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February 22, 2004


California Fruits and Nuts; Norman Borlaug; GM Maize in UK; Battle in the EU


Today in AgBioView: February 23, 2004

* California's Fruits and Nuts Oppose Agriculture
* The green visionary who has banished famine from the world
* Britain may give green light to gene-changed maize
* Wheat at forefront of battle over genetically modified organisms
* World awaits more GM crops as safety debate rages
* GM food crops to be planted in weeks
* UK: Scientists conclude GM maize is safe
* GM battle rages on in EU
* Genetically modified crops will not help the developing world
* Blinded by the light of technology

r /> Date: Sat, 21 Feb 2004 08:56:09 -0600
From: "Andrew Apel"
Subject: The GM thing...

Dr. Shaharuddin Aziz overlooked the following passage from the Quran, which can be found at http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/history/lecture10/lec10.html and the entire page is worth reading. By the way, GM crops are considered by Muslims to be halal (permissible under dietary laws). Al-Ra'd or The Thunder XIII 242

4. And in the earth are tracts (diverse though) neighboring, and gardens of vines and fields sown with corn, and palm trees-growing out of single roots or otherwise: watered with the same water, yet some of them we make more excellent than others to eat. Behold verily in these things there are signs for those who understand!


California's Fruits and Nuts Oppose Agriculture

- Tech Central Station, By Henry Miller, 02/19/2004

This is a cautionary tale about abuses of the local referendum process and about the risks of getting involved in local political causes. Earlier this month, I authored a letter opposing an anti-biotechnology county ballot referendum item, and the letter was sent to most of the voters of California's Mendocino County.

I don't know how many recipients were enlightened, but it was certainly a learning experience for me.

In a state known for dumb, gratuitous referendum issues, Measure H takes the cake. It would ban the cultivation of any plant genetically improved using the most precise and predictable techniques, regardless of their risk.

To begin with, Measure H's definition of DNA is bizarre and scientifically incorrect. Measure H is also logically inconsistent, in that its restrictions are inversely related to risk. It permits the use of microorganisms and plants that are crafted with less precise, less predictable techniques, but bans those made with highly precise and predictable ones. It turns science-based regulation on its head.

Significant advances in the fight against cancer, diabetes, AIDS, Parkinson's, and numerous other diseases have relied on biotechnology. If future research were to lead to development of a product that provides significant relief, or even a life-saving cure, Measure H would prohibit its use in Mendocino County. That alone is reason enough to defeat this poorly-worded and confusing measure.

California boasts a strong environmental movement, but by outlawing the cultivation of insect-resistant crops developed with the assistance of biotechnology, Measure H could lead to an increase in the levels of chemical pesticides in the area's ground and surface water (and would certainly cause increased occupational exposures).

Most important of all, Measure H would block sophisticated genetic approaches to the eradication of blights such as sudden oak death, phyloxera, powdery mildew and Pierce's Disease.

Biotechnology's potential is not just theoretical. A decade ago, an epidemic of papaya ringspot virus had almost destroyed Hawaii's $64 million a year papaya crop, but by 1998 biotech researchers provided virus-resistant varieties that have preserved the industry.

These kinds of remedies would be foreclosed if Measure H were passed.

I made two other points in my letter. First, citizens should be concerned about the implications of subjecting plants in backyard gardens to confiscation and destruction by county officials; and second, thousands of scientists worldwide have conducted exhaustive, independent experiments and concluded that biotech crops are at least as safe as their conventional counterparts.

Within days of the letter being sent out, I received irate, often anonymous phone messages on my voice-mail and e-mail. Soon after, irate, often anonymous mail began to arrive. These California fruits and nuts questioned my motivation, my ties to the agribusiness industry, and my integrity.

To set the record straight, I received no compensation of any kind for writing the letter; in fact, I have often been at odds with the agribusiness industry, which I have criticized for demanding and getting excessive regulation of agricultural biotechnology over the past twenty years.

Like many Californians, I love the state's table grapes and wines, but California's vineyards are being threatened by Pierce's Disease, a bacterial infestation carried by an insect, the glassy-winged sharpshooter. Organic and conventional grape growers especially fear this devastating and lethal disease. Genetic improvement of grapevines may well prove to be the definitive solution to Pierce's Disease -- a solution that should not be denied to Mendocino County. The same applies to sudden oak death, which is destroying many of our glorious oak trees.

But there is a more important reason. I spent more than 15 years responsible for biotechnology regulatory policy at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. I personally evaluated the first biopharmaceuticals in the early 1980s. During that time, I was a crusader for imposing only the amount of regulation that was necessary and sufficient, and for regulatory approaches that made scientific and common sense. I was on the side of neither the activists nor the industry, and that remains true today. I am convinced that flawed public policy -- especially when it is as nonsensical as Mendocino County's Measure H -- makes a mockery of government and diminishes us all. I have written or edited five books and published more than 500 articles, many in peer-reviewed journals, on various aspects of regulation.

I am as much of an environmentalist as any of the people who have criticized me, but letting ideology and misguided activism trample science and common sense is not the route to sound public policy.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His latest book," The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution," will be published later this year by Praeger Publishers. He headed the FDA's Office of Biotechnology from 1989-1993. He last wrote for TCS about stopping the real pests (http://www.techcentralstation.com/021204C.html).


The green visionary who has banished famine from the world

- THE TIMES (UK), Matthew Parris, February 21, 2004

WHOEVER, wrote Jonathan Swift, "could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass grow where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind than the whole race of politicians put together." I have just met such a man.

Living and working near Mexico City and about to celebrate his ninetieth birthday is someone who in the past century, by personal intervention, saved more lives than anyone else in human history - about a thousand million people.

The green lobby hates his achievements. And you? If you belong to the 99 per cent of our countrymen who have never heard of Dr Norman Borlaug, you are as ignorant as I was about him before I went to Mexico to meet this man and make a television documentary about him for BBC Four.

Our discussions have helped me to make up my mind about biotechnology and GM food. A month ago I would have been alarmed by the leak that shows the British Government is about to give the go-ahead for the use of genetically modified crops. I used to view the intervention of science in agriculture with doubt. Now I see it as a reason for hope.

Dr Borlaug has been a key transitional figure in his field. He has spent his life on the cusp between traditional farming and biotechnology. He has concluded that only by the responsible application of science to agriculture can we save the world from famine. Since he won the Nobel Peace Prize 33 years ago, Dr Borlaug has stood at the centre of one of the greatest and, in its way, the most dramatic success stories in the history of farming.

Borlaug's work saved the Indian sub-continent from mass starvation. In his 90 years on this planet its human population has grown from about one billion to more than six billion. Without the hybrid wheats it was Borlaug's life's mission to develop and promote among the world's poorest farmers, few believe that this population could have been sustained.

It is as simple as that. Yet in the fog of mysticism, pseudo-science and sentimentality that fashion has blown in upon the rich, leisured and fat - that is, us - we forget our own history. Interfering in nature is what has put us where we are today. It is the reason you are reading this, the reason you can read, the reason you have time to read, the reason nine tenths of us are alive.

Let me begin in the single-room school in Iowa where one teacher taught children aged from age 5 to 17, and where Norman Borlaug began an education which took him into university, forestry, then agronomy. He remembers the abuse of monoculture in farming, the dustbowls of the Thirties, the disappearance from the environment of deer and wild turkeys, and the corn in his boyhood, standing As high/ As an elephant's eye. The corn is lower today, he says: more productive hybrids have been developed. Crop yields Aare up; marginal land has been taken out of production; wild areas have been reclaimed for nature; and the deer and wild turkeys are back in force.

When he was a young scientist in the 1940s he was sent by the Rockefeller Foundation to run a project in Mexico. The country's wheat harvests were being devastated by stem rust. As they shuttled between the climates of the highlands and the plains so that they could plant two generations each year and test results in both environments, Borlaug and his colleagues developed a drought-hardy, rust-resistant strain of wheat, then crossed it with a dwarf Japanese strain to produce a hybrid short enough to survivAe the wind and channel growth into grain.

Borlaug did not invent hybridisation. Mankind had started to do that a few thousand years ago when hybrid grasses thrown up by nature were gathered from the wild and developed under unnatural (ie, weeded) conditions in a wheatfield (ie, monoculture) and fertilised artificially (ie, with gathered dung). The dung was collected from genetically modified (ie,
domesticated) beasts.

Borlaug built on what was known. He concluded that better hybrids could be produced in a more systematic way, and faster, and promoted among peasant farmers more successfully, than the world had yet realised.

He proved to be not only an effective scientist but also a charismatic salesman. Farming folk are the same the world over, he says: they want to see for themselves results produced on their own soil. Don't tell them, show them; and do it on farms such as theirs.

From total dependence on wheat imports, Mexico had within a few years shifted to being to a net exporter of wheat. Though skilful, Borlaug had also been lucky. Maize is Mexico's principal crop; he had been able to use the wheat sector as a sort of pilot for his approach.

The Indian sub-continent was different. Here there was huge dependence on wheat, and the population was rocketing. When Borlaug began work there in the 1960s massive starvation looked unavoidable. To widespread scepticism, he imported his new seed and began his missionary science.

He knew that fertilising exhausted soil was a key to increasing yields. Dung and compost were insufficient. "Use all the organic materials you can," says Borlaug, "but don't come to Third World nations and tell them they can solve their problems with organic fertiliser alone." He points to the environment wrecking sixfold increase in cattle numbers which would be needed.

His Indian experiment succeeded beyond the wildest hopes. Wheat production quadrupled in a decade; by today that increase is tenfold. The region's population has more than doubled, yet its people are better fed than they have been in more than half a century. For Dr Borlaug the Nobel Peace Prize followed in 1970.

Later, his hybrid wheat reached China. In China population growth is now coming under control. This is one of three observations worth holding on to if you are to follow me to a conclusion which (against the tenor of our
times) is optimistic. First, world population is not - contrary to widespread belief - spiralling out of control. Though still our planet's biggest worry, the rate of growth shows signs of reducing. Most projections see a gradual flattening of the increase until a point after the middle ofA this century when the world population may stabilise at about double its present level.

Second, starvation is not an effective form of birth control. In fact, the more secure and well fed people become, the fewer children they have. The harsh but seemingly plausible argument that producing more food is pointless because extra food will be met by more hungry mouths to feed is wrong.

Third, better crop yields do not add to the pressure on rainforests or on wild or marginal land: they reduce it. To hack into hillsides, swamps and woodland is often the resort of agriculturalists who are desperate. Without the extra millions of tons of cereals which work such as that of Borlaug now produces from existing ancient farmlands, hungry populations in Asia would be higher up the mountainsides and deeper into former forests in search of land to till. Intensive farming allows us to limit the land Aunder the plough.

In short, this is a battle mankind can win. Norman Borlaug sees his life's work as part of a holding operation until a time he will not live to see: when population stabilises. He persuaded me that the challenge, though immense, is finite: to feed another six billion people in the half century ahead.

He believes this is possible. His dream, he told me, is that biotechnology will find a way to impart to other cereals the famous hardiness of the rice family. This may achiev able by genetic modification.

Borlaug's work has not been, properly speaking, in GM. He has used "natural" methods (if you are prepared to call a pekingese or boxer dog
"natural") of breeding. His genius strikes me as having lain in systematisation, acceleration, evangelism and hunch.

This has not prevented many in the green movement from vilifying what in its day was called Dr Borlaug's "Green Revolution". Greens hate the Green Revolution. Their case (if I can understand it at all) is that "traditional" crops and methods are best; but the term "traditional" defies useful definition, ignoring the damage that traditional low- intensity farming (for instance in Africa) can do to the environment.

Though he was initially sceptical about GM as applied science, Borlaug is now persuaded of its promise. He is wary of the patent-hogging multinationals but he nevertheless believes that by driving GM scientists out of universities and public institutions we are in danger of helping profit-making interests to corner science.

I put it to him that if he really thinks knowledge must triumph, then he should have no fear of the pseudo science of the green lobby. He replied that by distortion and intimidation Lysenko wrecked research right across Russia and set back Soviet science by 30 years.

I had forgotten about the lunatic plant science of the Stalinist Trofim Lysenko. But I recognise in the green lobby Borlaug's warning about distortion and intimidation. How shaming that to sound a warning we must turn for moral authority to a 90-year-old hero of 20th-century science.


Britain may give green light to gene-changed maize

- Reuters, February 23, 2004

LONDON - The British government is likely within days to give the green light to the commercial planting of genetically modified maize cattle feed despite strong public opposition, a former cabinet minister said.

"I wouldn't put it as high as a foregone conclusion they will give the go ahead, but I would say it is extremely likely," Michael Meacher, environment minister from 1997 to 2003, told Reuters by telephone.

"There will be a statement. It could be in this next week but I have been told by DEFRA (the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) it is much more likely to be in the first week of March," he said.

No one from DEFRA was immediately available to comment.

Meacher's comments followed the leak of confidential minutes of a cabinet committee which revealed Secretary of State for the Environment Margaret Beckett as stating that there was no scientific basis for a continued ban on genetically modified crops.

It is a complete reversal of Meacher's view that there is no scientific case for Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) which should therefore remain banned.

The cabinet committee minutes also made it clear that the government, which is pushing for an end to the European Union's ban on imports of genetically modified maize from the United States, was in favour of allowing commercial planting.

The government promptly denied that any decision had been taken.

"It is interesting to note that despite the leak of these supposedly confidential minutes, the government has not announced any inquiry," Meacher said.

The United States, the world's largest producer of GM crops, has been lobbying hard across the 15-nation EU to lift the ban on imports, and is also bidding to get the World Trade Organisation to declare the ban illegal.

Meacher said he believed the leak may have been sanctioned by the government as a way of assessing the strength of public opinion and taking the sting out of the announcement when it comes.

"By making this announcement and then saying it is nothing to do with us, it smooths the strength of reaction in the House of Commons and in the media that day," Meacher said, speaking from his northern England constituency.

"If this leak was indeed designed to test the public reaction, then it is possible that the way in which they present it may be affected by their assessment of the public reaction. But I don't think their position will alter," he said.

Opinion polls have shown the public against allowing GMOs. But the strength of opposition is starting to wane.

The leak of the cabinet committee minutes prompted a flurry of outraged headlines. But the backlash lasted barely 24 hours.

Environment group Friends of the Earth has said it could lodge a legal challenge to any decision to allow commercial planting of GMOs on the grounds of inadequate scientific testing.


Wheat at forefront of battle over genetically modified organisms

- The Associated Press, By ROXANA HEGEMAN, 2/23/04

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) -- More than 10,000 years after nomadic hunters first harvested stands of wild wheat, researchers are working on genetically engineering mankind's oldest crop in what may become the last stand in the battle over biotech foods.

With a genome five times the size of the human genome, wheat is so complex that it is one of the last major crops to undergo genetic manipulation. The food staple has become the center of the fight over genetically modified organisms.

Genetically modified wheat won't be released to farmers until it is approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Agriculture Department.

"For the non-GM people this is their last fight on a major crop," said Harold Trick, a wheat researcher and assistant professor at Kansas State University. "If this fails, it will be hard for them to come back from that."

Consumers in Europe and parts of Asia worry that genetically modified foods are unsafe and could harm the environment.

The battle lines on biotech wheat are being drawn in North Dakota, where opponents are proposing a ballot measure that would give the state agriculture commissioner power to decide whether farmers may plant the crop.

What worries growers most is whether they will be able export genetically modified wheat.

More than half of the spring wheat grown in the United States is exported, and about 47 percent of those exports are now going to countries that have said they won't accept genetically modified wheat, according to the Center for Agricultural Policy and Trade Studies at North Dakota State University.

But the furor over transgenic wheat has yet to flare up in Kansas, the nation's biggest wheat grower.

Kansas grows winter wheat varieties. The introduction of biotech wheat will begin with spring wheat -- which is grown primarily in North Dakota, Montana, South Dakota and Minnesota.

St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. says it is developing a genetically modified spring wheat that, within six years, would enable farmers to spray weed killer without killing the wheat.

Such a trait is of far less interest to winter wheat growers, who plant their crops in the fall and harvest them in early summer before most weeds have a chance to take hold, said David Frey, administrator of the Kansas Wheat Commission.

The Kansas Wheat Commission -- a grower-funded advocacy group whose mission is global wheat marketing -- is funding much of the genetic research at Kansas State University.

The group helped buy a gene sequencer for university researchers, and this year budgeted $96,737 for transgenic wheat research. The work may one day help develop transgenic varieties resistant to drought and disease.

Two months ago, Kansas State University researchers cloned a leaf rust resistance gene, encouraging for wheat growers in a state where $100 million was lost last year to leaf or stem rust disease.

Bikram Gill, one of the researchers, said the work so far hasn't been extended to wheat breeding because of the uncertainy about genetically modified wheat.

But researchers hope the knowledge they gain through such research can also be applied in the field for developing new varieties through natural breeding processes, Trick said.

For example, their success in cloning the rust-resistant gene has now given them a "genetic tag" to identify plants naturally resistant to rust.

Perhaps the most ambitious project now under way is an international effort by scientists to map the wheat genome. Researchers say the wheat genome is likely to be the largest genome ever sequenced.

A group of international scientists plan to get together this summer to lay out the plan for a wheat genome sequencing project targeted for completion in 2010.


World awaits more GM crops as safety debate rages

- Reuters, 23 February 2004

The global sowing of genetically modified (GM) crops will continue rising in the next few years, gaining more of a foothold in the world's food supply, but millions still need convincing that the food is safe to eat.

For once, green groups can agree with the biotech industry on one thing: with Brazil and China now part of the growing family of major GM producers, the area of land devoted to gene-spliced crops across the world must inevitably rise.

The United States, Argentina, Canada and China are the world's leading growers of biotech crops.

More than half of China's cotton crop, for example, is now genetically modified.

But there are doubts about how far the expansion can go, with questions lingering on China's commitment to GM crops and whether famine-hit Third World nations really want GM food aid.

In 2003, six countries grew 99 per cent of the world's transgenic crop area, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) said, a non-profit group that backs biotechnology's role in the war on hunger.

"In the next five years, biotech crops are expected to grow to 100 million hectares planted by 10 million farmers in 25 or more countries," ISAAA chairman and founder Clive James said,

Most of those using the technology would be small Third World farmers.

Maize and cotton would drive the growth, with soy production likely to rise after Brazil's recent approval of herbicide-tolerant beans.

ISAAA estimates the global GM crop area in 2003 was 67.7 million hectares, 15 per cent higher than in 2002.

"There is a need for more acreages of grain - that will come from Asia to some extent, but also Latin America, Africa and Australia possibly as well," Christian Verschueren said, director-general of CropLife International, a Brussels-based network representing the plant science industry.

Australia, which does not regulate GMO use in animal feed, approved its first GM food crop, canola, in July.

Commercial GM crops are blocked by short-term bans by state governments.

India approved three varieties of Bt cotton in 2002 for commercial production and is conducting field trials for several crops including mustard, rice, potatoes and cauliflower.

International environment group Greenpeace broadly agreed with the likely rise in global plantings, but said they would continue to be dominated by just a handful of countries.

"The acreage is probably going to rise - on the whole, I think there will be a slight increase," Greenpeace Genetic Engineering Campaign spokesman Dan Hindsgaul said.

One problem is what to do with the extra production, which will add to the world supply of maize, soy and cotton - not a food crop as such, but its seeds can be crushed for animal feed.

The biotech industry insists that, with crops genetically altered to resist disease and insects, much of this can be used to help feed hungry people in the world's poorest countries.

Green groups disagree, citing corporate greed as the reason behind the industry's push to raise GM crop sowings and point to the reluctance of several African nations to accept GM food aid.

Last June, Zambia's government rejected thousands of tonnes of GM maize, while millions of its people faced food shortages.

The European Union, a bastion of anti-biotech sentiment with strong consumer antipathy to GM crops, has been drawn into the row.

Biotech companies say EU policy is to blame for some Third World reluctance to accept GM grain for fear that GM material might appear in those countries' own exports to Europe.

"What drives some of these (sceptical) countries is the European policy towards biotechnology," Mr Verschueren said.

"It is restricting the freedom of choice of farmers in developing countries. It has a domino effect," he told Reuters.

Washington has accused Europe of undermining efforts to combat famine and poverty in Africa by blocking the use of GM crops on unfounded and unscientific fears.

"Europe has been very vocal in its scepticism about GMOs and of course that travels everywhere," Mr Hindsgaul said.

"This is what the industry is afraid of, that this will spread."


GM food crops to be planted in weeks

- Sydney Morning Herald, By Stephanie Peatling, February 24, 2004

Thousands of hectares of genetically modified canola could be planted in NSW as soon as April, after a meeting of the State Government's expert council decided there was no reason it should not go ahead.

Two chemical companies have applied to run joint tests of GM canola in NSW and have asked that the participating farmers be allowed to sell the crops.

An official recommendation is expected to go to the Minister for Agriculture, Ian Macdonald, next month but members of the NSW Agricultural Advisory Council on Gene Technology told the Herald the proposal would be given the all clear.

Jo Immig, representing the Nature Conservation Council of NSW, said the council was being pressured to make a decision about the trial so GM canola could be sown this season.

Ms Immig said "the majority of members would approve anything Monsanto and Bayer [the companies applying to run the trial] placed before them.

"They have already made up their minds that genetically engineered canola is inevitable despite the widespread and significant concerns expressed by the farmers and the community," she said.

The Federal Office of the Gene Technology Regulator decided last year that GM canola posed no risk to either human health or the environment.

Very small one and two-hectare trials of GM canola have already been planted in NSW but the Monsanto/Bayer application before the council is for thousands of hectares.

Although the original proposal was for a 5000 hectare trial, it is believed that will now be scaled back to 3500 hectares as a concession to concerns raised by some council members.

But Ms Immig said she was not convinced questions surrounding possible contamination of traditional canola crops had been answered.

"None of these serious issues were taken into consideration by the majority of members in their headlong rush to recommend approval for what is essentially a commercial crop of GE canola in violation of the NSW moratorium," she said.

Juliet McFarlane, a canola grower near Young who represented the Network of Concerned Farmers at the council meeting late last week, said farmers were also worried about who would be liable if contamination occurred.

"We're the ones that borrow the money and take the risks, so it needs to be our decision," Ms McFarlane said.

"It's not acceptable for people with fixed salaries and no responsibility to be dictating the risks to farmers."

The council is made up of nine members, including representatives from the NSW Farmers Association, the CSIRO, the NSW Department of Agriculture, the Australian Wheat Board, the Grains Research and Development Corporation and Avcare.

The final proposal for the canola trial, to be run by Monsanto and Bayer, has not yet been received by Mr Macdonald's office or the council.

Last night a spokeswoman for Mr Macdonald said the council was under no pressure to make a decision in time for the April planting season.

She also rejected suggestions the council would recommend the minister approve the trial: "For anyone to say it's a rubber stamp is just conjecture."

The Premier, Bob Carr, last year promised a moratorium on the commercial release of GM food crops, including canola.

But the legislation banning their commercial production allows field trials to take place.

It also grants Mr Macdonald the power as minister to grant exemptions to the moratorium at any time.


UK: Scientists conclude GM maize is safe

- Herald & Times (UK), William Macfarlane Smith, Feb. 20 2004

INDICATIONS that the government seems likely to approve the growing of GM maize in the UK will be greeted with relief by British scientists.

Anything else would have sent a strong message that not only was the government unwilling to back biotechnological development but, indeed, was turning away from scientific advance in general. GM crops have been the subject of an unprecedented amount of research and investigation for the past 20 years.

The regulations are incredibly tough. There are the further safeguards of every potential new GM variety being scrutinised on a case-for-case basis.

Scientists in the UK, the EU and other parts of the world have concluded that GM maize is as safe for food use as its conventional counterpart. Indeed, the products of GM crops have been consumed in other parts of the world since the mid 1990s without a single instance of harm to human health being reported. A number of GM crops had already shown themselves safe for use a number of years ago and the fact that they have not yet been grown in the UK was entirely due to a voluntary moratorium imposed by the industry. All future advantages that might derive from GM crops will stem from a willingness to move forward now. This should not be put at risk by blind and unscientific prejudice.

Dr William H Macfarlane Smith is a scientist and a member of CropGen, a consumer information initiative partially funded by, but independent of, the crop biotechnology industry.


GM battle rages on in EU

- Food Production Daily, 23/02/2004

Early last week the German government passed a bill codifying European Union legislation for the cultivation and export of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into national law. Following suit, the UK government seems set to give the green light to genetically modified farming despite fears of public outcry, reports CORDIS.

In Germany, one of the European countries most sceptical about the technology, the new bill has been heavily criticised by both the biotech industry and environmental groups.

Agrar, the German pesticide and crop care industry association, claims that the bill will inhibit the fair use of so-called 'green genetic technologies' rather than permit them as intended. Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND), on the other hand, has criticised the government for not doing enough to protect organic farming.

The Minister for Consumer Protection, Food and Agriculture, Renate Künast, said that "Germany now has the strictest rules in the EU governing GM farming".

The new law requires farmers who grow GM crops to undertake to keep contamination to zero and establishes a list of 'good farming practices.'

"Should it turn out in the process of GMO cultivation that neighbouring conventional or organic farming units are affected in a negative way, the bill provides the instruments for speedy lawsuits," Künast explained in a statement. "Such lawsuits may be initiated if, for instance, a conventional farmer can no longer sell his produce under a specific high-quality or ecological label because his crops have been contaminated by GM strains."

It is precisely those compensation rules, says CORDIS, that have proved to be the main contentious issue for both sides. While BUND claims that "the rules on how to grow GM crops need to be made clearer. And the burden of proving that crops have been contaminated should not fall on the farmers themselves," Ricardo Gent of the German Industrial Association for Biotechnology argues that the extremely strict rules will discourage farmers from growing GM crops.

"Brussels opened the door for growing genetically improved plants in Europe, the German government now wants to slam it shut again," said Gent, maintaining that the law as a whole would act as a brake to biotechnological research.

Federal Minister for Education and Research, Edelgard Bulmahn, on the other hand, insists that the new law is "an important signal to the biotech industry in Germany" as it provides a clear legal framework while protecting consumers and farmers.

In a related move, the UK government also appears on the verge of allowing limited use of GMOs. Despite a recent survey showing that most Britons believe GM crops should never be introduced, the UK press reported on Friday that leaked government documents suggested Agriculture Secretary Margaret Beckett believes that there is no scientific case for a ban on GM crops. An announcement by Beckett is expected shortly.


Genetically modified crops will not help the developing world

- Colin Tudge, Guardian, Feb 20, 2004 http://mathaba.net/x.htm?http://mathaba.net/0_index.shtml?x=38169

As revealed in this week's leaked minutes, the government's commitment to GM crops is unswerving. Revealed once more, too, is its arrogance; for it acknowledges public resistance but hopes that "opposition might eventually be worn down by solid, authoritative scientific argument". Most worrying of all, though, is the truly astonishing ignorance of people in high places.

The arguments for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that have been dinned into us for 15 years are based on an almost sublime misreading of the world's food problems. Indeed, GMOs are part of a political and economic trend that is threatening all humanity.

The crucial claim for GM crops is that they are necessary. They can out-yield traditional varieties, and can be made especially rich in protein and vitamins. The world's population is rising fast and without GM, the story has it, famine and increasing deficiency are inevitable. To oppose their development is to be effete to the point of wickedness.

But this is not the whole picture. The world population stands at 6 billion, and the UN says it will reach 10 billion by 2050 - but then should level out. Present productivity could be doubled by improving traditional breeding and husbandry, so whatever the virtues of GMOs, necessity is not among them.

Present-day deficiencies are almost never caused by an inability to produce enough. Angola is a good example: it is always bordering on disaster, yet it has two-and-a-half times the area of France and every kind of climate, and only 12.5 million people. Its farmers are highly accomplished. Famines result not from inability but from the civil war that raged for 30 years.

Behind the claim that GMOs are necessary lies a deep - and racist - failure to appreciate traditional farming. It's assumed that farmers of the developing world, with their small farms, cannot cope. But all who have looked closely know that traditional farmers are remarkably adept. Their greatest need is for financial security: especially small loans with regulated rates of interest. Technological innovation becomes pertinent only when the traditional ways have been given half a chance, and shown to be lacking.

But, say the enthusiasts, GMOs are part of the transition from peasant-based, low-output subsistence to industrialised production based on biotech, modern chemistry and machines. This is "progress". It "liberates" the peasants, enabling them to migrate to the cities, to work for proper wages. We see the transition in India, home (with China) to the world's fastest-growing IT industry. Even more to the point, modern farming is profitable, as traditional farming is not. The profits contribute to GDP, and everyone benefits.

But extra productivity can be harmful, while profit is achieved primarily by cutting labour, which is the most expensive input. In Britain and the US, only about 1% of the labour force works on the land. In India, as in the third world as a whole, it's 60%. If India farmed as the British do, 594 million people would be out of work. India's IT industry, flaunted as the hope for the future, employs 60,000 - which falls short of what would be required by 10,000 to one. To replace the status quo with hi-tech, low-labour, industrialised agriculture would create social problems on a scale that mercifully has not yet been seen. For the foreseeable future the world's economy has to be primarily agrarian.

Ironically, one victim of the GM madness is science itself, for in principle GMOs could be of real use. I saw an example in Brazil: GM papaya, designed to resist local diseases. This is hi-tech as it should
be: designed by the people for the people. Contrast this with GM "golden rice", widely presented as an unequivocal triumph. It is is fitted with a gene that produces carotene, which in effect is vitamin A - lack of which causes blindness in tens of millions of children.

But carotene is one of the commonest organic compounds in nature. People who practise horticulture have no fear of vitamin A deficiency; and traditionally, horticulture was universal. Modern, corporate farming - monocultural rice, or maize grown for export as cattle feed - is a prime cause of the deficiency that leads to blindness. It's all good for the GDP but not for people.

The prime task for people seriously interested in humanity's food problems is to help the world's small farmers. Technical up-grading is desirable, and could include GM. But wholesale transition of the kind now in process, in which GM has become a key player, is a disaster. GMOs have drawn attention to the disaster, and for this perhaps we should be grateful. They are also drawing attention to the shortcomings of government and of experts in general. That needs urgent attention, too.


Colin Tudge is the author of So Shall We Reap, an analysis of world food productio; colintudge@supanet.com

Blinded by the light of technology: Science plays a disproportionately large role in the government's thinking on GM crops, argues Sue Mayer

- Sue Mayer, Guardian (UK), February 20, 2004 Via Agnet

Dr Sue Mayer, Director of GeneWatch UK, writes in this op-ed that many people are probably wondering why the government bothered to hold a public debate on GM crops and foods last year.

Mayer says that reading the leaked minutes of last week's Cabinet Office committee meeting makes it seem as though the public debate findings are being used to inform the government about what opposition it has to overcome, and how it might wear that down, rather than being a guide to policy.

Scientific authority is brought in to justify going forward with plans to grow GM crops, despite public anxieties. But, if the science is so convincing, why should the public's views matter? And isn't the government right to take the scientific path?

For many years, politicians have used the authority of science to support their actions. Basing this authority on the "facts" and "independence" that science is supposed to bring to issues, political, social and economic judgments are apparently absent, giving us a purely rational decision-making basis. However, Mayer says, as most people have become all too aware, science rarely deals in facts. It often has only a very restricted perspective, and is inevitably affected by political and social judgements. This is all too true in the case of GM crops.

It the UK, it is difficult to find senior plant molecular biologists who have not had some connection with the biotechnology industry. Ecologists have become thin on the ground, because the focus of science is at the molecular level and ecology does not perform well under the "wealth generating" criterion of our science policy.

Only a public furore led to the farm-scale evaluations (FSEs) of GM crops, and that knowledge would never have been gained without critical questioning by the public. In reality, we have an impoverished scientific base from which to judge the performance of GM crops.

While the government worries about how our science base would be affected by a decision not to proceed with GM crops, it has not evaluated the adequacy of science's depth and breadth or the im plications of an intellectual and social bias towards a molecular view of the world.

Mayer goes on to say that if we go ahead with growing GM maize here, it will be the thin end of a very thick wedge, and a huge political gamble.

When something goes wrong, either now or in the future, the political repercussions will be huge - something the prime minister's strategy unit identified, but that the government has not understood. Next time they meet, the Cabinet subcommittee on biotechnology would b e well advised to do undertake some roleplay on how they would handle the first GM "shock". Maybe, then, they will understand.

AgBioWorld http://www.agbioworld.org
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