Today in AgBioView: July 17, 2003:
* Do Greens Hate People?
* Impact of Terminator on Developing Countries
* CNN's Lou Dobbs Talks Agbiotech..
* Magna Cartagena: Protocol May Do More Harm Than Good
* Professor Cooks Up Answers
* Nebraska University's New Soybeans for Healthier Foods
* Anti-GM Lobby A Trade Threat
* Scientist Slams Anti-GM Lobby
* Developing Infrastructure for Biotechnology
* A Fresh Look at Genetically Modified Foods
* EMBO Award for Communication in the Life Sciences
* The Status of Biosafety in Africa
* Crop Composition Database
Re: DDT - Do Greens Hate People?
- Bob MacGregor
Am I just imagining this or do the Green Luddites systematically oppose
anything that might contribute to the wellbeing and increased population
of humans in the world? After WWII, there was a big surge in human
population growth, widely attributed to increased use of various synthetic
pesticides (including DDT) and fertilizers, along with other
yield-improving technologies of the Green Revolution.
Now, these technologies-- successful at improving human nutrition and
reducing human mortality rates-- are are all demonized by the Green
acolytes and additional technologies, like genetic engineering, to help
people survive better (and maybe, reproduce more successfully?), are
vehemently resisted by this generation of Greenies. Do these folks just
hate people, or what? - BOB
GURTS - Impact of Terminator Gene Technologies on Developing Countries
- Prof. Drew Kershen
In an earlier post today (July 15, 2003), Bob McGregor makes an excellent
point about V-GURTS and the concern that use of V-GURTS may imperil the
survival of poor farmers who did not realize or understand that the seed
they planted would produce sterile seed which could not be saved and
replanted. The concern that Bob has mentioned is legitimate and must be
However, I would like to raise an alternative. GURTS, either V-GURTS or
T-GURTS, might possibly allow for greater diffusion of agricultural
biotechnology to poor farmers of the world. GURTS may allow for greater
access to agbiotech for developing nations as nations. How?
A concern that private companies have is as follows: If they allow their
crops protected by intellectual property rights -- either patents or plant
variety certificates -- to enter countries that do not protect IPR, those
crops will undermine the commercial market for the IPR seed in that nation
and in international trade. This is called the problem of "leakage."
GURTS allow a private company to control leakage and simultaneously to
segment the market. The company can control the leakage because GURTS make
the IPR trait unavailable after the first planting. The company can
segment the market by having commercial farmers pay for the IPR seed but
greatly reduce the price or donate the seed to poor, subsistence
farmers. The company has confidence that the GURTS will prevent leakage
from the poor, subsistence farmers into the seed market in that nation and
internationally but at the same time lets the poor farmers have access to
the traits at concessionary costs for the segmented market of poor,
Bob McGregor's express concerned still is valid - to make certain that the
poor farmers understand the second generation viability for the
trait.However, if the company made the seeds available at concessionary or
donated rates to National Agricultural Extension Services of a developing
nation, the developing nation could insure continued distribution of this
seed to the poor, subsistence farmers. The developing nation's extension
service would be a consumer protection against a farmer's misunderstanding
about the seed.
For more detailed and clearer discussion of these ideas and related ideas,
Charles Spillane, Agricultural biotechnology and developing countries:
Proprietary knowledge and diffusion of benefits, Ch. 4 pp. 67-134 and
William Fisher, The impact of terminator gene technologies on developing
countries: A legal analysis, Ch. 5 pp. 137-149 in TIMOTHY SWANSON,
BIOTECHNOLOGY, AGRICULTURE AND THE DEVELOPING WORLD: The Distributional
Implications of Technological Change (Edward Elgar Pub., 2002).
CNN Covers Agbiotech..
- Lou Dobbs, CNN, July 15, 2003
HOPKINS: Tonight, we continue our series of special reports on genetically
modified foods. As we reported yesterday, many crops grown in this country
are bioengineered. But are they safe? Casey Wian has the report from
Madera County, California.
CASEY WIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Roger Schuh grows cotton
that's genetically modified to be immune to the weed killer round-up. He
no longer needs to spray several different herbicides or manually weed his
800 acres of cotton. The result: higher crop yields, less work, and lower
ROGER SCHUH, PARTNER, TRIPLE S FARMS: Less input, same -- or better bottom
line. Hard to beat.
WIAN: Other than seeds dyed blue for identification, genetically modified
cotton is indistinguishable from the conventional crop.
SCHUH: That's where it will split open. The cotton will expand and puff
WIAN: The blooms become clothing. The seeds become high-protein dairy
cattle feed. Indirectly, much of the nation's milk is the byproduct of
bioengineered crops. While Schuh believes that's safe, even he has
concerns about growing G.M. crops for direct human consumption.
SCHUH: I'd want to make certain that the science was sound, that it was
proven there was no side-effect. If the end user, the consumer, was
uncomfortable with the product, I'd still be hesitant to grow it, because
I've got to make sure that what I produce, someone in the end is going to
WIAN: Despite the growing organic food business and protests of anti-G.M.
food groups, Americans already eats lots of genetically modified food,
mostly soybeans and corn.
JIM MARYANSKI, FOOD & DRUG ADMINISTRATION: We have looked very carefully
at this technology and at the specific products that have been developed
to date. And we're very confident that these foods are as safe as other
foods in the marketplace.
JUDITH KJELSTROM, DIRECTOR, U.C. DAVIS BIOTECH PROGRAM: We do have a very
vocal activist group that has a belief that anything that technology
drives is unnatural, and, therefore, unsafe. I don't know if we can ever
convince that group of its safety.
WIAN: The International Council for Science concludes in a recent study
that currently available genetically modified foods are safe to eat and
there is no evidence of any ill effects from the consumption of foods
containing genetically modified ingredients. The ICS also notes potential
health benefits, such as vitamin-enriched grains or nonallergenic peanuts.
(on camera): The scientists say it's too early to tell what genetically
modified crops will do to the environment. Here in the San Joaquin Valley,
home to some of the nation's dirtiest air, the environmental impact so far
has been positive.
(voice-over): That's because farmers burn less fuel and spray fewer
chemicals. Nationwide, U.C. Davis estimates, G.M. foods have eliminated 46
million pounds of pesticides from the environment. Another safety or
national security issue is the U.S. food supply, as the population grows
and the number of farmers shrinks.
SCHUH: We don't want to be dependent on foreign oil. I think it would be
just as detrimental to be dependent on a foreign source for food. I think
GMO commodities will help give us that advantage, that edge, to keep us
HOPKINS: Tomorrow, we continue our series of special reports on
bioengineered food with a look at the impact the foods are having on
Many of you wrote about our continuing series of special reports, "Food
Fight." Deda Cherry of Santa Rosa, California, wrote: "I was absolutely
furious when I discovered that I had unknowingly been consuming products
that had been genetically modified. I now have a very hard time shopping
for food. And many items I use to buy, I won't even touch."
Richard Utt from Loma Linda, California, wrote: "People are funny. We
gorge on grease, junk food and cholesterol and then, when better grains
are developed by scientists, we're alarmed for our health."
LOU DOBBS TONIGHT
Aired July 16, 2003 - 18:00 ET
HOPKINS: Turning now to our series of special reports on the rise of
genetically modified food. Tonight we examine the trade debate. While
Americans have for the most part quietly accepted genetically modified
foods, many Europeans are passionately against them. It's an issue that's
causing broader strains in the trade relation between Europe and the
United States. Peter Viles has our report.
PETER VILES, CNNfn CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Here's something you won't
see back home: protests over food. European consumers campaigning against
genetically modified foods from America and starting a long-distance food
fight. Europe has put a moratorium on genetically altered crops. The Bush
administration believes that's an illegal trade tactic and has filed suit
with the World Trade Organization.
Now, Europe says it will lift the ban but replace it with a strict
labeling system that would identify genetically modified foods.
DAVID BYRNE, EU COMMISSIONER, HEALTH AND CONSUMER PROTECTION: The purpose
of this legislation is to inform consumers about the exact nature and
characteristics of the food to enable them to make informed choices. The
purpose of labeling is not to inform the consumer about the safety or lack
of safety of a food. If a food is unsafe, it cannot be placed on the
market at all.
VILES: But American farmers say labeling is unfair and unworkable and the
issue has degenerated into name calling.
SEN. KIT BOND (R), MISSOURI: Unfortunately, the ludites in Europe who are
against this new science and technology have spread their eurosclerosis to
countries like Africa. The total hypocrisy of the Europeans is shown by
the fact that they excluded from labeling the fact that their cheese is
made from genetically engineered enzymes.
VILES: The money at stake is not huge, at least not yet. The ban affects
mainly corn, costs American corn farmers roughly $300 million a year.
That's just 5 percent of America's corn exports and less than 1 percent of
American food and agriculture exports. European consumers appear to be so
adamant in their views, however, that former Agriculture Secretary Dan
Glickman believes Americans will probably have to compromise and accept
some system of labeling.
DAN GLICKMAN, FORMER SECRETARY OF AGRICULTURE: What you've got here is a
situation in Europe where the European people culturally are averse to
genetically engineered foods. And it's almost as if the facts don't
matter. And their governments over there reflect that popular opposition
to genetically modified foods. And that's what makes it so difficult for
us here in our country to deal with the issue.
VILES: The farm lobby is holding fast and bracing for an escalating trade
RON GASKILL, AMERICAN FARM BUREAU: I don't expect the E.U. To really
comply with the WTO decision. I'm not trying to be pessimistic, but I just
-- hopefully I'm just being realistic. I think ultimately the U.S. is
going to be in a position to request retaliatory tariffs.
VILES: This is an unusual trade dispute because it's being driven in part
by public opinion rather than economic policy, and public opinion is
something that politicians and diplomats cannot negotiate -- Jan.
HOPKINS: But Pete, how much of this is political? how much of it is the
Europeans trying to protect their own market for their own goods?
VILES: It's almost entirely political in the sense that they are
responding to pressure. But most of the pressure, as we understand it, is
coming from consumers. Consumers in Europe are distrustful of the
government on food safety issues in a way that we don't really relate to
in this country.
HOPKINS: Peter Viles, thank you.
Tomorrow in our series of special reports, "Food Fight," ending world
hunger. We'll explore the debate over whether to use genetically modified
food to fight the -- or rather to feed the hungry and get rid of hunger.
Kitty Pilgrim will have that report.
Magna Cartagena: The Protocol May Do More Harm Than Good
- Financial Express (India), July 17, 2003
The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety will come into force in September
2003, following its recent ratification by Palau, the 50th signatory. The
aim of this multilateral environmental agreement (MEA) is certainly
unexceptionable. In seeking to establish modalities for safe transfer,
handling and use of living modified organisms (LMOs), the Protocol is an
attempt to establish a global regulatory regime for addressing policy
challenges emerging from trade in LMOs, especially those which "may have
an adverse impact on biodiversity".
Essentially, it seeks to regulate trade in LMOs (including genetically
modified seeds and agricultural commodities -- food, feed and processed)
and promote international cooperation vis-a-vis institutionalised
information sharing & capacity building. These objectives are to be
achieved through an Advanced Informed Agreement procedure, which obliges
the exporting party to seek written permission from the importer prior to
the first import of the LMO; an Internet-based biosafety clearing house
which will enable sharing of technical and scientific information among
Parties; through mandatory labelling and liability clauses; and a fund
For India, which is also a signatory to the Protocol, the benefits appear
to be unambiguous. An effective Protocol can indeed assist us in
developing a more nuanced policy stance on biotechnologies, in capacity
building, as well as in mitigating possible, adverse socio-economic
consequences of transgenic agricultural technology for traditional farming
Yet, the Protocol suffers from numerous drawbacks which severely mar its
potential effectiveness. For one, the US, a major exporter of
biotechnology products, is out of the loop. Two, outstanding issues
concerning mandatory labelling and liability procedures remain unresolved,
having only been postponed to a future date. Three, there is a very real
conflict between this MEA and the WTO’s rules-based trading system, given
the inclusion of the Precautionary Principle in the MEA.
What this means is, for instance, if India chooses to block imports of GM
corn on the basis of scientific uncertainty, it is in real danger of being
dragged to -- and losing its case at -- the WTO’s dispute settlement
forum. And given the multi-billion dollar international trade in
agricultural LMOs, such trade disputes are a very real possibility.
Economic costs aside, the MEA-- in its spirit at least -- threatens the
adoption of environmentally sustainable transgenic technologies.
Given the above, Cartagena may actually engender unacceptable casualties
on both the trade and environment fronts. As things stand, the WTO remains
the most efficient forum for reconciling trade and environmental
Prof Cooks Up Answers
- The Toronto Star July 16, 2003 (Via Agnet)
From his Office for Chemistry and Society at McGill University to his
weekly radio shows, newspaper columns and books, Montreal chemistry
professor Dr. Joe Schwarcz spends his days using science to help consumers
separate sense from nonsense. Schwarcz, author of the new book That's The
Way The Cookie Crumbles (ECW, $17.95), was quoted as saying, "It's the
lack of knowledge that creates fear. When something is properly explained,
a lot of that fear just evaporates."
The book has 62 entertaining commentaries on various topics. Half the book
is called Healthy Science, the other half Everyday Science. Schwarcz
explains science in such a calm, compelling manner, you can't help but
heed his words. The story says that the Hungarian-born professor also
spends much of his time these days reassuring the public that genetically
modified foods are not harmful to your health.
Schwarcz says humans have been modifying the genetic makeup of food for
centuries, adding in his new book, "If early farmers had not sprinkled
pollen from one type of corn on another, we would still be looking at 15
kernels per ear. Without crossbreeding, we'd have no nectarines, seedless
grapes or McIntosh apples. We wouldn't even have grapefruit."
Schwarcz believes there never has been a health issue surrounding
genetically modified foods. "There are economic issues, there may be some
environmental issues, but for people to feel that somehow their health is
being compromised because they're eating genetically modified soybeans is
nonsense," he says. "There's no chemical distinction between that soybean
or that corn or that wheat and any other." His main beef is with activists
who demand scientists prove new foods on the market are safe.
Nebraska University Genetically Alters Soybeans to Create Healthier Foods
- Chris Clayton & Mark Kawar, Omaha World-Herald, July 16, 2003 (via
A healthier soybean oil developed by Nebraska scientists may, according to
this story, be among the first in a flurry of designer foods that will
enter the American diet in coming years. With hostility toward processed
food leading to lawsuits against fast-food companies and, just last week,
federal guidelines requiring that food labels carry trans-fat content, a
University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor is, the story says, using genetic
modification to get rid of some of the bad fats in soybeans.
Tom Clemente, an associate professor at the UNL Plant Science Institute,
is growing soybeans on 14 acres near Mead, Neb., that don't have the genes
that produce trans fats. The beans could be a "poster child" for genetic
modification, Clemente said, providing a tangible example of science
catering to consumer demands by customizing food, adding that.
"If this soybean product could get on the market, it would be the first
biotech product the consumer could see as a benefit. This is something
consumers could sink their teeth into." Some of the genetically modified
crops with which scientists said consumers could soon become familiar:
tomatoes and bananas that stay ripe longer; coffee beans grown without
caffeine; soybeans that do not produce allergens; canola oil with healthy
omega-3 fat; a strain of rice that creates its own vitamin A.
Judith Kjelstrom, acting director of the University of California at
Davis' biotechnology program, was cited as saying that almost every
processed food product in supermarkets not labeled "organic" has some
genetically modified ingredients, but consumers are unaware of it because
the foods are similar to nongenetically modified foods. She expects that
to change. "We just need a food to get people to say, 'Wow, this is what
biotech can do for me.'"
Anti-GM Lobby A Trade Threat
- Alison Rehn, Courier-Mail (Australia), July 17, 2003
Australia faces being frozen out of the global crop market if it doesn't
adopt genetically modified technologies soon, a prominent scientist warned
President of the Australian Academy of Science Jim Peacock blamed the
media, politicians, farmers and scientists for the fear and loathing that
comes with discussing genetically modified crops.
Dr Peacock said it was odd that Australia readily adopted GM cotton six
years ago but was reluctant to adopt GM canola. The commercial plantings
of GM canola are expected to be given the green light next week, but won't
be planted in some states for years because state governments have imposed
moratoriums of up to five years.
"The regional economies over a very wide part of eastern Australia are
stronger because of transgenic cotton," Dr Peacock told the National Press
Club. "So why aren't we repeating this story with other crops? What's
gone wrong?" Six years after the introduction of GM cotton, five state
governments and one territory have introduced moratoriums against the
commercial planting of GM canola.
Dr Peacock said he believed the major issue that governments were
concerned with was market access, but said it was a concern "without
factual basis". "Canada grows 85 per cent of its canola crop as
transgenic canola and has absolutely no difficulty in marketing the whole
crop, most of it going to Japan," he said. "Canada's our principal
competitor in this area and Canadian farmers are enjoying increased yields
of hybrid canola that accompanies the transgenic traits.
"So Australia could find itself in difficulty in future years in
maintaining a position in the global market and I think that's likely if
we don't introduce this new technology soon." Dr Peacock said politicians
have had pressure put on them because of concerns of pollen contamination,
the need for crop segregation, and other market matters.
"It's odd that some of our states are intent upon putting out the message
that they are the champions of biotechnology - seeing it as a driver of
the future industries of Australia - whilst at the same time they are
rejecting the use of some of the most powerful and beneficial
"The public have concerns about the technology, driven largely by media
reports, often fed by the activist groups, who for one reason or another,
speak ill of GM crops. "In most cases their messages are not supported by
factual information," he said.
Dr Peacock said it was imperative farmers adopted GM crops in order to
benefit developing countries. "Eight hundred million people didn't have
enough to eat in this past year," he said. "More than six million
children under five died from malnourishment. This is a situation that has
to change." Dr Peacock said genetically modified crops did not deserve a
reputation as something to be avoided or feared.
Scientist Slams Anti-GM Lobby
- ABC News, Australian Broadcasting Corporation July 17, 2003
One of the country's leading scientists has given a blast to State
Governments over the decision to introduce temporary bans on genetically
The head of the Australian Academy of Science, Dr Jim Peacock, has told
the National Press Club some State Governments are trumpeting the benefits
of biotechnology in other fields while refusing to look at gm crops. At
this stage five State Governments and one territory have introduced a
moratorium or a freeze on the commercial release of gm crops.
Dr Peacock has also taken a swipe at anti-gm groups, accusing them of
giving the public the wrong message about the safety of gm crops. "The
claims are mischievous and misleading," he said. "I'd go further, they can
be cruel in their effects - as in the recent case of the refusal of food
aid in Zambia. Corn from the United States was refused because it
contained some gm seed. Food was so badly needed and its rejection meant
that many people starved."
Developing Infrastructure for Biotechnology
- Brad Mitchell; Brad.Mitchell@state.ma.us, Director, Div Regulatory
Services, Mass Dept of Food & Ag, Boston, MA
The arguments about the pros and cons of agricultural technology -
pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and biotechnology - are widely known.
The Green Revolution is touted by some as being one of the great
accomplishments of modern society and others as one of the great evils. A
distinction is often made between the applications of agricultural
technology in developing countries and in developed ones.
Extensive work experience in both developing and developed countries shows
that there is a strong correlation between the infrastructure that
surrounds the technology, and the amount of benefit derived from that
technology. The better developed the infrastructure (education,
regulations, oversight), the greater the benefits and the lower the
negative impacts. The less developed the infrastructure, the lower the
benefits and the greater the negative impacts.
The negative impacts of the Green Revolution were not so much a result of
the introduced technology, but a result of having an inadequate
infrastructure behind it. Pesticide poisonings and development of pest
resistance were and are far more frequent in countries where extension
education and regulation are under-funded and otherwise inadequate. The
result is that the technology is often blamed for the problems, rather
than the fact that it was introduced into a "market" that was not prepared
Ten years ago in India, rice growers were experiencing noticeably
different benefits and problems from pesticide use than were cashew
growers. Since rice is a major crop, the Ministry of Agriculture had
invested heavily in training and education for rice cultivation. Rice
growers demonstrated fairly good knowledge of integrated pest management
and safe handling of pesticides. Cashews, however, were of little
financial consequence nationally, and little such education was provided
to cashew growers. Few could distinguish between a beneficial insect and
the target pest. Many still mixed tanks of methyl parathion with bare
hands. The result was what one would expect: rice growers benefited
economically from the use of pesticides with few apparent health problems.
Cashew growers spent more money on pesticides than they saved, and they
had a relatively high incidence of poisoning.
In the debates in this country and elsewhere, there have yet to be voiced
many concerns with developing an infrastructure around agricultural
biotechnology, other than warnings of over-regulation. It might be argued
that the world is falling into the same trap with agricultural
biotechnology as it did with the first Green Revolution, which was to
introduce a technology without the infrastructure to support its use.
This problem is of particular concern in developing countries, but may
also be relevant to certain areas of developed countries. Most
applications of agricultural biotechnology in the US have been targeted
towards major crops - corn, wheat, soy, cotton. One assumes that extension
agents in areas where major crops are grown extensively are actively
educating growers on this new technology. However, there is considerably
less grower education in the Northeast on agro-biotechnology. Still, the
technology is used here. A corn grower from New England was recently heard
to say that he was going to plant Bt corn for a pest against which it is
ineffective. This statement strikingly echoes those of the Indian cashew
growers ten years ago.
Currently, most growers in the Northeast report that their main source of
information on biotech seeds is the seed salesman. As valuable as advice
from salesmen may be, as the sole source of information, it is dangerous.
Salesmen generally work on commission, which creates a strong bias against
giving any information that might curtail the use of a product they sell.
Several new chemical classes of pesticide have been introduced in the past
few years, and resistance has developed in a very short time. It should be
the responsibility largely of industry representatives to ensure an
adequate educational infrastructure before introducing a technology into a
country or location.
A Fresh Look at Genetically Modified Foods
- Maywa Montenegro, The Boston Globe, July 15, 2003
African nations with millions of undernourished people continue to refuse
US food aid containing genetically modified corn. Their leaders lash out
against the giant agricultural biotechnology companies that make it,
accusing them of using Africans as guinea pigs in their food experiments.
The companies, in turn, state that Europe, which has so far shunned
genetically modified, or GM, foods and which imports heavily from Africa,
is encouraging the opposition.
Seldom has a major change in the food supply generated such a mix of
controversy and indifference. In the United States, where industry leader
Monsanto is based, products such as corn genetically altered to resist
pests have entered the market with little public attention. But, in other
parts of the world, the acronym "GM" triggers alarm bells.
In "Food, Inc.," author Peter Pringle reviews an array of genetically
modified food case studies - stories that bring together science,
politics, business, and biotechnology ethics - in an attempt to shed light
on all sides of the debate. He starts with the basics: What is genetic
engineering? What classifies a food as GM? How is traditional plant
breeding - where a farmer breeds from the best plants in each generation
-different from genetic manipulation in the laboratory?
Pringle strips connotation-laden terms such as "gene modification" and
"genetic engineering" down to their biological basics, teaching the reader
how these technologies actually work. How a microorganism called
agrobacterium, for instance, shuttles foreign genes into plant cells to
make a "transgenic" crop, or how an inverted strip of DNA blocks
production of the enzymes that cause fruit to rot.
Simple and engaging explanations of the technical details serve as the
bedrock from which we step onto the swampy terrain of experts and special
interests. On the pro-GM side of the debate, we encounter the giant
"agbiotech" companies such as Monsanto and Syngenta, as well as the
corporate-friendly US government. On the anti-GM side, we find a
collection of environmental groups, nongovernmental organizations, and
outspoken individuals such as Vandana Shiva and Jeremy Rifkin. In between
the extremes are the scientists, farmers, and consumers who are more often
ambivalent or confused about GM than certain of their position.
It may be as difficult to be wholly impartial as it is to grow a weed-free
patch of corn. But, in discussing the scientific squabbles and legal
wrangling that surround GM crops, Pringle goes to great lengths to give a
fair hearing to both sides.
Yes, the proponents of GM foods have oversold their value to the public
and have prematurely vouched for their safety. But the naysayers, too,
have been rash - readily twisting scientific data for the sake of
propaganda. The result, Pringle states, is that instead of a measured and
rational discussion about GM technology, what we have gotten is hotheaded
activism from the "green warriors" and arrogant manipulation from
Admirably, throughout this book, Pringle avoids championing a particular
position, aside from his certainty that GM crops are here to stay. In
dealing with GM, he states, it's not a question of whether but how?
For hard-line GM proponents, that he even questions their cost to the
environment and their safety for human consumption will be annoying. For
anti-GM activists, that Pringle takes GM food as a foregone conclusion
will be galling. But, as Pringle makes clear from the outset, this book is
not an attempt to convert those who have already made up their minds. It
is intended, rather, for those who value scientific rigor, who question
hype, and who understand that life always carries risks.
EMBO Award for Communication in the Life Sciences 2003
The award is intended for a life scientist who, while remaining active in
research, has succeeded in making an outstanding contribution to the
communication of science to the public. The award consists of a silver and
gold medal, and the sum of Euro 5,000 which the winner may dispose of as
she/he sees fit.
More at http://www.embo.org/projects/scisoc/com_medal.html
The Status of Biosafety in Africa
- Tawanda Zidenga, ISB News Report, July 2003 http://www.isb.vt.edu/
Agricultural biotechnology holds a great promise for Africa. Tissue
culture and marker-assisted selection are already in widespread use across
the continent while for most countries genetic transformation is still in
the developing stages. The safe application of these technologies requires
functioning biosafety systems throughout Africa. This article focuses on
the special issues related to biosafety in Africa and describes the
current status of biosafety in the continent, with specific examples of
current progress given for Egypt, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
Agricultural and social systems in Africa differ considerably with those
in the West; therefore, some differences between Africa and the West are
encountered in both the approach to and emphasis placed on biosafety
issues. First, while hybrid seed adoption by smallholder farmers is now
considerably high, some farmers still save seed from the previous harvest
to plant in the next growing season. The right of farmers to save seed is
probably one of the biggest issues in risk management, since seed-saving
makes it almost impossible to specify and monitor the conditions of use1.
In some sectors, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are still being
identified with the terminator technology (which has never been
commercialized), leading some people to fear that these technologies could
create a kind of dependency on large seed companies, driving farmers into
a technological fix.
While the potential role of the terminator technology in biosafety has
been suggested, it cannot be recommended under these circumstances.
Second, many of the most important crops in Africa, such as banana and the
root and tuber crops (cassava, sweet potato, potato, etc.), are not
normally supplied through seed companies. Currently, there is some
systematic distribution of tissue culture (virus eliminated) material in
countries such as Zimbabwe and Kenya, but informal propagation will always
occur. Such a scenario creates a challenge for the biosafety framework to
be adopted. Once a genetically modified cultivar of sweet potato is
released into the market, it will spread to other areas through this
The third issue relates to food aid. Food security and food safety offer
regulatory challenges in Africa. Africa frequently runs into food
shortages compounded by drought and unstable political systems. In such
situations, there is provision of food aid from other countries. A
biosafety protocol may need to address how to deal with this food aid.
Zambia made headlines when it rejected GM food aid from America, a
decision that was made against a background of starvation in some parts of
the country. The urgent need for food will put pressure on the biosafety
issues to be considered when dealing with food aid. Some consider it a
luxury to debate biosafety while people are starving, when others argue
that safety comes first. Other countries have accepted GM food aid on the
condition that the grain is milled to prevent it from being propagated in
The obvious differences in molecular capacity between western countries
and developing nations in Africa are also an issue. In designing a
biosafety system, a national assessment should be made of the existing
scientific and technical capacity2. A weak scientific and technical
capacity impacts negatively on the biosafety framework. Capacity building
in these countries is required not only to enable the development of
biotechnologies, but also to assist the regulatory authorities in
critically assessing draft models and deriving functional biosafety
Public attitude towards GM foods in Africa often smacks of a victim
mentality. Fears of corporate control of an agricultural system that
traditionally was communally owned, coupled with apprehensions of
marginalization and the memory of colonial domination, lead to distrust of
solutions that appear imposed externally1. At the OAU Workshop on an
African Model Law on Biosafety held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (May 2001),
the text of a draft model law was tabled for adoption as an African
initiative until the next OAU Council of Ministers meeting. The model was
described by some as "preventative" and aimed at depriving Africa from
deriving the benefits of biotechnology.
While the objective of harmonizing biosafety legislation is praiseworthy,
the OAU model ignored existing model legislation in several countries
(South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Egypt) and draft legislation nearing adoption
in many other African countries. This could lead to diverse and
conflicting national biosafety systems3. The model contains numerous
provisions, inconsistent with the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB),
which member states have already signed. The bill was opposed by
scientists and leading groups in Africa, such as AfricaBio
(http://www.africabio.com) and African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum
It is a point of consensus that improving food security and agriculture in
Africa requires more than technology. Good governance, wise policies,
infrastructure, and investment are other key requirements, and Africa
faces particularly high hurdles in these areas4. Against this background,
African countries have made impressive progress in biotechnology and
biosafety. Such undertakings obviously require funding, national
commitment, and political will.
The UNEP-GEF Project on Development of National Biosafety Frameworks
(http://www.unep.ch/biosafety) (jointly funded by the United Nations
Environment Programme and the Global Environment Facility) was designed to
assist up to 100 eligible countries in preparing their national biosafety
frameworks and to meet the requirements of the CPB.2 The project holds
training workshops for the people involved, such as the recently held
UNEP-GEF workshop on biotechnology and biosafety held in Nairobi Kenya on
April 14--18, 2003. This workshop focused on the implementation of the
biosafety framework in Kenya. Kenya is part of the East African Regional
Programme and Research Network for Biotechnology, Biosafety and
Biotechnology Policy Development (BIO-EARN; http://www.bio-earn.org),
along with Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Uganda. BIO-EARN, which was founded in
1998, aims, among other things, to promote collaboration in biotechnology
and biosafety among its member states.
To implement a national biosafety system, it is important for countries to
identify the goals and objectives of their system and the existing context
for biotechnology and biosafety oversight.2 The design must include the
extent to which decisions will be guided by science compared to other
Egypt is one of the countries in Africa where research in biotechnology is
at an advanced stage. The Agricultural Genetic Engineering Research
Institute (AGERI; http://www.agri.gov.eg/gene.htm) is one center for
state-of-the-art research in Egypt, focusing on developing pest resistant
and stress tolerant varieties of crops such as tomato, maize, and potato2.
Egypt issued biosafety guidelines in 1994 and procedures for
commercialization of GM plants in 1998.
Zimbabwe has a Biotechnology Research Institute as well as the Tobacco
Research Board, both centers of state-of-the-art research, while some work
is also done at the University of Zimbabwe (transgenic maize improvement,
sweet potato micropropagation, and genetic engineering of cowpea).
Zimbabwe adopted biosafety regulations in 1998, and the National Biosafety
Committee was set up in 1999.
South Africa has developed genetic engineering techniques and capacity
over the last two decades. However, this technology is only now being
applied or commercialized. There are about 55 companies involved in
biotechnology, with products mainly in the plant and medical sectors. In
1998, genetically modified agricultural crops were grown in South Africa
under a general release permit. The GMO Act of 1997, which was implemented
in 1999, controls the import of live genetically modified products and is
aimed at protecting the consumer as well as the environment. This Act does
not cover ethical issues such as human cloning, but covers most other
products of modern genetic modification technology5.
It was proposed during this year's World Life Sciences Forum
(http://www.biovision.org) in Lyon, France, that regulatory mechanisms and
biosafety measures at national and international levels need to be
harmonized and a global system developed, building on the biosafety
protocol. Decision-making requires public participation, but public
participation demands public genetic literacy. Along with the development
of biosafety frameworks in Africa, there is a greater need to improve
public understanding of biotechnology. In the end, a biosafety framework
must not be a means to deprive Africa of a promising technology, but a way
of ensuring safe application based on sound science.
1. Morris EJ and Koch M. (2002) Biosafety of genetically modified crops—an
African perspective. ABN 4: 102.
2. Mclean MA, Frederick RJ, Traynor PL, Cohen JL, and Komen J. (2003) A
Framework for Biosafety Implementation: Report of a Meeting, organized by
ISNAR Biotechnology Service July 2001, Washington, DC, USA .
3. Africabio (2001) Submission on the OAU model law on biosafety.
4. Conway G. (2003) From the green revolution to the biotechnology
revolution: Food for poor people in the 21st century. Woodrow Wilson
International Center for Scholars, Director's Forum, March 12 2003.
5. Africabio (2003) South African biotechnology.
Tawanda Zidenga, Crop Science Department, University Of Zimbabwe ,
Crop Composition Database
- ISB News Report, July 2003 http://www.isb.vt.edu/
The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI;
http://www.cropcomposition.org) has released the first version of a Crop
Composition Database, which is a compilation of crop analyses from a
number of companies engaged in agricultural life sciences. The database
provides up-to-date information on the natural variability in composition
of conventional crops and provides a reference for comparing the
composition of new crop varieties, including those developed through
Crop, food, and feed composition studies are considered an essential part
of the safety assessment of new crop varieties, including those developed
through biotechnology. Information obtained from such studies is used to
assess similarities and differences in important nutrients and
anti-nutrients. This database was generated from crop composition data
obtained from studies conducted by members of the agricultural
biotechnology industry over a number of years at multiple worldwide
locations. Information collected in the database includes data on numerous
biochemical parameters, such as proximates, amino acids, lipids,
carbohydrates, key vitamins, and anti-nutrients.
Through ILSI, the participants have standardized and pooled their crop
data in order to make the data available to scientists from academia,
government agencies, industry, and to the general public. It is envisioned
that future versions of the database will include other publicly available
data that meet the acceptability criteria of ILSI and are submitted from
scientists and other researchers, representing a variety of public and
The database is available for public use (free of charge) via the Internet