Today in AgBioView: October 18, 2003:
* Agriculture and the Developing World
* Grand Challenge Grants - Develop a Nutritional Crop!
* She Helped Feed 700 Million... Still Sees Work To Do
* World Food Prize
* On British Farm Scale Trials - Flawed 'Wildlife' Study
* Frankenstein Knows Best
* UK Scientists Comment on British Farm Trials
* Harvest Time
* Time to Let Both Farmers and Consumers Benefit
* GM Crop Trials: Why?
* Monsanto Committed to Introducing Crops
* Health Food, Biotech style
* Gene Flow: Biodiversity and Centers of Origin
* Toxic Shock
Agriculture and the Developing World
- Donald Kennedy, Editor-in-Chief, Science, v.302, No. 5644, Oct 17, 2003,
Science is proud to publish, in this issue, the 14 "grand challenges" to
world health. For the ninth challenge specifically, and for all the rest
more generally, world hunger is an overarching issue. So this is a good
time to give an accounting of where we are. It is a time especially rich
with new opportunities: The World Bank has just evaluated the Consultative
Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and its 16 centers;
academic leaders in the United States have expressed concern about
intellectual property regimes and their impact on global agricultural
innovation (Science, 11 July 2003, p. 174); and a private-public
partnership has begun a major new fundraising effort to support the
conservation of valuable genetic resources ("germplasm"). To top it all
off, there is the contentious issue of genetically modified (GM) foods and
their role in meeting world needs.
Starting with the good news: More attention is being paid to the need for
serious plant genetics and crop improvement for poor countries. Donor
agencies are being challenged to do more, and the Rockefeller Foundation
has revitalized its traditional leadership role in developing-country
agriculture. A fundraising effort by the Global Conservation Trust has
engaged for-profit companies and numerous nongovernmental organizations to
support ex situ conservation of germplasm resources, at CGIAR as well as
at national germ banks. To date, the trust has gathered $100 million in
gifts and pledges and is still counting.
The World Bank, the linchpin donor agency for CGIAR ($50 million
annually), has completed a meta-evaluation of that organization's
programs. The report generally praises the work of CGIAR, although it
notes a shift away from research on productivity enhancement, amounting to
an average annual decrease of over 6% in the past decade. This, says the
World Bank, is partly attributable to a lessened role for independent
advice from the Technical Advisory Committee. The bank recommends
significant changes in governance to refocus CGIAR's emphasis on genetics
and on support for core activities at its 16 centers.
Unfortunately, there are three items of bad news. The international
intellectual property regime for the development and transfer of genetic
resources has been so carved up by patents and licenses that it is
becoming, in the view of many, an "anticommons." That may be a product of
commercial interests, but there is enough blame to go around. The
Convention on Biodiversity, in trying to protect developing-country
interests in medicinal plants, is inhibiting the international collection
of genetic resources for agriculture. The new International Treaty on
Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture attempts to fix that. But
although it supports the internationalization of most major public
collections, it introduces grave uncertainties surrounding "orphan crops"
vitally important to many developing nations.
A second problem, unrecognized for too long, is the thinness of the
public-sector knowledge resources that are available for some of the most
important food security crops in the poorest countries. Among these orphan
crops are yams and plantains, which are staple foods for many of the
poorest sub-Saharan African nations. Less than half a dozen
geneticists/plant breeders work on each of these crops. That's the world's
only insurance against a catastrophe involving disease or stress
resistance that might affect tens of millions of people. These scientists
should probably not take the same plane to their next conference.
The final bad-news item, naturally, is the furor over GM crops.
Developed-country resistance to GM commodities has discouraged their use
in parts of the developed world, despite some country-specific successes
(as in Argentina and China). The scientific consensus is reassuring with
respect to the safety of GM foods for consumers, and although some
concerns remain with respect to environmental impacts, the benefits from
reduced pesticide use may offset those risks.
As the GM crops controversy works itself out, those concerned with
environmental quality should balance costs and benefits. Unless
agricultural production is increased on the good lands, population
pressures will cause farmers to move upslope and deforest the hillsides.
That's a double whammy: a loss for those families, and a loss for the
And on already marginal lands, GM technology may offer the best hope for
producing crops that can withstand drought, impoverished soils, and
disease. For both these reasons, we'd better resolve the GM controversy.
Right now, it's a rich-country argument that's hurting the poor.
GRAND CHALLENGE #9
Create a full range of optimal, bioavailable nutrients in a single staple
In the developing world, people often eat a diet with limited variety,
consisting of a single staple crop that is poor in nutritional content.
Recent developments in molecular biology and genetics have created an
opportunity to develop modified plant varieties with specifically desired
characteristics. However, most of the modifications confer only a single
new, desirable trait; moreover, even when crops have been fortified for
the diet of one region, the variety may not be ecologically adjusted to or
traditionally consumed in other regions.
Roadblock: We currently lack a strategy for the effective, efficient, and
socially and culturally acceptable alteration of a major dietary staple,
to achieve the delivery of multiple micronutrients, such as minerals and
vitamins, to poor populations in a single food. Moreover, genetic changes
could ensure higher protein content and the presence of essential amino
Challenge: To use transgenesis, biochemistry, selective breeding of
plants, and other appropriate technologies such as apomixes, to provide
combinations of micronutrients, vitamins, and essential amino acids in a
bioavailable form in local crops, such as rice, wheat, sorghum, millets,
cassava, potatoes, maize, bananas and others, or to enhance energy density
and improve protein quality in such foods, in a socially and culturally
* Reduction of morbidity and mortality from malnutrition
* Amelioration of related susceptibility to infections and other diseases
* Fe, Zn, and Se deficiencies * Vitamin A and E deficiencies * Protein
The Foundation for the National Institutes of Health offers grants to
solve the Grand Challenges in Global Heath that have been selected by the
Scientists who are interested in applying for such grants must first
submit a Letter of Intent (LOI) outlining their proposed research. LOIs
will be reviewed and those applicants whose proposals are judged to have
the greatest potential for solving global health problems will be asked to
submit full applications. Each LOI must address one, and only one, of the
listed grand challenges. All LOIs MUST follow the instructions on this Web
site and must be submitted online.
She Helped Feed 700 Million, But Prize Winner Still Sees Work To Do
- Ken Fuson, KEN FUSON, DesMoines Register, Oct. 17, 2003
With a heraldic trumpet fanfare and all the pomp that Des Moines can
muster, the World Food Prize was awarded Thursday night to a woman who has
helped feed millions of hungry people, but who prefers to talk about all
the work yet to be done.
The recipient, Catherine Bertini, undersecretary general for management of
the United Nations, told the assembled guests at the state Capitol that
she would donate the $250,000 prize "for the same purpose for which I
earned it, and that is to go to help reach people and help end their
Bertini, the former executive director of the World Food Programme, became
the 21st World Food Prize laureate in a grand ceremony in the Iowa House
chamber. Organizers want the food prize to hold the same cachet as a Nobel
Prize, and they pulled out all the stops to make the ceremony memorable.
It was like a movie premiere for a noble cause.
As Bertini said in her remarks, "Our work is not done, and none of our
work can be done until ultimately there is not a hungry person left on
World Food Prize
- Dean Kleckner, Truth About Trade & Technology
Dean Kleckner "Everybody has won, and all must have prizes!" Thatās what
the Dodo declares at the end of a race in Lewis Carrollās famous novel,
Alice in Wonderland.
There's certainly no shortage of prizes in the world today--at least
30,000 around the globe carry some kind of cash compensation and something
like $2 billion is given away each year, according to the International
Congress of Distinguished Awards.
Everybody has heard of the Nobel Prizes and the Pulitzer Prizes. The
MacArthur "genius" grants are also well known, and many people recognize
that the Templeton Award (for religious progress) is the worldās most
lucrative prize, worth more than $1.1 million.
Let me tell you about one of the most important awards offered anywhere:
the World Food Prize. Norman Borlaug, winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize
for contributing to the "Green Revolution," founded the prize in 1986.
Four years later, John Ruan, a businessman and philanthropist in Des
Moines, endowed it. Since 1986, the World Food Prize has honored
outstanding individuals who have improved the quality, quantity, or
availability of food throughout the world. (Full Disclosure - Iām a member
of the WFP Advisory Council.)
Laureates have come from all over the planet: Bangladesh, China, Denmark,
India, Mexico, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. Last yearās winner was
born and raised in Cuba but is now an American citizen. This yearās
recipient is Catherine Bertini, an undersecretary general at the United
Nations. At a ceremony on October 16, sheāll take home a check worth
$250,000 for her good work, along with world-wide recognition.
A native of upstate New York, Bertini ran the United Nations World Food
Program from 1992 to 2002. During her tenure, she helped feed more than
700 million people and earned a reputation for delivering food aid to
people in war-torn countries, such as Afghanistan, and just plain
dangerous ones, such as North Korea. Her organization rebuilt a railroad
that transports food through Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan and
coordinated a huge airdrop into starving Sudan. To reach out-of-the-way
places, her dedicated group has made use of elephants and mules.
Former President Bush has called Bertiniās work in the Horn of Africa a
"logistics miracle." UN Secretary General Kofi Annan also praises her
efforts in that operation, "She led so effectively that she became a
household name among the leaders and the needy of the region."
Today, the UN World Food Program helps feed the liberated people of
Iraq--and its leaders credit much of their current success to reforms
Bertini made during her time at the relief agency. "As a result of Ms.
Bertiniās leadership, for the first time in history, the international
community attained the capacity to confront and defeat large-scale famine
anywhere around the globe," says Ambassador Kenneth Quinn of the World
Food Prize Foundation.
She's the first woman to win the World Food Prize without having to share
it with another recipient. Indeed, one of her innovations at the UN was to
focus on the role women play in alleviating hunger. "It is women who
gather and prepare food and ensure that all the members of the family are
fed," she has said.
Thatās the way it works in my home--and in most homes. Yet it was Bertini
who brought this simple insight to the UN. More than 60 percent of all
World Food Program aid is now channeled through women, which makes eminent
practical sense. "I have worked very hard doing what I think was the right
thing to do," says Bertini.
The unsung heroes of Bertini's efforts, of course, are the farmers who
grow the food that makes all these humanitarian missions possible. We
can't give a prize to all of them individually, of course. And if we did,
weād probably have to call it something like the Golden Dodo.
On British Farm Scale Trials
- Wayne Parrott
By now the news reports are starting to circulate that GM crops are
environmentally damaging. These news reports are based on generous
extrapolations from the results of the study posted on-line at
The argument basically goes that weed control is too good with GM crops.
Therefore, no weeds = no insects and no weed seed. In turn, no insects and
no weed seed = no bird food. No bird food = no birds.
The line of reasoning is intimated in the introduction of the study and in
one of the reports ["it is feared that, since the herbicides are more
efficient at weed control (Brants & Harms 1998), this may lead to cleaner
fields, which may threaten wildlife (English Nature 2000; Royal Society
for the Protection of Birds 2003]. "
Yet, the environmental impact assessment of these studies was based on
counting weeds and insects in gm and and non-gm fields. They never
actually counted birds for this study. All conclusions on the effect on
birdlife are the result of extrapolations way beyond the data base, and of
inappropriate use of correlation to prove cause and effect.
Ultimately, the results reported in these studies are a result of the crop
management system, rather than of the GM crops themselves. Case in point,
note that an organic farmer who thoroughly hoes his/her field would be
equally guilty of destroying potential bird food.
The UK studies fail to account that agronomic practices change with the
advent of GM crops. One clear trend in the studies is that with less weeds
in GM fields, the detritus-eating insects had lower abundance. To the
extent that low numbers of detritus-eating insects are a limitation,
switching to no-till practices-- as is happening in the US, would provide
better habitat not just for detritus-eating insects, but for all types of
Perhaps the biggest flaw is than in no case did they consider the
environmental impact of the herbicide residues used in the conventional
systems, for example, by using Cornell's Environmental Impact Quotient
I should also point out that farms are not the natural habitat for
wildlife-- the term "farmland wildlife" used in the introduction is a
contradiction of terms. By focusing on better weed control and maximum
yields per plot of land, they could then have extra land to set aside, so
that it could remain wild and be habitat for wildlife in its natural
Frankenstein Knows Best
- Telegraph (UK), Oct 7. 2003 http://www.telegraph.co.uk
The results of country-wide trials of GM crops do not show that they are
dangerous. All they show is that GM beet and spring rape crops encourage
fewer weeds to grow than conventional crops. And, in fact, when it comes
to GM maize, more weeds grow than with conventional maize. So, with two
out of three of the tested crops, genetic modification seems to do exactly
what its fans claim: make healthier crops with greater yields. And that's
it - no venomous seeds, no wiping out of organic food, no spectre of
But still the usual suspects, such as the former environment minister
Michael Meacher, the RSPB and Friends of the Earth, go on bashing GM crops
for "suppressing weeds''. Though they don't suggest that GM maize - which
boosts weed growth - should be encouraged. Why? Because they have simply
decided that GM crops are a bad thing, whatever the scientific results. If
those results don't fit their doomsday scenario, they turn to doomsday
possibilities: one, that "contamination'' by GM pollen could mutate
naturally occurring species; and two, that a ghastly race of GM superweeds
might be born.
Contamination or, to put it less pejoratively, pollination is what happens
to plants: they get fertilised by pollen from neighbouring crops. The
difference with GM pollen is that it has specially designed qualities such
as, say, genes that resist insects by producing exactly the same toxins
that organic farmers slosh all over their crops.
As for the superweeds - weeds that pick up genes from GM plants and turn
into nightmarish, irrepressible triffids - there's no indication that GM
plants are any more likely to do that than conventional crops, and
conventional crops, although they can mutate into weeds, have rarely done
so in the 9,000-year history of human cultivation.
All that motivates anti-GM feeling is fear of the new, a perfectly
justifiable emotion until tests such as these show quite how unfounded and
irrational it is. This week's decision by Monsanto, the American company
that pioneered GM crops, to pull out of European seed cereals, shows the
damage that such superstitions can do. It would be catastrophic for the
future of agriculture and science in Britain if other companies were
forced to make the same decision.
UK Scientists Comment on British Farm Trials
- Sent by Denis Murphy
- The Economist, October 17, 2003
Both sides in Britain's debate over genetically-modified (GM) food took
heart from scientific results released this week. In 1999, the government
commissioned field trials of GM oilseed rape, maize and beet to compare
their effects on local plants and animals with conventional farming
practice. The worry is that these herbicide-resistant GM crops mean such
good weed control that bug and bird numbers will fall.
The trials' design has been criticised, and there have been physical
attacks too. But the results give food for thought. In fields of GM rape
and beet, fewer weeds, and therefore fewer butterflies (and in some cases,
fewer bees) were found than with conventional varieties. Research suggests
that could mean fewer birds too. Among GM maize, though, weeds and bugs
did better than with ordinary varieties. Such differences are due, not to
genetic engineering per se, but to how herbicides are used on GM versus
These findings join other results, also published this week by the
government, on the spread of GM genes to other crops. Friends of the
Earth, a pressure group which led an anti-GM protest in London earlier
this week, cheered their conclusion that pollen from GM rape can fertilise
plots 15 miles (26 km) away. Using such crops in Britain would
irreversibly contaminate conventional varieties, it argued. At the same
time, however, the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, which represents
the industry, trumpeted results showing that a distance of only 25 metres
between fields of maize would be enough to reduce genetic contamination
below the 0.9% threshold above which European regulations call something
While gene flow raises serious environmental questions, its immediate
significance is commercial, says Brian Johnson, head of English Nature, a
conservation group. Britain's Soil Association, which certifies
organicproduce, will reject any crop with more than 0.1% accidental
contamination with GM material. As a result, organic farmers are fearful
of losing their livelihoods should their neighbours, near or far, choose
to plant GM crops. The government is struggling to produce regulations for
the "co-existence" of GM and non-GM varieties, as well as rules on who
should pay if contamination occurs.
The government has long said that this week's results are vital for the
decision on whether to allow the commercial cultivation of GM crops in
Britain; they will also be scrutinised by European authorities. While they
could strengthen the case for GM maize to be commercialised, that is
unlikely to do much for British agriculture, since far less of it is grown
than oilseed rape and beet, and most goes into lower profit animal feed
Just as well, since an earlier economic review, and substantial public
consultation, suggest that Britons are unwilling to swallow the new
technology. Caught between grassroots resistance at home, and American
pressure at the World Trade Organisation to be more GM-friendly, the
government faces a tricky few months.
It Is Time to Let Both Farmers and Consumers Benefit from the Flexibility
of GM Technology
- Paul Rylott, The Independent - London, Oct. 17, 2003
The results of the Farm Scale Evaluations (FSE) confirm what industry has
long argued: the flexibility of GM crops allows them to be grown in a way
that benefits the environment.
Critics claimed that GM crops would "wipe out" wildlife. These studies
disprove that. On the contrary - this evidence reiterates that GM crops
are more flexible and can enhance biodiversity. These FSEs were not GM on
trial. As the Scientific Steering Committee said: "The researchers stress
that the differences ... were not a result of the way in which the crops
were genetically modified. They arose because these GM crops gave farmers
taking part in the trial new options for weed control."
It was not GM versus conventional farming which was significant, but
different approaches to crop type, herbicide use and management practices.
This research highlighted that the impact on biodiversity is all to do
with how farmers control weeds; when you want to grow high quality, safe,
affordable food, you have to control weeds that otherwise degrade quality
safety and affordability.
None of the studies published this year supports the banning of GM crops.
The economic review by the Strategy Unit argued that while short-term
economic benefits may be limited (in excess of £50m per year to farmers),
future developments could offer much more to consumers and farmers.
The science review concluded that "the risks to human health are very low
for GM crops ... on the market". The report found no evidence to support
claims that crops would become superweeds, saying that "they are very
unlikely to invade our countryside or become problematic plants".
Even "GM Nation?" - the public debate, allegedly conclusive proof that
British people did not want GM - reported that the more balanced focus
groups could see advantages of GM providing cheaper food, helping UK
farmers compete abroad and assisting developing countries. Michael
Meacher, the former environment minister, has claimed that the use of
atrazine in the maize tests invalidates the results. This is wrong.
Atrazine, was one of ten herbicides used on conventional maize in the
It is a shame that, despite being responsible for setting up the FSE
trials and having very strong views on the subject, Mr Meacher failed to
visit any of the 280 FSE trial sites in the four-year period. He might
have seen the environmental and biodiversity benefits that flexible weed
management using GM crops allowed.
These studies are a tribute to the farmers, the industry and the
scientists. We look forward to submitting our response to the Advisory
Committee on Releases to the Environment. It is now time for the
responsible introduction of GM crops to the UK. This would allow farmers
and consumers to benefit from the choice and flexibility that GM offers.
Paul Rylott is chairman of the Agriculture Biotechnology Council.
GM Crop Trials: Why?
- Tony Gilland, Sp!ked Online, Oct.17, 2003 http://www.spiked-online.com/
Finally the results of the UK government-sponsored 'GM-Crop Farm-Scale
Evaluation' trials have been published. But are we any the wiser?
On 16 October, some 100 journalists and 10 camera crews turned up at the
Science Media Centre in London to find out what the scientists had
discovered. Hot on their heels were another 200-odd NGO representatives,
farmers and interested parties who came to hear a similar briefing from
the scientists in the afternoon at the Royal Institution.
Four years, £5.9million and (apparently) 1.5million dead invertebrates on
from the start of the farm-scale trials, the scientists are clearly
excited about the unique opportunity that they have had to study farmland
ecology at such a detailed and extensive level and, quite reasonably, are
proud of their work. But while the scientific experiment has yielded some
interesting results, it has not helped one bit in answering the vexed
question of whether the UK should get on and experiment with the
commercial growth of genetically modified GM crops.
From the start, the farm-scale trials were an attempt by the UK government
to evade making a decision about GM, in the face of controversy that has
surrounded this technology since 1997. These large trials were a
conciliatory gesture towards GM's opponents, designed to show that it took
seriously the myriad of environmental concerns raised about the impact of
GM upon farmland biodiversity. The trials have now shown, though surely to
nobody's surprise, that GM will have an impact - but whether that impact
should be seen as good, bad or indifferent primarily depends upon the
attitude of the beholder towards GM.
Formally speaking, the purpose of the trials was to evaluate the indirect
environmental impacts of growing genetically modified maize, beet and
spring-sown oil seed rape. These crops have all been modified to make them
resistant to certain broad-spectrum herbicides. The purpose of this is to
make life easier and cheaper for farmers, by assisting them to control the
weeds in their fields without fear of damaging the crops themselves. In
particular it allows the farmer to let weeds grow in the field early on
during the growing season, knowing that he has an effective herbicide that
he can apply later in the year without harming his crops.
All these crops received regulatory approval - both with regard to human
health and environmental effects - by 1998. But during the heated GM
debates of the late 1990s, English Nature, a statutory conservation body,
pointed out that nobody had taken into account the potential impact, not
of the crops themselves, but of the farmers' weed management practices
associated with the new crops.
Would the farmers actually delay the application of herbicides, thus
improving the lot of the species that feed on the weeds, with positive
knock-on effects up the food chain and for biodiversity? And even if they
did, would the positive environmental impacts be outweighed by the
negative impacts on biodiversity of more effective weed control later on
in the growing cycle? These were the sorts of questions the farm-scale
trials were designed to address.
At a summary level, the answers the Scientific Steering Committee for the
trials has come up with seem relatively straightforward. 'Growing
conventional beet and spring rape was better for many groups of wildlife
than growing GM herbicide-tolerant (GMHT) beet and spring rape. Some
insect groups, such as bees (in beet crops) and butterflies (in beet and
spring rape), were recorded more frequently in and around the conventional
crops because there were more weeds to provide food and cover.· In
contrast, growing GMHT maize was better for many groups of wildlife than
conventional maize. There were more weeds in and around the GMHT maize
crops, more butterflies and bees around at certain times of year, and more
Simplistically then, a thumbs-up for GMHT maize and a thumbs-down for beet
and spring-sown rape.
However, life on a farm is more complicated than that. As Michael Crawley
from Imperial College told the Royal Institution audience on 16 October,
if commercial planting of these crops were allowed, who's to say which
farmers would use them and what management practices they would adopt?
Would it primarily be farmers who currently manage their farms to minimise
weeds anyway who adopt these new crop varieties, or would there be a high
take-up among farmers with weedier fields? The implication was that the
latter scenario would have a greater impact on the amount of weeds found
on British farms and on the wildlife that lives off them.
When it comes to weeds and wildlife the picture isn't simple either. For
example, while the scientists found fewer bees and butterflies in the GMHT
beet crops than in the conventional varieties, they also point out that
'there are never many bees and butterflies in beet crops'. Apparently
'researchers were often comparing counts of only two or three bees per
field'. They found 'more bumble bees feeding on weeds growing in margins
of the beet and maize fields than in the fields themselves', and 'no
differences in the number of bumble bees on margins of conventional or GM
crops' for all three types of crop studied - beet, maize and spring rape.
They also found 'at least five times as many bumble bees in the fields of
spring rape crops (both GMHT and conventional) than in the beet or maize
crops' and said 'it looks likely that bumble bees will be more affected by
the proportion of farmland growing different crops than whether fields
contain conventional or GM crops'. So if we want more bumble bees at
least, it sounds like we should grow more rape and not worry about GM or
When it came to butterflies, while researchers found significantly lower
numbers around the field margins of GMHT spring rape and beet compared to
the conventional varieties (though little difference between GM and
conventional maize), the picture is apparently complicated by the high
mobility of butterflies and their ability to fly on until they find the
plants they need elsewhere.
Moving on to the less cute 'soil-surface-active-invertebrates' (beetles,
spiders and the tiny springtails found in the soil), the picture at a
general level seems quite positive. The tiny springtails (maybe two
millimetres long) that break down dead vegetation and return nutrients to
the soil were more abundant in the fields of all three types of GM crops -
possibly because delayed use of herbicides meant the weeds grew larger
before being killed, hence providing a greater source of food to the
And as David Brooks and Alison Haughton from Rothamsted Research told us,
in general there were no significant differences between GM and non-GM for
any of the crop types as far as abundance and diversity of beetles and
spiders was concerned - though specific species of each fared better or
worse in response to the new management practices.
I found the presentations given by the scientists very interesting. That
said, they have not changed my long-standing belief that the farm-scale
trials have no relevance to the decision about whether the UK should
experiment commercially with GM crops, or whether it should keep farms
GM-free. This bizarre how-many-butterflies-on-a-beet-leaf debate is
clearly not what the GM issue is about - whatever side you take on it.
The opposition to GM crops in the UK is more political than it is
scientific. It is based on a one-sidedly negative account of modern
agriculture, scientific and technological experimentation and the track
record of big business and government. GM, like any other agricultural
technology, is bound to have some kind of impact upon the weeds and
insects found in crops - indeed, this is the point of it.
The fact that this impact has been widely reported as proof of
environmental 'damage' indicates that any attempt by farmers to use
technology to improve farming practices today tends to be seen in a
negative light. The most important question at stake in the GM issue -
whether the application of this technology is good for humanity - cannot
be resolved at a technical level and certainly not by counting beetles and
It is the broader mistrust of modern farming, and the negative sentiments
that lie behind it, that the UK government has consistently found itself
unable to challenge. To date, the government has hidden behind a
combination of waiting for the results of the farm-scale trials, a
technical cost-benefit analysis exercise, calls for more scientific
research and regulation, and a rather lame public consultation exercise in
the vague hope that a decision to move ahead with GM technology might
eventually become possible without it having to win any difficult
political arguments or to counter the cynicism of our times with a
positive, progressive vision of the future.
UK environment secretary Margaret Beckett gave a predictably bland
response to the farm-scale trials. 'I shall reflect carefully on these
results and the outcome of the public debate. I have said consistently
that the government is neither pro- nor anti-GM crops - our overriding
concern is to protect human health and the environment, and to ensure
genuine consumer choice,' she said. And it has been reported today that
ministers are likely to delay any decision on the commercial planting of
GM crops until after the general election. It seems that the government is
no more prepared to win the political arguments than it was when it
conceded to the farm-scale trials four years ago, to buy itself more time.
Tony Gilland is science and society director of the London-based Institute
Monsanto Committed to Introducing Crops
- David Firn, The Financial Times, ft.com, Oct. 16 2003
The announcement that Monsanto was closing its traditional seed breeding
operations in Cambridge was gleefully seized on by environmental
campaigners as a victory in their drive to keep genetically modified crops
out of the UK.
But while the news excited those with little understanding of the field,
its impact will in reality be to boost, rather than reduce, the company's
ambitions. Monsanto denied the decision to close its 85-year-old cereal
breeding centre in Trumpington linked to opposition to GM, stressing it
remained "absolutely committed" to introducing GM crops into the UK.
Chris Green, chairman of the British Society of Plant Breeders, underlined
the way in which traditional breeding was losing out to GM, as focused
research efforts on biotechnology , especially in the US and Asia where
there is less opposition. "Clearly from Monsanto's standpoint they have
better places for their investment that sidestep Europe," Mr Green said.
"Improving plants requires a very considerable long-term investment and
the returns being achieved from the present market are inadequate making
many programmes unstainable. Against this background further
rationalisation is inevitable." He said the closure of the for mer
government Plant Breeding Institute would be a heavy blow to the UK plant
James Doughty, a plant scientist at the University of Bath, said UK
biotechnology had become the victim of an ill-informed debate initiated by
pressure groups and often propagated by the media. "It is killing biotech
in Europe. We see it in the quality of people coming through the education
system. Many do not see science as a sensible career move, so the quality
people go elsewhere."
Health Food, Biotech style
- Robert Wager, The Globe and Mail, Oct. 17, 2003; via Agnet
Robert Wager, a member of the Biology Department at Malaspina University
College in Nanaimo, B.C., writes that hypocrites said:"Let thy food be thy
medicine and thy medicine thy food."
Wager says that "functional foods" are the latest thing in the world of
nutrition. These foods have benefits beyond supplying the bodies' basic
nutrients. Folic acid enriched bread, bacteria supplements to yogurt,
vitamin D added to milk are all examples of functional foods. Although
most people in the developed world have enough to eat, they do not always
eat what is nutritious. Good nutrition is a cornerstone of preventative
Most of the first generation products of food biotechnology benefited the
environment or the farmer. The second generation of crops is now beginning
to reach the market. These products directly benefit the consumer.
Biotechnology is engineering healthy additions to common food products.
More than 300 million metric tonnes of potatoes are grown annually, making
it the fourth most important food crop in the world. At present there are
four types of genetically engineered potatoes licensed for commercial use
in Canada and the U.S. They all contain a protein called Bt, which
protects the plant from insect attack.
Unfortunately, says Wager, the major producers of potato products have
succumbed to political pressure and do not accept these potatoes, even
though Bt potatoes have shown dramatic reductions in organophosphate
insecticide use. This action results in the continued use of large amounts
of insecticides to control the Colourado potato beetle, a major pest of
the potato crops.
Biotechnology research on potato species remains active in many countries.
Some of the new varieties soon to reach the market include potatoes with
increased protein content. By putting the seed albumin gene from
Amaranthus into a potato, researchers have been able to increase the
protein content from less than 1 per cent to 14 per cent. In many parts of
the world where potatoes are a staple food, protein deficiency can be
countered by this new nutritionally enhanced potato variety. Other
researchers have engineered potatoes to possess higher starch content.
These potatoes absorb less oil when fried. French fries, chips, and other
fried potato products will contain less oil and, therefore, be healthier
for human consumption.
Wild potatoes found in South America contain large amounts of toxic
compounds called glycoalkaloids. Centuries of traditional breeding have
reduced the levels of these anti-nutrients. Now researchers are developing
potato varieties that have virtually none of these toxins.
Similar research is being conducted on the tomato, a crop closely related
to the potato. This type of engineering, called gene silencing, does not
introduce new genes from other species but shuts down existing genes in a
plant. An existing gene is inserted in the plant genome backwards. This
results in the gene being shut down.
Using the same gene silencing technique, research is advancing in removing
known allergens from food. It is estimated that 2 per cent of adults and
up to 8 per cent of children are truly allergic to some type of food. The
eight most common food allergies are: milk, eggs, peanuts, soybean, fish,
crustaceans, tree nuts and wheat. A variety of rice has been produced with
reduced allergen content. The offending protein allergen in rice is only
found in small amounts in the rice grain. This has allowed for the
relatively simple construction of a hypoallergenic rice variety. This is
not the case in something like peanuts. At least three different proteins
are major allergens in peanuts and these proteins are found in high
amounts. For these reasons, engineering a hypoallergenic peanut is
unlikely for some time.
Researchers have taken a different approach to developing hypoallergenic
wheat. Scientists have turned up the expression of a gene that will
partially breakdown protein structures. The result is a variety of wheat
that is less allergenic, while maintaining the other characteristics
prized in cooking and baking. Look for hypoallergenic wheat in the not too
Every year some 500,000 children go blind because of Vitamin A deficiency.
Children in the developing world often die as a result of the loss of
sight. Researchers have created a variety of rice with elevated levels of
beta-carotene, which is converted to Vitamin A in the human body. The rice
with the gene for beta-carotene production has been crossed with local
varieties of rice in the developing world. These new strains of rice are
about to undergo field trials at the International Rice Research Institute
(IRRI). If all goes well the new rice varieties will be given free to
subsistence farmers in the developing world by 2006.
The same beta-carotene production gene, originally isolated from the
daffodil, has also been engineered into mustard. This will make mustard
seed oil a good source of the vitamin A precursor. Together these two
vitamin-enhanced crops could help reduce blindness and death from vitamin
A deficiency in the developing world.
Research into healthier tomatoes has reached an advanced stage. Lycopene
is an antioxidant found in tomatoes and is thought to reduce the risk of
several types of cancer and some forms of heart disease. Scientists have
increased the level of lycopene in tomatoes by 250 per cent. The
high-lycopene tomato should reach the market within a few of years.
Other research using gene silencing has produced a delayed ripening
tomato. This tomato can ripen on the vine longer, thereby increasing the
healthy nutrients often missing when the tomato is picked while still
green. Researchers are hoping to apply this delayed ripening trait to
strawberries, melon, bananas, and bell peppers.
The health benefits of vitamin E are widely reported in medical journals.
Vitamin E is only produced by plants and is essential in our diet. People
in North America get most of their vitamin E from vegetable oils. But
vegetable oils are low in the most beneficial form of vitamin E (alpha).
Researchers have isolated the gene for an enzyme that converts the least
effective form (gamma) of vitamin E to the most effective form (alpha).
The level of alpha vitamin E was increased almost 10 times by engineering
the enzyme into a test plant. Soy, corn, and canola all convert gamma to
alpha in the same way. Hence, it is realistic to expect high vitamin E
soy, corn and canola oil in the near future.
Ferritin is a protein that is responsible for the high iron content of
beans. Researchers have transferred the ferritin gene from the bean plant
into wheat and rice to produce iron-enriched varieties. These new wheat
and rice varieties are in field trials now. If successful, these new
varieties could help reduce chronic anemia in many parts of the world.
Probably the most widespread health benefits engineered into food crops
involve fat composition of soy and canola oils that are present in many
processed foods and margarines. They are also widely used as cooking oils.
There are several different types of engineered soy and canola oils, all
developed for different purposes. Traditional soy and canola oil required
modification by a process of hydrogenation in order for the oils to be
most useful for cooking or as ingredients in processed foods. One of the
by-products of hydrogenation is the production of trans-fats, and
excessive trans-fats consumption has been associated with cardiovascular
Traditional breeding by chemical mutagenesis has produced canola oil with
high oleic acid content. Researchers have also engineered a soy variety
with the same high oleic acid content. Because these oils do not require
hydrogenation to make them suitable for cooking and food manufacturing,
there is no trans-fat in either oil. There is also a soy variety that is
high in a saturated fat called stearic acid. This fat is not associated
with elevated cholesterol levels as most saturated fats are. Both soybean
varieties were produced by shutting down (silencing) an existing gene. No
foreign gene was introduced into these varieties. These healthy oils have
been on the market for the past few years.
Canola is also high in omega-3 fats, the beneficial polyunsaturated fats
found in fish such as salmon or tuna. Although the omega-3 fats in canola
are not the same ones found in fish oils, they can be converted into the
fish type fats in the human body. Research has shown healthy increases of
some fish type fats when people consume canola oil. Research is being done
on engineering the exact fish type omega-3 fats into canola. The genes
that produce these healthy fats are found in the marine algae food of
fish. This type of omega-3 enhanced canola is still a few years away,
The advent of Bt corn, with its built-in insect protection, has allowed
farmers to reduce the amount of organophosphate insecticides by-millions
of pounds each year. An added bonus of this engineered insect resistance
is a dramatic reduction in fungal toxins on the corn. Bt corn has up to 90
per cent reductions in these nasty fungal toxins. Clearly this engineered
crop is good for the environment and healthy for the consumer.
This article has dealt with some nutritional enhancements of food crops
with biotechnology. But it must be remembered that most nutritional
problems in the developing world are a direct result of the simple problem
of not enough food. Disease, rot, and poor yields, combined with ever
increasing population, are a larger problem for people in the developing
world. The biotechnology sector of our economy is also hard at work trying
to address some of these problems.
Gene Flow: What Does It Mean for Biodiversity and Centers of Origin
Last month, the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology (PIFB) and the
U.S.-Mexico Foundation for Science (FUMEC) co-hosted Gene Flow: What Does
It Mean for Biodiversity and Centers of Origin, a conference in Mexico
City, Mexico. The participants discussed many of the prevailing questions
about the genetic diversity of maize and the potential impacts of
genetically modified plants if introduced to centers of origin.
Proceedings from the conference will not be available until early 2004 but
presentations provided by many of the speakers have been posted to the Pew
Initiative website. Highlights include:
- A presentation by Allison Snow, Professor of Biology at Ohio State
University, clarifies what gene flow is and explores how the flow of genes
from transgenics may have positive, neutral or negative impacts on the net
fitness of plants.
- A presentation by Dulce Mara Arias, the Director of the Center of
Environmenal Educaion at Universidad Autonoma de Morelos, describes the
current status of biodiversity among maize and teosinte (the wild relative
of maize) plants, the variables impacting the biodiversity of each, and
the interactions between these cultivated and native varieties.
- A presentation by Flavio Aragn with Instituto Nacional -
Investigaciones Forestales, Agricolas y Pecuarias (INIFAP) in Mexico
explores the implications transgenic gene flow may have for biodiversity
- A presentation by Vctor Villalobos with the Office of the Secretary of
Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food (SAGARPA) in
Mexico, which provides an overview of the Mexican Biosafety Regulatory
System and the potential advantages biotechnology may provide Mexican
Presentations are available at http://pewagbiotech.org/events/0929/.
Scroll down to the agenda and select the name of a particular speaker to
see the speakerās presentation.
'Someday We Will Feed the World'
Agribiotech.org was started by a group of students aiming to educate
people on plant biotechnology via this web site. We do not sell or promote
any kind of business. This web site was founded by the students of the
University of Rhode Island, U.S.A. Through this web site we plan to spread
biotech education for free among millions of people around the globe.
It is extremely important for people to understand how a gene works before
they become outrageous about GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms).
Scientists are conducting researches everywhere to prove how safe a
genetically modified crop can be. Please visit the links to learn more. As
of today nobody could prove that GMO in crops is dangerous for health. It
could really help to feed the poor people in the developing countries.
Please support plant biotechnology. Please conatct us for any inofrmation
reagrding plant biotechnology, how to transfer a gene to a plant etc. We
hope to provide free education about agricultural biotechnology to
everybody through our web site. You can learn more about crop
biotechnology at developing countries by visiting:
International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications
AgriBiotech.Org's Ultimate Links in Plant Biotechnology (You Must See!!)
Agricultural Biotechnology and the Poor
Support Plant Biotechnology (22 Nobel Laureates Signed!)
Genetic Engineering Applications: Impact and Applications
Biotechnology Information Directory
- Thomas R. DeGregori, TechCentral Station
From Ripley Today online news site we learn that on Saturday September 27,
"Greenpeace campaigners" exchanged "what they described as genetically
modified milk for the organic alternative, free of charge" at a booth in
front of a Sainsbury's grocery store. This was allegedly for the purpose
of food safety and informing and protecting consumers. Somehow Greenpeace
always seems to have an uncanny ability to get things exactly opposite to
the truth and in this case, once again they have not failed us in being
egregiously in error.
Read on at http://www.techcentralstation.com/101603B.html