Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - May 7, 2004:
* Progressive Genetics
* Is the Gene Flow Really Risky or Unnatural?
* USAID to Spend $2.45m on Nigeria Biotechnology Development
* Modified Crops and Hunger in Africa
* Africa Wrestles with Grim Choice
* The Costly Fraud That Is Organic Food
* Whither the Flavr Savr? Fruits of Biotech Struggle to Emerge
* Making GM Foods Publicly Acceptable
* When Functional Foods Collide With Infamous GMOs
* India: Experts Flay Swaminathan Panel On GM Crops
* India: Industry Fed Proposes Reform For Transgenic Tech
* South State City Falls For Web Hoax On Water
'Genetic Engineering Not Significantly More Dangerous Than Conventional Breeding'
- Thomas R. DeGregori, Daily Couger, Vol. 69, Issue 141, May 3, 2004 http://www.uh.edu/campus/cougar/Todays/Issue/opinion/oped1.html
Transgenic (aka genetically modified) foodstuffs have become the latest villain of choice for those who believe that modern science and technology are killing us. If science and technology are killing us, why are we living longer, healthier lives?
Most everything that we eat has been genetically modified. Somehow, genetic modification is uniquely dangerous and refers exclusively to transgenetics, which modifies the genome less than any other form of plant breeding.
Every form of plant breeding has unknown outcomes. Conventional breeding of wheat will result in a plant with about 3,000 alien genes. The breeder does not know where the vast majority of "alien" genes are or what they might express. This has been done safely for thousands of years. Sometimes the products of conventional breeding have to be withdrawn because of excessive production of toxins. Recent examples include potatoes, celery and squash.
A year ago in New Zealand, there was an outbreak of food poisoning from a "killer zucchini" that hospitalized a number of people. Environmentalists jumped all over the story until it was determined that the culprit was "organic" zucchini. Plants are chemical factories that produce a multitude of toxins that protect them. An outbreak of aphid infestation had minimal impact on conventionally grown zucchini. The more vulnerable "organic" zucchini was genetically inferior because of inbreeding. They expressed dangerously high levels of the toxin curcubitan. Had this been a transgenic plant, we would be hearing about it ad nauseam, but being that it was "organic," it was quickly consigned to an Orwellian memory hole.
For the last 70 years, we have been engaged in forms of mutation breeding either by using toxic, carcinogenic chemicals such as ethyl methane sulphonate or nitrogen mustard, or by radiation. This is truly "mutant" grub. Colchicine allowed for a variety of species crosses to add in resistant genes to grains to reduce the need for pesticides.
Given our phobias about "chemicals" (with only those produced by humans being harmful) and radiation, where are those concerned about their use in plant breeding? The best estimates are that about 70 percent of fruit and vegetable produce is the product of some form of mutation breeding. The 70 percent figure would be an understatement for "organic" produce since the desire to use less synthetic pesticide requires the grower to use varieties that produce more of their own "natural" toxins. Check the Web site of the Louis Bolk Institute in Holland. They are advocates of "biodynamic" agriculture and readily admit the near impossibility of obtaining most produce in forms that they find in accord with "holistic principles of nature."
To mutation breeding, add in techniques such as protoplastic cell fusion, embryo rescue, meristem tip culture and other forms of tissue culture or somoclonal variation. Many of our food crops are a product of more than one of these heroic techniques that substantially modify the genome far more than transgenics. Any reading of the peer-reviewed literature on the subject makes that clear.
Even stores that fraudulently claim to be free of genetically-modified produce will have many items produced using transgenic yeasts, enzymes, emulsifiers, micro-organisms or transgenic soybeans. The only way that we can be sure about what we are eating is to be given a CD-ROM with each purchase that gives the complete provenance of the food crop as well as the hundreds, if not thousands, of toxins that its genome is capable of expressing and its likely invisible microbial infestation. And for any grain product, check your food safety authority for the tolerance for aphid infestation, and the prescience of rodent hairs and feces -- that is, if you really want to know.
We can accept as fact many of the concerns raised about transgenic food crops. But all are even truer about everything else that we eat, including "organic" produce. There is a litany of all the evils that have resulted from transgenic products but none of them have withstood scientific scrutiny and peer-reviewed publication. Next time you are assaulted with horror stories about transgenic products, ask to see the peer-reviewed literature and not the usual vanity press publications.
Most critics are silent on the many benefits of ribosomal DNA. Starting with insulin in 1982, an increasing number of our most important pharmaceuticals are either the product of transgenics or developed using transgenic mice, or both. Bt maize -- maize designed to resist insects -- produces a measurably safer crop that is less infested with fusarium ear rot and deadly mycotoxins (called fumonisins) that the fungus produces.
The yield gains from reduced crop loss means that less land has to be brought under cultivation leaving more land for wildlife and biodiversity. This follows on the allegedly "failed" Green Revolution which allowed the world to accommodate a doubling of world population from 1960 to 2000 by increasing food production 2.7 times with only a 7 percent increase in land under cultivation.
Despite its critics, transgenics clearly represents progress in agriculture.
DeGregori is a professor of economics, a member of the Board of Directors of the American Council on Science and Health and the author of Bountiful
Harvest: Technology, Food Safety, and the Environment and Origins of the Organic Agriculture Debate.
On Conway's Commentary: Is the Gene Flow Risky?
- Sivramiah Shantharam
I was really pleased to read a balanced article by Gordon Conway on whether biotech will help the poor in the African context. But, I take issue with his point that risk of gene flow is a real one. There has never been any risk associated with natural gene flow and gene flow from all plants including GM crops is given. Gene flow by and in itself is not a risk all. Genes will flow as in the past and must flow and thank heavens for it. Gene flow will enhance our genetic biodiversity.
The important risk question is the consequence of such a gene flow (the so called "so what?" question). When pollen travels, it does not necessarily mean genes get transferred. For an effective gene transfer to take place, the pollen has to find a compatible receptacle, followed by fertilization, formation of fertile hybrid, introgress, inherited in a stable manner, and be selected in nature for the gene to survive in the new plant and start showing its effects (gene expression). All this requires environmental selection pressure in the wild and that is not so easy to come by. If not, the gene will get diluted in subsequent generations and will not be traceable following the tenets of population dilution.
Time and time again this question of gene flow has been raised and addressed with best possible scientific knowledge and evidence, and to resurrect this repeatedly will serve nobody's purpose. This issue must be put to an end. The basic question is "so what", and the answer is "so nothing". By using common sense, one can easily answer this question. If gene flow would have destroyed biodiversity, why it did not do so all these years when new hybrids and varieties were being cultivated all over the world. This gene flow issue is a non-issue in the modern agricultural eco-system.
Yes, biodiversity is under serious threat, not because of natural gene flow, because of habitat destruction and recent evidence suggesting that global warming is posing a looming threat to further erosion of biodiversity. That is why nations of the world should pay serious attention to Kyoto protocol to cut down global warming activities and stop playing international politics with the future of the planet.
The issue of antibiotic marker gene has been another nagging problem that does not seem to go away. As a matter of general information to specialists and non-specialists, it should be noted that antibiotic resistance genes evolved with antibiotic coding genes. The antibiotic organism developed a self protecting system by evolving antibiotic resistance genes and they are spread all over. That is how millions of organisms survive in the world against hostile attack.
A fifteen year old study by the Michigan State University School of Microbial Ecology did a survey of the spread of antibiotic resistance genes from all parts of the world including from virgin soils (believe it or not still there are some virgin soils left on this planet). Guess what, antibiotic endogenous level of antibiotic resistance was found in all those organisms. Antibiotic resistance is ubiquitous, but it is a serious problem in clinical environment, but not in crop ecosystem. In fact, it is not the antibiotic marker gene that is a problem, but it is the use of antibiotics (selection pressure) that is a problem. Yes, there is a technological fix to this perceived non-scientific problem. One can get rid of the antibiotic marker gene after the selection of transformed cells or use an environmentally benign markers. But, antibiotic marker genes were never a biosafety issue in GM crops.
Yes, I fully agree with Gordon Conway that Africans must themselves decide what they want. But, it is too late. All sorts of interlocutors have already entrenched themselves on the scene and have confused many African governments. It is really difficult to extricate Africa from this situation. Another important fact of the matter is that public awareness about biotechnology is confused at best and dismal at worst. I am not sure what kind of informed decision the general pubic can make under the circumstances. This situation is much the same in Asia although it is making progress.
USAID to Spend N400m on Nigeria Biotechnology Development
- Crusoe Osagie, This Day, Nigeria, May 4, 2004 http://allafrica.com/stories/200405040182.html
The United States Agency for International Development USAID is to invest over N400 million [appr. 2,545,000 EUR] in the development of Biotechnology in Nigeria.
In a memorandum of understanding between the Federal government of Nigeria, the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, IITA, and USAID signed yesterday in Abuja, the agency will be providing the said funds within the period of three years to establish a Foundation for Nigeria to take advantage of biotechnology to improve agriculture.
The Minister of Science and Technology professor Turner Isoun who signed the MOU on behalf of the federal government of Nigeria explained that biotechnology in the near future will be the principal technology that will be the scale against which the nations development will be measured.
Isoun who also spoke during the opening ceremony of the International Workshop titled Facilitating the Biotechnology potentials in West Africa organized by the National Biotechnology Development Agency, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, and Tuskegee University with the sponsorship of the United States Agency for International Development which preceeded the MOU signing, explained that any nation that does not take advantage of biotechnology now will pay the price of a significant technological set back in the near future.
Modified Crops and Hunger in Africa
- C. S. Prakash, This Day, Nigeria, May 3, 2004
Dr. Norman Borlaug, the architect of the Green Revolution and Nobel Laureate keeps reminding us that "People talk about the potential of the sub-Sahara region of Africa. Yes, the potential is there. But you can't eat potential."
The farm productivity has increased in Africa on par with the rest of the world, but the higher rate of population growth in this continent necessitates an urgency of need to increase the food production. Already, the rate of malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa is among the worst in the world and is expected to reach catastrophic proportions unless food production and access be enhanced dramatically within the next decade.
In many African countries, agriculture is the backbone of the economy employing most of its people and contributing to a major share of its GDP and exports. Thus, an improvement in agricultural productivity is vital to ensure the prosperity of its rural sector but also to make food abundant and affordable for all.
Biotechnology represents a frontier advance in agricultural science with far-reaching potential in uplifting African food production in an environmentally sustainable manner. Biotechnology represents a powerful tool that we can employ now in concert with many other traditional approaches in increasing food production in the face of diminishing land and water resources. Crops enhanced through modern biotechnology are now grown on nearly 160 million acres in 16 countries. More than three quarters of the 5.5 million growers who benefit from bioengineered crops are resource-poor farmers in the developing world.
The productivity of most African farms is limited by crop pests and diseases. African cassava farmers typically lose 60 percent of their crop to mosaic virus. Sweetpotato yields in many African nations are dangerously low -- in some cases losing up to 80 ppercent of expected yields - due to the sweetpotato weevil and also the feathery mottle virus (SPFMV). And the European corn borer likewise destroys approximately seven percent, or 40 million tons, of the world's corn crop every year - equivalent to the annual food supply, in calories, for 60 million people. Banana and plantains are seriously threatened with a fungal 'Sigatoka' disease.
Biotechnology is working to solve these problems by producing plants that resist these pests and diseases. Biotech corn, which is already widely used now in South Africa, produces its own protection against the corn borer. Research is under way on sweetpotatoes that produce their own protection against SPFMV (yes, sweetpotato. See http://www.ahbfi.org/sweetpress1.htm - csp), as well as beans, cassava and other staple foods with enhanced natural tolerance to diseases, pests, and physical stresses.
Biotechnology is also helping to develop more nutritious strains of staple crops. Researchers have been working to develop varieties of cassava that more efficiently absorb trace metals and micronutrients from the soil, have enhanced starch quality and contain more beta-carotene and other beneficial vitamins and minerals. "Golden rice" that contains increased amounts of iron and beta carotene (a precursor of Vitamin A) could be on the world market within a few years. This new rice could help more than 100 million children worldwide who suffer from vitamin A deficiency, the developing world's leading cause of blindness, as well as some 400 million women of childbearing age who are iron-deficient. Iron deficiency places a new born baby's at risk of physical and mental retardation, premature birth and death.
Biotechnology could well help to prevent these maladies and others by producing more healthful, nutritious crops. Research is already underway on fruits and vegetables that could one day deliver life-saving vaccines - such as a banana that could soon deliver the vaccine for Hepatitis B, and a potato that provides immunization against the Norwalk virus - making it possible to inoculate against deadly diseases with locally grown crops that are easy to handle, distribute and administer. helping African farmers produce more nutritious crops, biotechnology can also help sustain the land's ability to support continued farming. By developing crops that more efficiently absorb nutrients from the soil, biotechnology can help farmers produce more on land already under cultivation, and may reduce the need for costly inputs such as fertilizer and non-renewable resources, such as oil and natural gas. Biotech crops that require less tilling may help to decrease soil erosion. And the development of plants that can grow in tough conditions, such as drought, or dry or poor soil, may make it easier to farm marginal lands, helping to keep fragile soils such as wetlands and rainforests out of food production. Success in these studies will have tremendous implications in addressing food security in Africa.
The late Dr. John Wafula of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute
(Kari) said: "The need for biotechnology in Africa is very clear. The use of high-yielding, disease-resistant and pest-resistant crops would have a direct bearing on improved food security, poverty alleviation and environmental conservation in Africa."
Among the biggest threats to realizing biotechnology's promise are restrictive policies stemming from unwarranted public fears. Anti- biotechnology campaigners in both industrialized and less developed nations are feeding this ambivalence with scare stories that have led to the adoption of restrictive policies. Those fears are simply not supported by the scores of peer reviewed scientific reports or the data from tens of thousands of individual field trials. As the then Nigeria's minister of agricultural and rural development Hassan Adamu wrote in the Washington
Post: "To deny desperate, hungry people the means to control their futures by presuming to know what is best for them is not only paternalistic but morally wrong if we want to have the opportunity to save the lives of millions of people and change to course of history in many nations." Failing that, Adamu warns, "The harsh reality is that, without the help of agricultural biotechnology, many will not live."
Of course, hunger and malnutrition are not solely caused by a shortage of food. The cause of hunger has been due to a multitude of reasons such as skewed policies, poor transportation and infrastructure and, of course, poverty. All of these problems must be addressed if we are to ensure food security in Africa and we cannot afford to ignore the tremendous value offered by biotechnology to help us in this effort.
Prakash is a professor of Plant Biotechnology at Tuskegee University, Alabama, USA
Africa Wrestles with Grim Choice
- Robert Scalia, The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec), May 7, 2004
'Subsistence farmers are in desperate need of ways to grow enough food to feed themselves, yet their crops are ravaged by pests and disease. One solution might be genetically modified crops, but many say that's no solution at all'
Sam Musoke knows what his people will and will not eat. Like many farmers in central Uganda, Musoke doesn't use chemical pesticides. Instead, he prefers manure and mulched tobacco leaves to fertilize the red arid soil on his 10-hectare commercial farm in Nsangi District, where banana, mango and avocado trees grow in fenced plots.
But fences designed to keep his farm animals out have proved useless against the various pests and viruses that continue to ravage his crops - a problem that has plagued many subsistence farms in the region.
Musoke says these poor farmers can hardly produce enough food for themselves, let alone for profit. Manure and pesticides are costly. Farmers want solutions, even if that means plant-ing genetically modified crops. "Farmers will not refuse crops because they are genetically modified," he said. "But if the food doesn't taste the same, people will reject it."
Like most African countries, Uganda forbids planting GM crops on its soil for either research or commercial purposes. Politicians, exporters and consumers believe GM crops could threaten the country's organic sector, which has found a very lucrative market in Europe. So farmers like Musoke have to contend with various insect-resistant strains (hybrids) developed through conventional cross breeding by the Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute, Uganda's leading research body.
Musoke has planted several cassava hybrids resistant to the infamous cassava mosaic, a virus that has ravaged crops across eastern Africa. But these strains take far longer to grow and taste bitter, which hasn't made them popular with the locals. And he still lost nearly 40 per cent of his cassava crop last year. "The average person eats what is tasty and easy to prepare. If these varieties are not palatable, then I won't waste my time with them," Musoke said.
It has been said of Africa that beggars can't be choosers. The Bush administration made that very argument in late 2002 after famine-stricken Zambia announced it would not accept any GM grain from the United States, where almost 80 per cent of food contains genetically modified organisms. Angola recently did the same.
The Ugandan government's decision to allow GM food imports after last year's whirlwind African tour by U.S. President George W. Bush came as a shock to its east African neighbours and has outraged local farmers.
Nongovernmental organizations have also weighed in on the debate. Wednesday, more than 60 NGOs from 15 African countries accused the World Food Program and the U.S. Agency for International Development of effectively forcing African countries to accept GM food aid against their will.
The United States, meanwhile, continues to accuse anti-GM lobbyists and the European Union for impeding its efforts to reduce hunger in Africa. Shooting down calls for more long-term health and environmental testing, the United States insists any food good enough for its own people is good enough for Africans.
In Kenya, where erratic rains have left an estimated 2 million people without food, discussions on the long-term repercussions of GM run parallel to concerns about hunger. "People who are starving don't care either way," explained Philippe Guiton, the Africa relief manager for World Vision. "They are dying now. But we need to take all precautions. What's the use of saving people's lives today to have them die tomorrow?"
The World Health Organization might have deemed GM foods safe for consumption, but Guiton would like to see more long-term testing. And although he applauds Kenya's decision to accept all food aid, he said he believes the government has become too focused on GM research funded by the United States and international biotech giants.
Florence Wambugu of A Harvest Biotech Foundation International denies her native Kenya has been dragged into this global showdown. "Nobody in Africa is going to use these technologies because the Americans or Europeans tell them to," she said with slight irritation. "Our group's vision is to fight hunger, poverty and malnutrition. We need to get science working for the poor."
Climate isn't the only cause of famine in Kenya. It is estimated the stem borer pest alone destroys nearly 15 per cent of the country's staple yellow maize crops every year. In 1991, Wambugu pioneered research into a GM sweet potato strain for Kenya at Monsanto's laboratory in St. Louis. While a skeptical media has proclaimed the ensuing three-year field trials a failure, the Kenya Research Agricultural Institute is pushing forward with similar trials for insect-resistant Bt Maize, funded in part by USAID. Wambugu said she believes no Kenyan farmer would refuse GM seeds if they would bring higher yields.
That doesn't mean GM crops are African agriculture's silver bullet. Providing loans to small farmers, fixing roads and creating regional markets for future surpluses are all vital, she said. "There is no one technology that will end hunger. I don't know why this argument is pushed in Africa."
Alwyn Botha has taken the plunge. Standing beside six-foot-high plants, the South African farmer explained why he decided to plant almost 60 hectares of Syngenta's Bt Maize. "In the end, your yields are your profit," he explained. "When stem borer hits, you can lose big time."
Although South Africa is one of the few African countries to have commercialized GM crops, Botha said many subsistence farmers refuse to part with tradition. "They actually wait for the rains. If their yields aren't good, it doesn't bother them. But there won't be enough for them to live off. If they can start using these genes, they would benefit in the end," he said.
The seeds are more expensive, Botha said, but he is saving on costly pesticides and insecticides. Still, only his animals consume the transgenic maize. South Africans eat white maize, for which no GM varieties are available. Botha is confident GM will not be an issue in 20 years, but he admitted he is always at the mercy of the consumer.
That's why Theresa Sengooba believes taste and technology must go hand in hand. "It's so difficult to get people to change their eating habits," explained the co-ordinator for biotechnology research at KARI in Uganda, using the various banana hybrids her institution pioneered as an example. "People will say: 'Yes, it is big and produces more. But that's not what I eat.' "
That's why Sengooba believes genetic modification - if accepted in Uganda
- might be the only way to create resistant strains that people will also enjoy. Once scientists are able to identify genes that can ward off the weevils or black sogatoga virus that destroy banana yields in the region, those specific genes could then be inserted into local varieties. That same procedure could also be used to improve beans, sorghum, passion fruit, sweet potato and ground nuts.
"What farmers look for is resistant varieties - I don't think he really cares if it's GM or hybrid. Still, we don't want them to say we are shoving GM down their throats. All Ugandans better have the luxury to choose," she said. And that's exactly why Sam Musoke takes umbrage with the U.S. position. "They're not saying we should have GM because it's good for us, but only because we need it."
But, if a GM cassava resistant to the virus were developed tomorrow, Musoke said, he would be the first to plant it. "As long as there are no side effects. "
Daily battle to survive
Jedidiah Kyagulanyi, a Christian missionary and executive director of the Bread of Life Mission, has been engaged in community development in Nsangi District of Uganda for more than 25 years."How do you think this homestead can survive?" Kyagulanyi asked, standing in a garden where banana plants are literally rotting away from weevils and Panama disease.
Kyagulanyi had banked on producing enough bananas, mangoes and papayas to sell to the local market. Instead, he barely produces enough for himself. Manure and mulched tobacco leaves would increase productivity and ward of pests, but he can no longer afford either.
"There is a saying here that if you want to be rich, you have to grow your own food. But what you put in the land is what you get out of it. And we are fighting a losing battle."
The Costly Fraud That Is Organic Food
'Its main contribution will be to sustain poverty and malnutrition'
- Dick Taverne, The Guardian, May 6, 2004 http://www.guardian.co.uk/food/Story/0,2763,1210584,00.html
Organic farming is a billion-pound industry. It is promoted by a stream of propaganda from green lobby groups, notably the Soil Association, and subsidised by government. Supermarkets like it because premium prices increase profits. Every lifestyle magazine regards organic food as synonymous with healthy living and every TV chef tells us that organic food tastes better. To question claims made by the organic lobby is not just akin to doubting the virtues of motherhood, but to reveal indifference to the poi perhaps even to be guilty of corruption by American multinationals and of support for George Bush.
The organic movement was inspired by the mysticism of Rudolf Steiner, who believed in planting according to the phases of the moon, enriching the soil through cowhorns stuffed with entrails, and who taught that chemical fertilisers damage the brain. It is based on the belief that nature knows best and science is dangerous.
The SA has argued that organic farming cannot be judged by scientific criteria because "the current tools of scientific understanding are not sufficiently developed" to measure its virtues. It seizes on any findings, however flimsy, that seem to confirm its claims and dismisses any contradictory evidence as irrelevant, prejudiced or influenced by the biotechnology industry.
It has bitterly denounced the Food Standards Agency, an impartial body set up by government to safeguard our welfare, which refuses to endorse the claims made for organic food. Only in January the agency declared that "on the basis of curren tevidence ... organic food is not significantly different in terms of food safety and nutrition from food produced conventionally".
It is claimed that organic food is more natural and that its reliance on natural chemicals makes it safer than food grown with the help of synthetic ones. This is nonsense. There is nothing wholesome about natural chemicals like ricin or aflatoxin or botulinum toxin, or especially dangerous about synthetic chemicals like the sulphonamides, isoniazid that cures TB, or the painkiller paracetamol.
We are told we should eat organic food because pesticide residues harm us. As the FSA has pointed out, there is a disparity between public fears and the facts. Dietary contributions to cardiovascular disease and cancer probably account for more than 100,000 deaths a year; food poisoning for between 50 and 300. There are no known deaths from pesticide residues (or GM foods). A cup of coffee contains natural carcinogens equal to at least a year's worth of carcinogenic synthetic residues in the diet. If peopl are worried about the effect of pesticides in farming on wildlife or human health, they should promote pesticide-resistant GM crops, which reduce their use.
It is said that organic food tastes better. Yes, if it is fresh. But blind tests have shown fresh organic food tastes no better than fresh food grown conventionally. Furthermore, about 70% of organic food is imported and is not fresh, and since it is imported by air, it is not exactly environmentally friendly.
It is said that organic farming benefits wildlife. True, many people become organic farmers for environmental reasons, and achieve their aim. But studies show that environmental effects depend on the style of management, not the system of farming. In general, integrated farm management achieves the best results. What is most beneficial to birds and wildlife is low-till farming, which is made possible by cultivating GM crops. Organic farmers depend on the plough, which disturbs the ecology of the soil, rele out nesting birds.
Even if most claims made for organic farming could be substantiated, its main disadvantage is its inefficiency. Organic food costs more because average yields are 20-50% lower than those from conventional farms. Its inefficiency is highly relevant to the hungry and the poor.
While there may be food surpluses in some areas, we need to treble food production in the next 50 years to feed 3 billion extra people and meet higher living standards at the same time. We face an increasing shortage of water and of good agricultural land. In many places the only way inefficient organic farmers can feed an expanding population is by cutting down more tropical forest. Every form of technology that increases efficiency in farming will therefore be needed to contribute to the production of more food.
What contribution can organic farming make? In the words of the Indian biologist CJ Prakash (sic), its only contribution to sustainable agriculture will be "to sustain poverty and malnutrition".
Lord Taverne is chair of Sense About Science, and author of The March of Unreason, to be published in November
Whither the Flavr Savr Tomato? Fruits of Biotechnology Struggle to Emerge
- Pamela Kan-Rice, California Agriculture magazine; AScribe Newswire, May 6, 2004
The first genetically engineered crop to be sold in supermarkets was the Flavr Savr tomato in 1994. But a decade later no biotech tomatoes are for sale in the United States, nor are virtually any other biotech horticultural crops. Why have genetically engineered field crops -- such as soybeans, corn, canola and cotton -- been wildly successful, each capturing large market shares, while biotech horticultural crops have all but disappeared?
Peer-reviewed articles published in the April-June 2004 issue of the University of California's California Agriculture journal explore the reasons why genetically engineered field [also called "agronomic"] crops have succeeded in the U.S. market, while the commercialization of horticultural crops has virtually ground to a halt. Field testing of horticultural crops -- including fruits, vegetables, nuts and ornamentals
-- has plummeted. In 1999, 374 field-test permits or notifications were filed for biotech horticultural crops; in 2003, the number was 94. By contrast, during the same period field permits for biotech cotton, corn and soybeans remained steady at about 500 annually.
The April-June 2004 California Agriculture can be downloaded at http://californiaagriculture.ucop.edu/pressroom.html. For a hard copy, e-mail pamela.kan-rice@ucop.
"There are numerous examples of biotech horticultural crops that have performed well in the laboratory and in field tests, but have never been brought to market or were removed from the market after commercialization," says Kent Bradford, director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at UC Davis, and faculty co-chair of the 64-page California Agriculture issue. These include fungus-resistant strawberries, virus-resistant pumpkins and potatoes, and "trap crops" for tree fruits and nuts. Trap crops divert insect pests from the main crops.
The April-June 2004 California Agriculture delves into the myriad reasons for this phenomenon, including: Horticultural crops consist of numerous, diverse varieties [such as dozens of kinds of lettuce], which increases research and development costs. Field crops, by contrast, often have fewer varieties that are planted over larger acreages. Too few acres of horticultural crops are planted to make the business model profitable for large life-sciences companies, as opposed to millions of acres planted in field crops. Each gene-insertion "event" -- even in different varieties of the same crop -- must receive separate regulatory approval from three U.S. government agencies, an expensive and time-consuming process.
Commodity groups have been hesitant to pursue genetically engineered varieties, which they often believe may jeopardize sales of non-biotech varieties. Intellectual property rights for genetically engineered crops are owned by many different people and firms, and are difficult to acquire. Most basic research on biotech horticultural crops is conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and land-grant universities, which generally do not have the resources to gather and negotiate the necessary patents and other rights. Another factor affecting genetically engineered crops is that those that have been successfully commercialized focus on traits that benefit growers, such as insect resistance or herbicide tolerance. The next generation of transgenic traits may be more consumer-oriented, including improved nutritional value or taste -- potentially attractive in the marketplace.
Also, while transgenic field crops may be used as food ingredients [such as oils and meals that may go unnoticed], transgenic horticultural crops are sold and eaten whole, often involving conscious consumer choices.
Other news angles in the April-June 2004 California Agriculture: A review of consumer-survey research to date finds that most consumers are ignorant about agricultural biotechnology, but those who know about it are evenly split for and against, with a small group being vehemently opposed. In surveys, most consumers say they would prefer that biotech foods be labeled. China is aggressively pursuing biotechnology research for its agriculture, including horticultural crops. A new national consortium of land-grant universities and government agencies, called the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture [PIPRA], seeks to address the intellectual property difficulties by pooling resources; the $1 million initiative will be head quartered at UC Davis.
Making GM Foods Publicly Acceptable
- Crop Biotech Update, Isaaa.org
Making agricultural biotechnology publicly acceptable is complex and involves more than just communicating their benefits. So says Gene Rowe of the Institute of Food Research in Norwich, United Kingdom.
In a paper entitled “How can genetically modified foods be made publicly acceptable?”, Rowe said that the general public in different countries are not identical in their support of, or opposition to, GM foods and crops. For example, the European public is less enthusiastic about the contribution of technology to daily life than the North American public who has a relatively greater confidence in the benefits of agri-biotech.
People's perception of “risk” also vary and is complicated by the perceptual multidimensionality of the concept according to Rowe. For example, if perceptions of the risks related to any potential hazard or technology are sufficiently high, no amount of benefits are liable to make it acceptable. People might also judge a technology to be risky if they or scientists know little about it.
Rowe added that technology advocates need to consider the issue of trust. “Information on benefits and risks must come from a source, and if that source is distrusted it matters little how full or persuasive their information is.
See the full article in Trends in Biotechnology (Vol. 22, No. 3, March 2004). The journal is available online at http://www.sciencedirect.com.
When Functional Foods Collide With Infamous GMOs
- Jolene Thym, Alameda Times-Star, April 28, 2004
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not just frowned upon. They're not a little bit controversial. In many circles, they're denounced, considered unnatural, unknown and unwelcome. But not everyone is opposed to the idea.
Inside the laboratories at University of California, Berkeley, and UC Davis, dozens of researchers are determined to learn how to make the world's food more nutritious, more digestible and easier to produce.
Peggy Lemaux of University of California, Berkeley, has been tinkering with the nutritional details of grains since 1993. She recently developed a strain of allergen-free wheat. "We as scientists are always looking for ways to use science to help people. It's really nice, as an academic, to know that what you do helps someone."
The wheat project, she says, required years of careful study. "Our goal for the wheat project was to modify the natural system that exists in every organism that is capable of disarming allergies," she says. "The reason people are allergic to wheat is that the proteins keep themselves in tight little balls, so the allergens stay intact, which allows them to attack. "We wanted to find out how to let the protein around the allergens relax, which keeps the allergens from presenting themselves to the immune system."
The allergen-free wheat has yet to be planted in a field, mainly because it was funded by a small company that doesn't have the financial backing to launch a new product. A single gene-modification, she says, costs between $500,000 and $1 million for the regulatory tests alone.
What Lemaux learned working with wheat could be tried with rice and many other grains. But she doesn't believe an allergen-free peanut can be developed. Since completing the wheat project, Lemaux has embraced another grain, sorghum. Her goal is to increase the digestibility of sorghum, which has the potential of improving health in impoverished areas of Africa, where sorghum is the primary food. "Since only 70 percent of the nutrition in sorghum is digestible, we believe it could make a huge difference to the well being of the population."
The modification, she says, involves adding lysine to the lineup of amino acids in the grain, making it a complete spectrum. That project is funded
by U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID.) Lemaux says she is
fully aware that even if she is successful, not everyone will applaud her efforts. "People have a built-in suspicion of, which is understandable," she says. "The other half of my job is to travel to the farms and to answer questions. I spend a lot of time in Mendocino County."
Lemaux isn't sure when or if GMOs will be widely accepted here in the U.S., but she says there are signs of acceptance in Europe. "There is a beer maker in the Netherlands who is planning to market a beer and to use the fact that it's made with genetically modified grain as a kind of gimmick."
Lemaux says another serious challenge in food research is knowing what exactly to research next. "The one thing we can't do is chase after the problem of the day. We can't chase after trans-fats because that's what people are talking about now. It could change tomorrow. "We also have to consider whether we understand enough about a food and how it benefits the body to make any changes."
One of the most exciting innovations in food science, she says, is being developed at the University of California, Davis, through a program called "Nutranomics." "They are working on a program that will analyze a person's genes, then define their exact nutritional needs." Armed with a menu defining what they should and should not eat, people could conceivably eat their way around a range of diseases, including heart disease, some types of diabetes, obesity, and perhaps even cancer.
"It's an exciting project ... that answers the question that all of these functional foods address, which is, 'What should I eat to improve my health?'"
India: Experts Flay Swaminathan Panel Recommendations On GM Crops
- Ashok B Sharma, Financial Express (India), May 2, 2004 http://www.financialexpress.com/fe_full_story.php?content_id=58327
'Committee's Suggestions For Clearance By Farm Ministry, ICAR, Pending The Formation Of ABRA Comes In For Sharp Criticism'
The novel system of single window clearance for commercial use of genetically modified (GM) crops as suggested by MS Swaminathan panel has been severely criticised by experts. The panel's suggestion for final clearance by the user and promoter agencies like the Union agriculture ministry and Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), pending setting up of the autonomous Agricultural Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (ABRA) has also come in for sharp criticism.
The Swaminathan panel has sought to reduce the powers of the existing regulator, Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) under the Union environment ministry "to mere environmental clearance," vesting the powers for final clearance to ICAR and the agriculture ministry.
The NGOs, namely Greenpeace and the Gene Campaign who were consulted in the process of the deliberations have complained about not receiving the final report while it has already been presented to the government.
The former regulator for GM crops in US, Dr Sivramiah (Shanthu) Shantharam, though welcoming the Swaminathan panel moving in the right direction to set up an autonomous regulatory authority for GM crops, has doubted to what extent the process would be autonomous in the interim arrangement vesting final clearance with the ICAR. He said, "I am not certain how autonomous it would be under the aegis of ICAR which itself is an organ of the Union ministry of agriculture. In effect, the GM crops regulatory authority moves from one ministry to another with all its problems. There is a serious conflict of interest with ICAR as it will also be an applicant for regulatory clearance."
Dr Shantharam further said, "Swaminathan panel also leaves behind the environmental clearance with GEAC. This cannot work very well in reality and will not be practical. How can the regulatory body give commercial clearance without having the authority for environmental clearance? Both the decision making powers must vest with one body."
The Swaminathan panel's recommendation for single window clearance by ABRA is unique so far as such an arrangement exists nowhere in the world. Even in countries like US, the clearances are through three-tier process. Worldover, the user and promoter agencies are not vested with the authority for clearance. But the panel report has vested such powers with ICAR and the Union agriculture ministry. Experts have started casting doubts about the efficacy of such a single-window system of clearance and having a separate regulator solely for transgenic crops.
The Convenor of Gene Campaign, Dr Sumam Sahai, who participated in the panel discussions, however, welcomed the need for "overhauling the regulatory system from its present apalling state" She said "after repeated unsuccessful attempts to engage in dialogue with the government on transparency, access to information and public participation and after the department of biotechnology (DBT) rebutted every single recommendation that emerged from a national multistakeholder symposium on GM technology, Gene Campaign filed a PIL in the Supreme Court asking for formulation of a national policy on transgenic technology and overhaul of the regulatory system."
She said, "the proposed mechanism for segregating GM and non-GM crops by zones does not appear to be feasible." She cited instances of contamination of native corn in Mexico by GM corn and also the proliferation of illegal Bt cotton seeds in many parts of the country. Therefore, "the only way for protecting native germplasm from foreign genes with likely negative impact, like herbicide tolerance, is to disallow the GM version of that particular crop."
Dr Sahai said "given the fact GM technology has implications for life forms unlike other technologies and that there are social, economic and ethical concerns associated with it, it would be wise to set up a National Bioethics Commission to steward this technology with responsibility and sensivity." She also came down heavily on the report of the working group on agriculture headed by the former secretary, RCA Jain. She alleged that this taskforce has recommended that once a transgene is tested for biosafety in a particular crop it need not undergo tests while implanted in other crops. She said this is a "dangerous suggestion"
The scientific advisor with Greenpeace India, Dr Ashesh Tayal, who also participated in panel deliberations, alleged "the panel has clearly deviated from its orginal responsibility to formulate a long-term biotechnology policy which was the main task. Instead it focussed on administrative changes as the main role. The panel has even gone overboard defining the qualifications of the person who shall head the proposed ABRA.'
He further said, "the panel has suggested changes in modalities of operation but the three-tier system remain the same in a more complicated form. It has not clarified how this system proposes the reduction in timeframe without compromising the biosafety aspects. The panel has totally overlooked the needs of toxicological and other biosafety studies of new constructs. It has also gone beyond its responsibility to define what shall be approved and why, while this is the responsibility of the scientific community to define what shall be approved."
Dr Tayal alleged : "the panel has vaciliated between its role of scientific expertise and administrative expertise. The panel though initially constituted as administrative role has defined more of scientific do's in the report. I doubt if the panel had enough scientific expertise to do that !"
He said that the panel has suggested to reduce the role of GEAC to only environmental clearance of the construct while under present situation GEAC has also to look after environmental impact. "ICAR has been asked to replace GEAC for this role and do the evaluation of value of cultivation and use (VCU). How this process will reduce the time to approve GM crops is not spelt out", he quipped and added that the report does not specify how many years of field trials should be conducted.
Dr Tayal alleged that the report does not fixes accountability. It does not say what the government should do the proliferation of resistance in bollworm due to Bt toxin and who will ensure biosafety and monitor environmental impact.
India: Industry Federation Proposes Three-Stage Reform Process for Transgenic Technology
'Also Proposes Drastic Amendments To Existing Rules, Asks For Relaxed Rules'
- Ashok B Sharma, Financial Express (India), May 2, 2004 http://www.financialexpress.com/fe_full_story.php?content_id=38325
The apex industry body in the country, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) has proposed to the government for undertaking three-tier reforms for accelerating the growth of nascent transgenic technology.
While welcoming the decision of the Union environment ministry to constitute a task force for suggesting biotechnology applications in the pharma sector it has demanded amendments to rules framed under Environment Protection Act (EPA), 1986 for facilitating the growth of transgenic technology.
The Union environment ministry has recently constituted a 12-member taskforce headed by the director-general of Council for Industrial and Scientific Research (CISR), Dr RA Mashelkar to recommend a transparent, streamlined regulatory mechanism and process for use of living modified organism (LMOs) in the pharma industry during various stages of R&D, testing, manufacture and use. The panel will also recommend regulatory process and mechanism for import of LMOs.
FICCI contests the rules for parallel testing GMOs, cells or micro-organisms by GEAC that are generated or used in the industry. It feels that the permission and approval for use of products and substances which contain GMOs, cells or micro-organisms should only be applicable for 'hazardous ones'. Instead of the GEAC approval on case by case basis of substances and products containing GMOs, cells or micro-organisms for use in food industry, a positive list of GM ingredients for food should be evolved based on scientific discussions with all stakeholders. The grant of approval in relation to rules 8 to 11 should be for an extended period of seven to 10 years, subject to periodic filing of reports by the occupier on activities conducted over a period of time.
South State City Falls for Web Hoax on Water
- Associated Press, Mar. 15, 2004
ALISO VIEJO - City officials were so concerned about the potentially dangerous properties of dihydrogen monoxide that they considered banning foam cups after they learned the chemical was used in their production.
Then they learned that dihydrogen monoxide -- H2O for short -- is the scientific term for water.
"It's embarrassing," said City Manager David J. Norman. "We had a paralegal who did bad research."
The paralegal apparently fell victim to one of the many official looking Web sites that have been put up by pranksters to describe dihydrogen monoxide as "an odorless, tasteless chemical" that can be deadly if accidentally inhaled.
As a result, the City Council of this Orange County suburb had been scheduled to vote this week on a proposed law that would have banned the use of foam containers at city-sponsored events.
Among the reasons given for the ban were that they were made with a substance that could "threaten human health and safety."