Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : December 1, 2003:
* Scientists Harness Rice Gene In Battle Against Poverty
* GM Goods 'Will Gain Wider Public Acceptance'
* Efforts to Ease Famine In Africa Hurt by U.S., European Dispute
* Vox Populi and Public Policy: Why Should We Care?
* NZ and GM: The Truth
* Life, A Nobel Story
* Biology in Asia
* Food Safety and GM Crops: Implications for Dev-Country Research
* Busting Globalisation Myths
* Economic Benefits of Biotech Crops
Scientists Harness Rice Gene In Global Battle Against Poverty
- Cecil Morella (Agence France-Presse), Los Banos, Philippines, November
Clad in a white scrub suit and working behind air-tight double metal
doors, Swapan Datta tends to designer rice that scientists say could save
the human race, but which some fear is a potential monster. The Indian
biotechnologist's potted plants look nothing out of the ordinary. But as
the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) has modified their genes,
they are kept in a special greenhouse so they do not pollinate other
The idea that nutrient-rich, yellow-tinged "golden rice" seeds are the
culinary equivalent of the Frankenstein monster "doesn't make any sense,"
Datta told reporters at the IRRI laboratory in the Philippines. "So far no
GMO (genetically modified organism) produced and released to the farmer
has caused any risk or any adverse effect that's known to us," the
51-year-old Kolkata native said. "Not a single case."
Ronald Cantrell, the American director-general of IRRI, said "the pace
with which GMOs will have an impact on (rice) production will be dictated
by public opinion and the interaction between science and public, much
more than our acquisition of knowledge in getting that technology ready."
He said most of the debate on the supposed harmful effects of GMO in the
United States and Europe had nothing to do with science.
Asia and Africa, the rice-eating half of the planet and home to most of
its poor, "may be willing to accept certain risks that developed countries
will not," Cantrell added. As yields from one of the world's most
important cereals level off from dramatic 1960s gains, IRRI and other
research institutions are employing transgenics as a new weapon to combat
"There's a lot fewer poor people in Asia today" compared to 43 years ago
when IRRI began churning out high-yield rice varieties, said IRRI
economist David Dawe. But there are still "a lot of people out there who
spend as much as 40 per cent of their income on rice -- not on any
vegetable, not on any meat, not education, not trips to the doctor or
medicine for the children," he said.
Amid flagging international donor support due to postwar rebuilding in
Iraq and Afghanistan, Cantrell said IRRI would shift more of its limited
resources to improving the nutritional quality of rice, a domesticated
grass cultivated for more than 6,000 years. A 10-year coordinated effort
by IRRI, the private sector and a number of national scientific
institutions has led to "golden rice", where three genes are manipulated
to make them produce beta carotene, niacin, iron and other essential
minerals in the seed.
"We have now some new tools, molecular tools that will allow us to
manipulate germplasm in a way that would make significant changes in
protein quality, changes in carbohydrate structure, carbohydrate types,
all kinds of changes," Cantrell said. "We are on the brink of making some
changes we could only dream about."
Beta carotene, which the human body turns into Vitamin A that is stored in
the liver, is present on rice leaves but not in the normal grain. Since
humans do not eat grass, Datta said scientists "migrated" the gene into
the "golden rice" seed. Aside from beta carotene, IRRI cloned soybean
genes to enrich the iron content of eight popular tropical Asian rice
Datta believes these will be available to ordinary Asian farmers and
consumers in three or four years once governments adopt national biosafety
guidelines. It could have "tremendous impact" on nutrition for Asians, who
eat steamed rice at least twice a day, he said.
GM Goods 'Will Gain Wider Public Acceptance'
- Vic Robertson, The Scotsman (UK), Dec. 1, 2003
Hi-Tech, genetically modified food will eventually win out over the
traditional, including organic foods, claims Sean Rickard. This growth
will be driven by consumers’ desires for new food experiences and growing
pressure on healthcare budgets, said the Cranfield University guru.
No government in the Western world could keep up with a growing health
bill that GM products could help to solve, he added. About 84 million
hectares of GM crops are grown worldwide with no evidence of harm to human
health, he told delegates to the first national Agricultural Industries
Confederation conference at Cranfield.
He believed that nutraceuticals and other non-food products from GM
technology would develop and become accepted in the next 15 years.
Consumers would no longer buy just an ordinary loaf but one that provided
health enhancing ingredients. "Consumers appear unwilling to pay for such
food, but this is situation is unlikely to pertain. Consumers’ willingness
to pay will expand with the new market segments made possible by genetic
modification," he said.
Well fed and relatively affluent consumers also demanded new food
experiences, which was reflected in rising demand for exotic foods.
"Despite repeated claims that demand for organic food is the fastest
growing of all food sectors, falling organic prices suggest this is not
the case and that organic products will remain a small, but important,
part of the food products space.
"Genetic modification will transform the agri-food chain. Here in the UK,
over time, the new technology will transform the agricultural industry
from suppliers of basic commodities into suppliers of specific,
added-value products. "In such a world, much closer relationships will be
demanded between suppliers, farmers and processors. This points to a time
when it becomes possible for individual farms to produce differentiated
Even Christine Tacon, general manager of Britain’s biggest farmer,
Farmcare, which oversees 85,000 acres under the Co-operative banner,
admitted the company might have to revisit its recent announcement of a
ban on GM products.
This had been driven by strong anti-views expressed by co-op members. But
she said this could have been driven by the lack of appreciation of
"accelerated natural development" caused by GM as opposed to reaction to
stories of combining fish and tomato genes. Further work on the public's
understanding of the issue might be needed.
The latest airing of the issue followed two reports last week - from the
Royal Society and the Agriculture and Environment bio technology
commission -outlining the need for more GM research.
Debate Grows Over Biotech Food: Efforts to Ease Famine In Africa Hurt by
U.S., European Dispute
- Justin Gillis, Washington Post, Nov. 30, 2003 (via Agnet)
MUNYAMA, Zambia -- When the people by the lake began to starve, according
to this story, they fell back on the knowledge of their ancestors, picking
poisonous fruits from the bush and boiled them for three days to eliminate
the toxin, concocting a barely palatable dish. But sometimes hungry
children would sneak a taste early, villagers said, and the poison would
make them ill. Kebby Kamota, father of 11, was quoted as saying, "When I
saw my children getting hungry, it was not easy for me."
Even as the bellies of the children ached, the story says that bags of
relief corn sat in a warehouse, sealed tight, in this village on the
shores of Lake Kariba. The U.S. government said the corn, a variety
created by modern biotechnology and grown in the United States, was safe
to eat. The Zambian government wasn't so sure, and it ordered the food
locked up even after aid groups had shipped it to stricken villages.
So Kamota rounded up a mob that forced its way into the warehouse and
distributed corn to scores of village families. A feast ensued. With that
momentary act of defiance, the villagers of Munyama not only restocked
their barren larders, they unwittingly became symbols in the long-running
fight between Europe and the United States over agricultural
The story says that to biotechnology advocates, the villagers, along with
people who broke into other Zambian warehouses last year, showed the human
costs of an irrational new technophobia, centered in Europe and intent on
blocking the development of gene-altered crops.
To skeptics of biotechnology, the Zambian villagers became a symbol of the
American government's willingness to use destitute Africans as pawns in
pressing the interests of Western corporations.
The story says that the debate over genetically engineered food has become
a leading issue in international relations, subject of a huge trade
battle. Wall Street is watching anxiously as it presses companies to
recoup their massive biotech investments by selling more seeds.
Environmental advocates are marching in the streets to oppose the crops.
Even the Vatican is weighing the issue, recently opening a debate about
which is the moral course.
U.S. President Bush was quoted as telling the convention of the
Biotechnology Industry Organization that, "For the sake of a continent
threatened by famine, I urge the European governments to end their
opposition to biotechnology. We should encourage the spread of safe,
effective biotechnology to win the fight against global hunger."
European political leaders reacted angrily to the suggestion that they
were willing to starve Africans, and they have accused American companies
of deliberately exaggerating the potential role of the technology in
solving Africa's problems. People with long experience in African
agriculture said that only a subset of the continent's food problems are
solvable, even in principle, by genetic engineering
The story explains that many citizens in Europe, battered by a series of
food-safety scandals, perceive no clear benefits to themselves from the
technology and are worried that the crops might be harmful.
Some governments have been persuaded in principle by such arguments. But
others have resisted biotech crops for fear adopting them would hurt their
ability to sell exports to Europe. Only five countries -- the United
States, Argentina, China, Canada and South Africa -- have aggressively
adopted the crops.
For both sides of the debate, Africa has become a kind of proving ground,
a stage on which they hope to claim the moral high ground. The reason is
plain enough: Of the 800 million undernourished people on the Earth, a
quarter live in the part of Africa that lies below the Sahara Desert, the
world's greatest concentration of food insecurity.
Largely lost in this transatlantic shouting match have been the voices of
Africans themselves. Do they want the technology, and is it a really going
to solve many of the problems that haunt their continent? The story says
that a recent journey through four African countries, and telephone
interviews with people in several more, turned up evidence of success only
in South Africa. There, both commercial farmers and poor, subsistence
farmers are growing biotech crops, and they appear to be reaping economic
But even in South Africa, the crops that have been successful were
developed in America, and have essentially trickled down to African
farmers. Projects are underway across Africa to use genetic engineering to
improve staple crops on which tens of millions of poor people depend, such
as cassava, cowpeas and sweet potatoes. But after more than a decade of
work, not a single program has led to government approval and release of a
Ugandan banana biologist W.K. Tushemereirwe was quoted as saying, "I am in
the group that thinks biotechnology has a role to play in Africa's future,
particularly if it focuses on developing our indigenous crops, not
replacing them with new crops."
Luke E. Mumba, dean of natural sciences at the University of Zambia and an
advocate of biotechnology, was quoted as saying, "Yes, this technology has
concerns -- it has some risks. We must look at each product on a
case-by-case basis. There should not be a wholesale rejection of say 'no'
Many of the publicly funded, pro-biotech agricultural researchers doing
the work were cited as saying that money, not politics, has been their
biggest problem. Companies have begun to contribute valuable patents and
technical help for African projects, they said, but the industry's
assistance has not been accompanied by any large infusion of cash.
Vox Populi and Public Policy: Why Should We Care?
- Henry I Miller, Nature Biotechnology, Dec. 2003, Vol. 21 No. 12, pp 1431
- 1432 (reproduced in AgBioView with permission from the editor.
In 1897, the Indiana House of Representatives unanimously passed House
Bill 246, a measure that redefined the calculation of the value of , the
ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter 1. Fortunately, the
bill died in the state senate. Although this anecdote might appear a
historical curiosity to scientists today, nonexperts are becoming more and
more prominent in formulating public policy decisions that require an
understanding of subtle and complex scientific and technological
Britons had their say last summer, for example, on whether they want
biotechnology-derived, that is, recombinant DNA modified (known widely as
genetically modified or GM) products in their fields and their food. To
gauge public opinion in advance of a decision scheduled for late in the
year on whether to allow commercial planting of GM crops, at great expense
the UK government sponsored a series of public discussions (ironically
termed 'GM Nation') around the country, as well as using more conventional
methods, such as focus groups. Local authorities and various organizations
held hundreds of additional public meetings on the subject.
The head of the United Kingdom's debates' organizing committee, Malcolm
Grant, called them a "unique experiment to find out what ordinary people
really think once they've heard all the arguments" 2. But the reality
argues otherwise. Mark Henderson, science correspondent for The Times
(London) newspaper, offered this view of the half-million-pound
initiative: "The exercise has been farce from start to finish. I'm not
sure I want the man in the street to set Britain's science, technology and
agriculture policy. One of the six meetings...spent much of its time
discussing whether the SARS virus might come from GM cotton in China. It's
more likely to have come from outer space" 3. Henderson went on to say
that the meetings were dominated by anti-technology zealots, the only
faction that was well enough organized and cared enough about the issue to
Jan Bowman attended three of the events -- including one in Stourbridge,
"where both invited speakers opposed biotechnology" -- and offered an
assessment similar to Henderson's. "At all of them, the audience numbered
no more than 60, and was overwhelmingly middle class, white and already
The urge not only to sample, but also to respond to, public opinion
flourishes on the other side of the Atlantic as well. The US National
Science Foundation (NSF; Washington, DC, USA), whose primary mission is to
support laboratory research across many disciplines, is funding a series
of "citizens technology forums," at which average, previously uninformed
Americans come together to solve a thorny question of technology policy.
According to the NSF's abstract of the project, being carried out by
researchers at North Carolina State University under a 2002 grant,
participants "receive information about that issue from a range of
content-area experts, experts on social implications of science and
technology, and representatives of special interest groups"; this is
supposed to enable them to reach consensus "and ultimately generate
The project, first funded in 2002 to support two panels and expanded this
year under a continuing grant, calls for eight more panels, each
comprising 15 citizens (who are "representative of the local
population")6. Their deliberations will be overseen by a research team
"composed of faculty in rhetoric of science, group decision-making, and
political science" that will test both "an innovative measure of
democratic deliberation" and "also political science theory, by
investigating relationships between gender, ethnicity, lower socioeconomic
status and increases in efficacy and trust in regulators"6.
At a time when federal budgets are under pressure and laboratory research
funding is tight, the NSF has seen fit to spend almost half a million US
taxpayer dollars on this politically correct, but dubious, project.
Getting policy recommendations on an obscure and complex technical
question from groups of citizen nonexperts (who are recruited through
newspaper ads) is similar to going from your cardiologist's office to a
café, explaining to the waitress the therapeutic options for your chest
pain, and asking her whether you should have the angioplasty or just take
medication. (It might help, of course, if there were specialists in the
rhetoric of science and in group decision-making having lunch at a nearby
The first of these NSF-funded groups tackled regulatory policy toward
agricultural biotechnology, and recommended that the government tighten
regulations for growing GM crops, including adding a new requirement that
the foods from these crops be labeled to identify them for consumers. Both
of these proposals are unwarranted, inappropriate and contrary to the
recommendations of experts, including those within the government and in
the scientific community7, 8. The output of the citizens' panel
illustrates that such undertakings have limitations both in theory and
practice: nonexperts are too much subject both to their own prejudices and
to the specific choice of materials and advocates to whom they are
Although involvement of the public is critical to their understanding of
government policy, it is less useful for the formulation of policy. This
is particularly true when complex issues of science and technology are
involved. Science is not democratic. The citizenry do not get to vote on
whether a whale is a mammal or a fish, or on the temperature at which
water boils, and legislatures cannot repeal the laws of nature. However,
on questions to which there is no scientifically 'right' answer (e.g., at
what age can persons drive and vote, or whether we should carry out more
manned exploration of the moon), public opinion can play a critical role.
Thus, one should be wary of the attempts in various countries -- in recent
years, these have included the Netherlands, New Zealand, the United States
and the United Kingdom -- to sample public opinion as a prelude to setting
policy on biotechnology. Even if such opinion-sampling exercises were
better organized, widely attended and more representative, their purpose
should not be to translate the vox populi into policy on subjects highly
dependent on an understanding of the subtleties of science and technology.
Such undertakings would founder on the principle that something not worth
doing at all is not worth doing well.
The goal of policy formulation should be to get the right answers. For
biotechnology, just as for critical decisions about medical interventions
and the design of airplanes and bridges, the best insights are likely to
come from experts. And although it may be useful, as well as politic, for
governments to consult broadly on high-profile public policy issues, after
the consultations and deliberations have been completed, government
leaders are supposed to lead. If democracy must eventually take public
opinion into account, good government must also discount heuristic errors
The 18th century Irish statesman and writer Edmund Burke emphasized the
government's responsibility to make such determinations. He observed that
in republics, "Your Representative owes you, not only his industry, but
his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it
to your opinion"9.
This commentary is modified from an article first published in the
Washington Times on October 16, 2003.
3. Henderson, M. The Times (London), June 13, p. 24 (2003).
7. Institute of Food Technologists. IFT Expert Report on Biotechnology and
Foods. (Institute of Food Technologists, Chicago, IL, USA; 2000).
8. Editorial. Nature 356, 12 (1992).
9. Elofson W.M & Woods, J.A. (eds.). in The Writings and Speeches of
Edmund BurkeVolume III: Party, Parliament, and the American War 17741780
pp. 64,69 (Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 1996).
Henry I. Miller is at The Hoover Institution, Stanford University,
Stanford, California 94305-6010, USA. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
NZ and GM: The Truth
- New Statesman (UK), Letters, Dec. 1, 2003
The UK's former environment minister Michael Meacher (Observations, 10
November) claims New Zealand's Labour government lost a swath of seats in
2001 because of GM; in fact, in the 2002 election, Labour increased its
seats from 49 to 52.
He claims Labour then set up a royal commission on GM; in fact, it was
announced in April 2000, honouring a 1999 election pledge. He claims the
Environmental Risk Management Authority is not required to take account of
GM's economic costs; in fact, recent legislation strengthens its ability
to assess benefits and costs. He claims New Zealand's GM labelling is
voluntary; in fact, all GM foods or ingredients have to pass a safety
check and a foods standards code requires foods containing approved GM
ingredients to be labelled clearly.
- Marian Hobbs, Minister for the Environment, New Zealand
Life, A Nobel Story
- April 28, 2004; Brussels, Belgium; email@example.com ;
Royal Flemish Chemical Society will host 'Life, a Nobel story' - an
international event bringing together Nobel Prize winners and
world-renowned scientists whose discoveries are milestones in modern
molecular and cellular biology.
Truly a unique occasion; never before has Belgium had the privilege to
welcome these excellent scientists in one symposium. The discoveries of
the speakers at 'Life, a Nobel Story' are milestones in modern molecular
and cellular biology. For this unique symposium they will present their
views on how life sciences will influence mankind and the planet as a
whole. In addition, the attendances of the symposium are given the
opportunity to join our speakers at the conference dinner in the Concert
Biology in Asia
- Singapore, Nov 29 - Dec 2, 2004
An international conference marking the 30th anniversary of The Singapore
Institute of Biology (SIBiol) in 2004. The conference aims to provide a
platform for Singaporean and international biologists to interact and
exchange the latest ideas and techniques in the business of biology --
from the fields of education, to research to applied biology -- especially
with respect to Asia, often touted as an arena of rapid economic growth
and growing global influence. We look forward to welcoming you.
Biology in Asia aims to cover a wide range of topics under three
sub-themes: Biodiversity, Ecology and Conservation in Asia; Biotechnology
in Asia; Biology Education in Asia. More information: firstname.lastname@example.org
Food Safety and GM Crops: Implications for Developing-Country Research
- Joel I. Cohen, Hector Quemada, and Robert Frederick, Focus 10, Brief 16
Of 17, September 2003; International Food Policy Research Institute.
In the developing world the approval and cultivation of genetically
modified (GM) crops is largely limited to the commercial production of
insect-resistant cotton in Argentina, China, India, Mexico, and South
Africa. Approvals of GM crops used for food or feed lag far behind cotton:
a single transgenic maize event (an instance of genetic modification) has
been approved in the Philippines and South Africa, and a single transgenic
soybean event has been approved in Argentina, Mexico, South Africa, and
Uruguay. Argentina has also approved six GM corn events for cultivation.
In contrast, 11 food and feed crops representing over 47 transgenic events
have been approved for cultivation in the developed world.
This gap in approvals is unfortunate, because crop biotechnology,
appropriately applied, has the potential to address key production
constraints affecting resource-poor farmers. Currently, important public-
and private-sector research is underway to help meet the productivity
needs of these farmers. This research is built on the transformation of
local crop germplasm and the expression of locally important traits. The
work involves national research programs in developing countries and
international centers. To date, over 50 crops have been transformed in 16
developing countries, incorporating a wide range of genes for insect,
fungal, viral, and bacteria resistance; protein and quality improvements;
herbicide tolerance; and salt and drought stress.
However, the value of these novel crops will be realized only after they
are approved for cultivation by national regulatory authorities. Obtaining
environmental and food safety approval is difficult though, given current
institutional capacities, technological capabilities, and political
decisions regarding regulation in developing countries. In fact, the
approval process, while addressing safety concerns, can also be a
significant constraint to introducing GM seeds in the developing world.
Many countries, such as Zambia and Zimbabwe, also maintain GMfree policies
to certify and protect domestic food markets and beef exports to Europe.
Over and above having to increase regulatory capacity, developing
countries face competing regulatory paradigms in the developed world.
Although governments have reached relatively clear agreement on the
scientific principles of food safety assessment, they have not reached
consensus on the extent of data required to comply with these principles
or on the role of data in overall decision making. As a result, developing
countries face the following questions: What information will assure
developed countries that they are importing safe food? How and by whom
should this information be generated? And how should it be shared for
maximum advantage? Furthermore, developing countries will have to assess
how their exports will be affected if developed countries require labeling
of GM foods. In approving GM crops, developing countries evaluate not only
how GM seeds impact agricultural productivity, but also how GM products
influence their participation in global trade.
Food Safety In GM Crops
Plant breeders have continuously introduced new crops, genes, and traits
into our diet and farming communities with few food and feed safety
problems. We know, however, that some traditionally developed foods that
contain allergenic proteins can cause mild to severe reactions from milk,
shellfish, soya, peanuts, wheat, tree nuts, and eggs. Furthermore,
traditional breeding of products such as potatoes can cause elevated
amounts of endogenous toxicants such as glyco alkaloids. By comparison, no
approved biotechnology product has been found to produce allergic or toxic
However, concerns with genetically engineered crops persist partially
because of the perception that gaining access to a wider range of genetic
diversity, crossing species barriers, and introducing foods with
additional proteins present safety concerns via our diets.The main source
of worry is the potential for allergic reactions. One example of
allergenic concerns arose in the summer of 2000, when traces of StarLink
corn were detected in some food products, such as taco shells. StarLink
was approved for use in animal feed, but not for human consumption.
Approval for human consumption was withheld because the Bt Cry9c protein
in corn did not disappear as quickly as other Bt proteins in test assays.
The unintentional commingling of StarLin with corn in the food chain led
to concerns about food safety. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
developed a method to detect the antibody indicating hypersensitivity to
the Cry9c protein. The FDA evaluated the actual case samples against
reference samples. It sent the data to the Centers for Disease Control,
which compared case values with control values. These studies found no
allergenic reactions associated with Cry9c.
Regulatory Approaches to Food Safety for GM Foods The Organisation for
Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines food safety as
"reasonable certainty that no harm will result from intended uses under
anticipated conditions of consumption." To arrive at reasonable certainty,
the OECD uses the concept of substantial equivalence (as developed by the
World Health Organization, the OECD, and the Food and Agriculture
Organization of the United Nations), because conventional toxicology
cannot adequately evaluate novel foods. Substantial equivalence "embodies
the idea that existing organisms used as food, or as a source of food, can
be used as the basis for comparison when assessing the safety of human
consumption of a food or food component that has been modified or is new."
The concept also serves as the premise for work based on the Codex
Alimentarius, which has become the seminal global reference point for
consumers, food producers and processors, national food control agencies,
and international food trade.
Substantial equivalence offers a science-based approach for comparing
genetically modified foods with an existing or conventionally bred
counterpart. Providing clear analysis of differences and similarities
between these foods can help structure a safety assessment, but by itself,
substantial equivalence is not a safety assessment. This concept has been
the target of criticism, as some believe it does not provide enough
information to determine safety.
Data that help determine or explain similarities and differences between
GM and traditional foods come largely from molecular and protein
characterization, which, some propose, can involve testing to determine
gene expression patterns, protein profiling, changes in protein
expression, and differences in metabolic capabilities. One difficulty in
utilizing this information is that the biological significance and safety
implications of the data may not be established.
The application of characterization and feeding methodologies also
presents problems. Standards used in the U.S. or Europe to determine food
safety present significant difficulties in the developing world. Even
though food safety data generated by one country can be submitted and
accepted in another, countries may not be aware of data generated
elsewhere. Countries may also seek additional feeding trials or molecular
studies over and above commonly required tests. If generation of
additional data requires sophisticated technologies, as is the case for
protein profiling, then developing countries will be strained to comply
with food safety standards. Developing countries themselves have called
for additional animal feeding studies, to assure those concerned about the
safety of animals that may consume GM products in the field.
Food safety assessments are essential to GM approvals and, as such, need
to be started early in the process of GM crop development. Commercial
providers of GM crops often complete food safety assessments with seed or
other material harvested from confined trials (that is, before committing
to extensive seed production). For developing countries, such a sequence
in GM crop development may be problematic, because they may have few
laboratories and scientists capable of food safety testing, may lack
information on the tests or data required, and may not have fully
anticipated funding needs. In addition, it is often difficult to obtain
approval for multilocation, confined field trials, and yet these trials
are needed by scientists to obtain material for safety evaluations. For
these reasons, food safety testing, including generation of data and
regulatory review, has become one of several problematic issues in the
regulation of GM crops.
While the proponent of a given GM event is expected to test for safety
(rather than a regulatory agency), a competent regulatory authority needs
to review the data. However, it is for each developing country to
determine how, when, and to what extent regulatory agencies themselves
will be involved in testing. The challenge of assuring safety becomes more
complicated as the range of GM products expands and the chance that a
substantial comparator crop exists decreases. Difficulty in reaching
international agreement on food safety standards and scientific
uncertainty about how to evaluate safety, coupled with the lack of a
clear,"one-window" approach for regulation in developing countries, means
that developed and developing countries lack a clear, uniformly accepted
path to regulatory approval of GM foods.
What Does the Future Hold?
It is often stated that GM products pose no new food safety risks when
compared to traditionally produced foods, and to date, no safety problems
have been identified for GM products approved for use. Most GM products
are considered substantially equivalent to traditional counterparts, with
exceptions for certain well-defined differences. Safety evaluations focus
on these defined differences. For developing countries, the need to make
such assessments raises questions about who will generate the data; which
approach will be followed (substantial equivalence or some other); and
what degree of uncertainty about food safety developing countries will
The present atmosphere surrounding genetically engineered crops has led to
a situation where food safety assessment is not just about science, but
also about perceptions, concerns, and standards about how to assure
"safety." As scientific opportunities advance, agreement on reasonable
standards of safety for developing countries will be critical. This will
also allow for and encourage exchange of data, which will help ensure that
data requirements are manageable not only among OECD countries, but across
the developing world as well. As part of capacity building for
biotechnology and biosafety, competency in assuring food safety for GM
crops is essential. This competency will enable countries to conduct
independent research when necessary. Building such capacity also creates
sufficient infrastructure to allow scientifically defensible decisions in
the face of food safety questions colored by each country’s perceptions
For further reading see: K.T.Atherton, Genetically Modified Crops --
Assessing Safety (London:Taylor and Francis, 2002) and Safety Aspects of
Genetically Modified Foods of Plant Origin, Report of a Joint FAO/WHO
Expert Consultation on Foods Derived from Biotechnology (Geneva:WHO,
Joel I. Cohen (email@example.com) is director of the Program for Biosafety
Systems at the International Service for National Agricultural Research;
Hector Quemada (firstname.lastname@example.org) is principal consultant at
Crop Technology Consulting, Inc.; and Robert Frederick
(email@example.com) is senior scientist at the National Center for
Environmental Assessment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
ILO Queries Globalisation Myths
- Jorn Madslien, BBC News, Nov. 28, 2003
Mr Ghose insists that "many of the public concerns about globalisation are
unfounded". In a book that is bound to provoke the anti-globalisation
community, an economist with the International Labour Organisation (ILO)
has challenged a range of popular concerns about the effects of
"Contrary to popular perceptions, global income inequality is actually
declining," senior economist Ajit Ghose argues in his new book, Jobs and
Incomes in a Globalizing World. Furthermore, globalisation has not fuelled
migration of workers from the poor countries of the South to the rich
countries of the North, Mr Ghose insists. "The available evidence actually
shows declining South-North migration during the 1990s," he tells BBC News
Mr Ghose's findings contradict much of the ILO's previous thinking, which
has traditionally been close to the more critical views of the trade union
movement. But the ILO is gradually acknowledging that agreement across
"often polarized... political or geographic lines" can be tricky and has
set out to "move the debate from confrontation to dialogue, and thereby
set the stage for action".
The anti-globalisation community - which has become very visible in recent
years due to mass protests at international trade summits - has tended to
criticise globalisation as the main cause of global income inequality,
poverty in the developing world, and migration to rich countries.
Protestors see globalisation as the cause of poverty and lower standards
But the ILO points out that "others see [globalisation] as a way of
solving such problems". "Many of the public concerns about globalisation
are unfounded," Mr Ghose insists. "Freer flows of trade and investment
have had a stimulating effect on economic growth in some of the most
populous low-income countries of the world, including China and India," he
And because of the sheer number of people living in these massive
countries, the impact on the average earnings per head in the developing
world has been huge. "It thus seems unlikely that the global distribution
of personal incomes has worsened," Mr Ghose says.
Employment and labour standards
Furthermore, while globalisation has enriched millions of people in
developing countries, the rise in exports of manufactured goods to
developed countries "have had a stimulating effect on employment". "And,
in general, the new employment cannot be judged as poor-quality by the
standards prevailing in the countries concerned," Mr Ghose says.
In other words, there has been a marked growth in quality jobs for
low-skilled labour in some developing countries. This shift has caused
some joblessness among low-skilled workers in rich countries, but the
exports of manufactured goods from poor countries have helped balance this
by stimulating the creation of medium- to high skilled jobs in the North,
Economic Benefits of Biotech Crops
'New technology helps raise farmer incomes across the globe.'
A wide variety of studies continue to document the economic benefits of
biotech crops. But perhaps the most telling fact underscoring the value of
this new technology is how quickly farmers from around the world have
"Biotechnology continues to be the most rapidly adopted technology in
agricultural history due to the social and economic benefits the crops
offer farmers and society, particularly the 5 million resource-poor
farmers in developing countries," says Clive James, chairman and founder
of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech
Applications (ISAAA), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help
alleviate hunger and poverty by sharing crop biotechnology applications
with developing countries.1
2002 marked the sixth straight year that the amount of land planted
worldwide with biotech crops increased at a double-digit pace, according
to ISAAA. And a similar increase is expected in 2003.
Between 5.5 million and 6 million farmers in 16 countries planted biotech
seeds in 2002, up from 5 million farmers in 13 countries in 2001. More
than three-quarters were resource-poor farmers in developing countries --
primarily in China and South Africa.2
Several farmers from around the world have embraced this new technology,
* Thandi Myeni of South Africa, whose cotton yields more than doubled
after switching to Bt cotton, which is enhanced with a naturally occurring
soil protein (Bacillus thuringiensis) to ward off insect pests. The crop
is so effective that about 90 percent of the farmers -- most of them women
-- in the Makhathini region of South Africa plant Bt cotton.
* Carlos Andico of the Philippines, who says he could have lived
comfortably much earlier had Bt corn been introduced sooner. Net incomes
for farmers who planted Bt corn were 34 percent higher, on average, than
those who planted traditional varieties, according to the ISAAA.
* Roy Bardole of Iowa, who says his herbicide and related costs have
dropped by more than half since he began using biotech soybeans.
Plant biotech adoption rates in the United States also illustrate how
farmers value this new technology:
* Biotech soybean plantings have increased to 81 percent of all soybean
acres -- up from 75 percent in 2002.
* Biotech corn plantings have increased to 40 percent of all corn acres --
up from 34 percent in 2002.
* Biotech cotton plantings have increased to 73 percent of all cotton
acres -- up from 71 percent in 2002.3
New biotech crops -- like one approved in 2003 in Canada and the United
States to control corn rootworm, known as the "billion dollar bug" -- are
expected to drive adoption rates even higher.
Farmers have embraced the technology so quickly for several simple
reasons: Biotech crops improve yields, cut costs and reduce spraying. Not
only do these benefits improve farmers' bottom lines, but they also save
time -- improving their quality of life by giving farmers more time to
spend with their families and to pursue other activities. 4
A June 2002 study of biotech crops by the National Center for Food and
Agricultural Policy (NCFAP) found that six biotech crops planted in the
United States -- soybeans, corn, cotton, papaya, squash and canola --
produced an additional 4 billion pounds of food and fiber on the same
acreage, improved farm income by $1.5 billion and reduced pesticide use by
46 million pounds.5
The NCFAP study also said that had 21 additional biotech crops been
planted in 2001, production would have increased 10 billion pounds, farm
income would have increased $1 billion, and pesticide use would have been
reduced by 117 million pounds. 6
A second NCFAP study, released in June 2003, found that the wide-scale
adoption of three biotech crops in Europe -- corn, potatoes and sugar
beets -- could increase annual production by 17 million pounds, improve
farmer income by more than 1 billion euros and reduce pesticide spraying
by 21.7 million pounds.
On average, the new biotech varieties in Europe would produce 5 percent
yield increases for corn and sugar beets and a 2 percent gain for the
genetically enhanced potato, said Leonard Gianessi, the lead author of the
A third study -- carried out by ISAAA and released in November 2003 --
said yield gains for Bt corn over traditional varieties were an average of
5 percent higher in the United States, 6 percent higher in Spain, and
about 10 percent higher in Argentina and South Africa. In field trials, Bt
corn yields were 24 percent higher in Brazil, up to 41 percent higher in
the Philippines, and up to 23 percent higher in China.
And numerous other studies have validated the economic and environmental
benefits of biotech crops:
* In 2001-2002, planting of Bt corn in Spain produced yield increases of
between 10 percent and 15 percent -- and an average income gain of 12.9
percent -- in areas with high levels of insect infestations, according to
a September 2002 study funded by Agricultural Biotechnology in Europe.7
* In 2000, biotech canola farmers in Canada saw an average increase of
$5.80 per acre compared with conventional growers, according to a study
conducted by the Canola Council of Canada.8 Yields were 10 percent higher
for biotech canola, or three bushels more per acre, while herbicide costs
were about 40 percent less. Biotech canola growers also saved a total of
$13.2 million in fuel, or 31.2 million liters, because biotech crops allow
farmers to plow less.
* Between 1998 and 2001, global cotton farmers reaped an additional $1.7
billion in income by using Bt cotton, according to a December 2002 report
from the ISAAA.9 Yield increases for Bt cotton ranged from 5 percent to
10 percent in China, 10 percent or more in the United States and Mexico,
and 25 percent in South Africa.
"It is important that a human face is put on the benefits of Bt cotton,"
said James. "For the average cotton holding of 1.7 hectares in the
Makhathini Flats in South Africa, in a typical season, a woman farmer is
relieved of 12 days of arduous spraying, saves over 1,000 liters of water
[over 250 U.S. gallons] … and increases her income by approximately $85
per season, through using Bt cotton rather than conventional cotton." 10
T.J. Buthelezi, a cotton farmer from South Africa who now plants biotech
seeds, said, "Normally, at the end of the year, I would ask my wife how we
are going to pay our bills. Now I ask her, how are we gonna spend this
Corn Planted Acreage Up 4 Percent From 2001; Soybean Acreage Down 2
Percent -- National Agricultural Statistics Service
1, 2 James, Clive. "Preview: Global Status of Commercialized Transgenic
Crops: 2002," International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech
Applications, ISAAA Briefs, No. 27.
3 "Acreage," National Agricultural Statistics Service, June 30, 2003, <http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/reports/nassr/field/pcp-bba/acrg0603.pdf>.
4 Horan, William, Horan Brothers Agricultural Enterprises. Mr. Horan was a
featured speaker May 20, 2002, at "Foods for Health, 14th Annual National
Conference, Highlighting the Integration of Agriculture and Medicine," at
the University of Minnesota.
5, 6 Gianessi, Leonard P. "Plant Biotechnology: Current and Potential
Impact for Improving Pest Management in U.S. Agriculture, An Analysis of
40 Case Studies, June 2002, p. 1, <www.ncfap.org/40CaseStudies/NCFAB Exec Sum.pdf>.
7 Brookes, Graham. "The Farm Level Impact of Using Bt Maize in Spain,"
Sept. 16, 2002,<www.europabio.org/upload/documents/gb_press_release/EuropaBio_btmaizeinspainreport_FINAL.pdf >.
8 "Impact of Transgenic Canola on Growers, Industry and Environment,"
Canola Council of Canada, <www.canola-council.org/production/impactsurvey.pdf>.
9, 10 James, Clive. "Global Review of Commercialized Transgenic Crops:
2001. Feature: Cotton," International Service for the Acquisition of
Agri-biotech Applications, Dec. 13, 2002, <www.isaaa.org/kc/CBTNews/ISAAA_PR/briefs26_exeng.htm>.