Today's AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org : November 11, 2003
* UK Hearings: What You Can Do to Ensure the Future of GM Crops in Britain
* Analysis and Comments on The UK Farm Scale Evaluations
* Some Talking Points on UK Farm-Scale Evaluation Reports
* Re: Defending Nature is Not Anti-Science - Letter to Guardian
* Scientists Called to Look Beyond the Lab
* Organic? No Thanks
* Media Coverage of AgBiotech Focuses on Risks Than Benefits
* Oxford University Biochemist Sees Future In GM Foods
* Biotech Expert Defends GM Food
* Vatican Debate Over Biotech Foods
* MSU Research Fights Hunger: Team to Develop Super Crops
* Insect Resistance to Insect Resistance
UK Hearings: What You Can Do to Ensure the Future of GM Crops in Europe
- From: C. S. Prakash
Dear Friends of AgBioWorld:
You are no doubt very aware of recent events in the UK related to the FSE
trials and the reported "findings" that biotech crops "harm" the
environment. It is very unfortunate that the announcement of the results
were not presented in the appropriate agricultural context - the media had
a feeding frenzy. In spite of this, there is still a process for
responding to and commenting on the FSE trials that will be considered by
ACRE as they prepare their guidance documents to the UK government
decision-makers. See http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/acre/index.htm
The FSE papers can be read at http://www.pubs.royalsoc.ac.uk/FSEresults
ACRE is an independent group scientists that advices UK Government
Ministers on the "risks to human health and the environment from the
release and marketing of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)." ACRE
will hold two open meetings (Nov. 25 in London and Dec. 4 in Edinburgh) at
which stakeholders and experts can offer evidence.
The groups opposing biotech crops will continue to trumpet the misleading
messages of the FSE but likely are not expecting any real push back from
international scientists. Absent such an effort, I am convinced they will
prevail, at least in the media. Fortunately, there is nothing they can do
to refute factual information provided by credible experts. The ball is
now in the hands of the scientific community. The only question is how
they will be engaged to participate.
We the scientists from around the world must weigh in with our comments on
the FSE "findings". More importantly, we must help put the results into an
accurate agricultural context and illuminate the fact that biotech crops
are a tool that can support wildlife conservation and biodiversity. As you
know, British scientists have already embarked on this initiative. I
believe that the AgBioWorld community must complement this as global
scientific community can clearly enhance their efforts.
Thus, it is imperative that a large number of scientists respond directly
to ACRE with our comments. Let us not underestimate the power of
scientific voice in this debate, and it is critical that many of your
reasoned and science-based voices from across the globe be heard by the
I am urging each of you to please write to ACRE via email:
firstname.lastname@example.org or by snail mail or fax. See
below for some 'Talking Points on UK Farm-Scale Evaluation Reports' by me.
You may also wish to visit
for a collection of previous AgBioView postings on this subject. Please
copy your comments to email@example.com should you want me to post it
Here are the instructions for submitting comments to ACRE from the DEFRA
web site: Evidence can be submitted to the ACRE secretariat, preferably
electronically, by November 16th 2003.
Please submit your evidence electronically via
"Submissions should be in writing on not more than two-sides of A4 paper.
Contributions should be limited in scope to the farm-scale evaluation
results and their implications, as this, and this alone, will be
considered at the open meetings. The deadline for submissions is November
16th 2003. Evidence to be heard at the open meetings will be selected by
ACRE members solely on the basis of the value it will make towards
developing advice on the implications of the farm-scale evaluation
results. However, all submissions of evidence will be considered by ACRE
in their deliberations, whether invited to speak at a meeting or not."
Or by fax 020 481 2020; or post to: ACRE secretariat ,c/o LewisLive,
Thames Chambers, 2 Clarence Street, Kingston upon Thames, Surrey KT1 1NG,
Analysis and Comments on The Farm Scale Evaluations of GM Crops in UK
- C. S. Prakash; Compiled from postings to AgBioView
To assist you in your writing, I have put together various news items and
comments on the UK farm scale trials from AgBioView from the past two
weeks and have now posted it on the AgBioWorld site at:
Some Talking Points on UK Farm-Scale Evaluation Reports
The UK Farm Scale Evaluation (FSE) results were released on Oct. 16, 2003.
The three-year field trials were designed to examine the effects of weed
management practices - including use of herbicides and practices enabled
by GM crops -- on weed and invertebrate populations. The FSE trials
focused on three crops -- maize, sugar beet, and oilseed rape -- and the
results are now available as a series of eight scientific papers in the
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.
These peer-reviewed papers include a large amount of data, much of which
has not been reported through the media. It is important to consider all
of the data that has been produced and to examine the results and lessons
in the broad context of agricultural systems and the environment.
* The development of genetically modified herbicide tolerant (GMHT) crops
using modern biotechnology has expanded the herbicide and weed management
options available to farmers. Farmers routinely control weeds to reduce
weed competition with the crop for nutrients, water and sunlight that are
needed to optimize crop productivity and yield.
* The FSE results demonstrate that differences in the choice of weed
management approach can lead to differences in weed survival and in the
wildlife populations dependent on weeds for growth and development.
* The differences in weed and invertebrate densities reported in the FSEs
are not an inherent property of the GM crops themselves, but instead are
due to the particular weed management practices examined in the various
* The results of the FSEs cannot be generalized beyond the UK agricultural
ecosystem and the three crops and weed management systems studied.
* When considering biodiversity, the FSE results show that some important
effects are due more to the crop - whether it is conventional or GM - than
to the practices used for weed control. These differences are inherent to
the crop and the association of the crop with certain weeds and wildlife
species. The choice of crop to be grown is made by the farmer and is
based more on experience and market factors than on relative impacts on
biodiversity verses other crop choices.
* For the vast majority of invertebrates measured, no statistically
significant differences were seen in their yearly totals. However, there
were a number of differences measured between weed management regimes
employed in the conventional and GMHT crop.
* The weed management regimes used in two of the conventional crops
resulted in more weeds present for food or as cover for wildlife than the
weed management regimes used with similar GMHT crops. For example, the
scientists found more bees in beet and more butterflies in beet and spring
rape with conventional weed management due to the presence of more weeds.
* Conversely, the weed management regime used with GMHT maize resulted in
more weeds and weed seeds, and more butterflies and bees at certain times
of the year in and around the GMHT maize, than in maize with a
conventional weed management regime.
* The weed management regimes employed in the FSE trials relied on
different herbicides, different timings and number of herbicide
applications, and different quantities of herbicides applied to provide
weed control. In GMHT beet and GMHT maize, the quantity of herbicides
applied was reduced significantly compared to the weed management regimes
used in the conventional beet and maize crops. The quantity of herbicides
used in oilseed rape was essentially unchanged.
* It is inescapable that weeds compete with crops and reduce yields and
provide food and cover for wildlife. On the one hand, farmers employ weed
management to control weeds and improve crop productivity and
profitability. Failing to control weeds after they become competitive with
the crop results in yield reductions and can have important economic
consequences. On the other hand, farmers may elect weed management
strategies that conserve weeds for the benefit of wildlife, but if weeds
are allowed to compete with the crop, productivity is reduced.
* These aims of the farmer are not mutually exclusive, but the trade-offs
are readily apparent. Other research in the UK has shown that GMHT crops
can be grown under different weed management regimes that allow weed
growth early in the growing season to support wildlife with minimal impact
* In addition, some farmers may elect to support biodiversity by managing
field boundaries that provide better habitat for wildlife rather than
attempt to manage the crop fields themselves. In a broad sense, the aim
of agriculture is to maximize crop productivity within the agricultural
landscape while emphasizing the importance of land conservation and other
* Finally, the total land area is comprised of non-agricultural land and
agricultural land representing a diversity of agricultural crops. At the
present time, the crops under consideration - beet, maize and oilseed rape
- represent a very small proportion of the agricultural area, and an even
smaller proportion of the total land area.
Re: Defending Nature is Not Anti-Science
- Duncan Edlin , Cardiff University; Letter sent to
the Guardian (UK), Nov
Sir, In the comment entitled "Defending nature is not anti-science", which
appeared in the Guardian on 6th November 2003, Eva Novotny appears to
believe that the GM argument has already been won and lost. Eva also
asserts that the losers (GM scientists) should lick their wounds and leave
GM science to do something more positive for the environment - "Pro-GM
scientists should admit defeat and redirect their talents".
Despite Evas wishes the GM argument remains undecided across much of the
EU and whether the British government decide to accept or reject the
growth of GM crops in the UK it is unclear whether Eva considers the GM
argument to be lost in Argentina, Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, China,
Colombia, Germany, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Romania, South
Africa, Spain, Uruguay and the USA where GM crops are currently being
grown. Furthermore assuming that Eva perceives the GM argument to be
won/lost on the basis of their acceptance/rejection by a particular
sovereign state should this infer that in countries where GM technology
has been embraced that scientists that oppose the use of GM crops and who
find their work no longer funded should (on the basis of the advice given
to GM scientists) leave their field of research to take up available posts
in GM science?
Unfortunately Evas' advice to GM scientists is analagous to advising
British coal miners to take up job opportunities in Bolivia or to move
into the firewood business. It is not so much the fact that there is
disillusionment amongst those that conduct research into GM crops that is
leading many to look abroad for work opportunities but the genuine concern
that a continuation of the brain drain and a failure to support modern
crop technology will mean that Britain falls further behind the USA &
China in GM technology & research. For a country that should still be at
the forefront of GM research it is far from progressive to scare away
private investment. So despite the government providing considerable
funding into GM research at John Innes and IACR-Rothamsted unless there
are private British companies and initiatives that can profit from this
technology most of the worldwide business and profits in GM will continue
to be dominated by American businesses.
Evas concern that "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" ignores the
fact that several large multinational companies (namely supermarkets) have
exploited the public fear of GM to similarly yield huge profits and also
to control the food we eat. Presumably when Iceland, Tescos etc. did this
it was honorable because the end result (the removal of GM food from
supermarket shelves) was desirable to some?
Evas opinion, which generally speaking, would appear to be shared by the
editorial opinion makers at the Guardian and also it would appear much of
the British press is remarkably simplistic and centres on the contention
that GM crops will be scientifically proven to be unsafe for the
environment and human consumption. For the anti-GM lobby it seems that it
is only a matter of time before a report is published that conclusively
proves that GM crops are unsafe and consequently that their demands for a
ban on GM crops will be met. For evidence of this you need only to have
read the headlines that followed the announcement of the results of the
Government funded field scale evaluations a month ago.
However the contention that GM food will be proven to be unsafe requires
that science is capable of establishing the criteria upon which an entire
technology can be determined to be simplistically good, bad, safe or
unsafe and this is unfortunately unrealistic. For example science is used
to develop novel drugs and scientific tests are then used to determine
whether the developed drugs work as intended or if they have any negative
side effects. If a particular drug was found to be active but also
happened to shorten the lives of patients that are treated with it a
decision would have to be made as to whether the drug should be withdrawn
from trial. However it would be an extreme overreaction to demand that all
pharmaceuticals per se were dangerous and go onto impose a ban on the
entire industry. Well certainly an overreaction in any other industry
other than agricultural biotechnology it would appear.
Scientific testing is essential to determine the presence of any potential
risks in a new technology but it is then up to society or the governments
that represent us to determine whether these risks are acceptable or not
when evaluated alongside the potential benefits. On this basis we accept
the risks & dangers of motor cars, nuclear power & mobile phones because
of their obvious benefits. GM technology undoubtedly poses some potential
risks which need to be assessed and minimised. However despite 10 years of
GM cultivation in the USA not one American citizen has died from eating GM
food and nor is there any evidence that entire habitats are being
destroyed by the worldwide cultivation of currently licensed GM crops. On
balance the effects of GM crops on human safety and the environment would
certainly appear to be much safer than those caused by the use of
automobiles (which are not only significant polluters but also kill & maim
thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people each year).
Whilst the aims of environmentalists are generally well principled it is
not at all obvious exactly where a zero tolerance policy concerning
environmental harm (which is what is being proposed with respect to the
use of GM crops) would lead human society. Our only experience of a world
devoid of human damage to the environment occurred before the development
of agriculture 15,000 years ago. Since then human population growth and
consumption has risen inexorably with accumulated scientific and
technological developments aiding the boom. Unquestionably developments in
medicine, agriculture and industrialisation have improved our quality of
life and there is little doubt that we live longer, healthier lives than
we have at any other time in history but unfortunately this has been
achieved by inflicting a noticeable cost on the environment.
Environmentalists are entirely justified in attempting to restore the
balance to ensure that natural habitats are preserved and that
environmental damage is minimised. There is also little doubt that a zero
tolerance policy towards agricultural improvements, industrialisation, the
production of electricity & gas, the motor car and even the publishing
industry would have ensured that much of the environment would have been
saved rather than destroyed over the last 15,000 years. However had a
powerful environmental lobby succeeded in banning these processes because
of their predicted detrimental effect on the environment we wouldn't live
in a world that resembled anything like the one we inhabit today.
As I write there is still no established, verifiable evidence that the
growth of GM crops will lead to an environmental catastrophe, nor that
they pose a genuine threat to human health. The UK farm scale trials
indicated that GM oil seed rape and GM beet had a negative effect on the
numbers of insects and birds that could be measured in fields compared
with conventionally bred crops. However the reduced number of birds, bees
and butterflies on farmland used to grow some GM crops could certainly be
countered by ensuring that other areas of farmland were managed better to
accommodate environmental niches where these species could proliferate. It
is also worth pointing out that Greenpeace have not as yet expressed their
public concern at the environmental damage caused due to the widespread
use of slug pellets, fly sprays and moss killer by millions of gardeners
in the UK. Or should we suppose that birds, bees & butterflies are
positive environmental indicators whereas slugs, greenfly and moss are
There are also genuine environmental benefits in developing and growing GM
crops. Greater yields will mean that less farm land is required to grow GM
crops compared to conventionally bred varieties. Fewer sprayings of
pesticides and herbicides will also reduce environmental damage. Whilst
'no till' farming enabled by the development of new GM crops will ensure
that the nutrients in the soil are not eroded away by ploughing. Concerns
about cross contamination can also be alleviated by allowing crops with
terminator technology to be used as sterile pollen cannot cross pollinate
non-GM varieties. Faced with an expanding world population and limited
available farmland GM technology will certainly enable us to use the
available land more efficiently and therefore restrict the expansion of
human developments into converting more natural habitats into additional
However these benefits do not concern Eva, nor much of the poorly informed
environmental lobby that seek a ban on GM technology. Defending nature may
not be anti-science but a failure to understand and endorse good science
is certainly anti-progressive. The acceptance of unverified &
unsubstantiated claims by the anti-GM lobby (as indicated in many of the
claims made by Eva in her article) might impress the mostly poorly
informed general public but it is much less impressive to the scientists
and governmental advisory members who need to understand the actual
benefits and risks involved to make a truly informed decision. Until such
a decision has been made in the UK any claim that the GM argument has been
won or lost is premature.
- Yours Sincerely, Dr Duncan Edlin, School of Biosciences, PreClinical
Building, Cardiff University, UK
Scientists Called to Look Beyond the Lab
- James Hall, Inter Press News, Nov. 10, 2003
Johannesburg, Nov 10 (Ips) - A panel of prominent women scientists has
argued that African researchers need to get out of their laboratories and
enter the world of policy-making if they want to be of real benefit to
their fellow Africans. The women say that researchers must also learn to
market their ideas.
"Scientists are more at home speaking to one another, and filing arcane
papers that no one but ourselves reads, than (engaging) in public debate,"
said Florence Wambugu, of Harvest Biotech Foundation International, a
Nairobi-based institute that was formed to help Africa benefit from
Wambugu was one of four top female scientists who met recently during the
African Economics Editors Forum in Johannesburg. Joining her were C.P.E.
Omaliko, from the National Biotechnology Development Agency in Nigeria,
Norah Olembu from the University of Nairobi, and Jennifer Thomson of the
University of Cape Town in South Africa.
"Scientists have a role to play in wealth creation and national growth
that is generally overlooked because we do not usually have the public
relations skills of other professions," said Omaliko. "We need
information outreach," she added, to the approving nods of her fellow
scientists. They agreed that more networking through conferences like the
Johannesburg meeting would get scientists away from their Bunsen Burners,
and enable them to present their ideas to a wider audience. Researchers
also needed to become more aware of how scientific breakthroughs affected
ordinary people. "Itís a two-way exchange," said Omaliko. "Science can be
intimidating to the lay person."
The four women agreed that scientists had to be deliberate in drawing
attention to work that had beneficial applications for society. Often,
this failed to be done, leaving the popularising of new research to
others. A case in point was that of genetically modified (GM) crops which
have been implanted with genes from other organisms to give them
particular characteristics. Proponents of GM crops argue that they can,
amongst other things, be engineered to repel insects Ė thus sparing
farmers the cost of insecticides that pollute the environment. Plants can
also be given genes that make them impervious to herbicides. These
chemicals then only kill unwanted weeds.
Critics of GM argue that modified crops are being forced on consumers
before substantial research into the safety of the plants has been carried
out. Many anti-GM activists believe that agricultural and biotechnology
companies are pushing farmers to make use of the crops so that firms can
increase their profits Ė even at the expense of safety.
The panel of women complained that the press had misread and
sensationalised some test results for GM crops, nicknamed "Frankenfoods".
"We have only ourselves to blame," said Wambugu. "We failed to engage the
public in our work."
Wambugu has written a book, "Modifying Africa: How Biotechnology Can
Benefit the Poor and Hungry". In it, she notes that "People often reject
new technology at first because they fear the unknown. The Maasai
tribesmen who took up arms when the railway first came were, a few years
later, buying their tickets and boarding the train."
Thomson felt strongly that it must be African people, advised by African
scientists, who decided on the growth and consumption of GM foods in their
countries. This was preferable to having decisions on the matter taken by
parties in the developed world.
"African scientists should take a leadership role in (the) development of
their countries, and not allow Western scientists to set the agendas. We
need international knowledge and experience, that is true, but we must be
driven by local scientists who understand our cultural diversity," added
According to Olembu, "Many African scientists are involved in agriculture,
because (it) is the driving economic force of Africa. Sure, there is oil
in Nigeria, and diamonds in Botswana, but growth will come from a strong
agriculture-driven economy in almost all places." "But, all of this
requires government support ," Olembu added. "You get out what you put in.
Or as we say in Africa, 'You canít milk a cow without feeding her grass',"
The scientists, whose work is often funded by government grants, said
researchers must push for reforms to ensure more efficient and honest
leadership across the continent. "Government must be free of corruption.
Scientists must add their voices to those calling for clean government,"
Such involvement in the world beyond the lab would be new, and should be
tied to greater efforts at ensuring that scientific breakthroughs
originating in Africa brought profits to the countries concerned.
"Scientists arenít commercial. They have no marketing skills," noted
Wambugu. Omaliko agreed, laughing: "Today, itís more than just looking at
molecules, isnít it?"
Organic? No Thanks
Jay Rayner, The Observer (UK), Nov. 9, 2003
"The billion-pound organic food market is, for the most part, a gigantic
con, and that its willing victims are the affluent middle classes."
It was the cheeses which did it; the five grim, rubbery, flavourless
specimens, which died on the tongue and murdered the spirit. Throughout a
long, dreary day, I and chef John Torode had been taste testing 80
organic products in 16 different categories. It seemed a good idea at the
time. After all, sales of organics are booming, as we learnt last week
with the news that they have just topped £1 billion a year. Britain is
now the third biggest consumer of organic produce in the world after the
United States and Germany. The time had come to see what was out there.
The results, as you can read for yourself in today's Observer Food
Magazine, were dismal. Yes, there were some stand-out items that scored
five out of five. (Ooh, the Swaddles Farm bacon!) But among the ranks of
crisps and dried spaghetti, apples, marmalades, pasta sauces and smoked
salmon there was a legion of mediocre products, many that scored zero or
one. And then there were those terrible excuses for Cheddar. It confirmed
to me what I had long thought: that the billion-pound organic food market
is, for the most part, a gigantic con, and that its willing victims are
the affluent middle classes.
There are three clear reasons for buying organic. The first is a laudable
concern for the environment, but even just a cursory glance at the
supermarket shelves would suggest this matters not a jot to its most
eager consumers. Sure, an organic apple may have been grown on a happy
pesticide-free tree, but what of the aviation fuel used to fly that
organic apple to Britain, if it happens to have been grown in New Zealand
as many are?
Our supermarkets are heavy with organic bananas from the Dominican
Republic and organic mangoes from Brazil, sweet potatoes from the US and
pears from Italy. How do you think they all got here? On foot? Then there
is the packaging. Organic crisps are sold in non-organic plastic packets.
Which brings us to the second reason: the benefit to health. Again it's a
myth, as the Food Standards Agency found in a recent report which
declared there was no evidence such products were either safer or
nutritionally advantageous. And that's just the raw produce.
In an attempt to grow the market the big retailers have expanded their
product ranges out of fruit, vegetables and meat and into processed foods.
It is the ultimate victory of marketing over reality; there is still
nothing healthy about those crisps. Indeed, good old Walkers non-organic
ready salted crisps have marginally less fat and salt than Tesco's
organic own brand versions.
Food associated health problems in this country - obesity, heart disease,
diabetes - are caused by the over-consumption of fat, salt and sugar. They
are nothing to do with non-organic raw produce. A chicken nugget is still
a chicken nugget.
Which leaves the third and, I would say, most convincing reason for going
organic: the quality of the product, and that's where we came in. A lot of
what's out there is lousy. Those cheeses really were a gastronomic
nightmare. And don't even get me started on the smoked salmon. It is
relevant, I think, that I have yet to find a top-flight restaurant chef
in Britain who will claim to use only organic ingredients. They know
organic is not always best.
I am not, however, arguing that organic can never be better. I earn part
of my living as a restaurant critic and I confess an overly-developed
interest in what I shove in my mouth. I will spend money on good quality
raw ingredients, because I can afford to do so. I also find certain
factory farming methods - of chickens, for example - abhorrent. But I
know that a free range chicken may not be the same as an organic chicken
and that the free range may taste better. I know that crisps are bad for
me and I ought not eat too many. And I know that organic food will not
make me thinner. More's the pity.
Media Coverage of Ag Biotechology Focuses on Risks Rather Than Benefits
- University of Missouri-Columbia, Nov 11, 2003
'Research results focus on a content analysis of opinion-leading
newspapers in the U.S. and the U.K., showing that media coverage of
agricultural biotechnology has focused on the negative more than the
Genetically modified foods (GMFs) and agricultural biotechnology have
generated considerable attention, as well as controversy, since their
introduction in the mid-1990s with the media playing a key role in fueling
the public debate. A study from the University of Missouri-Columbia shows
that media in the United States and the United Kingdom have focused more
on the environmental risks, rather than the benefits, of GMFs and
The study, led by Leonie Marks and Nick Kalaitzandonakes, professors in
the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, used two
opinion-leading daily newspapers from the United Kingdom and three from
the United States as the basis for a 12-year content analysis on coverage
of the topics.
"Despite a low level of coverage of environmental issues, on both sides of
the Atlantic the findings show environmental risks rather than benefits
have been the focus of newspaper reporting," Kalaitzandonakes said. ďOn
balance, the United Kingdom has been more negative than the United
The researchers conclude that the way the media covers events related to
GMFs and agricultural biotechnology has immediate and long-term
implications for agribusiness.
"As consumers increasingly gain an understanding of food production and
marketing through the media, agribusinesses will be increasingly affected
by how global media outlets report on food issues over time,"
The impact of the media is amplified in the United States,
Kalaitzandonakes said, because increasingly fewer people are involved in
agricultural production here. As this personal contact and one-on-one
experience with agricultural production diminishes, consumers often rely
upon impersonal sources such as the media for information.
Studies have shown that today, more than 90 percent of consumers receive
information about food and biotechnology primarily through the press and
Oxford University Biochemist Sees Future In GM Foods
- Economic Times (India), Nov 7, 2003
'Yield Enhancement Possible Only Through Adoption of GM Technology'
Dr Edwin Southern, former head of Department of Biochemistry, Oxford
University and the founder Chairman of the Kirk House Trust has expressed
that the acceptance of genetically modified (GM) foods is being stalled by
a small but vocal section of the populace and the problem can be resolved
only at the political level. Even in the UK, the vast majority were
unperturbed when genetically modified tomatoes were first stocked in the
Dr Edwin Southern is of the opinion that there is an urgent need to boost
crop yields to feed the ever-growing global population. The molecular
marker assisted plant breeding has shown great promise in bringing about
improvement of crop yields by targeting traits like drought and pest
resistance and by improving nutritional qualities. A breakthrough in yield
enhancement to meet the basic needs of food, fodder and fuel is possible
only through adoption of GM technology.
Bio-tech Expert Defends GM Food
- Satyen Mohapatra, Hindustan Times, Nov. 10, 2003
Eighty per cent of the processed food in the US either contains
genetically-modified soya or corn, says Dr Adrianne Massey, vice-president
(education and training) of the North Carolina Biotechnology Centre. Dr
Massey said genetic modification of food is not new, and virtually all the
food we eat today is genetically-modified. Genetic engineering just allows
us to be more precise, specific and predictable, she said.
She said that the activists protesting against the GM food are actually
harming the cause of environment. Citing an example, she said
insect-resistant GM potatoes were supplied by US farmers at a lower price
to McDonald's because their input cost went down on account of lower
dosages of insecticides being used.
However, McDonald's stopped taking those potatoes following protests by
the activist groups. The US farmer resumed putting insecticides and
selling it to McDonald at the earlier price. McDonald's could afford to
buy it at that price, only the environment suffered, she said.
Referring to European resistance to GM crops, she said the European
farmers were not given an informed choice about GM crops. She said the
ongoing biotechnology research in the US focuses on increasing vitamin
content and decreasing fat content in food and on changing vegetable oil.
Most of the plants contain chemicals in small amounts, which have
anti-cancer properties, like lycopene in tomato. An attempt is now on to
genetically modify tomato plants to increase their lycopene content, she
Vatican Holding Debate Over Biotech Foods
- Nicole Winfield, Associated Press, Nov. 11, 2003
Vatican City - Critics of genetically modified foods are warning that a
Vatican endorsement of biotech products would be a mistake, while
supporters say the Vatican is wisely gathering evidence to make an
informed decision about the issue.
Participants at a Vatican conference on biotech foods that began Monday
also questioned whether the Vatican would get a balanced view, since
speakers in the pro-biotech camp dominated the discussions, reflecting the
views of its organizer, Cardinal Renato Martino.
Martino, who has spoken out frequently about the potential benefits of the
technology, opened the two-day conference titled "GMO: Threat or Hope" by
acknowledging it could have far-reaching implications. "We are fully
aware that the stakes are high and delicate," he said, citing the divide
in public opinion, commercial interests and ethical questions involved, as
well as "the difficulty in defining scientifically a material that is
subject to evolving research."
A Vatican endorsement of biotech foods would likely draw praise from the
United States, where biotech companies have been at the forefront of
extolling the virtues of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, which
can be made to resist insects or disease.
But it would no doubt ruffle feathers in Europe, which has imposed a
moratorium on growing or importing such products because of fears about
the environmental and heath risks, and in African countries such as
Zambia, which has rejected biotech food aid.
Greenpeace science adviser Dr. Doreen Stabinsky said in an interview
Monday that she was dismayed that the Vatican was hearing a largely
one-sided debate at the conference, and that it would be a mistake to draw
final conclusions from it. "We would hope that the Vatican takes a very
slow and measured evaluation of GM," she said. "Based on the people that
are up in the room right now, I wouldn't say are consulting widely at this
point." Greenpeace opposes genetically modified crops on the grounds that
the long-term ecological and human health consequences remain unknown.
Yet Thandiwe Myeni, a small-scale South African farmer and chairwoman of
the Mbuso Farmers' Association, said her experience with GM cotton had
been only positive. While the GM seeds cost more than regular ones, she
saves money by not having to use so much pesticide and has harvested
"We need this technology," she said at a news conference after she spoke
to the symposium. "We don't want always to be fed food aid. ... We want
access to this technology so that one day we can also become commercial
Italy's agriculture minister, Gianni Alemanno, praised the Vatican for
taking the initiative to gather expert advice on the important issue and
said he expected Martino would make a "prudent judgment." Martino said
the Vatican's aim was to find some common ground for the benefit of
mankind, particularly the poor.
The issue of poverty and hunger is a major concern for the Vatican, which
rejects arguments that limiting family size by using contraception is one
way to improve food security in the developing world. Dr. Margaret
Mellon, director of the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists,
said she is concerned the claims that biotechnology will ease world hunger
are overblown and that any benefits may not outweigh the risks.
Dr. Nam-Hai Chua, head of Rockefeller University's plant molecular biology
laboratory, acknowledged that the technology may not be perfect, but said
it deserves to be worked on since to date GM foods have been found to be
safe. "As a scientist, my conclusion would be that our present regulatory
procedures are adequate to protect the safety of this kind of product," he
MSU Research Fights Hunger: International HarvestPlus Team to Develop
- Jodi Upton, The Detroit News, Nov. 11, 2003
East Lansing -- Michigan State University has become a major player in the
fight against world hunger, thanks partly to a $25 million grant from the
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and partly to its emerging profile in
the controversial field of biotech.
MSU beat out Cornell University and other top schools to lead an
international team of researchers in a program called HarvestPlus, which
will develop supernutritious staple crops for the malnourished Third
World: beans with extra iron and zinc, or maize with extra vitamin A, for
If the experiments are successful, the fortified crops could correct
malnutrition-related deaths and illnesses. For example, 100,000 women
internationally die during childbirth each year because of iron
deficiency, and 500,000 children are blinded because they don't get enough
"MSU has always been a powerful force in agriculture. But under (Peter)
McPherson's presidency, the link between agriculture and aid have become
really well known," said Walter Falcon, professor emeritus of
international agricultural policy at Stanford University and a former U.S.
presidential commissioner on World Hunger. "They're not the only players
but they're one of the dominant ones." MSU has always been a player in
agriculture, a $4 billion industry in the state, second only to the auto
industry. But the university's emerging dominance in biotechnology carries
prestige and money.
Biotech accounts for as much as 40 percent of all campus research grants
-- a figure that's difficult to pin down because it crosses at least seven
departments, said Bob Huggett, vice president of research and graduate
MSU's concentrated effort in biotechnology began in 1998, when the
university recruited top academics and graduate students in the field.
Since then, federal agency grants alone have almost doubled, to $196
million a year; Huggett estimates about one-third of that growth alone to
be due to biotech. Huggett estimates that puts MSU close to No. 1 -- if
not first -- when it comes to fund raising for biotech programs. But proof
is hard to come by, since money can be given for anything from animal
science to biochemistry and are not defined as "biotech."
And winning projects such as HarvestPlus will pay off in additional
research that eventually will make the university's biotech program
self-perpetuating, said Ian Gray, director of MSU's Michigan Agricultural
Experiment Station. "We must be aggressive. We want to be leaders," Gray
said. "This is what you call a strategic investment."
The Gates' grant -- and MSU's leading role in the biotech boom -- also
represent a subtle change in the way in which genetic modification
research is funded and sold to the public. While large, private companies
may still search for the perfect tomato or better cereals for commercial
profit, university cooperatives increasingly are getting large, private
donations for true humanitarian research.
Biotech implies any kind of technological tinkering with biology, but in
practice it can mean anything from classical plant or animal breeding to
searching for and breeding mutations, to cloning. While MSU and
HarvestPlus will be on the more conservative end, industry watchers say
crops fortified to prevent malnutrition may still face an uphill battle
for acceptance. Some groups are vocally opposed to any form of genetic
modification for safety reasons -- scientifically justified or not.
"For MSU to remain in the forefront, we have to engage in a somewhat
controversial field," Gray said. But as a public institution, MSU
researchers will be more open to discussing the social impact than
researchers working for private companies, such as Monsanto, he said.
"The social issues have never been as fully engaged in as they should be.
Is it safe? Who determines the public good? Our faculty is open to that
discussion. They're used to that."
Challenges outside the lab
HarvestPlus and MSU can expect challenges outside the lab, as well as in
their research. Golden rice, a genetically modified rice boosted with
vitamin A, was touted as a breakthrough to help fight world hunger. But
global regulatory issues have caused long delays in getting the rice to
Many European consumers have opposed genetically modified foods and some
Third World farmers have been wary of the crops. Zimbabwe even rejected an
aid shipment for its starving people because of rumors the corn was
genetically modified. Thousands starved, because their leaders feared the
corn was unsafe.
For that reason, HarvestPlus will focus on classical breeding whenever
possible, using more complex genetic modification technology -- and its
subsequent regulatory headaches -- only when necessary. Still, it may take
three to five years for the first plants to reach farmer's fields, said
biochemistry professor Dean DellaPenna, who will coordinate MSU's role.
"The nonengineered crops will get out faster and make an impact first,"
DellaPenna said. "And that's the bottom line. From my perspective we're
trying to address a really serious issue. Regardless of the method. It's a
Another hurdle: Third World farmers. In some areas, acceptance of the new
plants may be seamless, but in others, it may require some convincing.
"One of the things we've learned is that taste and preference really
matter," said Falcon, who has worked in agriculture projects around the
world. "Is the rice still white? Does it taste the same? Will it cost
more? If it's a matter of telling people it's better for them, who tells
them -- and how? All of that really matters."
Commitment to the program may also be key to how well it really works.
Some have rated the commitment of people like DellaPenna and other
scientists in the program on a 10-point scale "an 11;" others, including
some administrators spread throughout HarvestPlus' 16 centers worldwide,
rate it only "a 4."
"If you're around one of these (research) centers, there's a deep ethos of
commitment to the Third World and making it work," said Falcon. But the
researchers aren't the only ones in the project. "I could well imagine
the science side working better than the technology transfer (getting the
plants into farmers hands)," he added.
The Worldwatch Institute, which takes a cautious approach to biotech, says
the HarvestPlus plan seems genuinely humanitarian, compared to most
biotech, which has been touted to improve lives but has until now been
"unimpressive" said senior researcher Brian Halweil, of the Washington,
D.C.-based institute. At the same time, scientists have to be careful not
to get carried away, creating a vitamin pill in a rice grain, he said.
Superfortification should be a short-term fix until developing countries
can get stable, varied diets.
"This is a very important step in curing hunger," Halweil said. "But we
can get caught up and let it distract from curing the underlying causes of
About HarvestPlus. The HarvestPlus plant engineering program seeks to use
superior breeding to boost nutrients to combact malnutrition. Initially,
six crops and three nutrients -- iron, zinc and vitamin A -- are targeted
Insect Resistance to Insect Resistance
- Cathy Holding, The Scientist, Nov. 10, 2003
'Two transgenic insecticidal genes in a single crop better than one for
The development of transgenic crops bearing insecticidal genes can benefit
the environment by reducing the use of insecticides, but evolution of
resistance to the genetically engineered toxins in the target insects
could threaten such gains. Reducing acquisition of resistance by insects
can be achieved by the use of two different transgene plants grown
sequentially, in mosaics or by mixing genetically engineered seeds, or by
the use of crops bearing two different toxin genes in the same plant
In the November 10 Nature Biotechnology, Jian-Zhou Zhao and colleagues at
Cornell University report an evaluation of these methods for efficacy in
delaying insect resistance in a model system, and they show that by far
the most efficient method is pyramiding. These results have implications
for the current use of single transgene plants as well as for growing
strategies in the future (Nature Biotechnology, DOI:10.1038/nbt907,
November 10, 2003).
Zhao et al. developed and tested a model greenhouse system using an
artificial population of four strains of the diamondback moth Plutella
xylostella and broccoli plants bearing either or both transgenic toxins
Cry1Ac and Cry1C from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt ). They tested plant and
insect combinations that included moths carrying genetic resistant to one,
other, or both toxins and broccoli grown sequentially, in mosaic, or alone
as double transgene plants. Numbers of surviving larvae and pupae were
followed over 24 generations and analyzed for resistance. The authors
found that Cry1C resistance evolved more slowly than Cry1Ac resistance,
attributing this to multigene control of resistance for Cry1C as opposed
to single autosomal inheritance for Cry1Ac. Survival of larvae and pupae
on plants grown in mosaic or with Cry1Ac as first in sequence was
significantly greater (>70% after 18Ė24 generations) than those on double
transgene plants, demonstrating the mosaic strategy to be "clearly
inferior." For two-gene plants, insect survival was almost zero.
"Although our population sizes were much smaller than those occurring in
nature, the selection response to Cry1Ac in the pyramided treatments
showed that our experiments had initial resistance frequencies
sufficiently high to generate the effects expected in the field, that is,
resistance can still evolve to pyramids. Although Bt cotton with the
pyramided two Bt genes is now in commercial use, total replacement of
Cry1Ac gene varieties with two Bt gene varieties is not expected to occur
for many years," the authors caution.
A.M. Shelton et al., "Economic, ecological, food safety, and social
consequences of the deployment of bt transgenic plants," Annual Review of
Entomology, 47:845-881, 2002.
J. Zhao et al., "Transgenic plants expressing two Bacillus thuringiensis
toxins delay insect resistance evolution," Nature Biotechnology,
DOI:10.1038/nbt907, November 10, 2003.