Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - May 12, 2004:
* Biotech foods keep coming despite Monsanto setback
* GM wheat 'delayed, not abandoned'
* Syngenta says no plans to halt GM wheat programme
* GM maize – Questions and Answers
* Govt's zero tolerance on GM not working
* EU approve GMO, battle ahead
Biotech foods keep coming despite Monsanto setback
- Reuters, By By Carey Gillam, May 12, 2004
Move over Roundup Ready wheat. Here comes the biotech banana.
While opponents of genetically modified, or GMO, crops and foods around the world celebrated Monsanto Co.'s decision on Monday to shelve its launch of the world's first GMO wheat, food industry analysts note that other biotech food crops continue to edge closer to commercialization.
Next in line is Syngenta, a Basel, Switzerland-based seed and biotech crop-engineering company that rivals Monsanto. The company has its own GMO wheat variety slated for release as early as 2007. It also has a genetically modified banana it plans to launch in 2006.
Syngenta says it is undeterred because its biotech projects have more of a consumer and food company appeal. Monsanto's wheat is dubbed Roundup Ready because it would allow farmers to spray Roundup weedkiller on fields without hurting the crop, but it would offer no benefit to the consumer.
"In the olden days, we were selling the benefits of biotech crops to farmers," said Syngenta spokesman Chris Novak. "Today you do need to be able to communicate that there is a benefit to the technology beyond what farmers may be getting. You need to be talking to the food companies as well as consumers."
Indeed, food industry officials said on Tuesday that the acceptance of GMO foods is less a question of science than it is of marketing.
"How consumers see the benefits affecting them is what will make the difference," said Stephanie Childs, spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America.
GMO fruits and veggies
The GMO successes to date have been seen in just a few crops, including soybeans, corn, canola and cotton.
Those crops have been modified to resist insects, diseases and weedkillers, but are mainly used to produce animal feeds, food additives, industrial compounds or fiber.
But if it makes it into the marketplace, Syngenta's "stay ripe" banana — genetically engineered to ripen slowly — would join a handful of GMO crops specifically targeted for direct human consumption.
A GMO papaya is a fruit already available on grocers' stands. It was engineered by Cornell University and the University of Hawaii to resist the ringspot plant disease. Genetically modified squash is also already on store shelves.
Still in the product pipeline is a GMO tomato engineered with a yeast gene to improve juice quality and vine life by specialists at Purdue University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Scientists are also tinkering with strawberries, lettuce and other fruits and vegetables.
"There is a lot of stuff out there," said Lisa Dry, a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
Biotech fruits and vegetables may have an easier path to acceptance because as whole foods they can be easily segregated from conventional offerings.
Wheat, on the other hand, is usually blended for protein, gluten and other traits sought by flour millers. So it would have been nearly impossible to keep biotech wheat segregated from conventional supplies, grain handlers had said.
That fact helped doom Monsanto's plan as some key foreign buyers like Japan said they would not buy any U.S. wheat at all if Monsanto released its biotech wheat into the countryside. U.S. farmers were also very reluctant to take that risk.
Syngenta's efforts to introduce its transgenic wheat are expected to encounter similar problems as anti-biotech forces are already lined up against the product.
"Any genetically modified wheat carries with it the same issues. We're going to have the same problem," said Todd Leake, a spokesman for the Western Organizations Resource Council, a seven-state coalition of farmers and environmentalists.
Syngenta halted field trials in Germany earlier this month after biotech activists destroyed the firm's test plots there.
"Hopefully those who favor biotech wheat will take this chance to develop the customer acceptance component that has to be found before anything is released," said North American Millers' Association vice president Jim Bair. "Clearly, the market wasn't ready for Monsanto's."
GM wheat 'delayed, not abandoned'
- BBC News, By Alex Kirby, May 12, 2004
US grain markets depend on Europe
Both sides in the bitterly contested debate over genetically modified crops are making the utmost of Monsanto's decision to stop marketing GM wheat.
The biotech industry maintains this is simply a deferment, a minor hold-up in the onward march of GM technology.
Its opponents say Monsanto's decision is highly significant, showing how hard it is to get shoppers to buy GM food.
This time the facts tend to support the opposition: the cold logic of commerce means GM wheat's prospects look dim.
Monsanto said it would not try to market a strain of GM wheat it had developed because it "does not have a strategic fit with our overall strategy".
The company said in a statement from its US headquarters that commercial development of Roundup Ready wheat, modified to resist a widely used weedkiller, would be deferred so it could concentrate on research into GM corn (maize), cotton and oilseeds.
Carl Casale, Monsanto executive vice-president, said: "Acreage planted in the spring wheat market in the US and Canada has declined nearly 25% since 1997, and even more in the higher-cost weed control target market for this product."
But he added: "We will continue to monitor the wheat industry's desire for crop improvements... to determine if and when it might be practical to move forward with a biotech wheat product.
Food crops rejected
"This decision allows us to defer commercial development of Roundup Ready wheat, in order to align with the potential commercialisation of other biotechnology traits in wheat, estimated to be four to eight years in the future."
Gundula Azeez, the UK Soil Association's policy manager, told BBC News
Online: "I think it's fantastic news.
"Bayer announced in March it was shelving plans to grow GM maize in the UK, but wheat is far more important.
"We eat wheat in bread, while maize is mainly a forage crop grown for animal feed. The biotech industry is going ahead with GM maize, cotton and soya - but they're not used directly for human consumption.
"This decision was announced by Monsanto in the US. The majority of North American farmers and the continent's wheat industry have been actively lobbying against the introduction of GM wheat.
"In March, the Canadian wheat board said 87% of its buyers wanted guarantees the grain was GM-free, up from 65% three years ago.
"In Europe, we depend on North American wheat, and we'd have been eating this next season."
Gung-ho for the future
The biotech industry says 18 countries are growing 67 million hectares (165 million acres) of GM crops, chiefly cotton, maize and soya.
It says the area planted with GM strains is rising by 10-15% annually, with early figures for 2004 suggesting it will rise again this year.
One source told BBC News Online: "A lot of companies are focussing on second-generation products, for instance crops containing more omega-3 oils.
"What you've got is one company deciding not to bring one product to market. The commitment to biotech, the success story of biotech - these continue."
But Gundula Azeez said: "This decision basically says there isn't a market for GM food. The biotech industry has kept going with the wheat for so long because it believes its own propaganda."
Syngenta says no plans to halt GM wheat programme
- Reuters, May 11, 2004
Syngenta will continue with plans to develop genetically modified wheat, the agrochemicals maker said on Tuesday, despite a decision by rival Monsanto (nyse: MON - news - people) to suspend its own programme after protests.
"There is no impact," said a spokesman. "We are at a very early trial stage... We have no intention of stepping back from that, but we are well aware of the debate," he added.
Monsanto planned to introduce its genetically modified wheat in the United States and Canada, but its efforts triggered opposition by environmentalists, farmers, consumers and religious groups as well as overseas wheat buyers, so the U.S. biotech pioneer said on Monday it had suspended its plans.
Syngenta has field trials currently in Germany and Spain for genetically modified wheat, and it will likely take several years for the development of its own product.
GM maize – Questions and Answers
- New Zealand Ministry Of Agriculture And Forestry, 11 May 2004
1) Why did MAF accredit the United States laboratory Biogenetic Services Ltd (BGS) to test seeds being exported to New Zealand?
New Zealand law has zero tolerance for genetically modified organisms that have not been approved to grow here under the provisions of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996. MAF requires all seed for which a commercial genetically modified line is available that is to be imported into New Zealand to be tested before it gets here to ensure there is no unapproved GM seed present. As there have been no approvals to grow GM seed in New Zealand, if GM seed is found the seeds are not allowed into the country.
New Zealand imports a lot of corn and maize seed from the US. It makes sense for exporters to test their seeds before they ship them, so MAF accredited BGS as one laboratory able to do testing for seed for sowing consignments destined for New Zealand.
2) What is the process for auditing laboratories? Why did BGS fail its MAF audit?
MAF audits all its accredited laboratories to ensure they meet New Zealand’s standards for imported seeds for sowing. Details of the audit process are available on the MAF web site. http://www.maf.govt.nz/biosecurity/imports/plants/genetically-modified-organisms.htm
As part of this process, MAF performed a site audit of Biogenetic Services Ltd in March 2004. This audit identified several significant deficiencies and MAF immediately suspended BGS’s accreditation.
A copy of MAF’s audit report into Biogenetic Services is available on the MAF web site.
3) Why exactly did MAF suspend BGS’s accreditation?
As part of a site audit of Biogenetic Services Ltd MAF discovered several
deficiencies: Non-certified controls were used Results were inadequately interpreted Results were inadequately reported Documentation was not well managed.
4) Has the laboratory been re-accredited? When is this likely to happen?
No. The laboratory is now pursuing an aggressive timetable for certification to the international standard NZS/ISO/IEC 17025. MAF will formally re-audit the laboratory to ensure it meets these standards as part of considering reinstating BGS’s accreditation.
5) Why did MAF accredit BGS in the first place if it didn’t meet these standards?
BGS met the required MAF standard (refer to question 2 web site reference) when first accredited in 2002.
6) What other action did MAF take in response to its suspension of BGS’s accreditation?
As a precautionary approach, MAF decided to re-test any seeds certified by BGS as being GM free that were either en route to New Zealand from the United States, or already here.
7) How did MAF carry out this testing and what were the results?
MAF tested 15 out of 52 seed consignments that had been certified as GM free by BGS and imported into New Zealand. 13 tested negative for the presence of GM seeds. Two consignments reported the presence of very low levels of GM seed.
8) How did MAF choose the 15 samples that were re-tested, out of the total of 52? Why were only 15 samples taken, and will the rest be tested?
These 15 samples represented 80 percent of the volume certified by BGS that had been imported into New Zealand. While the seed already tested represents the vast bulk of seeds that may be planted out in New Zealand, MAF is now moving to test the remaining 20 percent to ensure they are GM free.
9) What were the GMOs that were discovered, and at what level?
In the larger consignment, the precise variety identified is LibertyLink T25, which is a variety of GM maize approved for human consumption in New Zealand. Testing indicates presence is at less than 0.05 percent. This translates to less than 1 seed in 2,000 or about 50 plants out of every 100,000.
In the smaller consignment, the exact variety of GM maize cannot be identified because it was detected at such low levels. MAF has been advised that this consignment has not been planted.
10) Does this represent a risk to human health or the environment?
No. The variety of GM maize detected in the large seed lot is widely grown in the United States and Canada. It is approved for human consumption in many countries, including New Zealand, although no one has ever applied to the Environmental Risk Management Authority to grow it here. Furthermore, it is present in low levels – about 50 plants out of every 100,000.
In the case of the smaller consignment, it was not planted in New Zealand and therefore poses no threat.
11) Has any of the maize seed been planted, and if so, where?
MAF has been advised that 1,317 bags of seed were imported, of which 351 bags were sold to grain and seed merchants. 966 remain in the importer’s warehouse and will be seized by MAF.
MAF is currently gathering information on the status and whereabouts of the 351 bags that were sold and whether any of the seed has been planted. If MAF finds that some seed has been planted, it will take the appropriate enforcement action.
12) Has any of the maize already been harvested?
MAF is currently gathering that information. It is possible that some crops may have already been harvested.
13) If the maize has been harvested, could any of it be in the human food chain?
MAF is currently gathering that information, although it appears unlikely at this stage. Maize is generally used for animal feed, either as green feed, silage or grain. While maize is sometimes used for some food products such as corn chips and corn flour, MAF understands from growers that this particular variety is not used for those purposes.
14) What is MAF going to do now?
MAF is working quickly to gather all the information it requires to determine the most appropriate response to these findings.
15) How do we test imports of seed?
The New Zealand GM testing regime is one of the strictest in the world.
MAF tests imported seed for sowing at the border and if there is any indication of GM content it is not allowed in. MAF tests every batch of corn seed for sowing (as well as maize seed) as it comes into the country. A consignment that has been tested offshore in a MAF-accredited laboratory, according to the method in our import protocol, will not be tested again unless there are genuine grounds that GM seeds are present. This means that seed from non-GM as well as GM producing countries are certified GM free before it is allowed into the country.
In 2002 the sample sizes for testing for inadvertent GM content were increased from 1,400 to 3,200 seeds. This means that the current testing process gives MAF a high level of confidence (95 percent) that any consignment with a level of GM presence one seed in a thousand will be detected.
16) Is a low level of GM presence inevitable?
This is difficult to predict.
With more and more GM crops being grown and traded around the world, there will be more opportunities for GM seeds to be present in seed supplies. On the other hand, the systems to separate GM and non-GM crops are likely to improve, driven both by commercial pressures and demands from governments for assurances. It is very likely that there will continue to be incidents like this one, where GM seeds are present unintentionally. But with appropriate actions and ongoing assurance systems, it should be possible to keep them isolated.
There is always a chance that low concentrations of GM seeds may not be detected, but most of the time they will be detected by the assurance systems that are in place.
17) What criteria does MAF use to select laboratories for accreditation for GM testing?
Selection of laboratories is an industry-led exercise, as MAF cost-recovers this process from the seed importers. After suggestion by industry of laboratories which they would be interesting in being accredited, MAF conducts a remote “paper” audit and assessment against the MAF interim standard PIT.GMO.AFGMOT.
The following is assessed: detection methods used for GMOs; the standard laboratory operating procedures used by the facility and any national or international quality systems adhered to; the structural aspects of the facility; the equipment available to carry out testing and the calibration of that equipment; the role of each staff position and staff competency; the experience of the facility in the area of GMO testing plant material; and the independence of the facility.
If the laboratory demonstrates a high level of competency in this initial part of the process, provisional accreditation may be awarded. Laboratories are fully accredited once a site visit and assessment confirms that facility’s operational competencies as previously assessed remotely in step 1. Only fully accredited labs can conduct routine regulatory GMO testing for MAF.
18) Why can’t the testing be done in New Zealand?
In principle, testing could be done in New Zealand, but no laboratories have been accredited yet for the purpose of enforcing the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996.
MAF has accredited three laboratories for testing – in Australia, France, and the USA – in order to enforce the Biosecurity Act 1993, which is focused on imported rather than domestic products. Importers have to pay the costs of accreditation and the most useful laboratories are offshore because most importers would prefer to test their seeds before shipping.
No importers have asked MAF to accredit any New Zealand laboratories for testing imported seed.
19) Why doesn’t New Zealand grow its own seeds?
New Zealand farmers use both locally produced and imported seeds. For pasture seeds such as ryegrasses and clovers, we are world-leaders – breeding and producing our own seeds and exporting about $60-70 million worth of them around the globe.
For maize and many vegetable crops, the best seeds come from large and expensive breeding programmes in the major agricultural producing countries like the USA, Canada, Australia, and Europe. Because of our size and climate, New Zealand cannot produce seeds that match the quality and value of those imported seeds.
There are other reasons as well: some crops lose their vigour after several generations so new varieties must be imported from time to time, and many of the best seeds are hybrids that do not breed true – the next generation is unlikely to have the qualities that make the variety desirable.
New Zealand farmers realise that to be internationally competitive, it is essential that they can participate in the seed breeding and multiplication industry, which must import seeds.
For further information about The New Zealand Food Safety Authority visit http://www.nzfsa.govt.nz/consumers/food-safety/gm/index.htm For further information about MAF protocols visit: http://www.maf.govt.nz/biosecurity/imports/plants/papers/gm-seeds/zea-mays-protocol.htm
Govt's zero tolerance on GM not working
- New Zealand National Party, 12 May 2004
This latest biosecurity breach involving GM maize shows gross incompetence by the Government, says National's Environment spokesman, Dr Nick Smith.
Today the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries admitted finding low levels of genetically modified maize seed in imported seed from the USA after having cleared the seed in earlier tests and allowing 30 tonnes of the seed to be distributed to farmers.
Dr Smith says proper systems should have been put in place after the 2002 Corngate furore.
"However, this latest breach shows New Zealand still does not have the proper testing systems to ensure compliance with the zero tolerance law.
"It is time the Government fronted up and accepts that either zero tolerance is unachievable or it is time it put in place a robust testing regime that ensures any contamination is picked up before the seed is distributed.
"Only last week the Environment Minister, Marion Hobbs, was proudly proclaiming that no genetically modified plants had been commercially released. This finding, equating to 22,000 GM plants, makes a mockery of the Environment Minister.
"This new finding of GM contaminated maize adds to the likelihood that the controversial corn found in November 2001 was also contaminated, despite the Prime Minister's absolute assurances during the 2002 election campaign that it was not", says Dr Smith.
EU approve GMO, battle ahead
- Reuters, May 11, 2004
The European Union, poised to lift its five-year ban on gene-spliced foods, will now open the next battle in its biotech saga and try to agree purity levels in seeds, the European Commission said on Tuesday.
Rules for how much GMO material may occur in non-modified seeds before they must be labelled has been a thorn in the side of EU governments, and the Commission, for months if not years.
It will be the last major piece of biotech legislation to put in place before the bloc can discuss authorising new applications for GMOs where the requested use is cultivation.
The EU's moratorium on authorising new GMO products and crops is now effectively over, and the Commission is set to rubberstamp an approval for a biotech maize type known as Bt-11, a canned product for human consumption, at a meeting on May 19, officials say.
The next battleground for EU biotech policy -- and the fight is certain to be heated, diplomats say -- is for "live" GMOs, or those destined for planting in Europe's fields. But before that can happen, the bloc's 25 member states have to sort out seeds.
While a draft Commission proposal on seed thresholds has surfaced in Brussels, with a range of 0.3 to 0.5 percent for permitted GMO presence in conventional and organic seeds, it is far from clear that the EU executive itself is totally agreed.
"On seeds, there will certainly be a discussion within the next couple of weeks. There are different views on this," said EU Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner David Byrne.
"Those who are looking at the farming interest and those on the more green side of the argument want lower thresholds, which I think might be difficult to achieve," he told Reuters on the margins of an informal meeting of EU farm ministers in Ireland.
Byrne's department, looking at the seeds dossier along with the Commission's agriculture, environment and research units, is said to favour higher thresholds closer to the 0.9 percent labelling level already in force for GMO food and feed.
Higher levels are also favoured by the seed industry, while green groups want nothing higher than 0.1 percent, a view backed by several EU states such as Austria, Luxembourg and Denmark. Byrne said such low levels were not technically practical.
"Some of us take the view that if you go too low, it creates further problems," he said. "Maybe those who are interested in the production of organic foods need to look very carefully at reducing thresholds so low that it's very difficult to achieve."
Apart from seeds, the other area that needs to be addressed is how European farmers should separate organic, conventional and gene-spliced crops to minimise cross-contamination: an issue known as coexistence and the responsibility of each EU state.
So far, only five governments have set out their draft coexistence laws to provide for financial liability in cases of crop contamination.