Today in AgBioView: October 7, 2003:
* Contaminated Maize Meal Withdrawn from Sale
* Sad, but True? - British Report
* Can Africans Sue US Greens?
* First, We Should Feed the Hungry
* Plant Scientists Question Mexican GM Corn Study
* MacArthur 'Geniuses' Advance Genetics
* Self Sufficiency
* BIO Expands Industry Stewardship Program
* Agriculture Stands at Biotech Crossroads
* Strategies for Sustainable Cotton Production
* GM Crops: Science, Politics and Communication
Contaminated Maize Meal Withdrawn from Sale
- Michael Wilson, Letter Sent to The Times
To: The Editor, The Times, London (UK)
As the UK press and media roll-out yet another repeat of their blatant
anti-GM propaganda, unbridled conspiracy theories and
scientifically-unfounded scare-stories - this time on the back of the
so-called "public debate" (or activist/media circus) GM Nation? - they
overlooked one real and highly significant scare story.
On 10 September 2003, two batches of maize meal were withdrawn
(voluntarily) after Food Standard Agency tests revealed they contained
extremely high levels of natural mycotoxins called fumosins which cause
liver cancer and kidney damage in animals, and probably also in humans. So
far, results for other maize products have not been of concern.
Although there is currently no official limit for fumosins in food, the EC
has proposed a limit of 500 microgrammes per kilogram (ug/kg). Fumosins
are formed naturally when moulds grow on food crops in the field or in
storage, and are usually present at very low levels (around 10-15 ug/kg)
in conventionally grown, non-GM maize, for example. The two maize brands
withdrawn, however, were contaminated with staggeringly high levels of
fumosin toxin (4712 ug/kg and 20435 ug/kg respectively).
Why did these revelations not attract front-page banner headlines, or
indeed any press coverage whatsoever? The answer is simple. Both maize
products had been grown organically (Fresh and Wild Organic Maize Meal and
Infinity Foods Organic Maize Meal) which confirms one conspiracy at least
- that it is politically and socially incorrect for the media (or indeed
the public) to challenge the colossal and expensive myth of the Emperor's
New (Organic) Clothes.
But if these maize products had been from GM corn how very different the
headlines would have been! Sadly for the scare-mongers, all GM corn
samples tested so far have only about 0.5 ug/kg fumosin, or less. This is
because they have a single new gene which helps them to resist insect
attack in the field, thus providing fewer insect feeding damage sites for
ubiquitous fungal spores (organic or otherwise) to enter and establish
infections that lead to fumosin production. I rest my case.
- Professor T Michael A Wilson FIHort CBiol FIBiol FRSA FRSE CEO,
Horticulture Research International
Sad, but True? - British Report
- Chris Preston
This story appeared in the Adelaide Advertiser on Friday 3rd October.
> "GM crop warning: LONDON: Two of the three genetically modified crops being grown in Britain appear more harmful to the environment than conventional crops and should not be grown commercially. Scientists conclude that growing GM grape seed oil and sugar beet is damaging to plant and insect life, The Guardian newspaper has reported. The third crop on trial in Britain, GM maize, allows the survival of more weeds and insects and might be recommended for approval."
My first struggle was to come to grips with grape seed oil, but I then
realised that must be a typo for rapeseed oil (not something most
Australians would immediately recognise as we call the crop canola).
Having got past that, I really did a double take on the idea that GM crops
are damaging to plant life. Surely they mean that the herbicides used in
conjunction with these crops are damaging to weeds?
Even accepting this meaning, I still have a problem as herbicides are
specifically designed to control weeds. For a number of years I have
observed that agricultural policy in Europe seems to be more about
preserving a landscape than farming, but even so I struggle to understand
Surely, there are alternative ways to maintain insect and bird life than
insisting farmers grow weeds in their crops? One option would be to grow
weeds on the field margins. But what about other users of the land, are
the same rules going to apply? Will builders of motorways have to have
weeds growing in the asphalt? What about home gardeners, will they have to
have insect-friendly weeds growing amongst the tomatoes?
- Dr. Christopher Preston, Senior Lecturer, Weed Management, University of
Can Africans Sue US Greens?
- Gordon Couger
I wonder if African citizens harmed by US green organizations and US green
lobbyist that lied to their home governments about the risks of GM food
have standing to sue in US courts?
A mother who lost a child suing Green Peace or better yet a demonstrator
or supporter that went to Africa to promote their agenda would sure make a
lot of good news copy against the green cause no matter who won.
Should they win a case against a demonstrator or lobbyist it would sure
discourage this kind of action. The same is true with other activist. The
burden of proof in civil court is much less than criminal court.
- Gordon Couger, Stillwater, OK www.couger.com/gcouger
First, We Should Feed the Hungry
'If you haven't eaten for a while, any food, even if genetically modified,
- The Montreal Gazette, Oct. 4, 2003, From Agnet (subscribe to the Agnet
'now with a new look', send mail to: email@example.com leave
subject line blank in the body of the message type: subscribe agnet-L
Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University's Office for Scien ce and
Society (www.mcgill.ca/chempublic) writes that he has have never really
Schwarcz says that we've read that 5,000 Africans die every day from a
simple lack of food, and millions of others have diets that are totally
inadequate to maintain health. These numbers may shock us, they may linger
in our minds for a few minutes, but then they are squeezed out by our
"real concerns." How many times a week can we eat canned tuna? Should we
peel our fruits and vegetables for fear of pesticide contamin ation?
Should ice cream be labelled as a genetically modified food if it contains
an emulsifier derived from corn that has been genetically altered to
protect itself from pests?
Florence Wambugu finds these worries curious. Sometimes she is downright
angered by them. Wambugu knows hunger. She has experienced it personally
and sees it around her constantly. Schwarcz recently interviewed this
remarkable woman on CJAD radio and experienced her passion about using
biotechnology to feed the hungry. She puts issues in perspective very
quickly. "You people in the developed world are certainly free to debate
the merits of genetically modified foods," she quips, but then quickly
adds "but can we please eat first?" And if Wambugu is allowed to pursue
her efforts to improve crop yields through biotechnology in Africa, she
may help make that question redundant.
As a child in Kenya, Wambugu would never have dreamed that one day Forbes
magazine would label her as one of the 15 people alive today "most likely
to change the world. " It happened in 2002. And it was all made possible
by a cow. More specifically, the only cow Florence's family owned. Young
Florence worked in the fields with her mother trying to raise crops to
feed a hungry family of 10 children, but their efforts were often stymied
by plant diseases and ravenous insects. The mixtures of ashes and soot
they used to ward off pests didn't work. But Florence's mind did. Even at
that young age she was inquisitive and bent on improving crop yields.
Her mother, seeing the dedicat ion, did the unthinkable. She sold the
family cow so that Florence could go to secondary school. A highly unusual
move in Kenya at the time, but, as it turned out, a great investment.
Florence eventually graduated from the University of Nairobi and went on
to earn a master's degree in plant pathology in the United States and a
PhD in England. Her research always focused on ways to improve the lot of
the African farmer and her efforts were brought to fruition when she
received a fellowship from the U.S. Departm ent of Agriculture to work
with Monsanto scientists in St. Louis. Wambugu had always been interested
in the sweet potato. After all, this was the crop her family grew. It is
resistant to drought and is filling and nutritious. But it is also very
susceptible to attack by worms and the feathery mottle virus.
African yields of sweet potato, as is the case with many crops, are the
lowest in the world, partly because there is no winter freeze to kill off
pests. Wambugu spent years trying to cross-breed heartier var ieties of
sweet potato with little success. Then, in St. Louis, she began to take a
different tack. Chrysanthemums are known to produce chemicals called
pyrethrins, which are among the most effective natural pesticides known.
Why not take the gene that codes for the production of these chemicals
from a chrysanthemum and splice it into the DNA of a sweet potato? After
all, Monsanto scientists had worked out a number of such gene-splicing
Although inserting a gene into a plant is now relatively routi ne, it
doesn't happen overnight. Wambugu worked for years to isolate and insert
the appropriate gene and then tested the modified sweet potato in an
isolated green house for two years.
Finally, she received approval from the Kenyan government to begin limited
field trials. These will go on for years to ensure that all aspects of
growing the modified sweet potato have been well studied, but the results
so far are all that was hoped for.
Yields have doubled and the potatoes are richer in beta-carotene, an
important antioxidant. So far, the fields have not been ravaged by
anti-biotech activists, who (on a full stomach) often rip up such crops,
claiming that they have been inadequately tested. The activists have,
however, launched massive publicity campaigns to "inform" Africans about
the "risks" of genetically modified foods. This has had some remarkable
effects, including scaring some farmers away from any new technology.
A good example is tissue culture, which Wambugu helped develop. It
involves taking tissue from a healthy plant and growing it in a sterile
environment before planting the resulting seedlings in the field. In the
case of bananas, this greatly lessens the risk of attack by fungi and
bacteria, increases yields and reduces the need to clear virgin land for
farming. Tissue culture has nothing to do with genetic modification but
some farmers don't want to buy the seedlings because they have been warned
by activists about the dangers of biotechnology.
Perhaps even more disturbing is the comment by Zambia 's high commissioner
When he was asked why, in the face of massive starvation, his country
would not allow the United States to donate genetically modified corn, a
crop that has been part of the U.S. food supply for years, he replied that
"the fact that the people are starving doesn't mean that we should allow
them to eat what they don't know."
It stuns the mind, but doesn't do much for African hunger.
Plant Scientists Question Mexican GM Corn Study
- Sam Jaffe, The Scientist, v.17, No. 19, p46; Oct. 6, 2003
In 2002 University of California, Berkeley, assistant professor Ignacio
Chapela published a paper in Nature, which he coauthored with one of his
graduate students, David Quist.
In the paper, Quist and Chapela claimed they had discovered genetically
engineered genes in native Mexican corn fields, and that those genes were
behaving in a way never before observed: fragmenting into smaller bits of
DNA, hopping along the genome like a skipping stone over placid water and
potentially creating a tremendous opportunity for mutations. In other
words, they claimed that the engineered genes were out of control.
Geneticists hotly contested the paper, decrying Chapela's methods and
Other scientists leaped to his defense, saying the criticism stemmed from
the too-close relationships between plant scientists and agbiotech
corporations. Chapela is a former employee of Sandoz (now called Syngenta)
and a frequent and vocal critic of the biotechnology industry and its cozy
relationships with UC, Berkeley, and other universities. "There are people
who want me out for political reasons," says Chapela.
Nevertheless, in digging to the roots of this tale one finds science, not
politics. After all, the row started with a scientific paper. The science
involved is not only complex, but also cutting edge, so even a PhD in
another field--no less a layman--would have difficulty making a reasoned
judgment about who is right and who is wrong. Chapela's short strike
focuses light on his basic scientific assertions, which other researchers
The story begins when Quist went to Mexico to serve as an advisor for a
program that helps indigenous farmers in the highlands of Oaxaca. He
brought with him some PCR equipment to help the farmers learn how to test
their maize seeds for transgenic maize, which is illegal to plant in
Mexico. While testing the equipment on samples of land race maize cobs
(the native maize grown by the farmers in the region), Quist kept getting
positive results for p35s, a gene from the cauliflower mosaic virus often
used as a vector in transgenic plant engineering. Chapela and Quist are
mycologists, but they felt that their results were so important that they
should write a paper about them.
The paper makes two primary claims: transgenes from biotech-derived crops
have contaminated the genomes of native species of maize in Mexico; and,
those genes behaved abnormally in the genome and attached themselves in
places where they normally would not be found. To reach that second
conclusion, they used a controversial technique called inverse PCR (iPCR)
to identify the flanking regions of the foreign genes.
It appears that the first claim of the paper has been proven correct.
After the paper's release in November 2002, the Mexican government
authorized a massive survey of land race maize in several regions of
Mexico, including Oaxaca. Although the results have not been published,
they have been initially presented at conferences. According to the
position paper produced for one of those presentations, by Ariel
Alvarez-Morales of the Center for Research and Advanced Studies, the team
found that "transgenes such as cry1A can be found extensively in land
races throughout the State of Oaxaca."
The response from critics of the paper is a resounding "Yes, so?" Even
though Mexico has outlawed the planting of transgenic crops since 1998, it
allows such products to be sold as food. And the farmers of the region
have long been known to get corn samples from food stores and plant them
to help breed hardier crops. "Most farmers from that region spend a lot of
time as breeders," says Wayne Parrott, a plant genetics professor at the
Unversity of Georgia. "It shouldn't surprise anyone that they've been
taking transgenic corn and interbreeding it with their own crops."
Chapela disagrees that his research brought no surprising results. "Our
primary thesis was that contamination had occurred, and that's been proven
by others now," he says.
Nevertheless, most geneticists are stunned that Chapela did not follow one
of the basic principles of PCR: He did not confirm the results by
conducting Southern blot tests on the corn. "The thing that most laypeople
don't understand is that PCR is a very dodgy technique," says Sarah Hake,
director of the Plant Gene Expression Center at the US Department of
Agriculture's Albany, Calif., campus. "You don't just run the test once,
you do it multiple times. And then you confirm it with a Southern blot."
Chapela says there is a good reason why he didn't do all that: His sample
sizes were so small. The research was not funded, and his resources were
not ample enough to cover travel back and forth from Mexico to his
Berkeley lab to get more samples.
The second claim in the Quist/Chapela paper is that the transgenes
attached themselves to unusual areas in the maize genome and behaved in a
manner that nobody could have predicted. That is where the obscure
technology of iPCR comes in. The main use of iPCR is to clone a
transposable element's insertion point. In conventional PCR, the primers
point inward, as compared to iPCR, in which the primers point outward
(hence the term inverse) in the direction of the flanking regions. In
iPCR, a large DNA strand containing the unknown part is cut out and then
ligated into a circle. Once the DNA has been circularized, the outward
facing primers point inward and can now amplify the insertion point.
The problem, say critics, is that Quist and Chapela were using a very
specialized tool, about which they had no prior knowledge or expertise,
for the wrong application. The mistake occurred, says Parrott, because the
researchers chose the wrong restriction enzyme to cut the DNA strand.
"They used something called EcoRV, which cuts too cleanly and can lead to
some very confusing results." Parrott says that he would have chosen a
different enzyme, one that would leave a five- or six-nucleotide overhang
and would produce much cleaner results. The overhang allows the DNA to
In a letter to Nature, a group of Berkeley plant researchers showed that
some of the flanking regions detailed in the paper were read incorrectly,3
a charge to which Chapela partially agrees. Instead of transgenes, the
letter says, Chapela and Quist had merely picked up transposons in a
noncoding region of the maize genome. Nevertheless, Chapela is not backing
down from the claim that the transgenes had behaved unpredictably. "There
isn't anything in that paper about which I have any regret," he says.
According to Chapela, this is all a dispute about interpretation of data,
not the data itself. "That's what science is about isn't it?" he says.
"You put out a hypothesis and your work to back up that hypothesis. Then
the scientific community argues the merits of your work. But in this case,
it's descended into such depths that now my job is in danger."
Others feel that the paper never should have been published in the first
place. Says Hake: "It's sloppy science, pure and simple."
Two MacArthur 'Geniuses' Advance Genetics
- Tabitha M Powledge, The Scientist, Oct. 6, 2003
Half-million dollar prizes awarded for creativity in a wide range of
Researchers working in two cutting-edge but quite different realms of
theoretical genetics, both with significant practical applications, are
among those chosen in this year's MacArthur Fellows Program Awards, also
known as the MacArthur "genius awards." James J. Collins, biomedical
engineer at Boston University, and Loren H. Rieseberg, botanist at Indiana
University at Bloomington, will each get $500,000 to spend any way he
Rieseberg, who learned of his good fortune last Tuesday (September 30),
told The Scientist that he is planning to use his money to hire an
illustrator and research help for a book on plant speciation he'll write
on sabbatical next year. He'll also spend money in his lab, finding ways
to test function in the several candidate genes for plant speciation that
he and his colleagues have identified, and applying the trendy techniques
of RNA interference to their work. And then there's the popular book about
sunflowers he wants to write, which will involve hiring someone to
photograph all of the hundreds of sunflower species.
Collins, who got his electrifying phone call last Monday (September 29),
said he is still stunned. "It's all been so sudden. I do plan to think
very carefully about how to use the award. That's a pretty boring answer,
but it's the answer right now."
Work by Rieseberg and his colleagues could help to clarify what may be the
hottest political topic in science: genetic manipulation of crop plants.
One recent paper showed that a Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) transgene can
spread from cultivated to wild sunflowers, increasing the latter's
resistance to pests and its seed production. Another paper showed that a
transgene that helps sunflowers resist fungus has the opposite effect; it
is unlikely to spread rapidly to wild sunflowers because the transgene
doesn't affect their seed production.
"Everyone has focused so much on whether or not the crops and wild plants
will hybridize, when what's really important is that a transgene is not
going anywhere if it doesn't provide a fitness advantage," Rieseberg said.
Theirs is a practical approach that could--and should--be applied to any
transgene, he argued. "It's fairly straightforward to introduce a
transgene just by backcrossing into wild populations and looking at the
fitness effects of the transgene. That's what should be done over and over
again with different transgenes, because each one will be different. So
far it hasn't been done very much."
The award cited Rieseberg's work on plant speciation, which has involved
innovative experiments replicating the birth of new hybrid species and
demonstrating that genomes of synthetic hybrids produced in a greenhouse
are very similar in gene content to hybrid species that occur in nature.
He also developed an influential new theory of chromosome speciation. He
and his colleagues have shown that many species boundaries are porous,
permitting gene flow, and just last summer demonstrated that hybridization
can facilitate major ecological transitions and adaptive evolutions.
- Gary Jones; Food without Frontiers - openDemocracy; Posted: 08-Aug-2003
Reading "Marketing GM: the making of poverty"
raises questions about anti-GM activists: is anyone really this stupid? It
doesn't seem likely. It's possible that the article was ghost written by a
journalist who cynically repeated the idiocies of a truly dull witted and
ignorant person, but that seems less likely than the simpler explanation
that Kisan Mehta is the cynic who assumes that stupid and ignorant people
will read the article.
There is no reason why a GM seed would be more expensive than any other
seed or that it couldn't be saved from season to season, shared with
neighbors, planted in combination with other varieties or in any other way
disrupt the traditional agro-economic system used in India. Mehta's whole
argument is rubbish.
There is nothing about the behavior of the agricultural service industry
that is unique to GM seeds or even altered by GM seeds. Scheming merchants
have always exaggerated the benefits of their products, concealed the
risks of using their products, offered credit to make a sale when there
are assets that might be seized for non-payment, and profited from
interest charges as much or more than from sales margins. Equipment as
well as seed and other inputs are treated in this way.
Hybrid seeds, whether GM or not, when saved from season to season don't
breed true. They are the progeny of dissimilar parents and will have
variable characteristics. There are some hybrid seeds that are infertile
though this is rare, and some hybrid seeds that have one parent that does
not produce edible portions of the crop in abundance though it has other
virtues such as good root development. Why is this a problem for an
agro-economic system that prizes diversity? It's not, it's only a problem
for industrial agriculture that depends on uniform monocultures.
Kisan Mehta repeats the brain dead assertion that there is enough food for
all if it could be distributed but complains that "It is the high cost of
food that keeps food from the hungry mouth." What makes the costs high?
Distribution costs. In addition to the cost of the food itself there are
the costs of acquiring, storing, transporting, packaging (however
minimal), identifying needs and delivering food. These costs greatly
exceed the cost of the food itself, require the existence and operation of
an industrial infrastructure that can move bulk quantities of goods to
remote areas, and requires the existence and operation of a bureaucracy
that produces nothing of real value, produces no food or goods to sustain
life, contributes nothing to solving food insecurity problems.
Improved seeds, whether GM or not, address the problems that create food
insecurity. They are resilient, drought tolerant, salt tolerant, high
yielding, grow in marginally fertile soil, higher in nutritional value and
would cost very much less to provide to farmers than food aid.
Development of such seeds from existing well adapted seed stocks is in
progress and offer the only long term solution to the causes of food
insecurity. The only sustainable way to aid food insecure people is to
help them feed themselves. There is something very ugly about activists
that seek to prevent such development, that seek to keep poor people poor,
weak and dependent on aid from powerful political bureaucracies.
BIO Expands Industry Stewardship Program
WASHINGTON (October 3, 2003) Today the Biotechnology Industry Organization
(BIO) announced an industry-wide initiative to extend understanding of
compliance with federal regulatory requirements governing all crops and
plants improved through biotechnology.
"The biotechnology industry has a strong commitment to product
stewardship. The continuing advancement of the technology combined with
the growing complexity of the federal regulatory system requires that we
constantly revisit our training methods, understanding, and adherence to
stringent federal requirements," said Dr. Michael J. Phillips, vice
president for food and agriculture science and regulatory policy of BIO.
"With this initiative," added Phillips, "BIO’s member companies have
agreed to pool the knowledge gained over 16 years of experience in
bringing new products safely to market and share it throughout the
agricultural sector, including commercial entities, farmer-cooperators and
academic institutions. The desired outcome is consistent understanding and
performance in meeting federal guidelines for regulatory compliance."
Phillips noted that work for the program began last fall with the creation
of a 'Beyond Compliance' task force that identified three product
stewardship objectives. They are: (1) to achieve consistent compliance
with all regulatory requirements in research, development and
commercialization of food and agriculture products; (2) establish capacity
building and education tools to meet future needs; (3) and develop
transparent systems to record and communicate our results and performance.
BIO has contracted with AGBIOS to develop training materials and lead
pilot learning workshops before the 2004 growing season.
"We have chosen AGBIOS as our partner to execute this program because of
their global experience in the areas of regulatory and biosafety
capacity," said Phillips.
"We are excited about this new assignment to help the biotech industry
provide consistent training across all agricultural sectors,” said Morven
McLean, president of AGBIOS. "The industry already has a strong foundation
of training in place – our job is to build on what exists today to meet
the needs of the future and to ensure consistency across all parties, both
private and public."
Agriculture Stands at Biotech Crossroads
- Patrick A. Stewart, Delta Farm Press, v. 60; No. 39; Oct. 3, 2003
Agricultural production in the United States stands at a crossroads. A key
issue currently being addressed by our political leaders stands to change
the future of agricultural biotechnology, and by extension, the landscape
of farming in the United States. The issue is the pending World Trade
Organization court case filed by the Bush administration against the
European Union to compel the lifting of its five-year ban on genetically
Although the EU ban has recently been lifted by the European Parliament,
it was replaced by a genetically modified labeling system requiring
identifying any foods with over 0.9 percent genetically modified content.
This requirement may be seen as the same as a ban, given the amount of
research showing consumers are less likely to eat genetically modified
foods when they are informed by a label.
As a result, the nascent agricultural biotechnology industry might be
throttled by the loss of such an important market for new genetically
modified food products. With this in mind, the Bush administration is
pressing its case in the WTO.
Further, while the EU has allowed soybeans genetically modified for
herbicide resistance to enter into its markets in spite of the ban, the
labeling system will effectively halt imports of the economically
important commodity crop into that vitally important marketplace.
Besides closing off future lucrative markets to American farmers, the EU's
moves may change the future of this major commodity. Thst would come as a
further blow as, despite historically dominating the soybean market, the
United States is falling behind South American countries Argentina and
Brazil, whose combined output this past year exceeds that of the United
Specifically, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic
Research Service 2002 data, the U.S. share of world exports of soybeans as
of 2001 stands at 32.1 percent, down from nearly 80 percent in the late
1960s, while Argentina and Brazil's shares of exports have increased from
negligible amounts in the late 1960s to 24 percent and 30.5 percent share
of the world market, respectively.
And because, according to USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service
2002 data, 74 percent of the United States soybean crop was genetically
modified to be herbicide resistant, American farmers face a highly
Arkansas farmers likewise share a large stake in the outcome of the
genetically modified debate between the United States and the EU. Soybeans
are a major moneymaker for the state. According to Arkansas Farm Bureau
2002 statistics, soybeans account for 25.6 percent of the total value of
the state's principle crops, with 40 percent of the crop exported. And of
this total, according to USDA-NASS 2002 statistics, 63 percent of all
soybeans planted in Arkansas was genetically modified.
Some industry observers suggest the current unwillingness of the EU to
accept genetically modified foods is in response to the unilateralist
positions taken by the Bush administration on a range of international
treaties and actions, especially the Iraq intervention. However, concern
over genetic engineering of any sort has a long history in Europe,
stemming from reaction to Nazi Germany's attempts at racial purity in the
1930s and 1940s and continuing into modern times with the longstanding ban
on most food biotechnology.
In addition, recent confrontations with mad cow disease and
foot-in-mouth-disease have left Europeans concerned about the safety of
their food supply and distrusting their governments' ability to protect
them, further reducing their willingness to accept genetically modified
foods that may present a health risk.
While the imposition of labeling is a major disincentive for farmers to
grow genetically modified soybeans, let alone other crops, there is reason
to consider alternatives to outright rejection of genetically modified
The biotechnology industry claims many benefits with growing genetically
modified plants. Environmentally, genetically modified plants currently in
the field allow the use of no-till methods of agriculture, which has been
shown to not only be more environmentally sound than other farming
techniques by cutting pesticide use, but also save time.
Additionally, future genetic innovations in crops, such as soybeans, may
lead to plants that are not only more environmentally sound, but also
provide cheaper, tastier, and healthier food; medicines grown in plants
making pharmaceuticals less costly and capable of treating a wide range of
illness; and plant-made industrial products that would reduce our reliance
on such raw materials as petrochemicals that pollute our environment and
affect our foreign policy.
Approaches to dealing with this conundrum of attaining the promise of
future genetically modified crops while maintaining public trust and
export markets have been and continue to be discussed by policy-shapers
Michigan State University agricultural economists Dave Weatherspoon,
Christopher Peterson and David Neven suggest four scenarios that might
occur in the very near future in response to current events.
The first two scenarios are extreme, and while not very likely, might
The first is the broad based acceptance of genetically modified plants in
which agricultural biotechnology gets fully incorporated into the
marketplace. While this had been the case in the United States, recent
political maneuverings by trade partners have diminished the likelihood of
The second scenario, that of a complete ban, whether formal or informal,
is also not as likely given the amount of research conducted on a wide
range of genetically modified plants over the past 15 years, and the stake
in them held by powerful industry interests.
The final two approaches are more likely.
One approach would be to ban growing of genetically modified plants that
might end up in the food supply. This would allow for continued innovation
in non-food crops such as cotton -- of which Arkansas exports 60 percent
--tobacco, and many other minor crops, and would serve to allay
health-related concerns and the concerns of international trade partners.
A final approach that has been considered in great depth is developing a
system of product differentiation, with three different streams of crops:
conventionally grown crops with genetic modification, conventionally grown
crops without genetic modification, and organic crops. In each of the
streams, crops would be tracked from the farm to the grocer's shelves.
While potentially expensive, this approach would allow not only for
markets and consumer choice for those that do not wish to consume
genetically modified foods, but also would conceivably encourage the
development of genetically modified crops that add value in the form of
better taste and increased healthiness.
In addition, such an approach would enhance food security in a world
threatened by bioterrorism, further bolstering trust in our food industry.
Whatever scenario plays out, Arkansas farmers, especially those
cultivating genetically modified soybeans, face an uncertain future, one
that hinges on the actions of our political leaders and decisions made in
the international arena. In any case, the suit before the WTO bears
- Patrick A. Stewart, Ph.D., Director, MPA Program, Arkansas State
International Symposium on "Strategies for Sustainable Cotton Production -
A Global Vision"
- University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, India.; November 23rd - 25
Contact: Dr. I. S. Katageri, firstname.lastname@example.org or Dr. B. M. Khadi,
- Mr. Reddy N, Ph.D. Scholar, College of Ag & Biotech, Zhejiang
University, PR China email@example.com
GM Crops: Science, Politics and Communication
- Nature Reviews Genetics 4, 839-843 (2003); www.nature.com/nrg
Charles J. Arntzen, Andy Coghlan, Brian Johnson, Jim Peacock &
As the public debate in Europe about genetically modified (GM) crops heats
up and the trade row between the United States and the European Union over
GM food escalates, what better time to examine the issues with an
international group of experts (Box 1). Their views are diverse, but they
all agree that we need more impartial communication, less propaganda and
an effective regulatory regime that is based on a careful case-by-case
consideration of GM technology. It seems that GM crops are here to stay,
so let us hope that these requirements are met and that the developing
nations that perhaps have the most to gain from this technology can start
to reap its benefits.
What are the best arguments that you have heard (or made) for and against
Positioning GM crops as 'good or bad' is a failure to recognize that each
product of plant biotechnology is a discrete technology package that must
be discussed on its individual merit. As an example, insect-resistant
cotton has drastically reduced pesticide use and resulted in corresponding
increases in beneficial insect populations. This GM crop has benefited
farmers, consumers and the environment. I would refocus the question on
current and emerging constraints on food and fibre production, and other
issues of human health that would benefit by new technology. We must focus
rationally on which technological approach is most effective, including
GM. After rigorous scientific analysis indicates which approaches are
viable, if the best choice is a GM product then we should balance risk
versus reward and make a decision as we would with any other
technology-driven life improvement. C. J. A.
Poor subsistence farmers whose crops are destroyed year after year by the
ravages of nature have the most to gain by far. The toolbox that we call
genetic engineering could provide the most obvious short cuts to varieties
of rice, cassava, sorghum and other staples that survive drought,
flooding, pests and poor soil conditions. Traditional breeding and organic
farming methods could and should be used alongside GM to transform African
and Asian agriculture, provided that rich governments stump up the money
so that publicly funded institutes can do the research that is suited to
each country's needs. In the corpulent cafe societies of Europe, with
their glut of good food, GM stands no chance of being accepted until there
is an obvious benefit for consumers, but it is a crime for indifference
and hostility to block the development of GM by and for the world's
poorest. On the negative side, the most foolhardy application of GM would
be to make all of the crops in a rotation resistant to the same
weedkiller, which is something that farmers might be tempted to try if GM
weedkiller-resistant wheat becomes available. A. C.
I find all arguments for and against GM crops (in the generic sense)
completely pointless. As Richard Dawkins recently explained so lucidly, it
is as pointless as constructing arguments for and against 'substances',
because each transformed crop has unique characteristics in terms of food
safety, and environmental and agronomic impacts. I am interested in
informed debate about the safety and impacts of a particular crop, but
unimpressed, if not bored, by the relentless propaganda on GM crops that
is trotted out by both sides. B. J.
GM crops extend the techniques that are available to plant breeders to
modify the genetic makeup of our main food crops so that we can reliably
produce good yields with minimal damage to the environment. GM
technologies should also enable us to modify the biological software of
our crop species so that they are optimized for human and animal
To feed an ever-increasing world population in the next 30-40 years, if we
do not want to destroy our remaining forests, we will need to produce
double the amount of food from the same amount of arable land. GM crops
are important because they offer the opportunity to increase the
efficiency of food production with less damage to the existing cropping
lands. GM techniques will enable us to protect crops from pathogen and
pest challenges and allow them to cope better with abiotic challenges such
as adverse weather conditions.
Conventional plant-breeding technologies will continue to progress, but
there are limits to what can be done by the current methods. In some
cases, further capacities will need to be added to the crop plants. Of
course, all GM modifications to crops must be fully tested before they are
released, on a case-by-case basis, for any perceived hazards both to the
environment and to human and animal health. J. P.
Farmers like the way that pest-resistant and herbicide-tolerant traits
make it easier for them to grow corn, cotton and soybeans -- which
explains the rapid adoption of GM versions of these crops in the United
States. There also seems to be broad agreement that Bt cotton varieties
have reduced the use of chemical pesticides, but there is less agreement
on the net environmental impacts of other GM crops. In the future,
biotechnology has the potential to deliver consumer benefits and develop
hardier varieties of crops that are more relevant to the needs of
Third-World farmers --but economic, political and technical challenges
remain. The need to manage unwanted gene flow, for both environmental and
economic reasons, imposes uncertain costs on farmers, processors,
distributors and others in the food chain. In a global marketplace, the
rejection of GM crops by consumers in some nations, for good or bad
reasons, raises particular production and trade challenges, and
uncertainties about how the costs will be met. M. R.
There are large regional differences in public attitudes to GM crops
across the globe: to what extent is this a result of the way in which the
science of GM has been communicated and/or reported, and what are the best
ways to improve public understanding of the issues involved?
Messages sent by the media determine the public understanding of
technology. When molecular biology was in its formative years in the late
1970s and the 1980s, we got off to a good start with the public in the
United States. Top scientists organized a widely publicized debate about
genetic engineering and expressed their concerns about possible negative
consequences of DNA manipulation. Their concern led to the creation of the
Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) in the federal government to do
risk/benefit analyses and to halt or change projects if the risks are
indeterminate or are considered too great to be reasonable. The RAC
answered media questions during the time period in which a federal
regulatory process controlling the use of genetic manipulation in research
and industry was developed. The United States still garners benefit from
these scientist-led public forums on biotechnology and our public has
largely accepted new GM products from recombinant insulin to
insect-resistant corn. However, as only a small percentage of the public
is engaged in agricultural production, the need for new technology in this
arena is poorly understood in comparison with health-care products.
Therefore, public discussion of GM plant technology must continue and must
receive unbiased media coverage. C. J. A.
It all comes down to need and trust. Europeans oppose GM technology for
four major reasons. First, traditional food is so abundant and varied that
GM food cannot offer anything earth-shatteringly new and persuasive.
Second, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) made them paranoid about
the effects of even the tiniest material alterations to their food. Third,
they did not like having GM food thrust on them through failure to
segregate or label. Finally, they tend to trust the hype from
non-governmental organizations over and above what anyone else says,
because they seem to have 'no vested interest'. I suspect that if 'green'
groups issued a joint press release tomorrow saying that GM crops do not
harm humans or the environment, the suspicions of the public would vanish
overnight. Elsewhere, it is clear from the GM famine-aid debacle last year
that African countries fear a European backlash against their exports if
they embrace GM crops. So, there is a lot of sanctimonious, value-laden
'imperialism' dictating what is happening out there. Essentially, there is
a chain reaction hinging on European consumer acceptance. If Europeans
warmed to GM food, supermarkets would start to sell it and farmers could
start to supply it. Then Africa would be happier experimenting with GM. If
Europeans lose their fear of GM technology, opponents will lose the key
economic weapon that enables them to continue obstructing it worldwide.
They will also lose a key 'techno-hostage' that is priceless as a
bargaining chip in their wider battles against global capitalism. A. C.
This really comes down to the low levels of public knowledge about
agriculture in general, and specifically about the role of crop varieties
in determining how our food is grown. I am not surprised that there is a
degree of public panic associated with new crops. Consumers in Europe are
rightly wary of novelty in agriculture and unwilling to take risks with
their food and environment, and therefore ask serious questions about the
need for these new crops. In the United States, most people have little
interest in how their food is produced and trust the 'authorities' to fix
anything that might go wrong.
Improving public knowledge means working with the media and public bodies
over a sustained period, using evidence-based material, not rhetorical
hype. Unfortunately, agriculture, crop breeding and biosafety are not the
'sexiest' subjects for the media, and most people see genetics as a
'difficult' area to understand. B. J.
In the United States, GM crops have been well accepted by most of the
population, largely owing to the positive statements that were issued by
both the previous President and Vice President. Also, most ordinary
citizens have great faith in the United States Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) and are prepared to accept the safety of new foods
and farming practices if the FDA, or a similar regulatory body, approves
GM crops have been less well accepted in Europe for many reasons. One was
the rather insensitive way in which the first material was sent to Europe
from the United States. GM and non-GM derived materials were mixed
together without any real preparation of the citizens of the countries. We
had the extraordinary situation of a GM tomato paste being sold in
supermarkets in the United Kingdom, proving to be a success and then being
withdrawn because the supermarket proprietors were unwilling to risk
consumer reaction to what had become a contentious issue. There are other
reasons in many countries and yet, although various anti-GM groups were
extraordinarily well organized, active and created a lot of media
attention, in some countries such as Switzerland the majority of citizens
voted in favour of GM research and its eventual use in the food chain. J.
Polls indicate that American consumers are not well informed about GM
foods and remain largely unaware that they are already eating foods with
ingredients from GM crops. Although United States consumer concerns about
the safety of GM food do not drastically differ from those of European
consumers, there is little evidence in the United States of the intensity
of concern that is seen in Europe and other nations. This difference might
in large part be owing to the trust that is placed in the United States
Food and Drug Administration. Without the equivalent of the 'mad cow
disease' debacle to raise food safety concerns and doubts about the
credibility of government regulators, American consumers are simply more
complacent. The United States media has been far more balanced in its
coverage of GM food issues than some of the European tabloids, but the
actual experience of a disastrous food crisis has probably had far more
impact on public attitudes than the different modes of media coverage.
Restoring trust and credibility in science and government will require
open dialogue, transparency and time. But, unless biotechnology delivers
some perceived value to consumers, changing attitudes will be a slow
process. M. R.
What are the key issues that need to be addressed in formulating an
effective regulatory framework for GM crops and is it possible to achieve
some degree of global consensus on their regulation?
Technology development and product introduction are regulated by
individual countries rather than globally, and GM crops are unlikely to be
an exception. The regulatory focus needs to be directed towards the
properties of the end product in comparison with its non-GM alternative,
because each new crop will be unique. As a new generation of GM plants is
developed to deliver plant-made pharmaceuticals, they might fall under
stricter regulatory standards if the products are to enter international
distribution. Commercial considerations will dictate if new products must
meet regulatory standards worldwide in order to be competitive. As
regulations continue to develop in this arena, 'global consensus' can only
be approached if the emphasis remains focused on the transparency of
process coupled with clear and timely communication to the public about
benefits and concerns. C. J. A.
It would be helpful to have some global consensus on how to regulate GM
crops, perhaps in the hands of an independent United Nations approvals and
policing body that accommodates the interests and concerns of rich and
poor, and of environmentalists as well as backers of the technology. On
consumer choice, I think it is easier to voluntarily label material that
is guaranteed to have been produced without GM. This would enable it to be
sold at a premium to consumers who want to avoid GM absolutely, whereas
consumers who are less fussy accept that by default there might be
GM-derived material in their food. On farm 'contamination', I think we
have gone over the top on regulation thanks to the availability of
super-sensitive analytical technology. Common sense tells me that
contamination only matters if it materially alters the quality or safety
of the harvest or of a processed food. Organic standards are artificial
constructs that are designed to reflect a philosophical value system, but
some might question whether the ideology is being carried to ridiculous
extremes as an excuse to exclude GM farming. I will let others debate
that. Consumer demands are paramount, however, so in the end I accept, on
those grounds alone, that European authorities made the right decision to
introduce draconian labelling, traceability and crop-separation
legislation. A. C.
We know what an effective regulatory framework looks like, because we have
just that in the United Kingdom. The key issue is institutional capacity
building, especially in the developing world, to ensure that high
regulatory standards are applied everywhere. That is a serious challenge
for organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the
United Nations (FAO) and the Consultative Group on International
Agricultural Research (CGIAR) to address. We can learn a lot about
regulatory effectiveness from failures in the regulation of pesticides.
The foundation stones for the global regulation of transgenic crops have
already been laid, but there is much work to be done. B. J.
Each proposal for a GM crop needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
It is important to thoroughly examine any perceived hazards for human
health, which would often mean checking on whether or not there are any
indications of toxic or allergenic substances introduced by the GM
modification. As most modifications will make a relatively minor change to
the quality traits of the grain, root or leaf, and the food that is made
from those products, the compositional analysis of the GM crop needs to be
compared with the standard crop so that a decision about substantial
equivalence is justifiable.
Then there are questions about the performance of the GM crop in the
field. Mostly this will concern the nature of the breeding system. If it
is an inbred crop, then there might be no concerns about the spread of
either pollen or seed from the agricultural environment. If it is an
outbred crop and there are weeds or native plants that are able to be
crossed with the crop species, then there needs to be a full assessment of
the likelihood of that happening and of the subsequent possibilities of
any undesirable spread. The idea that a 'super weed' could develop through
the acquisition of herbicide-tolerance genes from GM crops has often been
talked about. However, in reality this is unlikely to occur, even with the
outcrossing of crops such as canola, because of the low frequency of
crop-to-wild gene flow and the lack of selection pressures encouraging
There must be a thorough check on the nature of the new genetic segment
that is introduced. In the first GM crops, selection genes such as those
for antibiotic resistance were used. This is no longer necessary and the
gene of interest can now be introduced without any other genetic material
being present. It is still necessary for the regulatory body to establish
that there has been a full description of the transformation event, and
also that studies have been carried out to show that there are no
unexpected properties in the GM crop as a consequence of the site of
insertion of the new genetic material. J. P.
A regulatory framework needs to be effective -- that is, it needs to
actually protect public health and the environment -- but it also needs to
be credible. The credibility of a regulatory system is particularly
crucial to the acceptance of new technologies if consumers cannot directly
judge for themselves the safety or environmental effects of the product,
but need to rely on expert judgements. Any regulatory system needs a good
set of tools, sound science and adequate resources, but it also needs
transparency and public oversight to establish its credibility. Today,
global consensus is elusive in part because the United States and European
regulatory systems clash on the ways to achieve these regulatory goals.
Although the differences between the two approaches are often overblown,
the European Union approach leans heavily on transparency and consumer
choice as a means to rebuild confidence in a regulatory system the
credibility of which has been severely damaged. The United States faces no
comparable task. Coming to a global consensus on GM crop regulation will
require a more open discussion on the goals of a biotechnology regulatory
system than has so far occurred, or that is likely to occur in the midst
of current GM crop trade disputes. M. R.
What are the key challenges that face scientific and commercial advocates
of GM crops?
There is an increasing barrier for new crops to enter the commercial
pipeline and, therefore, to benefit consumers. Although my colleagues and
I have made significant progress with GM plants that are designed to
produce oral vaccines, the transition from research to development is
difficult. Escalating regulatory costs for moving into the scale-up of
prototype materials are daunting, especially as much of the focus of our
effort is on vaccines for the developing world, such as those for the
diarrhoeal diseases that are major killers of the very young.
Unfortunately, the limited commercial potential of public-health products
does not attract private investment. Financing public-health products is
even more difficult while the public acceptance of new products from GM
crops remains an issue in some parts of the world. To return to your
question, in this regard, the challenges to both the scientific and
commercial advocates of GM crops are doggedly coupled. I am troubled that
emotional judgements of GM technology will create barriers to the
realization of plant-based solutions to the public-health problems that
are of enormous importance to the poor. C. J. A.
They have made a real hash of it so far. It is no good telling consumers
that they are being unreasonable and expecting them to mellow if they
understand more about the technology. The secret is to give them the bald
truth, warts and all, and to trust them to make informed decisions based
on what is good for them individually. It is difficult now that most
Europeans have gone beyond the 'tipping point' of rationality. GM is now a
term of abuse and has become for many people -- because it is such an easy
target -- an automatic symbol of the folly of science and the inequity of
capitalism. But two recent reports made a good stab at even handedness:
the United Kingdom government report on the economics of GM crops and the
United Kingdom government report on the science of GM crops. Both reports
were scrupulously fair, setting out with admirable frankness the grim
prospects for acceptance in Europe in the face of such messianic and
psychologically entrenched opposition. Their big selling point was their
brutal honesty, balancing the positive with the negative in the same
document and admitting huge areas of scientific uncertainty. A. C.
Quite simply, to show that the crops that they are producing give net
benefits to consumers and farmers, and are as safe as conventionally bred
crops. European consumers are still not convinced that the benefits from
herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant crops outweigh the risks,
especially the environmental risks. The present generation of GM crops
gives only marginal benefits, and the risks (however small) are perceived
as not worth taking. It is likely that either commerce or public research
institutes will soon produce transgenic crops that give outstanding
benefits, such as pest resistance, disease resistance and better
nutritional qualities, which are demonstrably safe. B. J.
As a scientist, I have found that when I have given talks about GM crops,
especially about how and why they are produced, the audience has been very
receptive. People are interested in having more information about the
technology and in gaining a better understanding of just exactly what the
whole GM business is about.
But, in large public forums and debates, I think there is sometimes a
feeling that scientists that are speaking in favour of GM crops are just
pushing their own interests and biases, at least that is the way the media
often present it and, of course, it is the way that the opponents of GM
crops speak about those of us who are involved in this science.
I think that the commercial advocates of GM crops face an even bigger
barrier because many of the arguments that are used against GM crops are
really arguments against the misuse of power by the large multinational
companies that often advocate them. J. P.
Biotechnology companies need to accept that they are in the food business
as well as in the seed business -- and in the food business, the customer
is always right. Scientific reports might help assuage safety concerns,
but in the end, consumers (especially in Europe) need a reason to overcome
their reluctance to buy GM foods. So far, the biotechnology companies
simply have not provided a good enough reason. As long as consumers can
exercise a choice, they will avoid even a small perceived risk if there is
no benefit. Beyond consumer acceptance, advocates of biotechnology face
political and social challenges. GM crops have become a 'drive-by'
casualty in the broader battles about globalization, American hegemony,
economic concentration and the increasing dependence of agriculture on
technology. Biotechnology advocates, as well as the United States
government, need to develop far more effective strategies to respond to
those arguments than they have deployed so far. M. R.
GM crops in 20-years' time: ubiquitous or unheard of?
GM crops are here to stay -- the timing of their adoption will be
determined by the economic and societal impact of each product. I doubt
that GM crops will be ubiquitous though, as traditional genetics is also
moving rapidly and will lead to continued improvement in crop performance,
as it has for the last 60 years. What I do see, however, is a significant
increase in the use of plants for the production of industrial raw
materials and new pharmaceuticals; in this arena, DNA technology will be
invaluable for changing processing traits or product composition. As an
example, when a cost-effective cancer drug is derived from a transgenic
plant, I do not anticipate adverse public reaction to the means by which
it was manufactured. The public will be no more aware that plants might be
used to create the cancer drug than they are today that chicken eggs were
used to manufacture flu vaccine. C. J. A.
Personally, I do not care whether GM crops are accepted or not, but if
some varieties are rejected, I would like to see it happen because of
incontrovertible evidence that there are genuine health or environmental
problems, not because of open-ended hypothetical doomsday scenarios that
can be spun out for all eternity. So far, the health and environmental
problems that they pose seem to be non-existent or minor. But problems
could emerge in new generations of crops, and political and ideological
opposition to GM will ensure that it remains marginalized in Europe. It
would take a brave French farmer to grow a GM crop.
Outside 'fortress Europe', GM will indeed be ubiquitous, especially when
China takes over from the United States as the economic powerhouse of the
world, closely shadowed by India. Whether it will be helping African
farmers to defeat the elements I do not know, but I will be angry if they
are not even given the chance or the money to try. In the final analysis,
the best chance for acceptance is the realization by the public that they
do not get the full story either from the industry itself, from
government, from non-governmental organizations or from the media, who all
have a vested interest in cherry picking the 'facts' to suit their own
objectives, values and agendas. Information from all parties is tainted
and 'spun'. Take global warming for example. George Bush rejects the
consensus on that, but happily horsewhips Europe on its refusal to accept
the (broadly) consensus view that GM technology is safe. The complete
reverse is true of environmentalists, who reject the status quo on GM but
merrily accept the consensus on global warming.
Scientists simply become pawns in much bigger political and ideological
games, irrespective of the merit of their work. I have lots of time for
organic farming and conventional breeding, and think that both have great
potential in their own right. But I think that it is madness to abandon GM
for what are essentially political, economic and ideological prejudices.
It is unfortunate that the GM 'child' is judged to have come from a 'bad
family'. Hopefully, people will begin to accept that GM is simply a
'toolbox' of technologies that are as broad in their application as
something like electricity, or even that icon of invention, the wheel.
They will not solve all problems, but might tackle some, hopefully
alongside conventional and organic options. And, like wheels or electrical
devices, there will be good and bad applications, so each needs to be
judged on its own merits. A. C.
My guess is that transgenic crops could be widely used in 20-years' time,
but only if they contribute to more sustainable methods of agriculture.
Globally, agriculture is already in crisis because of soil degradation,
drought and crop diseases that threaten the sustainability of production,
the human population increase and increased meat consumption. In 20-years'
time, we will need to us