Today in AgBioView: October 6, 2003:
* Africa Should be on Guard Against Misguided Greens
* The Root Causes of Hunger - Theology Expert Speaks Up
* Vatican Prepares Statement as National Debates Continue
* Response to 'Atlantic Monthly' Piece by Rauch
* Still In With a Chance? - Medieval Britain?
* Re: A Disgusted Brit
* Children as Policy Pawns
* Indecent Proposals
* Biotech and Sustainable Development: Voices of the South and North
* Marketing GM Foods: The Way Forward
Africa Should be on Guard Against Misguided Greens
- Tawanda Zidenga (email@example.com), Graduate Student (from Zimbabwe),
Plant Biotechnology Center , The Ohio State University
As the debate on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) continues on an
international scale, Africa risks being bullied by the so-called "Greens"
into accepting dubious philosophies. So far the European stance has
negatively affected African opinion on GMOs. This is partly due to the
perceived trade implications if Africa decides to go GM.
The green voice is loudest in African debates on GM matters. In my home
country Zimbabwe, the debate hit center stage last year when we were about
to receive food aid from America (we had poor yields due to bad weather
and our own problems). Predictably, the media was in control, and
unfortunately, our media has a history of misreporting science.
Consequently, GMOs were reported as some western invention being tested on
poor helpless Africa. One sociologist, in a fit of excitement, actually
wrote that Africa is being taken as one big laboratory. Phrases such as
genetic imperialism, genetic holocaust and the now all too popular
Frankenstein were common in the papers.
Like what we are getting from "GM Nation?" in UK, the reaction of the
African public was predictable. And the loudest voices were those that
have never been in a decent science class, like our dear sociologist (who
at one time aspired to be the mayor of the capital!!) . The government was
misled into rejecting the donation. Fortunately, we have a strong science
team in Zimbabwe , and a functioning biosafety system. Finally, the
government got good advice and the food aid was accepted. Our brothers and
sisters in Zambia were not so lucky. Their president Levi Mwanawasa
outrightly rejected GM food, saying his people would not feed on "poison."
The Greens have learnt the basic fact that a lie will travel half the
world before the truth has had a chance to put its pants on. They never
have to prove their claims. It is a point of consensus that Africa, like
everyone else, must develop functional biosafety frameworks if it is to
benefit from the biotech revolution. The problem comes when focus is put
on biosafety more than on strengthening research capacity in biotechnology
itself. It then appears as if we are defending ourselves against a monster
called biotech. I argue that the precautionary principle makes Africa
reactive rather than proactive on biotech issues. It must be rejected in
the interests of development!
Africa does not need Green scaremongering. It is just not conveniently
placed to accommodate that mindless luxury.
What we need in Africa is sound science. And we need all the support from
those willing to support science.
- Tawanda Zidenga
The Root Causes of Hunger
- Samuel Gregg, TechCentral Station, Oct. 6,
Perhaps one of the worst visual images of poverty today is the picture of
human hunger. Nothing quite distresses us more than the thought of a child
in Latin America, Africa, or Asia suffering from malnutrition -- their
very life-essence literally draining away into death, despair, and
This is only one of the reasons the promise of Genetically-Modified Food
(GMF) has gripped so many people's imagination. The possibility of
producing crops genetically-enabled to resist drought, to grow in
less-fertile areas, or to produce twice what they would otherwise yield
seems to be the miracle for which many have yearned.
Concern for the poor and hungry is a non-negotiable principle of Christian
faith. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Vatican is currently
producing a document on GMF. There are many indications that the document
will contain a qualified endorsement of such processes.
The President of the Curial department charged with producing the text,
Archbishop Renato Martino, has stated that he personally has no objections
to GMF. He has been quoted as stating that "the problem of hunger involves
the conscience of every man. For this reason the Catholic Church follows
with special interest and solicitude every development in science to help
the solution of a plight that afflicts humanity."
In expressing these views, one suspects that Archbishop Martino is aware
that the moral case for GMF is strong. From the standpoint of Christian
ethics, the created world exists to be used, in accordance with the
natural law, by humans. For this reason, the Church has never regarded as
morally problematic the centuries-old practice of genetically manipulating
plants and animals through methods such as cross-pollination, not to
mention animal cross-breeding. No doubt, Vatican officials are also
conscious that there is no existing scientific evidence that GMF is likely
to harm humans, animals, or plants.
The first criteria of Christian ethics, "avoid evil", thus appears not to
be violated by GMF production. Moreover, if GMF is used to feed those
suffering from hunger, then its potential to "do good" (another guiding
principle of Christian ethics) is great.
There are, of course, some Catholics who oppose GMF. They do so on
prudential grounds, largely with regard to concerns (few of which appear
scientifically-based) about GMF's potential effects upon the food chain.
What, however, appears to be lost amidst the GMF discussion within the
Catholic Church is deeper reflection upon the sources of hunger.
With or without GMF, there is no reason people should be hungry. For
famine is not primarily caused by natural elements such as drought. Hunger
primarily results from an absence of property rights, rule of law, and
free trade. If there are no property rights, farmers have no incentive to
grow crops. Without rule of law, they have no guarantee that their produce
will not be stolen from them by corrupt officials. In the absence of free
trade, agricultural producers in developing nations have little chance of
competing with their subsidized, protected American and European
counterparts. In other words, the root causes of hunger are to be found in
Consider the following facts. Over the past 10 years, 2 million North
Koreans have died of hunger because of the Communist regime's collectivist
policies. In the 1930s, 8 million Ukrainians starved to death during the
Great Famine engineered by Stalin's destruction of privately-owned farms.
Those masses who died in Ethiopia in the 1980s were the victims of war and
another Marxist-Leninist regime's socialist economic policies. At this
very moment, thousands in Zimbabwe are facing starvation as a result of
the Mugabe's dictatorship's systematic destruction of white farmers'
property rights, its awarding of stolen property to the dictator's
cronies, the disappearance of rule of law, and the consequent collapse of
effective and efficient farming.
Hunger is a scourge upon humanity and a defacement of what the Church
teaches to be the human person's intrinsic dignity. GMF production that
conforms to Christian ethics and the natural law may well be part of the
solution. But let us hope that the Church does not lose sight of hunger's
deeper causes. Human lives may literally depend on it.
Dr. Samuel Gregg is Director of Research at the Acton Institute
(www.acton.org). He is the author of Economic Thinking for the
Theologically Minded (University Press of America, 2001) and On Ordered
Liberty: A Treatise on the Free Society (Lexington Books, 2003).
Vatican Prepares Statement as National Debates Continue: Opening Up to GM
- ZENIT, The World Seen From Rome, Oct 4, 2003
ROME - The long-running debate over genetically modified crops is being
examined by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Interest in what
will be Rome's position on the subject is running high. Last summer the
Italian newspaper La Stampa ran a series of articles on the matter,
starting with an Aug. 3 story that said the Vatican was opening up to the
idea of approving genetically modified crops.
The paper quoted the president of Justice and Peace, Archbishop Renato
Martino, as saying that it is imperative to find a way to bring food to
those who are starving. He also warned against taking extremist,
ideologically based positions on the question, affirming the need for
rigorous scientific examination of the subject.
The latest country to weigh in is Brazil, which last week gave the
go-ahead to planting modified soybeans. The decision revealed deep
divisions, the New York Times reported Sept. 28. First, the government
announced the green light for the seeds, then a few hours later the vice
president, José Alencar, cast doubts on the approval. Finally, President
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva interrupted his U.N. visit in New York to
overrule the vice president, who then signed the decree.
The New York Times noted it was an important decision, given that
environmentalists have played a major role in Lula's Workers' Party since
its founding over 20 years ago. The decree is valid until the end of 2004
and contains restrictions on where GM crops can be planted.
In Australia, earlier approval for GM crops came with the decision by
federal authorities to permit genetically modified canola. Gene Technology
Regulator Sue Meek declared the higher yielding canola hybrid was as safe
for humans and the environment as conventional canola, The Australian
reported July 26. The decision came too late for planting this season. As
well, the major canola states have moratoriums on growing GM crops, except
In New Zealand, the government previously announced that it was lifting a
moratorium on GM crops effective this month, the Sydney Morning Herald
reported April 18. Agriculture Minister Jim Sutton said a commission of
inquiry had found potential benefits for New Zealand in adopting genetic
modification, and the government would ensure a cautious case-by-case
approach would be taken to applications to release GM organisms.
In Britain, meanwhile, a number of reports have looked into GM products.
The first report, from the Cabinet Strategy Office, cast doubts on the
commercial attractiveness of GM crops because of consumer resistance, BBC
reported July 11. The report nevertheless argued that Britain should not
turn its back on the new technology, since the crops could offer
wide-ranging benefits to farmers and consumers in the long term.
Environment Minister Elliott Morley said: "The report highlights that GM
crops are one area in which GM technology has significant potential to
contribute to the UK's future economic prosperity and sustainability." But
he added: "It also points out that GM crops are just one possible tool for
achieving our goals -- important advances in crop production will also
come from conventional and organic techniques."
Shortly after, a panel of 25 experts said it found no case for ruling out
GM crops in Britain as "there have been no verifiable untoward toxic or
nutritionally deleterious effects" on human health, BBC reported July 21.
Yet, the GM Science Panel Review did add: "It is clear that gaps in our
knowledge and uncertainties will become more complex if the range of
plants and traits introduced increases."
The experts also considered that GM crops are unlikely to lead to
"superweeds." Some GM opponents argue that the genetic variations could be
passed on, leading to herbicide-resistant weeds. The British government's
chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, who chaired the panel, said that
GM crops are not a homogenous technology, and therefore applications will
have to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
The most recent report examined the results of more than 650 public
meetings held around Britain, plus 37,000 replies to questionnaires, on
the GM issue. The British daily Guardian reported Sept. 25 that 54% said
they never want to see GM crops grown in the United Kingdom. A further 18%
said they would find the crops acceptable only if there was no risk of
cross-contamination; 13% wanted more research.
This summer the European Parliament approved two laws that allowed the
European Union to lift a five-year moratorium on GM products, a move that
has provoked serious differences with the United States. The laws require
strict labels for GM products, the Financial Times reported July 3. All
products containing more than 0.9% of GM organisms would have to be
labeled as GM products.
U.S. farmers say the laws will do nothing to open the EU market, even
after the ban is lifted, because the elaborate tracing provisions are
impossible to meet without a costly effort to segregate all GM crops from
The European Court of Justice recently ruled that governments can block
the sale of GM food products, under certain conditions. The case involved
Italy and genetically modified corn sold by Monsanto Company, the Wall
Street Journal reported Sept. 10. Under the ruling, countries are allowed
to temporarily ban the sale of GM foods that other EU authorities had
approved for sale, but only if they could demonstrate a health risk.
The court relied on a rule known as the precautionary principle, which has
been invoked to ban U.S. beef treated with growth-promoting hormones as
well as a chemical component of some plastics. But, the court said such
risks "must not be purely hypothetical or founded on mere suppositions
which are not yet verified."
In the meantime, the battle to influence the public's views continues. In
the Guardian on June 2, Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on
Economic Trends in Washington, D.C., wrote that Europeans opposed GM
products not just for health concerns but also for cultural reasons: "the
last vestige of cultural identity most Europeans feel they have some
control over is their choice of food."
As to the argument that GM crops can resolve world hunger, Rifkin
contested that the problem is complex and will not be remedied just by
means of higher-yield crops. He also accused the large agricultural
companies of wanting to monopolize the intellectual property rights of the
new crops, thereby further marginalizing the farmers in poor countries.
But numerous reports support GM crops. The Danish National Environmental
Research Institute found that GM crops might be better for the environment
than the unmodified form. New research showed that the crops allow insects
and spiders to flourish around their edges and thus provide more food for
birds, the Independent reported March 13.
The International Council for Science, a Paris-based federation of more
than 100 national science academies, concluded that GM crops do not pose
health problems for consumers, the Financial Times reported June 6. The
report looked at more than 50 important research studies.
On food safety, it found wide acceptance among scientists that current GM
foods are safe. However, the report did warn that more complex products,
yet to reach the market, might carry health risks. On the negative side
the scientists disagreed on the impact GM crops will have on biodiversity.
The Vatican's forthcoming statement will likely add fuel to the debate.
Response to 'Atlantic Monthly
- Christopher Preston , Univ. Adelaide
I have made an attempt at contributing to the Atlantic Monthly
'Frankenfoods Debate' at http://forum.theatlantic.com/WebX?.2cb4fd9e. My
post is given below.
Jonathon Rauch in his recent article has gone and seen no-till agriculture
and biotech crops for himself. In doing so he has managed to highlight why
farmers in the US, and elsewhere, are rushing to adopt herbicide tolerant
biotech crops. The advantages of no-till agriculture are so obvious to
many farmers that they willingly adopt any technology that makes the move
to no-till easier. One of the correspondents on this topic has pointed out
that you don’t need biotech crops to no-till. That correspondent is
correct, as the first crop Rauch saw was a no-till wheat crop. However, it
is clear, as Rauch points out, changing to no-till is much easier with
In this Rauch is supported by studies, published by the Canola Council of
Canada and others, that show farmers are substituting biotech crops with
post-emergent herbicide applications for conventional varieties and soil
incorporated pre-emergent herbicides. This change has facilitated the move
to no-till farming in canola and soybeans. No-till farming has benefits
off farm as well. Rauch pointed out reduced erosion; however, there is
reduced fuel use as well. The report of the Canola Council of Canada
reported an annual reduction of 32 million litres of fuel as a result of
reduced tillage associated with growing herbicide tolerant varieties.
There is also reduced carbon dioxide emissions as well, helping to reduce
the impact of the greenhouse effect.
Rauch's visit to the farm also highlighted that biotech crops have been a
resounding success. The adoption of biotech crops has been one of the
fastest of any farming technology. Roundup Ready soybeans account for over
80% of soybean acreage in the US and over 95% of the soybean acreage in
Argentina. Herbicide tolerant canola accounts for over 80% of the canola
acreage in Canada. Strangely, almost none of the claims made by the
anti-GM groups about the agronomic problems of biotech crops have come to
pass. The sole exception is the increased rate of evolution of glyphosate
resistance in weeds.
Having met both Averys, I know they are passionate advocates of modern
agricultural systems (described by some as industrial agriculture). The
Averys have often been accused of merely spouting the biotech company’s
lines. However, in this case the Averys are absolutely right. Without
technology in agriculture improving crop yields, we would have had to
clear a lot more land to maintain crop yields. Some of the correspondents
on this topic have maintained that the problem with agriculture is growing
monocultures. Growing polyculture crops is possible, but is inefficient.
There are several sources of inefficiency including weed and pest control,
but the major inefficiency is separating the produce at harvest.
Polycultures are possible only on small areas of land.
Efficiency in farming is vital to feeding the world. It is because modern
farming is so efficient that I can afford to sit typing at the computer
instead of hoeing weeds out of turnips like my ancestors used to do. The
current population of America is closing 300 million. If we were to give
every one an equal amount of land they would each get about 7 acres. As
only about a third of the US land mass is arable, this leaves 2.5 acres of
arable land. I would like to challenge the opponents of industrial
agriculture to see how many people they could feed off 2.5 acres of land.
If the land was good, they could probably feed several; however, to make
this challenge appropriate, I would give them 2.5 acres in the sandhills
north of Scottsbluff, Nebraska.
So how important are biotech crops to feeding the world. At least one of
the correspondents has claimed there is enough food currently grown to
feed the world and it is because of political considerations that people
starve. The correspondent is correct on the first point and partly correct
on the second. There is indeed sufficient food available, but it is not
evenly distributed. You have nations such as the US that produce more than
they need and other nations, such as Japan that produce less. The problem
is solved by Japan buying produce from the US and other exporting
However, when countries can neither produce enough food, nor afford to buy
it problems occur. These are not easy problems to solve. Some would
suggest the food should simply be given away to such countries. Dumping
produce in such a way would undercut the returns to be made by local
farmers sending them broke. The solution is to enable the citizens of
these countries to be able to afford to buy food. It is often forgotten
that the point of farming is not merely to grow food, but to make money.
Therefore, in third world countries you find that Bt cotton is the main
biotech crop adopted. This crop enables cotton growers to protect their
crop from the ravages of insects and reduces the need to spray expensive
and often ineffective insecticides. In doing so, farmers reap more cotton,
increase their income and are more able to buy produce from other farmers
both locally and overseas. In this small way, Bt cotton is helping to feed
Still In With a Chance?
- Prof. Vivian Moses, Dept of Life Sciences, King's College London,
(Member of the Scientific Alliance Advisory panel)
'More than 13 research centres in Spain are dedicated to plant
biotechnology which could make Spain a leading European force in ag.
biotech. although more support is needed from government and the present
climate of scepticism towards genetically modified plants would also have
to change. That sounds rather like the UK: will Britain also have a place
at the world's advanced technology table?'
Think of what the UK has already lost: with minor exceptions, we no longer
design and build our own aircraft or cars. Our high-speed tilting train
has been replaced by one from Italy. Hovercraft on every major river in
the world? They no longer even ply across our own (English) Channel.
Nuclear power was once going to be too cheap to be worth metering: dare we
now even go on with it? The pharmaceutical industry is making tracks
across the Atlantic because the environment for science, once our pride
and joy, is no longer conducive over here - and the funding inadequate
compared with our competitors who clearly know better. Our infra-structure
is so degraded and inept that it seems we cannot even organise the
traditional millennium festival in a dome.
What are we left with? A financial sector under pressure from New York,
Frankfurt and all the other wannabees in Europe? Pop-singers whose export
potential is said to be falling and who, anyway, mostly "sing" in American
accents? Are they to be our future pride and joy?
Is there anything which represents a touchstone by which we can assess our
position? There is: our attitude to agricultural biotechnology. Many of
the world's most advanced countries - as well as some of the poorest - are
rushing to embrace it. There is no sign of any deleterious effect on human
or animal health, just moaning minnies who always choose to prophesy the
worst for all scenarios. Is the "environment" going to shrivel up and die?
Not a hope: all the indicators are for benefits in terms of more
production and better quality, with less use of chemicals and less use of
land. But the drum-bangers, and their commercially interested allies,
predict the despoliation of every acre from Lands End to John-o-Groats.
We have just finished a "national debate". For all the hype, the facts
were never really in doubt as the official reviews showed; it is the
"predictions", the innuendoes and the suppositions which were manipulated
to scare our people and influence the outcome. For the decision is above
all a political one; there is already enough experience from the millions
and millions of hectares cultivated with transgenic crops, from the
hundreds of millions of people who eat them daily and from the six million
plus farmers around the world who benefit from their use, to know that we
stand no terrifying new risks if we use this new technology sensibly and,
over time, we will derive great benefit.
We just need political will on the part of the leaders who make our
national decisions. There is not even any serious money involved in the
immediate future; our Government would not have to shell out a bean
although a bit more funding for research and development, or even some
direction of existing resources into more productive channels, wouldn't
But will they do it? Will the UK vacate yet more of its leading positions
in world science onto which it can still hang and retire to the gallery to
watch the others? There we can also have a grandstand view of the country
losing football and cricket matches, European song contests and all the
rest. Or, before all our best biologists and bioindustries give up in
disgust, will they actually take a stand and say "thus far and no further;
we are on our way back to the top"?
One is reminded of the Treasure Fleets of the Chinese Empire that sailed
the seas from 1405-1433, fleets using ships based on construction and
guidance technologies anticipating those in Europe by 500 years.
Having sent missions all over Asia and to Europe, China was on the verge
of opening the trade routes between Europe and Asia that later inspired
Christopher Columbus. It could have dominated global civilisation as
Portugal, Spain, England, France and Holland did years later. Yet China
abandoned the exploration, destroyed its treasure fleets and lost its
technological superiority within a few decades after the last voyage in
Why did they do that? Louise Levathes has some answers:
* because progressives who saw the Chinese treasure fleets as spreading
the virtues of Chinese civilisation to other nations lost a political
power struggle at the Imperial Court with Confucian die-hards who argued
that China should turn inward and ignore the outside world.
* those die-hards preached the superiority of Chinese civilisation and
feared that the outside world was polluting its purity. The progressives
believed that China would be enriched materially and culturally by contact
with other nations. * the die-hards promoted stability and order in the
society founded upon agricultural and rural China. They were antagonistic
to the constantly emerging technologies and industries of the
progressives. * the progressives expressed optimism and for the future;
the reactionaries argued for precaution towards the world and focused on
refining Chinese culture itself.
China did not abandon sea-faring exploration, destroy its technological
superiority, nor turn away from the outside world because it was backward.
Just the opposite; China chose to stop the voyages because the Imperial
Court decided that seafaring exploration presented unacceptable risks to
Chinese cultural identity. The Imperial Court was convinced that Chinese
civilisation was unchallengeably superior and needed nothing from the
outside world to enhance it. Smugness, not cultural doubt, accounted for
the course of history that gave rise to European dominance and the
concomitant marginalisation of China in world affairs.
Does that ring a bell? Where does the UK stand? Hopefully not with the
medieaval Chinese Confucians.
Sources: L. Levathes: When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the
Dragon Throne, 1405-1433 (Oxford Univ. Press, 1994). Our attention was
drawn to the Chinese Treasure Fleets by Professor Drew Kershen in his
paper Innovations in Biotechnology - Public Perceptions and Cultural
Attitudes, presented at the Dept. of Justice Canada Biotechnology 2002
Conference and to be published (abstract available at
Re: A Disgusted Brit
- Sandeep Prakash
Mr. Ohm, I completely agree with your disagreement with Britain's
Luddites. These are the same people who buy their groceries at a
supermarket that claims to sell only organic and hydroponic goods, mind
you. Yes, like homophobia and slavery, the undercurrent of occult beliefs
concerning GM food will fade into blasphemy. In the mean time, we must do
everything in our power to expedite the process.
- Sandeep Prakash, Undergraduate Student, University of North
>> Disgusted - Paul Ohm (Edgbaston), Telegraph (UK), Oct 2, 2003
>> Sir - According to a government consultative paper, a large majority of
>> people do not want genetically modified crops to be grown commercially
Children as Policy Pawns
- Henry I. Miller & Gregory Conko, Washington Times, Oct 5, 2003
Americans take nothing as seriously as the need to protect the health and
safety of our children. Public concern about environmental harms has
intensified in recent years, and politicians and public health officials
have taken notice. Hence, "Children's Health Day," observed on the first
Monday of October, which occurs tomorrow.
Seizing an opportunity to further their own agendas, many radical
Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) exploit the event by attacking
various products and technologies they claim are harmful.
As in many other public health false alarms, NGOs' condemnation of the new
biotechnology -- also known as gene splicing, genetic engineering, or
genetic modification (GM) -- is less about real concern for children's
health than about environmental activists' willingness to exploit
children's issues for their own benefit.
Biotechnology has been the target of scare campaigns since the technique
was first demonstrated in 1973. Activists like Jeremy Rifkin of the
Foundation on Economic Trends have warned against supposed dangers of
biotechnology for three decades, calling it "the most radical,
uncontrolled experiment we've ever seen," even likening it to "Nazi
With varying degrees of subtlety, others such as Greenpeace and the Pew
Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, have questioned the new
biotechnology's safety. Despite an overwhelming scientific consensus that
new molecular methods of the "new biotechnology" pose no inherent risks,
critics still argue that splicing genes into plants can cause all sorts of
human health risks, including adding new plant toxins or allergens to the
The allergy issue is of special concern when children are involved,
because children tend to be more sensitive to allergens than are adults.
Approximately 5 percent to 8 percent of children have a true allergy to
certain types of foods, but only 1 to 2 percent of adults do.
Therefore, if gene-splicing really did increase the risk of introducing
new allergens into the food supply, this might pose a genuine children's
health issue. How real is this possibility? Food allergies are a reaction
of the body's immune system to a substance or an ingredient in a food,
usually a protein. And, because the function of most genes is to provide
the cellular blueprint for making proteins, it has been easy for activists
to convince the uninformed that a real children's health scare is
imminent. But the issue is not so simple.
Both conventional and biotech plant breeding involve introducing new genes
into established crop plants. Thus, they both pose a theoretical risk of
introducing potentially harmful proteins and other substances into the
food supply, some of which could be allergens or toxins. However, the risk
for both types of breeding is generally quite small, and the level of risk
an individual plant will pose -- either to human health or the environment
-- has nothing to do with how it was developed. It depends on the
characteristics of the plant being modified and the specific gene or genes
In short, using gene-splicing to introduce a new gene into a crop plant
has little bearing on whether new allergy issues could arise -- except
that with gene-splicing techniques, plant breeders actually are less
likely to introduce new allergens into the food supply. Conventional
plant breeding involves an essentially random mix of literally tens of
thousands of genes from two or more parent plants -- any one of which may
never before have been part of the human food supply. Thus, plant breeders
generally have little knowledge about which genes combine to create new
crop varieties, which gene products are expressed (and at what levels), or
which traits may be generated or altered.
Dozens of new plant varieties produced through imprecise hybridization and
other traditional methods of genetic improvement enter the marketplace
each year without any governmental review or special labeling. Many such
products are from "wide crosses," hybridizations in which large, sometimes
huge, numbers of genes are moved from one species or one genus to another
-- across "natural breeding barriers" -- to create a plant variety that
does not and cannot exist in nature.
For example, Triticum agropyrotriticum is a relatively new man-made
"species," which resulted from combining genes from bread wheat and a
grass sometimes called quackgrass or couchgrass. Possessing all the
chromosomes of wheat and one extra whole genome from the quackgrass, T.
agropyrotriticum has been independently produced in Europe, Canada, the
United States and China, and has been grown for both animal feed and human
Various problems could arise from such a genetic construction that
introduces tens of thousands of foreign genes into an established plant
variety. For example, the new genes could increase the weediness of the
plant in fields, or proteins derived from the quackgrass genes could be
toxic or allergenic to consumers.
However, neither regulators nor activists have evinced any concern about
these possibilities. Instead of focusing regulatory attention on such
risk-related issues, they have concentrated solely on gene-spliced plants,
about which plant biologists and breeders invariably know considerably
more — for example, exactly which new genes are being added into an
existing plant line, and what proteins will be synthesized by those genes.
Paradoxically, only the more precisely crafted, gene-spliced crops are
exhaustively, repeatedly (and expensively) reviewed before they can enter
the field or food supply. If those supposedly concerned about risk were
crafting regulatory approaches logically, the balance of scientific
certainty and uncertainty would dictate greater precaution not only on
gene splicing but the cruder, less precise, less predictable
"conventional" forms of genetic modification.
Ironically, one of the most noteworthy potential advantages of
biotechnology is to eliminate existing allergens from foods like peanuts,
wheat and milk by "silencing," or turning off, the genes generating
The new biotech's greatest contribution to children, however, will likely
be via the nutritional benefits of gene-spliced plants. For example, the
diet of more than 200 million children worldwide includes inadequate
levels of many important nutrients such as vitamin A, whose deficiency
results in impaired intellectual development, blindness and even death.
Each year, approximately 2 million children die from a severe lack of
A new, gene-spliced rice variety enhances levels of beta carotene, which
is then converted in the human body to vitamin A. This "Golden Rice" could
prevent as many as a million deaths yearly.
Despite significant and real benefits of gene-spliced foods, the
anti-biotechnology "kid campaign" has borne fruit for environmentalists in
a way that other forms of activism could not.
The public is confused, and most regulatory agencies treat gene-spliced
foods and crop plants in a discriminatory, unnecessarily burdensome way.
They have imposed costly, time-consuming and impossible requirements for
conventionally bred plants. Use of the new biotechnology, which holds so
much promise for children's health, is held hostage by a perverse campaign
exploiting kids for political gain.
Henry I. Miller, a physician, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Gregory Conko is director of food safety policy at the Competitive
- Gary Jones, Food without Frontiers - openDemocracy; Posted: 28-Jul-2003
In 'GM crops: the voice of Canadian farmers' we hear a number of petty
complaints and wheezes from wealthy industrial farmers but one stands out,
deserves complete refutation, since it exposes the moral and intellectual
poverty of their position. "Global hunger is the result of faulty
distribution, not deficient production. Solving infrastructure problems
takes a different kind of political will from introducing GM crops."
This is a common confusion, false in every sense.
There is not sufficient food produced in the world to eliminate food
insecurity. There are surpluses produced in some places, some times, but
not a continuous excess of production sufficient to feed a billion food
More importantly, there is no way to move surpluses to those who need
them. The overwhelming majority of food insecure people are farmers living
and working in remote agricultural areas. When they have crop failure, or
even just low yields, due to drought, pests or any of several normal
disappointments that are the lot of farmers everywhere, there is no way
for aid to reach them. There are no trucks to haul food and no roads even
if trucks were imported. There are no central storage facilities, no
bureaucracy, no power, light or refrigeration. There is no infrastructure
on which the concept of distribution can ride. They are poor. Read the UN
FAO reports for details.
Discounting the suffering of these people with an airy wave of the hand
and a brain dead assertion that it's only a matter of distribution is not
just factually false, it reveals a deep amorality, an inhuman lack of
compassion. When voiced by rich world industrial farmers it is also pure
greed, the rent seeking of a subsidized industry lobbying for state
programs to buy their products and raise the price floor lowered by local
overproduction beyond market requirements.
Ignorance, indifference and greed are the foundations of efforts to thwart
agricultural development in food insecure places. Even if it was possible
to produce food in selected areas of the world and haul it over the seas
and mountains to refugees squatting in squalor why would we advocate such
a thing? Why would we squander the world's resources in such absurdly
wasteful ways as a matter of policy? What about the other requirements of
life, will we haul them about too? Will we have tankers of food and water
scurrying about the planet and an army of aid workers beavering away to
service these systems?
It's an insane proposal only the Soviets could love. Actually, they did
love it and demonstrated its foolishness. They squandered their wealth in
such idiotic schemes producing the wrong things, at the wrong times, in
ruinously inefficient ways and carted the unwanted production about the
We need to mature beyond industrial madness and recognize that desirable
and sustainable civilization is a local product of an engaged populace. It
is not only a material necessity that basics such as food be produced
locally, it is a social necessity, the foundation of civilization upon
which a thriving economy and society stands. Humans require more than the
satisfaction of minimum material needs. They require purpose, useful work,
opportunities to express their qualities and enjoy recognition resulting
from their productive efforts.
Our efforts should be to help suffering people develop the means to
sustain themselves. This is harder to do, costs more and exposes us to the
threat of competition in future from those we helped develop. Are we brave
and decent enough to do the right thing?
Biotechnology and Sustainable Development: Voices of the South and North
- Ismail Serageldin, The Library of Alexandria, Egypt and G J Persley, The
Doyle Foundation, Glasgow, UK; August 2003; 320 Pages; Hardback; ISBN:
This book had its genesis in Alexandria, Egypt in March 2002 at the
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, when the new library hosted a conference on
Biotechnology and Sustainable Development: Voices of the South and North.
Here, a group of modern scholars met to review the state of the art in
relation to the applications of biosciences in human health, food and
agriculture and the environment, and address the ethical, institutional,
regulatory and socio-economic issues that affect their use. The goal was
to identify ways and means by which the new life sciences could be
mobilized in the service of humanity and especially to improve the
livelihoods of poor people.
Order at http://www.cabi-publishing.org/Bookshop
Marketing GM Foods: The Way Forward
- Peter W.B. Phillips and David Corkindale, (2003). AgBioForum, 5(3),
Full paper at http://www.agbioforum.org/v5n3/v5n3a06-phillips.htm
(University of Saskatchewan, Canada; University of South Australia,
Genetically modified (GM) foods represent a significant technical and
commercial breakthrough, but they have also revealed a major weakness in
product development and commercialization in the global agri-food system.
Although the biotechnology industry has developed a number of new
technologies and products and marketed them effectively to producers, the
biotechnology industry has almost completely ignored the need to market
these products to consumers. One facet of the marketing literature
suggests that innovative products need to be proactively positioned in the
market either as a replacement for what exists or as an addition.
The literature suggests that innovations like GM foods must be placed in
the market in such a way as to allow consumers to test and compare the new
products against existing products. We suggest that although the
biotechnology industry did this effectively with producers and for a few
output-trait whole foods, it has relied on the concept of substantial
equivalence embedded in regulatory regimes to justify ignoring the
concerns of consumers for most of the GM foods currently in the market.
The industry has been almost universally unwilling to proactively market
input-trait GM foods to consumers. This has created a variety of consumer
responses, ranging from indifference in much of North America to citizen
demands for tighter government regulation and mandatory labeling, to
consumer boycotts in the EU and other countries.
This paper reviews the relevant marketing literature, examines the few
cases where new GM foods have been proactively marketed, and draws the
conclusion that it may be necessary to more clearly and fully market GM
foods to consumers. This has implications for future introductions of
other innovative food products.
Genetically modified (GM) foodstuffs entered the global food system in the
early to mid-1990s and are now in a wide selection of raw and processed
foods. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has indicated that up to
70% of processed foods could contain GM ingredients if highly processed
ingredients are considered. This rapid introduction of GM foods has been
marked by two divergent marketing stories. In the first instance, the
technology owners and developers (i.e., the biotechnology companies) have
been effective in marketing their new products to farmers and producers.
The adoption rates for GM varieties have been faster than any other
recently introduced technology in the agri-food system (Kalaitzandonakes,
1999). Meanwhile, as input-trait GM foods were regulated as being
substantially equivalent to traditional foods, this stance by definition
precluded any explicit marketing effort. Most of the new products have
been blended with conventional foods in global supply chains, such that
consumers in many markets have not had any choice about whether to consume
Although most new input-trait GM foodstuffs were not proactively marketed
to consumers, the few GM foods that were proactively marketed showed the
potential value of effective marketing and successful product placement.
The alternative is already starkly apparent. Citizens and consumers in a
number of countries have demanded and got their governments or the markets
to provide either legislation or proactive labeling systems for these
products. This is counterproductive for both producers and consumers, as
these regulatory and labeling systems tend to be blunt instruments for
managing or signalling product attributes. More effective marketing is not
simply nice to do--it may be a precondition for further investment and
innovation in the agri-food system.
Conclusions: The global agricultural biotechnology industry faces a
conundrum. Although it has had significant success in marketing its new
technologies and GM products to producers, it has failed to make much
headway with consumers. The crops that account for almost all of the
global GM food production in the past eight years--soybeans, corn, and
canola--are almost ubiquitous in much of the processed foods available in
global markets but are almost entirely hidden from consumers.
The current industry strategy of public education and advocacy advertising
for the general technology does not appear to be making any headway with
consumers and is unlikely to be any more successful in future years, if
marketing theory and evidence are correct. The bottom line is that
adoption of innovative products requires transparent self-assessment. This
step is for the most part not possible in any major market. Government
regulations in the EU and Australia have impeded market access for many GM
crops, while mandatory labeling rules have encouraged food processors and
retailers to remove most of the rest of GM foods from the market.
Meanwhile, consumers in North America and much of the rest of the world do
not see many proactively labeled and marketed GM products. Except in a few
discrete cases, GM products and ingredients have been commingled with
conventionally grown produce. Admittedly, offering choice will not be
easy, as securing pure supplies of GM and GM-free produce is a real
challenge for the current global agri-food marketing system (Phillips &
Smyth, 2000). Kalaitzandonakes and Bijman (2003) suggest a second problem
might be that processors and retailers will act in strategic ways (e.g.,
via standards for own-label products) that, although furthering their
corporate objectives, make it difficult if not impossible for the
biotechnology industry to proactively label GM foods. Clearly, there is
more work that needs to be done to translate the imperative for labels
Nevertheless, we are puzzled by this problem for two reasons. First, the
biotechnology industry's success in marketing their technology to
producers and some of their products (albeit mostly whole foods) to
consumers should have shown the industry the value of proactive marketing.
Second, given the dominant role of Monsanto in the industry, we would have
thought that being based in Missouri--the "show me" state--would have
given them some clear vision out of their difficulties.