Today in AgBioView: January 19, 2004
* Benefits outweigh risks of biotechnology in farming
* Poor nations take the lead in GM
* Salt-resistant rice
* Germany Sees Biotech Foods Advancing
* Bio-engineered crops increase 15% worldwide
* GM corn to be approved for one year in UK
* Who's afraid of biotech?
Benefits outweigh risks of biotechnology in farming
Biotechnology in farming not to fear
- The Times and Democrat, January 19, 2004
Genetically engineered crop plantings increased 15 percent last year
despite continued consumer resistance in Europe and elsewhere, according
to a group that promotes use of the technology in poor countries.
Seven million farmers in 18 countries grew engineered crops on 167.2
million acres last year, compared with 145 million acres in 2002,
according to a report released by the International Service for the
Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications.
In 1996, the first year genetically modified crops were commercially
available, about 4.3 million acres of biotech crops were under
"Farmers have made up their minds," the group's founder and chairman,
Clive James, told The Associated Press. "They continue to rapidly adopt
biotech crops because of significant agronomic, economic, environmental
and social advantages."
Still there is significant opposition, as shortsighted as it is.
We've criticized the Indian-led movement, supported by largely European
self-styled "Greens," many of whom have adopted it to protect local
agriculture. Also consider the American "nutritional activists" who'd
rather win influence than save poverty-stricken children and women in the
tropics by denying them rice modified to be rich in iron and vitamin D to
prevent anemia, skeletal weakness and other conditions.
There is adequate refutation of charges that gene-engineered crops will
displace natural plants. In 2001, "Nature" reported on corn, rape seed and
sugar beets genetically modified to withstand herbicides and potatoes to
resist insects with two kinds insecticide.
Corn has been a target of anti-gene engineers after some farmers ignored
warnings they'd agreed to abide by and let modified and unmodified grain
mix, then sold it to feed processors.
Rape, a mustard family plant, is widely fed to hogs in Europe. Its seed,
the source of canola oil, is healthy for humans with its monounsaturated
In the American West and Europe, sugar beets compete with cane as a sugar
In 1990, all four were deliberately abandoned to go wild. Within four
years, the beets, corn and rape had died out, unable to compete with
natural growth anymore successfully than non-engineered varieties.
Potatoes still grow in one plot but no longer contain the
Showing a regard for accuracy, objectivity, patience and tolerance, the
researchers warned that in the future, crops genetically modified to
resist drought or contain disease and pest controls not yet tested could
be more successful in reseeding themselves in the wild.
All in all, gene engineers must take care but should proceed to develop
the clear benefits science offers. Some 18 percent of the world's 3.7
billion acres under food-crop cultivation are biotech. That is not enough,
It is critical the American public understand the farm and environmental
benefits of today's biotechnology. It can be the key to feeding a hungry
Poor nations take the lead in GM
- SciDev.Net, by Katie Mantell, 16 January 2004
Farmers in developing countries are switching to genetically modified (GM)
crops at more than twice the rate of farmers in the industrialised world,
according to a new survey.
Last year, the amount of land planted with GM crops in developing
countries grew by 4.4 million hectares, or 28 per cent. In comparison, the
rate of growth in industrialised countries was 11 per cent.
The figures come from a survey released this week by the International
Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), an
organisation that supports the transfer of biotechnology to developing
The survey finds that seven million farmers in 18 countries — more than 85
per cent of who are resource-poor farmers in the developing world — now
plant GM crops. Almost one-third of the world's GM crops are now grown in
developing countries, compared to one-quarter in 2002.
"Farmers have made up their minds," says Clive James, chairman and founder
of ISAAA. "They continue to rapidly adopt biotech crops because of
significant agronomic, economic, environmental and social advantages."
But Alex Wijeratna, a food campaigner for the development organisation
ActionAid, argues that the uptake of GM crops in the developing world may
have more to do with aggressive marketing by influential seed companies
than with any benefits that the crops might offer.
"In Africa, the formal seed sector is dominated by three companies," he
says. "We are increasingly worried about the concentration of the market."
According to the ISAAA survey, six countries together grow 99 per cent of
the world's GM crops, up from four in 2002. Brazil and South Africa joined
the United States, Argentina, Canada and China as the leading growers of
GM crops. China and South Africa experienced the largest increases last
year, each expanding the area planted with GM crops by a third.
The most commonly planted GM crop is soya, and 55 per cent of the world's
soya crop, covering 41.4 million hectares, is now genetically modified,
according to ISAAA. GM maize was planted on 15.5 million hectares
worldwide in 2003, an increase of a quarter over the previous year; GM
cotton was grown on 7.2 million hectares; and GM canola occupied 3.6
The ISAAA predicts that within the next five years, 10 million farmers in
25 or more countries will plant 100 million hectares of GM crops.
According to the report, the global market value of GM crops is expected
to increase from US$4.5 billion this year to US$5 billion or more by 2005.
Link to the executive summary of the report:
Indian scientists have genetically engineered a new salt-resistant rice
variety designed to stand up to global warming
- Science, January 16, 2004, Volume 303, Number 5656 (Via Agnet)
Climate change is expected to cause rising sea levels in coastal
rice-growing areas everywhere. A team of scientists led by Ajay Parida at
the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in Chennai has now taken
a salinity-resistance gene--which they isolated 3 years ago from a
coastal- growing mangrove--and put it into several Indian rice varieties.
In greenhouse experiments, the plants have grown in water three times as
salty as seawater. Last month the government approved a field trial for
the new variety.
Vibha Dhawan, director of bioresources at The Energy and Resources
Institute in New Delhi, says salt-resistant food crops are needed not just
in the face of global warming but because soil salinity is a major
consequence of the intensive chemical fertilizer use and overirrigation
prompted by the Green Revolution. MSSRF estimates that about one-third of
all irrigated land is now affected by salinization.
Germany Sees Biotech Foods Advancing
- Associated Press Writer, January 16, 2004
BERLIN (AP)--Germany says the European Union can't hold out against new
biotech foods much longer, signaling a public shift by the most populous
country even as the 15-member group remains split over lifting a 1998
moratorium on such foods.
The German government this week presented planting rules for genetically
modified crops and hinted it expects the EU suspension on new biotech
foods to be lifted this year.
That prospect dominated talk at the world's biggest annual food fair,
which opened Friday in Berlin with a strong representation by organic food
producers, reflecting their rising market share in Germany over the last
As she toured the booths, Consumer Protection and Agriculture Minister
Renate Kuenast said Germany has to get ready for new biotech crops--but
under strict conditions.
``I will fight like a lion to make sure that in the future there are
biotech-free areas'' in Germany, she told reporters at the Green Week food
Genetically engineered crops are increasingly being planted worldwide and
are widely used in the United States, mostly corn, soy and cotton. But
many Europeans are worried about the long-term environmental and health
Kuenast personifies the political predicament in a nation where polls
consistently show that most people don't want to buy biotech food.
A Green Party member tapped by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder three years
ago after mad cow disease broke out in Germany, she says she personally
sees no need for biotech food.
But after months of wrangling inside the government, she signed off this
week on the proposed biotech law--because, she told the Berliner Zeitung
newspaper, she expects EU-approved, genetically modified corn to show up
on European supermarket shelves in the fall.
Kuenast said she supports putting biotech food in stores next to
unmodified food as long as it is clearly labeled.
The difficulty of marketing biotech products to European consumers was
underscored by a German public television poll Friday that found 70
percent of Germans saying they cannot imagine buying such foods.
``I think the long-term effects aren't known,'' said fair visitor Christin
Groeger, touring the organic food section. ``Maybe I'd buy it in 100 years
if there are no problems.''
Germany's farm lobby is also worried. Farmers fear that the proposed
biotech law will leave them liable if genetically modified seeds
accidentally mix with someone else's conventional or organic crops.
Without referring specifically to biotech, Schroeder urged Germans on
Friday to open up to new technologies, criticizing their tendency ``to
first discuss risks, and then the opportunities.''
``We would like to turn that around,'' he said after hosting business
leaders and academics in Berlin to discuss the future of innovation in
Fairgoer Simone Sabry was dubious about genetically engineered food, but
figured she would probably have no choice. She might even eat the labeled
``A lot of what you buy is manipulated and you never know. So, why not?''
she said. ``If it looks nice, and it's OK to the touch, then you buy it
and eat it.''
Bio-engineered crops increase 15% worldwide
- Associated Press, January 18, 2004
SAN FRANCISCO--Genetically engineered crop plantings increased 15 percent
last year despite continued consumer resistance in Europe and elsewhere,
according to a group that promotes use of the technology in poor
Seven million farmers in 18 countries grew engineered crops on 167.2
million acres last year, compared to 145 million acres in 2002, according
to a report released last week by the industry-backed International
Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications.
In 1996, the first year genetically modified crops were commercially
available, about 4.3 million acres were under biotechnology cultivation.
"Farmers have made up their minds," said the group's founder and chairman,
Clive James. "They continue to rapidly adopt biotech crops because of
significant agronomic, economic, environmental and social advantages."
In all, some 18 percent of the world's 3.7 billion acres under food crop
cultivation are biotech, the ISAAA says.
The most popular such crops contain bacterium genes that make the plants
resistant to either bugs or weed killers.
James and other biotechnology proponents argue that genetically modified
plants will help alleviate poverty and hunger in developing nations by
improving crop yields and cutting expenses through less use of pesticides.
Opponents argue that stable governments, improved transportation systems
and education are more important to improving developing nations' food
production than biotechnology. Further, they argue that not enough is
known about genetically modified crops' impact on human health or the
Farmers in the Philippines grew nearly 50,000 acres of engineered corn in
2003, the first year altered crops were approved commercially there.
India nearly doubled its genetically engineered cotton output last year to
247,000 acres and China raised 6.9 million acres of biotech cotton, a 33
percent increase over 2002.
GM corn to be approved for one year only
- The Independent, By Geoffrey Lean, 18 January 2004
GM crops will be given the go-aheadfor a single season in Britain, in a
move largely crafted to save the Prime Minister's face, The Independent on
Sunday can reveal.
The Government is preparing a very limited approval for just one crop, GM
maize, which will effectively mean that it will only be able to be grown
in 2005 and then under strict conditions that may make it uneconomic.
The plan, which will be announced next month, is designed to save Tony
Blair from abandoning the technology, while placating public outrage by
ensuring that few controversial crops are actually planted in British
In a policy statement to be published next month, the Government will, in
effect, reject the growing of GM beet and oilseed rape in Britain, on the
grounds that official trials published last autumn showed that growing
them was much more damaging to nature than their conventional
But they will announce a green light for GM maize because the trials
showed that growing it was less destructive of wildlife than the
traditional crop. This will appear to validate the Prime Minister's desire
to introduce the technology to Britain, but it will provide little comfort
to the biotech industry.
In the meantime, as The Independent on Sunday exclusively reported last
October, atrazine, the pesticide used on conventional maize, will be
banned. The chemical, which effectively sterilises the soil, is entirely
responsible for the poor performance of the maize against its GM
counterpart in the official trials.
If it is to get permission for GM maize beyond 2006, the industry will
have to prove its case all over again with a new set of studies, to show
that growing its product remains more beneficial than traditional
cultivation even after atrazine has been replaced.
Ministers will insist that the GM maize is grown under the same conditions
as in the official trials. Critics say that conditions were designed to
give the modified crop the best possible environmental performance, making
it uneconomic in the real world.
Senior officials expect that there will be no market for GM maize, and
believe it will only be grown if biotech firms give farmers "offers they
Who's afraid of biotech?
- Jerusalem Post, By Michael Fumento, Jan. 15, 2004
Virtually everything good that you've heard about biotechnology is true.
It's making inroads against killers such as cancer, heart disease, and
stroke. It's stopping other diseases for which until recently the best
treatment was an aspirin. Biotech crops will provide malnourished peoples
with enough calories to turn them into American-sized butterballs.
But to many, biotech has a dark side. They fear cloning humans to rip out
their organs as replacements, turning our offspring into ubermenschen, and
distorting the whole concept of what it is to be human.
Happily, though, almost all of the bad about biotech would be senseless,
scientifically impossible, or far more readily done through alternative
technologies such as bionics. Or the developments actually don't seem very
unusual - much less scary - when considered in a broader context.
Consider the idea of growing human clones for replacement organs, with
some terrifying scenarios depicting headless bodies connected to life
support until the organ is required.
But already biotechnology is fabricating organs such as bladders and even
relatively complex ones such as penises. The immorality of murdering a
human aside, why grow and sustain a whole person for an organ you may
never need when you can buy an individual organ "off the rack" or have it
specially made for you?
Not all controversial applications of biotech lie in the realm of fantasy,
though. A real scenario is the use of stem cells from human embryos, which
many see as violating the sanctity of human life. Even those who don't
feel that way must recognize that others do, and thus it leaves biotech
with a black eye.
But it's often the case with biotechnology that new advances eliminate
older problems. In the last two years, three different US labs have found
evidence that three different types of non-embryonic stem cells - those
taken from adults, umbilical cords, or placentas - appear to be able to
mature into any cell in the body. Even if all three labs fail, so many
different non-embryonic stem cells have been found that can be converted
into so many different types of mature tissue that there should be no need
for "one-size-fits-all" stem cells.
Researchers whose reputations are built on embryonic research and require
funding to keep their labs going often insist that non-embryonics are
overrated or even worthless. But non-embryonics have actually been used
therapeutically since the 1980s for limited purposes such as treating
leukemia, even as embryonics are only now moving into animal testing.
WHAT ABOUT what is called "germ-line" gene-alteration to "improve" the
human race as a whole or at least your line of descendants? Research will
eventually allow changing such genetic attributes as intelligence or
appearance. Johns Hopkins University political science professor Francis
Fukuyama devotes many pages to this in his book Our Posthuman Future:
Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution.
But most of Fukuyama's fears have already come to pass through other
technologies, albeit ones that cannot be passed down genetically.
Improving your child's looks is as easy as something called "cosmetic
surgery." Improving his or her IQ is as simple as flicking off the TV and
putting away the video games.
The argument that the rich will have better access to germ-line therapy
also falls flat; the rich have better access to everything. For example,
wealth can promote higher intelligence even as the child is in the womb by
providing better nourishment. After that it can be used to pay for the
best pre-schools, schools, and tutors.
In any event, the most efficient way to create super-humans will never be
The technology is inherently limited by the genes that God and nature have
provided us. You can turn them on or off or move them from one organism to
another, but a gene can never do what it wasn't intended to.
But bionics, the use of implanted computer chips and electronic or
electro-mechanical devices, has no such limits.
Bionics has already brought us "neuroprostheses" such as the cochlear
implant that popular American talk show host Rush Limbaugh received. First
approved back in 1984, these bypass the normal hearing mechanism to
provide artificial hearing to deaf people. Next stop: superhuman hearing.
Implanted retinal chips are providing limited vision to those who were
completely blind but will surely eventually bring superhuman vision.
Then there are implantable computer brain chips. These are already used to
control the tremors of Parkinson's and the seizures of epilepsy. But again
the therapeutic will lead to the super. Already monkeys have been given
the ability to move a robot arm and a computer cursor with their thoughts
alone. The same signals that enable a small arm to pick up food could just
as easily move a wrecking crane.
Chips being tested in animals will soon increase people's range of senses
beyond hearing and seeing. Through wireless connections such as the
already-ubiquitous WiFi (80211.x ), they will allow invisible
communication with others directly to and from the brain and thus bypass
the eyes, ears, and mouth. They will enable consistent and constant access
to information where and when it is needed, with no annoying pop-up ads.
Fukuyama also frets over the likelihood that biotech will allow us to live
to be 150 and beyond; but, illustrating the problem of a social scientist
suddenly turned life science commentator, he speculates we will live those
last 50 years bedpan-bound and drowning in drool.
Yet of the incredible array of such therapies under development that would
slow, stop, or even reverse aspects of aging, all would extend not just
life itself but also the period before decrepitude. Moreover, probably
before any of these therapies is available, biotech will have cured some
of the cruelest diseases of aging, such as Alzheimer's.
Dr. Leon Kass, chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, urges us
to "resist the Siren song of the conquest" of death. But he sets up a
straw man. Even reversing aging cannot confer eternal life. There are
organisms that appear genetically programmed to live indefinitely, such as
certain trees and turtles. But something catches up to them eventually, be
it a chainsaw or somebody hungry for turtle soup. Likewise, biotech cannot
But Kass is on firmer ground when he questions lifespan extension, if only
because he does so with non-scientific arguments. The best of them might
be summarized as Why give people more years when they seem so intent on
wasting the ones they have, plopped in front of the tube for hours on end
watching other people's "reality" because they don't have one of their
own? The only answer is that just as a knife that can be used for slicing
or for stabbing, biotechnology is a tool; nothing more. What can be
accomplished with that tool is literally miraculous. What will be is up to
The writer, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, is
author of BioEvolution: How Biotechnology Is Changing Our World. His
website is www.fumento.com.