Today in AgBioView: October 24, 2003:
* The Politics of Biotechnology in China
* Hate Mail Forces Cuts Professor's GM Work
* Biofortification ÷ Feeding More Better
* Is Controlling Weeds Bad?
* What Neolithic Farmers Knew About Weeds
* Farming on Trial
* GM Crops Dancing to Different Tunes
* Mixed Message Could Prove Costly for GM Crops
* Consumers Value GM Foods That Directly Benefit Them
* Rich Harvest for the Poor
* GM May Be Good For You
* Africa: Journalists Re-look at Botech Coverage
* New Access for Agriculture
China - The Politics of Biotechnology
- Economist Intelligence Unit, RiskWire 36 No. 101; From Stratfor
Agricultural biotechnology policies in China apparently have taken a
restrictive turn recently, with the imposition of labeling laws for, and
tighter restrictions on the import of, products made with genetically
modified ingredients. But looks can be deceiving. Concerns about
bioengineered foods and crops are more than a question of health and
environmental safety: In fact, they play a key role in China's domestic
security policy and, as such, will play into Beijing's foreign policies as
Analysis: China has recently begun enforcing new labeling laws for food
products made with genetically modified ingredients. Beijing also is
imposing new regulations on the import of bioengineered crops, citing
concerns about health and safety.
But at the same time, Chinese government spending on biotechnology
continues to rise, belying the apparent downshift in acceptance of
engineered crops. Rather, Beijing views biotechnology -- particularly in
the field of agriculture -- as a core element of domestic food security,
as well as a tool to deal with new difficulties imposed on Chinese farmers
amid the ongoing economic changes within the country.
For the central leadership in Beijing, biotechnology is the future of
China, and protecting that heritage from outside exploitation is becoming
a top priority for government agencies. Regulations on the import and
distribution of engineered foods and other agricultural goods are, to a
great degree, a product of China's attempts at maintaining domestic
stability -- and given the public nature of China's agricultural
biotechnology research and development, Beijing will walk a fine line in
dealing with the conflicting policies of Europe and the United States.
China is the leading nation in plant biotechnology research outside of
North America. It far surpasses other large developing nations such as
India and Brazil, accounting for half of the developing world's
expenditures on plant biotechnology. Investment in biotechnology research
in China grew from just $10.5 million in 1995 to $38.9 million five years
later. Total state investment in agricultural biotechnology research and
development is expected to reach nearly $1.5 billion during the tenth
five-year plan, which stretches from 2001 to 2005 -- four times as much as
was spent in the preceding 15 years. This ambitious goal means Chinese
public spending will account for more than a quarter of the total public
expenditure on agricultural biotechnology in the world.
Other research puts China's total agricultural biotech spending at closer
to $100 million, when all factors are considered -- with plans to raise it
to nearly $500 million by 2005. Globally, around $3 billion a year is
spent on research and development in this field, of which one-third is
from the public sector. The United States currently spends nearly half a
billion dollars of public money in such endeavors each year.
Though the total Chinese expenditures might not match the amount being
spent in the United States, particularly when the private sector
contributions are taken into account, it is important to note that more
than 90 percent of all funds spent on agricultural biotech research and
development in China are public funds. The government is the key
facilitator and driver of biotechnology research and thus can direct
research toward the products deemed most strategically important.
For Beijing, the most important aspect of agricultural biotechnology
research is to ensure China's food security. By some estimates, China must
feed close to 20 percent of the world's population with just 7 percent of
the Earth's arable land. Much of the country's food is produced by small
farmers rather than on large industrial farms, further limiting the
efficient use of space. In addition, natural disasters -- ranging from
floods to droughts to swarms of locusts -- regularly ravage their crops.
China's entry into the World Trade Organization is generating further
pressure by opening the country's agricultural sector to competition from
lower-cost imports -- exacerbating the already difficult problem of
dealing with a massive surplus of rural labor. Chinese farmers are losing
jobs and moving into the cities, bringing additional strains to the urban
areas, where unemployment is also on the rise. This in turn sets up a
potentially destabilizing social situation -- which the government in
Beijing is desperate to avoid.
Chinese agricultural biotechnology research, then, has focused on
government priorities to increase domestic yields at lower costs to
farmers. Genetically engineered, pest-resistant cotton, for example,
comprises nearly half of all cotton grown in China, and the savings in
pesticide and fertilizer applications have cut costs by 28 percent and
raised the average small farmer's annual income by $150, according to a
recent study by researchers from the University of California at Davis and
the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Plant engineering efforts are focusing not only on cotton but also on food
staples such as rice, wheat and maize, which each make up approximately 20
percent of planted land. And though transgenic rice varieties have yet to
be approved for commercial growing, engineered "super-rice," with
increased yields, is already in the markets.
With these crops, the main technological focus is on making them disease-,
insect- and drought-resistant -- better adapting the crops to China's
growing conditions and potentially expanding the amount of arable land.
At the moment, these efforts are geared primarily for domestic use. Though
exporting engineered foods is not currently a priority, the potential for
that is growing, and a black market has already sprung up in Asia for
Chinese-engineered cottonseeds. But in the Asian race to develop
biotechnology -- not only for crops but also medications -- China is
looking to turn its already advanced stage of research and development to
its advantage. Beijing is signing biotechnology cooperation agreements
with several nations in Asia and beyond. And through this cooperation,
Beijing hopes to expand its influence in the region, offering assistance
as a benevolent Middle Kingdom and serving as an alternative to the
"exploitative" Western powers and their business interests.
China has been expanding its foreign policy in the region in recent years,
positioning itself as an economic alternative to Western powers that
impose their political will on smaller nations. But the country also
continues to reach out to Europe and the United States, seeking investment
and acceptance in the international community. For example, Beijing played
a key role in the passage of the U.N. Security Council resolution against
Iraq in 2002.
More recently, it also has played an instrumental role in bringing North
Korea and the United States to the bargaining table to end the nuclear
standoff. Moreover, Beijing is participating in Central Asian
counterterrorism exercises and recently has floated the idea of joint oil
and gas exploration in the South China Sea -- an area full of conflicting
However, Beijing's top concern remains domestic stability and the security
of the national leadership. China's massive unemployment problems weigh
heavily on policymakers in Beijing. Dealing with migrant labor, in
particular, has vexed leaders as they struggle not only to affect a
solution, but also to determine the true level of unemployment in the
Biotechnology is one solution to this problem, because it makes remaining
a farmer more profitable. This, coupled with attempts to rein in
corruption and graft by implementing more controls over the local and
regional bureaucracy, is helping Beijing keep the farmers in the fields
and reducing complaints from rural workers. In addition, the central
government has passed new regulations to protect the rights of migrant
workers -- regulations that not only provide social services for these
laborers, but also make it easier to track the moving population and
better grasp the size and scope of the problem.
Interestingly, Chinese consumers and farmers are embracing biotechnology.
Since the Communist Revolution, the Chinese have been told to embrace
science and put away superstition, something that has better prepared the
nation's people to accept genetically modified foods and other products.
In one 1999 study by Environics International, 79 percent of Chinese held
a favorable view of agricultural biotechnology to create pest-resistant
crops -- a percentage even higher than the 78 percent registered in the
United States, and significantly more than the 63 percent of Japanese and
36 percent of British holding similar views.
This acceptance has remained, and a recent survey of Beijing residents
found that a large majority of shoppers were quite willing to buy
engineered foods, with many even willing to pay a premium for such
products if there were noticeable benefits to be gained from the
engineering. Such attitudes facilitate the government's plans for expanded
use of biotech crops. But some resistance -- led by environmental groups
emboldened by China's more open economic and social climate -- has
To address these domestic and similar international issues, Beijing has
enacted labeling laws for products containing genetically modified
ingredients and tightened import regulations on biotech crops. But there
also are deeper reasons for these new regulations. Part of the reason for
the significant government interest in biotechnology research is a
realization that future food crops will become increasingly reliant on
such technologies, and China does not want to become dependent upon
foreign suppliers for seeds and agricultural products. On the contrary, a
key reason for the biotech focus in China is to ensure domestic food
For Beijing, agricultural biotechnology is no less vital than other
strategic sectors, such as energy and telecommunications. And like its
policies in those areas, Beijing's agricultural biotech policies have
adapted a two-pronged approach to foreign participation. On one hand,
China wants to attract foreign technology and investment dollars to
accelerate its domestic programs; on the other hand, it wants to ensure
full government control over development and the final products, and to
keep out direct competition for as long as possible.
This dichotomy leaves China at times looking somewhat confused to outside
observers -- as in the current case with biotechnology, where it appears
to be rethinking the safety of biotech products but in reality continues
to expand domestic research and development programs. And to aid its
efforts to avoid drawing too much criticism from Washington, for example,
China can play the United States off against Europe, using the strongly
conflicting biotech policies of each to better position itself.
Ultimately, China's development and use of biotech foods and other
products will continue to increase. The central government will focus on
the best ways to integrate biotechnology with other initiatives -- from
addressing unemployment and migrant labor to increasing ties with
neighboring states and strengthening domestic food supplies -- thus
ensuring a more independent and stronger nation.
Hate Mail Forces Cuts Professor's GM Work
- Fiona MacGregor, Edinburgh Evening News, Oct. 24, 2003
A leading GM expert is being forced to cut back on his work because of
threatening letters sent to his city home.
Anthony Trewavas, professor of applied biochemistry at Edinburgh
University, said the antagonism and harassment he faced was pressuring him
to reduce his involvement in the public debate on genetically modified
The academic described the intimidation tactics used by anti-GM lobbyists
as similar to those used by animal rights activists. He said he had
received letters at his home containing personal insults, some calling for
him to leave the country.
Now the professor has decided to cut back some of his public work -
including writing letters to newspapers and speaking at events - in the
wake of the harassment. He said: "I've found taking part in the debate
quite stressful. Having to deal with letters, which I throw away, saying
things like 'we don't want you', it gets personal in part.
"You wonder, when you throw them away, what's behind them. They can be
sent to my personal address and that leads to uncertainty, especially when
you hear about crops being destroyed and farmers being harassed. " "Quite
a few scientists have been through this. I know of one who received a bomb
threat, and whether it's a hoax or not, it's clearly intimidating." "My
wife doesn't like me doing this at all because of all the antagonism.
"I'm a scientist not a politician. Politicians can take the rough and
tumble, but I'm not that kind of person and I don't deal with these
Prof Trewavas added that intimidation tactics were preventing the public
getting proper access to all the relevant scientific information about GM
crops. He said the behaviour of activists made it difficult to appear in
public debates on the subject - something he felt was an important part of
his job. "As a scientist my own view is always that policy should be
based on the best possible knowledge. "
"I recognise that people, feel deeply about this, but it's exchange of
information that is important." "It's a debate, but it's not a civilised
debate. There's a very vociferous group on one side."
The strength of anti-GM feeling is also creating a major brain-drain in
Scotland, according to Prof Trewavas. He said many experts in the field
had already gone to work abroad. "There have been people leaving the
country and going to the US where they don't have the same attitude. The
US seems to value knowledge more." "We are also going to see this
affecting education. It is becoming too controversial for people to go
"Scotland has no heavy industry left, all it has is its brains and if we
are not prepared to use that because of antagonism then Scotland has no
future." "All technologies have good and bad sides, but you don't throw
away good technology, just because of some bad things."
Prof Trewavas added he did not know why the anti GM lobby was so strong in
the this country. "They have been growing GM maize in Spain for five
years and there has been no controversy in the newspapers or crop trashing
there." And he condemned the press coverage of the GM debate in this
country. "What on earth is all the fuss about? We're only talking about a
group of plants," he said.
But anti-GM campaigner Anthony Jackson said he had heard of GM crops being
destroyed by protesters, but was not aware of objectors using intimidation
tactics against scientists.
Mr Jackson, a member of the Munlochy GM Vigil, which opposes GM crop
trials held at Munlochy, in the Highlands, said: "This campaign is backed
by groups like the Women's Institute and the local people who live in
communities [close to GM trial areas]. It is not a nasty campaign."
Biofortification ÷ Feeding More Better
- Dean Kleckner, Chairman, Truth About Trade & Technology,
There's a new word you need to know: Biofortification.
It's not in the dictionary, so don't think it's going to win your next
game of Scrabble. But keep it in the back of your head, because it's one
of those words we're going to start hearing a lot. That's because it
describes the latest thinking on how we can deliver the best possible
nutrition to the maximum number of people - cross-breeding crops with high
nutritional value and those with high yields and the ability to resist
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently announced a $25 million grant
to help combat malnutrition in the developing world by investing in
biofortification. Scientists will use the money to develop crops that
provide high levels of micronutrients, such as iron, zinc, and vitamin A.
"Vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which contribute to the deaths of
millions of children each year, can be easily prevented by adding just a
few key nutrients to staple food,a says David Fleming of the Gates
There's incredible potential here to save millions of lives and improve
millions more. The problem of global malnutrition deserves our earnest
attention, as the Gates Foundation makes clear in a recent press release
announcing its gift in support of biofortification. I don't think I could
put it any better, so I won't even try: "Malnutrition contributes to over
half of child deaths in the developing world, and the UN estimates that
nearly one-third of the world's population suffers from deficiencies in
micronutrients such as iron, zinc, and vitamin A.
Even mild levels of micronutrient malnutrition can damage cognitive and
physical development, lower disease resistance in children, and reduce the
likelihood that mothers survive childbirth. Iron deficiency alone affects
over 3.5 billion people in the developing world and is responsible for
100,000 maternal deaths during childbirth each year. Vitamin A deficiency
causes more than 500,000 children to go blind each year and is a leading
cause of child mortality."
Biotechnology, of course, plays a key role in biofortification. It already
has improved farm yields. That's great for farmers--and consumers, too, in
the sense that greater supplies mean lower prices in supermarkets. The
next generation of biotech crops, however, will be very much driven by
consumer demand--and genetically-modified plants will be some of the
healthiest foods available.
Think about your last stroll down the cereal aisle at your grocery store.
A lot of the boxes make a sales pitch based on high sugar content. The old
Calvin & Hobbes cartoon strip used to satirize these as "Chocolate Frosted
So many other boxes, though, use nutritional content as their main appeal.
When you read the side panels, you learn that the cereal companies add
micronutrients like crazy--and by doing so, they're adding nutritional
value to our lives. That's exactly what biotechnology is going to do for
us in the near future.
Cereal boxes, of course, aren't always easy to find in the developing
world. There are probably lots of people who haven't ever laid eyes on
Corn Flakes. They don't have the option of purchasing products that have
had micronutrients added to them--but perhaps they can start to grow crops
that are already full of the micronutrients they need. That's what the
Gates Foundation is trying to make possible.
Dr. Norman Borlaug became famous years ago for sparking the "green
revolution" that has boosted food yields around the world, making it
possible to sustain massive population increases. He won the 1970 Nobel
Peace Prize for his heroic scientific efforts.
Borlaug recently said that the time has come to "extend the green
revolution to the gene revolution." What he meant is that the world should
embrace biotechnology and all it has to offer in terms of productivity and
nutrition. The green revolution helped feed more people and feed them
better. The gene revolution promises to do the same thing--and
biofortification is one of the ways in which it will succeed.
Controlling Weeds is Bad?
- Bob MacGregor
I seem to recall that there are conventionally-bred, herbicide tolerant
canola varieties. I wonder if these have been approved for use in the UK?
If, as the Royal Society report(s) points out, the
environmental/biodiversity impact is not related to the breeding technique
(ie GE or not), but to the weed management effectiveness on the particular
crop, then surely any objections to HT canola would apply whether it was
GM or not.
Can we then expect Greenpeace, English Nature and Prince Charles to call
for a ban on any crops that make weed control easier because they might
reduce the diversity of pests and the birds that eat them?
I thought the point of modern agriculture was to be intensively productive
on some land so that nature could thrive on the rest; maybe I missed
What Neolithic Farmers Knew About Weeds
- - Leslie J. Elmslie (00152 Rome, Italy), Financial Times (UK), ft.com
Sir, It would appear, from the article "GM crop impact trial finds threat
to environment" (October 17) by John Mason and Clive Cookson, that the
British government spent Euros 8.6m on conceptually silly but well
designed and meticulously implemented trials that demonstrate what any
Neolithic farmer scratching the soil with a stick could have told it: that
the more weeds there are in a crop, the more animals there will be that
feed on those weeds, and vice versa.
The Neolithic farmer might have explained that the definition of a weed is
a plant out of place and that his aim was to grow crops, not weeds.
He might conceivably have added that weeds are notably easy to grow and
that he would be happy to grow them if there were a market but - there
being little immediate hope of anyone who liked weeds putting his cowries
where his mouth was - in the meantime he was looking for a second wife to
help with the weeding because the extra output from a clean (weed-free)
field would be more than sufficient to feed a second family.
Farming on Trial
- Alex Avery, Tech Central Station, Oct. 23, 2003
British farmers must be wondering if they've been transported to Alice's
Wonderland. Suddenly, normal farm activities like combating weeds in the
fields are akin to crimes against nature.
Last week, the UK government released the results of its 3-year farm-scale
evaluations (FSEs) supposedly examining the environmental impacts of
genetically modified, or "GM" crops. According to the headlines in scores
of UK newspapers, the results indicate that two of the three GM crops were
"damaging to wildlife."
The Guardian headline read, "Two GM crops face ban for damaging wildlife."
Commentator John Vidal says the trials provide "a legal basis for banning
the two crops under European Union rules, which say that either health or
environmental detriment must be proved."
This is a sham. They aren't talking wildlife; they're literally talking
about weeds. The FSE measured the number and density of weeds and
associated insects in the crop fields. The researchers call it "farmland
biodiversity" and assume that fewer weeds and dependent bugs in farm
fields means fewer birds and other critters off the farm. The FSE
researchers refer to this assumption as "the negative impacts of
Clare Oxborrow of the activist group Friends of the Earth commented,
"weeds are a crucial part of maintaining farmland diversity." What's next,
Greenpeace praise for livestock diseases?
If the British really believe that weeds are a better use of cropland than
crop yields, then their farm surpluses and farming ignorance have made
them a danger to the whole world's natural biodiversity.
Farm fields are not natural ecosystems harboring critical natural
biodiversity. Farm fields are human food and fiber factories. Every acre
of farmland, no matter how weedy or organic, is one less acre of natural
wildlife habitat. The more weeds we tolerate in our fields to serve
"farmland biodiversity," the lower farm productivity becomes and the more
land we must steal from nature to feed and clothe humanity.
Government rejection of biotech cropping systems based on these results of
the FSE would establish a de facto government mandate for both weeds in
crop fields and lower yields. It's an absurd precedent.
In effect they are putting farming itself on trial. Farmers have rightly
been at war with weeds in their fields since the dawn of agriculture.
Weeds in the fields squander soil nutrients, water, and sunlight; reducing
crop yields proportionately. Combating weeds conserves these resources,
thereby increasing the fuel economy of our "agricultural machinery."
Are organic farmers who plow, till, hoe, and hand weed to aggressively
weed their fields perpetrating a holocaust on nature? In some sense, they
are. Organic farming's "bare-earth" weed control methods cause significant
soil erosion and runoff, polluting rivers and streams with sediment and
Herbicides have allowed modern farmers to do "no-tillage" farming; killing
weeds without disturbing the soil. This drastically reduces soil erosion
while improving soil structure and storing carbon, making no-till farming
the most sustainable agriculture in human history. Organic farmers have
spent years attempting to develop no-till systems of their own -- despite
their self-imposed restriction against using herbicides -- because of the
undeniable agronomic and environmental superiority of no-till.
GM technology now allows no-till to work with a much larger array of crops
and with safer herbicides. The GM crops tested in the FSE were in fact
engineered to work with low-toxicity herbicides that require fewer sprays.
The FSE showed they performed exactly as advertised: lower soil erosion,
more flexible and effective weed control using fewer sprays of a less
toxic herbicide. Somehow all these environmental successes still add up to
failure in the Wonderland of today's UK.
The bigger picture here is that according to the United Nations Food and
Agriculture Organization, humanity is already farming nearly half the
non-ice-covered land area of the earth. Over the next 50 years, population
growth and higher incomes in the developing world will combine to at least
double annual food and fibre demand. Without still higher yields on our
existing farmland, even more natural habitat will be turned over to
Was I kidding about UK government weed mandates? The FSE researchers
conclude, "If the environmental disbenefits of very clean fields are in
future judged to be unacceptableS* band spraying [herbicides] or leaving
unsprayed strips along field margins, could be used to reduce the negative
impacts of cleanliness."
Meanwhile, in Wonderland: "'Let the jury consider their verdict,' the King
said, for about the twentieth time that day.
'No, no!' said the Queen. 'Sentence first --- verdict afterwards.'
'Stuff and nonsense!' said Alice loudly.
Alex Avery is Director of Research at the Hudson Institute's Center for
Global Food Issues in Churchville, VA
GM Crops Dancing to Different Tunes
- Bernard Dixon, Current Biology, 2003, 13:15:R578-R579
'Mediawatch: Parts of the British media are keeping up a campaign against
the introduction of genetically modified crops ahead of the government's
assessment of the trial programme this autumn, often to the detriment of
the arguments, writes Bernard Dixon.'
While government ministers frequently complain about misrepresentation by
journalists, the UK's latest media frenzy over genetically modified (GM)
foods was triggered in precisely the opposite way. It began with a
newspaper article by a former minister on a subject for which he was until
very recently responsible.
"Blair buried health warning on GM crops, says sacked minister" was the
banner headline which launched the piece by Michael Meacher in The
Independent on Sunday. The former Environment Minister criticised Prime
Minister Tony Blair for (allegedly) contravening his own policy that the
debate should be conducted on the basis of scientific evidence rather than
prejudice. Yet nothing in the article supported that allegation.
Meacher cited a claim that GM technology "often involves producing novel
substances which may provoke allergic reactions". In the real world, of
course, its major promise is in deleting genes coding for allergens. The
only "scientific evidence" cited by Meacher was from experiments when a
known allergen gene was transferred from brazil nuts to soya -- which then
provoked adverse reactions in subjects already known to be allergic to
Meacher also asserted that Arpad Pusztai's "work on rats and GM
potatoes...was widely rubbished in government circles even though his
paper had been peer reviewed six times before publication." Given that
Pusztai's claims five years ago of adverse effects on growth and the
immune system have never appeared in a peer-reviewed journal, this is a
travesty of reality. Even the paper which he did co-author (on the
structure of the small intestine) appeared against peer review advice
(Curr. Biol. (1999) 9, R794).
Among many other distortions, Meacher quoted selectively from a Royal
Society report that GM could "lead to unpredictable harmful changes in the
nutritional state of foods". Of course it could. But as Lord May,
president of the society, said in The Independent three days later,
Meacher "conspicuously fails to mention its principal conclusion that
there is no scientific reason to doubt the safety of foods made from GM
ingredients that are currently available, nor to believe that genetic
modification makes GM foods inherently less safe than conventional
Meanwhile, the Daily Mail had launched a "Frankenstein Food Watch"
campaign by attacking comments made by Meacher's successor, Elliot Morley.
"A minister used flawed evidence yesterday to claim that eating GM foods
is safe," wrote consumer affairs correspondent Sean Poulter under the
headline "GM: Has the truth been genetically modified?" According to
Poulter, two studies cited by Morley as showing the safety of GM food
"turned out to be academic and theoretical reviews of old material". What,
one wonders, did readers make of that?
In parallel with these exchanges on (alleged) food toxicity, disputation
resurfaced on environmental issues. "GM crops could carpet Britain with
superweed," announced the Daily Mail. "Superweeds signal setback for GM
crops" said The Independent, reporting "the evolution of superweeds which
are resistant to the powerful weedkillers that GM crops were engineered to
However, closer reading of these reports showed a rather different
picture. Thus The Independent's article, by environment editor Michael
McCarthy, was about the recent emergence of weeds insensitive to the
Monsanto herbicide Roundup (glyphosate). Yet he himself recognized that
"the resistance has come about not through gene transfer from GM
herbicide-tolerant crops, as some have feared, but through natural
As has often happened during the GM debate, several of the sharpest
comments on this topic appeared not in the news columns but in readers'
letters. "Yes, we do have superweeds: you can buy them in any garden
centre (try Japanese knotweed, Australian swamp stonecrop or floating
pennywort) together with the 'powerful weedkillers' needed to control
them," wrote Mike Bayliss in The Independent. "We should be using plant
breeding and genetic modification, which all the evidence shows will
minimise chemical inputs and maximise sustainable production from
intensively farmed land."
A third ingredient in the recent furore came from a report issued by the
Prime Minister's Strategy Unit. This was widely portrayed, especially on
television, as showing that GM crops offered no inherent economic benefits
to either producers or consumers. Coupled with claims regarding their
toxicity and environmental dangers, this was presented as a threat to the
continuance of GM food work.
The calmer truth appeared in The Times, which reported the Strategy Unit
as arguing that "although GM crops could offer cost and convenience
advantages to British farmers, public attitudes...would stop them reaching
supermarket shelves in the short term". Research should go ahead "despite
the limited short-term commercial prospects", while long-term benefits may
include foods with added nutrients. The report also highlighted GM plants
as sources of pharmaceuticals and vaccines, as well as a future market for
Yet even The Times used as its headline "GM crops offer little economic
benefit". The article appeared alongside a photograph, almost equal in
size, showing "Barewitness" - a group of protestors spelling out "NO GM"
with their naked bodies in a field in Sussex. Pictures, we should
remember, invariably speak louder than words.
Bernard Dixon is European editor for the American Society for
Agribiotechnology: Mixed Message Could Prove Costly for GM Crops
- Erik Stokstad and Gretchen Vogel, Science, V.302, No. 5645, pp. 542-543.
Oct. 24, 2003.
Backers of genetically modified (GM) crops were rooting for a knockout.
Industry was anxiously awaiting the results of a 3-year experiment on the
effects of three modified plants--beets, maize, and oilseed rape--on
hundreds of plant and insect species across Great Britain. Supporters
hoped that the engineered crops would be a boon to farmers without
inflicting more punishment on the environment than do conventional crops.
But when the results of the largest-ever GM field trials were unveiled
last week, they hardly served to bolster prospects for the technology:
Cultivation of beets and oilseed rape clearly had deleterious effects on
wildlife and native plants. Only GM maize proved more environmentally
friendly than its non-GM counterpart.
The findings could turn out to be a knockout blow, but not the sort that
GM enthusiasts were hoping for. U.K. government officials, once discretely
bullish on agbiotech, studiously avoided lining up on the wrong side of
public opinion, which squarely opposes the commercial planting of GM
crops. "I cannot see any European government ignoring these results and
their effect on wildlife," Elliot Morley, the environment minister, told
The Guardian newspaper last week. At best, the GM row will be much harder
to hoe in Europe. "This is going to create more controversy rather than
less," says David Andow, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota,
Whatever the political ramifications, scientists are praising the field
trials as a premier example of environmental impact assessment. "This is a
landmark effort," says ecologist Allison Snow of Ohio State University,
Columbus. It "is the most comprehensive study of its kind ever," says Guy
Poppy, an ecologist at the University of Southampton, U.K. "We've never
had such a wonderful data set."
To help decide whether to recommend that the European Union approve these
GM crops for commercial planting, the U.K. government commissioned a
series of studies. Two were released earlier this year; a scientific
review found little risk to human health (Science, 25 July, p. 447), and
an economic analysis indicated that GM crops could ultimately benefit
consumers and farmers. A third study, in the works since 1999,
investigated how wildlife might be affected by crops modified to resist
Nineteen researchers from six agricultural research stations across
England, Scotland, and Wales designed a trial comparing three GM
crops--the ones closest to approval for commercial planting in the
U.K.--with conventional counterparts at more than 200 field sites across
Britain. These varieties were modified to resist "broad spectrum"
herbicides; that makes farming easier, because herbicides can be sprayed
directly on the crops and kill only weeds. Normally, farmers must douse
the soil with herbicides before weeds sprout, then spray again with
different herbicides that target particular weeds.
But killing weeds inflicts collateral damage on the environment. Wildlife
depends on weeds: Some native insects feed on them, butterflies sip their
nectar, and birds eat the seeds. Populations of the skylark, corn bunting,
and other common birds of the British countryside have declined over the
past 30 years. Their woes are blamed in part on ever more intensive
agricultural practices that suppress weeds on croplands.
The $8 million "farm-scale evaluations" pitted the three GM crops against
conventional counterparts on a range of acreages and growing conditions.
On half of each field, farmers grew their crops as usual. On the other
half, they planted a GM variety and followed a herbicide regimen
recommended by the seed company. The much-anticipated findings were
described in eight papers published on 16 October in Philosophical
Transactions of the Royal Society.
The bottom line is that the GM varieties of beet and oilseed rape are a
farmer's boon--but a bane to wildlife. They proved highly successful in
allowing farmers to suppress weeds: Plots with GM varieties had one-third
or less the weed biomass that plots of regular crops sustained. The GM
beet fields had 60% fewer seeds falling from the weeds, the oilseed rape
80% fewer. It's not certain whether that ultimately would mean fewer seeds
stored in the soil--the source of the following year's weeds--but the
researchers suspect so. There were also fewer bees and other insects that
feed upon weeds or their seeds. The margins of GM oilseed rape plots, for
example, had 24% fewer butterflies. The genes spliced into the plants for
herbicide resistance did not have a direct effect; the variations depended
on the herbicides and when the farmers applied them.
Maize was more of a success story for wildlife. The portion of fields
planted with GM maize had 82% more weeds than conventional corn. That's
because conventional corn fields were sprayed with atrazine, a broadly
effective and potent herbicide that is applied before the corn and weeds
sprout. The herbicide-tolerant maize allowed farmers to spray both growing
corn and weeds with a different, albeit weaker (and more benign),
herbicide, leading to more weeds. Insects in the GM fields did better too,
presumably because of the larger weed population.
Although limited to three crops, the trials have raised broader questions
about land use in Britain. Simply what is grown makes a huge difference to
wildlife. Regardless of whether the crops are GM or non-GM, biodiversity
in fields growing oilseed rape is significantly higher than that in maize
and sugar beet fields. "You could argue that if we want biodiversity, we
shouldn't be growing beets and maize at all," says Jeremy Sweet of the
National Institute of Agricultural Botany in Cambridge, U.K. "Do we want
farmland to be primarily for crop production or primarily for
biodiversity? At the moment we're fudging that question." Overall
biodiversity might benefit from policies that allow more intensive farming
on some land but leave other areas for wildlife, he says.
GM foes are staying focused. The "alleged benefits of GM do not exist,"
Greenpeace executive director Stephen Tindale said in a statement. He
called on Tony Blair "to close the door on GM crops for good."
Such drastic action may be premature. "The fact that herbicide-resistant
oilseed rape or sugar beets have a negative environmental effect doesn't
mean all GM crops will have a negative effect," says Poppy. Sorting out
the subtleties is now up to the U.K. Advisory Committee on Releases to the
Environment, which will consider the trial results in recommendations
about crop approval that it is expected to deliver to the government by
the end of the year.
Consumers Value GM Foods That Directly Benefit Them
- Jennifer Cutraro October 23, 2003 (via checkbiotech.org)
Consumers may be willing to pay a premium for certain genetically modified
foods if they are told of the potential health benefits they may receive
from eating those foods, according to a recent Purdue University study.
The findings also indicated that a marketing survey method called "cheap
talk" can be used in mail surveys to yield more accurate results. Jayson
Lusk, associate professor of agricultural economics and author of the
study, used a mail survey to assess how much consumers are willing to pay
for a genetically modified, or GM, food called golden rice. His paper
appears in the November issue of the American Journal of Agricultural
Lusk found that regardless of demographic factors, including age, gender,
income and level of education, consumers may be willing to pay more for
the GM golden rice versus a non-GM white rice, if they perceive a direct
personal benefit from the GM product.
"This study is one of the first to show that people are willing to pay a
premium for a food that's been improved using biotechnology," Lusk said.
"People value this product such that they are willing to pay more for it."
Golden rice, which is not yet commercially available, contains a daffodil
gene that produces a compound the human body converts to vitamin A. Lusk
provided background information about golden rice to all survey
Lusk said consumers in previous studies indicated they would pay a premium
for foods that had not been genetically modified - the exact opposite of
what he found in this study. He attributes that difference to this study's
emphasis on the potential benefits of golden rice from a consumer's,
rather than a producer's, point of view. "The first generation of GM
products came from technologies that tended to benefit farmers, like
Roundup Ready crops and Bt corn," Lusk said. "Consumers don't see a lot of
benefit from those products except for perhaps a very small decrease in
price. Other than that, consumers have been asked to take a risk without
any benefit to them at all," he said.
Lusk said the next generation of GM foods will be those like golden rice
that provide direct benefits, such as improved nutritional quality or
enhanced shelf life, to the consumer. As the biotechnology industry shifts
more of its promotion effort to these second generation crops, he said
producers will need to know if consumers will be more accepting of GM
foods that offer benefits to them.
"While consumers might perceive somewhat of a risk with GM foods, they may
also see a benefit. In this study, it appears that the nutritional
benefits of a GM food outweigh their perception of risk," he said. This
study also demonstrates a technique that may be useful in minimizing
preconceived assumptions held by consumers when surveyed in marketing
research, Lusk said. This may help marketing professionals more accurately
predict consumer behavior, he said. Marketing research is often done in a
hypothetical setting, in which consumers are surveyed about their
attitudes regarding a given product without any obligation to purchase it.
Participants in marketing studies tend to misrepresent consumer behavior
in these hypothetical situations, Lusk said. This misrepresentation is
especially widespread in surveys that question willingness-to-pay, an
attribute that measures how much consumers would pay for a given product,
he said. "Any economist will tell you that people have incentives to
misrepresent their preferences in a survey," Lusk said. "If you really
like a product that you see in a survey, you might think it will be made
commercially available sooner if you say you like it more than you really
Economists call this tendency for survey participants to misrepresent
their true opinions hypothetical bias. In this study, Lusk assessed
whether applying a technique called cheap talk could reduce consumer
hypothetical bias when responding to survey questions about
willingness-to-pay a premium for golden rice. Cheap talk, in this context,
describes a process researchers use to make survey participants aware of
hypothetical bias, with the goal of reducing or eliminating this type of
bias from their responses.
Rich Harvest for the Poor
- The Guardian, Oct. 23, 2003
There is an urgent need for more attention to the fight against
malnutrition, which contributes to over half of all child deaths in the
developing world ($25m Gates gift to GM project under fire, October 15).
However, I would like to clarify some misconceptions.
Harvest Plus is an alliance of organisations in developing and developed
countries working to breed and disseminate micronutrient-rich staple
foods. Our 10-year research plan focuses on conventional breeding
techniques to produce staple foods that are high in iron, zinc and vitamin
A. Because of the toll of malnutrition on children in poor countries,
Harvest Plus will investigate every possible avenue to improve nutrition
including the potential for biotechnology to raise the level of nutrients
in target crops above what can be accomplished with conventional breeding.
There is no plan for Harvest Plus to disseminate transgenic crops, because
of the high and difficult-to-predict costs of meeting regulatory
requirements in countries where laws are already in place, and because
many countries as yet do not have regulatory structures. It will be up to
individual countries to decide whether to introduce any nutrient-rich
transgenic crops that Harvest Plus may develop. Harvest Plus holds all
research products in public trust and will make them universally available
to developing countries at no cost.
- Howarth Bouis, Director, Harvest Plus, Washington DC
GM May Be Good For You
- Ross Clark, Spectator (UK), Oct. 23, 2003
'Ross Clark says we should ignore the eco-brigade's hysteria over
genetically modified food'
After years of trampling crops, the anti-GM food lobby believes that it
has finally drawn sap. Its bÉte noire, Monsanto, the world's biggest
producer of GM crops, is withdrawing from the UK cereals business. No
wonder, say the lobbyists, when only 8 per cent of the public, according
to the government's debate on GM food, would be happy to take their
cornflakes genetically modified.
To add to the antis' case, the government's long-awaited report into the
environmental effects of genetically modified foods has revealed that GM
crops have fewer birds, bees and butterflies living among them. 'Ministers
have no choice now but to ban GM beet and GM spring oil-seed rape,'
asserts Dr Mark Avery of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. A
delightfully named eco-warrior, Kathryn Tulip, adds menacingly, 'If Tony
Blair ignores public opinion on GM as blatantly as he did on Iraq, he can
expect widespread direct action in the fields.'
Before rushing off to join Ms Tulip at the furrows, the eco-brigade might
just care to study what the government scientists actually said. They have
found nothing in GM food that directly harms any kind of wildlife. The
reason there are fewer beasts found in GM fields is that fewer weeds grow
there. By the same token, any form of farming can be said to be bad for
wildlife in that were it not for crops, the land could be given over
entirely to weeds. The preservation of nature is a noble aim, but not to
the extent that the survival of particular butterflies in particular
fields should be allowed to cast a veto over all agricultural improvement.
Wouldn't it be better if butterflies were provided with alternative
habitats on field margins and nature reserves where they wouldn't risk
having their wings mangled by combine harvesters? One advantage of
higher-yielding GM crops is that they would free up land for nature
Not that this argument is likely to impress the anti-GM brigade, which has
elevated Monsanto to a metaphor for everything it hates about global
capitalism. Besides slaughtering English butterflies, the company stands
accused of ruining our diets, condemning Third World farmers to
starvation, extorting money from First World farmers and manufacturing the
ecological equivalent of the neutron bomb: 'terminator genes', which, if
released to the wild, could wipe out all plant life on earth.
Given that GM foods are novel, it makes sense that they are by law obliged
to undergo tests for possible effects on human health. Yet only one trial
has so far suggested that a GM food might provoke a health problem: Dr
Arpad Pusztai's famous experiment, which claimed that the immune systems
of laboratory rats are harmed by eating a particular brand of genetically
modified potato. As it happens, attempts to reproduce
Dr Pusztai's results have failed. There was also a fundamental problem
with his research in that all the animals in the experiment -- including
the control group fed conventional potato -- were found to be starving
halfway through the experiment because rats simply do not like eating raw
potatoes. But even if Dr Pusztai's work produced incontrovertible evidence
that the potatoes were harmful to human health, it would not be an
argument for outlawing all GM food -- just this particular brand of
Novel foods are entering our diet all the time through conventional
breeding techniques and through the introduction of existing foods in
novel markets; and sometimes, as in the case of kiwi fruit -- discovered
to cause a potentially fatal allergy in some people -- they can cause
health problems. The difference is that GM foods are routinely tested for
allergies and other possible ill-effects, whereas no statutory testing
procedure exists for conventional foods.
The charge that Monsanto is starving the world's poor is simple Luddism.
Take this offering from ActionAid, a charity that champions organic
farming in the Third World: 'GM coffee beans that ripen all the time would
allow large-scale producers to cut their costs by replacing manual labour
with machines, but would force small-scale coffee producers out of the
market.' It is astonishing that two centuries after Manchester mill-owners
proved what could be achieved by saving human effort, aid workers are
still questioning the wisdom of mechanisation. Are ActionAid's activists
going to turn up in Wiltshire and smash the threshing machines, or is it
just inhabitants of the Third World who are expected to live in a state of
The Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser has become something of a pin-up for
the anti-GM lobby. In 2000 he was taken to court by Monsanto for
infringement of its patents after detectives working for the company
discovered GM canola (rapeseed) growing in his fields. Mr Schmeiser denies
growing the crop without a licence, saying that he always grew his canola
by saving seed from his previous harvest. If there was GM canola in his
crop, he says, it must have got there by wind pollination. Thanks to Mr
Schmeiser's website, which presents his case as a 'Classic David v.
Goliath struggle', farmers the world over are now babbling about dark
plots by Monsanto to drive around farmsteads, sowing GM seed from
open-topped lorries in order to supplant all other varieties of rape-seed
with its own.
Mr Schmeiser, however, lost his case in the Canadian courts (the results
of an appeal to the Supreme Court are still awaited) after it was revealed
that the crop growing in his fields was made up of between 95 and 98 per
cent GM canola: a far greater proportion than could be explained by wind
pollination. Far from seeking to contaminate other farmers' crops,
Monsanto was found to be active in preventing its spread: two other
independent farmers in the area testified that they had complained about
contamination from GM crops and that Monsanto had swiftly sent teams to
remove the offending plants.
Cases like Mr Schmeiser's may not be repeated because many future GM crops
will have 'terminator' genes -- they will be engineered in such a way as
to make it impossible to grow them from their own seed. This technology
has the ability to put an end to contamination issues for good, though of
course it does not please the anti-GM lobby. The lobby argues that the
terminator genes could jump to other species, thus preventing plant
reproduction and wiping out all plant life on earth. This is nonsense: if
plants produce sterile seeds, they cannot share their genes with any other
form of plantlife. Theories about 'superweeds' belong, too, to science
fiction: even GM plants without terminator genes can only crossbreed with
close relatives, making it impossible for GM turnips to 'jump' to the
thistles in your garden.
The tragedy of the scaremongering that passes for debate on GM foods is
that it overlooks the genuine questions, most of which are competition
issues. Clearly, it is unsatisfactory that one company is so dominant in
the development of GM crops. Monsanto could easily be prevented from
building a monopoly in the technology were more companies to be tempted
into it. The trouble is, given the vilification that has been heaped on
Monsanto, which company would want to join the fray? The bigboots of the
anti-GM brigade aren't just trampling on Monsanto as they take to the rape
fields; they are trampling on the competition, too.
Africa: Journalists Re-look at Botech Coverage
- A Harvest.net (Kenya), Oct 23, 2003
African journalists are concerned about the quality of public debate on
biotechnology and have expressed their desire for increased interaction
between themselves and those who stand for different sides of the GM
During a conference that brought together more than 40 African and
international journalists from five African countries and partners from
Europe, the journalists said Zambia's decision to reject GM food has
raised serious concern about the level and quality of debate as well as
the role of the media in raising public awareness.
The journalists are now forming a new forum with a view to sharing
information between themselves and collaborating with African and
international scientific organizations. Once formally launched, the forum
will widen its membership by inviting journalists interested in developing
skills in agricultural, science and technology journalism. The forum will
also seek recognition from national and international scientific
organizations such as the Kenya National Council for Science and
Technology, the Third World Academy of Sciences, the American Association
of Science Writers and the British Association of Science Writers.
"The coverage of the biotech debate in Zambia has been appalling," a
journalist who wished to remain anonymous said. "Generally, what happened
is that a small group in government, who were able to take the cover of
science and excellent political connections, imposed their views on the
country. Although I personally do not support GM food, it is impossible to
conclude that the decision to reject GM food stemmed out of national
"It is important to understand that the structure of the media in Zambia
makes it difficult for journalists to write about different shades of
opinion," says Daniel Aghan, who works for the Nairobi-based Biotechnology
Trust Africa (BTA). "The public media echoes what the government says.
From my interaction with colleagues here (in Zambia), it is very clear
that the pro-biotech lobby has not adequately given its side of the
Aghan, who formerly wrote n write (sic) informed, accurate and factual
stories for the media they work for. This is very important for Africa
because disinformation from either side has direct impact on hunger and
poverty". for the Nation in Kenya, says the proposed forum will not be pro
or anti-GM. "We aim to develop members who can write informed, accurate
and factual stories for the media they work for. This is very important
for Africa because disinformation from either side has direct impact on
hunger and poverty".
A radio journalist lamented that often, those who were most vocal in the
media had not gone to the rural areas to see the effect of hunger on the
thousands of people who are dying. "It is sad that in the 21st century,
people care for narrow interests and are ready to sacrifice the lives of
As partners in development, our role as journalists is to have a true
market-place of views so that the people can make informed decisions". The
key objectives of the forum will be to act as a discussion platform on
issues related to agri-biotechnology and sustainable development,
facilitate the sharing of information and stories between media
organizations, help journalist be proactive on reporting of agri-biotech
issues, capacity building in specialized writing through training and
distribution of materials as well as facilitating communication between
the African media and science-based organizations.
The journalists said the new forum will learn from existing initiatives
such as the African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum (ABSF), which has
chapters in several African countries. In Malawi, journalists have also
formed a biotech/science forum to share agricultural and environment
stories while in Zimbabwe, the media has increase its focus on
The Director of Communications at 'A Harvest', Daniel Kamanga, chaired a
round-table session and told the journalists that the Foundation supports
factual and accurate reporting on biotechnology. "As Africans, our focus
is on hunger and poverty alleviation. We do not support biotechnology
blindly. We have a true connection to the people of Africa and have a
moral obligation to ensure they do not miss out of the opportunity that
biotechnology provides in the fight against hunger and poverty".
New Access for Agriculture
- Nature v.425, p.749, Oct. 23 2003. Excerpts..
A United Nations scheme launched last week extends unrestricted access to
Nature's content within developing countries.
For details see http://www.healthinternetwork.org/src/eligibility.php
An equivalent scheme for researchers in agriculture was launched on 14
October by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. --