Today in AgBioView: September 12, 2003:
* Copper sulfate and organic agriculture
* Contaminated [organic] maize meal withdrawn from sale
* GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS SAFER THAN ORGANIC
* Fumento Book -- BioEvolution: How Biotechnology Is Changing Our World
* Words of wisdom from Mae Wan Ho
* Crop Biotech Update from ISAAA
* NFTC and Washington Legal Foundation Paper Examines EU Strategy to Legitimize Precaution
* Ghana moves to ensure safe, sound management of Biotech
* Uganda's push for GM
* What Green Revolution?
* Why We Can’t Agree
* UGA researchers use transgenic trees to help clean up toxic waste site
* The Cancún Delusion
* Poorer Nations Plead Farmers' Case at Trade Talks
From: "TERRY HOPKIN- SUNDBY"
Subject: copper sulphate
Date: Thu, 11 Sep 2003 19:21:27 +0200
More than once it has been pointed out that copper takes about a hundred or more years before it is leached out of the soil. So perhaps a year or two wont matter as it will be 2106 at the earliest before the public can be sure that that trace element and it's poisonus effects are out of the food they and their environment they live and play in.
Why are the levels allowed greater than those demanded for contamination from copper smelting. We do still notice that somethings seem to be regarded as good when used by one group who then claim it's bad if it comes from some other source.
We have seen the growth of good electric power(windmill parks) though when the same equipment is to be used in virtualy non invasive dip water wheels [the wheels dip into the stream without the need for dams, the lower speed of the wheel is about that of a wind park windmill) they become bad. Not being much more than a concerned member of the public, left wondering if there is some magic formula that transforms things from good to evil.
Date: Thu, 11 Sep 2003 12:07:02 -0400
From: "Alex Avery"
Subject: Copper sulfate
>Craig Sams writes:
>This argument is a bit like the old Avery chestnut about e.coli and
>manure. It ignores the fact that non-organic farmers apply manure too
>that by dint of their being the majority of farmers, apply much more
>manure than organic farmers. Were there to be a shred of sense in the
>suggestion that the use of manure as fertilizer causes e.coli
>poisoning, it would redound greatly to the disadvantage of non-organic
Hmmm. Wrong! Yes, non-organic farmers apply far more manure than organic farmers. But Craig routinely fails to acknowledge that the use of animal manure by non-organic farmers is virtually entirely on feed/non-food crops (i.e. feed corn, cotton, etc.) where the consumer risks from the manure pathogens is zero. (Just try to get E. coli poisoning from a bowlful of process field corn) Very few non-organic vegetable growers use animal manure on their crops, whereas organic farmers (who produce more food crops than feed crops) are far more likely to use manure on food crops such as vegetables where the product could come into contact with the manure and pose a pathogen risk to consumers.
Because of this undeniable reality, the USDA National Organic Program revised its manure handling regulations to require specific carbon-to-nitrogen ratios and specific time/temperature requirements for manure composting by organic farmers in order to kill manure-borne pathogens.
This revision was in direct response to widespread criticism (by us and many other science-based groups, such as the APS and IFST) of the proposed organic manure handling standards because they were not science based. Now they are science based. And we'd be happy to see those regulations extended to all farming, not just organic, as long as an appropriate distinction is made between food crops and feed/non-food crops in applying such manure-handling regulations.
Also, Sams claims that organic farmers only use copper sulfate after obtaining a special waiver for a specific problem and crop at risk. This ignores the reality that copper sulfate cannot effectively treat fungal diseases (including Phytophthora infestans) post-infestation. Copper sulfate must be applied BEFORE the onset of disease for it to be effective and thus organic farmers routinely use copper sulfate as a preventative on susceptible crops such as potato. Even then, Mader et al. demonstrated that despite the use of copper sulfate, their potato yields were only 60% of the yields of non-organic potatoes over 20 years (copper sulfate used from 1978-1991), mainly because of late blight.
>I know that you are a scientist and a pragmatist, Roger, so perhaps the
>above comments will reassure you that organic farmers are not religious
>fanatics and that their perceived ‘sins’ are minimal compared to their
Craig, we all know darn well that if the shoe were on the other foot, you guys would be screaming to high heaven about the eco-sins of copper sulfate and would be demanding that it be banned and that only safer, biodegradible fungicides be allowed for use in agriculture. But it's not, so you're left defending the use of an inferior, enviro-riskier chemical on the basis that "non-organic farmers use it too!". It must make you uncomfortable at best.
Moreover, if organic farmers had somehow developed the new biotech blight-proof potatoes, you'd be decrying any farmer who didn't plant those as well after they came onto the market. But instead, you guys are the ones dependent on a 19th century pest control chemical that has far higher environmental risk compared to synthetic fungicides, although I'm inclined to agree with you that even copper sulfate can be used reasonably responsibly by conscientious farmers. But then if that's the case, why can't you accept that pesticide use by non-organic farmers can be responsible too? (You must hate it that copper sulfate dependency has stuck you in such an untenable position, no?)
In regards to the blight-proof biotech potatoes that should emerge from labs into farmers fields within 5-6 years: too bad that the organic movement came out so adamantly against biotech. When our biotech farmers are planting these varieties and have reduced their fungicide spraying by
90+%, your organic farmers will still be looking for that magical
technique or natural poison to replace the copper sulfate you'll still be dependent upon. Happy searching. If a replacement comes, I'll bet it'll be via research conducted by a for-profit chemical corporation, just like happened in the development of Spinosad by DowAgrosciences, the new bacterial biochemical organic pesticide now used widely by both organic and non-organic farmers. (Perhaps organic farmers won't be so keen to see chemical firms go out of business now that they've benefitted from the research and products developed by one of those firms.)
One final related note: Craig, would you care to comment on the Food Standards Agency recent recall of two organic corn meal products (SEE ARTICLE BELOW) because they exceeded the proposed European Commission's fumonisin mycotoxin levels by 1,000-2,000% ? No non-organic products were recalled because of too high fungal toxin levels. Just another chink in the organic claim of superiour food safety.
Contaminated maize meal withdrawn from sale
Food Standards Agency (UK)
10 September 2003
Two batches of maize meal have been voluntarily withdrawn from sale after tests showed that they contained unusually high levels of fumonisins, a group of undesirable chemicals known as mycotoxins.
The two products, Fresh and Wild Organic Maize Meal and Infinity Foods Organic Maize Meal, were tested as part of an on-going survey being carried out by the Food Standards Agency to check for levels of a range of mycotoxins in maize and maize products.
Results received so far in the survey for other maize-containing products, such as corn flour and polenta, are not a cause for concern.
Fumonisins have been shown to cause liver and kidney damage in animals after long-term exposure and it is possible that they could have the same effect on humans.
While there is no limit for fumonisins in food currently, the European Commission (EC) has proposed a limit of 500 micrograms per kilogram (mcg/kg).
The levels found in the two maize meal samples are above the proposed EC limit and are considered to be high at 4712 and 20435 mcg/kg. However, there is unlikely to be any immediate risk to health.
The two products have been withdrawn from sale as a precaution and the EC has been notified about the results. The Food Standards Agency is now carrying out further testing to see if any other brands are affected.
Mycotoxins, like fumonisins, are produced by a range of moulds growing on food crops in the field and in storage.
Previous surveys have shown that levels of mycotoxins in food are generally very low.
The Food Standards Agency carries out a rolling programme of research and surveys to monitor products that might be affected and takes action when unacceptable levels are found.
GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS SAFER THAN ORGANIC
Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO)
July 6, 2003
Organic foods are generally viewed as the "golden measure" against which the safety and healthfulness of all other foods should be measured. This carefully cultivated perception is used by the organic-food industry to justify the higher price of organic produce. This industry has also campaigned against genetically modified crops, claiming that GM foods - "Frankenfoods" - are dangerous for human health, bad for the environment, unnatural and exploitive of farmers in developing countries.
In a remarkable turn of events, an increasing number of scientific studies have not only demonstrated that these claims have little merit, but also that the opposite is true!
For example, in several peer-reviewed studies Bt-type GM corn has been proved to be on average safer for humans than traditionally or organically grown corn, and Bt-corn and other GM crops have been shown to be both beneficial for the environment and for farmers in Third World countries.
Even the genetic process of transferring DNA between unrelated organisms has been shown to be a common process, occurring trillions of times each second around the world. Indeed, the most commonly grown non-GM wheat in Colorado is a variety that contains half a rye chromosome.
Arguably the most stunning GM crop-related discovery pertains to the demonstration that Bt-corn contains on average 90 percent less cancer-causing mycotoxins than the non-GM corn varieties grown by organic and traditional farmers.
What makes these mycotoxins particularly dangerous for humans is that most types of food processing do not affect the toxic effect. Certain mycotoxins have been found in food products as diverse as corn flakes and beer.
Three large international studies have recently reported on the mycotoxin content of hundreds of corn samples collected in 18 countries. In one study, the average content of just one type of mycotoxin in non-GM corn samples was about 12 micrograms per gram of seed, whereas the content for GM corn samples was only 1.3 micrograms per gram of seed.
Why does Bt-corn contain such drastically reduced amounts of mycotoxins? The fungi that produce the mycotoxins,Fusarium molds, enter corn plants primarily through holes produced by corn borers. Because every cell in Bt-corn is equipped to fight corn borers directly, corn borers that attack such plants are quickly killed and do not replicate, which results in fewer Fusarium infections and reduced mycotoxin production.
The general safety of foods containing GM crop-derived products has been further proven by the fact that over a billion people consume such foods on a regular basis, and not a single illness or death has been reported.
In 2002, close to 6 million farmers around the world planted GM crops, and nearly three-quarters of those farmers were in developing countries. The advantages of GM crops for resource-poor farmers is illustrated by a study of Bt-cotton growing farmers in Lang Fang Prefecture in Hebei, China. During the five years in which they have planted Bt-cotton, their incomes have gone up by 30 percent (less money spent on pesticides) and their health and the health of their families has improved due to the reduced exposure to these toxic chemicals. Finally, the quality of their drinking water has improved due to the reduced contamination of their wells by pesticide runoff.
GM crops can yield safer and more nutritious foods, reduce the use of pesticides and thereby help the environment, and help farmers around the world lead better and healthier lives. In light of these developments, it might be time for the leaders of the organic-food industry in the U.S. to begin to think about growing GM crops on organic farms, and to institute policy changes to allow such foods to be sold in organic food stores.
BioEvolution: How Biotechnology Is Changing Our World
No area of science is moving faster nor will have a greater impact than biotechnology. BioEvolution is the first book to explain what biotech is all about and to describe the amazing scientific advances that have already been made.
Author Michael Fumento shows how biotech is changing our lives and will do so even more dramatically in the near future.
Reporting from the ground zero of experimentation and clinical trials, Fumento shows how biotech has already demonstrated the potential to cure almost any disease, extend human lifespans well past the 120-year range, and wipe out not only famine but malnutrition while using less land, less water, and fewer chemicals.
He discusses the miracle drugs and treatments in the biotech pipeline-scientific innovations that will change medicine over the next decades, eliminating diseases such as diabetes, AIDS, and Alzheimer's and making cancer into a manageable disorder rather than a death sentence.
BioEvolution will be published in October 2003 by Encounter Books.
From: "Roger Morton"
Subject: Words of wisdom from Mae Wan Ho
Date: Fri, 12 Sep 2003 19:58:59 +1000
Words of wisdom from Mae Wan Ho. She is a legend - she has discovered the insect choloroplast!
"Insects evolve resistant to individual Cry toxins and cross-resistance appears to be limited. Resistance is most frequently due to nuclear genes, rather than cytoplasmic genes encoded by **chloroplasts** and mitochondria."
Crop Biotech Update from ISAAA
- Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety Takes Effect
- Risk Assessment Strategy for Bt Crops in the Netherlands
- European Court: No Basis for GM Ban in Italy
- GE Sweetpotato in Kenya
- Developing World to Benefit from Biotech
- Delayed Ripening Tech Doubles Shelf-life in Banana
- China to be One of World Leaders in Biotech
- GM Plant Vaccine for Asthma
- Food Labels for Healthy Choices Among Consumers
- Sarawak Active in Biotech
- Symposium on Food Security and Biodiversity
Full text of articles available at:
NFTC and Washington Legal Foundation Paper Examines EU Strategy to Legitimize Precaution Cautions that EU attempt to globally employ the precautionary principle jeopardizes international trade and development
By Susan Mora
Washington, DC – Scattered over numerous forums and obfuscated by public product safety anxiety, a growing attempt to limit trade through the use of technical barriers has largely been overlooked. However, a white paper authored by the National Foreign Trade Council and published by the Washington Legal Foundation presents compelling evidence of a deliberate strategy to protect ailing EU industries. The paper, EU Regulations, Standardization and the Precautionary Principle: The Art of Crafting a Three-Dimensional Trade Strategy That Ignores Sound Science, offers powerful evidence of the EU’s attempt to define and employ the precautionary principle globally.
“It’s easy to overlook the long term implications of a negotiation over a specific trade initiative or industry sector. It would be naive, however, to assume a broader strategy does not exist,” said NFTC President Bill Reinsch. “This paper details the EU’s attempts to elevate the status of the precautionary principle from a limited WTO exception to a norm of international law.”
A paper released by NFTC in May, Looking Behind the Curtain, presented numerous examples of the EU’s use of precaution to block trade in a wide variety of products ranging from beef to computers. This most recent work goes a step further and clearly shows how the EU has sought to inject the precautionary principle within:
The WTO system through creative interpretation of the SPS and TBT Agreements and through obligations assumed under multilateral environmental agreements;
International standards through participation in the standards development process;
Bilateral and regional free trade and aid agreements.
Reinsch urged U.S. industries and the various agencies engaged in advocating for free trade to come together in their opposition to these trade-restricting practices. “If the role of objective science in the WTO agreements is to be preserved, the U.S. must adopt a long-term view as it responds to the EU’s complex challenge.” He went on to caution against being lulled into a false sense of security by the EU’s apparent slowness in achieving its goal of establishing precaution in international law.
“Changing international law takes time, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a great deal at risk now. This is more than a disagreement between two large economies. The loss of sound science as the benchmark for international trade regulation will have tremendous economic and social consequences for developing countries as well.”
For a copy of the NFTC paper, please see the URL below:
Ministry moves to ensure safe, sound management of Biotech - Kasanga
The Ghanaian Chronicle
By Gifty Korantemaa Siamah
September 11, 2003
THE MINISTER of Science and Environment, Prof. Kasim Kasanga, has said the government has formulated a National Science and Technology policy, which, among other things, endorses the use of innovative and pervasive technology, including biotechnology, as tools for development.
According to him, the government is convinced that biotechnology, as a tool for development, is not harmful to mankind. “Biotechnology has become a key issue in the international debate on sustainable development. The ministry is therefore developing technical capability to ensure the safe and environmentally sound management of Biotechnology in Ghana.”
Prof. Kasanga, who made this at the launching of the National Consultations Programme of the National Biosafety Framework Development, under the theme “Biotechnology for Sustainable Development in Ghana,” organized in Accra yesterday by the National Biosafety Committee, said, “When embarking on something, we should think very carefully about whether it is safe or not, we should not go ahead until we are convinced.”
To ensure safe and sound management of the Biotechnology, Ghana has drafted an international agreement, such as 1992 Rio Declaration and Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which would come into force on September 11, this year, as a global instrument to assist parties, as well as cross border activities in relation to genetically modified products, adding that a committee of experts had been formed, named as Bio-safety Committee.
In line with this requirement, the minister described the development of national bio-safety framework as a multi-stakeholder-driven process, with its ultimate objective of establishing a management system for sound and environmentally safe management of the technology.
On his part, Prof. E. V Doku, a member of National Bio-Technology Committee, explained how genetically modified goods are made. He mentioned a device called ‘gene gun,’ which among others includes DNA, which, he says, is introduced into a plant cell, and then coated into tiny particles and physically slotted into plant cells and bacterium that is used to introduce a genes of interest into a plant DNA.
According to him, this strategy was introduced in Ghana to help establish a national bio- safety framework and disseminate information.
He noted that with this strategy, the framework committee should collaborate with other organizations to facilitate capacity building for the implementation of the Cartagena protocol on bio-safety.
Uganda's push for GM
By Orla Ryan
September 12, 2003
President George W Bush has said Africa is losing out by not adopting GM, as his government battles with Europe over the sale of genetically modified products there.
Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni has also made clear that he is convinced of the logic for GM food.
Already, steps are underway to put a law in place. But can GM solve the problems the country's farmers face?
In Uganda, there isn't even a word for gene in the local language, laughs Dr Charles Mugoya of the National Council for Science and Technology.
Millions of Ugandans might have a very poor understanding of what genetically modified foods are, but - in one form or another - it looks like GM foods are coming their way.
Testing the ground
Last month, a national committee presented a draft policy on biotechnology and bio safety to government.
This was the first stage of creating a law to govern the introduction, application and commercialisation of GM products in Uganda.
In reality, GM is unlikely to be on the Ugandan market for another three to five years, Consumer Education Trust's Henry Kimera says. He is on the committee which drafted the national policy.
Once this law has been approved, Monsanto and other companies can sell GM products if they submit an application to the National Council for Science and Technology.
If it is approved, their products will then be tested before they can be sold on the Ugandan market.
Stephen Matovu, country manager for Monsanto in Uganda, says that such is the negative perception of GM, that huge consumer awareness would have to be done before it could sell those products in Uganda.
Political pressure is high for the process to move quickly and the fear is that Uganda could be left behind.
In Africa, South Africa has led the way, while Egypt, Nigeria and Zimbabwe are all developing frameworks, which would allow the use of GM products.
Its proponents say GM products could increase food security, raising the income of cash crop farmers and reducing the risk of disease.
Others say GM foods have health and environmental risks, which we do not yet know about.
The most practical and immediate concern for Uganda and other African countries is that if it does pursue GM, it could alienate its biggest export partner, Europe, currently engaged in a trade dispute with America over its reluctance to buy its GM foods.
America has already pressed Uganda to join its side in this battle.
A question of resources
A copy of Uganda's draft policy shows that biotechnology could be used to develop industry and agriculture, for example in the production of drugs and pharmaceuticals.
The policy aims are to build and strengthen national capacity in biotechnology through research and development, and promote biotech as a tool for national development.
The policy also aims to legislate on it, ensuring safety in development and application.
On top of that, the policy will develop measures to assess risk and manage biotechnological applications.
To implement this, there will be a National Biotechnology Advisory Committee, secretariat, centre and committee.
The draft policy might talk the right language but it is not clear whether there are really the resources to back this up.
Dr Mugoya from the National Council for Science and Technology admits there is a resource issue and that research and development institutions need to be set up.
"Most of the problem is that these countries are poor, biotech is something which involves a lot of investment. Before you get involved, you need a lot of outlay," he says.
Resources may be few, but he says it is a "Catch 22", the real risk is they are left behind, not that they move too fast.
When it comes to speed, political and trade issues are the key pressures.
Dr John Aluma from the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO)
says: "There has never been pressure on any other technology... When it came to GM, the whole US government is behind it. That is how it has attained a political pressure."
One real danger is that GM is neither as risky or as advantageous as the players contend.
Little research has really been done to develop products which would specifically help poor farmers, for example, more productive cassava or fungus-resistant bananas.
"GM is not the total panacea, it is one technology among many, if we brought GM, it would contribute, it is one small component within a big food area," Dr Mugoya says.
NARO's Dr Aluma agrees: "GM per se will not address any of these problems, there are fundamental factors in our farming system, if not addressed, GM will not help."
What Green Revolution?
Famine-torn Africa stands to gain the most from the biotech revolution. Why then have scientists ignored its staple crops?
By Adam Piore
September 13, 2003
Sept. 13 issue — It was one of those rare inventions that could save the world. Back in the mid-1990s, Swiss scientist Ingo Potrykus and his collaborators came up with a genetically modified strain of rice containing beta-keratin, a precursor to vitamin A. Soon dubbed “golden rice,” Potrykus’s creation had the potential to save millions of children in the developing world from the deadly effects of vitamin-A deficiency. But first he needed a good lawyer.
TO BRING THE new strain to market, Potrykus soon discovered, he would need to strike deals with as many as 30 different biotech companies claiming patents on the technologies he used to create his rice. Potrykus was
lucky: though it took years to sort through the web of legal constraints, golden rice is now hitting its first markets—in large part due to the assistance of one big biotech company that joined the effort. But it may never have been possible without the adoring praise of the media and the obvious PR benefits to the GM-food industry. “Almost all crops produced by biotechnology face the same thicket of intellectual-property constraints,” says Gary Toenniessen, director of food security at the Rockefeller Foundation. “In many other cases the companies are not likely to be so forthcoming.”
There’s been a lot of talk lately about Europe’s role in blocking the potential of GM foods to save lives in the developing world, most notably in Africa. U.S. Presi—dent George W. Bush was only the latest critic to invoke the starving masses when he attacked Europe on a swing through Africa in May. Europe was blocking attempts to ease famine in Africa “because of unfounded scientific fears,” he said, vowing to take the fight to this week’s WTO meeting in Cancun. He declared: “European governments should join—not hinder—the great cause of ending hunger in Africa.”
But European resistance is not, no matter what Bush suggests, the only reason why GM foods are not reaching Africa in significant quantity. Bickering and competition within the biotech industry have created a tangle of legal and licensing hurdles through which small researchers must crash if they set out to develop GM foods for Africa. For business reasons, big companies have been slow to experiment with ways to apply and market existing GM technologies such as insect- and disease-resistant crops in Africa. And African nations themselves have caused problems with regulatory bumbling. In short, a wide cast of characters all over the world, including America, is blocking the advance of GM foods to the world’s poorest continent. “There’s a lot of potential,” says Daniel Karanja, a policy analyst of Bread for the World and a former economist at the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute. “Until recently there hasn’t been any widespread push to develop African crops.”
The sad story of neglect begins in the early 1990s, when genetically modified foods first hit the market. Back then Africa was little more than an afterthought. Though companies like Monsanto set up a limited program to research potential in the developing world, it was the lucrative markets of Western Europe, the United States and Canada that stretched forth with seemingly infinite promise for profit. Those prized markets prompted the trade war looming this week—but only after infighting among biotech companies set a legal precedent tough enough to scare away many would-be do-gooders in the mid-1990s. “As soon as they proved genetically modified food worked, and the farmers were interested, the companies began suing each other,” recalls John Barton, a professor at Stanford University Law School who recently headed a panel tasked with studying the impact of intellectual-property rights on research. All told, Barton estimates there were more than 20 major lawsuits, some of which are still going today.
The costly court battles clearly showed that intellectual-property rights for inherited genetically modified traits—such as the viral and insect resistance that could have such an impact on Africa crops—would hold up in court. Golden rice came to market because it eventually found a biotech sponsor in the large multinational Syngenta. Syngenta, which had previously introduced beta-keratin into tomatoes and held a key patent, was able to smooth out legal barriers that would have had Potrykus and his team also negotiating with patent holders on every—thing from the technologies he used to introduce the genetic material into his miracle rice to those used to monitor its growth.
It would likely take a similar devotion of big-company muscle to develop genetically hardened strains of African staples like sorghum, cassava and millet. Monsanto and Syngenta have long offered genetically modified maize and cotton that resists insect pests. Preliminary research suggests that these same traits would work on sorghum, millet and perhaps even cowpeas. If properly adopted, such technologies could increase African yields 10 to 15 percent, Toenniessen estimates.
There is no shortage of ideas for how gene technology could help save hungry people in Africa. In tropical regions of Africa, small farmers lose 10 to 50 percent of cassava yields from cassava mosaic virus. Transgenic rice plants that rely on technologies patented by Monsanto and Syngenta have the potential to improve yields by as much as 20 percent by fighting the yellow mottled virus. But no field testing is underway. Kenyan scientist Florence Muringi Wambugu has done some promising work with sweet potatoes. Wambugu did her postdoc work in the laboratories of Monsanto, applying viral-resistant technologies to the plant. But field trials have so far failed to produce a marketable strain, in part because the effort is on such a small scale compared with big-money cash crops like papaya and corn.
Big multinationals have done even less to crops that can weather that most destructive of African scourges—drought. Biotech companies are pouring millions into drought-resistant maize by giving the plants deeper roots and waxier leaves. But little money is being spent to do the same for African staples.
U.S. universities have also played a part in blocking the humanitarian development of GM foods in and for Africa. Rather than offer new technologies to the public domain, they sold the intellectual-property —rights to biotech companies, sometimes netting tens of millions of dollars. Cornell University sold rights to its “particle gun” for introducing new genetic material into plants to Du Pont. Any researcher leasing the gun had to sign away rights for any commercially viable products to Du Pont or pay royalties.
Even if big Western companies were clamoring to help develop lifesaving GM innovations for the poor, only one African country would be ready to accept them. South Africa has the only government on the continent with the regulatory structure in place to import, test and release GM seeds to farmers. Its solo record would appear to confirm how much all of Africa could gain from GM crops given proper safeguards. According to one study by researchers at King’s College London and the University of Pretoria in South Africa, within two years those adopting Monsanto’s Bt cotton in South Africa had yields that were on average about 16 percent higher than those of farmers who did not use the technology.
To date, many African nations have been reluctant to allow the importation of GM seeds, for fear that Europe would react by shutting all their crop exports out of its lucrative market. That’s why Zambia’s president turned away about 50,000 tonnes of GM corn in the middle of a famine in 2002. Yet many African nations now appear to be reconsidering whether access to European food markets is really worth more than the benefits of GM technology, like seeds that can resist plant-eating pests without pesticide.
In August, President Yoweri Museveni announced that Uganda would allow processed GM foods into the country, and he officially opened a new biotech lab at the Kawanda Research Institute. Nigeria, Kenya, Malawi and a number of other countries are considering taking similar steps and already allow small-scale research.
The West is beginning to break down barriers, too. In July leading centers for plant research announced they would share the benefits of biotechnology more widely, among each other and those working to develop crops in the developing world. The hope is that even if a patent is already in place, by sharing information organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation will be able to fund university research to work around existing patents. Even so, the pace of development doesn’t come close to that of more lucrative crops. For all the potential of GM crops, Africa for now has little to show for it.
Why We Can’t Agree
To most Americans, farm country is an idyll, and food comes from a faraway land. Not so for Europeans
By Steve Rayner
September 15, 2003
Sept. 15 issue — The current dispute over genetically modified crops has significant economic implications for both the United States and Europe; it cannot be understood purely in economic terms. It’s also based on differing views of nature. Ask an American about nature and he’ll get images of pristine mountains, forests, sparkling streams and wilderness preserves many miles from where he lives. Ask a Brit the same question and you get talk of fields, hedgerows, winding lanes and country pubs. In Britain, and in Europe in general, the countryside is where we live, not somewhere apart.
THE NOTION OF food is also tied up in this dichotomy. Europeans place a high value on regional cuisines. Food is a strong element of local identity. The United States may have regional recipe books but no strong tradition of local cheeses, wines and characteristic ingredients. U.S. restaurantgoers care more about consistency—at a McDonald’s or a Sheraton dining room, the product will be predictable.
Not only do Americans live apart from their ideal image of nature, they also think of food production as something that happens far away. You can fly over the Great Plains and see endless ranks of green machines growing wheat and soybeans. European food also travels great distances from farm to table, but Europeans think of their food as a product of the same countryside in which they live. Perhaps it’s the perceived industrialization of food production that makes Europeans uncomfortable, not the tinkering with genes. Europeans, after all, generally favor genetically modified pharmaceuticals.
Personally, I’m not convinced that GM foods pose significant health or environmental risks. I’m more concerned about the risk to reasoned discussion, and possibly even to democracy. Under the World Trade Organization regime, a threat to human health or the environment is the only basis on which a country can refuse to admit a product. Europeans can’t openly express the full range of their concerns about GM crops because such fears have no legal standing. Without open debate, how can there be democratic decision making? The WTO framework forces people to inflate concerns about human health and the environment because they can’t express their real concerns. No wonder Americans are frustrated by what they see as scientific irrationality on the part of Europeans, which they can explain only as the desire to implement trade barriers.
EU politicians have proposed labeling as a possible solution to the GM food issue; the United States seems staunchly opposed. Even if the two sides were to agree on a “GM-free” label for non-GM products, the complicated process of certification would likely favor big industrial producers, which wouldn’t sit well with Europeans. Finding a solution will not be easy. But it is not made any easier by dodging the cultural issues that lie behind the very public arguments about safety and trade.
Rayner, professor of science in society at Oxford University’s Said Business School and director of the United Kingdom’s national Science in Society research program, grew up in Britain but lived in the United States for 20 years.
UGA researchers use transgenic trees to help clean up toxic waste site
Contact: Kim Carlyle
University of Georgia
Can genetically engineered cottonwood trees clean up a site contaminated with toxic mercury? A team of researchers from the University of Georgia - in the first such field test ever done with trees - is about to find out.
The results could make clearer the future of phytoremediation - a technique of using trees, grasses and other plants to remove hazardous materials from the soil. UGA scientists and city officials in Danbury, Conn., planted on July 16 some 60 cottonwoods with a special gene at the site of a 19th-century hat factory in that northeastern city.
"We hope to see a significant difference in the levels of mercury in the soil within 18 months, perhaps as much as a twofold reduction," said Richard Meagher, professor of genetics at UGA.
The field test is a collaboration between UGA, Western Connecticut State University, Applied PhytoGenetics, Inc., of Athens and the City of Danbury.
While the technology now being used in Danbury does not apply to all sites, mercury pollution is a pervasive problem in Georgia as it is elsewhere. The site of a former chemical factory near Brunswick, for example, is polluted with mercury and other toxic chemicals. Mercury contamination has been reported around the sites of former gold mines in north Georgia, and advisories have been issued during the past decade for mercury-contaminated fish in more than 80 streams, lakes and creeks in the state.
Meagher's team did the first-ever field trial of a genetically engineered plant to sequester mercury when it grew transgenic tobacco in a New Jersey field trial in 2001, but this is the first such trial using trees, whose larger root systems and year-round life cycle makes them better candidates for long-term cleaning of polluted soil.
Phytoremediation is a relatively new field and one gaining international interest. A team of photographers working for National Geographic, for instance, recently spent considerable time with Meagher capturing on film his work as part of a four-part documentary that will be aired some time next winter.
Meagher has for more than a decade been a pioneer in phytoremediation, and he was the first to demonstrate that a gene called merA can be inserted into plants and used to detoxify mercury in the environment. While no plant can break mercury down, since it is an element, less toxic forms can be created, and that has been the goal of Meagher's lab - to find ways to let plants or trees grow on polluted sites, draw such heavy metals as mercury into the plants themselves and then either transpire the much less toxic forms of the metal into the air where they are quickly diffused or trap the metal aboveground for later harvest.
The project with Danbury came about because Danbury's environmental coordinator, Jack Kozuchowski, had in 1977 published an early study that showed how native plants could transfer mercury from contaminated soils into the atmosphere. Kozuchowski, aware of Meagher's work, convinced officials in Danbury that the so-called Barnum Court site in that town would be a perfect site for a field trial of the genetically engineered trees that Meagher and his collaborator Scott Merkle developed.
The city was awarded a grant of some $55,162 from the Environmental Protection Agency to explore use of the technology, and the trial was set up - though most costs for the work are being born by those involved in it.
"It is our hope that the research will lead to a cleansing of the Barnum Court property so the city can transfer the property for development," said Mark Boughton, mayor of Danbury.
Meagher's mercury phytoremediation technology is exclusively licensed to Applied PhytoGenetics, or APGEN as it is called, and that Athens company has been instrumental in helping set up the field trial. (Meagher is a consultant to and cofounder of APGEN.)
Postdoctoral associate Andrew Heaton of Meagher's lab and one other of Meagher's students traveled to Danbury in July to supervise planting the genetically engineered trees on the site in enclosed plastic containers buried on the site.
Because the mercury on the site ranges, depending on location, from five to more than 300 parts per million, trials were set up to measure the effects of the cottonwood trees on progressively more polluted samples of soil. Forty-five plots, most planted with four trees each, are located on the site, which is in a mixed-use urban area and whose total area is less than an acre. (Some 15 plots have four merA trees, 15 are nonengineered or "wild-type" trees and 15 received no trees at all, so there are 120 trees in the field test.)
The form of mercury at the Danbury site is ionic mercury, a species that can be sequestered and transformed into less toxic metallic mercury in the transgenic trees and then transpired into the atmosphere. (Several forms of mercury were used in hat-making in the 19th century, but their toxic effects often sickened workers and led to the phrase "mad hatter," which described the process of neurological degeneration that came from working with the metal. In this part of New England, the symptoms of mercury poisoning were called the "Danbury shakes.")
Meagher's lab actually has two genes that can effect phytoremediation, merA and merB, but since the merA is active on ionic mercury, the cottonwoods trees chosen for the Danbury trial express the merA gene.
"This is a field test, not a cleanup," said Meagher. "And we will be measuring mercury in both the soil and the trees to see just how much success we have in reducing the mercury levels in the soil. We are very optimistic that this technology will work."
While the trees at the site will have to be watered, the costs of that pale in comparison to traditional clean-up methods - digging up the polluted soil and hauling it off for storage at another site, possibly greater than $1 million.
A team of researchers from Western Connecticut State University will be studying the role of soil microorganisms in the potential clean-up of mercury on the site. According to the City of Danbury, the field test will run through the 2004 growing season, and if results are positive, genetically engineered cottonwood trees will be used to clean the whole site.
The Cancún Delusion
The New York Times
September 12, 2003
By Michael Lind
WASHINGTON — The World Trade Organization meeting in Cancún, Mexico, has highlighted a surprising new cause, promoted by a surprising new alliance. The new cause is the campaign to reduce or eliminate agricultural subsidies in the United States, Europe and Japan, to make room for agricultural exports from poor nations. The alliance between idealists of the left, third world producers and traditional conservative promoters of free trade is equally unprecedented.
But the Cancún coalition is unlikely to last. It is bound to fray when it becomes clear that while the free traders are getting what they want out of the partnership — lower taxes and expanded markets — the populism and environmentalism of the left will be thwarted.
Agricultural subsidies in the advanced industrial nations ought to be reduced — but for reasons that have little to do with their impact on developing countries. Created to promote a rural middle class when much of the population still worked in the farm sector, most subsidies are anachronistic now that agribusiness in the advanced countries employs only a tiny percentage of the population. Farm subsidy programs exploit consumers and taxpayers.
So yes, the abolition of most farm subsidies by the advanced nations is an overdue reform. But the result is unlikely to be the one hoped for by the left wing of the Cancún coalition — the enrichment of peasant farmers.
In fact, ending subsidies, if it leads to the modernization of agriculture in the developing world, is likely to destroy the very sorts of communities the pro-trade left seeks to support. The high-tech farming of the global north uses machinery instead of human labor, along with huge quantities of fossil fuels and artificial fertilizers and pesticides. If the third world becomes as attractive to agribusiness as the first, then machines will replace family farmers, who will become as rare in Thailand as they are in the United States.
Technological displacement has the potential to produce social disasters. Many of the inner-city poor of the United States descend from farm laborers and tenant farmers displaced by the mechanization of agriculture in the South a few generations ago. Those who joined the middle class did so because they were able to find work in the expanding industrial and service sectors. But such opportunities are scarce in the developing world. For better or worse, the anti-subsidy movement, if it succeeds, is more likely to eliminate developing world farmers than to enrich them.
The desire of many on the left to preserve traditional small-scale agriculture in the third world is also on a collision course with the goal of preserving the last remnants of global wilderness. High-tech agriculture wastes fossil fuels — but it spares land, by growing more food on less acreage. Genetically modified crops promise to do the same. Premodern third world agriculture doesn't rely on chemicals or genetically modified crops. But it takes far more land to grow the same crop by traditional methods than it does by means of industrial farming. The earth's remaining wilderness would be in even greater danger if the opening of northern markets were to create a financial incentive for developing nations to replace forests, savannas and wetlands with land-wasting peasant farms.
These are the alternatives, then. If third world agriculture is industrialized, then much third world wilderness will be saved from the plow. But most farmers will be forced off the farm, and therefore may not profit from the access of southern agricultural exporters to northern markets. If, on the other hand, third world agriculture is not industrialized, then the effort to enrich developing countries by means of exports from labor-intensive farms will inspire a vast expansion of peasant farm acreage — at the expense of the environment.
What looked like a sweet deal that could satisfy everybody except for subsidized special interests, then, seems destined to fall apart on inspection. First world consumers and third world agribusiness (much of it
foreign-owned) may profit from the opening of the agricultural markets of the United States and other rich nations. But the activist left is unlikely to get what it wants: an Arcadia of prosperous village farmers living in harmony with the land.
Poorer Nations Plead Farmers' Case at Trade Talks
New Tork Times
September 10, 2003
By ELIZABETH BECKER and GINGER THOMPSON
CANCÚN, Mexico, Sept. 10 — The world trade talks began here today with the developing nations mounting a quiet revolt in the name of their farmers.
With China standing among them, a group of 21 countries demanded that their proposal to cut rich nations" farm subsidies be debated at the World Trade Organization talks this week and not be shunted aside through a parliamentary procedure.
Flexing their collective muscle in a setting normally dominated by the United States and Europe, the world's biggest subsidizers of farmers, the group said it would not be silenced.
"It is absolutely an imperative that this paper is taken as a basis for discussion," said Celso Amorim, the Brazilian minister of foreign affairs and a spokesman for the group.
Those countries together represent a majority of the world's farmers, and a majority of the world's population. They pointed out that their quest for lower farm subsidies and tariffs had become the cause of the moment, much like debt relief was several years ago.
Supachai Panitchpakdi, the director general of the W.T.O. and an economist from Thailand, said he was pleased that more than one agricultural proposal was on the table and that procedures would not get in the way of negotiations.
"This is very conducive for the development agenda," Mr. Panitchpakdi said.
As a reminder of the passions evoked by farming, a protest by about 7,000 Mexican farmers a few miles away turned violent when a few dozen people pushed down a chain-link barricade and began hitting police officers with sticks and pieces of concrete.
At least 10 protesters and a dozen police officers were injured in the clashes. One rice farmer, who wore a sign that read "The WTO kills farmers," stabbed himself in the chest and died at a local hospital.
According a glossy handout that he distributed at the march, Kyung-hae Lee, the farmer, was 56 and a former president of the Korean Advanced Farmers Federation. He said he had tried to organize opposition to economic forces he described as "waves that destroyed our lovely rural communities." But he said he had failed, "like many other farm leaders elsewhere."
Imports, he said, were cheaper than domestic goods and soon his income did not cover his costs. And farmers, he said, were forced to go work in urban slums.
"I am crying out the words to you that have boiled so long time inside my body," his note said.
Most protesters condemned the violence and abandoned the march.
Throughout the day, senior ministers held a "flurry" of private meetings with the bloc of developing nations, said a spokesman for Europe, seeking a compromise to move forward when serious negotiations begin Thursday.
Last month, the United States and Europe presented their own plan that became the foundation for the debate. But the proposal ignored many concerns of the developing world, so the group of developing nations pushed a counterproposal. It became so popular that the group expanded from 17 to 21 nations in days, with Egypt as the latest member.
Pascal Lamy, the top trade minister for Europe, said it would be an "error" to conclude that a new confrontation was developing between rich and poor nations.
Robert B. Zoellick, the United States trade representative, said at the opening session that the United States was willing to cut farm subsidies if other countries also did. He also alluded to the growing wave of protectionist sentiment in the United States, especially as the American trade deficit continues to balloon, and said he hoped all delegates recognized the political realities.
"We're all going to have to compromise," he said.
International institutions like the World Bank have provided the data to explain how the $300 billion that rich countries give farmers each year helps undermine millions of farmers in the developing world.
"Just saying they won't back down and promising to stay united is unprecedented," said Ben Lilleston of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, referring to the developing nations.
With agriculture the pivotal issue for this round of trade talks, the ministers from those countries in effect are warning the W.T.O. that they could block progress on new agreements if they are ignored.
Among the most influential of the 21 developing countries are Brazil, India, Thailand, Mexico, Argentina, the Philippines, Chile, Pakistan and South Africa. In the world of trade, most developing countries should have an advantage in agrculture, because their production, land and labor costs are low. But farming is now the most protected sector of the economies of the world's richest countries. In addition to farm subsidies, the United States, Europe, Japan and other countries maintain high agricultural tariffs that block imports and spend millions of dollars subsidizing their food exports.
Many exports are sold below cost, undermining the ability of the world's poor farmers to sell their products at home or as exports.
That struggle has drawn the attention of rock stars and advocacy groups.
At a news conference held by the Group of 21 countries here, Jonathon Buckland, the guitar player with the rock group Coldplay, presented the trade ministers with a supersized version of the groups' CD called "Make Trade Fair."