Today in AgBioView: October 11, 2003:
* The Little World of Campaigner Tactics
* Biotech Stepping Up for the Consumer
* NPR Talks Risk: Genetically Modified Food
* NCGA Study: Biotech Feed Has No Effect on Animals
* Buttered Corn Nay Replace Bland Vitamin E Pill
* High Priority for Biotech in Indonesia
* Slimming Down Soy
* EPA's Space Odyssey
* Tomorrow's People: How 21st Century Technology Is Changing the Way We
Think and Feel
* Genetically Modified Foods are Nothing New
The Little World of Campaigner Tactics
- Vivian Moses, GropGen, London, Oct, 9, 2003
Two days ago, those newspapers that go in for that sort of thing were
screaming about the stillbirth of GM crops in the UK - the insurance
industry would not insure UK farmers against liability claims. Farm, an
anti-GM farmers organisation had apparently phoned round and came up with
the startling news the risks were every bit as bad as thalidomide and
Never mind that millions and millions - and millions - of acres of these
crops are grown round the world. Many of those acres are in North America,
among the most litigious of societies. Yet US farmers obtain insurance
cover with no great difficulty. And why shouldn't they? In more than eight
years there has been not a single confirmed case of damage to anybody’s
health. Environmental impact is at a level typical for agriculture in
general and, as far as CropGen has been able to find out, not one organic
farmer has lost accreditation because of "contamination" by neighbouring
Yesterday in a radio interview, an insurance spokesman was more cautious,
saying only that the risk had not yet been evaluated and if the
"Government said the foods were safe" they would think again. He may, of
course, not have been an expert in this field. But it was odd that, as a
spokesman on this matter, he did not seem to know that all the foods and
crops authorised for human consumption have indeed been declared safe by
the British, US. Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and other government
authorities as well, of course, by the EU.
It is worth noticing that GM agriculture in no way interferes with organic
cultivation practices. The EU regulations state many times that "(organic)
products (must be) produced without the use of genetically modified
organisms and/or any products derived from such organisms". If farmers do
not use GM seed, they will be fulfilling this obligation. Nowhere is there
any suggestion that such products must not contain any adventitious
quantity of GM material. Only that if there is more than 0.9% GM content
in any ingredient it must be labelled accordingly - just like any other
The size of the teacup in which this latest storm had been brewed has
since become a little clearer. Reuters has reported a spokesman for the
Association of British Insurers (ABI) accusing Farm of "scaremongering",
and said it would look to provide insurance cover when the risks, if there
are any, are known.
Never mind; rest assured there will be something else next week.
1. Council Regulation (EEC) No. 2092/91of 24 June 1991or organic
production of agricultural products and indications referring thereto on
agricultural products and foodstuffs
Biotech Stepping Up for the Consumer
- Dean Kleckner, Chairman, Truth About Trade & Technology,
'Dean KlecknerI doubt there's a farmer in America who hasn’t heard of
biotech crops. Even those who don't plant the seed at least know about
it--and the number of farmers who actually use the latest agricultural
technologies keeps on growing.'
The most recent figures indicate that 81 percent of all the soybeans grown
in the United States are biotech, as well as 40 percent of all the corn.
Yet ordinary Americans--the people who consume the products we grow on our
farms--don’t know much about genetically modified crops. Only 24 percent
think they’ve ever eaten biotech food, according to a new poll from the
Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. An astonishing 58 percent of
survey respondents say they haven't ever put biotech foods in their
These numbers are a slight improvement from two years ago, when 19 percent
said they had consumed biotech food and 61 percent said they hadn't. Both
sets of figures, however, speak to a tremendous lack of information.
There can't be more than a handful of Americans who have never tasted
biotech foods at all. It’s estimated that over 70 percent of all
supermarket items contain biotech ingredients, from beverages that contain
corn syrup as a sweetener to virtually everything that you buy in a box.
It would be hard to avoid biotech foods even if people were trying to
steer clear of them--and most people aren't - because they have so much
faith in a federal regulatory system that’s designed to keep their food
One of the ironies of our food regulations is that people have so much
confidence in them that they don't feel it necessary to learn intricate
details about the ways in which their foods are prepared. And because
biotechnology is fundamentally about a process rather than a product,
Americans assume--correctly--that the foods displayed on their
grocery-store shelves are perfectly healthy.
But these figures also reveal that, until now, most of biotechnology’s
appeal has been to farmers, not consumers. We farmers know why biotech is
good - It lets us grow more with less work. Our yields are up. It’s
environmentally safe. We don’t have to walk our bean fields a gazillion
times in the summer heat, hand-pulling the weeds.
Yet consumers hardly see any of this. Since when has a food shopper bought
a certain kind of product because it came from high-yield acreage?
Granted, higher yields can mean better prices for consumers, but
ultimately their choice is based on cost rather than production practices.
People are mostly interested in their food tasting good, being safe and
The bottom line is consumers don't know much about biotech because biotech
has been sold as a benefit to producers, not consumers.
And that’s about to change. The next generation of biotech food will be
driven almost entirely by its appeal to consumers. We’re going to hear
about foods that are made heart-healthy through genetic modification.
We're going to grow crops that will help fight diseases and even produce
Right now, a lot of people seem to be wary of biotech food because they
consider it "unnatural." The enemies of biotechnology, after all, have
given the foods we grow a ridiculous label - Frankenfoods. Let's lay aside
the obvious point that just about everything our farms produce is
"unnatural" in the sense that our crops have been crossbred over the ages
into plants that don’t much resemble their “natural” forebears.
In the future, though, people will seek out biotech foods because they
will view them as improvements over what was available in the past--just
as big and juicy tomatoes are an improvement over the tiny red berries
that our ancestors encountered in the wild.
Biotechnology will continue to benefit farmers, such as the
drought-tolerant crops now in the development pipeline.
Yet biotechnology is about to take a big step forward with the American
public. In a few years, everybody will know they’re consuming biotech
foods. And they’ll be glad about it.
NPR: Genetically Modified Food
- National Public Radio, Oct. 9, 2003
BOB EDWARDS, host: A ruling by Europe's high court is being called a
victory by proponents of genetically modified food and by those who oppose
it. Neither side disputes that the ruling will play a big part in the
international debate over how to regulate risks when all the scientific
answers are not in. Commentator David Ropeik says the court ruled in favor
of science and against unsupported fear.
DAVID ROPEIK: I'm afraid of heights. I can be up in some high-rise office
several feet away from the window, and just one glance down at those tiny
little people in cars below and my knees get weak and my palms get sweaty.
It's silly, I know. I'm quite safe but still quite scared, but consider
the consequences when governments behave that way. When a risk comes along
that makes a lot of us afraid, a risk that's uncertain, like SARS or
genetically modified food, our government sometimes make rules or
regulations to protect us from that uncertain risk until all the
scientific answers are in. That seems to make sense. Like they say, better
safe than sorry.
The fancy name for this among the policy wonks is the precautionary
principle. That's what many European nations are doing with genetically
modified foods, all but banning them outright until the scientific
questions are all answered. 'No matter,' they say, 'that genetic
engineering could reduce pesticide use, increase productivity, control
food prices. Those benefits will have to be sacrificed until we're sure
about the risks.'
Only the interesting thing is the European Court of Justice recently told
the Italians they can't take that kind of absolute precautionary position,
not when the fear isn't supported by the partial facts we do have. The
Italians wanted to ban some modified corn based on speculation that it
might harm human health. The court said that while all the answers aren't
in yet, enough of them are to reasonably conclude that the modification is
not a threat to humans. In other words, there's no science to back up the
I'm not really just talking about genetically modified foods, though.
That's just one example of the tricky question about precaution. Should
governments always ban everything from toys to tobacco until we're totally
certain they're safe, or do we need to accept that absolute certainty is
almost impossible to achieve? Should we take things on a case-by-case
basis, so for each issue, we can weigh the risks against the benefits?
I think governments should protect public and environmental health by
assuming that new technologies and products are guilty until proven
innocent, but the question is: When is there enough proof, because by
waiting to be absolutely sure, we may end up sacrificing an awful lot of
health and environmental benefits? In some cases, being too precautionary
might leave us feeling more sorry than safe. Still, don't expect me to get
me too close to that upper story window.
EDWARDS: David Ropeik is the communications director at the Harvard Center
for Risk Analysis.
NCGA Study: Biotech Feed Has No Effect on Animals
- USAgNet - Oct. 10, 2003 http://www.wisconsinagconnection.com/
Studies continue to show that animals fed biotech corn and the meat, milk
and eggs from those animals perform to the same level as their non-biotech
fed counterparts, according to the National Corn Growers Association.
In a joint research project from the University of Nebraska and University
of Illinois researchers compared the performance and carcass
characteristics of feedlot steer that were fed glyphosate-tolerant
(Roundup-Ready events GA21 or kn603) corn and reference hybrids. Their
results, published in Journal of Animal Science, vol. 81, indicate
performance in the two feeding classes was the same.
This project examined more than 550 head of beef steers in feedlot
conditions and looked at dry matter intakes, average daily gains and feed
efficiencies of cattle fed biotech and non-biotech corn, and found no
significant differences in either the treatment or control cattle.
After harvest, no differences were observed in carcass weight, the ribeye
area or marbling scores, according to the study. The researchers stated in
their abstract that due to these results, insertion of glyphosate-tolerant
genes had no significant effect on nutritive quality of corn. Performance
and carcass characteristics were not influenced, which suggests that
Roundup Ready corn is similar to conventional, non-transgenic corn when
fed to finishing cattle, according to the study.
A Japanese study published in the same volume of the Journal of Animal
Science also focused on biotech corn. However, this study looked at the
detection of corn intrinsic and recombinant DNA fragments and Cry1 Ab
protein in the gastrointestinal contents of pigs fed genetically modified
Buttered Corn Nay Replace Bland Vitamin E Pill
- South East Farm Press, Oct. 9, 2003 http://southeastfarmpress.com/
Forget getting your Vitamin E from an uninspiring supplement you wash down
with a glass of water each morning. Thanks to work by USDA scientists you
may soon be able to get the same amount of Vitamin E offered by that
tasteless pill from a much tastier, buttered ear of corn.
Edgar Cahoon, a research molecular biologist with the USDA-ARS Plant
Genetics Research Unit, and his colleagues from DuPont Crop Genetics have
produced corn with six times the Vitamin E content of regular corn.
"Most of the biotechnology we hear about — Roundup-Ready soybeans, Bt corn
-- has been directed toward reducing the farmer’s input costs," Cahoon
says. "Our research, however, involves the development of a trait that
improves the dietary quality of food."
Vitamin E positively affects human health because it is a powerful
antioxidant that protects cells from oxidation damage caused by "free
radicals." These radicals attack the cells’ membranes, proteins and DNA,
contributing to the development of health problems such as heart disease,
diabetes, cataracts and cancer.
Beyond human health benefits, the antioxidant qualities of Vitamin E will
help corn resist spoilage caused by free radical-mediated oxidation,
lengthening the shelf life of vegetable oils, which contain Vitamin E, and
processed foods produced from those vegetable oils. Cahoon says the
increase of Vitamin E in leaves and other tissues may also increase the
productivity of corn plants in the field.
Although Vitamin E corn does have many other benefits, it was originally
produced for a Pioneer Hi-Bred study aimed to improve the quality of corn
for livestock feed applications. After studying how Vitamin E is made in
cereal grains such as barley, wheat and rice, researchers identified a key
gene responsible for the production of the vitamin in barley seeds and
introduced that gene into corn seeds.
"The combination of the gene and where it is expressed gives the high
level of this type of Vitamin E," William Hitz, a Research Fellow with
Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc. who was also involved in the project.
This discovery, which could not have been accomplished by traditional
plant breeding, shows biotechnology can benefit the consumer directly,
Vitamin E corn must be tested extensively before it is available for
consumers. First, it must be evaluated on its agronomic performance and
its value in livestock feed applications. If these tests are successful,
Vitamin E corn will be tested for regulatory approval, which can be time
"My best guess is five to seven years before this product is available, if
it is decided that the trait will be commercially viable," Cahoon says.
He says a new market for corn could be created with the commercial
availability of Vitamin E corn since the antioxidant is isolated from
vegetable oils for use in dietary supplements.
"By increasing the Vitamin E content six-fold, it is more likely that
processors can use corn oil for the production of Vitamin E for
nutraceutical applications," Cahoon says.
High Priority for Biotech in Indonesia
- Crop Biotech Update, isaaa.org
Indonesia is giving high priority to the development of biotechnology. The
Ministry of Research and Development has developed a new general policy
for biotechnology to guide national efforts for the next two decades. It
stipulates that the focus and direction for research and development will
be adjusted to obtain immediate applications of the technology.
This is the scenario for biotechnology in Indonesia as stated by Dr. Inez
Slamet-Loedin in her paper "Status of Agricultural Biotechnology Research
and Policy in Indonesia" presented during the International Seminar of
Biotechnology for Sustainable Agriculture held in Bogor, Indonesia. She
says that the Indonesian Biotechnology Consortium and Ministry of Research
and Technology have drafted future priorities to include exploration and
utilization of novel compounds that have economic value. Other concerns
include areas in food production, development of traditional medicine, and
added value of agricultural products for export production.
The two-day conference was hosted by the Southeast Asian Regional Centre
for Tropical Biology and the Indonesia Biotechnology Information Center
(IndoBic). The IndoBic, which is part of the network of the Global
Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology of the International Service for
the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications officially launched its
website. This electronic resource answers the need for information on crop
biotechnology with particular focus on country developments in the area.
The IndoBic website can be accessed through http://indobic.biotrop.org.
Slimming Down Soy
- Rachel Melcer, St. Louis Post Despatch, Oct. 9, 2003
When the Frito-Lay unit of PepsiCo Inc. decided to substitute corn oil for
partially hydrogenated soybean oil in its chips, consumers got the promise
of a more heart-healthy snack. And soybean producers got worried. It was
the first major salvo in a war against trans fats, the nasty component of
hydrogenated oil that can elevate your bad LDL cholesterol and your risk
of heart disease.
Also, it was a shot across the bow of soybean growers, crushers and seed
companies, which worry that their product could be cut out of the
processed-food chain. Food producers hope to reduce or eliminate trans
fats before the first day of 2006, when they must be listed separately on
food labels, under a regulation issued in July by the Food and Drug
Administration. Monsanto Co., the biotech seed and agrochemical giant in
Creve Coeur, says it has a solution: It's developing soybeans that produce
healthier oil. Soybeans contain two types of polyunsaturated fats:
linoleic and linolenic acids. These fats are heart-healthy, but they can
break down when exposed to air. So, food made with soybean oil becomes
To get around the problem, foodmakers use a process called partial
hydrogenation. It involves, in part, bubbling hydrogen through the oil at
a high temperature. The result is an oil that has a longer shelf life; and
a higher melting point, so it can be used in semisolid products, such as
margarine. But it contains trans fat.
Monsanto is breeding and genetically modifying soybeans to produce an oil
that doesn't have to be partially hydrogenated to turn out tasty,
long-lasting chips and pastries. At the same time, Monsanto is increasing
the soybeans' natural portion of oleic acid, a healthy monounsaturated fat
that boosts good HDL cholesterol. "We're making the fat that's there
healthier," said David Stark, vice president of global industry
partnerships. "We're part of the food chain, clearly. And food
manufacturers and producers are very concerned about trans fats. We're
responding to a real issue. "We want soybean oil to remain the oil of
choice." Monsanto's program has three phases:
Through conventional breeding, the company has developed strains of
soybeans with less polyunsaturated fat than corn oil. They are being
field-tested and analyzed. They're likely to be available for sale in
2005. The company will continue cross-breeding to produce soybeans with
half as much polyunsaturated fat, plus double the amount of healthy
monounsaturated fat. These seeds should be available in 2007 or 2008.
Monsanto is modifying soybeans genetically to eliminate all but a
minuscule amount of their natural, unhealthy saturated fat, leading to an
oil that could be labeled "free of saturated fat and trans fat." Pending
regulatory approval, it could hit the market in 2011.
The changes would be made in soybeans that are modified genetically with
the company's Roundup Ready trait, which most American growers require. It
lets farmers kill weeds more efficiently using glyphosate herbicide, which
Monsanto sells as a generic product and under the Roundup brand. Also, the
company is working on other ways to improve soybeans for consumers. It's
producing some strains enriched with healthy Omega-3 acid and others that
will improve the creaminess of soy milk, for example. "Monsanto's efforts
are right in line with where the soybean industry is trying to get," said
David Durham, a central Missouri farmer who's chairman of the United
Soybean Board. "They've been more proactive than a lot of the industrial
partners in moving forward" on the trans-fat issue.
Buying a benefit
Foodmakers are marching on, regardless of whether the soybean industry is
ready. They don't want to be caught with trans fats in their cookie jar in
2006, when the food-label regulation kicks in. "Our companies are looking
for ways to reduce trans fats in products now," said Stephanie Childs, a
spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, an association of
food, beverage and consumer-products companies. "That includes looking at
non-soy-based oils or switching to corn oils or other types of oils that
are free of trans fats - and, quite frankly, the sooner the better," she
Trans fats alone aren't a huge health issue, because they make up just 2
percent to 4 percent of calories in the average American's diet, according
to the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils, a Washington-based trade
group. Unhealthy, saturated fats account for 12 percent to 14 percent of
the average diet. Consumers have known of their risks for years.
"Relatively speaking, we really ought to be concentrating on saturated fat
rather than the over-blown issue of trans fats," said Robert Reeves,
president of the institute.
But news reports are driving consumer concern over trans fats, and the
consumer is king. "Right now, consumers are relatively confused, and it's
going to be a while before it's all straightened out," Reeves said. But
"our responsibility here is to provide the consumer with healthful foods."
Shoppers are likely to be won over by foods stamped "heart-healthy" or
"trans-fat-free," said Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for
Consumer Research at the University of California at Davis. "It's not
going to be a revolutionary, earth-shaking change in the American diet,"
she said. But "if there is health information that says these products are
indeed providing a benefit to consumers, then consumers will buy" them.
The benefit is likely to outweigh consumer concerns about genetically
modified foods, she said. Even in Europe, where there has been vehement
opposition and a five-year moratorium on commercial approval of
genetically modified products, foods with added consumer benefits - such
as Monsanto's soybeans - could win the day.
In the dough
Ultimately, low-trans-fat foods will succeed only if consumers put their
money where their mouths are. They must be willing to pay a premium for
foods made with select soybeans, said Durham, of the United Soybean Board.
Monsanto and other seed companies will charge more for specially bred and
modified soybean seeds, he said. Also, it will cost farmers to plant and
pick them separately from other varieties. The healthy-oil soybeans will
have to be segregated through shipping and processing. So, foodmakers will
have to pay more for their oil and then decide whether it's just a cost of
doing business or if it's a premium they can pass along to shoppers. "And
then, you'd have to have a marketing chain all working together, to build
the value into it and convince consumers to pay more," Durham said. "What
we've seen in consumers is sometimes they say they want something, but
they want it at no increased price. And there are extra costs involved
(with) niche crops."
The soybean board has convened a panel to consider the cost issues,
including representatives from Monsanto and all links in the food chain.
"We have all the partners in the room, and we're trying to understand the
business model .. to see what it will take to make this a reality," Durham
said. Soybean oil has traits that produce flakier pie crusts, smoother
cookie cream, better margarine and tastier chips - traits that other oils
might not be able to match. "Oil isn't oil. You can't just switch one fat
out for another fat and expect to have the same profile on the product,"
said Childs, of the Grocery Manufacturers.
Also, soybeans are a more reliable crop than corn, and they are produced
in greater quantity. Foodmakers need a supply they can count on, she said.
Durham sees the issue stacking up in favor of soybean growers. Eventually,
soybeans will become less of a commodity as farmers pick and choose the
varieties they want to grow, based on added benefits and market demand.
"You see more and more producers out here growing for specific contracts"
to meet particular industry needs, he said. "I think we're going to see
more of that in the future."
More on Soybeans
Soybeans naturally contain two types of polyunsaturated fats, called
linoleic and linolenic acid. These fats are heart healthy, but they can
break down when exposed to air. So, food made with soybean oil quickly
becomes rancid. To get around this problem, food makers use a process
called partial hydrogenation. It involves, in part, bubbling hydrogen
through the oil at a high temperature to change the oil's chemical
composition. The result is an oil that has a longer shelf-life and also
has a higher melting point -- so it can be used in semi-solid products
such as margarine. But it also contains trans fats, which can elevate
consumers' bad LDL cholesterol levels and risk of heart disease.
Monsanto is breeding and genetically modifying soybeans to reduce their
linoleic and linolenic acid content -- which should result in more stable
oil that won't become rancid and doesn't need to be partially
hydrogenated. At the same time, it is increasing the soybeans' oleic acid,
a healthy monounsaturated fat that boosts consumers' good HDL cholesterol
EPA's Space Odyssey
- Henry I. Miller, MD; www.TechCentralStation.com, Oct. 10, 2003
Many have already forgotten the relentless eco-babble and the
environmental policy excesses that emanated from Vice-President Al Gore's
office during the Clinton years. After then-Secretary of State Warren
Christopher announced that environmental concerns henceforth would be "in
the mainstream of American foreign policy" -- co-equal with national
security and economic issues in U.S. foreign relations -- Gore enlisted
the resources of the intelligence community. John Deutch, director of the
CIA and the coordinator of all U.S. intelligence activities, signed on. "I
intend to make sure that 'environmental intelligence' remains in the
mainstream of U.S. intelligence activities. Even in times of declining
budgets we will support policymakers." (Too bad he didn't pay more
attention to anti-terrorism intelligence.)
In that speech, Deutch also alluded specifically to using CIA assets to
determine whether foreign companies were gaining unfair competitive
advantage "by ignoring environmental regulations." I wrote at the time
that that evoked images of American spooks using spy satellites to
photograph the contents of recycling bins.
Little did I know how close I would be to the mark. The EPA has just
announced a scheme that would let it monitor gene-spliced crops from
space. Experiments will begin next Spring to ascertain whether satellite
surveillance can distinguish conventional from gene-spliced corn. Is there
something particularly sinister or worrisome about gene-spliced crops --
in particular, corn that has been engineered for enhanced resistance to
predatory insects? Is it potentially toxic, or more invasive than
conventional corn? Does it have a history of stealing lunch money from
children as they pass the fields en route to school?
Actually, none of these things. The corn is wholesome, it is as well
behaved as any other variety, and it has eliminated the need for millions
of pounds of chemical pesticides. So why the attempt to monitor it, at
tremendous effort and expense? Well, this is one of those examples of
government intervention creating the need for more government intervention
to correct a distortion it itself caused in the first place.
The project originated out of concern that overuse of gene-spliced
varieties of so-called Bt-corn (which contain a newly-introduced bacterial
protein that confers resistance to insects) could result in the
development of resistant insects, reducing the usefulness of the approach.
(Insects usually develop resistance ultimately to conventional pesticides,
so it would not be unexpected to find resistance to Bt as well.) For that
reason, the EPA required that farmers who plant Bt-corn maintain a
"refuge" of conventional (insect-susceptible) corn on 20 percent of their
acreage. However, the EPA suspects that as many as one-fifth of farmers
are not adhering to the refuge requirement.
But here's the hooker: In spite of a substantial rate of likely
non-compliance, USDA-funded researchers have found no insect resistance to
Bt-corn or Bt-cotton at all, in spite of their cultivation on more than 25
million acres worldwide. (And even if insect resistance to Bt crops were
to appear, this would not raise a safety issue, but would indicate only
compromised effectiveness of the Bt protein. Historically, when insects
become resistant to one product or method, farmers move on to another.)
The requirement for refuges remains, however and, undeterred by the data,
the EPA is determined to use overhead surveillance to measure compliance.
(Presumably, the next step will be to call in air strikes from the nearest
fighter squadron on farmers who are in violation.)
The pivotal issue here is not whether farmers are adhering to the refuge
requirements, or what is the best way to measure regulatory compliance. It
is that the very basis of the EPA's regulatory policy towards gene-spliced
plants and foods is unscientific and nonsensical. The EPA holds
gene-spliced plants to a higher standard than other similar crop and
garden plants, requiring the hugely expensive testing -- as though they
were chemical pesticides -- of varieties of corn, cotton wheat and
tomatoes that have been genetically improved for enhanced pest- or
disease-resistance. The policy fails to recognize that there are important
differences between spraying synthetic, toxic chemicals, and genetic
approaches to enhancing plants' natural pest and disease resistance.
EPA's policy is so potentially damaging and outside scientific norms that
it has galvanized the scientific community. A consortium of dozens of
scientific societies representing more than 180,000 biologists and food
professionals published a report warning that the policy will discourage
the development of new pest-resistant crops and prolong and increase the
use of synthetic chemical pesticides, increase the regulatory burden for
developers of pest-resistant crops, limit the use of biotechnology to
larger developers who can pay the inflated regulatory costs, and handicap
US companies competing in international markets. All of these warnings
have come to pass.
Scientists worldwide agree that adding genes to plants does not make them
less safe either to the environment or for humans to eat. Dozens of new
plant varieties produced through hybridization and other traditional
methods of genetic improvement enter the marketplace each year without
scientific review or special labeling. Many such products are from "wide
crosses," hybridizations in which genes are moved from one species or one
genus to another to create a plant variety that does not and cannot exist
in nature. For example, Triticum agropyrotriticum is a 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 the former Soviet
Union, Canada, United States, France, Germany and China, and is grown for
both forage and grain.
Gene-splicing is more precise, circumscribed and predictable than other
techniques, and can better exploit the subtleties of plant pathology. For
example, unlike conventional chemical pesticides, Bt-corn is highly
specific; it produces a protein toxic to corn borer insects, but not to
people or other mammals. Another advantage of Bt-corn is that it not only
repels pests, but is less likely to contain Fusarium, a toxic fungus often
carried into the plants by the insects. That, in turn, significantly
reduces the levels of the fungal toxin fumonisin, which is known to cause
fatal diseases in horses and swine that eat infected corn, and esophageal
cancer in humans. Thus, gene-spliced corn is not only cheaper to produce
but is a potential boon to public health. Moreover, by reducing the need
for spraying chemical pesticides on crops, it is environmentally friendly.
Yet, regulatory agencies have regulated gene-spliced foods in a
discriminatory, unnecessarily burdensome way. They have imposed
requirements that could not possibly be met for conventionally bred crop
Paradoxically, only the more precisely crafted, superior, gene-spliced
crops are exhaustively, repeatedly (and expensively) reviewed before they
can enter the field or food supply. In the T. agropyrotriticum example
above, this chaotic mixture of genes is unregulated, but if a single gene
were transferred from quackgrass to wheat with highly precise,
gene-splicing techniques, the product would elicit an extensive and hugely
expensive regulatory regime. This is a discrepancy that cannot be
reconciled. Policy makers have ignored a fundamental rule of regulation:
that the degree of scrutiny of a product or activity should be
commensurate with the risk.
What we need is not to punish those who develop and market insect
resistant, chemical pesticide-replacing, low-fungal-toxin, potentially
more healthful corn, but to regulate as science and common sense dictate.
Regulation would then cost less, offer greater benefits to the consumer
and the environment, and stimulate innovation.
The EPA should turn its satellite surveillance to something more
constructive, like checking on whether people are putting the right stuff
into recycling bins.
Henry I. Miller, a physician, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. From
1979-94 he was an official at the FDA.
Tomorrow's People: How 21st Century Technology Is Changing the Way We
Think and Feel
- Susan Greenfield, Amazon.co.uk price £14.00; Hardcover, September,
2003; 304 pages
Tomorrow's People is Susan Greenfield's bold attempt to describe how
21st-century technology is changing the way we think and feel. Our
increasing ability to manipulate electronic media, robots, genes,
reproductive biology and minds is indeed dramatically changing the way
some of us live. Susan Greenfield gets to grip with the most important of
these changes and most importantly with the effects they are going to have
on future generations.
Baroness Greenfield, Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford and Director of
the Royal Institution of Great Britain is very well placed and qualified
as a neuroscientist and acclaimed writer (The Private Life of the Brain)
to do some serious star-gazing, only what she is looking at is very
grounded at the personal level and the here and now. Her wide and informed
perspective runs from gadgets and gizmos to terrorism via DNA and the
cyberworld. According to our response to such future changes we can be
categorised as technophiles, technophobes or cynics according to Susan
Greenfield. But as she rightly points out, the main danger is going to be
the growing divide between the technologically advanced world and the rest
which will, as she says, be the vast majority. The great challenge for the
future is how to avoid the descent into a very dangerous schism between a
relatively small developed world locked into economic growth to feed its
lifestyle and the ever-growing underdeveloped world that will be
increasingly excluded by poverty.
Tomorrow's People is a thought-provoking and challenging book. It can be
uncomfortable reading especially as it demands that we think about and
make personal decisions about these hugely important issues that will
increasingly impact on future generations. As Susan Greenfield warns, "the
bottom line of this book is that the private ego is the most precious
thing we each have, and it is far more vulnerable now than ever before".
Synopsis: Susan Greenfield explores how the "human nature" of future
generations could be on course for a dramatic alteration, arguing that the
current revolution in biomedical science and information technologies will
have a dramatic impact on our brains and central nervous system. She
believes that the society in which future generations will live and the
way they view themselves will be like nothing our species has yet
experienced in the tens of thousands of years to date. At the beginning of
the 21st century, we may be standing on the brink of a makeover far more
cataclysmic than anything that has happened before. As we appreciate the
dynamism and sensitivity of our brain circuitry, so the prospect of
directly tampering with the essence of our individuality becomes a
Genetically Modified Foods are Nothing New
- Channapatna S. Prakash and Gregory Conko
- Betterhumans, Oct. 6, 2003
'Our food has long been "unnatural," and it's a good thing. So why all the
fuss about modern genetic practices?'
'Green evolution: All of today's crops are a product of genetic meddling,
write Gregory Conko and Channapatna S. Prakash, and modern genetic
engineering is just an extension of previous agricultural techniques '
From the dawn of civilization, mankind has been modifying plants at the
genetic level to suit its needs, and the fates of human society and
agricultural crops have been inextricably linked and mutually
interdependent ever since. Agriculture allowed humans to abandon
hunter-gatherer behavior, in turn spawning broader economic and cultural
development. And the suitability of certain plant species for food or
fiber˜which provided the proximate cause for their eventual
domestication˜let those organisms survive and thrive far beyond their
Our ancestors chose a few once-wild plants and gradually modified them
simply by selecting those with the largest, tastiest or most robust
offspring for propagation. In that way, organisms have been altered so
greatly over the millennia that traits present in existing populations of
cultivated rice, wheat, corn, soy, potatoes, tomatoes and many others have
very little in common with their ancestors. Wild tomatoes and potatoes
contain very potent toxins, for example. But today's cultivated varieties
have been modified to produce healthy and nutritious food.
Breeding safe and useful crops from wild plants was a remarkable feat,
given how poorly those first plant breeders understood the dynamics of
selection and heritability. It was not until the 19th century that plant
genetic modification became anything other than a hit or miss affair.
Gregor Mendel's discovery of the principles of inheritance in the 1860s
gave rise to a revolution in crop hybridization, perhaps best
characterized by the life of horticulturalist Luther Burbank. Burbank
developed more than 800 new varieties of fruits, vegetables, flowers, and
trees˜some so unique that he was eventually awarded patents on 16 of his
Yet, despite the predictive capacity that arose from Mendelian principles,
actual understanding of the source of plant characteristics was still
quite limited until the turn of the 20th century. Verification of Mendel's
principles initiated a wave of new genetic discoveries clarifying how
nucleic acids within plant cells controlled the generation of specific
traits. From that point forward, hybridization could truly be considered
more a science than an art. Early experiments in corn hybridization by
G.H. Shull in the 1900s established the modern genetics foundation for a
revolution in food and fiber production. Shull's scientifically guided
corn breeding helped lay the groundwork for the Green Revolution some half
a century later, and initiated yield growth from fewer than 30 bushels per
acre in the 1920s to more than 130 bushels per acre in the late 1990s.
Such productivity gains helped North American and European farmers grow
more food at a lower cost, without having to encroach upon forests and
other wildlands to feed an ever-growing population. Crop improvement has
thus been one of the most important environmental success stories in
Modern genetics has been so powerful an influence on food production that,
in a recent survey, members of the North American Agricultural Journalists
professional society ranked crop hybridization, recombinant DNA genetic
modification, discovery of DNA's double helix structure and the Green
Revolution as the four most important developments in agriculture during
the past 50 years.
The productivity gains derived from scientifically bred, high yielding
crop varieties allowed the world's farmers to double output during the
last 50 years, on roughly the same amount of land, at a time when global
population rose more than 80%. Without genetics and other scientific
developments in agriculture, we would today be farming on every square
inch of arable land to produce the same amount of food, destroying
hundreds of millions of hectares of pristine wilderness in the process.
How natural are our crops?
All crops are unnatural. Not only are they vastly different from their
wild ancestors, but most also had their origin and domestication far from
where they are now grown. For instance, the US is the world's leading
producer of corn and soy, yet these crops are native to Mexico and China,
respectively. Wheat, grown throughout Western Europe, was domesticated in
Mesopotamia. The world's largest traded commodity, coffee, had a humble
origin in Ethiopia. But now, most coffee is produced in Latin America and
Florida oranges have their roots in India, while sugarcane arose in Papua
New Guinea. Food crops that today are so integral to the culture or diet
in the Old World, such as the potato in Europe, chili pepper in India,
cassava in Africa and sweet potato in Japan, were introduced from South
America. For that matter, every crop in North America other than the
blueberry, Jerusalem artichoke, sunflower and squash is borrowed from
somewhere else. All our crops, domesticated long ago, have more recently
been improved for human use. Rapeseed, grown in Asia for centuries,
naturally contains two dangerous chemicals that make it more amenable for
use as a lubricant than a cooking oil. But in the 1960s, Canadian
scientists used conventional breeding techniques to eliminate the genes
responsible for producing those toxic and smelly chemicals. They named
their creation canola (short for Canadian oil), a popular but completely
new crop now grown widely in North America and Europe.
In the most fundamental sense, all plant and animal breeding involves, and
always has involved, this kind of intentional genetic modification˜adding
useful new genes and shedding old deleterious ones. And though critics of
today's most advanced breeding method, recombinant DNA, believe it is
somehow unique, there have always been Cassandras to claim that the latest
technology was unnatural, different from its predecessors and inherently
dangerous. As early as 1906, Luther Burbank noted that, "We have recently
advanced our knowledge of genetics to the point where we can manipulate
life in a way never intended by nature. We must proceed with the utmost
caution in the application of this new found knowledge," a cautionary note
one might just as easily hear today regarding recombinant DNA˜modern
But just as Burbank was wrong to claim that there was some special danger
in the knowledge that permitted broader sexual crosses, so are today's
skeptics wrong to believe that modern genetic modification poses some
inherently greater risk. It is not genetic modification per se that
generates risk. Recombinant DNA modified, conventionally modified and
unmodified plants could all prove to be invasive, harmful to biodiversity
or harmful to eat. Rather, risk arises from the characteristics of
individual organisms, as well as how and where they are used. Thus, an
understanding of the historical context of genetic modification in
agriculture may help us to better appreciate the potential role of
recombinant DNA technology, and quell public anxieties about its use.
Even though it is guided by human hands, hybridization may seem perfectly
natural when it simply assimilates desirable traits from several varieties
of the same species into elite cultivars. But when desired characteristics
are unavailable in cultivated plants, hybridization can be used to borrow
liberally from wild and sometimes quite distant relatives. Domesticated
tomato plants are commonly bred with wild tomatoes of a different species
to introduce improved resistance to pathogens, nematodes and fungi.
Successive generations then have to be carefully back-crossed into the
commercial cultivars to eliminate any unwanted traits accidentally
transferred from the wild varieties, such as glyco-alkaloid toxins common
in the wild species.
When crop and wild varieties do not readily mate, various tricks can be
employed to produce so-called "wide crosses" between two plants that are
otherwise sexually incompatible. Still, the embryos created by wide
crosses usually die prior to maturation, so they must be "rescued" and
cultured in a laboratory. Even then, the rescued embryos typically produce
sterile offspring. They can only be made fertile again by using mutagenic
chemicals that cause the plants to produce a duplicate set of chromosomes.
The plant triticale, an artificial hybrid of wheat and rye, is one such
example of a wide-cross hybrid made possible solely by the existence of
embryo rescue and chromosome doubling techniques. Triticale is now grown
on more than three million acres worldwide, and dozens of other wide-cross
hybrids are also common.
Finally, when a desired trait cannot be found within the existing gene
pool, breeders can create new variants by intentionally mutating plants
with x-ray or gamma radiation, with mutagenic chemicals or simply by
culturing clumps of cells in a petri dish. A relatively new mutant wheat
variety has been produced with chemical mutation to be resistant to the
BASF herbicide ClearField. Mutation breeding has been in common use since
the 1950s, and more than 2,250 known mutant varieties have been bred in at
least 50 countries, including France, Germany, Italy, the UK and the US.
It is important to note that these sophisticated and unnatural breeding
techniques are considered "conventional," and go almost totally
unregulated. Yet, despite the massive genetic changes and potential for
harm, consumers and anti-technology activists are largely unaware of their
existence and evince no concern.
Along comes recombinant DNA
As we have seen, all modern crops are a product of various genetic
meddling. Recombinant DNA methods can therefore be seen as an extension of
the continuum of techniques used to modify organisms over the millennia.
The biggest difference is that modern genetically modified crops involve a
precise transfer of one or two known genes into plant DNA˜a surgical
alteration of the crop's genome compared to the sledgehammer approaches of
traditional hybridization or mutagenesis. Furthermore, unlike varieties
developed from more conventional breeding, modern genetically modified
crops are rigorously tested and subject to intense regulatory scrutiny
prior to commercialization.
There has been widespread acceptance and support for recombinant DNA
modification from the scientific community, plant breeders and farmers.
Accumulated experience and knowledge of decades of crop improvement
combined with expert judgment, science-based reasoning and empirical
research has generated confidence that modern genetically modified crops
will pose no new or heightened risks that can not be identified and
mitigated, and that any unforeseen hazards are likely to be negligible and
Many growers have embraced modern genetically modified technology because
it makes farming more efficient, protects or increases yields and reduces
their reliance on chemicals that, other things being equal, they would
prefer not to use. Crops enhanced with recombinant DNA technology are now
grown on nearly 58 million hectares in 16 countries. More importantly,
more than three-quarters of the 5.5 million growers who benefit from
genetically modified crops are resource-poor farmers in the developing
Ingredients produced from modern genetic modification are found in
thousands of food products consumed worldwide. Yet, even though no
legitimate evidence of harm to human health or the environment from these
foods is known or expected, there is an intense debate questioning the
value and safety of genetically modified organisms.
Although it may seem reasonable for consumers to express a concern that
they "don't know what they're eating with genetically modified foods," it
must be repeated that consumers never had that information with
conventionally modified crops either. Indeed, while no assurance of
perfect safety can be made, breeders know far more about the genetic
makeup, product characteristics and safety of every modern genetically
modified crop than those of any conventional variety ever marketed.
Breeders know exactly what new genetic material has been introduced. They
can identify where the transferred genes have been inserted into the new
plant. They can test to ensure that transferred genes are working properly
and that the nutritional elements of the food have been unchanged. None of
these safety assurances can be made with conventional breeding techniques.
Consider, for example, how conventional plant breeders would develop a
disease-resistant tomato. Sexual reproduction introduces chromosome
fragments from a wild relative to transfer a gene for disease resistance
into cultivated varieties. In the process, hundreds of unknown and
unwanted genes are also introduced, with the risk that some of them could
encode toxins or allergens. Yet regulators never routinely test
conventionally bred plant varieties for food safety or environmental risk
factors, and they are subject to practically no government oversight.
We have always lived with food risks. But modern genetic technology makes
it increasingly easier to reduce those risks.
What about the environment?
All of us have to eat to live, and organized food production is the most
ecologically demanding endeavor we have pursued. Agricultural expansion
over the millennia has destroyed millions of acres of forestland around
the world. Alien plant species have been introduced into nonnative
environments to provide food, feed, fiber and timber, and as a result have
disrupted local fauna and flora. Certain aspects of modern farming have
had a negative impact on biodiversity and on air, soil and water quality.
But do modern genetically modified crops really pose even greater
environmental risks, as critics claim?
The risk of cross-pollination from crops to wild relatives has always
existed, and such "gene flow" occurs whenever crops grow in close
proximity to sexually compatible wild relatives. Yet breeders have
continuously introduced genes for disease and pest resistance through
conventional breeding into all of our crops. Traits, such as stress
tolerance and herbicide resistance, have also been introduced in some
crops with conventional techniques, and the growth habits of every crop
have been altered. Thus, not only is gene modification a common
phenomenon, but so are many of the specific kinds of changes made with
recombinant DNA techniques. Naturally, with both conventional and
recombinant DNA-enhanced breeding, we must be vigilant to ensure that
newly introduced plants do not become invasive and that weeds do not
become noxious as a result of genetic modification. Although modern
genetic modification expands the range of new traits that can be added to
crop plants, it also ensures that more will be known about those traits
and that the behavior of the modified plants will be, in many ways, easier
to predict. That greater knowledge, combined with historical experience
with conventional genetic modification, provides considerable assurance
that such risks will be minimal and manageable.
It should also be comforting to recognize that no major weed or
invasiveness problems have developed since the advent of modern plant
breeding, because domesticated plants are typically poorly fit for
survival in the wild. Indeed, concerns about genetically modified crops
running amok, or errant genes flowing into wild species˜sometimes
characterized as "gene pollution"˜pale in comparison to the genuine risk
posed by introducing totally unmodified "exotic" plants into new
ecosystems. Notable examples of the latter include water hyacinth in Lake
Victoria, cord-grass in China, cattail in Nigeria and kudzu in North
This is, of course, not to say that no harm could ever come from the
introduction of modern genetically modified or conventionally modified
crop varieties. Some traits, if transferred from crops to wild relatives,
could increase the reproductive fitness of weeds and cause them to become
invasive or to erode the genetic diversity of native flora. But the
magnitude of that risk has solely to do with the traits involved, the
plants into which they are transferred and the environment into which they
are introduced. Consequently, breeders, farmers and regulators are aware
of the possibility that certain traits introduced into any new crop
varieties, or new varieties introduced into different ecosystems, could
pose genuine problems, and these practices are carefully scrutinized.
Again, though, this risk occurs regardless of the breeding method used to
introduce those traits into the crop.
Finally, one must also recognize the potential positive impact of
recombinant DNA modified crops on the environment. Already, commercialized
genetically modified crops have reduced agricultural expansion and
promoted ecosystem preservation, improved air, soil and water quality as a
consequence of reduced tillage, chemical spraying and fuel use and
enhanced biodiversity because of lower insecticide use.
Studies have shown that the eight most common modern genetically modified
crops grown in the US alone increased crop yields by nearly 2 billion
kilograms, provided a net value of US$1.5 billion and reduced pesticide
use by 20 million kilograms. A 2002 Council for Agricultural Science and
Technology report also found that recombinant DNA modified crops promote
the adoption of conservation tillage practices, resulting in many other
important environmental benefits: 37 million tons of topsoil preserved,
85% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from farm machinery, 70%
reduction in herbicide runoff, 90% decrease in soil erosion and from 15 to
26 liters of fuel saved per acre.
Conclusion: Societal anxiety over the new genetic modification is, in some
ways, understandable. It is fueled by a variety of causes, including
unfamiliarity, lack of reliable information about regulatory safeguards, a
steady stream of negative opinion in the news media, opposition by
activist groups, growing mistrust of industry and a general lack of
awareness of how our food production system has evolved.
Humans and crops will always be mutually dependent upon one another's
survival, and the guided evolution of crops will continue but increasingly
will be more precise and safer. An appreciation of the history of
agricultural development, however, may provide us with a useful roadmap
for devising appropriate strategies for informing the public and making
rational societal responses to crop improvement.
Channapatna S. Prakash is a professor of plant biotechnology at Tuskegee
University in Alabama and the president of AgBioWorld Foundation based in
Auburn, Alabama. Gregory Conko is director of food safety policy at the
Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington and vice-president of
AgBioWorld Foundation. This article first appeared in the retrospective 50
Years of DNA published in London by Business Weekly and the Wellcome Trust