Today in AgBioView: August 15, 2003:
* The Fiction of Zero Risk
* Playing God or Improving Human Lives?
* Science Communication Special Online
* Let Science, Not Scare Tactics, Push GMO Laws
* GM Foods, Keeping the Peace in Liberia
* Delicious Foods for My London Friends
* Losing Organic Certification
* Top TV Scientist Backs GM crops, But Fears Cloning
* GE Plants Produce Cervical Cancer Vaccine Components
* UK Farmers Skeptical About GM Crops
* Days Left Before Cartagena Protocol Enters Into Force
* GE Corn with Increased Vitamin E Content
* Popular Food Linked with Autism, Schizophrenia, Diabetes and Heart
* ABIC 2004 Conference - Cologne, Germany
* Growth of Genetically Modified Foods
* 21st Century NGO: Playing the Game or Selling Out?
Playing God or Improving Human Lives?
'Religious, Moral and Ethical Perspectives on Food Biotechnology'
A Collection of articles and postings from the past AgBioView Newsletter:
Communicating with the Public, Media and Policymakers on AgBiotech Issues
The earlier AgBioView Special is now also at:
The Fiction of Zero Risk
- Jacqueline Rowarth, National Business Review, August 15, 2003
There is no such thing as zero risk.
Not crossing the road. Not getting on a plane. Not eating a chip. We take
a chance of death or injury every time we do these things.
And we take that chance regularly and frequently because of the benefits
we think will accrue: We get to the other side. We reach the destination
rapidly. We satisfy our cravings.
We take risks every day, mostly without even thinking about them. The
benefits are so apparent we take them in our stride and the precautions we
take are automatic: we do look both ways before crossing the road, for
instance. We do use reputable providers of air travel.
In some instances we take out insurance. This can be overt in signing up
for health cover just in case a big operation is needed. It can be
regulatory in terms of such things as the warrant of safety for you car.
But have you had your tires balanced recently? Vince Martin tells us
regularly that doing so is a simple insurance measure.
Most of the time we develop ways of assessing the risks, weighing up the
pros and cons and making a decision. If we accept the risk, we attempt to
find ways of managing it. In some cases, when we aren't sufficiently
informed in an area to consider both sides of the argument appropriately,
we ask the experts. This is particularly the case with medical conditions,
where opinions and second opinions are sought regularly.
The recent case of the conjoined Iranian twins has brought the concept of
risk to the fore. The risks in the operation for separation were high - Dr
Goh, a senior surgeon involved in the operation in Singapore, assessed the
chances of a successful operation as not more than 50:50.
The twins accepted the risks because the alternative was no longer
supportable for either of them. They minimised the risks by choosing
expert surgeons; they took precautions but in this case they weren't
Medical advances meant not only that the twins actually survived for 29
years conjoined but also that the desired operation was potentially
possible. It is one of the fascinating thoughts that if scientists had
restricted developments in genetic enginee ring (the horizontal transfer
of genes into another organism) to production of materials to reduce
sickness and ill health, New Zealand probably wouldn't be in the current
Yet advances in agriculture, of which GE is merely the latest step, have
increased longevity, decreased malnutrition and increased health. In New
Zealand the average pakeha male life span is now 76 years - it has
increased five years over the last 15 years. From 1960 to 2000, world
population doubled but because of the Green Revolution, food supply rose
270% and per capita food consumption rose 30%.
The number of people being fed doubled but the percentage of malnourished
people fell below 20%. And the average height of people has increased (no
comment about weight, an increase in which is not necessarily healthy).
Furthermore, the real price of basic food commodities such as rice halved.
All of this was achieved with only a 7% increase in land under
cultivation. Without increased efficiencies of production, brought about
by advances in technologies, either people would have died or marginal
land would have been brought into production, with potential devastating
effects on the plants and animals thereon.
The problem is we don't know exactly what the implications are of using
the new technologies until we have used them for some time: the
"precautionary principle" is being cited.
It states that "when an activity raises threats of harm to the environment
or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause
and effect relationships are not fully established." It does not say "if
in doubt, don't do it."
In the words of Professor Tom DeGregori, of the University of Houston,
speaking at the Primary Resources Forum in June, "The precautionary
principle may sound reasonable but it is simply an excuse for
protectionism. When all else fails and there is no evidence of harm,
opponents of transgenic food crops have invoked the precautionary
"The greater the imagined fear, the greater the justification for opposing
a new technology no matter what the facts of the case may be. One clever
expression of the precautionary principle states that absence of evidence
of harm is not evidence of absence of harm. Not mentioned is the fact that
absence of evidence of harm is sometimes the only evidence possible that
there is no harm."
Scientists have maintained repeatedly they cannot prove there is
absolutely no possibility of harm, now or in the future. What they can do
is show that the best scientific testing can find no evidence of harm and
nothing in current scientific knowledge gives any reason to expect to find
We are now fast approaching a theoretical limit set by the crop's
efficiency in harvesting sunlight and using its energy to make
Again, in the words of Professor DeGregori, "Plant biotechnology is not
simply a luxury but increasingly a necessity. The Green Revolution was
necessary not only to feed a growing world population but also to prevent
the inevitable famine and environmental destruction that would have
resulted from large population increase without an increase in yields per
unit of cultivated land.
"If we are to feed the nine billion people expected by the year 2040
before population growth is likely to cease, reduce world hunger and save
the remaining habitat, then we must have the yield increases that only
biotechnology can now deliver."
We are right to question advances in science, but just as we "take
insurance" by seeking the opinion of professionals in medicine, we must
take insurance that the pros and cons are being weighed by listening to
the experts - the scientists - and allowing them to do the in-depth
research needed to minimise risk.
Plant biotechnology is not simply a luxury but increasingly a necessity.
Professor Jacqueline Rowarth is research director at Unitec
Let Science, Not Scare Tactics, Push GMO Laws
- Grand Forks Herald (North Dakota), August 14, 2003
Genetically modified crops are a reality. They have become - and will
continue to become - crucial to the development of agriculture, not only
in the United States, but worldwide. That's irrefutable. As North Dakota
Commissioner of Agriculture Roger Johnson said: "That genie is out of the
bottle." And it should be. Responsibly managed and scientifically evolved,
it can be a benevolent genie.
The European Union's perspective on GMOs is different from that of the
United States in that European policy-makers are capitulating to the
emotions of a happily uninformed public rather than relying on good
Not that misinformation is unique to the European debate about genetically
modified crops. The anti-GMO sentiments are strong in the United States,
and some of the concerns should not be dismissed as hysteria. It is the
intentional hysteria around the concerns that undermines the credibility
of GMO foes.
On balance, GMO critics have resorted to words like "frankenfood" to scare
consumers. They have trotted out the bugaboo of "big corporations"
(Monsanto, in this case) as greedy destroyers of safe and wholesome food
and food production. They have resorted to innuendo and fear rather than
research and reason.
The hypocrisy is profound. The same people who want the United States and
EU to feed the starving people of the Third World have been doing all they
can to block introduction of high-yield, high-nutrition GMO crops to
Africa. The same people who decry the use of chemicals in production
agriculture don't seem concerned that EU farmers dump 10 times the
pesticides and fertilizers on their lands than American farmers - and that
the use of GMO seeds can reduce and eventually might eliminate the need
for some farm chemicals. The same Europeans who are fighting GMOs in crops
are silent about pharmaceuticals derived from GMO plants, many of which
were developed by European companies.
Genetic manipulation is not new. Agriculture has depended for generations
on selective breeding and crossbreeding of plants to improve genetic
characteristics. GMO crops are a logical evolution of genetic modification
techniques; the new technology just happens to be more targeted and more
effective. Some of the guesswork and a lot of the time in growing new crop
varieties have been eliminated.
Feeding the world (the country, for that matter) cannot be done with
free-range chickens, backyard tomatoes or an organic millet farm in North
Dakota. Not enough can be grown and the prices are too high for most of
the world's hungry people. Such products might find markets with the
affluent patrons of tiny restaurants in U.S. and western European cities,
but not among the starving masses of the Sudan.
Production agriculture is about production. Genetic modification of crops
is a tool for growing food for millions. The tool - like any effective
tool - can be misused. Thus, responsible management defined by good
science should supplant self-serving histrionics.
GM Foods, Keeping the Peace in Liberia
- Morenike Taire, Vanguard (Nigeria), August 15, 2003
Despite not being wanted and after all his threats of rejecting Nigeriaís
asylum offer almost to the last minute, Charles Taylor finally arrived
Nigeria, long after the introduction of GM foods.
While those who know his style are not surprised at his deceptiveness,
pretending he would not be coming to Nigeria and keeping his destination a
secret was not a particularly great strategy unless, of course, it had
anything to do with his getting to stay in Abuja rather than Calabar as
was previously slated, which may yet happen.
International fears that allowing Taylor to go free would be bad in the
long run as it would tend to encourage other despots to behave even worse
in the future and that there is a very strong possibility that Taylor
would continue to run things from exile, are very valid. Since being
responsible for peace keeping in Liberia is Nigeriaís aim and not
discouraging despots from taking political office, that consideration is
The important thing is that while Charles Taylor is amongst us, we have to
bear in mind at all times that our slippery -as- a- heel unwanted guest
might well be conducting a war- fueling government from our country; even
while we continue to hope that his absence will result in peace.
GM is an abbreviation with which people in the more advanced world are
mostly familiar by now. In seeing the two alphabets, "General Managerí is
the first word which will come to our own minds. Well, to an extent, itís
a question of difference in culture. Culture, as well as oblivion to and
ignorance of some of the things that are going on around us.
Thus while the world debates on whether or not to endorse Genetically
Modified food in the most of Western Europe and give it the acceptance it
already enjoys in the United States, we are totally oblivious of the fact
that genetic modification has crept into Africa, and into Nigeria. Earlier
this year, the Nigerian National Biotechnology Development Agency in
collaboration with WOTCLEF and the National Poverty Eradication Program
launched the countryís biotech awareness campaign with women as targets as
chief labourers in the agricultural sector. Analyzing the implications is
therefore totally out of the question, and while a cold trade war in
already in progress between the European union and the United States over
the formerís rejection of genetically modified food until it has been
proven to be safe, we are consuming GM food without even knowing they
If GM foods and seeds are being prevented from finding markets in other
parts of the world, it stands to reason that the next place for them to be
dumped is in Africa, where ignorance, poverty and civil unrest are already
taking pride of place as the more prominent everyday realities of our
lives. It would solve some immediate problems like increasing agricultural
yields and making non mechanized farming easier. The tendency then is that
farmers will embrace the introduction of GM seeds and seedlings into the
farming community and into our markets.
In finally identifying itself as a political entity and seemingly all of a
sudden recognizing its role in contributing to nation building, the
Nigerian Academy of Science did well last week when it pledged its loyalty
to the government in its dedication to improving science and technology in
Nigeria, though its pledge to help raise the standard of education in the
basic sciences and built databases are only the least that can be expected
from a body constituted by some of the worldís finest in the field.
A whole lot more can be done than that, and one thing is to join the
debate which is already on in southern and east Africa over whether or not
GM farming is harmless as claimed, and has the ability to solve the food
Apart from the improved yield arguments, one of the major arguments for GM
food is that food seeds and seedlings have been modified since time
immemorial without much negative effects. Cross breeding and hybridization
of both food crops and farm animals has been going on for decades in
Africa, and indeed in Nigeria.
Why would genetic modification now be such causes of worry? Because it is
something which our farmers; indeed our community as a whole, does not as
yet understand, and because the tendency will always be there for the
people with the technological know how to play pranks. The question of
credibility has been identified and singled out as the real problem. No
one really is very definitive of the safety of GM food, even in the
developed world. Perhaps it is because no one really knows, since food and
drugs that had been thought to be safe have turned out not to be decades
In much of Southern Africa, this is already an issue. While some African
countries such as Zambia refuse to touch GM food even in the form of much
needed food aid, some such as South Africa are trying to be on the safe
side and embracing GM modified non food crops such as cotton. Many, such
as Uganda, are already well on their way to a GM revolution with many
women now controlling agricultural resources rather than simply being the
labourers. There is talk, however, of introducing Cholera vaccines into
seeds as a way of ensuring vaccination against some of the deadlier
diseases. Such talk is frightening in the very least, and tends to give
credibility of some sort to the claims of those who insist HIV/AIDS was
introduced into Africa through medical vaccines. For reasons such as
these, it is important, if we are embracing GM, to be in the know. In a
country where we are importing things such as apples from other African
countries, we also need to know what African countries are doing in their
The fear that GM agriculture will hurt the economies in countries where
agricultural exports are the mainstay is validated by the European Unionís
continued opposition to the importation of genetically modified foods. The
result, invariably, is that the export markets of such African countries
will be more and more in countries such as Nigeria where agriculture
contributes next to nothing to export and where the economy is relatively
buoyant. Another reason for being in the know is that if GM becomes a
world trend, it will become necessary for Nigeria to join in, and the
level of training our scientists have in the field will determine our
positioning in the whole set up and thus our economic strength.
In the mean time, cotton production is one area in which we can benefit
from genetically modified seed, since it is a relatively safe deal for
those in the dark such as ours. We donít know from where most of what we
wear comes from anyway.
Delicious Foods for My London Friends
- John W. Cross
Dear Mr. de Kathen, The idea of carrying some gifts of processed GM foods
to Europe is no joke. We often hear of Europeans referring to transgenic
crops as "Frankenfood." Well, when they see samples, some Europeans may
be surprised that they look, chew, taste and smell just like other foods
of the same type. I don't know why Monsanto didn't think of it.
Anyway, as you smugly suggest that I am not aware of EU websites, quite
the contrary, I obtained the "Visit Britain" phone number from their
website, http://www.travelbritain.org/index.htm. The search engine on
that website and that of the British consulates in the US
(http://www.britainusa.com/) did not reveal what foods are legal to carry
in. The US Department of State's info on Britain likewise is mute about
bringing in foods, http://travel.state.gov/uk.html. The Italian website
you reference concerns releases and sales of live organisms, not processed
On the flip side, if you want to know what foods you can and cannot
legally bring into the US, you can easily find a list on
http://www.aphis.usda.gov/travel/usdatips.html (see the list of legal
foods below from that website). The list of approved foods is fairly
long, and it makes no mention of genetics. The US restrictions mainly
concern fresh produce to prevent the introduction of disease and insect
From Prakash: Other than the papaya from Hawaii, I do not know of any
'whole food' that we consume is bioengineered in the US or Canada. While
many such foods such as potato, tomato, squash and sweetcorn have been
approved for commercialization in the US, because of the monopoly of many
wimpy food companies, these are not marketed and thus the situation is
thus not much different from that of the supermarket tyranny in the UK.
However, because corn and soy ingredients are so ubiquitous in the
processed foods in North America, practically any such food that John
would pick up here would have a biotech food ingredient - bakery products,
cookies, crisps, soft drinks, ready-to-eat canned food, chips, frozen
Losing Organic Certification
- Andrew Apel
Colleagues, I recently received a telephone call from a farmer in Iowa
(USA) who wanted to know who he could complain to in the Environmental
Protection Agency about genetically modified crops. As it turns out,
engineered genes had been detected in his "organic" crop, and as a result,
he said, he "lost organic certification."
Here's the real problem: this farmer had been badly taken advantage of.
What is worse, both activists and the mainstream press tend to perpetuate
the scam that embroiled this farmer and deprived him a portion of his
Under US regulations, a certified organic farmer may not make intentional
use of engineered crops. This means that an organic crop can be 100
percent engineered, so long as it's by accident. Organic certification is
unaffected unless the use is intentional.
How, then, could this farmer have lost "organic certification" by
accident? Simple. He was lured by an unscrupulous purchaser of organic
grain into signing a contract in which he promised to go far, far beyond
the requirements of the law and personally guarantee that his crop would
be 100 percent free of engineered genes. No matter that it's even
impossible to purchase gold that is 100 percent pure. This farmer was
ripped off--and that ripoff is what activists and the mainstream press
euphemistically call "losing organic certification."
Behind the euphemism lurks a lie. Nobody in the US losing "organic
certification" over engineered genes, and never will, unless the
regulations change. What is happening, instead, is that organic farmers
are being tricked by organic purchasers into signing contracts with
impossibly strict guarantees. And after the farmers sign these ridiculous
contracts, they and the activists who abet the industry want the
government, or farmers using other technology, to bear the costs of
bailing them out of something they never should have signed in the first
I highly recommend that organic farmers contracting for future delivery
promise nothing more than to comply with the regulations governing organic
production. They go beyond those requirements at their own peril, and the
law seldom offers relief for those who promise things they may not be able
I also highly recommend that those who read activist and press accounts
claiming that engineered crops "endanger organic agriculture" dismiss them
out of hand. What is really going on is that organic food producers are
unconscionably oppressing organic farmers by demanding that they both
exceed government regulations and defeat the vagaries of nature.
Colours of the palate - The Food We Eat
- Caitlin Fitzsimmons, Australian, August 15, 2003
'The phrase 'eat your greens' takes on fresh meaning in the sci-fi world
of food biotechnology, writes Caitlin Fitzsimmons'
The year is 2015. You drive your electric car to the supermarket and plug
it in to recharge. Inside the shop, customers are scanning their selected
groceries under the watchful eye of a dozen security cameras and a single
guard. You walk down the aisle past shelves of blue noodles and golden
rice, and grab a carton of purple milk.
It sounds like science fiction but advances in food manufacturing and
genetic technology could make this a reality -- all in the name of better
nutrition. Whether it's adding vitamin A to rice or fish fats to
vegetable oil, biotechnology offers a modern twist on the Hippocratic
saying: "Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine thy food."
The buzz term in the world of nutrition is "functional food" -- food with
added health benefits beyond basic nutrition. Examples include beneficial
bacteria in yoghurt or cereal with added folate to prevent birth defects.
As US author Michael Pollan puts it, we've moved from the 1960s
meal-in-a-pill vision of the future to incorporating the pill into the
Not all functional food is genetically modified and not all GM food is
functional, but the two can overlap. Food manufacturers have been
tinkering with recipes to alter the nutritional content of processed food
for decades -- for example, many brands of margarine add stanol, a plant
extract that lowers the absorption of cholesterol into the bloodstream.
Genetic technology means scientists can produce faster results and for the
first time introduce characteristics from other species. Consumers are
already eating GM food -- although the amount sold in Australia is minimal
-- but the present varieties are designed to benefit the farmer rather
than the consumer. The selling point of most GM crops -- such as the Bayer
InVigor canola recently approved for cultivation in Australia -- include
increased yields and herbicide resistance.
But this could change. CSIRO plant-industry research scientist Allan Green
says there is a strong drive to improve the nutritional quality of food
using genetic technology. A project to introduce to oil-seed crops the
omega-3 fatty acids found in fish could result in commercial products
within 10 years.
"We now know how important it is to have two to three fish meals a week
but there are not enough fish stocks in the world and the stocks are
declining," Green says. "There's a strong likelihood we can make oil seeds
synthesise the fatty acids by transferring the genes from an organism that
already produces them."
This would involve introducing genes from algae and marine micro-organisms
-- the source of omega-3 acids for fish -- into oil-seed crops such as
canola. Another prominent example of nutrition-based GM food is the
development of "golden rice" -- so called because of its yellow colour--
that is genetically altered to contain higher levels of beta-carotene and
other carotenoids, which the body converts to vitamin A.
Golden rice is still in the laboratory phase and, according to the
International Rice Research Institute, field trials could begin next year.
Scientists -- and the public-relations departments at biotechnology
companies -- have hailed its potential to reduce blindness caused by
vitamin A deficiency in developing countries.
But not everyone is convinced. Marion Nestle, chairwoman of the department
of nutrition and food studies at New York University, told The Australian
this week it is unnecessary to artificially create functional foods. "It
is already perfectly possible and not difficult to consume a healthy diet
with foods that are already available, palatable and inexpensive," Nestle
says. "Their main purpose is marketing -- to create foods with a sales
advantage in a hugely competitive food marketplace, one that is enormously
In the US, the food supply provides 16,380 kilojoules per day per capita
-- roughly twice what the population needs -- making the food business
fiercely competitive. Nestle says the science of GM is "brilliant -- a
tour de force" and GM food does offer potential benefits. But she warns:
"GM companies ... should not use concerns about public health to sell
their products if that isn't what the products are about."
In a well-publicised letter to the Journal of the American Dietetic
Association in 2001, Nestle said the practical benefits of golden rice
were over-rated. Her point is that countries with widespread vitamin A
deficiency usually have plentiful sources of beta-carotene in their food
but not enough dietary fat or protein to absorb it. What is needed is a
food-based approach rather than "the addition of one or two nutrients to
an existing food".
Nutritionist Rosemary Stanton says GM technology could have benefits --
such as reducing allergens in food -- but also increases the likelihood
that food will fall victim to fashion trends. "The main problem involved
in trying to alter the nutritional value of food is that we know so little
about human nutrition and we're very likely to get it wrong," she says.
Stanton says it is common for a particular vitamin or mineral to suddenly
become "a magic bullet", only to fall by the wayside when something new is
discovered. She points to the hype about lycopene, an anti-oxidant found
in tomatoes believed to be valuable in preventing prostate cancer.
"The moment anything seems valuable everyone wants lots of it," Stanton
says. "The danger is if we modify other things to contain lycopene rather
than eat tomatoes. We often jump to conclusions ... we assume it's the
lycopene but we don't know that -- it could be something else in tomatoes
or the way it works in combination."
Linda Tapsell, who heads the month-old National Centre of Excellence in
Functional Foods, based at the University of Wollongong in NSW, says
research will improve the nutritional quality of processed food and
refocus attention on the healthy properties of natural food.
"The best example is our understanding of the benefits of breast milk,"
Tapsell says. "It suddenly hit us that breast milk is best for baby -- now
that's starting to happen across a whole range of foods such as nuts."
Once shunned for their high fat content, nuts are now known to have
essential fatty acids, anti-oxidants, fibre and protein.
Tapsell says natural foods with high nutritional value can still be
improved through breeding, care in transport and a better knowledge of
their place in the diet. GM technology will greatly enhance the
possibilities. "Rather than waiting 20 years for something to happen, GM
can make it happen now," Tapsell says. "If we can produce new varieties of
fruit and vegetables, it will encourage people to eat more of them. Rather
than telling little Johnny to eat his broccoli, you can encourage him to
try a brand-new type of broccoli."
And the purple milk? It's a cosmetic -- yet healthy -- change made
possible through our understanding of biotechnology and the natural
pigment in food. Purple mayonnaise and blue bread could be good for you
Tucking into a slice of purple toast or a scoop of purple ice-cream might
be fun -- but soon it will be good for you, too. Researchers at CSIRO
Food Science Australia are growing in the laboratory the natural purple
pigments found in berries and vegetables, to provide a healthy alternative
to artificial colours.
Plant products development manager Izabela Konczak says the natural dyes,
called anthocyanins, have anti-oxidant properties and could replace
artificial colours, many of which can trigger allergies or other health
problems. The dyes could be used to make any foods -- even bread or milk
-- purple, blue or red. "I've never seen purple mayonnaise but you could
add anthocyanins into mayonnaise to make it purple," Konzcak says.
"You would also be adding a dose of anti-oxidants, which are
anti-mutagenic and anti-cancer." The CSIRO is focusing on growing Japanese
sweet potato tissue and extracting the pigment. The process uses
biotechnology, but the resulting food is not genetically engineered. The
dye turns very acidic food bright red, which changes to purple as the pH
Food with a 7.2 pH reading -- slightly alkaline -- would turn bright blue.
Because anthocyanins are water soluble, there is no chance of overdose or
accumulation in fat cells -- a problem with the orange pigments found in
pumpkins or carrots.
Natural food colouring from Japanese sweet potato has been commercially
available since 1995 but the technique of growing plants in the field and
then extracting the pigment is costly. The CSIRO research aims to rapidly
produce 10,000-100,000 litres of pigment in factory conditions.
What's on Offer Now
* Food Standards Australia has approved genetically modified varieties of
canola, cotton (used in cooking oil), corn, potato, soybean and sugar
* Some GM soy products are on sale in Australia.
* FSA tests show some non-GM corn chips, taco shells and soy milk contain
low-level GM contamination.
* GM canola and cotton can be grown in Australia; the others may be in
* Food with more than 1 per cent novel DNA or protein must be labelled
genetically modified. This doesn't include food from animals fed on GM
feed or food where GM content has been removed during manufacturing
process (such as cooking oils made with GM canola or cotton).
* Europe is more strict. All food and animal feed must be labelled GM if
it has at least 0.9 per cent of GM ingredients. Food containing GM
derivatives that may not show up in testing, such as sugar and oils, must
* The US, which has had GM food for several years, does not require
Top TV Scientist Backs GM crops, But Fears Cloning
- Edward Black, The Scotsman, August 15, 2003
One of Britainís leading scientists warned yesterday that human cloning
could destroy natural instincts that were developed thousands of years ago
and make us unique. Professor Lord Robert Winston said he was against the
cloning of humans but saw no reason why genetically modified (GM) crops
should not be developed to alleviate starvation in the Third World.
Winston, a fertility expert and a BBC presenter of such programmes as
Walking with Cavemen, was speaking at the Book Festival. He attacked
Prince Charles for his anti-GM foods stance, though he said it was a
natural human reaction to be wary of scientific progress.
"As a species, we developed on the savannah where our natural instincts in
terms of fear, flight and hunter-gathering developed, but we have
developed our society so fast many of them are now redundant," he said.
"That is why I have a phobia of spiders, for example, and why obesity is
becoming such a problem in Britain and America, because it is a natural
human instinct to hoard up fatty food when it was considerably more
"Our instincts still exert a powerful hold on us when it comes to choosing
a mate through pheromones, and our subconscious sense of smell will draw
us to the one with the most suitable genetic make-up for us. But in
Sardinia we find that inbuilt genetics protect people from malaria, even
though they are left vulnerable to other diseases. "I think it would be
sad to lose the quirks that make us human and unique," he said, "but,
above all, the science is not there to produce perfectly healthy humans."
Professor Winston argued that the case for using science to develop food
was very strong. He said: "I find Prince Charlesís stand disappointing, as
he is someone I admire hugely, but it is a natural knee-jerk reaction to
fear science in this context. I have little time for those protesters that
trample around test fields naked. "If we can develop crops that are more
resistant to drought, then we can really tackle starvation in the Third
World as well as a host of other diseases, such as HIV, which afflict weak
and starving populations. In America, all soya is GM-developed and it has
not done anyone any harm."
Professor Winston, who is based at Imperial College London, which is in
charge of Hammersmith Hospitalís IVF unit, said one of the biggest
problems confronting society was allowing women to have children at a
later age. "Today, women are increasingly having babies at a later age,
which increases the risk of genetic complications. Women are born with all
the eggs they will ovulate, which was fine when life expectancy was 35,
but menopause has in a sense been outgrown."
Genetically Engineered Plants Produce Cervical Cancer Vaccine Components
- American Society of Microbiology, http://journals.asm.org/ August 15,
2003 (via checkbiotech.org)
Researchers from Germany have genetically engineered plants to produce
particles of human papillomavirus (HPV) that could be used in the creation
of vaccines or as edible vaccines themselves. They report their findings
in the September 2003 issue of the Journal of Virology.
"Cervical cancer is linked to infection with HPV and is the third most
common cancer among women worldwide. There is a strong demand for the
development of an HPV preventive vaccine," say the researchers.
In the study, the researchers genetically engineered tobacco and potato
plants to produce a major structural protein of HPV. When the protein was
purified and administered to mice, it induced an immune response. When the
potatoes were fed to mice, they also induced an immune response, though
not as significant.
"Here, we demonstrated as a first step that it is possible to produce
transgenic plants expressing the HPV-16 L1 protein in a form appropriate
for immunization purposes," say the researchers.
(S. Biemelt, U. Sonnewald, P. Galmbacher, L. Willmitzer, and M. Muller.
2003. Production of human papillomavirus type 15 virus-like particles in
transgenic plants. Journal of Virology, 77: 9211-9220.)
UK Farmers Skeptical About GM Crops
- Denis Murphy, University of Glamorgan, UK
This article is interesting as it seems to come from a grass roots farmer
who cites market economics as being the main reason not to grow GM crops.
This attitude is fairly common among smaller farmers in the UK, though
there tends to be more support for GM crops from larger farmers.
Small farmers are having a tough time here at present and are much more
exposed to risks (e.g. of legal action or supermarket pressure) than the
larger farmers. These guys would welcome pretty much any new technology
that brought in some bucks, but they are not at all convinced that GM is
the answer. This is one of the reasons that the UK government (which
generally supports GM crops) is being so circumspect about allowing them
in before there has been a lot of public debate.
'Talking Point, Farmers Weekly, August 8, 2003'
Piling pressure on today's government to keep GM crops out of the UK would
see farmers putting their best foot forward, says John dark
* John dark is the northern representative for the Small Farms
Association. He is a third generation family farmer near Pickering, North
Yorks. Mr Clark is the Liberal group leader on Ryedale District Council:
My local district council, Ryedale, has declared itself a GM-free zone.
Some of the responsibility for this is mine; I was the mover of the
motion. What will be the impact on farmers? Canvassing during elections
was a good indicator'of public opinion. A few were strongly in favour of
GMs, slightly more were strongly against. The "don't knows" are, by far
and away, the majority.
Their reasons are interesting: "The scientists don't agree", "What's the
rush?", "What are the effects on the environment?" They are saying yes to
science and research. They are saying no to a worldwide headlong indecent
haste. British farmers beware. This is our market and these are our
customers. It is bad enough that the Labour government wants to buy
cheaper food abroad. Imagine a GM food scare on top of that.
The US is screaming at the EU and the World Trade Organisation to accept
GM crops. Is this because they want British fanners to benefit? Is this
because they want European customers to have the benefit of GM food? No -
it's because they are losing export markets.
Ryedale consumers appear to be typical of British consumers. The vast
majority don't want GM food. Some want a choice. No one wants to eat GM
only. British farmers have a huge niche market on our doorstep. If Britain
follows the GM-free councils and goes GM-free the domestic market should
be ours. In terms of exports British farmers have a choice. Britain
growing GM would leave us in competition with the USA, Canada, Argentina,
Australia and others. Imports would continue from all these countries.
Britain would also suck in large volumes of food from countries that are
Competition from the US and others would collapse were Britain GM-free.
Japan and South Korea, the biggest US maize importers, have stopped all
maize imports because of GM. Growing conventional crops for export in GM
countries is likely to become impossible. Why would we wish to join those
Let's just take the markets. In all food scares the farmers get the blame.
At first there was a struggle to extract BSE compensation from the
government. The OTMS in its present form results in the farmer paying most
of the cost. As for foot-and-mouth, the government is moving towards
making farmers shoulder the bill.
GM is far worse than either of these. Biotech companies do not accept
responsibility when things go wrong. They have hundreds of legal cases
running against US farmers. The UK government is not going to accept any
responsibility. The NFU Mutual will not insure farmers against claims over
GM. Should there be a food or environmental scare, British farmers will
get the blame and pay for clearing up the mess.
If Britain goes down the GM route farmers will take all the risks. There
will be no new markets and a chance of losing our UK customers. If Britain
is GM-free the risk to British agriculture is negligible. There will be
new export opportunities and our domestic market will be more secure.
Pressure must be put on the government. It has done nothing about what
Tony Blair described as the supermarkets' "armlock" on farmers. Local
councillors must be lobbied to encourage more councils to go GM-free.
Our choice is simple. Let's be different, special and best. GM-free is the
most profitable way forward for British agriculture.
Days Left Before Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety Enters Into Force
- Crop Biotech Update, isaaa.org
Necessary Action, Preparations, and Considerations before 11th September
This document http://www.isaaa.org/kc/Bin/Issues/Cartagena/index.htm
contains background information, action required, frequently asked
questions about the Protocol (e.g. what institutional arrangements does
the Protocol require at the national level? What is the difference between
signing and ratifying the Protocol? What are the benefits of becoming a
Party to the Protocol?), and useful references and links (e.g. a list of
requirements that need to be fulfilled as the date of entry comes into
force and a checklist of obligations found in the Cartagena Protocol on
2002 Global Status of GM Crops Available Online
Preview: The Global Status of Commercialized Transgenic Crops: 2002
written by Dr. Clive James, chair of the International Service for the
Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), is now available online
at http://www.isaaa.org/kc/Bin/Global/index.htm. ISAAA Brief No. 27
contains a glimpse into the global status of transgenic crops in 2002
which grew for the sixth consecutive year at a sustained growth rate of
more than 10 percent.
The estimated global area of transgenic crops is 58.7 million hectares or
145 million acres, grown by about 5.5 to 6.0 million farmers in 16
countries, up from approximately 5 million farmers and 13 countries in
GE Corn with Increased Vitamin E Content
- Crop Biotech Update, isaaa.org
Scientists from the Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research
Service (USDA-ARS) have developed a new method of engineering plants like
corn to contain significant levels of the antioxidant Vitamin E.
Vitamin E applies to eight naturally occurring forms of compounds known as
tocotrienols and tocopherols. Edgar B. Cahoon of the USDA-ARS Plant
Genetics Research Unit and his colleagues investigated the pathway that
leads to tocopherols. The researchers isolated the genes that encode
enzymes to increase the production of Vitamin E up to 10 to 15 times more
than non-engineered plants. In corn seeds, the increase was sixfold. The
authors noted in the September issue of Nature Biotechnology that their
results "demonstrate the ability to enhance the antioxidant content of
crops by the introduction of an enzyme that redirects metabolic flux."
Additional benefits of the discovery, when the process is refined, include
plants that will be more resistant to oxidative stresses, leading to seeds
that can be stored longer and improved crop productivity. In addition,
vegetable oils manufactured from the seeds would have an extended shelf
An article on Vitamin E enhanced corn is available online at
Popular Food Linked with Autism, Schizophrenia, Diabetes and Heart Disease
- Denis Murphy D (SApS)
This is an interesting story with lots of juicy claims linking a certain
food product with autism, schizophrenia, diabetes and heart disease.
What is this dreadful stuff? Why, milk of course!
I have no idea how well substantiated these health claims are and I am
always wary of correlations from epidemiological studies, but could you
imagine the fuss if this story were about a GM derived food product?
Meanwhile please carry on enjoying your breakfast cereal (with milk) - I
know I will. (Denis Murphy, Biotechnology Unit, University of Glamorgan,
A 'Healthier' Milk for UK Market?
- Ingredients, August 15, 2003
UK dairy farmers are planning to market the controversial A2 milk, said to
be better for the heart, and also claimed to help children with autism.
A2 milk derives its name from the type of protein contained in the milk -
most of the milk sold in the UK contains more A1 which some researchers
have claimed could increase the risk of heart disease.
Currently available in New Zealand and Australia, producers in the UK are
preparing to offer milk which does not contain the A1 proteins, according
to a BBC report. Only a few herds in the UK produce the A2 milk but
companies are expecting high demand, it said.
Research showing the link between A1 milk and heart disease is so far
preliminary but the issue has caused much debate in New Zealand. Some
scientists believe that high rates of cardiovascular disease in certain
regions of the UK could be connected to the type of milk produced in those
The New Zealand-based A2 Corporation, founded to promote milk that
contains only the A2 variety of beta casein protein, launched the A2 milk
brand on the home market and in Australia in April. Recent reports suggest
that the firm is looking to license its technology to overseas markets.
The firm is currently in a court battle with major dairy group Fonterra,
which it claims suppressed research linking milk containing the A1 protein
to autism, schizophrenia, diabetes and heart disease. Fonterra has denied
the claims and Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) continues
to advise milk is a safe and nutritious component of the diet for most
ABIC 2004 Conference
- Brussels, Belgium/Cologne, Germany, 2003-08-15
The end of the moratorium on genetically modified food turns the ABIC 2004
conference into Europe's most important date for agbiotech in 2004
Tuesday, July 22nd the European Union's Secretaries of Agriculture enacted
a bylaw on genetically modified food and animal feed and their
traceability that formally ends the general denial of admission of
genetically modified organisms which has been in place in the European
Union since 1998. The regulations will become effective 20 days after
their publication in the European Union Official Journal. The food
industry will have 6 months to adjust to the new labelling regulations.
In addition, on July 23 guidelines for the "development of national
strategies and best practices to ensure the co-existence of genetically
modified crops with conventional and organic farmingĒ were issued. Thus
the European Commission is clearly indicating a further liberalisation of
the agricultural commodity market in regard to the application and
cultivation of optimised crops. According to EC's consumer protection
commissioner David Byrne licensing procedures for new genetically modified
plants can now be reintroduced. He estimates that first admissions may be
granted as early as October.
This changed political situation increases the importance of the ABIC 2004
conference for the European agricultural economy, which is scheduled to
take place in September 2004 in Cologne, Germany. The ABIC organisers, led
by Dr. Peter Welters, CEO of Phytowelt GmbH, the company that has been
assigned with the organisation of the conference, will compile a
conference program detailing the requirements and consequences of the new
For registration of the ABIC Newsletter please contact:
The Growth of Genetically Modified Foods
- Heppenheimer, T.A. 2003. Invention & Technology 19(1):16-25. Excerpts
below. Full story at
'Even before they Arrived on Consumers' Plates, they Showed Great
Promise-and Attracted Great Opposition'
One morning in May 1994, a pair of letters rolled off a fax machine in the
offices of Calgene, a start-up company located in Davis, California, amid
the lush agricultural country of the Central Valley. The letters came from
the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and they granted
regulatory approval for Calgene's first product, a genetically modified
tomato. Anticipating this decision, company officials had already laid in
a supply of their new Flavr Savr variety, which combined vine-ripened
taste with firmness for ease in transport. Three days later, the tomatoes
went on sale at a local supermarket. Each Flavr Savr tomato carried a
label, while bright-red brochures promised "Summertime Taste...Year
The company's marketing efforts immediately ran headfirst into Jeremy
Rifkin, a long-standing scourge of biotechnology. Vowing to fight a
"tomato war," he declared that Americans were "moving in the direction of
organic, healthy, sustainable foods" and had no interest in "gene-spliced
tomatoes." In an interview, he threatened to "picket markets, hand out
notices to consumers, and organize 'tomato dumpings' and boycotts." His
Pure Food Campaign had chapters around the country that were ready to
follow his lead.
The day the Flavr Savr tomatoes went on sale, Pure Food activists arrived,
carrying a cardboard coffin and tossing in tomatoes of their own. This
protest only attracted more Customers: The day after the demonstration,
the store sold twice as many. For the first time, a gene-spliced food had
been offered for sale to the public-and the public had liked it. This was
a hopeful step for scientists working in the new technology of genetic
engineering, which promised to change the basic characteristics of
Throughout recorded history, farmers and agronomists have been improving
their crops with the conventional methods of plant breeding.
Cross-pollination, grafting, and other techniques have yielded countless
new varieties of agricultural products with larger yields, hardiness,
disease resistance, and other desirable characteristics. During the 1960s
Norman Borlaug launched the Green Revolution, which greatly reduced hunger
in Third World countries, by creating high-yielding varieties of wheat and
Generic engineering has greatly expanded the potential benefits of plant
science, making Borlaug (the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize laureate) one of its
most enthusiastic proponents. Yet the need for caution has increased as
well, for genetic engineering differs from earlier methods as much as
synthetic fabrics differ from linen. It Involves nothing less than
introducing new genes into crops, thereby touching the most basic
processes of life. No standard program of cross-breeding can add fish
genes to corn, but such modifications would be straightforward in today's
The process by which traits are transmitted from parent to Child has long
been a subject for speculation and research. Aristotle suggested that the
blood carried hereditary information, a notion that was widely accepted in
the West for 2,000 years. By the end of the seventeenth century, following
the development of microscopes, Aristotle's theory had been disproved, as
ova and sperm cells were identified in humans and animals. In the 1860s
the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel performed the first systematic research on
plant generics with his famous studies of garden peas. His work introduced
the concept of the gene as a unit of heredity, as when we speak of "a gene
for blue eyes." Still, although scientists spoke of genes as if they
actually existed, no one knew what they were made of or how they worked.
Despite all this, genetically modified foods have been far from
universally accepted, particularly in wealthier countries. The reaction
differs greatly from one part of the world to the next. While most
Americans and Canadians accept the principle of allowing producers to
prove the safety of their genetically modified plants, the European Union
has gone so far as to institute a general moratorium on commercial
cultivation of all such crops.
Why have transgenic crops encountered vastly different receptions in
Europe and America? Old-fashioned protectionism for European farmers
certainly plays a role. So does simple America-bashing, which always goes
over well with Europeans when they are not having a war. But there are
deeper reasons at work.
In the United States, regulatory approvals come from the FDA, the EPA, and
the Department of Agriculture. All three have long-standing records of
successful regulation, and their open procedures have made them broadly
trusted. By contrast European regulatory agencies hold much less esteem
among the general public, with only multinational companies such as
Monsanto reaping greater disdain. This results in part from repeated
regulatory failures, still fresh in mind, that placed public life and
health at risk. The sleep-inducing drug Thalidomide, for example, was
legal in Europe for several years until it was shown in 1962 to cause
birth defects. In America a more cautious FDA withheld its approval
(though it was a close enough call that Congress decided to strengthen the
FDA's drug-licensing powers.) In the 1980s Britain saw widespread
outbreaks of mad-cow disease in cattle that had eaten food supplements
containing meat and bone meal from infected sheep. Many people ate meat
from these sick cows, and more than a hundred of them died from
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a horrifying and incurable illness, before the
British government took belated and drastic action in the late 1990s by
destroying large numbers of cows that were at risk.
With attempts at science-based regulation in public disfavor, people
turned instead to environmental groups. These activists strongly supported
the "precautionary principle." The 1982 World Charter for Nature, issued
by the United Nations, incorporated this principle, stating that "where
potential adverse effects are not fully understood, the activities should
not proceed." The journal Science commented that "if interpreted
literally, no new technology could meet this requirement." Nevertheless,
the 1992 Treaty on European Union established this principle as the basis
for European environmental law. It has little if any legal standing in the
U.S., but it leaves Europe's critics of transgenic technology free to spin
out novel scenarios of risk, and Europe's regulators are now seeking to
regain public favor by following the environmentalists. They view genetic
methods as new and inadequately tested, posing not only known hazards but
unknown ones as well, and therefore meriting the deepest distrust.
To be sure, Europe has no crying need for biotechnology. As in America,
its people are well fed and its farmers receive generous subsidies.
Wealthy European countries are inclined to see farming as a traditional
cultural activity, like folk dancing, that deserves preservation, rather
than as a productive economic activity whose efficiency should be
maximized. European consumers thus have the luxury of dismissing products
such as Roundup Ready as merely a ploy to sell more chemicals. In Africa,
though, transgenic foods can make a much greater difference. The Kenyan
plant scientist Florence Wambugu views Roundup Ready crops as a godsend:
"We could liberate so many people if our crops were resistant to
herbicides that we could then spray on the surrounding weeds. Weeding
enslaves Africans; it keeps children from school."
Even so, many farmers in Africa are not free to plant transgenic crops.
Their governments seek to earn hard currency through exports of foodstuffs
to Europe, and European agencies refuse to accept foods that have been
genetically modified. In 2002 Zimbabwe and Zambia rejected American
donations of genetically modified food even though some people in those
countries were reduced to eating leaves. The reason lay in their concern
that American genes would contaminate the local crops; the markets in
Europe were to be protected at all costs.
Amid such determined resistance, advocates of transgenic foods will
strengthen their hand if they can offer crops that carry direct benefits
for consumers rather than for farmers. In fact, such a product already
exists: A "golden rice" that contains beta carotene, which the body
converts into vitamin A. For lack of this vitamin, more than a million
children in the Third World die each year, while another third of a
million go blind. The nee rice, announced in 1999, represents the work of
the research pioneer Ingo Potrykus, along with Peter Beyer of Germany's
University of Freiburg. The Rockefeller Foundation funded their work, in
which they modified the gene assembly of conventional rice by splicing in
genes from the daffodil plant that produce beta carotene.
Elsewhere, an international consortium is developing a genetically
modified variety of corn that clones itself instead of cross-pollinating
freely with other plants. This promises to eliminate the necessity of
buying new seed each year to ensure a pure strain, a benefit that could
prove invaluable to Third World farmers. Gene splicers can also find hope
in the recent experience of China, which has made a strong commitment to
transgenic research. Its first genetically modified product, a
Bt-producing cotton, was planted commercially for the first time in 1997,
when the rest of the world already had 2.5 million acres of such cotton in
cultivation. In 2001 China's Bt cotton fields covered some five million
acres, nearly as much as the rest of the world combined. Now Chinese
scientists are developing genetically modified strains of rice that could
eventually feed billions of people.
With transgenic crops already so widespread, it seems unlikely that
anything like a European-style ban will be enacted in the countries that
are already enjoying the technology's benefits. Yet one unfortunate
incident could be enough to reverse the trend and slow or stop the spread
of genetic modification to other crops. Proponents, therefore, must not
only continue to exercise the most extreme caution to reassure consumers;
they must also find ways to sell genetic modification as a positive good
instead of a necessary evil.
Gene-spliced crops make farming easier, safer. and more productive, but
except for the abortive experiment with Flavr Savr tomatoes, they have
not, thus far, offered anything consumers can see or taste. When that day
comes, Americans and perhaps even Europeans may put genetically modified
foods in their shopping carts with no more trepidation than they attach to
tangelos or seedless oranges.
21st Century NGO: Playing the Game or Selling Out?
21st Century NGO: playing the game or selling out? International study
reveals that more NGOs are shifting from confrontation to collaboration An
international study released today reveals that increasing numbers of
non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are making strategic decisions to
engage with business and governments in an effort to reform market systems
-- in sharp contrast to the confrontational posture that has characterized
previous years. This is one of the key conclusions from a new study by
SustainAbility and the United Nations. At the same time, however, there is
concern that such a move could compromise the independence of NGOs and
draw criticism that they are 'selling out'. In addition, the report shows
that NGOs are confronting three critical challenges around accountability,
financing and partnerships.
The report - titled 'The 21st Century NGO: In the Market for Change' --
involved a global study of the NGO landscape, with over 200 NGOs and
opinion formers contributing to the identification of the challenges these
organizations face in the new millennium. While the report acknowledges
that these are early tremors, it predicts they are the start of a seismic
shift -- one that will see rising numbers of NGOs engaged with business to
bring about positive societal change.
"The good news for NGOs is that they are emerging as vital ingredients in
the health and vitality of markets," John Elkington, chair of
SustainAbility, said. "They are also highly trusted, far more so than
business or governments. The bad news is that unless they recognize and
address growing financial, competitive and accountability pressures, their
impact will be significantly reduced. For those that respond intelligently
and in time, the prize is to be amongst the most influential institutions
of the 21st century."
Founded in 1987, SustainAbility is the longest established international
consultancy specializing in business strategy and sustainable development
-- environmental improvement, social equity and economic development.