Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : December 24, 2003:
* A Momentous Year for BioScience
* Altered Crops? Let Africa Make Up Its Own Mind
* Science Must Not Be Stifled, Blair Says
* Patent Nonsense on GMOs Should be Debunked
* Bt Cotton in India: Govt Refutes Claim of Losses to Farmers
* Biotech Food: Is It Really Safe For All?
* Panning for Golden Gene
* Biotech Research Helps Create Knowledge-Based Economy
* Scientific Community Backs Agbiotech
* UC Won't Give Tenure to Critic of Biotech
Apologies for the interruption in the AgBioView for the past ten days.
I wish you all a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and a Wonderful New Year!
A Momentous Year for BioScience
'2003 has been a momentous year for bioscience in New Zealand'
- Rt Hon Jim Bolger, Chairman, BioScience Policy Institute, (NZ), Dec 22,
In amongst the challenges posed by genetic modification we’ve celebrated
50 years since the discovery of the structure of DNA - and as a result
have highlighted the New Zealand connection to that momentous event.
Maurice Wilkins was one of those startling minds to come out of rural New
Zealand (like our other Nobel winners Rutherford and McDiarmid) and then
transform our knowledge of our planet.
What this highlights is that size often doesn’t matter when it comes to
science excellence. What does matter is the attitude towards science
within the community.
Scientists are explorers who seek the answers to questions we haven’t even
Science is a method of extracting the occasional gems of truth from the
vast array of information which shapes our daily lives.
Scientists and their science help us to see a clearer path forward through
their ability to distinguish truth from desire. They do so by designing
rigorous experiments which allow us to distinguish fact from fallacy. It’s
not a guaranteed perfect process, but its better than any other we’ve got.
Early last week TV showed us very clearly how the scientific process can
distinguish fact from perception – and in the process how strongly
perception can resist the facts which undermine. The programme on
homeopathy was a classic science who-dunnit.
Scientists in France and elsewhere apparently show that water has memory
(an artefact of the way in which homeopaths make their remedies by
dilution) – no other explanation fits the fact that homeopathic remedies
appear to work even though there is no active chemical present at the
But, when the earlier scientific studies are repeated and subjected to
rigorous experimental controls by reputable independent scientists the
outcomes are very different – the homeopathic remedies have no more impact
than the water placebo.
So science has allowed us to extract fact from fallacy.
That is why science is so important to policymakers, regulators and
business. Society needs predictability and a foundation of certainty to
continue to make progress. We need progress to make sure we can manage the
growing pressure we humans put on the resources of our planet. We need
science to tell us what the facts are so we can make the best decisions.
While policy makers must heed the concerns of the non-scientific they must
use science to plot the course of our future – to do otherwise consigns
our children and grandchildren to a life less rich than our own. So, while
we exercise our caution on behalf of future generations we must beware we
don’t stop the progress which will provide for them.
Sound policy about our future will increasingly be dependent on sound
science. To that end we must build much better links between scientists,
the non-government sector and policy makers – a task which the BioScience
Policy Institute has been established to achieve.
Altered Crops? Let Africa Make Up Its Own Mind
- Andy Coghlan, New Scientist, Dec, 20, 2003
I hate working at weekends. But this is one assignment I'm glad I took. On
a dank Saturday evening back in January, I agreed to meet a group of
African biotechnologists. They were in Europe to persuade anyone who'd
listen that Africa has a lot to gain from agricultural biotechnology, even
if Europe hasn't.
The backdrop to our meeting was an ongoing controversy about whether
famine-threatened African countries should accept shipments of food aid
from the US when the maize supplied had not been segregated into GM and
non-GM consignments. Over the past months Zimbabwe and then Zambia had
opted to reject the food.
Why did these countries decide it was better to let people starve than
accept the aid, I asked my guests. They told me that much of the
opposition has its roots in Europe. There was concern, fuelled by European
aid organisations and environmental groups, that GM might threaten the
health of people who ate it and damage the environment. It would also
jeopardise vital exports to the European Union, which insists crops be
segregated. Luke Mumba, a senior molecular biologist at the University of
Zambia in Lusaka, said a big factor in Zambia's decision was a negative
report on the safety of GM foods published in 1999 by the British Medical
Association. The BMA was not best pleased when I confronted it with
Mumba's claims, but promised to review its GM policy. It kept that
promise, and the draft is being tweaked for launch early next year.
Zambia is also reviewing its biotech legislation. But concerns about trade
issues still loom large. Headlines in the UK this year focused on debates
and scientific findings emphasising what is probably true of public
opinion across the EU: GM crops don't provide anything that consumers
particularly want. But Mumba and his ilk argue that the same is not
necessarily true in Africa. With the continent's extremes of climate,
farmers need all the options they can get. They want countries to choose
whether they think GM will help, alongside other options such as improved
transport infrastructure and access to water.
While European consumers and campaigners remain so hostile to GM
technology, it's a choice they do not have.
Science Must Not Be Stifled, Blair Says
- BBC News, Dec. 23 2003
Britain risks being overtaken by other countries if it lets unjustified
protests stifle vital scientific advances, Tony Blair has warned. In a
speech on Thursday, the prime minister told the Royal Society in London
that science was crucial to the UK's economic success. His speech
included attacks on protests against animal experiments and GM crops, as
he urged people to judge new ideas on the scientific facts.
But Charles Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth, said ministers
seemed willing to accept scientific argument when it backed business but
was less open when evidence suggested dangers and difficulties. And Lord
Melchett, the Soil Association's policy director, accused the prime
minister of "regurgitating chemical industry propaganda".
Mr Blair said he understood that people were worried by some scientific
advances but he pressed for a more mature debate which needed science to
establish the facts. "My plea is really very simple," he said. "It is:
let the debate be won between open minds, not a retreat into the culture
The prime minister said ideas that scientists were developing some kind of
"Dr Strangelove" were based on misunderstanding. A new "robust, engaging
dialogue" with the public was needed to restore confidence in science,
which had been damaged by episodes such as the BSE crisis.
The prime minister told how a group of scientists in Bangalore, India, had
told him: "Europe has gone soft on science; we are going to leapfrog you
and you will miss out." Mr Blair continued: "I believe that if we don't
get a better understanding of science and its role, they may be proved
Britain was at a crossroads where it could choose timidity or a confident
approach to the modern world, he added. Although many scientists
applauded Labour's £2bn investment in science after it came to power,
others believe salaries are still too low and more must be done to bolster
In a letter on Wednesday, 29 top scientists called for more investment so
schools and universities could recruit and keep good teachers and
researchers. They said the country's science, engineering and medical
research base had been crucial to the social, economic and environmental
success of the UK. But its future depended on science education in
schools and universities, they said. Mr Blair said getting bright
youngsters interested in scientific careers was a "clear challenge for
Britain in the next 10 years".
On Wednesday, the government's Chief Scientist told the BBC that funding
would be found for a new laboratory in Cambridge researching neural
diseases. The local authority had said it couldn't afford security for
the centre, which will use monkeys for testing. The government has
previously backed Huntingdon Life Sciences, the medical research company
repeatedly targeted by violent animal rights protests.
But Michelle Thew, of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection,
said: "I am shocked by Tony Blair's defence at all costs of the interests
of the animal-testing industry and his complete dismissal of the fears and
concerns of an increasingly anxious public."
And Greenpeace Chief Scientist Dr Doug Parr said: "The British are not
anti-science but simply pro-democracy. All of the new technologies that Mr
Blair promotes are entirely controlled by private enterprise and released
into the world without any form of democratic mandate or public
consultation. "Even after the recent tornado of criticism over GM food,
Mr Blair is still trying to stop genetically engineered food from being
labelled for consumers. He just doesn't learn."
Mr Blair's comments have, however, gone down very well in the UK's major
scientific institutions. Professor Sir Brian Heap, Master of St Edmunds
College, Cambridge, said: "Thank goodness the Prime Minister is taking the
initiative in seeking to reverse the potentially dangerous trend that has
developed against responsible science."
And Professor Philip Dale, from the John Innes Centre, said: "The
pro-science comments by the Prime Minister are very welcome. The
anti-science campaigns propagated by some organisations seriously risk
paralysing innovation in UK science.
"The recent destruction of field crop experiments, which were designed to
generate knowledge on which sound decisions can be made, has parallels
with book-burning in supposedly less enlightened times."
Patent Nonsense on GMOs Should be Debunked
- Gregory Conko, The Wall Street Journal Europe, Dec. 22, 2003
It may now seem daring to say, but in a decade's time GM foods are likely
to be as widely accepted in kitchens as margarine and microwave ovens are
today. When that happens, we may look back and view Dec. 22, 2003 as a
landmark date in the rehabilitation of biotechnology's currently soiled
public image. On that day, one of the anti-GM movement's most compelling
criticisms will begin to crumble irreparably as the first European patent
on a GM crop is set to expire.
The debate over GMOs usually focuses on their safety. But, as study after
scientific study continues to find that no unique or inherent risks arise
from biotechnology, people will slowly but increasingly come to accept GM
foods. Earlier this month, for example, the European Food Safety Authority
announced that a particular variety of GM maize was perfectly safe for
human consumption. Many other similar announcements are expected to
Still, GM opponents have tried to slow the growing public confidence in
biotechnology -- for example, charging that it would lead to global
corporate control of the food supply or that resource-poor farmers in less
developed countries would be bankrupted by patent-wielding multinationals.
Even many biotechnology supporters worry that intellectual-property rights
mean that GM crops might forever remain the plaything of large
agribusinesses and wealthy farmers in industrialized countries. Many of us
seem to have forgotten that only diamonds are forever; patents are
The first GM plants were developed in 1982 and 1983 by four research teams
working independently -- one at the State University in Ghent, Belgium,
the others in the U.S. After nearly two decades of dispute, the European
patent was recently granted to the Belgian team, but it expires today. Two
more European patents, held by Monsanto, will expire in January. Over the
next few years, many other important patents will also expire.
Of course, even technologies still under patent have been put to
productive use in poorer countries. Today, over five million farmers in
South Africa, China, India, the Philippines and elsewhere already happily
grow patented GM varieties because they have higher yields, require fewer
inputs and raise income.
Public research labs are creating other products for developing-world
farmers. These include potatoes, rice, maize and oilseeds with added or
enhanced nutrients, crops engineered to grow better in the acidic soils of
the tropics, and varieties improved to grow better in extremes of heat and
drought. The researchers involved almost invariably have access to
patented technologies under liberal exemptions. But these truths have
never stopped anti-biotechnology activists.
When Switzerland's Ingo Potrykus and Germany's Peter Beyer invented a rice
variety with beta-carotene, they needed permission from several different
holders of more than 70 patents before they could begin testing their
Golden Rice. Critics use this fact in their campaigns against GM. What
they repeatedly neglect to tell their audiences, however, is that those
patent holders did indeed grant Mr. Potrykus and Beyer exemptions for
Mr. Potrykus says that, while obtaining those exemptions was time
consuming, the primary reason Golden Rice and other bio-fortified crops
have not yet begun to help resource-poor farmers is not patents but
"regulatory obstacles based on undue paranoia." He has argued that "those
who oppose GM technologies for political advantage or self-interest
[should be] held responsible for the unnecessary suffering of millions of
people with vitamin A deficiency," which Golden Rice could help address.
The purpose of intellectual property is not, as is often believed, to
provide financial protection to those investing in product development or
to encourage research into new technologies. This is a valuable outcome of
patents, but it is not the primary goal. Rather, the chief purpose of
patent laws has always been to encourage the dissemination of information
so that new technological knowledge could be introduced into the public
domain more quickly.
Innovators have long tried to keep the benefits of new processes, using
various contractual methods and "trade secrets." The contribution of
patent law to society was to offer innovators a financial inducement -- in
the form of a limited period of exclusivity -- in exchange for them making
their inventions public.
To qualify, inventors must provide a written description of the invention
and the process used to make it so that anyone skilled in the field can
reproduce the technology once the patent expires. This requirement is the
root of all patent systems and, combined with the financial rewards of
protection, has tended to accelerate the movement of new technologies into
the public domain.
Biotechnology's critics and advocates alike should remember that, while
the wealthy are often first to adopt new products, in time we have all
come to rely on once-patented technologies as varied as automobiles and
antibiotics. Perhaps this year's best holiday gift will be the knowledge
that, if we permit it, the whole world will also benefit from GM foods.
Mr. Conko is a senior fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute in
India - Bt Cotton: Govt Refutes Claim of Losses to Farmers
- Jal Khambata, Dec 15, 2003
The (Indian) Government on Monday scotched allegations of Bt cotton crop
causing losses to farmers, pointing out that both sales and area of
cultivation of this genetically modified seed has shot up in every state
only because of high and better yields.
Farmers, however, may not get the adequate yields if they do not carry out
the sprays specified on packets of these seeds, Human Resources
Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi affirmed in the Lok Sabha while
replying to a call-attention motion by Madhusudan Mistry (Cong) alleging
losses caused to the farmers using these seeds. Mistry claimed farmers of
Gujarat, and particularly those of his constituency, should be compensated
by the Government since its Genetic Engineering Committee had approved the
Bt cotton seeds of Mahyco Monsanto Co India Limited claimed to be
pest-resistant while they actually proved
to be a disaster as pests attacked the cotton flowers in August "not once,
but during the span of 30 - 40 days."
The Minister, however, pointed out that the government had constituted and
rushed a team of experts drawn from Delhi and Gujarat following complaint
of Mistry in October about the losses suffered by farmers of Laxmipura
area and the team noted that reports of losses were not correct except
where farmers did not follow instructions for proper use of the hybrid
seeds. Farmers can even sue the seed company in the consumer courts if the
seeds are not as advertised, Joshi said. The team visited randomly five of
the 58 plots mentioned by the Congress MP in his letter and found the crop
condition in four plots as "very good
to excellent" while they were "poor to average" only in one plot. The
cotton yield in these plots is expected to be more than the average yield
of non-Bt cotton, the Minister stressed.
"For deriving best performance of Bt cotton during the flowering season,
farmers were advised to undertake lepidopteran insect larval counts twice
a week to determine the Ecoomic Threshold Level (ETL) to undertake need
based pesticide spraying," Minister Joshi explained. In the opinion o the
team, "farmers who managed their crops as per the recommended agronomic
practices would reap a rich harvest of cotton this year." The seed company
had provided directions for this purpose in the literature distributed in
Gujarati and management of cotton crop as per these instructions is
important for success or failure of the crop.
Mistry wanted to know why the Government had promoted just one particular
MNC of Monsanto and wondered if the company was selling inferior seeds
also since the demand was far more from his production capacity. The
Minister, however, countered the charge pointing out that farmers would
not go for the Bt cotton seeds if they not benefit since the sale of these
seeds had been going up in every state, be it Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya
Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh or Karnataka. Imperative is "intensive training"
of farmers to make best use of these seeds, he said. Of course, five
companies were caught selling fake Bt cotton seeds in Gujarat, taking
advantage of their popularity, and they were dealt firmly, the Minister
said while adding that any farmers who would have suffered because of
using the Monsanto seeds can sue the company in the consumer court but the
Bt cotton itself cannot be painted with black brush just because of such
The Minister said the team that had rushed to Gujarat on Mistry's complain
had verified performance of all three Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton
hybrids MECH-162 Bt, MECH-12 Bt and MECH-184 Bt sold in the cotton growing
districts of Gujarat during May and June this year. "Performance-wise all
the three hybrids were found to be superior to conventional cotton hybrids
grown by the farmers in the area. Bt cotton hybrids required less number
of sprays for the control of bollworm and yielded higher than the
conventional cotton hybrids," the Minister said, adding that since these
Bt hybrids mature early, farmers can go for second
crop of wheat in the Rabi season.
According to the Minister's detailed reply, the best performance was of
MECH-12 because of higher yield with big boll size and long fire because
of which its "kapas" (cotton) was fetching a permium of Rs 200 per
quintal. Performance of MECH-184 was best in intensive management
conditions. The minister said this information was provided by all users
of Bt cotton seeds, enabling them to derive the best results from this
hybrid. As regards MECH-162, the Minister said it is a medium duration
hybrid suitable for rain-fed growign conditions. Those its bolls are
smaller than other two hybrids, their number per plant and the
rejuvenation capacity of the plant make it comparable to other Bt hybrids
in terms of yield parameters. The performance of this hybrid was above
average during the last and current session in Gujarat.
In a related question by Prakash Patil, Minister of State for Agriculture
Hukumdeo Narayan Yadav denied the government recommending to the farmers
use of biotechnology in farming as he said "only case by case
recommendation of biotechnology product/transgenics are being made by the
Genetic Engineering Approval Committee after bio-safety and environmental
safety evaluations and performance assessment.
Biotech Food: Is It Really Safe For All?
- Darunee Edwards, Bangkok Post, Dec. 18, 2003
'All products subject to rigorous testing'
In the last article in this series we highlighted some of the many
benefits of biotech crops for consumers, mostly in terms of more and
better tasting food with higher nutrient levels. In this article, we will
address important safety features of biotech crops. Clearly biotech crops
are of no value if they are in any way unsafe for consumption, improperly
regulated and/or damaging to the environment.
Foods developed through biotechnology will continue to meet the same
safety and regulatory requirements as all other foods in the marketplace.
In fact, biotech foods in North America are tested more thoroughly than
conventional crops. For instance, one type of biotech soybean in the
United States was subjected to 1,800 separate analyses before it reached
farmer's fields in a commercial form. In the US, Canada and Mexico, many
biotech products come under review by more than one agency.
In the US for example, Bt corn, which is enhanced to produce its own
naturally occurring protein to ward off insect pests, has been reviewed by
the regulatory bodies such as the Department of Agriculture to ensure it's
safe to grow, by the Environmental Protection Agency to confirm it's safe
for the environment and by the Food and Drug Administration to make sure
it's safe to eat
These regulatory bodies routinely issue specific guidelines that cover new
plant varieties developed through modern biotechnology. The guidelines
state: biotech food crops need to be regulated in the same way as foods
produced by other methods. Any new ingredient added to food through the
technique of biotechnology will be subject to pre-market approval in the
same way as a new food additive.
And the product review process is not over at this point. Post-approval
monitoring by the product developer, independent researchers and
government scientists help ensure that biotech crops continue to be safe
for consumers and for the environment.
Additionally, consumers can be assured that all of the ingredients that
have been introduced into foods through the process of biotechnology are
non-toxic, rapidly digestible, and do not have the characteristics of
proteins known to create new allergen or toxin.
Turning now to biotech crops and their impact on the environment, there
are many compelling arguments to support the notion that biotech crops are
environmentally friendly. For one thing scientific organisations and
regulatory agencies around the world have declared their confidence in the
guidelines for the assessment of the environmental safety of biotech
crops. These include the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Food and
Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), the Organisation for
Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the US National Academy of
Sciences, the Royal Society of London, as well as national academies in
China, Brazil, India and Mexico.
Another important aspect of environmental production is that farmers need
to protect their crops from various threats, including insects, weeds and
plant diseases. Currently, most of the methods available to deal with
these threats involve the excessive application of toxic chemicals - which
entail serious environmental consequences. Plant biotechnology can
increase crop resistance to many natural challenges thus reducing the need
for chemical insecticides and herbicides.
One of the first biotech crops to reach the market in the mid-1990s was a
cotton plant (Bt cotton) that can make its own pesticide. Scientists were
able to incorporate into the plant a toxin-producing gene from a soil
bacterium known as Bacillus thuringiensis.
With Bt cotton, farmers can spray much less pesticide. Bt cotton reduced
pesticide use by more than two million pounds in the United States alone
from 1996 to 2000, and it has reduced pesticide spraying in parts of China
by more than half. In the US the Environmental Protection Agency has
already approved a genetically modified corn product that resists a beetle
larva known as rootworm. Because rootworm represents such a damaging
threat to American farmers, this new variety of corn has the potential to
reduce annual pesticide use in the US by more than 14 million pounds.
No matter how a new crop is created - using traditional methods or modern
biotechnology - breeders are required to conduct field testing for several
seasons to be certain only desirable changes in a plant's composition have
been reached. They must check to ensure the plant looks right, grows
right, and produces food that tastes right. They must also perform tests
to see whether the level of nutrients have changed and whether the food is
Meticulous testing has ensured that biotech foods are safe and
environmentally friendly, and ironically there has never been a single
documented biotech-related health problem despite the propaganda spread by
the anti-biotech groups.
In the next article in this series, we will review some of the issues that
have arisen concerning the social and ethical implications of plant
- Darunee Edwards is a Deputy Director at the National Center for Genetic
Engineering and Biotechnology. She can be reached at
Panning for Golden Gene
- Food Navigator, Dec 19, 2003,
Food products made with GM maize could soon be on the European supermarket
shelves despite the cynical consumer if policy-makers, soon to take a
decision on the sale of Syngenta's Bt11 GM maize, take a yes vote. A
recent breakthrough in analysis used on maize genomes could bring the
seeds to market earlier.
Researchers in the US recently used two complementary methods that remove
from analysis vast stretches of DNA that do not contain genes, thereby
dramatically speeding up the process of decoding. The approaches, applied
jointly in efforts to determine the gene sequences in maize and carried
out by two groups of researchers at The Institute for Genomic Research
(TIGR) in Rockville, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, are
described in the 19 December issue of the journal Science.
Only about a quarter of the maize genome codes for genes , and these are
found in small clusters scattered through a mixture of non-coding DNA and
transposons (mobile DNA segments). Two different methods tested by the
TIGR group successfully captured parts of the maize genome containing
genes. The gene-sequences are of most interest because they provide the
specific blueprint for an organism's development, structure and
With so much non-gene sequence to deal with, it has not been feasible to
sequence and assemble the whole maize genome with current technologies.
"Collecting the maize genes for sequencing is like panning for gold," said
Jane Silverthorne, programme director for NSF's plant genome program.
"Just as gold can be separated from the surrounding rock because it is
denser, maize genes can be separated from the surrounding DNA by their
chemical and sequence properties."
The first method tested called methylation filtration, developed by a team
led by Robert Martienssen and Richard McCombie at Cold Spring Harbor
laboratory, removes sequences that contain a chemical modification
(methylation) found on most of the repeated sequences and transposons,
leaving behind the proverbial gold of genes. The second method, developed
by researchers at the university of Georgia, removes the repeated
sequences by separating the DNA into "high-copy," gene-poor segments and
"low-copy," gene-rich segments.
Led by Cathy Whitelaw, the research team at TIGR compared sequences
obtained by the two methods. About one fourth of the genes in each
collection matched known gene sequences. About 35 per cent of the genes
were represented in both collections. As both methods yielded short
stretches of sequence, a major challenge was to reassemble these into
complete genes, report the researchers.
To do this, the Cold Spring Harbor group lined up the sequence pieces from
maize along the rice genome sequence, a deep draft of which was completed
in 2002 by an international consortium. The researchers then reassembled
selected sets of sequence fragments into complete genes.
"Together, these findings suggest that scientists could be able to sift
out the approximately 450 million base pairs of DNA containing the genes
from the maize genome and then reassemble the sequence,’ said
Silverthorne. Such a comprehensive genomic resource would provide growers
and breeders a wealth of tools to improve maize, as well as other cereal
crops, he added.
Earlier this month, a divided Europe saw member states failing to suppport
the Commission proposal to authorise the first GM foodstuff – BT11
sweetmaize, a strain of genetically modified sweetcorn developed by Swiss
firm Syngenta - since the de facto moratorium begun five years ago. The
vote now passes to Europe's agriculture ministers and is expected to take
place in early 2004.
Widespread opposition to GM foodstuffs in Europe has seen a food industry
reluctant to take on board GM ingredients into their final food products.
Biotech Research Helps Create Knowledge-Based Economy
- Council for Biotech Information, Dec.12, 2003
Plant biotechnology is helping to create a vibrant knowledge-based economy
throughout the United States, according to a study by a University of
"The vast stock of plant breeding and genomic research and development
knowledge that led to the biotech revolution will generate billions of
dollars in additional economic benefits for farmers and others in the
agrifood value chain and within public and private research communities,"
said C. Ford Runge, director of the Center for International Food and
Agricultural Policy and Distinguished McKnight University Professor of
Applied Economics and Law.
The study, "The Economic Status and Performance of Plant Biotechnology in
2003: Adoption, Research and Development in the United States," provides a
detailed view of biotechnology's value at the farm level and beyond the
farm gate, where the crops -- and the research and development that
creates them -- generate additional jobs, income and investment in the
agrifood chain and public and private research community. The study was
supported by the Council for Biotechnology Information.
"It's clear why farmers have been adopting these crops: managerial
efficiencies and increased profits per acre," said Runge.
Since their introduction in 1996: * Bt corn plantings have increased from
4 percent of total U.S. corn acres to 40 percent in 2003. * Biotech cotton
plantings have increased from 17 percent of U.S. cotton acres to 73
percent in 2003. * Biotech soybean plantings have increased from 9 percent
of U.S. soybean acres to 81 percent in 2003.
"The most compelling evidence for me as an economist of the value of
biotech crops is the preference of farmers to plant these crops year after
year after year," said Runge.
Four commercial biotech crops -- corn, soybeans, cotton and canola --
represented $20 billion in value in the United States in 2002, half of the
total $40 billion value of the four crops.
The U.S. Corn Belt and cotton-growing regions gained the most economic
value from planting biotech crops in 2002, led by Iowa ($3.8 billion),
Illinois ($2.5 billion), Minnesota ($2.2 billion), Nebraska ($1.8
billion), Indiana ($1.3 billion) and South Dakota ($1 billion). Following
these major corn and soybean growing states, Missouri was next with $1
billion, followed by North Dakota ($689 million), Ohio ($619 million) and
cotton-producing states Arkansas ($670 million) and Mississippi ($528
million). But the economic effects of plant biotechnology are being felt
far beyond the farm.
"New plant biotech firms and research facilities are being created
throughout the United States," said Runge. "The number of agricultural and
food scientists are increasing as workers are attracted to the biotech
sector's above-average wages, and a large number of individual states are
reaping the benefits of this investment and job-related activity. While 41
of 50 states had some type of biotech initiative by 2001, those that have
aggressively adopted and invested in biotechnology are reaping the
Corn Belt states with higher adoption levels of biotech crops -- South
Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota and Iowa -- have a greater proportion
of ag and food science jobs than those with lower levels of adoption. For
example, Iowa, one of the top five states in crop biotech adoption, has 50
ag and food science jobs per 100,000 jobs, more than lower adoption
states. The average annual salary for these jobs in 2001 was $52,310 --
more than one and a half times the U.S. average of $34,020. In Wisconsin,
where 56 of the 200 bioscience companies are dedicated to agriculture, the
study indicated there are 21,000 workers who account for $5 billion of the
Badger state's economy.
"This sector now represents enormous value -- and extends to the national
economy," said Runge, adding that even more densely populated states such
as Connecticut, Maryland and Rhode Island are creating biotech jobs. "The
jobs that are being created are knowledge-based, high-paying and highly
specialized." In the past two years, field tests have been conducted on
100 new biotech crop traits by 40 universities and 35 private sector
companies — from a new variety of corn with an improved nutritional
profile for use as an animal feed to a type of wheat that can better
withstand droughts. Runge said continued investment in research and
development -- along with more public education about the benefits of
biotechnology -- is key to achieving further gains from plant
biotechnology. "As consumer confidence grows, it will feed the demand for
new biotech varieties, increase the advantages of those willing and able
to supply them, and indirectly establish a base of support for continued
public investments in plant biotech," he said. "That translates directly
into high social rates of return in the form of educational and job
For more information:
The Economic Status and Performance of Plant Biotechnology in 2003:
Adoption, Research and Development in the United States (executive
summary) -- C. Ford Runge and Barry Ryan
Scientific Community Backs Agbiotech
- Matthew Hisrich, Rice World, Dec. 2003. v. 3, no. 12, p 15
With the increasing use of agricultural biotechnology has come increasing
controversy. The recent Gates Foundation grant to promote healthier
produce through genetics, for instance, sparked a wave of commentary on
the future of these technologies in agriculture.
Recently, Rice World had the opportunity to speak with Dr. C. S. Prakash,
Professor in Plant Molecular Genetics and Director of the Center for Plant
Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University in Alabama. Dr. Prakash is
the founder of AgBioWorld Foundation. This organization aims to provide
science-based information on agbiotech issues to various stakeholders
across the world.
RW: How did you first become interested in agricultural biotechnology? - I
am by training a plant breeder. During the mid 1980s when it became
apparent that biotechnology tools are vital to developing improved
varieties of crop plants, I started learning the techniques to better
equip myself in my field.
RW: How long have you been working in the field? - About 25 years in plant
breeding and 17 years in biotech.
RW: Recent research has shown that both farmers and consumers are
interested in genetically modified agriculture that might benefit them,
yet there is a strong reluctance to using the technology. What do you feel
is at the root of opposition to the use of such tools? - Much of the
opposition to this technology is rooted in vested interests and not based
on science or facts. Radical environmentalists oppose this technology
because it helps advance their agenda of anti-development and
anti-progress while appealing to gullible donors. Organic food industry
opposes biotechnology because it increases their sales by creating fear
among consumers. Europeans oppose biotechnology so that they can restrict
U.S. imports. Many NGOs oppose this technology for they fear the
RW: Britain is experiencing a "brain drain" as its best biotech
researchers depart under intense public backlash. Have you experienced any
negative reactions to your work? - Not much negative reaction to my
research because I work in the US. However, I have faced considerable
opposition to my views on biotechnology to my writings and at my lectures
throughout the world.
RW: Are there any implications for the advancement of science generally
from these attitudes? - Science must go on and but increasingly it is
apparent that we must be cognizant of the public perception of
technological advancement. Our job as scientists now extends beyond the
labs in making an effort to create an awareness of the impact of science
among the policy makers, media and the general public.
RW: Do you feel there are any valid concerns? - Concerns about food safety
and the environmental impact of biotech crops are scrutinized thoroughly
by the regulators on a case-by-case basis and thus there should really be
no issue here. We have had absolutely no credible scientific reason to
fear any of the products we have on the market.
There is a larger concern that is difficult to address - control of the
technology. There are some understandable grounds for concern that a
handful of big companies control this technology. However, these companies
have invested billions in developing this technology and thus it is
natural that they would recoup their investment. But they have also shown
willingness to share the technology for larger public good such as with
the Golden Rice patents. We must have a collective will globally in
harnessing this technology and channel it in appropriate ways to target
developing country problems such as focusing on rice, cassava, millets
etc. This can be done with strong public sector funding, and creative
partnerships with the private sector such as that which is being
experimented with in Africa through the African Agriculture Technology
RW: How important do you feel genetic modification is for future food
security? - In our past efforts, genetics was a major tool in addressing
food security to bring about the green revolution through improved
varieties. Genetic modification is a vital and powerful tool in our hands
now to bring unprecedented improvements in food and agriculture throughout
the world. By targeted use of genetic modification, we can help cut down
losses on the farm due to pests, disease and weeds, conserve losses beyond
the farm through improved shelf-life, cut down the use of chemicals on the
farm, improve productivity, help crops tolerate droughts and bad soils and
make them more nutritious. While genetic modification alone will not help
ensure food security, the task will be very elusive without the help of
this innovative technology.
RW: Are there economic consequences as well? - I see it as a win-win
situation. There can only be positive economic consequences from improving
agricultural productivity in the developing world which in turn helps
these struggling economies, brings more food security, cuts down the
inequity between the rural poor and urban rich, helps improve exports,
brings down food prices and also conserves the natural resource base.
RW: Do regulations on GM products in developed nations (the EU in
particular) harm agricultural producers in developing nations? -
Certainly. The EU has taken an irrational path so far in regulating these
products so harshly to the point of stopping any further development.
Further, the draconian tracing and labeling requirements on their food
imports will ensure that developing countries would have no incentive to
pursue biotechnology in their own agriculture.
RW: Is there a cost to developed nations as well, in the form of a
chilling effect? - Yes. Trade of farm products is an important component
of most developing countries. There is thus a global ripple effect from
the EU all over the world.
RW: Is it true that labeling requirements for biotech products might
actually reduce consumers' access to factual information about food
safety? - Much of the current labeling requirement from EU is very
misleading to the consumer and it does not protect the consumer in any
RW: China is moving fast to develop GM crops. In the U.S., the National
Science Foundation and other government bodies are awarding grants to such
research. In the Mississippi Delta, advocates are pushing for states to
develop a "biotech corridor" along the lines of Silicon Valley. What do
you view as the appropriate role for federal and state governments to play
in the development of biotechnology? - Governments all over the world have
a responsibility to promote basic research in biotechnology and those in
developing countries especially have a major responsibility in the
application of this technology to staple food crops. A larger role of
governments here is in ensuring policies that facilitate development of
technology through meaningful and science-based regulation without much
RW: Rice was one of the first genomes to be fully mapped, and 2004 has
been declared The International Year of Rice by the United Nations. How
important do you view the improvement of rice to international food
security? - Rice is the most important food crop in the world that much of
the humanity depends on for its survival. Any improvement in rice
productivity is a march of progress. I believe that rice would be the most
important crop to deliver biotechnology promise to the masses because so
much more rice is needed to feed the burgeoning population in the future.
Rice is grown on tiny little farms around the world and against great odds
of weeds, pests, disease, drought and problem soils. Biotechnology can
help transform this miracle crop further into bounty of wonder that can
continue to sustain humanity.
RW: There is much concern in the news about an impending "water crisis."
Are you aware of any efforts to reduce rice's water demands through
genetic modification? - Certainly. There is much research on improving
drought tolerance of rice in many labs. This is a difficult target but
already much progress is being made. Genome research would clearly help in
accelerating such discoveries.
RW: Some commentators have suggested that developing nations should
diversify their agriculture and move away from a dependence on rice to
ensure food security. Does this type of response to food concerns
eliminate the need for technology advancements? - A recent report by IRRI
has shown that because of high productivity of new rice varieties, farmers
in Asia have already diversified much because they can produce more rice
on less land leaving aside more land for other crops. Technology
advancements will thus be needed further not only to diversify but also to
continue to make productivity increases in rice.
RW: United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Director-General
Jacques Diouf recently stated that impoverished countries in Africa need
basic supplies such as water and infrastructure more than they need GM
seeds. Would you agree? - It is not 'Either / Or' question and that is
silly. Africa needs both.
RW: What is the Declaration of Support for Agricultural Biotechnology? -
It is simply a statement affirming the scientific community overwhelming
support of ag biotech and its potential to help advance human quality of
life through biotechnology. For more information, visit
RW: How many scientists have expressed support for this document? - More
than 3,500 so far, including 24 Nobel laureates.
RW: Do you feel that biotechnology's benefits will eventually win over the
public? - Yes, I am confident. Historically there has always been
opposition and suspicion of new technologies. However, once the people
start recognizing the benefits of new innovations and also understand that
many of the risks are non-existent or can be managed, they will embrace
UC Won't Give Tenure to Critic of Biotech
- Charles Burress, San Francsico Chronicle, Dec. 12, 2003
A UC Berkeley assistant professor and critic of the biotech industry has
lost a long tenure battle to what he believes is corporate corruption of
UC officials confirmed Thursday that tenure had been denied to Ignacio
Chapela, whose disputed research found that genetically engineered corn
had infiltrated native maize in Mexico. He was also a leading critic of a
controversial 1998 deal to give Novartis, a Swiss-based biotechnology
company, privileged access to UC plant research in exchange for $25
UC Berkeley spokesman George Strait said the campus cannot discuss
personnel decisions, but he added, "We stand by the process," which he
described as "among the strongest, most strenuous and fairest at any
university in the country." The tenure denial was made public in an
article published Thursday in the science journal Nature, which said
Chapela's tenure review had taken "an unusual course" after two faculty
committees voted overwhelmingly in favor of tenure.
It said the second, five-member committee had been "quizzed by the
university hierarchy" about the committee's findings and possible bias of
two members, and that the chair had then resigned, "disavowing his
committee's report." Strait declined to comment on whether Chapela's
review was unusual. "It is not unusual for a person downstream to go back
upstream and raise questions and ask for more review," he said.
Chapela, who teaches microbial ecology in the Department of Environmental
Science, Policy, and Management, said he would appeal the tenure decision.
He said he had received notification of the decision from Chancellor
Robert Berdahl on Nov. 26. It takes effect at the end of June. He said a
report from the top faculty tenure committee acknowledged his excellent
teaching and service but cited the serious challenges to his maize study
and his modest publications record.
Nature published the corn study by Chapela and graduate student David
Quist, igniting a storm of controversy. Plant scientists debated the
scientific validity of the research; some called it flawed, while
supporters and environmental groups saw the dark hand of the lucrative
biotech industry at work.
In an apparently unprecedented retraction, Nature "concluded that the
evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the
Asked whether he believes the main reason for the tenure denial was the
university's ties to the biotech industry, Chapela said, "I cannot avoid
the conclusion that it was." Chapela, an outspoken critic of what he sees
as the commercialization of universities, received sustained applause
Wednesday night from about 450 people who attended a campus panel by four
scientists who said they were targets of attempts to suppress their
"This is such a jewel of a university," he told the gathering, co-
sponsored by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and other
campus programs. "That ship is being looted and pirated left and right."
He took particular aim at the 1998 deal with a division of the drug and
agri-business giant Novartis, now called Syngenta. The five-year agreement
gave Novartis first rights to a certain percentage of patents from the
Department of Plant and Microbial Biology and two seats on the five-member
committee that awarded research projects.
UC officials say an internal review found that research wasn't tainted or
compromised by the agreement. They also cite a June 2001 article in the
Chronicle of Higher Education that reported that none of dozens of people
interviewed could cite an instance of research compromised by the deal.
The deal received unflattering attention as the centerpiece of a March
2000 Atlantic magazine article, "The Kept University."