.
Concluding comments. Invoking consumer concerns cannot explain the conduct
of the global food industry in the case of GM food bans. Self-interest and
industry structure can. Motives aside, however, GM food bans would be
unprofitable if they did not resonate with consumers. Hence, it may be
argued that consumer preferences are guiding the market through the usual
'invisible hand' after all.
This latter argument would indeed be appropriate if: consumer behavior was
not influenced by the actions of food companies in the first place; and
consumers chose non-GM products when the alternative was available. Food
companies could have influenced, however, consumer attitudes in many
ways--not the least of which is through strategic exploitation of consumer
fears. For instance, the London Times reported in May 2000, that the UK
Advertising Standards Authority cited Iceland and Tesco for "cashing in on
public fears about GM foods by making misleading and exaggerated claims."
Furthermore, removals of GM products from the market also removed consumer
choice. Under the circumstances, it is unclear where consumer influence
stopped and that of food companies began.
The potential for a few large players in concentrated food markets to
thwart innovation has been recognized previously. For instance, in
February of 2000, the Competition Commission investigated alleged
monopolistic practices in the UK retail food industry. In its summary
report, the Commission opined that large UK chains have used their market
power to unreasonably transfer risks to their suppliers thereby
diminishing their interest in new product development and innovation.
Anti-biotechnology campaigners have also recognized the potential of a few
large players to influence the direction of innovation in the agrifood
sector. Both in the EU and in the United States such campaigners have
directed their demands for bans against GM ingredients and feeds mostly at
large food companies with strong brand equity. In the United States, for
instance, recent targets include cereal manufacturer Kellogg (Battle
Creek, MI), food manufacturer Kraft (Northfield, IL) and coffee supplier
Starbucks (Seattle, WA)--all owners of leading food brands.
Risk avoidance could lead many food companies not only to consider bans
against existing GM traits but, importantly, to show lack of receptivity
for new traits and varieties produced through biotechnology. In order to
avoid risks from strategic moves of competitors or anti-biotech campaigns,
food companies may choose to preempt farmer adoption through contracts or
advance public notices of intent not to accept new traits. There are
already signs of such behavior in markets where new traits exist or are
nearing market introduction (for example, glyphosate tolerant wheat and
sugar beets). This may be the most significant challenge confronting
agrifood biotechnology today as the domino started by a few supermarket
chains in Europe could soon be reaching many farms and R&D labs around the
Until now, arguments about the success or failure of agrifood
biotechnology have focused exclusively on the disposition of consumers
around the world. We propose that until the incentives and strategies of
key players in the food supply chain are accounted for, little progress
will be made in understanding public acceptance of agrifood biotechnology.
1. Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes is professor of agribusiness and director of
the Economics and Management of Agrobiotechnology Center, University of
Missouri-Columbia e-mail: KalaitzandonakesN@missouri.edu
2. Jos Bijman is a senior researcher at Wagenigen University and the
Agricultural Economics Research Institute (LEI), the Netherlands.
We speak American not British.
Relative to Kim Nill's comment and Chris Somerville's correction,
according to most good dictionaries, 17 degrees of frost is a British term
for -17 C. After all, The Economist is British.
Time to run for some tea!