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Date:

February 12, 2004

Subject:

Brazil Farmers Fight for GMOs; GMOs in Europe; High-tech Ag in Malaysia

 

Today in AgBioView: February 13, 2004

* Brazil farmers fight for GMOs
* An Optimistic Forecast?
* GMOs back on table
* Only hi-tech agriculture can ensure food self-sufficiency
* CropBiotech Update from ISAAA

r /> Brazil's powerful farmers are fighting to reduce what they see as red tape and too much influence by environmentalists in a draft bill to regulate genetically modified foods.

The bill, under discussion by Senate committees after approval by the lower house of Congress earlier this month, is seen by farmers as leaning in favor of environmentalists who fear that genetically modified crops could harm humans, animals and plants.

Farmers in Brazil, a leading world exporter of soybeans, sugar, coffee, meat and orange juice, want to take advantage of what they see as the genetic and economic benefits of biotechnology, to remain competitive in world markets.

"We want amendments to reduce bureaucracy for approving GMO (genetically
modified) sales, as well as the power of IBAMA," said Joao Sampaio, president of the influential Brazilian Rural Society, referring to the government's environmental agency.

Sampaio said that the rural sector opposes plans under the current bill for a council of ministers to authorise GMO sales and to give IBAMA power to demand environmental impact studies even if scientists consider them unnecessary.

"This would seem to us to be more ideological than technical," he said.

The government-proposed bill, referred to as the "biosafety law," was written with the goal of regulating a black market in GMO soybeans that is thriving in Brazil's southern states.

Sampaio said he expected the government this week to appoint a senator to guide the bill through Congress' upper house and that a vote could be taken in March.

MAY TAKE MONTHS

But Senate officials said that discussions could take two to three months as the bill was being treated under "ordinary procedure." More time would be needed for the president's signature and finalising administrative details.

Brazil's National Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock (CNA) said the country's existing National Technical Committee on Biosafety (CTNBio) should have responsibility for both research into and sale of GMO crops.

In the lower house bill, the CTNBio would have final say in GMO studies, but not on the sale.

"Otherwise people won't invest in GMO research," said CNA Vice President Carlos Sperotto.

Environment Minister Marina Silva, who succeeded in diluting the power of scientists on the CTNBio, has welcomed the bill.

"We've reached a satisfactory agreement for the country ... the object was to prevent any weakening of environmental legislation," Silva said.

Under the bill, CTNBio would have to defer to the council of ministers when commercial use of GMOs was in question.

"The bill is highly unfavourable to farmers and must be changed," said Sperotto, who is also president of the Agricultural Federation of Rio Grande do Sul (Farsul), where about 80 percent of the soybean crop is GMO.

Strong criticism also came from farmers in Parana state, Brazil's No. 2 soy producer.

"The bill as it is would make cultivation of GMO crops more difficult," said Nelson Costa, superintendent of Ocepar, the state's cooperatives organization, adding that proposals to facilitate GMO research and sales were in the pipeline.

But analysts said that the battle between farmers and environmentalists will have little short-term market impact because the bill would extend an amnesty allowing planting and sale of GMO soy this season and in 2004/05 (Oct/Sept).

"What is more concerning to me is the potential for problems at Paranagua port," said Flavio Franca, chief soy analyst at Safras e Mercados, referring to Brazil's main soy export port in the southern state of Parana.

"The crop is now starting to arrive and it will only take a little rain to stop ship loaders. Combine that with the testing of each soybean truck before unloading and you have a recipe for truck line-ups longer than in March last year," he added.
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http://www.truthabouttrade.org/article.asp?id=1338

An Optimistic Forecast?

- Truth About Trade & Technology, By Dean Kleckner, Feb 13, 2004

Sometimes I’m not sure whether Europe’s seemingly deliberate ignorance of biotechnology calls for optimism or pessimism. Will the Europeans eventually come to their senses? Or will their consumers continue to prefer primitive superstition to modern science - living in fear of a bogeyman that doesn’t exist?

I’ve always been an optimist because I like happy endings, but pessimism tempts me once in awhile. I sometimes remember what former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said, “I’m an optimist, but I’m an optimist who carries a raincoat.”

From my perspective, there has been too much pessimism for too long. For five years, the European Union has refused to approve a single new biotech crop. This refusal has affected trade and cost American farmers hundreds of millions of dollars.

The EU’s moratorium is in reaction to their consumer’s lack of knowledge and their elected politician’s reaction to their consumers fears. In my view, the moratorium is illegal under the rules of the World Trade Organization--and the United States rightly filed a WTO complaint last year. It’s hurting the EU in other ways, too. For example, some of their top scientists are leaving because they have not seen a future for themselves in Europe.

On January 28, however, the Europeans gave me a pleasant surprise: the European Commission endorsed a genetically enhanced form of sweet corn.

It’s about time. During the EU’s five-year ban on biotech approvals, the United States has approved more than 50 different genetically enhanced products. But then we have a sensible policy - and a strong, credible regulatory system - that lets science govern our decisions about whether certain foods are completely safe for consumption.

There are still a few more hurdles to clear before Europe’s moratorium finally comes to an end. In the bureaucratic labyrinth that is European politics, the Commission’s proposal now goes before a council of government ministers. They have 90 days to act. They can approve or refuse the Commission’s recommendation. Or they can do nothing, in which case the Commission has the power to authorize its own suggestion.

I’m not going to issue a forecast. I have no idea what the EU ultimately will do. But I would like to recognize the Commission’s decision for what it is: a step in the right direction.

Circumstances call for cautious optimism because the EU now faces mounting international pressure to demonstrate that it isn’t irrevocably opposed to all biotech food--and because it would have been very easy to maintain the status quo of rejecting everything. This is the first genuine indication we’ve seen in a long time that the Europeans are ready to abandon an emotional position they have accepted for far too long and adopt a science-based one.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Rome wasn’t built in a day--and five years of emotion doesn’t come to an end just because a single variety of sweet corn stands on the threshold of an EU endorsement. European regulators and elected politicians have a lot of catching up to do. They need to embrace all forms of safe and healthy food. There is simply no scientific reason for them to do otherwise.

Unfortunately, for half a decade, too many European consumers have been confused and scared by the ‘green groups’ inferred message falsely linking biotech to mad cow disease and foot & mouth disease. What Europe needs is a campaign of public education that tells the truth about genetically enhanced foods.

The sweet corn decision is going in the right direction. Hopefully dozens of other products will begin to receive similar treatment and soon. But even if they do, Europe’s new labeling requirements will need careful scrutiny. Starting in April, food containing biotech enhanced ingredients will bear special labels saying so. The particulars still haven’t been announced and the devil is always in the details. But hopefully, they’ll result in a system that doesn’t frighten consumers but rather reassures and educates them.

As the issue of biotech acceptance continues to “boil” in Europe, I’ll hang up my raincoat and follow the example and words of E.C. McKenzie -”Remember the steam kettle; though it’s up to its neck in hot water, it continues to sing”. I’m optimistic the EU commissioners will continue to do the right thing and I’ll be “singing” in support of a happy ending.
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http://www.eupolitix.com/EN/News/200402/2a6d692f-e7df-4d07-89c3-66569439ecf1.htm


GMOs back on table

- EUPolitix.com, Feb 13, 2004

Europe could on Wednesday come one step closer to selling a new genetically modified maize marketed by US company Monsanto.

The European Commission’s expert committee will be debating the approval of a genetically modified organism (GMO) known as NK603.

Europe has not started selling any new gene-altered products for the past five years, leading to a legal challenge from the USA over this de facto moratorium.

With fresh EU laws in place on biotech crops and products, there has been growing hope that the GM freeze is over.

This is the second opportunity of 2004 for Europe to put the supposed end of the moratorium to the test, following a similar vote on another biotech crop last month.

Which means that it could now be only a matter of weeks before new GM foods make it to European dinner tables.

A commission spokesman on Friday said that “If the committee agree on NK603 it would mean lifting the moratorium – but it is too early to say if this will happen.

She said the most likely outcome is a ‘non-opinion’, in which there is no majority either for or against.

If this happens the crop will have to go to EU government ministers for approval at a council meeting.

In the case of out right rejection by the experts’ committee, the proposal for adoption will have to go back to the drawing board at the commission.

And even if NK603 finds a majority in favour on Wednesday it will not be on the market before April 18, when new traceability and labelling laws for come into force.

This is the same date at which another genetically modified product known as BT11 could make it to European supermarket shelves.

BT-11 was approved by the commission in January this year, but it too now has to get past the scrutiny of national governments.

BT-11 is a corn which, if approved, would be available for human consumption.

NK603 is another maize, but this time used mainly in animal feed.

Neither crop could actually be grown in the EU but it could be imported and processed.
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http://www.emedia.com.my/Current_News/NST/Thursday/National/20040213072628/Article/indexb_html


PM: Only hi-tech agriculture can ensure food self-sufficiency

- New Straits Times, Feb 12, 2004, by Sim Bak Heng

The agriculture sector needs to undergo a revo-lution if the nation is to become self-sufficient in food production and exports, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said.

Opening the country's first largescale integrated modern agriculture project here today, he said the Government would give its full support to any move to modernise agriculture.

He said the advancement of agriculture could help enhance the living standards of the people, particularly of the rural poor.

"But this is only possible if traditional farmers are willing to change their mindset and accept modern farming methods that promise high yields.

"High technology is not only for the manufacturing sector. Very little is said about hi-tech agriculture, which is possible through the use of biotechnology," he said.

Illustrating this point, he said a ciku fruit that weighs 500gm was only possible with the infusion of high technology.

He said to remain competitive with other food-producing countries in the region, Malaysia had no choice but to switch to hi-tech farming.

"That is why this project in Air Hitam and Kluang is so important for the country. It is a positive move in the right direction to boost our agriculture output and reduce our annual food import bill," he said at the launch of a greenfield commercial farming project in Kahang, about 20km from here.

Also present were Menteri Besar Datuk Abdul Ghani Othman, Agriculture Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, his deputy Datuk Seri Mohd Shariff Omar, Health Minister Datuk Chua Jui Meng and Agriculture Ministry secretary-general Datuk Abi Musa Asa'ari Mohd Nor.

The project, spread over 3,459 hectares in three different locations, is an idea that was originally mooted by former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and based on a master plan drawn up by the Royal Agriculture College in the United Kingdom.

Twenty companies are involved in the project. Of the number, four are into livestock breeding, with largescale farms in Padang Hijau which started operations last September.

The others are involved in aquaculture, vegetable and fruit farming at either the Ayer Hitam Agriculture Institute or the Veterinary Institute in Ayer Hitam.

Abdulah said the project could become a showcase of modern agriculture in the country when fully developed, adding that rural farmers involved in the project stood to benefit from higher incomes and improved standard of living.

"This is proof that the Government has not neglected rural development and the needs of the farming community," he said.

"High technology is imperative for the agriculture sector to grow, as is the case with manufacturing industries. We must also modernise smallscale farming and attract big companies to participate in the ventures," he said.

Abdullah said the country was endowed with fertile soil and vast tracks of land suitable for agriculture, which he added, was a blessing from Allah.

"We have all the natural resources. In fact, Malaysia is deemed as one with the richest in terms of bio-diversity in the region.

"We should, therefore, mobilise all our efforts to utilise the resources and ensure that it will bring greater wealth to our nation." Abdullah urged the Agriculture Ministry to co-operate with all the State Governments to develop the sector extensively, adding that this would benefit rural folk, the majority of whom were farmers.

"It is necessary to have the right policies and programmes, but what is more important at the end of the day, is whether our farmers are successful." The Prime Minister said the spillover from modernisation of agriculture was tremendous as this could lead to the development of a host of downstream processing factories and other small- and mediumscale industries.
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CropBiotech Update from ISAAA

INDIAN FARMERS’ COMMISSION TO ADDRESS AGBIOTECH

The Indian Government has set up a National Commission on Farmers aimed at building a farmer-friendly framework for biotechnology. The Commission will recommend policies, programs and measures to accelerate and diversify agricultural development. It will likewise address the issues of agricultural technology and input delivery mechanism.

The Commission will review the status of Indian agriculture and assess the conditions of different categories of farmers in various regions. It will identify factors responsible for imbalances and disparities and suggest measures for achieving sustainable and equitable agricultural development.

The Commission is headed by Shri Sompal, a former Union Minister of State for Agriculture. He will hold the rank of a Union Cabinet Minister.

GLOBAL FUNDING TO BOOST RESEARCH IN POOR COUNTRIES

The InterAcademy Council, a coalition of 90 scientific academies worldwide, submitted to Kofi Annan, secretary-general, United Nations (UN), a report entitled “Inventing a Better Future: A Strategy for Building Worldwide Capacities in Science and Technology,” which calls for the establishment of two funds to boost research efforts in poor countries. Annan, however, stated that his top priority, if the said research funding will materialize, is the application of science and technology in agriculture.

The report recommends that a Global Institutional Fund be established to support the research efforts of 20 national or regional centers over a span of five to ten years. These centers will be selected based on the quality of their science, independence, management caliber, and relevance of their work to the needs of their respective regions. A second Global Program Fund would operate a competitive grant system, with international referees assessing proposed joint projects between laboratories in rich and poor countries.

Further, governments, foundations and existing international organizations are proposed to support these said funds - although the scale of their support is not yet specified.

The full story is available at http://www.nature.com/cgi-taf/DynaPage.taf?file=/nature/journal/v427/n6975/full/427577b_fs.html.


NO HEALTH RISK OF ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANCE GENES IN PLANTS

There are no objective scientific grounds to believe that bacterial antibiotic resistance genes will migrate to bacteria to create new clinical problems. This was the conclusion of the Working Party of the British Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy which examined the possibility that genetically modified (GM) plants containing antibiotic resistance (AR) genes could lead to transfer of the genes to bacteria.

In a report published in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, the working party noted that the “theoretical possibility of transfer by novel mechanisms can’t be ruled out” but that the risk of transfer of AR genes from GM plants to bacteria is remote, and that the “hazard arising from any such gene transfer is, at worst, slight."

The Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy can be viewed online at
http://www.jac.oupjournals.org.

PHILIPPINE NEWSPAPERS GENERALLY POSITIVE TOWARDS BIOTECH

A survey of national daily English newspapers in the Philippines in 2002 and 2003 reveal that journalists are writing about biotechnology, find it important enough to merit space and coverage, and follow developments in the biotechnology arena. Three important milestones on agri-biotechnology were reported extensively in the country. These were the signing of Administrative Order No. 8 in April 2002 on the rules and regulations for the importation and release into the environment of plants and plant produce derived from the use of modern biotechnology; the approval of the first genetically modified crop or Bt corn in the Philippines and in Southeast Asia in December 2002; and the hunger strike against the commercialization of Bt corn in May 2003.

These were highlights of a media monitoring study conducted by the Global Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications in collaboration with a country network contact. The network contact scanned national papers and sent monthly summaries of all news stories that were featured for the specific time period. The study is a part of a bigger project that will compare the media situation in six other Asian countries.

Nine national English dailies published a total of 446 articles for a 17-month period or a monthly output of 25 articles. The three major newspapers (Manila Bulletin, Philippine Star, and the Philippine Daily
Inquirer) accounted for 61% of all articles published. Generally, articles were positive, supportive of government and private sector initiatives, and guided by social/cultural interest. Majority of articles were positive in tone, or those that were in support of biotechnology. Topics on government regulations dominated the articles in agri-biotech due to government approval of guidelines related to the use of genetically modified organisms, and approval of the first GM crop for commercialization.

For more information on this study, email m.navarro@isaaa.org.

IPR AND AFRICA’S INVISIBLE WEALTH

“Africa must urgently seize (the) opportunity of protecting intellectual property not only in order to protect her own and make her people more innovative and provide solutions to African problems, but also to attract more investment and exchange of goods from other countries.” Says James Shikwati, director, Inter Region Economic Network and Africa Resource Bank Coordinator, in his article entitled “Africa: Time to Focus on Invisible Wealth” featured in the AfricaBiotech.com.

According to Shikwati, Intellectual Property Rights or IPR is a useful tool in maintaining the innovation process that is needed to make Africa industrious. States the author, “It's only through Intellectual Property that Africa will move from focusing only on the ‘visible wealth’ to the invisible. This will not only improve the economies, give more avenues for investment but also reduce conflicts in the continent.”

The author added that the challenge facing Africa now is basically how to produce high quality goods and services while, at the same time, addressing problems concerning poverty and unemployment. Shikwati opines that “Africa is seen to participate in IPR as late comers already faced with other priority issues and lacking (the) capacity to enforce IPR regimes.”

Download James Shikwati’s article at http://www.africabiotech.com/news2/article.php?uid=59.

AUSTRALIAN PERCEPTION OF RISK IS CHANGING

Australians are more likely to be concerned about pollution, the greenhouse effect and nuclear waste than the use of gene technology. This is the finding of a four-year study by Biotechnology Australia to track changes in public attitudes towards biotechnology. Biotechnology Australia is a multi-departmental government agency, responsible for coordinating non-regulatory biotechnology issues for the Australian Government.

"The general trend from 1999 to 2001 was an increase in support for many applications of gene technology. From 2001 to 2003 there was an increase in risk perception, but no parallel increase in concern," said Craig Cormick of Biotechnology Australia. He noted that the concept of risk has changed enormously in the last two years fuelled by global insecurities such as September 11 and the Bali bombing.

The major findings of the study showed a continued high support for the use of gene technology in medicine. The public perception of risk from biotechnology pertaining to agriculture was less straightforward, with 56% stating a belief that Australian farmers need access to gene technology to remain internationally competitive. About 45% of the population said they would eat GM foods, which is down from 49% in 2001. Opposition to GM foods is largely based on a perceived lack of benefit for consumers.

View more of Biotechnology Australia at http://www.biotechnology.gov.au. Details of the study can be obtained from Millward Brown at http://www.millwardbrown.com.

BIOTECH FOR WHEAT IMPROVEMENT

The development of wheat, in terms of using new technologies, has been rather slow as compared to other crops such as corn, rice or tomato. This is due to certain characteristics of the crop such as its ploidy level, size and complexity of its genome, its very high percentage of repetitive sequences, and its low level of polymorphism.

For years, scientists have observed that wheat is a difficult species for the application of molecular genetics. The low level of polymorphism between elite wheat varieties and the hexaploid nature of the crop provide challenges for scientists who are attempting to develop molecular markers to be used in genetic studies.

In a paper entitled “The application of biotechnology to wheat improvement” written by David Hoisington of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico, and colleagues, and recently published in the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Plant Production and Production Series, the said authors stated that studies are currently being conducted to analyze the genetic basis of the different important traits of the wheat crop. Gene isolation, and how to store, process and access the information generated using new marker systems in wheat are the envisioned future challenges for wheat scientists.

The authors added that the challenge that these new innovations present for developing countries is for them to be able to tap as much of this emerging technology as possible. It is imperative that developing countries recognize the importance of the new approaches and ensure that appropriate legislation and regulations are enacted to allow them to acquire, evaluate and deploy new plant varieties produced thru biotechnology.

Read the full paper at http://www.fao.org/DOCREP/006/Y4011E/y4011e0d.htm#bm13.

GM CORN WITH GREATER FROST TOLERANCE

Iowa State University in the United States reports that they have discovered a way to increase corn's frost resistance by incorporating a tobacco gene that activates the crop’s natural defense systems against cold temperatures.

Kan Wang, associate professor of agronomy and director of the Center for Plant Transformation, and colleagues inserted a tobacco gene with an activator protein called NPK1 which sets the corn's defense systems to stabilize and protect cells in times of stress from heat, cold or water loss. "Plants naturally acclimate to environmental stresses, for example when they are gradually introduced to cold temperatures. During the acclimation process, many genes that protect the plants from stress are turned on. The tobacco gene we inserted encodes a protein that mimics the acclimation effect and activates corn's natural responses to stress faster than through natural acclimation," Wang explained.

More details of this research can be viewed online at
http://www.iastate.edu/%7Enscentral/releases/2004/jan/wang.shtml

NEW INSIGHTS ON PAPAYA EVOLUTION

Scientists led by a team from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) report the first direct evidence that papaya sex chromosomes are evolving from other chromosomes. This discovery may help scientists understand inheritance or traits responsible for the size, shape, and quality of the fruit. Papaya trees inherit a specific combination of genes on their sex chromosomes that produce fruit with the desired shape that consumers refer.

Genetic material from more than 2,000 fresh papayas were analyzed. Scientists found a chromosome with a small region of genes for male traits. This comprises only about 10% of the chromosome’s length which actually determines sex in papaya.

The full article is available in the journal Nature but a short article from ARS can be viewed at http://www.ars.usda.gov/news.

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