Today's AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org/ November 7, 2003
* GM Opposition A Threat to Poor Nations: Whelan
* European GM Myths Hinder Africa's Escape From Famine
* Biotechnology in The Third World is Not Just An 'Option'
* .. Crop Biotech is Necessary: The Sooner, The Better (Parrott, McHughen)
* Responding to Chris Preston's 'Cry for Help' - UnBiological Farming?
* .. Organic Standards and Transgenic Content
* A Light Hearted Look At Nutrition - Speaking English Kills You!
* Scientists Plan a Future to Grow On
* Heerree’s Biotech…And It’S Good For You!
* Half-truths and GM
* Would US Consumers Buy Golden Rice?
* The Benefits of Bt Cotton - the Case of South Africa
* At Issue: GMOs, Human Health and the Environment
* We're Neither Pro Nor Anti GM - UK Science Chief
* Defending Nature is Not Anti-Science: Pro-GM Scientists Should Admit
Note: Watch out for AgBioView Special on GM Maize later today!
GM Opposition A Threat to Poor Nations: Whelan
- Barry Wilson, The Western Producer (Canada) Nov. 6, 2003
The increasingly bitter debate over the safety of genetically modified
crops threatens to sabotage all the benefits that biotechnology can bring
to agriculture and the developing world, federal international
co-operation minister Susan Whelan warned last week.
She used a speech in Nairobi, Kenya, on Oct. 29 to call on developing
countries to become more involved in the debate and on scientists to take
seriously the critics of GM crops. In the prepared text of her speech,
Whelan said the debate is centred on just a small part of biotechnology,
and a part that presents both opportunities and dangers that should be
assessed "in a dispassionate manner" and judged in balance.
"What is important is for developing countries themselves to make the
decisions about the appropriate balance," she said. "It is crucial
therefore for developing countries to join more forcefully in the debate
on this issue."
Whelan said it also is important that scientists join in the debate and
take the critics seriously. "Ignoring what may appear to the scientific
community as the misguided or uninformed opinions of the anti-GMO groups
could well disrupt the flow of both resources and goodwill to this area of
agricultural research that holds significant potential benefits for
She said there is a "troubling and apparently growing divide on this
issue" that threatens the general good, based on a fear of food safety,
biodiversity contamination and intellectual property rights. "The
controversy in this one area threatens the entire field of biotechnology,
which has served agriculture very well over many decades."
Whelan was one of the first politicians invited to deliver the annual
lecture to an international gathering of agricultural researchers
affiliated with an international network of research stations. The
invitation came after she was internationally lauded for her role in
returning agriculture to the core of Canada's international development
She used the lecture to deliver some blunt messages:
* If scientists want continued public support for long-term research
funding, they should help their cause by showing governments some
* Governments, including Canada, made an "unfortunate and costly mistake"
in cutting back food aid and development funding in the 1990s. Canada now
is trying to make up for its mistake by increasing agricultural
development funding, aiming for $500 million annually by 2007-08.
* Developing country governments must invest more in agriculture and
* Governments must continue to contribute the majority of funds for
international agricultural research to avoid having the research agenda
set too much by the shorter-term goals of private investors.
* Climate change, while a controversial topic in some quarters, is real
and will cause particular hardships in many poor and arid countries.
Whelan said sustainable development, with agriculture at its core, gives
poor people more freedom. "When people must choose between feeding their
family and sending their children to school, they have no freedom," she
said. Whelan pledged that Canada, after years of cuts to foreign aid and
development, is committed to increasing its spending on international
research and foreign agriculture development.
However, prime minister-in-waiting Paul Martin said last week he will
review all future spending commitments made by the current government
after he takes over. As a deficit-fighting finance minister, Martin
engineered the foreign aid budget cuts that Whelan now is criticizing and
vowing to reverse.
European GM Myths Hinder Africa's Escape From Famine
- Margaret Karembu, Nov. 6 2003, Vol. 9, No. 37
The British Royal Society recently released the results of field trials on
genetically modified crops in the UK, finding them helpful in some cases
and harmful in others. Consequently, some NGOs demanded that all GM crops
This typical European attitude towards GM foods influences more than just
European leaders. Opposition to GM in Europe discourages Africa from
adopting new farming technologies that could enable poor Africans to
escape hunger and become self-sufficient.
Today, more than 200 million people in Africa are hungry or malnourished.
Most Africans are subsistence farmers. Their agriculture is barely
sustainable; crop yields are low and subject to changeable weather
conditions, soil erosion is common and many places suffer periodic insect
infestation. A drought last year in southern Africa, which led to
widespread crop failure, illustrated the vulnerability of our food supply.
Millions of people were on the brink of famine and the continent returned
to the vicious cycle of food aid.
Anti-biotechnology NGOs, mostly from Europe, preyed on the ignorance of
African leaders and the public to propagate unfounded myths and fears
that American food aid, which included genetically modified maize would
'contaminate' local crop varieties, harm human health and that European
countries would no longer trade with them. Yet the communities that NGOs
have targeted with anti-GMO propaganda are the populations that stand to
benefit the most from biotechnology.
In Kenya, tissue culture techniques for bananas (a staple food), combined
with micro-credit systems, have resulted in significant benefits to
resource-challenged farmers, most of whom are women. Banana losses, caused
by pests and diseases, have been reduced substantially, and yields have
increased. Moreover, banana growing is being transformed from a
subsistence activity to a commercial enterprise. Participating farmers
have increased real incomes by 38%. Banana sales have enabled women to pay
school fees for their children, improve family nutrition, and build
tanks to store clean water.
Broader application of these new technologies would allow farmers to
produce higher yielding, environmentally friendly crops, and generate
income. Other community members would benefit from abundant food at lower
prices and resources would be freed up for investment in more productive
activities. The result would be a virtuous circle of development. But,
currently, Europe and Africa are pursuing policies that may prevent such
The ability to sell more agricultural products to consumers in Europe
offers enormous potential for improving the lives of people in Africa,
especially since Europe is already the destination for the majority of our
exports. By increasing incomes it could lift whole communities out of
poverty. But the EU moratorium on GM crops, and furore over the risk of
'contamination', is generating fear in Africa that we would not be able
to export to Europe if we allow GM crops to be grown.
Even when the European Union lifts the moratorium on GM crops, its
traceability and labelling regulations for GM crops would impose
significant costs on African farmers. Like the moratorium, these
regulations have no scientific justification and would be impractical for
small African farmers.
Of course, many of our problems are home grown. Our protection of
intellectual property rights is poor, so the private sector has fewer
incentives to invest in specific technologies that are locally adapted to
address uniquely African problems: drought, pests, viral diseases, poor
soil, and low yields. There is little public sector investment in
biotechnology and few collaborative research efforts for technology
transfer, private or public. Donor agencies, especially from Europe, have
drastically reduced their support for research into agricultural
It is now up to African scientists to remove negative ideas about new
technologies from the minds of policymakers and the public. The African
Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum, in collaboration with the Kenya
Biotechnology Information Center, is one such effort. They are improving
public awareness and acceptance of the benefits of new technologies, so
that Africa's policymakers can enact broad, unbiased policies which
support their adoption.
Anti-scientific myths and fears perpetuated by Europeans will not create
solutions to hunger anywhere, nor will they break the vicious cycle of
poverty. New appropriate technologies, developed and deployed responsibly,
Dr Margaret Karembu is a lecturer in the faculty of environmental studies
at Kenyatta University, Nairobi ,Kenya, and a researcher for the
International Service for the Acquisition of Agri -biotech Applications
Biotechnology in The Third World is Not Just An 'Option'
- Tawanda Zidenga
Here is my brief response to the article by Prof Thomas Sinclair on crop
biotechnology for developing countries. I agree with the professor that
"engineered genes, by themselves, cannot bring about increases in crop
But I certainly disagree with the way he tries to trivialise its role in
improving crop production. I think crop biotechnology in the third world
is not an option. To advocate that the third world abandon biotechnology
while the whole world is researching extensively on the technology is to
prescribe perpetual poverty for third world countries. I think that is not
fair. Current biotechnologies may not directly address yield in the way
some understand it, but they do make crop production more efficient, at
least by increasing yield per unit cost.
Furthermore, I need to point out that contrary to Prof Sinclair's
assertion that more funding is being directed to biotechnology, this is
not really the case in developing countries. Donors typically want to fund
the so-called "modest" or "appropriate" technologies like the legume
research he discribed because this is what is "politically correct" in our
region. The work usually produces good statistics which makes donors
happy, but does not get to the farmers because usually its nothing new.
We actually have had problems in attracting funds for biotechnology
research. We are donor driven in the third world!! I agree that we need
more than transgenics, but we need transgenics all the same, at least if
we are serious about improving agriculture beyond what the Green
Crop Biotech is Necessary for Development: The Sooner, The Better
- Wayne Parrott
>> Crop Biotechnology for Development: Is it Necessary?
>> Thomas Sinclair
Nevertheless, Dr. Thomas Sinclair recently-- and quite correctly-- pointed
>> "'Engineered' genes, by themselves, cannot bring about increase in crop
>yields. Yield improvements require increasing the critical resources
>required for plant growth."
While I will argue that Dr. Sinclair's observations must be part of any
successful long-term strategy to increase yields, lack of nutrient
availability is not the current key limitation to crop yield on far too
Current transgenic technology is best described as yield *permitting*
technology, not yield-enhancing technology. Without yield-permitting
technology, growing a crop under even the most fertile of conditions does
not guarantee any yield, much less a good yield, particularly in
developing countries. There are staggering pre-harvest losses due to
viruses, fungi, caterpillars, grubs, nematodes, and other pests. Abiotic
stresses such as soil acidity, salinity, and temperature extremes further
limit yields. Finally, incalculable post-harvest losses occur as damage
from susceptibility to fungal and bacterial diseases is compounded by an
inadequate storage and handling infrastructure.
Already, existing transgenic technology to protect crops against viruses,
caterpillars and grubs is well established and highly effective;
transgenic technology against several abiotic stresses is looking
promising. Ultimately, it is not simply an issue of food quantity-- the
available food must meet the nutritional-- protein, mineral, vitamin,
etc-- needs of the population. Transgenic technology can also help meet
these requirements as well.
The bottom line is that simply stopping the current yield losses will go a
long ways towards solving food shortages at the local level, and this is
where crop biotechnology must play an important role. Such
yield-permitting crops can then be integrated into resource management
strategies as Dr. Sinclair advocates, with the goal of achieving
sustainable agricultural systems.
More Response to "Crop Biotechnology for Development: Is it Necessary?"
- Alan McHughen, D Phil, FACN, University of California, Riverside, CA
I fully support Prof Sinclair's campaign for research on legumes. Clearly,
legumes adapted and improved (whether by traditional or biotech methods)
have a role to play in overcoming hunger and poverty in developing
countries. However, I challenge his statement that '"Engineered" genes, by
themselves, cannot bring about increase in crop yields' (because the
limitations to yield are deficient resources such as water and soil
But much of the yield deficiency in developing countries is due to
post-harvest losses. That is, the harvested grain is quickly attacked by
insects and diseases, resulting in as much as 30% yield loss after
harvest. Well, depending on the pest/pathogen species involved, currently
available engineered genes can provide relief to depredations of both
insects and diseases. Crops protected with these engineered genes would
indeed increase yield, without affecting soil or water availability, by
reducing post harvest losses. As well, other engineered genes are being
developed to increase the plant's water use efficiency (WUE) and improved
response to other yield-limiting environmental stresses.
In his final paragraph, Prof Sinclair complains that research funds are
going to biotechnology instead of to "proven" methods. This is reminiscent
of the tough economic times of the early 1980s, when many 'traditional'
breeders and agronomists complained about the new biotechnology skimming
off 'their' research funds. Most soon realized that agriculture research
wasn't being targeted specifically, because research funds across the
scientific board were being slashed. The loss of research funds in
agriculture would have occurred with or without biotechnology. However,
the new funding opportunities in biotechnology allowed agricultural
research to continue in effective collaborations of old and new
Perhaps we would all be better off if Prof Sinclair brought his skills to
the table and collaborated to combine agronomic and biotechnological
methods to help overcome a formidable and historical problem of poverty
and hunger not solved by "proven" methods.
Responding to Chris Preston's 'Cry for Help'
- Tomn DeGregori,
>> Re: Pesticides in Organic Food? - Christopher Preston
>> "Tom DeGregori help me out! My logic meter has shorted!"
Unfortunately there is not yet a Viagra for shorted-out logic meters. If
there were, the organic agriculture folks would be the largest consumers
Let us begin with the old bugaboo about 'chemical-free production' -
which means that they are producing with nothing but elements. Since the
first 19th century stirrings of the movement was in opposition to the use
of minerals in agriculture because they lacked 'vital properties' (see my
just published book, Origins of the Organic Agriculture Debate, then maybe
we can assume that the organic plants are produced by nothing at all.
Nihil Ex Nihilo)
The posted article notes that the organic farmer's association in
Australia is known as 'Biological Farmers of Australia.' Presumably all
other farmers use something other than biology to grow crops?
Interesting!! In fact, very interesting!!
'Biological Farmers of Australia' produce crops without chemicals as is
also claimed by their American counterparts. In the U.S., there is a USDA
website where one can find the all-natural chemicals approved for organic
certification. I presume when organic certification comes to Australia,
they will have the same. Nature is of course benign and nothing natural
can ever harm us so no need to test for it, simply approve it. And they
are not chemicals. Arsenic anyone? It was one of many all-natural products
of nature that was long used for crop protection before modern synthetic
Well at least, organic farmers do not use synthetic pesticides. That is
why one can also find on the USDA website, lists of approved synthetic
pesticides. If certification comes to Australia, will the ãBiological
Farmers of Australiaä oppose all use of chemicals, synthetic or natural in
What Chris Preston and the rest of us do not realize is that organic
agriculture contains vital properties and mystic potencies that somehow
make it more nutritious and tastier and have the ability to overcome the
evil of accidental contamination by chemicals. Bioengineered products also
have their mystic potencies, only they are evil, satanic potencies where
even the slightest 'contamination' corrupts the entire product. This evil
juju is so potent that it even threatens the mystic virtues of organic
agriculture. This may sound flippant but is there any other interpretation
that fits what they are saying on the subject? Sanity anyone?
Chris, if you have any further questions about the 'logic' of organic
agriculture's attitude towards biotechnology, you would do better to
consult Bram Stoker's Dracula and continue to share your findings with us.
Somehow my 'logic meter' has also shorted out and I have to refill my
viagra prescription. I need a double dose - at minimum!
I hope that I have been helpful! All the best! - Tom
Organic Standards and Transgenic Content
- Drew Kershen, L" |
>> Christopher Preston asked, "So if pesticides ... turn up in organic
>food that is OK, because "organic" is just a process standard (produced
>without adding synthetic chemicals). However, if a minute amount of GM
>were to turn up in organic food, the food would be no longer "organic"
>because "organic" is a product-based standards for GM. ... help me
>out! My logic meter has shorted!"
Under the National Organic Standards of the United States Department of
Agriculture, organic standards are process based standards. Consequently,
no organic farmer loses organic certification for his/her farm nor does
any organic product loses its organic label if substances (including
synthetic chemicals, transgenic genes, or any of the other long list of
prohibited substances) are found accidentally on the farm or in the
product. Farmers lose the certification and their products lose the label
if the farmer intentionally uses prohibited substances (such as synthetic
chemicals or transgenic seed) or if the farm fails to use reasonable
measures to prevent the accidental presence of the prohibited substance on
his/her farm and in his/her product.
What I have just said about the United States is also true in Canada in
their voluntary organic programs.
Moreover, when I have looked at the International Organic Standards (the
voluntary standards of the organic movement), their standards can be
interpreted exactly as the United States and Canadian standards are
interpreted. Mr. Monk, CEO of Biological Farmers of Australia, correctly
stated in the article this interpretation of the organic standards as
process standards only in the context of synthetic chemicals.
However, when the discussion turns towards applying the international
standards to transgenic seeds or transgenic crops, executives in the
organic movement have been very reluctant to affirm and restate the
process based standards. Rather, the executives have dodged the question,
hedged the answer, or specifically changed the interpretation of the
standards to create a double-standard (i.e. to become a product-based
standard) for agricultural biotechnology.
The confusion is exacerbated by another aspect. Many organic food
companies insist upon having their growers sign contracts that contain a
warranty by the grower that his/her crops are 100% free of transgenic
content. These companies then test the product and reject it when any
trace of transgenic content is found by the test. The company then rejects
the product or refuses to pay the organic premium price.
Some organic farmers think that the presence of the transgenic content
made them lose the contract and the premium price. This is a
misunderstanding. What made the farmer lose the contract and the premium
price was the unwise contractual commitment the farmer had made. Organic
farmers should refuse to sign these "guaranteed free of transgenic
content" contracts. Organic farmers cannot control the content of their
product on their farms, in transportation to the organic processor, nor in
other adventitious ways.
Hence, organic farmers should only contractually promise that they have
"not intentionally used transgenic seed" and that they promise to take
"reasonable measures to prevent the accidental presence of transgenic
content." If organic farmers only sign contracts with claims that the
farmer can control, the farmer can deliver and the company cannot
reject. Moreover, the company can still market the produce as "organic"
even with the presence of transgenic content.
Farmers have second reason to refuse to sign these "guaranteed free of
transgenic content" contracts. If the farmer signs such a contract, the
company can accept but refuse to pay the organic premium price. However,
the company can turn right around, depending on the percentage of
transgenic content (which is almost always very, very low - i.e. less than
the EU standards for labeling GMO or less than the Japanese standard for
labeling as GMO), and market the product as organic. In other words, the
farmer by signing these "guaranteed free of transgenic content" contracts
is at the risk that the company will pay commodity prices to the farmer
but sell at organic prices to the market. Whether this constitutes
contractual fraud by the company against the farmer is an unresolved legal
Several instances of this confusion between organic standards and organic
production contracts have already happened in the United States.
A Light Hearted Look At Nutrition
- Terry Hopkin- Sundby
After so many heavy discussions on the pros and cons of GM or Organic food
or regular farming, here's the absolute truth ladies and gents..
Here's to another drink ...
For those of you who watch what you eat, here's the final word on
nutrition and health. It's a relief to know the truth after all those
conflicting medical studies:
1. The Japanese eat very little fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than
the Americans, Australians, British, or Canadians.
2. The Mexicans eat a lot of fat and also suffer fewer heart attacks than
the Americans, Australians, British, or Canadians.
3. The Japanese drink very little red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks
than the Americans, Australians, British, or Canadians.
4. The Italians drink large amounts of red wine and also suffer fewer
heart attacks than the Americans, Australians, British, or Canadians.
5. The Germans drink a lot of beer and eat lots of sausages and fats and
suffer fewer heart attacks than the Americans, Australians, British, or
6. Ukrainians drink a lot of vodka, eat a lot of perogies, cabbage rolls
and suffer fewer heart attacks than the Americans, Australians, British,
CONCLUSION: Eat and drink what you like. Speaking English is apparently
what kills you.
Request for Documents
- Drew Kershen, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dear AgBioView readers: On AgBioView messages over the last several days,
I have read references to two proposed laws:
1. Brazil - the proposed BioSafety law for Brazil ;
2. South Australia - the proposed state law on commercial release of
If any reader has access to these two proposed laws, I would be very
grateful if you could send me a copy. I would prefer receiving the
proposed laws as an electronic attachment to a return e-mail but at least
an e-mail saying that you are sending a hard copy. I read Portuguese well
enough that I will be happy to receive the Brazilian law in Portuguese.
Contact information is below in the signature block.
Thanks, Drew L. Kershen, University of Oklahoma College of Law , 300
Timberdell Road, Norman , OK 73019-5081 U.S.A.
Scientists Plan a Future to Grow On
- Fordyce Maxwell, The Scotsman (UK), Nov. 7, 2003
Public perception of crop science has suffered in recent years. Organic
enthusiasts argue against the use of chemicals to control weeds, pests and
diseases. Environmental groups blame the same chemicals for the
disappearance of rare plants and wildlife. Public resistance to
genetically modified crops has been much stronger than anyone, especially
companies investing large amounts in the biotechnology, such as Monsanto,
That does not make crop science a bad thing or dent the enthusiasm of Dr
Ken Pallett, one of the driving forces behind next week’s conference
organised by BCPC that will make Glasgow, if only temporarily, the centre
of the world-wide crop-protection industry.
It is an industry that has changed dramatically. BCPC was until recently
the British Crop Protection Council, a registered charity making an income
from scientific publications to subsidise annual conferences at Brighton
exclusively on crop protection - weed control one year, diseases the next
- with an exhibition that attracted thousands and where many world-first
chemicals were introduced.
Times change. The organisation is now simply BCPC and this year’s
conference, in Scotland for the first time, has a much wider base. Dr
Pallett, who started work with May & Baker, one of the early big names in
crop protection chemicals when farmers only had a choice of two or three,
is now part of an industry dominated by a big-six - his own company Bayer
Crop Science, Syngenta and BASF in Europe and Monsanto, Dupont and Dow in
the United States.
Even the big players find it difficult to extend research beyond the
world’s main crops of cereals, rice and soya because a scientific research
and development "package" for a relatively minor world crop, such as sugar
beet or canola (oilseed rape), costs much the same as for a major one.
Dr Pallett said: "It means that we can develop alternative protections for
major crops, but not for the minor ones. That is where genetic
modification would have worked so well for sugar beet and oilseed. Now
there is no alternative except the less-safe chemicals."
He believes GM is a good thing - "a real benefit would have been using GM
to produce crops with the ability to grow on poor quality land, for
example under very salty conditions" - but accepts that public resistance
has been remarkably strong. The need for more discussion is one of the
reasons GM figures several times on a conference programme that moves well
beyond crop protection.
"BCPC has a new mission. It’s not only crop protection, but crop
production and the food chain and the environment. The four keynote
speakers on Monday will set the scene for that." Professor Ian Crute, of
Rothamsted Research Centre, will ask what science can do to help feed the
world. Crop protection has improved dramatically in the past half century,
but about 40 per cent of potential yield is still lost to pests and
Professor Peter Lilford, of the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products, at
York University, will discuss GM and non-food crops and Dr Christine
Bruhn, from the Centre for Consumer Research, University of California,
will consider the public perception of science and agriculture.
Dr Pallett said: "The theme is that we have do something. There is not
enough land to feed the world unless we do. But we also accept that there
are big environmental issues and that many people don’t like intensive
agriculture. That’s why we have broadened our scope and Dick Potts, the
head of the Game Conservancy in Hampshire, will be the fourth keynote
speaker looking at some of those issues. "I think he’s going to be
controversial and I hope he is. We want to encourage debate."
Earlier this year, BCPC organised a forum that brought together more than
50 experts from government, research, industry and international
institutions to try to identify what new plant science might develop by
2020, linking that with geopolitics, trade, food supply, societal values
and the agri-food market.
One of the clearest messages to come from those scientists, said Dr
Pallett, was that increased understanding of plants over the next two
decades and beyond will increase dramatically and provide "huge
opportunities" for man. That is a theme the conference intends to develop
and encourage those taking part to debate.
There is also the reality for farmers in the developed world, especially
what will soon be the 25 member states of the European Union, that
subsidies will no longer be related directly to how much of a crop a
farmer can produce. Instead, the emphasis will increasingly be on
environmental benefits a farm can provide while at the same time
satisfying consumers who expect to pay less for food that is more
nutritious and suits their lifestyle.
It seems a lot to fit in to a science conference. Dr Pallett agrees. But
he points out there is still a lot of good science to be presented and
discussed by contributors from round the world, including Korea, Japan,
the US and many EU countries, as well as the UK, including the Scottish
Crop Research Institute and SAC.
"There’s bioremediation, the rejuvenation of land by removing the effects
of industrial pollution such as heavy metal. There’s immunising crops to
allow them to protect themselves. And spray application techniques,
showing that they are based on precise modelling and prediction for a
targeted crop, not simply a matter of bunging it on and hoping."
There is also, he might have added, a novel formulation of clomazone for
use in rice, genomics and molecular breeding for crop-plant improvement,
the impact and value of weeds in arable ecosystems, the safety of GM crops
for food and animal feed and advances in residue analysis, metabolism and
toxicology. "That’s a particularly interesting one. Regulations are such
that residues in crops are minimal and the latest regulations mean that
new chemicals will be part of an even safer package. The ideal, of course,
would be no residues at all and we are steadily legislating out bad ones.
"But the alternatives are more expensive. It means that environmental
improvement can only be paid for in the developed world. The bad chemicals
are still being used in the developing countries because that is all they
Heerree’s Biotech…And It’S Good For You!
- Dean Kleckner, Agweb.com, Nov. 6, 2003
Johnny Carson once joked that if you ever want to clear out your system,
sit on a piece of cheese and swallow a mouse.
I can't say for sure whether that technique actually works, but I'm all
for figuring out how food can help us lead longer and healthier lives. And
I'm not talking about eating more spinach.
Last week, NBC's Today show introduced a new series called "Eat Smart
Today." The first segment focused on biotechnology. That makes sense.
Biotech is not only helping us eat smart today--it's going to help us eat
even smarter tomorrow. It was a very encouraging few minutes of
There was a report from the field laying out a few basic facts about
biotechnology--farmers are making extensive use of it, every piece of
scientific data says it's perfectly healthy, and so on. Then came a short
debate between an advocate of biotech foods and an enemy of them, with
Katie Couric taking on the role of objective moderator.
Each guest made a point or two, and then Couric rendered a sort of
verdict. Biotech foods, she said, "sound like they have some advantages."
I wanted to let out a cheer, because it provided further evidence that
biotechnology is winning its fight against the latter-day Luddites who
seem to oppose progress simply because they want to oppose something. I
wouldn't call Katie Couric the country's leading barometer of public
opinion, but I do believe her views are probably representative of many
Americans who haven't given much thought to biotech foods.
The reason why biotech carried the day on Today is simple: It benefits
consumers. We can talk about how genetically modified crops improve the
business of farming until we're blue in the face. We farmers know all
about it: Better yields, less weeds in the field, a healthier environment
The truth is, most consumers don't care about our yields or fewer weeds.
When the subject is biotech foods, they're asking themselves a fundamental
question: What's in it for me? Who can blame them? If there's nothing in
it for them, then they don't have much of a stake in a debate farmers have
participated in for a long time.
The good news, of course, is there's plenty in it for them. Biotech food
means healthier food--and we're just now scratching the surface of
what's possible. Soon we're going to hear plenty about tomatoes with
cancer-fighting lycopene (as the Today show hinted).
There's also a new variety of corn that lowers cholesterol. It could to be
in stores within 4 years and people are already calling it
I've been a fan of biotech farming for a long time, if only because it's
good for farmers. But like all farmers, I'm a consumer, too. I buy a lot
of food at the grocery store and I want it to be safe. In this sense, I'm
no different from an American who has never laid eyes on a cornfield.
(It's hard to believe there are such people, but believe me, they do
As someone who has gone through quadruple bypass surgery, I'm thrilled at
the prospect of eating heart-healthy corn. I only wish I didn't have to
wait four years for it!
Millions of Americans are bound to feel the same way, and coverage like
the type we've just witnessed on the Today show will do nothing but help.
For years, we've listened to news stories about the "controversy"
surrounding biotech foods. As we well know, this "controversy" is phony.
Yet it's out there, and we're going to have to confront it for years to
On the flip side, we're hearing more and more about the consumer benefits
of biotechnology. This will increase over the next decade or so. As it
does, the "controversy" will begin to disappear and then it will be gone
altogether. Biotechnology is an essential part of our lives right now--and
it's going to become even more essential as the science advances and the
benefits become impossible to ignore.
One day, our grandchildren will wonder what all the fuss was about. When
they ask, start off with that old Carson joke. But don't be surprised by
their likely response: "Who's Johnny Carson?"
Truth About Trade and Technology ( www.truthabouttrade.org ) is a
national grassroots advocacy group based in Des Moines, IA formed by
farmers in support of freer trade and advancements in biotechnology.
Half-truths and GM
- Bob Brockie, Dominion Post (NZ), Nov. 4, 2003 http://www.stuff.co.nz/
'About 500,000 poor Asian children go blind every year because they are
short of Vitamin A.'
In a recent column I reported that Ingo Potrykus, the Swiss scientist who
genetically engineered the high vitamin A "golden rice", gave the stuff
away to poor countries in Asia.
Steve Abel, of Greenpeace NZ (Opinion, Oct 23), claims that Syngenta, a
big biotech company, holds the patent for golden rice and plans to make a
fortune with it.
This is half true.
Syngenta does hold the major patents but Potrykus persuaded the company to
waive them for poverty-stricken countries. Adrian Dubock, head of
licensing at Syngenta, says the golden rice is "available to farmers in
poor countries at no charge for the technology and farmers will be able to
grow it, harvest it, consume the seed and plant the seed and grow it
Abel points out that golden rice contains so little vitamin that a person
must eat 600gm a day to provide a daily intake. This is misleading.
Potrykus never meant the golden rice to supplant a daily intake - just to
But what's this I see? At a BioVision conference in Lyons last year,
Benedikt Haerlin, international coordinator of Greenpeace campaigns,
admitted that golden rice is a moral embarrassment to his organisation and
assured everybody that "trials of golden rice will not be targeted by
Nevertheless, Abel continues to demonise it and Potrykus finds that he
must keep his golden rice seeds in a grenade-proof bunker.
It's surprising how far a bit of misinformation can go.
Would US Consumers Buy Golden Rice?
- AgBioTechNet, www.agbiotechnet.com, Nov. 6, 2003
While beta-carotene enhanced rice has been developed with the aim of
raising vitamin A levels in the developing world, research indicates that
there could be a market in the USA. A study, by Jayson Lusk, Department of
Agricultural Economics at Purdue University highlights the difficulties of
estimating what consumers would pay for an as-yet unavailable product, and
explores a possible way around it.
An established problem in surveying consumer's willingness to pay for new
products is that they will often respond more positively to the
hypothetical question than they actually would when faced with the real
choice in a supermarket. Lusk's study investigated the effect of
explaining this very problem to respondents before asking them whether
they would buy golden rice at a particular price in relation to ordinary
rice. This explanation is known as "cheap talk". The study showed that
cheap talk reduced the price people were willing to pay for golden rice,
except for those consumers who were knowledgeable about golden rice. The
paper appears in American Journal of Agricultural Economics .
"People who are more aware of golden rice have likely had time to think
about the product and give some thought about how much they might be
willing to pay for it," says Lusk. "That is, when confronted with new
information, they likely weight the prior information a bit more heavily
as they’ve had a chance to think about the issue."
More than half the consumers preferred golden rice at a all offered prices
to white rice when the latter was priced at $075/lb, whether or not cheap
talk was provided. Respondents with cheap talk expressed willingness to
pay about 9-12% less than respondents without cheap talk. The results also
suggested that consumers who had no knowledge of GM foods were wiling to
pay about $0.06/lb more than consumers with some knowledge of GM foods.
Lusk thinks the study possibly does indicate market for golden rice in the
US. "One thing I’d like to see is consumer reaction to the actual
product," he says. "Even thought people were told the rice was a different
color, they might not have appreciated the difference."
Lusk explains that most of his work involves consumers actually exchanging
money for real products. "I tried to get some actual samples of golden
rice for this research, but was unsuccessful in doing so. My main point
here is that consumers are not generally familiar with buying golden
Lusk says its also important to consider what brand golden rice would it
be sold under. "My study explicitly ignored brand names, but we know that
brand can have an important affect on purchasing behaviour", he says. "
So, if Uncle Ben’s golden rice might be much more successful than "Joe
Blow’s" golden rice. The problem is that Uncle Ben's or some other major
brand is not likely sell golden rice for fear of backlash from activist
groups (not necessarily the "average" consumer)."
Lusk also thinks a wider view of consumer behavior with different types of
information on golden rice is needed. "In my study, consumers were given
focused information about golden rice, which was generally positive.
However, this is not likely the kind of information someone might have
when walking down the grocery store aisle (in fact they might have no
information about golden rice at all - other than what is on the
package)." He points out that further research could deal with these
Despite these limitations Lusk is hopeful that mail surveys involving
cheap talk will offer GM product developers a mechanism for getting more
realistic data at an early stage on price margins and other preference
factors. "I think there is still much to learn about cheap talk and its
effectiveness, but its potential is promising."
The paper, "Effects of Cheap Talk on Consumer Willingness-to-Pay for
Golden Rice" by Jayson L. Lusk appears in the American Journal of
Agricultural Economics 85 , 840-856, doi:10.1111/1467-8276.00492
Contact: Jayson L. Lusk, Department of Agricultural Economics, Purdue
The Benefits of Bt Cotton to Small-scale Producers in Developing Countries
- the Case of South Africa
- Bennett, R., Morse, S., Ismael, Y. 2003. 7th ICABR Int'l Conference,
Ravello, Italy, June 29 to July 3, 2003. Pages 1-11.
Results of a large-scale survey of resource-poor smallholder cotton
farmers in South Africa over three years (the first such study in
Sub-Saharan Africa) show that adopters of the genetically-modified variety
Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton have reaped the benefits of adoption in
terms of higher yields, lower pesticide use and less labour for pesticide
application. Despite the higher cost of the Bt seed, Bt adopters achieved
substantially higher gross margins per hectare over the three years,
including one very wet year unfavourable to growing cotton.
The pattern of adoption and performance showed that, after the first year
of adoption, the smallest producers benefited from adoption of the Bt
variety as much, if not more, than the larger producers. Indeed, the
results suggest that the Bt variety helped to reduce the risk of crop
failure, to which the smallest growers may be most vulnerable. Moreover,
there is evidence from hospital records (showing cases of insecticide
poisonings) to suggest that there have been substantial benefits to human
health with the decline in use of bollworm insecticides due to adoption of
the new variety.
At Issue: Genetically Modified Organisms, Human Health and the Environment
Symposium - The Regional Institute for Health & Environmental Leadership
of the University of Denver; Gateway To The Rockies Center, Aurora,
Colorado; Dec. 4, 2003.
Speakers: (Moderator: Charles Benbrook, Agricultural Economist)
Barry Commoner, Queens College, NY
Martina Newell-McGloughlin, University of California at Davis
Arpad Pusztai,formerly with the Rowett Institute, Scotland
Andrew Staehelin Professor of Biology, University of Colorado at Boulder
And representatives from regulatory agencies
We're Neither Pro Nor Anti GM
- David King, The Guardian (UK), Nov. 6, 2003
'Last week a group of scientists criticised the government's handling of
the GM debate and accused it of failing science. David King thinks they
I read with interest last week's letter from Professor Derek Burke and
other scientists to the prime minister about the government's handling of
the GM debate and its effect on the scientific community. As chief
scientific adviser to the government, I have an unparalleled view of
science and government. It is my role to advise the government, and the
prime minister personally, wherever science can contribute to policy
making, and I am confident this government cares deeply about science.
When this government came to power, science was suffering from a
disastrous period of underfunding and neglect. Scientists were
increasingly going abroad to do their research and our laboratories and
research centres were dilapidated.
This government has put its money where its mouth is. In 1997, the science
budget was £1.3bn, this year it is £2bn and by 2005 it will be £2.9bn.
Funding has doubled for post-doctoral researchers. An additional
investment of £100m will be made by 2005 to improve the supply of science,
engineering and technology skills.
We are now seeing the fruits of this investment. The UK is doing better
than ever in reaping the benefits of its scientific excellence. The number
of spin-off businesses from UK university research has increased steadily
from 24 in 1997 to 243 in 2000/2001. New patents filed by universities
have gone up by 26% from 725 in 1999/2000 to 913 in 2000/2001. UK
universities produce one spin-off company for every £12m of research
expenditure compared with one for every £46m in the US.
Worldwide, we are second only to the US in scientific research output, as
measured by citations, or top prizes won, including Nobel prizes and Field
medals. This year the UK again fared well in the Nobel prize list to add
to our 46 winners over the past 50 years.
Professor Burke's letter states that scientists are leaving the country
and even more are becoming demoralised. While it is true some scientists
are leaving, others are arriving. Science is a global market. Increasingly
we see international collaborations like the Human Genome Project
undertaken by the UK, US, France, Germany, China and Japan. Scientists
come and go and that is as it should be. I started my career in South
Africa and so can be regarded as an example of "brain gain" rather than
"brain drain" and there are many others like me. For example, John
Schellnhuber, who was a scientific adviser to the German government, was
recently appointed head of the Tyndall Centre, which studies climate
The UK is also home to the world's most outstanding plant science research
institute - the John Innes Institute at Norwich. The director is one of
the world's top GM scientists, Chris Lamb, who was a "brain gain" from the
US. The Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council increased
its spend on plant science from £47m in 2000/2001 to £56m in 2002/2003 -
the majority of which is not for the small and high-profile sub-section of
The government has always recognised that GM crops raise important and
difficult issues. But it has always been made clear that the government is
neither pro or anti GM crops. Decisions will be based only on sound
scientific evidence. That is why a robust and independent scientific
process to gather evidence has been put in place. The Farm Scale
Evaluations - the biggest crop trial of their kind in the world - are part
of that process. It is right and proper that government should "remain
silent" on the most recent stage of the GM debate - the publishing of the
FSE results. The government is awaiting analysis of the data by the
Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment. I am sure scientists
will empathise with the need to get all the data and analysis before
arriving at a conclusion.
Contrary to Professor Burke's assertion, it is also entirely possible to
"clarify the nature of the scientific work" on GM because the GM Science
Review that I chaired was a comprehensive review of current scientific
knowledge on GM crops and foods. The review was widely welcomed in the
media and the scientific community and was unique in the way it considered
in detail the full range of views and concerns from both experts and the
public. It provides the necessary sound scientific evidence to inform
debate and decisions. The panel have now reconvened for the concluding
phase of the science review. More than a few signatories of the letter to
the prime minister are well aware of the quality of this work.
The government will continue to demand the best science to inform its
policy making. I have listed some of the government's achievements that
demonstrate its commitment to science and technology but this does not
mean that we are complacent. We know that challenges remain.
But as Tony Blair rightly said, in the only speech entirely dedicated to
science ever to be made by a UK prime minister, if we want to make sure
the UK is one of the best places in the world to do science and
engineering, we need people, equipment and infrastructure to be properly
funded. This is what the government is doing.
David King is chief scientific adviser to the UK government and a
professor of chemistry at the University of Cambridge.
Defending Nature is Not Anti-Science: Pro-GM Scientists Should Admit
Defeat and Redirect Their Talents
- The Guardian (UK), Nov. 6, 2003
When you have lost the argument, cry "foul". That is how 114 leading
scientists have responded - in an open letter to Tony Blair - to their
failure to win the great GM debate. During the summer, the government
undertook an economic and scientific review of genetic modification, and
held a public debate on the issue. Since then, the results of the
field-scale trials have also been published. The reviews, the public
opinion and the trials all reached the same conclusion: the time is not
ripe for the introduction of GM crops into UK farms. This is bad news for
those whose financial interests depend on such crops, the introduction of
which would foster further research on genetic modification.
These scientists say they are demoralised by the widespread hostility to
GM crops, and that they are being prevented from developing further,
useful GM crops.
But they do have a way out: their talents can be turned to benign uses of
their technology. Instead of promoting herbicide- and pesticide-resistant
crops, they should assist natural breeding techniques to produce
beneficial new strains. Corporate control must also be dismantled, if
poor nations are to participate in the benefits.
Genetic modification of crops was introduced by multinational companies
because it had the potential to yield huge profits, leading ultimately to
the control of the food chain. It has been seized upon by the government
as a significant contributor to the economy.
Scientists who have spent years pointing out the dangers of genetic
engineering, only to have their warnings dismissed by government advisory
bodies, will be surprised that those who signed the letter feel the
government has not been doing enough to support them. It has, in fact,
been keen to promote genetic modification, even appointing a science
minister, Lord Sainsbury, who has made great contributions to the
industry and has a big vested interest in it (now in a blind trust).
Until he became a minister, he was the principal backer of Diatech, a
biotechnology company. He also paid, through the Gatsby Charitable
Foundation, for the construction of a leading biotechnology centre, the
Sainsbury Laboratory at the John Innes Centre. Lord Sainsbury also
oversees the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
Advisory and regulatory bodies are weighted with pro-GM members with
close connections to the GM industry; and, as recently seen with the GM
science review panel, members sympathetic to arguments against GM crops
may be subjected to harassment.
It is understandable that scientists who have for several years enjoyed a
bonanza of funding for research on genetic engineering should be dismayed
when the continuation of their good fortune is threatened. The letter of
the 114 scientists is a plea to the government - for so long their patron
- to save them yet again, in spite of ever more evidence of the damage
resulting from their research.
Science has reached a point where the imagination and technical
capabilities of scientists are overtaking society's ability to evaluate
and control the outcome. The perception of many scientists is that all
that can be done in science should be done - and if we do not do it, a
competitor will. But their theoretical models of the natural world do not
encompass the complexities of the real natural world.
Nature works in profoundly subtle, intricately balanced and
interconnected ways that we do not yet fully understand. That is why
independent scientists urge caution before we release into the
environment, and into our bodies, crops and foods that have been
developed by crossing not only dissimilar species but even kingdoms. The
long-term consequences cannot be predicted.
We have already begun to see some of the adverse effects of genetic
engineering, such as the creation of superweeds with multiple
herbicide-resistance in Canada (a fact, not a "claim"); the spread of GM
genes to wild plants in Britain; damage to organs and the immune system
of experimental animals given GM feed; and the transfer of GM DNA to
bacteria in the human gut.
The obligation of the government must not be to protect the interests of
the 114 (and other) scientists who have been led up an unfruitful path,
but to take a step back from a technology that already shows signs of
threatening human health and the environment. Let the molecular biologists
turn their attention to genuinely advantageous uses of their knowledge in
ways that do not invade the genome.
Scientists must work in partnership with nature, avoiding further stress
and disruption of life and the environment on which life depends. Only
under such conditions can we be confident that science will lead us to a