Today in AgBioView: November 6, 2003:
* Asking the Wrong Questions? - Activists Draw Wrong Conclusions
* Potential Benefits of FSEs - Ian Weatherhead Explains
* Aussies: British Brain Drain Our Gain
* A New Zealand Maori Leader Speaks Up - Gene Genie A Life Saver
* Let Science Guide GM Debate
* The Biggest Con Act In History
* Book Review: Origins of the Organic Agriculture Debate
* Lessons From the Recall
* Pesticides in Organic Food?
* Foods for the Future: Genomics of Bioengineered Foods
* Highlights of FAO-BiotechNews, November, 2003
* Crop Biotechnology for Development: Is it Necessary?
* Agricultural IP and the Public Sector
Asking the Wrong Questions?
'Anti-GM activists draw wrong conclusions from interesting new study'
- Ronald Bailey, Reasononline, Nov. 5, 2003
Last month the British Royal Society's flagship scientific journal, The
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, reported the results of a
three-year Farm Scale Evaluation (FSE) study that compared conventional
crops with genetically enhanced herbicide-resistant crops. Anti-biotech
activists immediately claimed that the FSE results supported their demands
for a total ban on genetically modified agriculture.
"For years the GM corporations have been claiming that their crop would
reduce weed killer use and benefit wildlife," Greenpeace responded in a
statement. "Now we know how wrong they were." Tony Juniper, director of
Friends of the Earth, argued, "These trials have shown that GM oilseed
rape and beet cause more damage to the environment than even conventional
crops. The maize results are at best inconclusive. Going ahead with the
commercialization of any of these GM crops would be totally unacceptable."
But do crops that are genetically enhanced to tolerate herbicides hurt the
environment? Looking at the details of the FSE study reveals the evidence
of harm to be less than compelling. The very limited question that FSE
researchers were asked to investigate was whether or not there was any
"difference between the management of GMHT [genetically modified herbicide
tolerant] varieties and that of comparable conventional varieties in their
effects on wildlife abundance and diversity." To find out, farmers planted
several score fields half with conventional varieties, and half with GMHT
varieties. The researchers then looked at the abundance of weeds,
invertebrates (insects, spiders, snails, etc.) and vertebrates (chiefly
birds) living in the farm fields and along the uncultivated margins of the
What did they find? They found that fields growing herbicide-tolerant
beets and canola had fewer bees and butterflies. Why? Because bees and
butterflies consume nectar, and the GMHT fields had fewer flowering weeds
for them to feed on. The researchers noted that "the results for bees and
butterflies relate to foraging preferences and might or might not
translate into effects on population densities."
In other words, bees and butterflies prefer to flit off to areas where
flowers bloom and stay away from relatively weed-free fields. Meanwhile,
another group of insects-- springtails-- increased in GMHT fields because
they feed on dead plant matter, e.g., the weeds killed by herbicides.
Except for those groups, the researchers concluded, "The FSEs have shown
that GMHT management has no strong effect on the majority of the higher
taxa of aerial and epigeal arthropods..." Translation: Surface dwelling
and flying invertebrates were largely unaffected by GM crops.
What about weeds? By engineering in herbicide tolerance, farmers can use
safer, less toxic herbicides to control weeds throughout a crop's growing
period. For conventional crops, farmers typically pre-treat a field with
herbicide to kill off weeds before or shortly after they plant. Since
their crops are generally susceptible to herbicides, farmers are limited
in the herbicides they can use once their conventional crop begins
growing. So weeds that escaped the pre-treatment continue to grow and
compete with crop plants for nutrients and sunlight. Since
herbicide-tolerant crops can be treated at any time, this means that
farmers can more easily control weed infestations.
So it is not surprising that the FSEs found that there were fewer weeds in
beet and canola fields, and therefore there were fewer weed seeds
available to feed wildlife such as birds. On the other hand, weed
densities were greater for GMHT maize, most likely because the
conventional herbicide (atrazine) has such a long-lasting effect that it
kills far more weeds during and after treatment. Maize fields, both
conventional and GMHT, had far fewer weeds per square meter than either
beets or canola. In fact, choosing to grow maize rather than beets or
canola has a far greater effect on wildlife than growing genetically
The Greenpeace claim that GM growing does not reduce the amount of weed
killer used by farmers was shown by the FSE study to be dramatically
false. Farmers used 48 percent less herbicide for GM beets, 43 percent
less for maize, and herbicide applications were not significantly
different for canola, although in the U.S., canola farmers typically use
60 percent less herbicide than do conventional growers.
The FSEs clearly provided some fascinating new information about the
differences in the conventional and genetically enhanced crops. The
investigators should be applauded for rigorously and fairly answering the
questions given to them. However, their findings do not ineluctably tell
policymakers or the public what to do about genetically modified
agriculture, no matter what the anti-biotech activists may claim. The
future direction of farming depends far more on value judgments and
aesthetic concerns than it does on scientific studies like the FSE. The
central question probably is: What kind of landscape do people prefer?
Consider that no matter what effects either conventional or GM crops have
on wildlife, they pale in comparison to the impact that the introduction
of modern herbicides and pesticides 50 years ago had on farmland biology.
Farmers' fields became dramatically more productive, and comparatively
weed- and pest-free.
Of course, this modern revolution in farming has boosted food production
many fold, and makes food cheaper and more abundant than it has ever been
in history. Few people would advocate doing away with conventional farming
in order to boost wildlife populations, if by doing so we increased the
risk of starvation. Farming, it's worth remembering, is the opposite of
letting nature run wild-- that's why agriculture is so much more
productive than hunting and gathering.
Besides, the FSE researchers themselves point out that an alternative to
banning GM crops would be to manage the landscape to produce the sort of
plants that would support the preferred collection of insects, spiders,
birds, mammals, and so forth. In fact, if protecting wildlife is the right
goal, the higher productivity of genetically enhanced crops means that
less land has to be planted to grow food for people, thus leaving more
land for nature. So there may be less wildlife in the fields, but more
across the whole landscape, after it has been allowed to revert to nature.
But why not ask a deeper question? Why favor the sorts of wildlife that
thrive in relatively open areas like farms in the first place? Chopping
down essentially all of Britain's forests to create farms had a far
greater effect on wildlife than herbicides or genetically enhanced crops
do. In the United Kingdom today, 85 percent of the total arable land
surface is sown in crops. Why not get rid of farms entirely and restore
Britain's once dominant woodland species? After all, farmers in the
European Union have no business at all growing highly subsidized sugar
beets, since the sugar they produce costs several times the world market
price for that commodity. It's the same with maize- farmers in Ohio can
grow corn much more cheaply than the British.
The FSE program offers some fascinating scientific insights, but it cannot
tell us how farmland should be managed. If anti-biotech activists want to
favor certain wildlife and not others, that is their choice. But they
cannot make the case for their preferences by arguing that "science" has
somehow proved their point.
Ian Weatherhead of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council Explains the
Potential Benefits of FSEs
- Ian Weatherhead, Chemistry and Industry, Nov. 3, 2003
The UK farm-scale evaluations (FSEs) were established in 1999 in response
to questions raised about the effects on farmland wildlife and
biodiversity of the weed management practices associated with growing
particular types of genetically modified herbicide tolerant (GMHT) crops.
The objective was to examine possible differences in the abundance and
diversity of weeds and insects in GM crops compared to equivalent non-GM
crops. The programme was overseen by a scientific steering committee.
Data were required from 60/75 sites/crop between 2000 and 2002, with each
field planted with a GM crop in one half, and an equivalent non-GM crop in
the other. Four GMHT crops were used - spring-sown oilseed rape, forage
maize, beet (both sugar and fodder beet) and autumn-sown oilseed rape.
Results from the autumn-sown oilseed rape studies are due to be published
A pioneering project, it was one of the largest programmes of ecological
research of its kind. No other agricultural technology has ever undergone
such a comprehensive programme of testing and evaluation. The results of
this study, published in October, took the form of eight peer-reviewed
papers published by the Proceedings of the Royal Society.
From a wealth of data one finding has attracted greatest coverage, namely
that one of the GM crops, forage maize, offered benefits to the
environment in terms of greater numbers of weeds and fauna, while the
other two GM varieties, sugar beet and spring oilseed rape, led to lower
numbers of weeds and associated fauna compared to the GM crop.
The research also made a number of clear points:
* There was a greater effect between the three conventional crops in terms
of biodiversity than between the conventional and GM varieties.
* There was no effect resulting from the GM process itself - GM crops had
no direct effect on wildlife.
* The results were a direct reflection of the levels of weed control.
Where weed control was more efficient in the GM crop there was less
The researchers also said: 'Research is now showing how biodiversity can
be enhanced in arable landscapes by the manipulation of both GMHT and
conventional farming systems and their adjacent field margins. If wildlife
is to be conserved and restored in the British countryside, this balance
between agricultural production and opportunities for biodiversity needs
to be shifted back to a significant degree. GMHT cropping is but one
factor in determining whether, and how far, this shift in balance might be
These trials were about the impact of weed control, pure and simple. Fewer
weeds result in less biodiversity; more weeds result in greater
biodiversity. Farmland wildlife must be seen in balance with crop
production and this technology should be considered in the context of
farmland management and what the UK wants its farms to deliver.
A comparison between herbicides used in multiple sprays on conventional
crops and single sprays of glyphosate of glufosinate on GM crops
inevitably leads to differences in weed control, but does not yield as
great a variation in biodiversity as that between the different
conventional crops. The results also showed that there was no impact from
the GM process or plants on biodiversity. If biodiversity differences were
all down to weed control, there would be similar impacts from hoeing,
ploughing and herbicide treatments. Weed control and its impact are
therefore independent of GM and just as relevant in the case of organic or
conventional crops as it is in the case of GMHT.
If reduced biodiversity in GM sugar beet and oilseed rape was the
consequence of more efficient weed control, it is possible to tailor the
level and timing of weed control to allow greater environmental benefit,
as demonstrated by research from the Broom's Barn Research Station.2 The
summary paper on the FSE results1 makes this point clearly: 'Small plot
experiments on GMHT beet crops have shown considerable increases of weeds
and invertebrates with delayed glyphosate spraying. This potential benefit
for breeding birds was not realised by farmers within the FSE who applied
the herbicides earlier.'
This technology can offer growers an additional option for weed control,
and with further refinement of associated weed management practice can
deliver greater environmental benefits. These results will now be
considered by the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, which
will provide independent advice to government ministers.
The implications of spring-sown genetically modified herbicide-tolerant
crops for farmland biodiversity: a commentary on the farm-scale
evaluations of spring-sown crops, L Firbank et al
A novel approach to the use of genetically modified herbicide-tolerant
crops for environmental benefit, 2002. A Dewar et al, Proceedings of the
Royal Society London. Biological Sciences B270
Aussies: British Brain Drain Our Gain
- Dani Cooper, The Australian, Nov. 5, 2003
The cream of British plant scientists could be heading to Australia if
they heed the warning of the first defector. Cambridge University senior
lecturer Mark Tester has declared that UK plant science is now
The University of Adelaide graduate was reacting to the fall-out from a UK
government-funded study which showed genetically modified canola and sugar
beet could have a long-term impact on bee, butterfly and bird populations.
The British Government is under pressure to now ban GM crops, while
industry leader Monsanto announced last month it would be closing its UK
operations. Last week the HES reported that Australian GM scientists were
concerned the political fallout from the study could have repercussions
However, Tester believes the UK controversy could prove a boon to
Australian research. Writing in The Times Higher Education Supplement,
Tester said the "unsustainable and risky position" of plant science had
developed "very recently and very rapidly, caused primarily by the anti-GM
atmosphere in the UK". "What has been lost in the rush to praise or
condemn GM is that it is not the technology that is the problem, but how
it is used," he said.
"Radiotherapy has saved millions of lives, but nuclear waste disposal
presents untold future costs. "For GM crops, it is not the process of
generation that should be the issue, rather the question of which genes
are being put into the crops. Just as with conventional breeding, some
changes will be good, some will be bad."
Tester, who earlier this year was awarded a Federation Fellowship to
return to Adelaide, said the challenges to plant sciences were being
recognised in Australia. "Australians have realised that radical
approaches need to be adopted to broaden the genetic base of their crops,"
he said. "Having assessed the acute challenges facing their agriculture,
Australians have recognised the need for a new centre to focus on the
discovery of mechanisms of salt and drought tolerance of crops."
Tester will join the Adelaide University-based Australian Centre for Plant
Functional Genomics. He said the centre would "ensure that the flow of
knowledge from pure academic researcher to breeder is maintained,
providing a long-term sustainable structure for plant science as a whole
and agriculture in particular. The UK needs to take note," he added.
Gene Genie A Life Saver - "A New Zealand Maori Leader Speaks Up"
- John Tamihere (Labour Party MP), Dominion Post (NZ), Nov. 4, 2003 Via
Life Sciences Network
Out of the heated debate surrounding GM, a notion has arisen - and is
spouted as accepted wisdom by some - that "Maori oppose GM".
I get sick of people telling me what the Maori view is. Like the Pakeha
view, the Maori "view" is in fact wide-ranging and pluralistic. Contrary
to popular belief, just because Maori may have bigger noses and lips, they
don't all think alike.
While the view among some Maori may be that genetic modification is an
abomination, equally a large number of Maori don't think that way. I
happen to be one of those Maori who don't think that way.
Maori simply cannot afford to deny the advances in medicine which can be
made possible by GM. With Maori showing up as the worst in the all the
statistics for just about any disease or medical condition you could name,
resulting in a life expectancy 10 years shorter than for non-Maori, any
so-called Maori leaders who oppose GM should be asking themselves what
they are costing Maori people in terms of lifespan and enjoyment of life.
Genetic modification gave my father a much better standard of living in
his last years than he would otherwise have had. Dad was diagnosed with
type 2 diabetes at age 65, and the genetically enhanced insulin he
injected daily was a great improvement on the previous version - which was
derived from pigs.
My father was a traditional Maori - he was brought up on a dirt floor,
speaking Maori, in the Coromandel. But he didn't give diddly squat about
how that medicine was produced and neither do I. I would have done
anything to ensure he had the benefit of that medicine, and to deny Maori
the benefits of future medical advances through GM is literally denying
them their lives.
I don't have a lot of time for those who advocate positions that are
detrimental to their people and then justify themselves in the name of
whakapapa and a connection with the land. That's not tradition in my book.
Human endeavour has always sought better for humankind. It is that
instinct that led sailors to climb into a rickety old thing called the
Endeavour, head for the horizon and seek what lay beyond to make a better
life for people in the unknown.
In Maori terms, that is why my ancestors climbed aboard the Horouta canoe
that brought us to New Zealand, despite the warnings of our priests that
there were taniwha over the horizon. They too had an indomitable spirit
that drove them to exploring the unknown.
These two bloodlines, British and Maori, that underwrite New Zealand
culture are innately and intrinsically pushers of boundaries. Are there
risks in pushing boundaries? Of course there are. Even after both Maori
and Pakeha arrived here, they tried a whole range of things to make life
better for their people. It is that sort of attitude that led to New
Zealanders being first to split the atom, climb Everest and achieve
powered flight (as much as the Americans may wish to dispute the last
achievement, Kiwis know the truth).
The reality is that, as a person elected on behalf of Maori, I must seek
what will best serve their interests. I come from working class suburbs
and working class stock, and anything that will give my constituents a
better life, I will stand up for.
I acknowledge that the royal commission of inquiry recommended that we
take a cautious approach to exploring GM, and that we put in place
safeguards that include taking into account Maori views.
New Zealand may be surrounded by oceans, but it is not immune from the
arrival of GM, and I am not going to bury my head in the sand, but will
support us building systems to make the most of the opportunities this
brings, while mitigating the risks.
And one last thought. I felt the actions of the anti-GM protestors who
shouted "loser" at Bill English as he left Parliament after losing the
leadership vote reflected more on the protestors than it did on Bill.
These people think they have a monopoly on being caring and wonderful
people, but this incident proved they were meanies, not greenies.
Let Science Guide GM Debate
- Dominion Post (NZ), Nov. 4, 2003
At midnight on October 29, the moratorium on commercial release of
genetically modified organisms was lifted and the sky did not fall on our
heads. Yet tasteless Madge posters all over town remind us the debate is
far from over.
The forestry industry is a long way from any commercial GMO release, but
it welcomes the end of the moratorium and the introduction of a robust
regulatory regime, as must any sector competing in world markets.
Advanced research is essential if we are to keep pace with competitors and
exploit the best of scientific developments. In forestry terms, this
means further research into ways of better protecting our premier species,
radiata pine, from pests and herbicides.
Industry and government have worked consistently during a long period to
develop New Zealand radiata pine's reputation overseas and to build new
markets. This effort should not be eroded by researchers' inability to
investigate potential improvements.
The next few years will test society's maturity. Three years ago, the
Government initiated an exhaustive programme of public consultation about
GM issues.The Royal Commission on Genetic Modification roamed the country
encouraging debate and recording opinions - learned, scientific,
spiritual, rational, irrational, practical, incongruous. You name it, they
They distilled all this into a series of clear and reasonable
recommendations. Adoption of most of these recommendations means New
Zealand has a sensible and rigorous process for the cautious introduction
of GMOs. In this process, the Environmental Risk Management Authority
will be given the job of ensuring each application for release of GMOs is
New Zealand needs to react to this new world of GM - with its promise of
pest elimination, disease control and new product development - with the
rational application of sound scientific principles and not with hysteria.
Public debate is important, but let it be informed.
In response to the problem of leaky buildings, the Building Industry
Authority has recommended mandatory use of treated timber in all internal
and external framing. As with the GM debate, the issue is about risk
management - in this case the risk that a house might leak.
The forestry industry understands the seriousness of the problem and is
not opposed to using treated timber where circumstances warrant. We know
which houses leak and that poor design, building and inspection are at the
heart of the problem. We also know that only 14 per cent of timber used in
construction is at risk.
The BIA will be letting us down if it fails to focus its final
recommendations on the root cause of the problem - poor building and
design practices that make houses leak in the first place. We have
institutions such as the Royal Commission, Erma and the BIA so all
opinions on an issue can be taken into account before important decisions
are made and so extremists cannot hijack the process.
Public institutions have a responsibility to manage risk not politics. If
they are to serve the public good, they must not be swayed by emotion and
fear but let science be their guide.
The Biggest Con Act In History
- Tawanda Zidenga
I must confess that even as I participated in GM discussions on this
AgBioView platform, I was not ready for what I saw this weekend. For
starters I am a graduate student from Africa, having just arrived in
America. I was fascinated by the sight of shelves in a big supermarket
labelled "Natural foods." I did not know that lavish lifestyles can be
associated with this kind of madness. To produce food through agriculture
and call it "natural" is perhaps the biggest con act in history
But the con act seems to sell well here. After seeing those supermarket
shelves, I was motivated to check some anti-GM sites on the Internet to
hear more about "natural" foods. While science websites focus on providing
facts about GM crops, these websites typically work on the emotions of the
laymen. Here is what I got from a New Zealand site on "natural law":
"As we have seen, it is not possible for anyone to isolate themselves
indefinitely from the health hazards of genetically engineered foods. Seed
and crops are almost indistinguishable from their natural counterparts
except in the laboratory, and in the long term, cross pollination will
ensure that rogue genes cross over into related species. The only sensible
and practical course of action for any concerned individual and lover of
life is to find a way to prevent the continuing introduction of
genetically engineered crops and foods immediately before it is too late."
And they do score victories, for the simple reason that while facts may
tell, emotions sell! First the writer has already passed judgement that GM
foods have health hazards (no further information provided). Second, the
writer refers to transgenes as "rogue" genes to create an impact with his
reader. Then of course there is only one "sensible and practical" course
of action from any "concerned individual and lover of life!"
Perhaps scientist need to find more effective ways of reaching the public?
I don't know, but I'm fascinated.
Book Review: Origins of the Organic Agriculture Debate
- Andrew Apel, AgBiotech Reporter http://www.bioreporter.com
With "Origins of the Organic Agriculture Debate," University of Houston
professor of economics Thomas DeGregori presents the last of his four-book
series on the historical uses of technology in agriculture and its impact
on food production and the environment. Those who follow that topic to any
extent, which surely includes anyone involved in agricultural
biotechnology, will find it a page-turner on a par with Robert Ludlum‚s
best work-- although "Origins" is decidedly *not* fiction.
In it, DeGregori takes as his point of departure the notion that those who
feel alienated from the established order turn to the "underground of
rejected knowledge" to form a foundation for anti-establishment thought.
In other words, as science, technology, politics and philosophy improve
and advance, the advances necessarily render their antecedents obsolete or
just plain mistaken. This automatically makes this "rejected knowledge" a
basis for confronting the status quo.
This syndrome is essential to understanding modern, socially influential
though decidedly minority movements. Today‚s anarchists model their
ideology on Marxism, even though the fall of the Soviet Union consigned
that school of thought to 'rejected knowledge.' Today's anti-globalists,
who like the anarchists reject modern capitalism, base their ideology on
nationalism and xenophobia, both rejected as damaging to economic
well-being and conducive to warfare.
Organic agriculture occupies a curious nexus in this heap of rejected
knowledge. The Nazis, both nationalistic and xenophobic, managed to
transform rejected knowledge into an element of the establishment and as
part of their "back to nature" ideology wound up inventing organic
agriculture. Or re-inventing it, actually, since organic agriculture is
based on vitalism -- a theory about "vital properties" of molecules which
has long been dismissed by modern chemistry.
Very thoroughly, piece by piece and part by part, DeGregori shows how
organic agriculture, whose proponents may well be the most antagonistic
opponents of biotechnology, continue to rely on vitalism and proto-Nazi
claims of such things as 'naturalness' to market themselves and their
products. With equal patience he shows how these claims have no basis in
science and belong, demonstrably, to that group of beliefs that constitute
*DeGregori, Thomas R. Iowa State Press (Ames, Iowa). 211 pp., hardcover,
$54.99. To order visit
http://store.blackwell-professional.com/0813805139.html and to learn more
about the author, visit http://www.uh.edu/~trdegreg/
Lessons From the Recall
- Alex Avery, Tech Central Station, Nov. 5, 2003
High levels of a cancer-causing natural toxin have been found in every
single organic cornmeal product tested by the UK's food safety watchdog,
the Food Standards Agency.
That's a 100 percent failure rate, folks! The FSA instituted a UK-wide
recall of the contaminated organic cornmeals.
This is a huge, though belated reality check for consumers who think
they're getting something safer when they pay exorbitant prices for
organic foods. But don't expect much media coverage of this hugely
embarrassing organic incident. Nor any retreat by organic food partisans
in the ongoing fight for the hearts and minds of consumers.
The organic cornmeal products were found to contain high levels of
fumonisin, a cancer-causing fungal toxin produced by a natural mold that
can grow on corn in the field. Recently, the European Commission
established a new safety limit for fumonisin in foods of 500 parts per
All six recalled organic cornmeals not only failed the new safety
standard, but failed miserably. The organic cornmeals were contaminated at
an average of nearly 20 times the EC safety limit (9,000 ppb), with two
brands having more than 30 times the safety limit (16,300+ ppb)! The
lowest fumonisin level found in organic cornmeal was still more than 7
times too high. In comparison, twenty non-organic cornmeal products tested
by the FSA averaged only 130 ppb fumonisin.
The new EC food safety standard for fumonisin isn't another case of
over-regulation, either. Recent tests reveal that fumonisins cause cancer
in rodents at levels only moderately higher than those found in the
contaminated organic products. At lower levels, fumonisins may contribute
to liver and kidney disease. Fumonisins are suspected to be a cause of
liver and esophageal cancer in developing countries, where organic farming
methods are the norm -- for lack of access to modern farm inputs like
Yet five of the six recalled organic corn meals were grown and processed
in the UK and Denmark, not a distant Third World country. Another of the
recalled cornmeal products, while not officially organic, was grown and
processed in France under the brand name "Nature's Harvest." (They didn't
lie: Fumonisins are natural!) For comparison, non-organic cornmeal from
Nigeria was found by the FSA to contain only 11 ppb fumonisin.
While organic foods comprise less than 5 percent of the total food market
in the UK, the organic corn meal products accounted for 60 percent of
recalled corn meals.
What would the reaction have been among the organic farming/anti-biotech
activist crowd if it were GM foods that had totally failed a serious food
safety standard by such a huge margin, instead of organic products?
It would have been front-page news in all the UK newspapers. Organic
activists and their fellow agitators in the environmental lobbies would
have demanded an immediate recall of all biotech foods (not just those
that were contaminated) and a complete halt to the growing of biotech
crops until and unless these farming methods could be proven completely
safe. Ironically, these groups have already made exactly such demands,
despite a complete absence of food safety or environmental problems with
GM crops and foods.
Even more ironic, GM insect resistant corn has been shown to have 30-40
fold lower fumonisin levels than conventional corn, let alone in
comparison to the higher fumonisin levels found in organic corn. The
difference in fumonisin levels between GM and organic corn would be
For years organic activists have claimed without evidence that "organic"
methods were better for the environment and produced safer, healthier
food. In fact, the Soil Association buried its own research from the 1960s
that failed to show any nutrition or health superiority of organic, akin
to the tobacco companies burying their own research linking smoking with
As long as organic comprised only a small share of the food system, it
remained "under the radar" of food safety watchdogs. But now -- precisely
because organic industry lies were not forcefully challenged -- organic is
big enough business to deserve scrutiny. What we're increasingly finding
is that not only aren't organic foods any better, they may be worse for
Pesticides in Organic Food?
- Christopher Preston
>> Re: More Manure from the Soil Association from Tom DeGregori
The following "nugget" is from the Sydney Morning Herald:
Alarm At Pesticide Levels In Organic Produce
- Kirsty Needham, Sydney Morning Herald, Nov. 3, 2003
Expensively-priced organic food sold in supermarkets has, according to
this story, been found to contain pesticide residues equal to the maximum
limit legally allowed in traditional food products.
Food Standards Australia was cited as reporting in its latest bulletin
that in some cases, organic products sampled by health department officers
contained pesticide residues that should not be detected in any foods.
The story says that Queensland Health examined 96 organic products - both
imported and locally made. Pesticide residue was found in 15 per cent, of
which, 78 per cent had been "certified organic". Food Standards says six
products contained residues that are not prescribed under the food code
"and therefore should not be detected in any foods".
Andy Monk, chief executive of the Biological Farmers of Australia, which
runs the largest Certified Organic program, was cited as responding to the
report by asking the food producers named to "please explain".
Mr Monk was further cited as saying that consumers should realize that the
term "certified organic" refers only to a guarantee of chemical-free
production, and not the end product, adding, "We live in an environment
where there are persistent chemicals. The organic industry never makes the
claim that a product is pristine."
Monk also states that the Queensland report, which is still being
finalised, is based on testing conducted two years ago, and a more recent
Victorian survey had given an almost clean bill of health to the industry.
Random auditing by the Certified Organic program has since increased as
the organisation moved from a voluntary to a professional footing, he
said. The Biological Farmers of Australia estimate the organic retail
market to be worth $250 million, growing at over 20 per cent a year.
Food Standards labelling codes do not cover the use of the term organic,
potentially allowing it to appear on produce that has not been certified.
Food makers that do so risk legal action for false claims, however.
From Preston: So if pesticides (even if unapproved for normal food) turn
up in organic food that is OK, because "Organic" is just a process
standard (produced without adding synthetic chemicals). However, if a
minute amount of GM were to turn up in organic food, the food would be no
longer "Organic", because "Organic" is a product-based standard for GM!
Tom DeGregori help me out! My logic meter has shorted!
Foods for the Future: Genomics of Bioengineered Foods
- UCLA, Los Angeles, Nov, 21, 2003;
UCLA and the W. M. Keck Foundation for New Fall Symposium
Don't miss this opportunity to hear some of the world's leading experts
discuss the future of genetically modified foods and their impact on
medicine, society, and the world's food supply. This one-day symposium is
offered Friday, November 21, 9 am-4:30 pm on the UCLA campus. Scientists,
physicians, nurses, dietitians, allied health professionals, and the
general public will benefit from the information presented.
Spaces are limited, and pre-enrollment is required, but there's still time
to enroll. "Foods for the Future: Genomics of Bioengineered Foods" is
coordinated by Bob Goldberg, PhD, Professor, Department of Molecular,
Cell, and Developmental Biology at UCLA, and Leonard Rome, PhD, Senior
Associate Dean for Research, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
Drs. Goldberg and Rome have assembled a group of internationally
recognized experts who will address the benefits of and concerns about
genetically engineered foods and help participants: Understand current
developments in the genetic engineering of crops Learn how plants are
being modified to enhance vitamin and nutritional content See how the
potential allergenicity of genetically modified foods is being addressed
Explore the potential of foods as vaccines Hear what the Food and Drug
Administration is doing to regulate and assure the safety of the
bioengineered food supply Learn the benefits of bioengineered foods to the
developing world Preview the future of crop production through the use of
Distinguished speakers include:
Bob Goldberg, PhD, Professor, Department of Molecular, Cell, and
Developmental Biology, UCLA, Distinguished Teaching Award winner, who was
named one of the "top 20" professors in UCLA's history
Michael A. Grusak, PhD, USDA-ARS Plant Physiologist and Associate
Professor, Department of Pediatrics, Baylor College of Medicine, USDA-ARS
Children's Nutrition Research Center
Eliot Herman, PhD, Lead Scientist and Member, Plant Genetics Research
Charles J. Arntzen, PhD, Founding Director, Arizona Biodesign Institute
and Florence Ely Nelson Presidential Chair, Arizona State University
Robert Merker, PhD, Food and Drug Administration, Office of Food Additive
Safety, Division of Biotech and GRAS
Channapatna Prakash, PhD, Director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology
Research, College of Agriculture, Tuskegee University
Richard B. Flavell, PhD, Chief Science Officer, Ceres, Inc.
Highlights of FAO-BiotechNews, November, 2003
- FAO Biotechnology website http://www.fao.org/biotech/index.asp
Biosafety Training Materials
FAO is developing a website aiming to provide access to a collection of
training materials on biosafety. The different biosafety issues covered
include recombinant DNA laboratory safety; biosafety and containment
issues for GMO research in greenhouses; assessing GMOs and the effects of
introducing a GMO into the environment. The multi-lingual training
materials are categorised as manuals, guidelines, reports, toolkits,
cd-roms or websites. See http://www.fao.org/sd/2003/biosafety/index.htm.
For comments or to propose additional materials, contact
Access to Global Online Research in Agriculture (AGORA), an initiative to
provide free or low-cost access to major scientific journals in
agriculture and related biological, environmental and social sciences to
public institutions in developing countries, was launched on 14 October
2003 by FAO and a range of public and private sector partners. It provides
access to over 400 journals, many dealing directly or indirectly with
biotechnology, from the world's leading academic publishers. Participating
institutions need computers connected to the Internet with a connection of
56k baud rate or higher. See http://www.aginternetwork.org/en/index.php
(in Arabic, English, French or Spanish) or contact email@example.com for
UNEP-GEF Biosafety Module
The third module ("consultation and analysis") of a toolkit aiming to
provide a practical guide to assist countries in developing their draft
National Biosafety Framework (NBF), under the UNEP-GEF Project on
Development of NBFs, has just been published. The module addresses the
involvement of stakeholders and the consultation, analysis, and training
activities needed to identify the priorities and parameters for the
drafting of the NBF. See
http://www.unep.ch/biosafety/devdocuments.htm#Toolkit (in English, Spanish
and Russian) or contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
UNEP-GEF biosafety workshops
A series of sub-regional workshops on "Development of regulatory regime &
administrative systems for national biosafety frameworks" is taking place
from October 2003 to May 2004 under the UNEP-GEF Project on Development of
National Biosafety Frameworks. The location and dates are Shiraz, Iran
(19-22 October); Santiago, Chile (25-28 November); Antalya, Turkey (9-12
December); Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania (9-12 March - tentative date/location);
Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso (20-23 April) and Port of Spain, Trinidad and
Tobago (11-14 May). Relevant documents and reports from the workshops are
to be provided at
contact email@example.com for more information.
To Subscribe to FAO-BiotechNews, send an e-mail message to
firstname.lastname@example.org leaving the subject blank and entering the
one-line text message as follows: subscribe FAO-BiotechNews-L
Crop Biotechnology for Development: Is it Necessary?
- Thomas Sinclair, email@example.com, Professor, Agronomy Dept.,
Univ. Florida, Gainesville
Biotechnology is currently proposed as a key investment to stimulate
agricultural productivity in those countries left behind in economic
development, particularly countries in Africa. Historically, major
agricultural advances have supported industrialization and economic
growth, beginning with the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. Most
recently, the Green Revolution in the 1970s resulted in major increases in
crop yield. Asia was a major beneficiary of this technology; and
coincidentally, great economic strides were achieved by these "Asian
tiger" countries in the last 30 years. Past successes and an understanding
of crop science do not indicate, however, that biotechnology offers the
primary basis for another Green Revolution.
"Engineered" genes, by themselves, cannot bring about increase in crop
yields. Yield improvements require increasing the critical resources
required for plant growth. Methods to supply and apply nutrients
(particularly nitrogen) and/or water to fields have been the basis for
historical increases in crop yields, including the Green Revolution.
Certainly, plant genetics have been altered to accommodate the increased
yield potential and to protect the plants from opportunistic pests, but
the essential ingredients for yield increases are increased availability
of nutrients and water to support plant growth. Since these resources are
also quite limited in the natural environment, plants have evolved highly
efficient mechanisms to obtain and use nutrients and water.
There are no obvious mechanisms to achieve major advances in the nutrient
and water economy of plants through genetic modifications. While
biotechnology offers hope to better protect crops once yields have been
increased, biotechnology provides few prospects for addressing the
fundamental requirements of increasing the availability of nutrients and
What are realistic options for increasing resource availability? The
solutions are in researching basic questions leading to understanding,
improving and managing soils and crops, even though these do not seem to
be currently politically attractive to research funders. What management
schemes best protect soils for enhanced fertility and water storage? If
fertilizers are available, what are the optimum application schemes? What
plant species best fit various cropping schemes, and are there markets for
these crops? What breeding techniques can be employed to rapidly achieve
adapted cultivars for enhanced acceptance and productivity? Research to
answer these questions needs to be applied to the environmental situations
existing in the economically lagging countries.
One option that offers considerable promise is an enhanced role for
legumes -- including soybean, peanut, cowpea, chickpea, and pigeon pea --
in cropping systems. These plants have the critical advantage of being
able to form symbioses with specific bacteria that allow atmospheric
nitrogen to be incorporated directly into the plant. Hence, these plants
do not need nitrogen fertilizer, and, in fact, can add nitrogen to the
soil for use by subsequent crops. In addition, there are cultivars among
the legumes that are particularly adept at recovering soil phosphorous
that may be unavailable to other crops. Deeper rooting expressed by some
legumes increases access to nutrients and water stored deep in the soil.
Hence, conventional research on legumes is likely to readily lead to
cropping systems that will increase nutrient and water availability
without the expense of obtaining, transporting and applying large
quantities of fertilizer and water.
Proven research approaches need to be funded in less developed region to
enhance legume production. Unfortunately, scarce research dollars are
currently being targeted for biotechnology research that has little
possibility of addressing fundamental resource limitations to increasing
Note from Prakash: Should you wish to comment on this viewpoint, please
send to firstname.lastname@example.org
Agricultural IP and the Public Sector
- Jorge A. Huete-Pérez, Science, Vol. 302, No. 5646, Oct. 31, 2003, pp.
In the current global market, a country's economic success relies on its
effectiveness in constantly seeking out and utilizing new knowledge and
technologies. There is a growing concern, however, that overly stringent
intellectual property protection might hamper the progress of academic
To overcome these obstacles and to advance research on small specialty
crops in the United States, various nonprofit U.S. institutions are
promoting the establishment of the Public-Sector Intellectual Property
Resource for Agriculture ("Public sector collaboration for agricultural IP
management," R. C. Atkinson et al., Policy Forum, 11 July, p. 174). These
institutions suggest that this initiative to establish a collective
intellectual property management framework will also benefit subsistence
crop research in developing nations.
Although it may be true that this initiative could benefit research in
developing nations, the reality is that the strategies are not
specifically designed to address the agricultural needs of developing
countries. They are designed to address U.S. concerns.
In the context of intellectual property rights for biotechnology
inventions, developing countries face locally specific problems relating
to biosafety, biodiversity, unfair exploitation of genetic resources and
traditional knowledge, and the equitable sharing of benefits. In addition,
although access to new technology and intellectual property rights
management are necessary for advancing research in neglected crops in the
Southern Hemisphere, they are not by themselves sufficient.
In the thrust toward globalization, numerous developing countries are
being urged to implement intellectual property legislation built on models
created by more advanced economies, with little relevance to their own
needs and stages of development. Indeed, it could be argued that
intellectual property rights in biotechnology may only benefit
monopolistic tendencies while widening the technological gap between
developed and developing countries.
Therefore, although the efforts of the Public-Sector Intellectual Property
Resource for Agriculture might successfully address public-sector
concerns, a better way to advance agricultural research in the interest of
the developing world would be to support regional biotechnology
development centers. Using locally designed models, these centers would
address issues pertaining not only to intellectual property rights, but
also--most importantly--to capacity building, technology transfer, and
strategic alliances across nations.
Jorge A. Huete-Pérez, Centro de Biología Molecular, Universidad
Centroamericana, Managua, Nicaragua.
In their Policy Forum "Public sector collaboration for agricultural IP
management" (11 July, p. 174), R. C. Atkinson and colleagues offer a
welcome expectation--and the first glimmer of hope--that academic
institutions may yet marshal themselves to moderate the growing
"anticommons" (1) in biological research to which they are major
contributors. The circumstances reported for public-sector agricultural
R&D exemplify the Heller-Eisenberg thesis that a growing thicket of
upstream intellectual property claims would encumber research in a
"spiraling cycle" of transaction costs and inhibit downstream innovation
Tellingly, the article does not mention the option of establishing by
consensus a class of precompetitive biological research that should remain
in the public domain, as has happened in other R&D sectors (2). In
biomedical research, NIH's guidelines on the sharing of "research tools"
at least foster such considerations (3). The 1980 Bayh-Dole Act and
Supreme Court decision in Diamond v. Chakrabarty are cited by Atkinson et
al. among the fundamental changes in "the nature and ownership of
innovations... [that] have complicated the mission of our public research
institutions." True. But as NIH has noted, the Bayh-Dole Act does not
require the products of federally funded research to be patented [the
statute was further amended in 2000 specifically to discourage "unduly
encumbering future research and discovery" (4)], and neither Bayh-Dole nor
Chakrabarty precludes nonprofit institutions, individually or
collectively, from adopting policies to ensure that their basic science
discoveries remain freely accessible to researchers.
Bold examples of public and public-private initiatives to protect public
domain knowledge include the Human Genome Project, the SNPs Consortium,
the HapMap Project, and the Protein Structure Initiative, which stand as
model efforts to counteract the "patent rush" (5) that threatens to engulf
biomedical research and even clinical medicine. More such initiatives are
sorely needed, given the relentless trend of U.S. patent law and practice
in the past 20 years to push the boundaries of "patentable subject matter"
ever further upstream in the R&D pathway and deeper into the heart of
academic science and technology.
Eisenberg and Heller warned of the consequences of this trend, and
Atkinson et al. describe its actualization in BioAg. The problem posed by
"more than 40 patents and contractual obligations" encumbering commercial
development of one new strain, "Golden Rice," may magnify manyfold in
biomedicine as powerful gene-array technology or suites of gene-based
diagnostic tests are developed. Surely, there is a better way to promote
biomedical research and development for public benefit than to permit its
rampant atomization and balkanization to continue unmitigated.
David Korn and Stephen Heinig, Association of American Medical Colleges,
Washington, DC 20037,
1 M. A. Heller, R. S. Eisenberg, Science 280, 698 (1998).
2. F. M. Scherer, Acad. Med. 77, 1348 (2002).
3. 64 FR 72090, 23 Dec. 1999
(http://ott.od.nih.gov/NewPages/RTguide_final.html, accessed 18 July
4. P.L. 106-404, section 5.
5. D. Kennedy, Science 294, 2249 (2001).
We agree with Huete-Pérez that developing countries need better mechanisms
to ensure the protection of their own resources and of new technologies
they develop, and that IP legislation built on models from advanced
countries may not be appropriate. The Rockefeller and McKnight Foundations
have for many years supported crop biotechnology, capacity building, and
technology transfer as part of a much broader set of strategies to help
reduce poverty and hunger in developing countries. Constraints on IP
associated with these programs led us to facilitate U.S. public-sector
institutions in the establishment of the Public-Sector Intellectual
Property Resource for Agriculture (PIPRA).
Although we recognize that PIPRA cannot address all of the complex IP
issues facing developing countries, we expect it to help, particularly
with technology transfer and building IP capacity for more equitable
partnerships. For example, PIPRA aims to develop educational tools for IP
management, some targeted to the specific needs of developing countries.
In addition, although PIPRA presently involves only public-sector
institutions in the United States, if initially successful, participation
may be broadened to involve similar institutions abroad, including those
from the developing world.
It is true, as Huete-Pérez points out, that another major aim of PIPRA is
to implement better public-sector management practices for IP relating to
agricultural biotechnology to promote greater freedom to operate for
improvement of specialty crops within the United States. However, the
practice of licensing technologies to large corporations only for uses
specifically needed by the corporations (for development of large-scale
commercial crops) will also help ensure that these public-sector
technologies will be available for use on crops important to the
As foundations involved in support of agriculture in the developing world,
we have experienced the difficulties faced in obtaining access to critical
IP needed for projects involving biotechnology, and our support for PIPRA
has been guided by the belief that it represents a promising new mechanism
to help keep the results of public-sector research available for such
efforts. Yet we agree with Huete-Pérez that there is a need for many other
types of efforts to fully address the complex issues associated with the
safe and appropriate use of new technologies to help poor people and
communities in developing countries improve their livelihoods.
We also find much to agree with in the Letter by Korn and Heinig. In this
regard, we note that our conversations and meetings with representatives
from the institutions involved in PIPRA confirm that a major goal of this
new initiative is indeed to do all possible to ensure that scientific
discoveries and resulting technologies remain freely accessible to
researchers. As mentioned in our Policy Forum, PIPRA participants aim to
carefully weigh the option of disseminating discoveries via open
publication versus the option of seeking patent protection. In the latter
case, one of PIPRA's main goals is to promote the use of nonexclusive
licensing or of limiting exclusive licenses to appropriately narrow fields
of use. Such policies are very much in accordance with NIH guidelines.
Gordon Conway, The Rockefeller Foundation, New York
Rip Rapson, The McKnight Foundation, Minneapolis
Related articles in Science: INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS: Public Sector
Collaboration for Agricultural IP Management - Richard C. Atkinson et al.
Science 2003 301: 174-175.