Today in AgBioView: December 9, 2003:
* The World is Slowly Turning to GMO
* EU Panel Deadlock May Augur Change in Biotech-Food Stance
* EUROPE 'LAGGING BEHIND' THE US IN PLANTING GM CROPS
* GM crops benefit the environment
* Scientists tinker with nature to create "golden rice"
The World is Slowly Turning to GMO
Claims by Greenpeace that biotech crops have a negative impact on the
environment amount to tampering with the truth
- The Nation (Thailand), December 9, 2003, by CS Prakash
TUSKEGEE, Alabama -- I was dismayed to learn from colleagues that
anti-technology groups continue to stand in the way of progress in
Thailand by creating and promoting misinformation about the safety and
benefits of biotech or GMO crops, as evidenced in the recent opinion piece
by Greenpeace ["Monsanto offers false promises", November 28].
Scientific and regulatory authorities across Asia and all over the world
have endorsed the extensive and growing base of published scientific
information that upholds the safety and benefits of biotech crops and
foods, also known as genetically-modified organisms (GMO). Spreading false
and misleading information in an effort to polarise opinion is
irresponsible and does not serve the public good.
The reality is that crops developed through plant biotechnology are among
the most well-tested, well-characterised and well-regulated food and fibre
products ever developed. This is the overwhelming consensus of the
international scientific community, including the British Royal Society,
the US National Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organisation, the
Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, the European
Commission, the French Academy of Medicine and the American Medical
Your readers have a right to know that biotech crops and foods:
* Have been thoroughly assessed for food, feed and environmental safety
and found to be wholesome, nutritious and as safe as conventional crops
and foods by scientific and regulatory authorities throughout the world
(examples include insect-tolerant corn and cotton and herbicide-tolerant
* have economic and environmental benefits that are significant and have
met the expectations of small and large farmers in both industrialised and
A study conducted by the National Centre for Food and Agricultural Policy
in Washington found biotechnology-derived soybeans, corn, cotton, papaya,
squash and canola increased US food production by 1.7 billion kg, saved
US$1.2 billion (Bt48 billion) in production costs and decreased the usage
of pesticide by an impressive 20 million kilograms in the year 2001 alone.
Biotech crops are now grown on 58 million hectares in 16 countries, and
more than three-quarters of the 5.5 million growers who benefited from
these crops were resource-poor farmers in the developing world. For
instance, South African, Mexican and Chinese farmers have been growing
transgenic insect-resistant cotton for several years, and the Indian
government approved it for commercial cultivation in spring 2002. Filipino
farmers are celebrating the first anniversary of approval for growing
transgenic pest-resistant maize.
Thus, contrary to the pseudo-scientific claims recently cited, GM
technology has actually decreased the usage of pesticide by an impressive
20 million kg in the year 2001 alone.
Despite these facts, misguided activists from around the world continue to
travel to places like Thailand to promulgate fear based on unsubstantiated
and misleading information. The reality is that none of these groups has
actually provided any credible scientific evidence that would call into
question the safety of foods derived from biotech crops on the market or
the demonstrated benefits to the environment.
Happily there are signs recently that decision-makers and the public are
resisting the temptation to be distracted by the emotional rhetoric of
anti-technology groups, and instead focus on the real work that?s needed
in order to take advantage of the benefits of agricultural technology.
For example, in the Philippines, where anti-technology activists staged a
hunger strike, yet failed in their attempt to force the government to back
away from their approval of biotech corn. President Arroyo and Agriculture
Secretary Lorenzo remained firm in their commitment to the science-based
safety assessments that followed several years of rigorous research and
testing of biotechnology under Filipino conditions. Now thousands of
farmers are beginning to reap the benefits in terms of greater yields and
less pesticide applications, improving the Philippines' ability to
domestically produce grain for its poultry industry.
Forty other countries around the world are already so convinced of the
safety and benefits of biotechnology that they have approved field
testing, import or commercial production of crops.
In spite of the claim from Greenpeace that negative impacts of GMO crops
on the environment and farmers are still being discovered, many scientific
studies definitively show that GM crops are no more likely than their
non-GM counterparts to become agricultural 'weeds', and are no more likely
to affect biodiversity than any other change in agriculture.
On only one point do I agree with the Greenpeace opinion: the safety and
benefits of agricultural biotechnology in the Thai environment and for
Thai farmers need to be demonstrated.
Special to The Nation, Professor CS Prakash is director of Plant Molecular
Genetics at the Centre for Plant Biotechnology Research, College of
Agriculture, Tuskegee University, Alabama.
EU Panel Deadlock May Augur Change in Biotech-Food Stance
- Wall Street Journal, by Scott Miller, 12/9/2003
The European Union returned a split decision Monday in a pivotal case on
whether to admit new genetically modified food, both raising hopes for
biotech proponents and underlining the difficulty of resolving an issue
that has strained trade relations with the U.S.
A 6-6 deadlock, with three abstentions, by a panel of food experts from
the 15-nation bloc on an application to import a strain of sweet corn
effectively transfers the issue to EU agriculture ministers. They, in
turn, are expected to pass the decision to the union's executive arm, the
European Commission, which favors the application.
Monday's decision marks the first time the EU has even considered
approving a new type of biotech food or animal feed since 1998, when the
bloc imposed a moratorium on genetically modified products amid Europeans'
worries about the long-term health and environmental risks of
Genetic-modification boosters were heartened that the food experts didn't
reject the application. "We are reasonably confident the sweet-corn
application will be approved in the end," said Bernard Graciet, head of
the Brussels office of Swiss agrochemicals maker Syngenta, which produces
the corn, known as Bt11 and grown mainly in the U.S. "The commission will
break the deadlock."
Though genetically modified products have been consumed in the U.S. for
decades, health scares such as mad-cow disease have many Europeans
distrustful of government safety assurances, and Monday's split vote shows
that deep differences about biotech food remain. The United Kingdom, whose
food expert endorsed the Syngenta corn, is home to advanced scientific
research on genetically modified organisms, and many British farmers
believe biotech crops are necessary to compete on international markets.
But in Austria, whose representative voted no, farmers have campaigned to
create areas free of genetic modification, in order to avoid unforeseen
Germany and Italy abstained, unable to reconcile internal political
differences. Germany's ruling coalition comprises the Green Party, opposed
to genetically modified goods, and the Social Democrats, who tend to
In the short run, approval of the application could ease tension between
the EU and U.S. Last year Washington, frustrated that Europe wasn't
carrying out tests to assess safety of genetically modified products,
asked the World Trade Organization to rule the EU moratorium illegal and
allow the U.S. to levy punitive tariffs on European products. A WTO panel
is considering the complaint.
But the Syngenta corn, which would be imported to Europe as fresh, canned
or frozen products for human consumption only, could be one of the easier
applications for the EU to approve. More troublesome for Europeans are
genetically modified seeds imported for planting in Europe, which
Greenpeace and other groups warn could contaminate conventional crops.
Last summer, the European Parliament passed rules requiring any product
made from genetically modified materials, even if undetectable in the
final product, to carry a label alerting consumers. Some U.S. farm
lobbyists argue that the labeling rules amount to an unfair trade
practice. Speaking in Brussels recently, U.S. Under Secretary for Commerce
Grant Aldonas didn't rule out a fresh WTO complaint, saying the U.S. would
wait and see how the new EU rules affect market demand for the genetically
EUROPE 'LAGGING BEHIND' THE US IN PLANTING GM CROPS
- Irish Independent, December 9, 2003
AN EU regulatory committee yesterday rejected the sale of genetically
modified sweetcorn in Europe's supermarkets, keeping the EU's moratorium
on GM foodsin place.
Ireland was one of only six countries in favour of allowing the sale of
the BT-11sweetcorn, so the EU de facto moratorium on new approvals for GM
marketing licenses stays.
The European Food Safety Authority last week declared that a Monsanto GM
maize variety is safe. The maize will now go forward for approval under
the Novel FoodRegulation, which rejected the sweet corn.
Further steps towards allowing GM crops and food here are expected to come
up forreview during Ireland's presidency of the EU next year.
The directive 2001/18 is due to be considered during the first couple of
months of the year. This directive deals with the deliberate release into
the environment of GMOs.
According to Monsanto, Europe has almost lost any near term ability to be
competitive in the world GM market.
Tom McDermott, public affairs manager for Monsanto in Europe, described
the benefits ofGM crops.
"Farmers in the US are not stupid. They do not just run out and give us
their money. The see the benefits of GM crops," he said.
Seventeen countries around the world are planting biotech crops and today
84pc of US soyabeans are GM. Globally 51pc of soyabeans are GM modified.
40pc of the US corn crop is GM modified, although just 9pc of the world's
corn crops are GM.
However, 1998 was the last time the EU approved a GM product. He called
the decision to place a moratorium on GM a severe blow to European R&D.
Case studies around the world, he said, have shown that insect protected
crops need up to 80pc less pesticides than regular crops.
Taking European sugar beet as an example, he said this crop is worth Euro
5bn to Europe. There is 2m hectares of sugar beet grown in the EU which
produces 15bn kg of sugar.
The current rate of herbicide application means that crops must be sprayed
four or fivetimes, at a cost of Euro 200/ha.
However, he said, GM sugar beet would only need two herbicide sprayings,
bringing thespraying costs down to Euro 86/ha. The GM sugar beet would
also yield 5pc better, he said.This would see an increase of 5bn kg in
production levels, Euro 390m in income and adecrease of 2.2m kg of
herbicides used, he said.
GM crops benefit the environment
- New Scientist, December 6, 2003, By Andy Coghlan
MODIFIED sugar beet is far more environmentally friendly than conventional
beet. So concludes a controversial new analysis that is the first to
measure the wider impact of such crops, including their contribution to
global warming, damage to the ozone layer and toxicity to aquatic life.
"Overall, herbicide-resistant GM beet was 15 to 50 per cent better for the
environment, depending on what impact was being measured," says Richard
Phipps of the School of Agriculture at the University of Reading in
Phipps and colleague Richard Bennett say the benefits arise mainly because
farmers spray much less weedkiller and pesticide onto GM beet, less often.
Thus saving a lot of tractor fuel and reducing the impact on global
warming, for example.
The findings contradict the recently completed "farm-scale evaluations" in
the UK, the largest trials done to compare the effects of GM and
conventional crop systems on farmland wildlife ( and ). In these, GM beet
and oilseed rape turned out to be worse than non-GM counterparts. Maize
with GM resistance to a particular weedkiller did better than non-GM
maize, but the result may become a moot point as the EU is soon to ban the
use of that weedkiller on conventional maize.
In Phipps's and Bennett's analysis, they gathered data from published
literature, farmers and real field experiments on GM and conventional
beet. They measured various parameters prescribed in an internationally
accredited standard, including the energy used in making the weedkiller,
and the amount of diesel used by tractors spraying crops. The analysis
also catalogues all physical resources consumed and the impact of any
Phipps says their experimental approach, which they call "life-cycle
analysis", could easily be used to test the environmental impact of other
farming systems. "There's absolutely no reason why the same methodology
couldn't be applied to organic or no-till systems of agriculture."
He argues the analysis is more holistic, and gives a broader picture than
the farm-scale evaluations, which simply examined effects on wildlife.
"We're not having a pop at the farm-scale evaluations, which were
brilliant," he says. "We're simply saying they looked at only one
component of the system." But Les Firbank, coordinator of the farm-scale
evaluations, says that each environmental impact may have a very different
effect on the countryside. Helping birds recover might be considered far
more important than conserving tractor fuel, for example.
Phipps presented his preliminary findings last week to the UK government's
Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment.
Scientists tinker with nature to create "golden rice"
- Deutsche Presse-Agentur, December 2, 2003
After decades of working on filling Asia's rice bowl, scientists are now
designing varieties that could be key to fighting "hidden hunger" while
battling fears that the experiments might create a "Frankenstein".
Amid the backdrop of lush forests and Mount Makiling in Los Banos town in
Laguna province, just south of Manila, the cutting-edge research on
nutrient-enriched rice seeds are steadily progressing at the International
Rice Research Institute (IRRI).
But it could take at least five more years before the new rice varieties
are made available for farmers to grow amid opposition to genetic
engineering, which has allowed scientists to improve the nutritional
content of rice.
One such variety is the Swiss-developed "golden rice", which is produced
by manipulating three genes in the plant so that seeds will contain
beta-carotene, which the human body turns into Vitamin A that is stored in
The variety was developed as a means to combat Vitamin A deficiency, which
causes more than 1 million deaths and 500,000 cases of blindness every
Swapan Datta, an Indian biotechnologist tending to more than 4,000 pots of
golden rice being grown in an air-tight greenhouse at the IRRI, allayed
fears that each yellowish seed was the equivalent of "Frankenstein" and
could be harmful to humans.
"Frankenstein is so scary, and critics are using that to scare people," he
said during a recent visit to the IRRI. "There is nothing wrong with GM
(genetically modified) rice. Even ordinary food could be damaging to the
health in some instances."
Datta, a 51-year-old native of Calcutta, noted that the genes responsible
for the beta-carotene content of GM rice seeds were already present in the
"It is not a big difference," he said. "The genes are present in rice
leaves, but since we don't eat the leaves, scientists have incorporated
the genes to develop beta-carotene in the seeds which we eat."
With yields of rice production levelling off after dramatic gains during
the Green Revolution in the 1960s, scientists at IRRI and other research
institutions are "tinkering with the rice architecture" to combat poverty
Aside from golden rice, IRRI scientists are also working on enhancing the
iron content of cereal that feeds half of the world's people.
Laboratory experiments have been successful in several varieties from
Vietnam, India, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
IRRI noted that while the Green Revolution has helped ensure supplies of
rice, it has failed to address "hidden hunger" for essential
micronutrients or malnutrition, which afflicts more than 2 billion of the
Ronald Cantrell, IRRI director general, said scientists were "very
excited" about the opportunity and the institute plans to shift more of
its limited resources to improving the nutritional quality of rice amid
"We now have tools that will allow us to manipulate germplasm in a way
that we can make significant changes in protein quality, changes in
carbohydrate structure, carbohydrate types... all kinds of changes," he
"We are on the brink of making changes that we could only dream about," he
Cantrell, however, admitted that debates on the safety of biotechnology
could slow down progress.
"The pace with which GMOs (genetically modified organisms) will have an
impact on production will be dictated mainly by public opinion and the
interaction between science and the public," he said.
He noted that while Europe and North America continue to debate the
alleged harmful effects of GMOs, developing countries in Asia and Africa,
home to most of the world's poor, might be more ready to accept the risks.
"If people have the opportunity to increase the amount and quality of food
available, they may be willing to accept certain risks that developed
countries would not be willing to accept," he said.
Datta stressed that IRRI would not release GM rice varieties unless they
satisfy international and national regulatory standards.
He added that there "cannot be anything wrong" with GM rice varieties,
such as the golden rice which he has already eaten and claims to taste
similar to ordinary rice, since scientists were not experimenting with
"So far, no GMO produced and released to the farmer has caused any risk or
any adverse effect that's known to us," he said. "Not a single case."
Instead of dwelling on the possible risks, Datta noted that the
breakthrough in golden rice presents "a golden hope of opportunities".
"It will definitely have a great impact in the whole area of nutrition,
not only in beta-carotene but also in iron, lycene and protein quality
improvement," he said. "It opens up many different avenues."