Today in AgBioView: August 21, 2003:
* First Annual Conference on World Hunger
* Plant vaccines: growing closer to commercial reality
* Environmental Working Group: A Scare A Day
* Saving the Potato
* Brazil Not Expected To Legalize GMOs For Coming Harvest
* US Escalates GM Food Row with Europe
First Annual Conference on World Hunger
The University of Maryland Office of International Programs, the Center
for Sustainable Development, and the Joint Institute for Food Safety and
Applied Nutrition (JIFSAN) are co-sponsoring a one-day conference on world
hunger, to take place Tuesday, October 14, 2003.
Dr. Per Pinstrup-Andersen will be the keynote speaker, and the
conference's two sessions will focus on 1) Food Production, and 2)
International Food Policies.
For more information, the full conference agenda and registration form,
Plant vaccines: growing closer to commercial reality
A new report has suggested that plant vaccines could soon become a
August 20, 2003 5:22 PM GMT (Datamonitor) - Transgenic plant technologies
could lead to a revolution in vaccine production and manufacture. Should
plant-based vaccines prove effective in clinical trials, this will drive
licensing activity between key vaccine players and companies with relevant
According to a review article in the International Journal for
Parasitology, plant-based vaccines are now edging closer to
commercialization. Prodigene is currently leading the way in developing
plant vaccine technology. In 2001, the company's oral viral vaccine patent
was voted one of "five patents that will transform business and
technology" by MIT Technology Review magazine. This recognition reflects
the huge potential of plant-based 'edible' vaccines to revolutionize the
vaccine sector. German scientists have also developed genetically modified
tomatoes that could be used to deliver vaccines and antibodies.
The convenience of delivery is, perhaps, the most obvious benefit of these
systems, reducing the pain and distress associated with traditional
injectable vaccines and potentially increasing compliance to immunization
schedules. Physicians could potentially hand out corn-based vaccine snacks
to children, while access to adult and elderly immunizations could be
Vaccine delivery through crops could have significant benefits, most
notably in the developing world. Vaccines could be grown from seed and
then freely distributed without the need for trained medical staff at any
stage. Implementation of such schemes would probably require initially
high expenses in terms of education and training, but would then be
relatively cheap. Should such schemes become commonplace the emphasis of
vaccine manufacture could shift away from pharmaceutical companies towards
companies that develop GM crops.
Plant-based systems have obvious advantages for existing players, in terms
of reduced production costs, ease of scale-up and the previously mentioned
delivery advantages. Not only are raw material and purification demands
reduced (corn produces proteins more cost-effectively while plant and
animal pathogens are distinct, reducing the potential for
cross-infection), but transportation, storage and administration costs
could also be lowered. Key vaccine players could benefit significantly
from these developments and should monitor continued progress very
carefully. Should human trials of such vaccines prove successful, there is
likely to be significant licensing/partnership activity between vaccine
players and companies holding intellectual property for transgenic plant
technology. As a result, companies such as Prodigene could face a bright
Environmental Working Group: A Scare A Day
Center for Global Food Issues
Suppose your gracious new neighbor took you aside one day and quietly
warned that serving non-organic fruits and vegetables to your family was
endangering your kids' health. Suppose she offered a professional-looking
'index of danger' showing your supermarket's peaches, apples, spinach,
celery, and potatoes were all too dangerous to eat. You'd probably be
Then suppose you learned from another friend that the neighbor had made it
all up. With no training in chemistry or medicine, she'd made a bid for
local prestige by concocting her own 'chemical danger index' and
frightening her neighbors half to death. Would you feel betrayed?
Meet the Environmental Working Group, your friendly, concerned "neighbor"
from Washington, D.C. The EWG is a multi-million-dollar "public interest
watchdog" dedicated to making you afraid of nearly everything in your
modern world: fruits, vegetables, baby food, drinking water, toys,
swimming pool chlorine, utility poles, cotton clothes, etc. The EWG says
that eating one non-organic apple or peach can cause "dizziness, nausea or
blurred vision" in a child, but offers no evidence. The EWG makes up its
own "danger indexes" despite the fact that it has no scientists on its
EWG does have a brilliant scheme guaranteed to keep you in fear for as
long as you're willing to stay there. The EWG says it recently tested 9
people and found traces in their bodies of 76 different chemicals "linked
to cancer," 79 chemicals "associated with birth defects," 86 that disrupt
the hormone system, and 94 that impact the brain and nervous systems. And
all those chemicals can, indeed, be found in our environment. What the EWG
doesn't tell you is that 1) the chemicals are found only in tiny amounts;
and 2) there's no link between the trace chemicals and our health.
The brilliance of the EWG strategy is that modern chemical testing can
find a part per trillion. That's one second in 31,000 years. Thus we'll
always have "chemical contamination" to support EWG scaremongering.
Some examples: They warn you about dioxin, despite the fact that U.S.
dioxin output is about four pounds per year, nationwide. Most of it is
natural, from forest fires.
They warn you that DDT, banned for 30 years, is still lurking in the soil,
and industrially-produced PCBs are buried in the rivers. Last year,
however, the Federal government released a major study of New York's Long
Island, where women have a relatively high breast-cancer incidence. They
examined blood and urine samples from 3,000 women (half with breast
cancer, half without) along with samples of their yard dirt, carpet dust,
and tap water. The study focused on the cancer risks of everybody's
favorite chemical villains: DDT, another long-banned pesticide called
dieldrin, and PCBs.
They found no link between any of the chemicals and breast cancer. What
they found is that too many Long Island women smoke, and lots of them
delay having children. Both raise breast cancer risks.
Where does the public-interest EWG get its money? Not from the public.
They get it from the politically correct foundations of long-dead
industrialists, whose affluent grand-kids now feel guilty that Mr. Ford or
Mr. Pew got rich producing things people wanted, like cars and gasoline.
If you still prefer the chemical conspiracy theory, remember that our
kids' urgent health risks include smoking, lack of exercise,
overeating-and not eating the five fruits and vegetables per day that will
cut their total cancer risk in half. The major impact of the Environmental
Working Group is to make us fear the ultra-healthful fruits and
vegetables, and more inclined to drink sodas than tap water. How does that
Saving the Potato
August 21, 2003
by Dean Kleckner
Biotechnology means there doesn't ever have to be another potato
famine--in Ireland or anywhere else.
More than one million Irish men, women, and children died when a deadly
disease ripped through their potato fields in the middle of the 19th
century. Another two million fled the country. Many of them became
immigrants to the United States.
The human toll of the Irish potato famine was ghastly. According to one
account, "Parish priests desperate to provide for their congregations were
forced to forsake buying coffins in order to feed starving families, with
the dead going unburied or buried only in the clothes they wore when they
Even today, Ireland's population of nearly 4 million people is less than
it was before the terrible fungus called Phytophthora infestans wrought
its destruction on poor farmers.
A current legacy of the Irish potato famine is that Irish farmers don't
plant nearly as many potatoes as they once did. That massive crop failure
of 150 years ago has written itself into Irish culture so completely that
farmers on the Emerald Isle almost instinctively turn to other crops.
They've also learned the lesson of genetic diversity. The potato famine
was catastrophic in Ireland because farmers had unwittingly become
dependent on a single variety of potato. When disaster struck in the form
of a fungus, it wiped out just about every potato plant, rather than just
one kind among many.
Yet potato blight remains a problem almost everywhere potatoes are grown.
In the United States, some 1.5 million acres are devoted to potatoes, and
every kind of potato plant grown on them is vulnerable to fungal
That may soon change. Just last month a team of scientists at the
University of Wisconsin announced that they had found a gene in a wild
Mexican potato that protects against blight.
But they didn't just find the special gene and leave it alone. Instead,
they spliced it into new plants. They created genetically modified potato
plants that resist fungal infection.
"We think this could be very useful," said John Helgeson, a University of
Wisconsin professor who is also a research scientist with the U.S.
Department of Agriculture.
Now that's a huge understatement.
This amazing discovery has the potential to revolutionize potato farming,
just as biotechnology has revolutionized corn and soybean farming in the
United States. If this technology had been widely available in the 1840s,
the history of Ireland, the United States, and even the world would be
Another Wisconsin professor, Jiming Jiang, pointed out that the commercial
applications of this discovery would rely upon genetic modification. "It
is almost impossible to create another Burbank variety, for example,
through conventional breeding," he said. "Your odds of getting the one
gene in would be like winning the lottery."
That's where biotechnology comes in--it's like rigging the lottery so that
everybody can win.
Some critics of biotechnology will say all this talk of genetic
modification sounds "unnatural." But they fail to realize that the history
of agriculture is nothing but the history of genetic modification. For
eons, farmers have crossbred their plants to create better crops.
This desire is what brought potatoes to Ireland in the first place. Potato
plants are native to South America--they arrived in Ireland sometime
during the 17th century. Anybody who wants to argue about "unnatural"
crops should start by acknowledging that there isn't anything "natural"
about potatoes in Ireland--or Idaho, or any of the other places we
associate with the plant.
The miracle of biotechnology is that we can continue to do what farmers
have done for untold generations--except that now we can make bigger leaps
in shorter spans of time.
Without biotechnology, we may not ever breed a potato that isn't
vulnerable to fungal epidemics, triggering the starvation that killed
millions of people in the past. With biotechnology, we're on our way to
Some might say it's 150 years too late. I say it's better late than never.
Brazil Not Expected To Legalize GMOs For Coming Harvest
Aug. 20, 2003
Brazil's government will not authorize the planting of genetically
modified soybeans for the coming crop season, which starts in October,
said Chief of Staff Jose Dirceu. He told a meeting of members from the
governing Workers Party that the current law, which allows the sale of
GMOs up to February 2004, but not the planting, must be respected.
Brazil is the last major agricultural exporter where GMOs are not fully
legalized. But undeterred, according to private estimates, around 20
percent of the crop is GMOs, derived from seeds smuggled in from
Last week, Federal Judge Selene Maria de Almeida upheld a request by
Monsanto Co. to suspend a court ruling blocking the planting and sale of
its RoundUp Ready soybeans. However, federal attorneys say the provisional
measure to which Dirceu referred overrides this decision.
The Brazilian government is currently crafting a draft bill on
biosecurity, which includes rules on GMO crops and foods. It is expected
the draft bill will be presented to Congress next week, and Agriculture
Minister Roberto Rodrigues and rural representatives hope the law will be
pushed through before planting.
However, Dirceu, the right-hand man of President Luiz Inacio Lula da
Silva, said while the government is keen to send the bill through
Congress, the final word on the text will come from the president.
"The minister made it clear that there is no objective conditions to plant
GMO soybeans this year, because there is no authorized GMO seed
available," said Orlando Desconsi, a Workers' Party deputy from Rio Grande
Sul, the southern state where GMO planting is concentrated.
Rural representatives will meet with Dirceu to discuss the situation this
US Escalates GM Food Row with Europe
by Andrew Osborn
Europe's dispute with America over genetically modified food escalated
yesterday after Washington asked the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to
force the EU to lift its five-year-old ban on new GM food products.
In a move which raises the prospect of a fresh trade war just a month
before crucial world trade talks in Mexico, America requested the
formation of a WTO dispute settlement panel to decide once and for all who
is right on GM technology. The call was backed by Argentina and Canada.
Washington said it hoped that the panel - which could take up to 18 months
to pronounce - would rule that the EU's failure to allow the sale of 30 US
biotech products on precautionary grounds was illegal.
The EU response was immediate and curt. It said it regretted the move,
blocked the formation of the panel (something it is allowed to do only
once), and claimed that the case would confuse already sceptical European
"We regret this move to an unnecessary litigation," said Pascal Lamy, EU
"The EU's regulatory system for GMOs [genetically modified organisms] is
clear, transparent, reasonable and non-discriminatory. We are confident
that the WTO will confirm that the EU fully respects its obligations."
EU environment commissioner Margot Wallstrom warned that the US move could
"There should be no doubt that it is not our intention to create trade
barriers. But my concern is that this request will muddy the waters of the
debate in Europe. We have to create confidence among citizens for GMOs and
then allow them to choose."
A de facto EU moratorium on all new GM product approvals has been in place
since 1998 because of widespread public unease about the technology.
The EU has recently finalised strict new rules on the authorisation and
labelling of such products which it argues means that the moratorium is
now dead in the water and that new GM products can be approved.
However, most EU member states are still dragging their feet over letting
in new products and Washington is growing impatient.
If it wins the WTO case the EU could be forced to authorise the sale and
marketing of the 30 biotech products in question and might have to
compensate US farmers for their losses.
Those are estimated at nearly $300m (£189m) a year in lost corn exports
Linnet Deily, the US WTO envoy, said yesterday that the EU's restrictive
GM policy was unfair to other countries and held back a technology that
holds "great promise for raising farmer productivity, reducing hunger and
improving health in the developing world, and improving the environment".
However anti-GM campaigners said the US was trying to force unwanted food
"The US administration, funded by the likes of GMO giant Monsanto, is
using the undemocratic and secretive WTO to force feed the world GM
foods," said Martin Rocholl, of Friends of the Earth Europe.
"Decisions about the food we eat should be made in Europe and not in the
White House, the WTO or Monsanto's HQ.
"We welcome the European commission's commitment to fight this aggressive
The EU argued yesterday that even the American public wanted GM food
labelled, saying that a recent poll found "a whopping 92% of Americans"
favour biotech crop labelling.
GM food is just one of several issues where the EU and the US are at
Disagreements over steel tariffs, US tax breaks for multinationals, and
the US practice of feeding cattle growth hormones continue to sour the