Today's AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org/ November 10, 2003
* Vatican Opens Talks on Biotech Foods
* EU GM Decision Postponed
* Study Raises Doubt About Allergy to Genetic Corn (Much Ado About
* GE Witch Hunts
* On the Road Again
* Natural Foods Are Fine, But Naturally They Will Cost More
* Organic Myth-Promoting Machine - Making Up The Rules As They Go
* Beyond Bt Cotton: GM Maps New Crop Era For Farmers, Consumers
* Regulatory Oversight of Agricultural Biotech Should be Science-based
* Regulation of Ag Biotech Products in US and Canada
* Building Africa Through Trade
* The Meatrix - Where Our Food Comes From!
Vatican Opens Talks on Biotech Foods
- Nicole Winfield, Associated Press, Nov. 10, 2003
The Vatican invited scientists, health experts, U.N. officials and
farmers' groups to a conference Monday on genetically modified foods,
which some Vatican officials have said could help alleviate world hunger.
The two-day symposium "GMO: Threat or Hope" was organized by the
Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which is headed by Cardinal
Renato Martino, who has frequently spoken out about the potential benefits
of biotech foods.
Skeptics of the technology have also been invited to speak, and say
suggestions that GMOs could make a marked impact on alleviating world
hunger are overblown. "It's one thing to take risks for a technology that
is really going to provide miracles, say in the agricultural area,"
American microbiologist Dr. Margaret Mellon said in an interview ahead of
"But it's quite another to take risks for what is in essence a technology
that will do little more than tinker around the edges of modern
agricultural technologies," said Mellon, a director at the
Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists.
Martino has suggested in newspaper interviews that the Vatican might
consider endorsing biotech crops as a way to help alleviate world hunger.
The issue of hunger is a concern for the Vatican, which rejects arguments
that limiting family size by using artificial contraception is one way to
improve food security in the developing world. Martino has said he wanted
to convene experts on the topic so the Vatican can learn more about it and
draw its own conclusions.
"The problem of hunger involves the conscience of every man and in
particular those of Christians," Martino told Vatican Radio in August.
"For this reason, the Catholic Church follows with special interest and
solicitude every development in science to help the solution of a plight
that afflicts such a large part of humanity."
Any Vatican endorsement of biotech crops would likely ruffle feathers in
Europe, which has imposed a moratorium on growing or importing GMOs, and
in African countries such as Zambia, which has rejected biotech food aid.
But it would likely draw praise from the United States, where biotech
companies have been at the forefront of extolling the virtues of GMOs,
which can be made to resist insects or disease.
The United States, backed by Canada and Australia, has filed a lawsuit
with the World Trade Organization against a European Union ban on biotech
crops, imposed five years ago amid public fears about environmental and
health effects of bioengineering.
Among those scheduled to speak at the symposium were Dr. Francesco
Salamini, director of the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research
in Koln, Germany; the Italian health minister, environment minister and
agriculture minister; United Nations and EU officials; and the head of a
South African farmers' association.
EU GM Decision Postponed
- Irish Examiner, Nov. 10, 2003
The European Union postponed a decision today that could mark the end of a
five-year ban on new biotech products. Spokeswoman Beate Gminder said in
Brussels a panel of national experts needed more time to study the
proposal to authorise the sale in the EU of canned sweet corn grown from
genetically modified seeds.
She said a vote was now expected in the week starting December 8. Even if
approved in December, the corn will not go on sale in Europe before April
when new EU-wide legislation allowing biotech foods under strict labelling
rules comes into force.
EU countries are divided over genetically modified food. Britain, Spain
and the Netherlands want the EU ban lifted but others, led by France,
Italy and Austria, are less enthusiastic. If a clear majority cannot be
found at the December experts meeting, the decision to enact the bill goes
to EU governments.
Environmental campaigners Greenpeace urged the EU to keep the ban on
genetically modified food. "There is no benefit from GM tinned sweet
corn, only environmental and health concerns, so it is not a one month
delay that is required but a rejection of this authorisation," said Eric
Gall, adviser at Greenpeace’s European Unit.
Study Raises Doubt About Allergy to Genetic Corn
- Andrew Pollack, New York Times, Nov, 10, 2003
Remember StarLink corn? Three years ago this genetically engineered corn
was found in taco shells and other foods, even though it had not been
approved for human consumption.
The discovery prompted food recalls and disrupted farm exports. Dozens of
consumers claimed they had suffered potentially dangerous allergic
reactions after eating food thought to contain the corn.
But a paper appearing today in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical
Immunology reports that one vocal consumer who complained about allergic
reactions turns out not to have been allergic to StarLink corn after all.
The report casts further doubt on whether StarLink caused allergies, and
it is likely to buttress contentions long made by biotechnology supporters
that the dangers of StarLink were overblown.
The journal article discusses the allergy testing of a 58-year-old man at
Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center who had complained of at
least three allergic reactions to StarLink. The paper does not identify
the man, and the authors declined to comment, citing medical
confidentiality. But Keith A. Finger, a Florida optometrist, said in an
interview that he was the subject and that he had asked to be tested.
Dr. Finger, along with two others, sued the developer of StarLink and some
food companies, winning a settlement in which the companies pledged to
provide $6 million worth of food discount coupons. Dr. Finger said he
received $10,000 because of the suit.
In the test, the subject was given StarLink corn, other corn and a placebo
on different days, without him or the doctors knowing which was which.
There was no sign of an allergic reaction on any day. The test is the
"gold standard" of food allergy testing, said Dr. Marc E. Rothenberg, a
professor and allergy expert at the medical center and an author of the
report. The new evidence, he said, "supports the view that there was no
problem in terms of allergy," although he said it would be better to test
StarLink, developed by Aventis CropScience, contained a bacterial gene to
make the plant pest-resistant. It was withdrawn from the market, even for
its previously approved use as animal feed. StarLink Logistics, a company
Aventis set up to handle legal claims, had no comment Friday.
But even the new results are not likely to lay the issue completely to
rest. Scientists still cannot predict in many cases whether a genetically
modified food will cause allergies. And Dr. Finger says he is still sure
that he is allergic to StarLink. "I'm glad they did the test," he said of
the Cincinnati doctors. But he added, "I was really perplexed as to why
GE Witch Hunts
- Lance Kennedy, Scoop (NZ), Nov. 10, 2003
Witch-hunts usually target people. But in recent years one of the most
successful witch-hunts targeted an innocent technology.
It all began in 1997 with a piece of incredibly shoddy science. A
researcher fed raw genetically modified potatoes to lab rats and notice
they became sick. He passed the results on to the world?s media and what
followed was a frenzy with Armageddon-like declarations.
On the back of this free publicity the anti-GM lobby launched their
crusade. Six months later two findings were ignored. The first was that
the GM potatoes were harmless. All raw potatoes, GM or not, are toxic to
The second was that an anti-GM crusade was an ideal way to arouse public
fear and paranoia. Membership in anti-GM lobby groups was up and so was
fund raising. Some of the larger groups, over six years, increased their
earnings from under $50 million to over $150 million US per year.
Anti-GM hysteria was very profitable. These groups had vast amounts of
money under their control and that meant increased power. Even when the
scientific claims that launched the crusade were found lacking the
campaigns continued. Today they rely upon lies, wild speculation and
If we discard the red herrings that are thrown out we are left with two
important issues surrounding the use of genetically modified crops and
foods. The first question: Is it safe?? The second: Is it useful??
For all government approved GM crops and foods the safety issue is clear.
They are totally safe. The list of scientific, extra-governmental bodies
that have researched and approved GM foods is almost endless: the World
Health Organisation, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the United
Nations Food Program, the British Royal Society, the French Academy of
Science and Medicine and many more.
When it comes to safety GM foods are the most studied foods we eat. Just
in the United States alone each GM crop or food undergoes about 1,000
laboratory and field tests. So far over 2 billion people have eaten GM
foods for over a decade and there is not one single scientifically
confirmed case of any harm, no matter how slight, arising from the genetic
modification of these foods.
Are they useful? Absolutely. GM sweet potatoes in Africa are immune to a
devastating disease that often kills 100 percent of vital food crops.
The inventor, Dr. Florence Wambugu says this will feed an extra ten
million starving Africans.
The most used GM crop is a herbicide resistant soya bean. Using it allows
no-till agriculture that saves one billion tonnes of topsoil from erosion
each year in the United States alone. GM corn is cultivated without the
use insecticides and reduces the amount of toxic pesticides by 5,000
tonnes per year. That figure is increasing. Golden rice is a GM variety
with extra vitamin A. It has the potential to save hundreds of thousands
of children from going blind.
Anti-GM witch-hunters are causing enormous human suffering. In Zambia,
where 3 million people are starving, the United States offered food aid in
the form of corn that contained some GM varieties. Americans have been
eaten those varieties for years with no harm. But the anti-GM lobby got to
the Zambian government with a staggering lie: ?GM corn is toxic.?
In the Philippines 30 percent of children suffer from vitamin A
deficiency. Golden rice, which was to be released there, was stopped by
anti-GM lobbyists. They claimed it could cause impotency or make one's
hair fall out.
Greenpeace was especially vitriolic in it's attack. Some proponents
suspect this is because Golden rice is especially useful and if it were
seen to have dramatic benefits it would undermine the entire anti-GM
What of the future? Experience with past witch-hunts suggests that
hysteria eventually reaches a peak. And it appears the hysteria against GM
is peaking. From now on we can expect to see the rational elements
growing stronger till the anti-GM lobby is discredited. Apart from a few
die-hards the campaign will cease.
Much damage has already been done and the lives of thousands have been
lost by these ill advised attacks.
But again if history is an indication the witch-hunters will simply move
on to new hysteria. Already some of the anti-GM crowd are gearing up to
launch a campaign to oppose the fledgling science of nanotechnology.
Nonsense never ends.
* Lance Kennedy, B.Sc., is the author of the recently published book
Ecomyth. This opinion piece is provided as a public service by the
Institute for Liberal Values. For more information write
On the Road Again
- Brenda Cassidy, Food Safety Network, Nov. 9, 2003,
Why come up with new material when it's easier to find a new audience?
That seems to be the approach of a small cabal of Canadian farmers who've
hit the global road to preach the evils of the genetically-engineered
crops favoured by their colleagues at home.
Thousands of Canadian farmers grow genetically engineered (GE) crops. They
do so willingly, purchasing new seed each year, at higher cost than
conventional varieties, and signing contracts that dictate conditions of
use. Each year since GE crops have been introduced in Canada, acreage has
increased, indicating that the farmers who grow such crops see enough
benefits in their use to justify the cost and the enforced limitations.
But according to two Canadian farmers currently on a speaking tour in the
U.K., all those farmers are wrong. The benefits they've experienced --
higher yields, reduced toxin levels, improved economic returns, more
effective weed control, reduced pesticide use, ability to reduce tillage
and protect topsoil -- are all illusions, despite the fact that
independent studies support the same conclusions.
But this isn't a unique road tour -- Percy Schmeiser -- the Saskatchewan
canola farmer taken to court by Monsanto in 2000 for growing genetically
engineered seed without paying licensing fees has spoken worldwide on
behalf of many Canadian producers, unbeknownst to many of those farmers.
Percy has set the standard when it comes to appealing to the international
court of opinion about the alleged atrocities of multinational seed
companies. He has raised over a reported $127,000 through donations and
visited 40 countries speaking about their evils; recently he has appeared
on public radio in Vermont and spoken in California. He's been described
by event organizers as a rock star and a global celebrity for his David vs
Schmeiser continues to peddle the idea that he represents the average
Canadian farmer, citing incidences of harassment by ex-RCMP officers and
herbicide 'bombs' being used to see if his crop was Roundup resistant, all
of which makes great stories and headlines, and by extension making
himself a sought after and well-traveled speaker.
So who to believe? The U.K. Soil Association, sponsor of the Canadian
visitors and well known for its anti-GE, pro-organic views, is banking on
the ability of its guests to provide further fuel to longstanding
arguments against the acceptance of GE food production. They've already
garnered international news wire coverage that repeats the same falsehoods
heard for years in Canada. The fact that these farmers are not
representative of the general movement in Canada is insignificant compared
to their real-life experience and their dissatisfaction with producing
crops in an environment where GE production is approved and widely
In the politically charged environment that has characterized the GE
debate, particularly in the U.K., the Soil Association’s investment may
well pay off. But a more rational assessment must certainly take into
account the bigger picture of GE crop production in Canada.
According to statistics provided by AGCare (Agricultural Groups Concerned
about Resources and the Environment), 40 per cent of Ontario's corn
acreage and 50 per cent of the province's soybean acreage were planted to
GE varieties in 2003. Canola, grown primarily in Canada's western regions,
was at least 65 per cent GE.
Individual farmers choose GE technology because, on their individual farms
and with their individual circumstances, it works. Most marketing concerns
to date have been successfully handled through IP (identity preserved) and
segregation/channelling programs where needed. Although some markets have
been lost, others have been found, and the demand for Canada's safe, high
quality food products remains strong. But marketing issues are a secondary
consideration compared to environmental and human health safety.
Much has been made of recently released U.K. studies that compared the
effect on weed and insect populations in GE and conventional crops. Their
conclusion? GE canola and beet crops contained fewer bugs and weeds than
their more traditionally produced counterparts, not because the crops were
produced through biotechnology, but rather because of the way that
herbicides can be used on the crops. GE corn fields, conversely, had more
weeds and bugs than fields planted to conventional varieties, again as a
result of herbicide use patterns.
Researchers who conducted the studies urged caution in interpretation of
the results, arguing that the studies' objectives were specific and
limited, intended to add to a body of knowledge, not to provide definitive
answers. Prophets of doom will always find an eager audience, but the
British public can take some comfort from Canada's well-documented
experience with growing GM crops, whose presence has benefited Canadian
farmers and the environment.
Since farmers' livelihoods depend on the quality of their fields, they can
be counted on to make decisions that will preserve and enhance the health
of their land. The emergence of an agricultural biotechnology industry in
the UK could have a positive impact on the health of agricultural and
surrounding land. And if this industry is underpinned by a comprehensive,
evidence-based regulatory system Brits can be confident that any new GM
crops will change agriculture in the UK for the better.
Brenda Cassidy is a research assistant with the Food Safety Network at the
University of Guelph.
Natural Foods Are Fine, But Naturally They Will Cost More
- Blake Hurst, The Alameda Times-Star, Nov. 9, 2003 (Sent by Andrew Apel
Farmers aren't stupid. We don't make choices because of glossy ads in farm
magazines, or in response to a mindless search for the latest, glitziest
In fact, we're the original conservatives, extremely slow to adopt new
technologies of any kind. But we're faced with physical problems that
don't have easy solutions. Weeds must be killed, plants require
nourishment, and people need food that's safe and affordable.
In response to those realities, we have adapted the latest technology to
our ends. To ignore these facts in favor of requiring more "natural" foods
would raise the price of what we eat and decrease the variety available to
consumers. That may suit upper-class professionals and the so-called slow
food movement, but it will serve the middle-class poorly, and devastate
The concern about food has brought unwanted attention to farmers like me.
If you believe our critics, we farmers are slaves of large corporations,
mindlessly applying dangerous and unneeded pesticides to our crops,
fouling streams and rivers, denuding the landscape of all that's
beautiful. Our nitrogen causes hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, our
phosphorous causes algae to bloom -- and many of us smell bad. Or at least
our animals do. I suppose that it's a measure of farmers' success that we
can afford to worry about these problems, instead of suffering from hunger
The food system has not evolved through accident, or conspiracy, but
rather by a series of choices made by farmers and consumers. Consumers
want cheap food and farmers want to cut costs. As a youngster, I used to
spend a month each summer with a hoe, walking down soybean rows, getting
rid of weeds by hand. Now, that job would certainly qualify as natural and
organic. But it was a miserable way to spend my summers, and we happily
and quickly adopted chemical and biotech substitutes for what was
backbreaking and boring labor.
The costs of various technologies are important. Even 12-year-olds
swinging hoes cost more than pesticides. Consumers cannot enjoy the prices
and variety we farmers provide without embracing the technologies we use.
If consumers demand organic methods, that's the way we will farm. But they
should recognize that there are environmental costs as well as benefits to
If I plant legumes and plow them under to fertilize the next year's corn
crop, then I lose a year's production of corn, and somewhere more land
must be put into production to supply that corn. To farm organically is to
farm more land, leaving less for wildlife and as open space. If I don't
use chemicals to control weeds, then I have to use tillage, which leads to
increased erosion. Using low-tillage methods of farming, and applying
herbicides judiciously, our farm has cut erosion by about 10 tons of
irreplaceable topsoil per acre.
Whenever the benefits of "natural" products are touted, I'm always a bit
skeptical. After all, anthrax is natural -- so are arsenic and nicotine.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has recently released the requirements
farm products must meet to be labeled "organic." One is that all minerals
used in their production must be organic. What does that mean?
IT'S been a long time since my last chemistry class, but aren't minerals
sort of the definition of inorganic? I suppose the Agriculture Department
means that the minerals must appear in nature and not be produced by nasty
man-made processes. But how in the world will a corn plant know the source
of those minerals?
Look, I'll sell you whatever you want to buy. If you want me to perform
ancient pagan fertility rites while I plant my corn crop so that my John
Deere tractor and I are one with nature, I'll do it. It's also fine with
me if you want to call Cleo on the Psychic Hotline. But don't expect me to
take either action seriously.
The virtues of natural food may be oversold and the quest for organic
foodstuffs may often verge on the mystic, but that doesn't mean the
discerning consumer should give up supporting small farms that raise
animals and crops in traditional ways. A trip to a farmers' market, for
example, where the actual producers of food are selling what they've
grown, may well ensure fresher, better-tasting food. Although it will
taste better because it hasn't spent a week on a truck, and not because
it's been raised in a Zen-like way. If consumers want and are willing to
pay for beef grown without hormones or chickens that have pecked in the
dirt, then farmers should produce them.
But sometimes the decision about how much technology to use is not so
easy. Most of the corn I produce cannot be exported to Europe because I
plant genetically modified seed. There's no reason -- of science, safety
or morality -- to reject these modified crops, and we've been consuming
them in the United States for nearly a decade without incident. The answer
for farmers should be easy, I suppose: We shouldn't produce things the
market doesn't want. But we suffered a drought here in the Midwest in the
summer of 2002, and it caused the widespread appearance of aflatoxin, a
cancer-causing mycotoxin that appears in drought-stressed crops.
(Aflatoxin, which can cause liver cancer, is one of the compounds Saddam
Hussein was suspected of developing as a biological weapon.)
It happens that genetically modified corn is more resistant than
traditional varieties to aflatoxin. So if I produce "what the consumer
wants" and reject the best technology, I expose the consumer and the
people who work on my farm to greater risks of disease. Are we supposed to
take comfort in the fact that those risks have an "organic" source?
Organic Myth-Promoting Machine - Making Up The Rules As They Go
- Prof. T. Michael A. Wilson FRSE, - Chief
Research International, Warwick, UK
To Christopher Preston: Following Tom DeGregori's "More Manure from the
Soil Association", and the piece from the Sydney Morning Herald, I was
amused by your observant footnote!
>> So if pesticides (even if unapproved for normal food) 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
>> longer "Organic", because "Organic" is a product-based standard for GM!
And the answer is…..Yes….. you’ve got it in one!
The organic industry and the whole organic myth-promoting machine
basically make up the rules as they go alone to suit themselves and to
enable the entire artifice to be remotely practical, feasible and capable
of delivering any crop yield or quality whatsoever. If a problem arises,
they just write themselves a derogation to get around it. For example,
inadequate supplies of organically produced (!?) seed - OK, you can use
conventional seed (dressed or undressed?) until there is enough organic.
Meanwhile, commercial seed producers tell me that the organic seed market
is an economic disaster. What is going on here? Then there is the lack of
any organically-approvable, or remotely effective, substitute for highly
toxic and environmentally persistent sprays of copper sulphate to try to
reduce potato late blight or apple scab - OK, keep using copper until 2006
(then what?). And so on……
Arbitrary organic rules also permit 5% non-organic ingredients in
processed foods that can still be labelled "organic". Strictly speaking,
food labels ought only to say "Produced by organically-certified
processes". The concept of an organic product has no legal status.
Moreover, the organic industry is not allowed to make any claims about the
product being healthier, tastier, or more nutritious than conventionally
grown crops, as there is no sound scientific evidence to support any of
these claims. Both the Food Standards Agency and the UK Advertising
Standards Agency repeatedly try to reinforce this Court decision. Again,
it is the crop production process that is policed, not the product. But,
of course, any "impression", gut feeling or myth that the media or a
mis-informed public might care to propagate or misguidedly believe-in
remains uncorrected or un-debunked by an organic movement which generates
and exploits public fear and misunderstanding of non-organically produced
foods (conventionally grown non-GM or GM) as their primary marketing ploy.
Strictly speaking, international, US and EU organic regulations only
prohibit the use of GM seeds - although there is no scientific
justification or case for this, it's just another arbitrary edict.
However, the UK Soil Association, in a bid to gain greater market share,
media prominence and more profit, has embellished this rule with claims
that it will “ensure that organic food (though not itself capable of being
accredited) is not ‘contaminated’ with GM organisms at any stage of the
food chain” (Sue Flook, UK Soil Association, writing in the UK Press in
October 2003 in response to a reader’s question “Is there any reason why a
GM crop cannot be certified as “organically” grown?).
Where does this leave all the fear-mongering nonsense about (haploid) GM
pollen “contamination”? And what about the "natural" pesticides that the
organic movement permit farmers and growers to use – e.g. rotenone
(Derris), copper sulphate; or the regular sprays of soaps, emulsified fish
waste (any whales or dolphins?!); or "accidental" spray drift of modern,
functional pesticides from neighbouring farms? What it all boils down to
is that all sorts of really nasty (but natural) toxic chemicals and
cancer-forming toxins* are permitted, even traces of modern agrichemicals
(oops), while not a single GM gene sequence is tolerated.
Science, facts and reason clearly have no place in the massive con-trick
that surrounds the Emperor's New (Organic) Clothes. By far the most
scientifically rational thing to do would be for organic farmers to use
genetically improved seeds that require less (or zero) pesticide, and
support sound research that (one day) may allow crops to grow lower or
zero inputs of fertilizer, manures, energy for tillage, flaming- steaming-
or hand-weeding, and spraying Lord-knows-what on the crop! Right now
though, sadly, the temptation to score cheap marketing points keeping
consumers anxious without cause, by leaping on the anti-GM bandwagon,
*Natural toxins such as patulin in organic apple cider, or fumosin in
organic corn meals (recently found at over 40-times the EU limit,
2000-times the levels in conventionally-grown corn meal or 20,000 times
that in GM corn meal), to name but two.
Beyond Bt Cotton: GM Maps New Crop Era For Farmers, Consumers
Sudhir Chowdhary, Financial Express (India), Nov. 10, 2003
New Delhi: Biotechnology is providing us with new insights into plant
genetics. While population and income growth is sure to increase the
demand for food, it is being realised that agricultural biotechnology
would contribute significantly to meet this situation. Of the 800 million
malnourished people in the world, 200 million are in India, and continuing
population increase warrants a 5-6 million tonne annual increase in food
According to India’s agricultural commissioner Dr CD Mayee, agricultural
biotechnology can help reduce poverty, promote rural development,
strengthen trade and economic competitiveness, and encourage agricultural
sustainability, even while delivering direct benefits to farmers and
“It is a good option for agriculture since it is accurate, predictable,
faster, scientific and safe,” he said, adding, “since the technology is in
‘seed’, it does not have the chances of differentiating between large and
India’s biotechnology market is currently estimated by the department of
biotechnology (DBT) at around $2 billion. The industry anticipates a
minimum growth rate of 20 per cent annually, reaching a turnover of $4.9
billion in 2005. Agricultural biotechnology accounts for 33 per cent of
the total Indian industry. The sheer magnitude of the Indian market fuels
this growth, which is compounded by the dominance of agriculture in the
economy and a proactive government policy to develop the biotechnology
Dr Mayee said that the potential of application of biotechnology in
agriculture is enormous. “With the help of engineering and recombined DNA
technology, genes of desirable traits can be isolated, transferred and
recombined into the targeted crops. Tissue culture, plant cloning and
vegetative micro-propagation can herald a new era of biotic and abiotic
stress resistance, disease and virus-free food and non-food crops.”
Similarly, biotechnology makes it possible to develop biopesticides,
biofertilisers and biofuel, which are environment-friendly and
commercially-viable alternatives to chemicals-based fertilisers,
pesticides and fuel. The new techniques such as bioremediation and
phytoremediation can be used to produce genetically-modified organisms and
plants to mop up polluted soil and environment and hence restore soil
fertility and efficacy of environment.
One such example in agricultural sector is the commercialisation of Bt
cotton in India. The result of Bt cotton in six major cotton-growing
states in India is very encouraging. Sources from the Cotton Advisory
Board estimate that Bt cotton cultivation is likely to increase to
whopping 1.25 lakh hectares in 2003, against 40,000 hectares last year.
More than 75,000 farmers would reap the benefit of Bt cotton, which is
almost double the previous year’s numbers.
The growth rate is phenomenal. Still, the scope to increase the coverage
of Bt seeds is enormous as cotton is grown in over 80 lakh hectares in the
country. The Centre for Monitoring of Indian Economy (CMIE) has, in its
recent report, estimated an increase in cotton yield by 50 kg per
hectares, crossing the mark of 450 kg per hectare in 2002-03.
According to The Energy Research Institute (Teri)’s head of bioresources
and biotechnology Dr Alok Adholeya, genetically-modified (GM) crop
cultivation will help Indian farmers in many ways. They can bring about a
drastic reduction in use of insecticides and pesticides etc, by
incorporating genes with specific expression in any of the plant part
(leaf and seed, etc). They can help in reduction in pests with a
corresponding increase in crop yield. They can bring about an increase in
shelf life of crop plants, thus reducing post-harvest losses. At the same
time, improving the nutritional quality of traditional crops is already a
Meanwhile, there’s another side to the agro-biotech story. That is, one of
the perceived risks of biotech crops is its damaging effects on the
environment. There have been reports listing harmful effects of feeding
non-targeted insects on the leaves of transgenic crops, thereby resulting
in reduced population. However, similar effects are experienced, if one
takes into account spraying of pesticides. In fact, in the case of GM
crops, expression can be site-specific and has limited effect on the
biotic communities existing in the ecosystems. Use of insecticides,
pesticides etc, in the recent past has not only contaminated soil, but
also water. To prevent any further deterioration of natural resources, GM
crops might provide a solution, even if it is only to a certain extent,
India is bestowed with a vast diversity and quantity of plant resources,
which is an indispensable component of biotechnology revolution and
underscores remarkable growth prospects for the biotech industry. The
country enjoys varied agro-climatic regions, providing various platforms
to assess the risk parameters of GM crops. In addition, it has huge
infrastructure of centres of excellence for R&D and highly-skilled
scientific and technical manpower. Government is also putting in special
efforts to develop the institutional and legal framework, and introduce
regulatory and structural measures, in the area of agro-biotech.
Bottomline: With some of the inherent factors and government initiatives,
India certainly has a competitive advantage to become a 'Biotechnology
Hub' in the Asia-Pacific region.
Regulatory Oversight of Agricultural Biotech Should be Science-based
- Sudhir Chowdhary, Financial Express (India), Nov. 10, 2003
One of the major goals of The Energy Research Institute (Teri)’s Centre of
Bioresources and Biotechnology has been application of biotechnological
techniques to supplement conventional methods for improvement of plant
species. Biotechnology research is being carried out in the areas of
micropropagation and transgenics, plant tissue culture, genetic
engineering, and microbial biotechnology, among other fields. In an
interview with Sudhir Chowdhary, the centre's dean of Faculty of Applied
Sciences, Dr Vibha Dhawan, talks about the crucial role of biotechnology
in accelerating agricultural productivity. Excerpts:
How can biotechnology play a crucial role at this juncture in accelerating
- Biotech crops deliver a unique set of benefits to the growers. The
benefits largely depend upon pest control issues, particular to each crop.
About six million farmers in some 17 countries now cultivate
genetically-engineered (GE) crops on about 125 million acres, a 30-fold
increase over 1996. Bt cotton, one of the known varieties, has allowed
growers to reduce insecticide use and attain better control of pests,
which has resulted in increased yields. According to an European
Community study, which involved more than 400 research teams and 81
projects spread over a 15-year period, GE products are no greater a risk
to human health or environment than conventional crops. Nevertheless,
caution and examining issues case by case, is the watchword of
technologists, who are aware of their responsibilities.
Will GE solve the problems associated with various biotic and abiotic
stresses on crops including pest infestation, frost, draught and salinity?
- Yes, biotechnology offers solution for biotic and abiotic stresses. More
than 40 transgenic crop varieties have been cleared through the federal
review process with enhanced agronomic and/or nutritional characteristics
or one or more features of pest protection and tolerance to herbicides.
Crops and foods produced using recombinant DNA techniques have been
available for fewer than 10 years and no long-term effects have been
detected to date. In my opinion, federal regulatory oversight of
agricultural biotechnology should be science-based. Methods to ensure the
safety of foods derived from genetically-modified (GM) crops should
continue to be refined and improved.
What are the challenges facing agricultural biotechnology in India?
- One of the major challenges for India is to see whether it can
successfully transform scientific progress into business opportunities.
Will biotechnology create huge businesses or increase fragmentation and
disintermediation in the pharmaceutical and IT sectors? After all, genetic
discoveries don’t mean anything without an industrial effect to develop
the biotech crop, and complete the rest of the cycle.
Another challenge concerns lack of farmers’ awareness about agricultural
biotechnology. Farmers are the ones who adopt the technology, and thus,
they should be properly educated about the benefits and risks associated
with new technologies. In spite of excellent extension system established
by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, percolation of the latest
technologies, especially in remote villages is far from satisfactory.
Further, in most cases, farmers are not involved in the decision-making
Why is it that India’s efforts in agricultural biotechnology have not
reached a critical mass yet?
- A recent report said that India does not figure in the global listing of
bio clusters. It is largely because research institutions were working
independent of the corporate, till recently. These studies were not suited
to the requirements of the industry. There was lack of confidence among
the industrialists on R&D institutions and lack of communication by
scientists to market their research. Further, biotech requires enormous
infrastructure, which is proving to be one of the major bottlenecks in its
Why is it that India has been slow in its endeavour to adopt biotech
- India is blessed with vast agro-climatic zones and thus has the choice
of growing different varieties in various parts of the country. Developing
transgenics is an expensive exercise and India being rich in biodiversity,
there is some reluctance in adopting single variety for the entire
country. Further, developing transgenics and its regulatory approvals
takes up substantial time and many a time, the varieties so developed
The genetically-modified (GM) crop opponents in India are playing a
negative role through misinformation. Any comments?
- Agricultural biotechnology is comparatively new here and not many people
understand it well. It is the fear of the unknown to some, while others,
who don’t fully understand the technology, opt for negative campaign.
Scientists are typically bad communicators and thus never really try to
reach to the masses with facts and figures.
No technology is risk-free and what we need to do is carry out assessment
of risks linked to a technology with potential benefits. In that
assessment, perhaps GM technology will emerge as a leading technology to
supplement all our ongoing efforts of crop improvement.
Regulation of Agricultural Biotechnology Products
In Canada and the United States (U.S.), the regulation of genetically
modified (GM) crops, livestock feeds and human foods, shares many
similarities: both countries have a coordinated approach whereby
regulatory responsibility is shared by several agencies; risk assessments
are based on sound science; and each regulated product is assessed on a
At the heart of the risk assessment process is the principle that GM foods
or plants can be compared with traditional counterparts that have an
established history of safe use, and that this comparison can be based on
an examination of the same types of risk factors for both ( e.g. , toxins,
potential allergens, weediness, pest potential, etc). The objective is to
determine if the novel plant or food presents any new or greater risks in
comparison with its traditional counterpart, or whether it can be used
interchangeably with its traditional counterpart without affecting the
health or nutritional status of consumers, or the environment is which it
The goal is not to establish an absolute level of safety, but rather the
relative safety of the new product such that there is a reasonable
certainty that no harm will result from intended uses under the
anticipated conditions of production, processing and consumption. For
example, a transgenic insect- and/or virus-resistant potato is first and
foremost a potato, and the goal is to evaluate what, if any, additional
risks to human health or impacts on the agro-ecosystem may result from the
incorporation of these new traits. This comparative principle, whereby the
plant or food being assessed is compared with one that has an accepted
level of safety, is often expressed in the concept of "substantial
The objective of this module is to provide basic information on the
regulatory approaches taken by both Canada and the U.S., the roles and
responsibilities of the different regulatory agencies, and access to
specific regulatory guidelines and policy documents.
Read more on both Canadian and US approaches to regulation at
Building Africa Through Trade
- Mombasa (Kenya), Nov. 20-22, 2003
'Major international conference will promote economic growth in Africa
through trade rather than aid.'
Leaders of civil society, business and government from across Africa will
meet in Kenya this month to promote home-grown solutions to the
continent's problems. Over 100 delegates from more than 18 African nations
will take part in the Africa Resource Bank Meeting which is intended to
sow the seeds of economic freedom in Africa and kick-start a campaign for
market reform and free trade as a means to sustainable development and the
elimination of poverty, disease and war.
The conference, to be held in Mombassa, Kenya from 20-22 November 2003,
has been organized by The Inter Region Economic Network (IREN Kenya), an
independent, non-partisan think-tank based in Nairobi that favours market
approaches to public policy issues.
The meeting is intended to bring together like-minded individuals and
organizations from across the Continent in order to create a new network -
the Africa Resource Network - whose mission will be to promote trade
within Africa and with the rest of the world, to identify
businesses/agents to facilitate import/export trading in Africa, and to
promote intra-Africa investment.
James Shikwati, director of IREN Kenya said: "Since independence Africa
has invested too heavily in seeking donor aid, which has compromised
African productivity. Our aim is to find homegrown solutions to the major
problems afflicting Africa - disease, war, illiteracy and desperate
The Africa Resource Network will create continental and international
linkages to promote trade in Africa. Through networking and dialogue, it
hopes to become an effective exponent of market reform and encourage
individual countries to open themselves to trade.
Shikwati says that "Free market solutions can liberate Africa from her
economic misery. It is now up to Africans to use trade to dismantle
barriers and create a huge market for themselves. Trade will bring with it
cultural exchange, knowledge, competition, productivity, peace and
prosperity. The future of Africa is in the hands of entrepreneurs; the
creators and consumers of wealth!"
For more information, or if you are interested in attending the Africa
Resource Bank Meeting, please visit www.irenkenya.org. Or contact James
Shikwati at email@example.com
The Meatrix - Where Our Food Comes From!
A clever opportunistic animated rant against the 'evils' of factory
farming and corporate agriculture based on the movie theme.
Wayne Parrott sent the following 'gems' from Greenpeace, the master