Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - April 30, 2004:
* Public Sector Will Lose Out In GM Race, Warns Veteran
* India: Not Yet Born, Biotech Monitor Draws First Blood
* Biotechnology and Hunger
* Truth in Labeling
* Mexican Farmers Effectively Cultivate Phenotypic Diversity In Maize
* Chappati Patent Controversy in India: Shiva Thunders Again!
* ...Wheat Biopiracy? Monsanto Responds..
* Transgenic Tombstones! - Human DNA Tree Memorial
* Regulation of Agricultural Biotechnology (New Book!)
* GM: Africa's Opportunity
Note to Readers: AgBioView newsletter may be sporadic next week!
Public Sector Will Lose Out In GM Race, Warns Veteran
- Indian Express, April 30, 2004
Back in the 1980s, Shanthu Shantharam monitored the first Bt cotton trials in the US as branch chief with the US Drug Administration (sic; he was with USDA - CSP). Today, as president of Biologistics International, he has a vantage view of India's half-hearted embrace of GM. ''If a public sector company is treated at par with private companies, it will never be able to come to the market,'' Shantharam warns. ''There is no way the public sector can pay for the regulatory costs as it exists today.''
GM technology has been attacked because it is controlled by the private sector, and GM farmers would be at the mercy of MNCs. In India, Monsanto subsidiary Mahyco pursued the Bt cotton approval for seven years before they got permission for five states. It took another two years before two Indian companies managed to get approval for the same gene. The scene is even more dismal for other crops. Proagro, a company in the race for GM mustard, was asked to return time and again before they decided to give up.
But why doesn't the public sector - with its vast network and infrastructure - come up with a cheaper variety of Bt cotton or other GM crops? According to Shantharam, it's because they do not discover genes. ''They almost seem to be suffering from an inferiority complex. The protocols of buying or importing a gene for further research takes years,'' he said. Public companies, Shantharam said, should be similar to corporate bodies. ''They have to have a business plan, product development plan and stage-wise development plan till, say, 2010,'' he said. ''There have to be options from which the most economically viable ones are salvaged and the rest junked.''
Shantharam, incidentally, worked with Syngenta, Switzerland, when it was developing its Golden Rice and rice genome. He has two decades of experience in the harmonisation of biotechnology regulatory policies. ''There has to be a blockbuster gene that will make GM crops a huge hit,'' he said. ''Blockbuster genes are elements that overcome environmental challenges like drought or upgraded nutritional value like the Vitamin A rice.''
The Swaminathan Foundation in Chennai, incidentally, is already working on rice that grows in saline areas. Shantharam has doubts about the yield benefit of GM in crops like wheat and rice, where effective hybrids have already pushed the limits. But the misinformation campaign against Bt gets Shantharam's back up. ''We have set up a Foundation for Biological Awareness in Bangalore that works with young scientists on countering these claims,'' he said.
Shantharam would also like to change the broad regulatory rules that exist in India today. ''Most regulators are so nervous that they avoid decisions and instead try to find technical faults. GM companies should be asked to generate transparent data on field trials that can be shared with the world and reviewed by scientists,'' he said.
India: Not Yet Born, Biotech Monitor Draws First Blood
- Indian Express, April 30, 2004
The (Indian) regulatory mechanism for biotechnology finally shows signs of getting off the ground. For starters, the M S Swaminathan Panel on Applications of Biotechnology in Agriculture wants to cut back the powers of the existing regulatory authority, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee. The GEAC was a multi-disciplinary body headed by an additional secretary-level official from the Ministry of Environment and Forests. The last three years have seen six chairmen come and go, triggering a great deal of consternation in the industry.
The Swaminathan panel has suggested that pending the establishment of an autonomous Agricultural Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (ABRA), the release, notification and registration of transgenic crops for commercial cultivation be done by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the Union agriculture ministry. The panel has limited the powers of the GEAC to ''only environmental clearance''. The panel report, which has been submitted to the Union agriculture ministry and will be eventually taken up for discussion in the Cabinet, criticised the existing process of clearance as ''lengthy and cumbersome, as is evident from the time taken for release of Bt cotton''.
With a view to hasten the process of clearance of GM crops, the panel report said ''once an extant/transgene has been declared bio-safe, its derivatives need not always be evaluated for bio-safety again. Such derivative crop varieties can be evaluated on basis of largescale trials by ICAR and released after satisfactory value for cultivation and use
(VCU) trials''. In the run-up to the ABRA, the Swaminathan panel suggests, approval powers for contained and open field trials for biosafety should rest with the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) while the multilocational farmer's field trials are the sole responsibility of ICAR and the company concerned. The Monitoring-cum-Evaluation Committee (MEC) should report to GEAC on biosafety and environmental issues, while post-release monitoring should be the responsibility of the Union agriculture ministry and ICAR.
In practical terms, this means cutting back the GEAC's powers. At present, they are the sole authority to deny or clear a particular Bt gene on all counts, economic and environmental. Regarding selection of crops for developing transgenics, the panel report says that national interests like external trade should be kept in view while taking up research projects in transgenics. The importance of traditional Basmati rice and soyabean in the export market is a case in point. The panel also suggests labelling and traceability norms for genetically modified (GM) products, establishment of Codex norms in GM foods and protection of organic farming zones and agro-biodiversity sanctuaries from the effects of cross-pollination of GM crops. It has suggested ''gathering of data on the impact of transgenics on biodiversity in crop fields, on model of recent studies in UK''.
The panel report pleads for special government-sponsored insurance scheme for GM crops, venture capital assistance for the transgenic crops industry and private-public sector alliance for production and marketing of GM seeds. The panel report recommends farmers' participatory assessment in the evaluation of GM crops. It also suggests that till the ABRA comes into being, the GEAC should have two expert-staffed wings - one to deal with transgenic agriculture and the other for the pharma sector - headed by a biotech expert. The report also suggests strengthening the Seeds Act and environment laws to deal with possible illegal proliferation of GM seeds. It favours mandatory registration of all released seeds and proposes a single-window information centre on all aspects of bioethics and biosafety.
Biotechnology and Hunger
- Gordon Conway, Open Democracy, June 4, 2003
The food security, life-chances and freedom of African farmers can be immeasurably improved by the greater use of biotechnology - as is already evident in China. Scientific research, terms of trade, and global politics still present obstacles, but the direct choices of poor farmers themselves will resolve this passionately contested argument.
I am interested in whether or not biotechnology can reduce hunger in ways that are effective, affordable and safe. In this respect I am less sceptical of biotechnology than many who currently debate the matter.
There are three crucial questions:
* can biotechnology help reduce hunger and hence help development?
* if biotechnology can potentially be helpful, what obstacles – including health and safety issues -- should be considered?
* who should decide whether biotechnology helps development?
There are currently about 800 million chronically malnourished human beings in the world. About 200 million are in Africa, a third of the population of the continent. Most studies indicate that a great deal of the hardship there is borne by women and children. 65% of African women of childbearing age are anaemic, 40 million children are severely underweight for their age and 50 million are vitamin-A deficient. One estimate puts the number of children who die every year of illness related to malnutrition at 6 million.
So far, programmatic and governmental solutions have fallen far short of what is necessary to solve the problem. The United Nations has issued declarations, held meetings, and released plans to cut hunger in half by the year 2015, but no experts I know believe the problem will be any smaller by that time. Most expect it will get worse. As many as 2 billion may be chronically undernourished in 2015.
Africa: the heart of the dilemma
In Asia, average agricultural production skyrocketed after the Green Revolution to nearly 3 tons per hectare. But Africa, with its different geography and water systems, remains trapped or falling backward at a production level of about 1 ton per hectare. That is probably about the productivity a British farmer enjoyed during the reign of the Roman Empire. And the old Green Revolution has little to offer. Indeed, the increases in farming yields we saw then are slowing, and are now about half of what we saw at its peak.
In Africa, poverty is essentially rural and the only way out of poverty is through development based on agricultural and other rural resources.
* 70% of African employment is on small-scale farms
* 40% of all African export earnings are from agriculture
* Around 30% of African gross national product (GNP) is based on agriculture – and for most Africans there is really not a choice of employment. Either your farm succeeds or you are jobless.
The typical farmer in Africa is a woman with a family who has one hectare or less of low fertility land to harvest with erratic rainfall and no irrigation. Her farm faces numerous pests, diseases, and environmental stresses which would severely vex an EU farmer who enjoyed plenty of equipment and resources. But of course she lacks any real capital and her income is too small to enable her to maintain a sustainable livelihood, or provide adequate food, education, or health care for her children.
Today, she can potentially harvest 2 tons from her hectare, given the low fertility of her soil and her lack of fertiliser. African farmers pay the highest fertiliser prices in the world. Prices in western Kenya are $400 per ton of urea against $90 per ton in Europe. On average (and many use none at all) African farmers use only 10 kilograms per hectare of fertiliser while European farmers use over 200 kg/ha.
The African farmer's staple crop, maize, is attacked by the parasitic weed striga. The latter sucks nutrients from roots, by boring insects, which weaken stems, and by streak virus. Her cassava crop is devastated by cassava mealybugs and a new super-virulent strain of mosaic virus. Her banana seedlings are infected with weevils, nematodes and the fungal disease black sigatoka. Her beans suffer from fungal diseases that shrivel pods and lower nitrogen fixation. And more often than not, she faces a drought during the growing season, reducing the yield of everything. Even if she produced some surplus harvest for sale, she would face stiff competition from highly subsidised farmers in Europe and America.
There are a variety of solutions to her problems. But many of her problems are difficult to solve by conventional means, or are even intractable. Examples include: resistance to striga, tolerance of drought, cowpeas resistant to pod borers, more nutritious maize, rice and cassava, and resistance to herbicides.Sometimes, conventional breeding simply takes too long. The high protein quality maizes took sixteen years to develop and they are only just getting into the hands of African farmers.
The growing success of biotechnology
It is to solve these problems in a timely and efficient manner that we need to turn to biotechnology. There are already indicators of success.
Biotechnology is not just about genetically-modified (GM) crops. It spans the full range of applications of the extraordinary discoveries of modern cellular and molecular biology - the fruits of a revolution that began over sixty years ago. Tissue culture, one of the key applications, has already produced crops that are in the hands of African farmers.
In East Africa, tissue cultured bananas – a staple food – are being produced free of pest and diseases and yielding over 50 tons per hectare in the hands of poor farmers. In West Africa, the new strains of rice -- crosses produced by tissue culture between Asian and African species – are spreading rapidly. They are resistant to pests and weeds, grow in relatively dry conditions and yield 3 tons per hectare (or more) with little or no fertiliser. Most significantly, these new crops were largely developed with public money and hence have been made cheaply available to poor farmers.
The same is true of that other product of biotechnology - GM crops. For instance, China has had a lot of success with GM crops, and it clearly won’t stop. Some 5 million small farmers in China have been growing GM cotton for six years. They have higher yields, greater returns and, most important, no longer have to rely on the backbreaking and hazardous spraying of their cotton crops. As a result, pesticide poisoning of humans is declining. There have been similar successes in Africa, for example in the Makhathini Flats in South Africa where GM cotton has been grown for the past four years.
This evidence clearly suggests that biotechnology can help reduce hunger and hence help development. An increase in farm productivity produces a greater economic return from an African farmer’s labour and they will be significantly better off.
The toolkit of biotechnology - with its range of scientific tools from diagnostics through tissue culture and marker-aided selection to genetic engineering -can help farmers have more cushion in their lives, more food, more money, more ability to compete in the marketplace. It can literally change their story from a fight for survival to a chance to live and even prosper.
The barriers to progress
But there are obstacles to overcome which still limit the use of biotechnology as a tool of development:
* scientific barriers
* barriers to market entry that particularly disfavour developing countries
* international politics.
First, new and sophisticated farming techniques are usually expensive to develop because they generally require large research infrastructure, as well as the ability and resources to navigate through extensive regulatory structures. The field is dominated by merged global entities from the seed industry and the chemical inputs industry that have combined into five very large multi-national corporations.
Second, therefore, there is no profit for these corporations from investing in expensive research on new products that can only be purchased by subsistence African farmers with little money. So quite logically, these companies are not focused on improving the basic crops of the developing world – such as millet, sorghum, cowpeas, yams or cassava.
The absence of a profit motive results, unfortunately, in more than just benign neglect for the field of developing nation agricultural research. Because of the rise of a sophisticated global intellectual property system that covers many of the basic technologies in this area, publicly-minded researchers often have little access to new ideas and technologies in their field or are legally blocked from using what they do know.
Hence, the modern marketplace is not functioning in a way likely to produce useful biotechnological innovation for poor people. Indeed, left to its own devices, the gap is likely to grow – with wealthy nations’ farmers using ever more sophisticated techniques and poor farmers left with the same tools they have used for centuries or even millennia.
The free market structure is, then, skewed to serve the wealthiest producers. Further, intellectual property rules discourage the sharing of ideas and innovations that may be helpful to those working on behalf of farmers in developing nations.
The third and best-known obstacle to the use of biotechnology is the questioning over the safety and environmental impacts of this science. In the case of genetically-modified organisms, for example, there are legitimate concerns about allergenicity, toxicity and antibiotic resistance, and about gene flow and the threats to biodiversity.
But these latter are problems that should be dealt with through reason and analysis - not by scaremongering and demonisation.
A future of freedom
The essential facts are these:
* antibiotic resistance is not an inherent part of biotechnology and we can eliminate the need for these genes
* allergenicity and toxicity are issues with all crop varieties and biotechnology could actually reduce such hazards
* the risk of gene flow to other crops and wild plants is a real one (as is also true of conventional and organic crops), but with care there need be no significant unwanted effects
* more generally, biotechnology has the potential to increase food safety and actually lessen environmental problems by allowing reduced levels of pesticides
* biotechnology can, at the same time, make food more nutritious
These potentials are, however, not the focus of current attention. No one is asking what it would take to make biotechnology work in this way. Instead, we have forums that tend to generate more heat than light. Rather than a discussion with many voices participating, there is often an argument dominated by extremes.
In its simplest form, one side supports biotechnology, declares it safe, ridicules those who oppose it or support more regulation, and complain that opponents are holding back progress; the other side responds by attacking biotechnology, employing imaginative horror stories about what will happen, and ridiculing biotechnology proponents as destroyers of the natural world.
This unproductive game has now been exported to Africa. These arguments are excellent fodder for the news media, and provide a healthy living for public relations specialists on both sides, but they don’t do much for very poor African farmers.
So who will decide whether biotechnology can be helpful to developing nations, especially in Africa? The answer, I believe, must be that Africans should decide. Weighing the risks and benefits of these new technologies must be the task of the people who will use the techniques, suffer the risks and enjoy the benefits from them.
I believe this for both moral and practical reasons. People, and their elected representatives, should be free to make decisions for their own lives and community. But they have to do this with all the relevant information at their disposal, and without pressure from outside vested interests - whether these be governmental, corporate or activist groups.
here are, of course, clear problems with this answer. Not least because, even as African societies have decided to investigate the potential further, they still lack the means - in particular, access to intellectual property – needed to make appropriate biotechnology. Moreover, African governments and regulators lack resources needed to make regulatory decisions and enforce them.
Just as Americans have determined they will use this science (more than 170 million hectares in the United States are planted with genetically-modified crops), and some French people have inveighed against their nation’s acceptance of GM, so should Africans be allowed to make their own choice.
Global free markets hold out the chance for prosperity for many poor people, but the deck is often stacked against them. Large multilateral institutions like the UN hold out the hope of improved bargaining power, but cannot make decisions for specific countries or regions – especially when those countries currently lack the resources to evaluate scientific data.
But throughout the entire development discussion I think we would do well to chart a course based on the values of partnership, rejection of ideological extremes in favour of results, and approaches that give to Africans the right, the opportunity, and the responsibility to make their own choices.
Near the end of his life, Albert Einstein reflected not on his native field of physics but on the nature of progress. He concluded: "Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labour in freedom."
We have the chance to help billions more people enjoy the greatness of labouring in freedom - freedom from hunger and from the constraints of our decisions about what is best for them. I hope we have the courage to do the right thing.
Truth in Labeling
- Dean Kleckner, Truth about Trade and Technology http://www.truthabouttrade.org/article.asp?id=1730
When a new Swedish beer hit the European market earlier this year, activists from the radical group Greenpeace did their best to make sure nobody would drink it. Like a bunch of mobbed-up racketeers, they pursued delivery trucks around Copenhagen and urged storeowners not to stock Kenth beer, as it's called. "We stayed up all night printing materials to hand out at the stores and arranging chase cars," one of them confessed in the Wall Street Journal.
Arranging chase cars? So that's what it's come to for Greenpeace: High-speed intimidation to prevent consumers a full range of food choices.
The beer in question is no ordinary pilsner - its biotech beer, in which a portion of the barley is replaced by bt corn grown in Germany. It's also clearly labeled as such. The EU has just adopted a complicated set of rules demanding special labels on food containing even trace amounts of biotech ingredients. Kenth beer became the first product to carry the label--and its maker is hoping the novelty will translate into sales.
It's in our interest, of course, for biotech food in Europe to seem ordinary rather than extraordinary – which it's not. With the EU's new labeling regime just now going into effect, European consumers finally may have a chance to eat genetically enhanced food the way Americans do everyday. Perhaps when they discover that biotech food doesn't look or taste any different from other kinds of food, they'll begin to overcome the irrational fears that mischievous groups such as Greenpeace have instilled in them.
That's the optimistic view. There are good reasons to hold it. Science and time really are on our side--biotech food is perfectly safe and healthy. Perhaps the finicky Europeans just need a little extra time to get used to that idea. Eventually, their biotech labels will be regarded as innocent pieces of information, like the "Nutrition Data" tables we find on our own food in the United States.
The pessimistic view is that people will see the biotech label and think it's a biohazard sticker--a dire warning to keep away. If Greenpeace deploys enough chase cars, then it might be possible to think that their thugs will win this battle for public opinion for a little longer.
Yet there's perhaps a more fundamental question to consider: Just how complicated are these new EU regulations? They're calling for field-to-fork traceability, i.e., demanding that every piece of biotech food have a detailed provenance. There's nothing wrong with that in theory, because biotech food has nothing to worry about in terms of its safety. In practice, however, this requirement that somebody keep track of virtually ever kernel of corn may prove to be prohibitively expensive.
Just imagine that, following years of protectionist trade policies, we advocates of biotechnology finally pry open the European market only to have it snap shut again. Not because of market forces or sound science but rather, a nonsensical decree invented by prejudiced, "finger in the wind" bureaucrats.
With regulations like these, who needs chase cars? Or protectionism?
We'll have to give the new EU rules a chance to work and see what happens. Frankly, we don't have much choice in the matter. These guidelines have been adopted and they currently offer us the best chance we have to make progress among skeptical Europeans. We need to change hearts and minds in London, Paris and Copenhagen.
The very notion of labeling biotech food is profoundly silly. Consider what one European food manufacturer recently said: "Third, fourth, and fifth generation food derived from genetically modified foodstuffs will have to be labeled. A glucose syrup, for example, derived from starch, that in turn hails from a GM maize, will have to be labeled as such."
Egad - what a labeling mess!
But then again, given Europe's insistence on labeling, does anybody else have a better idea? If these food labels are the first step toward common-sense and public acceptance, then I'll live with them.
Our goal is to have Europeans come to the realization that it's normal and healthy to eat biotech enhanced food. At a certain level, I don't care if it requires the handholding of special labels, so long as we get there.
And "getting there" is the ultimate test. If these labels give products a fair shake, then Europeans will come to embrace biotech food. They're sensible people down deep, and they'll taste the truth--as long as government regulators and chase cars let them.
Mexican Farmers Effectively Cultivate Phenotypic Diversity In Maize
- Marie Guillaume, Innovation Report, http://www.innovations-report.com/html/reports/agricultural_sciences/report-28655.html
Erosion of genetic diversity of crop plants has for several decades been making it necessary to develop initiatives for protecting these plant resources. One strategy is in-situ conservation of crop plants. The model currently advanced involves maintaining the varieties to be conserved isolated in reserves, protected from entry of other varieties from elsewhere and cultivated according to ancestral farming practices.
Researchers from the IRD and the CIMMYT of Mexico (1) used work previously conducted in Mexico on maize varieties, or landraces, to devise a different, dynamic, model judged more compatible with agricultural development and closer to the real conditions in which these plants diversified under the constant action of farmers (2). Insofar as local landraces are still grown as crops on sufficiently large areas of land, the introduction of others from outside, favouring a certain rate of gene flow, would in fact be a source of diversity rather than a factor of genetic erosion.
Mexico, the cradle of maize cultivation, is where this member of the Graminae family, a descendent of a local wild grass, teosinte, was domesticated and phenotypically diversified by human action, at least 6 000 years B.P. An in-situ conservation programme jointly run by CIMMYT, INIFAP (Mexican National Institute of Research in Forestry and Agriculture and Livestock Breeding) and the IRD, conducted in the central valleys of Oaxaca, enabled the research team to characterize the genetic structure of the different populations of local maize landraces and measured the impact of farming practices on this diversity. They focused on two types of
diversity: phenotypic (concerning the morphological characters of the
plants) and the genetic diversity (observed using genetic markers).
Study of the populations of maize landraces cultivated in six villages of this central region of Mexico has revealed that the morphological and agronomic characters in the field, such as ear size, kernel colour, or flowering period, vary depending on the farmer. At genome scale, genetic markers have shown strong homogeneity between the maize populations within the same village and, more surprisingly, between distant villages. This means that the local varieties possess a common genetic base. The diversity observed in characters of direct pertinence to farmers would consequently be the result of the latter’s personal decisions on seed selection, which they make before each crop cycle.
This region’s farmers currently grow the maize according to ancestral practices, established over hundreds of years. The fields are sown from one crop cycle to another with the seeds of the ears from the previous harvest. However, from time to time farmers decide to exchange seed batches with other neighbouring farmers, situated more or less geographically distant, in order to run experimental crops from these seeds. Each farmer thus judges the value of these seeds according to their characteristics. Selection criteria are still a highly individual choice and depend on a number of factors. For instance taste, colour, and cooking quality characteristics come into consideration as culinary criteria, leaf characteristics as forage quality criteria.
This investigation has brought the first genetic proof that these cultivation practices, conducted on a small scale (village and region), are a key element in the evolution of maize and its diversity. In-situ conservation of so-called "farm" varieties of crop plants, following the example of maize, could therefore be perceived in terms not of isolation, but of dynamic means of genetic material flow between the different populations of the same region in which the farmers play a predominant role. They thus appear to cultivate maize population diversity. These populations appear as open genetic systems, maintaining the centres of diversity of this major food cereal. The research conducted in this context on the inter-population gene flow should lead to better assessment of the risks from a spread of genetically modified –transgenic-corn varieties that might possibly be introduced into Mexico among traditional local landraces. Such work could therefore help provide some answers for the public debate which for many years has been running on this issue (3).
(1) This investigation involved jointly research unit UR 141 "Diversité et génomes des plantes cultivées" and the CIMMYT (International Centre for Maize and Wheat Improvement) located in Mexico City.
(2) See FAS N°32, February 1997.
(3) A symposium on this topic is being held by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation of North America, in Oaxaca, Mexico, 11 March 2004. See www.cec.org
An article has also appeared: M. R. Bellon and J. Berthaud, 2004 – Transgenic maize and the evolution of landrace diversity in Mexico: The importance of farmers’ behavior, Plant Physiology, 1st March 2004, 134 (3).
- Vandana Shiva, 27 Apr 2004. Excerpts below...
'Will "Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread" Become A Prayer To Monsanto?'
Wheat the Golden grain, is called "Kanak" in North Western India. It is the staple of a large majority. Wheat diversity has been evolved by Indian farmers over millennia for taste, for nutrition, for ecological adaptation to cold climates and hot climates, dry regions and wet regions.
We have challenged Monsanto wheat biopiracy both in the Indian Supreme Court and in the European Patent Office in Munich with Greenpeace. As our challenge submitted to the EPO on 17th February, 2004, stated,
"The patent is a blatant example of biopiracy as it is tantamount to the theft of the results of endeavours in cultivation made by Indian farmers. In the countries of the southern hemisphere, it is frequently the small farmers who make a decisive contribution to agricultural diversity and secure sufficient food supplies by freely swapping seeds and breeding regionally modified forms of crops.
Monsanto is now unscrupulously exploiting the fruits of their labour. The company is able to restrict not only the farming and processing of crops, but also trade in them, in the countries for which the patent has been granted. At the same time it can block the free exchange of the seed, thus preventing other growers and farmers from working with the patented seeds.
The wheat exhibiting these special baking qualities is the result of the labours of cultivators and farmers in India who originally grew these plants for their own regional requirements, growing them to bake traditional Indian bread (chapatis). As it is natural for these farmers to freely swap seeds, it comes as no surprise that this wheat seed has been stored in various international gene banks outside India for many years.
Thus, samples of the seed can be found in the collections held by the US agricultural administration as well as in Japan and Europe. The patent owner uses these features to achieve his own business goals in a way which can only be regarded as indecent.
Unilever and Monsanto also have unrestricted access to these seed banks. They took the wheat to their laboratories, where they searched for the genes responsible for the special baking qualities. And, indeed, they were able to find the gene sequences which they had been looking for in the plant. In this connection, they were aided by the research results of various scientists as the corresponding gene regions had been undergoing examination for quite some time. It is this natural combination of genes which has now been patented by Monsanto as an "invention"."
This patent needs to be challenged on the following grounds :
The traits of low elasticity, low gluten which are being patented are not an invention, but derived from an Indian variety. The crossing with a soft milling variety is an obvious step to any breeder. The patent is based on piracy, not on non-obvious novelty, and hence needs to be challenged to stop legal precedence being created on false claims to invention.
The broad scope of the patent covering products made with Indian wheat robs Indian food processes and biscuit manufacturers of their legitimate export market and could in future affect our domestic food sovereignty. The Governments 2020 vision refers to making India a "global food factory".
However if Monsanto has the patent based on piracy of Indian wheat, India's "food factory" will be controlled by Monsanto, not Indian food processors and producers. The governments policy if it has to be successful, must have the Monsanto patent revoked in order to bring market benefits for our unique food products to the country's producers - both farmers and food processors.
Further, the patent covers not just biscuits but all edible products and flours with low elasticity. India Chapatis are in effect covered by the patent.
If such biopiracy based patents are not challenged, and crop lines and products based on unique properties evolved through indigenous breeding become the monopoly of MNC's, in future we will be paying royalties for our innovations especially in light of the Patent Cooperation Treat and upward harmonization of patent law.
Monsanto's wheat biopiracy patent should be a wake up call to citizens and governments of the world. It is yet another example of why the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (TRIPS) of W.T.O needs to be changed, and why traditional knowledge and community rights need to be legally recognized and protected.
Monsanto Response to 'Wheat Biopiracy in India' (Chappati Patent!).....
'European Patent on Improved Wheat Derived from Indian Variety'
- Forwarded by Ranjana Smetacek
Background Information: In the 1990s, scientists at Unilever's wheat seed division, Plant Breeders International (PBI) developed a soft-milling wheat with reduced HMW (high molecular weight) gluten in subunits by crossing a commonly grown soft wheat variety "Galahad" with a "Sicco" line containing the "Nap Hal" Glu-D1 double null. This "Nap Hal" is a landrace from India, samples of which are freely available from several public germplasm collections. This patent application was originally filed by Unilever's PBI in 1990.
In July 1998, Unilever's wheat division became part of Monsanto, and five years later the resulting wheat product was the subject of a patent granted to Monsanto by the European patent Office (EPO) on May 21, 2003 (EP 445,929). The patent was validated in Germany, Denmark, France and the United Kingdom only. European laws permit the patenting of genes, traits etc., under well-defined requirements. EPO rules allow patents to be granted for inventions which are novel, inventive and have industrial application.
The lifetime of a patent is 20 years in Europe from date of filing (2011 in this case). The EPO does not allow patenting of traditionally cultivated varieties.
Important facts on the Issue:
* Monsanto holds no patent or intellectual property claims of any kind on Nap Hal wheat, so Indian farmers, bakers, and researchers are free to use it as they have been.
* The patent refers to another variety (Galahad 7 or 'Galatea'), which was derived in part from Nap Hal.
1. This was done by incorporating of some of Nap Hal’s qualities with those of other varieties, to constitute the new European variety, which is the subject of a European patent. 2. This patent applies to the jurisdiction of Germany, Denmark, France and the United Kingdom only. 3. If someone chooses to use wheat having all of the specific qualities incorporated in Galatea as granted by the EPO in the jurisdictions of Germany, Denmark, France and the United Kingdom, then they will be required to license the associated patent rights.
* Nap Hal is a public variety which any breeder is free to use
1. The line involved is a publicly available line. It was not taken from Indian farmers or anyone else. It was available well before the filing date of the patent application and remains available for other researchers to use. 2. This follows a practice adopted and applied for many years by plant breeders the world over to use material from germplasm pools derived from private research as well as material available in the public domain, to create novel plant varieties with superior characteristics and qualities.
* The Galatea variety has not been commercialized anywhere yet.
* Monsanto values innovation and we believe in the legal protection of intellectual property to encourage further innovation and investment in developing new technologies that drive economic growth.
1. Like all technology companies, Monsanto has a legitimate need to protect its inventions through the patent process. A patent gives the patentee the legal right to prevent others from copying or making use of the relevant invention for a specific period of time, in return for making details of the invention public.
2. A well-balanced patent system together with an effective judicial system for patent enforcement promotes research and encourages innovation.
Firm Plans Human DNA Tree Memorial
- Ian Sample, The Guardian (UK), April 30, 2004 (via Vivian Moses) http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,3604,1206639,00.html
Tired of tombstones? Put off by plaques? Then a new way of commemorating the dead might be for you: an apple tree, genetically modified to carry strands of your own DNA.
The idea for "transgenic tombstones" began as a student project at the Royal College of Arts, London. Now Georg Tremmel and Shiho Fukuhara have been awarded £35,000 by Nesta, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and Arts, to set up Biopresence, a company to make the trees.
Mr Tremmel says the trees are far more appealing than gravestones and plaques. "It would be a whole different thing. Tombstones are dead, but these trees are living, they are a symbol of life. They could be extremely comforting for people," he said.
The first step in the process is to get some skin cells from the person concerned, by taking a quick swab from their mouth. The cells are then treated to extract their DNA and the genetic material injected into a single apple tree cell. By keeping the tree cell in a sugary solution, and exposing it to light, scientists can nurture the cell until it grows into a small plant, ready for planting. In principle, each and every cell of the tree would contain human DNA.
To ensure that it cannot interfere with the normal growth and appearance of the tree, the human DNA is chemically treated to "silence" it, a standard technique used by plant scientists. Biopresence has taken no orders yet, but says it would take about six months to grow the apple tree cells to the point that they could be planted.
One hurdle the company has to clear is the government's regulatory system for genetically modified organisms. The advisory committee for releases to the environment (Acre) demands firm proof that all GM organisms are safe, and would need to give the green light before any transgenic tombstones were planted.
Jim Dunwell, a plant bio-technologist at Reading University who sits on the committee, said: "Anything like this that is going to be grown in the environment would have to be passed by our committee and I'm sure we'd have an interesting discussion about it."
The company would have to prove that no human DNA was expressed in the trees, something that could only be done with arduous and expensive scientific testing. Mr Tremmel said the trees will cost around £20,000. "It's cheap for eternal life," he said. Prof Dunwell wasn't so sure though. "I don't think it's the kind of thing I'd go for myself," he said.
The Regulation of Agricultural Biotechnology (New Book!)
- Editors R E Evenson, Economic Growth Center, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA and V Santaniello, University of Rome 'Tor Vergata', Rome, Italy;
March 2004 Pages 320; Hardback ISBN 0 85199 742 2; £65.00 (US$120.00) 10% discount http://www.cabi-publishing.org/bookshop
Introduction and Overview; Evolving Regulation Systems; Regulation and Innovation; Regulations, Market Structures and Innovation; Regulation and Market Development; Economic Impacts
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Order online at http://www.cabi-publishing.org/Bookshop/book_detail.asp?isbn=0851997422
Orders from USA, Central America, Caribbean, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Guam should be sent to Oxford University Press, 2001 Evans Road, Cary, North Carolina, 27513, USA; Tel: +1 800 451 7556 Fax: +1 919 677 1303 Email: email@example.com
Of related interest: 'Intellectual Property Rights in Agricultural Biotechnology,' 2nd Edition Edited by F H Erbisch and K M Maredia, Michigan State University, East Lansing, USA December 2003 336 pages Hardback, ISBN 0 85199 739 2 Price £55.00
Blast from the Past..
'GM: Africa's Opportunity'
- Walter Alhassan, Food without Frontiers - openDemocracy; Oct 2, 2003 http://www.opendemocracy.net/debates/article-4-64-1515.jsp
The marketing and developing of GM crops across Africa is intensely controversial. But in an interview with Sophie Jeffreys and Ian Christie of openDemocracy, Walter Alhassan argues that African farmers have little to fear from biotechnology when it is correctly monitored, and much to gain.
openDemocracy: What does biotechnology offer to Africa? alter Alhassan: Unlike Liz Orton, I believe that GM technology is one of the components of biotechnology which holds out the biggest promise for solving Africa's food security problems.
It is a tool which, if judiciously applied alongside other institutional interventions, will overcome Africa's food security constraints. The power of GM technology lies in its ability to move desirable genes across the species barrier to enable the recipient organism cope with various stresses (insect, bacteria, virus, fungus, nematode or other parasites, soil fertility, drought). The technology also identifies and concentrates desirable genes within a species ˆ but this feature of GM is not the main source of controversy over new techniques.
It is, rather, the transfer of genetic material across species boundaries which raises ethical (non-scientific), health (allergies) and environmental concerns. The environmental concerns relate to unintended crossing of the modified organism (say a crop of maize) with a wild relative or cultivated variety such as the farmer's variety (landrace). This phenomenon -- known as gene flow or genetic erosion -- can reduce biodiversity.
Before a GM product is released it undergoes stringent biosafety tests to ensure that these risk factors are addressed to a large extent. A permit must be granted by a National Biosafety Committee to the applicant who wishes to introduce a genetically modified organism into a country either through importation or development of the organism within the country. A risk assessment is done based on evidence demanded and supplied by the applicant such as the influence on related species (gene flow or hybridisation, health trials including evidence of non-allergenecity.
The development of the GM product is done under strict biosafety conditions as provided by the biosafety laws and framework of the country. This will require that until the product is cleared for release it be handled under containment or quarantine facilities in the laboratory and in the field. Even when the product is cleared some legislation require that it be labeled.
Because of lack of information and the consequent fear of the unknown some countries have introduced stringent precautionary legislation to control and in some case deny access to this very powerful tool which finds use in agriculture, industry, health and the environment. It is worth stressing that GM intervention is the last resort when traditional methods are either intractable or will take too long to accomplish. It is a complement to traditional technology and does not replace it.
openDemocracy: What has been the extent of public debate on GM technology in Africa? Walter Alhassan: Due to the current low level of awareness the current level of emotionally-charged debate seen in the developed countries is not seen in Africa. Indeed, African farmers who have heard what GM technology is doing for other farmers often ask to test the products.
In my recent survey Agrobiotechnology Application in West and Central Africa (2002) for the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture
(IITA) I visited countries in West and Central Africa, farmers in Cote d‚Ivoire demanded to test Bt cotton and to use it if it proved efficacious. Currently, Burkina Faso is field testing Bt cotton. It is the only country in West Africa currently testing a GM product on the field. Nigeria is poised to start the testing of genetically modified cassava against devastating viral diseases. South Africa has already commercialized Bt maize and cotton. Kenya is currently field testing Bt maize under open quarantine. More countries in Africa are poised to join the bandwagon.
The major concern for an impending biotechnology revolution in Africa is with trade. The bulk of trade in agricultural commodities is with Europe which does not appear to favour trade in GM food products. There is the fear of a trade embargo following the introduction of GM agricultural commodities in Africa.
openDemocracy: What GM products are being used now in Africa? What benefits do you see? Walter Alhassan: GM products in use in parts of Africa are Bt maize (against stem borers) and Bt cotton (against cotton boll worm). There is a drastic reduction in the amount of agro-chemicals needed to produce these crops. This greatly reduces the impact on the environment from the collateral damage caused by pesticides against beneficial insects (pollination and biological control) and possible toxicity to farmers from handling pesticides. The cost of pest control is cut considerably through direct reduction of cost of the pesticide and saving of labour in pesticide application.
Other products in line to benefit from GM technology are cowpeas (prone to insect attack), cassava (cassava mosaic virus) and bananas/plantain (Black Sigatoka). Other crops are cocoyam (prone to root rot) and coconut (lethal yellowing disease). Malnutrition from micronutrient deficiency (iron, Vitamin A, zinc) has been the scourge of children under five pregnant women. Biotechnology is to be used to assist in the rapid identification of genes carrying traits for these micronutrients and to concentrate them in food crops.
South Africa is the only country in Africa actively commercialising Bt maize and cotton as far back as 1998. The advantage is a reduction in production cost through a diminished use of pesticides with the attendant hazard to human health and the environment alluded to earlier. The use of Bt maize has been associated with a reduction in the incidence of aflatoxin which is a potent toxin produced by a fungus. Infestation often starts from the field and worsens under storage. Countries such as Uganda (banana), Kenya (maize, cotton, sweet potato), Burkina Faso (cotton), Nigeria (cassava) and Egypt (tomatoes) are in the field testing stage for the products indicated against their names.
openDemocracy: How are African states going to secure access to new biotechnologies? And what safeguards will there be for farmers, consumers and the environment? Walter Alhassan: To ensure that African countries access these technologies, frantic efforts are taking place to build up their biotechnology capacities and to develop the necessary biosafety protocols. While South Africa, Egypt and Zimbabwe already have the necessary laws in place, Kenya, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Cote d‚Ivoire have draft laws at the point of legislation.
Many African countries are signatory to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. This Convention governs the movement of GM products across national boundaries. All countries of Africa are building the necessary capacity in biotechnology to be able to apply the tool as appropriate in developing their own products or assessing the safety of GM products developed from outside.
Agencies like the Rockefeller Foundation, USAID and UNEP/GEF are helping African countries to develop the infrastructure needed to make use of biotechnology.
The necessary capacity must be built to ensure that African scientists living in an environment of chronic food deprivation can be their own spokespersons as to whether GM or non-GM technology is the way forward for their countries. This capacity cannot readily be built if African countries are constantly harassed and intimidated with trade barriers if they should opt for GM technology. African biotech capacities should be built up to the point of being able to produce and maintain GM and non-GM product lines without cross-contamination to the satisfaction of trade partners.
Africa missed the green revolution, which was to a large extent input-intensive. GM technology minimises the use of inputs. Africa, with its rich biodiversity, cannot afford to miss out on the GM revolution.