Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - May 17, 2004:
* Gene Revolution Could Help Poor
* Gene Revolution: Great Potential for the Poor, But No Panacea
* FAO Report Conclusions: Biotech - Meeting the Needs of the Poor?
* Europeans Appear Ready to Approve a Biotech Corn
* Oil-rich GM Plant May Ease Pressure on Fish Stocks
* A Fear Born of Ignorance
* Farmers Organize Group to Advocate Biotech Wheat
Gene Revolution 'Could Help Poor'
- BBC News, April 17, 2004
'GM crops could help poor farmers'
Genetically modified crops could form part of the answer to world hunger, according to a United Nations report. With the world population set to rise by two billion over the next 30 years, such crops could help meet food needs. Drought and insect-resistant crops could boost yields and incomes, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says. But it warns that biotechnology is no panacea and must focus on the needs of developing countries.
Global attitudes. The report comes days after the decision by US agri-chemical company Monsanto to stop marketing modified wheat because of consumer opposition. Commercial resistance to a strain of wheat called Roundup Ready has been so strong the company has decided to shelve its original plans.
But the UN report suggests that although many Europeans are opposed to the idea of GM food on their plates, many in the developing world are not. It cites a survey in which the majority of those questioned in India, Colombia and Nigeria believed the benefits of biotechnology outweighed its risks.
In its State of Food and Agriculture report, the Organization said that biotechnology could help poorer farmers by increasing both the amount of crop grown and its quality. "Biotechnology has tremendous potential to improve agricultural productivity and raise farm incomes," FAO's Terri Raney, author of the report, told BBC News Online.
Gene revolution . Genetic modification, Raney said, could create crops that targeted the specific problems and needs of developing countries. In India, researchers are developing a "protato" - a protein-rich variety of the tuber - which includes genes from a high-protein South American wheat called amaranth. And in the Philippines, "golden rice" - a strain genetically engineered to produce beta-carotene - is estimated to have potential economic benefits of $137m.
Critics say these kinds of GM foods will not solve fundamental problems of poverty and undernourishment, and are "technical fixes" for problems that could be solved by, for example, greater investment in distribution networks and a fairer system of international trade. "We know there is ample food on the planet. Most of the problems are not technical, they're about access to markets, access to credit, land," Dr Doreen Stabinsky, a Greenpeace science adviser, told the Associated Press. "Hunger is not a problem that needs technical solutions; it needs political will and appropriate policies."
It also remains unclear exactly what impact GM crops have on both human health and the environment. "The only way to find out is to cautiously experiment with those crops," Raney said. At the moment, FAO said, biotech companies were making crops for the industrialised world and not for those who farmed in developing countries. It argued multinationals needed to be persuaded that it made financial sense to invest in new varieties of crops already grown in the developing world, such as rice, millet, cassava, banana and white maize.
Currently just four crops - soybean, maize, BT cotton and canola account for 99% of global genetically modified crops. The bulk of these are grown in six countries - the US, Argentina, Canada, Brazil, China and South Africa. Any potential gains would take time to arrive, Raney said. "There are big challenges - much of the science is still in the pipeline," she said. "We won't start to see the impact for at least five or 10 years."
The Gene Revolution: Great Potential for The Poor, But No Panacea
- FAO Press Release, http://www.fao.org/
Only a few countries are benefiting so far - food crops of the poor need more attention
17 May 2004, Rome -- Biotechnology holds great promise for agriculture in developing countries, but so far only farmers in a few developing countries are reaping these benefits, FAO said in its annual report 'The State of Food and Agriculture 2003-04', released today. Basic food crops of the poor such as cassava, potato, rice and wheat receive little attention by scientists, FAO said.
"Neither the private nor the public sector has invested significantly in new genetic technologies for the so-called 'orphan crops' such as cowpea, millet, sorghum and tef that are critical for the food supply and livelihoods of the world's poorest people," said FAO Director-General Dr Jacques Diouf.
"Other barriers that prevent the poor from accessing and fully benefiting from modern biotechnology include inadequate regulatory procedures, complex intellectual property issues, poorly functioning markets and seed delivery systems, and weak domestic plant breeding capacity," he added.
Biotechnology, one of the tools of the gene revolution, is much more than genetically modified organisms (GMOs), sometimes also called transgenic organisms. While the potential benefits and risks of GMOs need to be carefully assessed case by case, the controversy surrounding transgenics should not distract from the potential offered by other applications of biotechnology such as genomics, marker-assisted breeding and animal vaccines, FAO said.
Food and income needed for an additional 2 billion people. Agriculture will have to sustain an additional 2 billion people over the next 30 years from an increasingly fragile natural resource base. The challenge is to develop technologies that combine several objectives - increase yields and reduce costs, protect the environment, address consumer concerns for food safety and quality, enhance rural livelihoods and food security, FAO said.
Agricultural research can lift people out of poverty, by boosting agricultural incomes and reducing food prices. More than 70 percent of the world's poor still live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their survival. Agricultural research - including biotechnology - holds an important key to meeting their needs.
Biotechnology should complement - not replace - conventional agricultural technologies, FAO said. Biotechnology can speed up conventional breeding programmes and may offer solutions where conventional methods fail.
It can provide farmers with disease-free planting materials and develop crops that resist pests and diseases, reducing use of chemicals that harm the environment and human health. It can provide diagnostic tools and vaccines that help control devastating animal diseases. It can improve the nutritional quality of staple foods such as rice and cassava and create new products for health and industrial uses. But poor farmers can only benefit from biotechnology products if they "have access to them on profitable terms," the report said. "Thus far, these conditions are only being met in a handful of developing countries."
Neglected crops. Research and commercialization data on transgenic crops show that many crops and traits of interest to the poor are being neglected. "There are no major public- or private-sector programmes to tackle the critical problems of the poor or targeting crops and animals that they rely on," the report said.
A large part of the private-sector investment is concentrated on just four
crops: cotton, maize, canola and soybean. Six countries (Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, South Africa and the US), four crops (maize, soybean, canola/rapeseed and cotton) and two traits (insect resistance and herbicide tolerance) accounted for 99 percent of the global area planted in transgenic crops in 2003, the report said.
Where the research money goes. One of the key constraints many developing countries are facing in adopting and adapting biotechnology innovations is their lack of agricultural research capacity particularly in plant and animal breeding, FAO said.
The private-sector research dominates global biotechnology. The world's top ten transnational bioscience corporations spend nearly $3 billion per year on agricultural biotechnology research and development. Private biotech research in most developing countries is negligible. Brazil, China and India, which have the largest public agricultural research programmes in developing countries, spend less than half a billion dollars each annually.
The largest international public supplier of agricultural technologies, the CGIAR, has a total annual budget of only about $300 million for crop improvement.
Transgenic crops - an economic success. In the few developing countries where transgenic crops have been introduced, small farmers have gained economically and the use of toxic agro-chemicals has been reduced, FAO said. "Transgenic crops have delivered large economic benefits to farmers in some areas of the world over the past seven years," the report said. In several cases, per hectare gains have been large when compared with almost any other technological innovation introduced over the past few decades.
In China, for example, more than four million small farmers are growing insect-resistant cotton on about 30 percent of the country's total cotton area. Yields for insect-resistant cotton were about 20 percent higher than for conventional varieties and pesticide costs were around 70 percent lower.
Pesticide use was reduced by an estimated 78 000 tonnes in 2001, an amount equal to about one-quarter of the total quantity of chemical pesticides used in China. As a result, cotton farmers experienced fewer pesticide poisonings than those growing conventional varieties.
Even though transgenic crops have been delivered through the private sector in most cases, the benefits have been widely distributed among industry, farmers and consumers. "This suggests that the monopoly position engendered by intellectual property protection does not automatically lead to excessive industry profits," the report said.
Effects on human health and the environment. The scientific evidence concerning the environmental and health impacts of genetic engineering is still emerging, the report said. "Scientists generally agree that the transgenic crops currently being grown and the foods derived from them are safe to eat, although little is known about their long-term effects," said FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf.
"There is less scientific agreement on the environmental impacts of transgenic crops. The legitimate concerns for the safety of each transgenic product must be addressed prior to its release. Careful monitoring of the post-release effects of these products is essential," Diouf said.
FAO recommends a case-by-case evaluation that considers the potential benefits and risks of individual transgenic crops. The report says that, while some benefits have been observed, adverse environmental effects have not been detected in commercial production. Continued monitoring is needed, FAO stressed. The report stresses the need for science-based biosafety assessments.
"Where crops have not been cleared through biosafety risk assessments, a greater risk of harmful environmental consequences exists. Unauthorized varieties may not provide farmers with the expected level of pest control, leading to continued need for chemical pesticides and a greater risk of the development of pest resistance."
Furthermore, neither private companies nor public research institutes can be expected to develop transgenic crops for poor producers in countries that lack reliable, transparent regulatory procedures. The FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission has agreed on principles and guidelines for assessing health risks related to foods derived from modern biotechnology.
Members of the International Plant Protection Convention are developing guidelines for pest-risk analysis for living modified organisms. These agreements can help harmonize regulatory procedures globally. Download FAO report at http://www.fao.org/es/esa/en/pubs_sofa.htm
Biotechnology: Meeting the Needs of the Poor?
Bioengineered food crops have real potential as a tool in the war on hunger, but so far that potential remains largely untapped
By introducing high-yielding plant varieties, agro-chemicals and new irrigation techniques into agriculture systems around the world, the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s boosted crop yields and helped lift millions of people out of hunger and poverty.
But today many small-scale farmers remain trapped in subsistence agriculture, while each day over 842 million people go without enough to eat, according to FAO's latest estimates. Billions suffer from micronutrient deficiencies, an insidious form of malnutrition caused by an inadequate diet. And over the next 30 years an additional 2 billion people will need food -- yet the natural resource base on which agriculture depends is growing increasingly fragile.
Can the "Gene Revolution" -- the use of biotechnology in agriculture -- contribute to meeting these challenges?
A global debate. Science can be an ogre or an angel, depending on how one looks at it. The Green Revolution, for example, is not without its detractors, who argue that it promoted overuse of water, pesticides and chemical fertilizers, making poor farmers dependent on these inputs and in some cases seriously damaging the environment in the process.
Today, the rising profile of biotechnology in agricultural production has sparked a similar global debate. Some types of biotechnology have been around for millennia, and probably began when our ancestors used microorganisms to make bread, wine and cheese. The current era of modern biotechnology was made possible by the use of molecular techniques to "cut and paste" genes from one cell to another.
It is precisely this emerging science of genetic engineering that lies at the heart of today's biotech polemic. Supporters hail genetic engineering as essential for addressing food insecurity and malnutrition in developing countries. Opponents counter that it will wreak environmental havoc, increase poverty and hunger, and lead to a corporate takeover of traditional agriculture and the global food supply. A newly released FAO report, The State of World Food and Agriculture 2004, considers these contrasting views of biotechnology.
Pros and cons
On the one hand, there are compelling arguments for altering the genetic makeup of food crops, notes the report. Doing so, it may be possible to increase the availability and variety of food by improving agricultural productivity and reducing seasonal variations in food supplies. Pest-resistant and stress-tolerant crops can be developed to reduce the risk of crop failure due to drought and disease. More nutrients and vitamins may be bred into plants, combating the nutrient deficiencies that affect so many of the world's poor. Crops could be made to grow on poor soil in marginal lands, increasing overall food production. Biotechnology also offers the possibility of reducing the use of toxic agricultural pesticides, and may also improve the efficiency of fertilizer and other soil amendments.
On the other hand, cautions FAO, the scientific assessment of the environmental and health impacts of genetic engineering of crop plants is still at an early stage and should be made on a case-by-case basis.
Moreover, the Organization emphasizes the need to ensure that the prospective benefits of biotechnology in agriculture are shared by all people, rather than a select few. Indeed, while SOFA 2004 notes that poor farmers and consumers in developing countries can benefit greatly from biotechnology, it adds that so far only a few are actually doing so, and that as the biotech sector develops "there is clear evidence that the problems of the poor are being neglected."
Issues of equity
Unlike the Green Revolution, which came about through an international programme of public-sector agricultural research specifically aimed at creating and transferring technologies to the developing world as free public goods, the 'Gene Revolution' is primarily being driven by the private sector, which focuses on developing commercial products for large markets.
"This raises serious questions about the type of research that is being performed and the likelihood that the poor will benefit," observes FAO in SOFA 2004. The report notes that while public- and private-sector biotech research and development are being carried out on more than 40 crops worldwide, there are few major public- or private-sector biotech programmes addressing the problems of small farmers in poor countries.
"Neither the private nor the public sector has invested significantly in new genetic technologies for the so-called 'orphan crops' such as cowpea, millet, sorghum and teff that are critical for the food supply and livelihoods of the world's poorest people," explains FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf in the introduction to the report.
Even the major food crops of the poor -- wheat, rice, white maize, potato and cassava -- are also being neglected, according to SOFA 2004. At the same time, biotech plants with traits of interest to the poor -- drought and salinity tolerance, disease resistance, or enhanced nutrition -- are receiving little attention.
Important questions remain
Clearly, agricultural biotechnology has real potential as a new tool in the war on hunger. As The State of Food and Agriculture 2004 points out, however, many pressing questions have yet to be answered.
How can more farmers in more countries gain access to the technologies that are emerging from the Gene Revolution? Which biotech research priorities could most directly benefit the poor, and who will develop innovations for the majority of developing countries that are too small in terms of market potential to attract large private-sector investments and too weak in scientific capacity to develop their own innovations? How can we facilitate the development and international movement of safe transgenic organisms and promote the sharing of intellectual property for the public good?
Another major issue: how to ensure that countries -- especially financially strapped ones in the developing world -- have adequate
environmental- and human-health risk assessment regimes in place that let them assess new biotechnologies, both before they are introduced and after they begin to be used in the field.
In The State of Food and Agriculture 2004 FAO takes up these and other issues and suggests some lines of action that individual countries and the international community could take in order to make biotechnology a more potent tool in the war on hunger.
Meeting The Needs of the Poor
FAO Annual Report Conclusions http://www.fao.org/es/esa/en/pubs_sofa.htm
One of the main messages emerging from this year’s State of Food and Agriculture report is that biotechnology is capable of benefiting small, resource-poor farmers. The key question is how this scientific potential can be brought to bear on agricultural problems of developing-country producers. Biotechnology holds great promise as a new tool in the scientific toolkit for generating applied agricultural technologies, but it is not a panacea.
Although the evidence suggests that biotechnology is relevant to all areas of agriculture, the research and farm level applications -- with some exceptions primarily in the plant sector -- are taking place primarily in developed countries. The challenge at present is to design an innovation system that focuses this potential on the problems of developing countries. Agricultural production systems in developing countries are complex and diverse. Many producers are small-scale and resource-poor, and for such producers some biotechnology innovations may be inappropriate.
For example, animal reproductive technologies such as artificial insemination or embryo transfer that are quite common in North America and Europe require capital infrastructure beyond the reach of the scale and scope of their farms. Transgenic crops, by contrast, may be relatively easy for farmers to adopt because the technology is embodied in the seed – rendering it the most scale-neutral and easily transferable form of agricultural technology. Modern biotechnology must be incorporated into agricultural research and development programmes that begin with breeding and improved management, not as stand-alone technologies.
A second important message of this issue of The State of Food and Agriculture is that some transgenic crops, especially insect resistant cotton, are yielding significant economic gains to small farmers as well as important social and environmental benefits through the changing use of agricultural chemicals. The evidence to date suggests that small farmers as well as large farmers can benefit from the adoption of transgenic crops targeted towards insect resistance. Even though transgenic crops have been delivered through the private sector in most cases, the benefits have been widely distributed among industry, farmers and consumers. This suggests that the monopoly position engendered by intellectual property protection does not automatically lead to excessive industry profits.
The Bt cotton results in Argentina demonstrate that the balance between the intellectual property rights of technology suppliers and the financial means of farmers has a crucial impact on adoption of the products and hence on the level and distribution of benefits. The case of China clearly illustrates that public-sector involvement in research and development and in the delivery of transgenic cotton can help ensure that poor farmers have access to the new technologies and that their share of the economic benefits is adequate. Overall, it is the producers and consumers who are reaping the largest share of the economic benefits of transgenic crops, not the companies that develop and market them. Research evidence from Argentina, China, Mexico and South Africa suggests that small farmers have had no more difficulty than larger farmers in adopting the new technologies.
In some cases, transgenic crops seem to simplify the management process in ways that favour smaller farmers. Further research needs to focus on policies and incentive structures that ensure that these gains are sustained as larger numbers of farmers adopt the technologies. Time and more carefully designed studies are required to determine what the level and distribution of benefits from transgenic crops will be. A third message is that the changing locus of agricultural research from the public sector to the private transnational sector has important implications for the kinds of products that are being developed, how those products are commercialized and who receives the benefits.
Private-sector research naturally focuses on the crops and traits of commercial interest to farmers in higher-income countries where markets for agricultural inputs are robust and profitable. Although private-sector agricultural research expenditures seem overwhelmingly large, the reality is that they are focused very narrowly on the development of biotechnology-related plant varieties, and even that only for a very small number of crops. A large part of the private-sector investment is concentrated on just four crops: cotton, maize, canola and soybean. Privatesector investment in the world’s two most important food crops, rice and wheat, is insignificant in comparison.
Moreover, all of the private-sector investment is targeted towards the commercial production sector in the developed world, with some spillover benefits flowing to the commercial sector in the developing world. The public sector, with its increasingly meagre budget, is left to take care of the research and technology needs of the subsistence farming sector, as well as being the only source of supply for conventionally bred seed as well as crop and resource management technologies. Agricultural public goods, such as crops and traits of importance to subsistence farmers in marginal production environments, are of little interest to large transnational companies.
The data on transgenic crop research show that the needs of resource poor small holders are being neglected, and the data on commercialization are even more dramatic. One of the lessons of the Green Revolution is that agricultural technology can be transferred internationally, especially to countries that have sufficient national agricultural research capacity to adapt the high-yielding cultivars developed by the international public sector for local production environments. So how will farmers in developing countries be able to capture economic spillover benefits from the transgenic crops developed and commercialized by the private sector? Private-sector investments in genomics and genetic engineering could be potentially useful in addressing the problems faced by poor farmers, particularly those in marginal environments.
Knowledge generated through genomics, for example, could have enormous potential in advancing the search for drought-tolerant crops in the tropics. The question that needs to be asked is whether incentives exist, or can be created, for public–private sector partnerships that allow the public sector to use and adapt technologies developed by the private sector for the problems faced by the poor. How can licensing agreements be designed that will allow private-sector technologies to be licensed to the public sector for use on problems of the poor? Research presented in this report suggests that the public sector may have to purchase the right to use private-sector technology on behalf of the poor.
A fourth message from this report is that biotechnology is not a panacea, but a resource that can be useful when combined with adaptive research capacity. Regulatory regimes matter. Biosafety processes need to be in place. Countries that lack biosafety protocols or the capacity to implement them in a transparent, predictable and trusted way may not have access to the new technologies. Where crops have not been cleared through biosafety risk assessments that take into consideration local agroecological conditions, a greater risk of harmful environmental consequences exists. Additionally, unauthorized varieties may not provide farmers with the expected level of pest control, leading to continued need for chemical pesticides and a greater risk of the development of pest resistance.
A final message is that the environmental effects in terms of pesticide reduction can be positive. In the case of Bt cotton, the environmental outcomes have been strongly positive. In virtually all instances, insecticide use on Bt cotton is significantly lower than on conventional varieties. Furthermore, for herbicide-tolerant soybeans, glyphosate has been substituted for more toxic and persistent herbicides, and reduced tillage has accompanied herbicide-tolerant soybeans and cotton in many cases. Negative environmental consequences, although meriting continued monitoring, have not been documented in any setting where transgenic crops have been deployed to date.
So how can the Gene Revolution reach those left behind?
First, by overcoming production constraints that are intractable with conventional breeding, biotechnology can speed up conventional breeding programmes and provide farmers with disease-free planting materials. Second, biotechnology can develop crops that resist pests and diseases, replacing toxic chemicals that harm the environment and human health. Third, biotechnology can develop diagnostic tools and vaccines that help control devastating animal diseases. Finally, biotechnology can improve the nutritional quality of staple foods such as rice and cassava and create new products for health and industrial uses.
The problem is that biotechnology cannot overcome the gaps in infrastructure, regulation, markets, seed systems and extension services that hinder the delivery of agricultural technologies to poor farmers in remote areas. Neither can it overcome the institutional failures, market failures and policy failures that hinder all efforts to promote agricultural and rural development in many countries. A great deal needs to be done so that developing-country producers are empowered to make their own decisions regarding these technologies for their own benefit. Given that technologies that are on the shelf today (generated by conventional research methods) have not yet reached the poorest farmers’ fields, there is no guarantee that the new biotechnologies will fare any better. Identifying small farmers’ constraints to technology access and use continues to be an issue that the development community must address. Investments in biotechnology research capacity for the public sector will only be worthwhile if the current difficulties in delivering conventional technologies to subsistence farmers can be reversed.
The six main lessons for ensuring that the potential benefits of agricultural biotechnology reach the poor areas are as follows:
* Biotechnology -- including genetic engineering -- can benefit the poor when appropriate innovations are developed and when poor farmers in poor countries have access to them on profitable terms. So far these conditions are only being met in a handful of developing countries.
* Biotechnology should be part of an integrated and comprehensive agricultural research and development programme that gives priority to the problems of the poor. Biotechnology is not a substitute for research in other areas such as plant breeding, integrated pest and nutrient management and livestock breeding, feeding and management systems.
* The public sector in developing and developed countries, donors and the international research centres should direct more resources to agricultural research, including biotechnology. Public-sector research is necessary to address the public goods that the private sector would naturally overlook.
* Governments should provide incentives and an enabling environment for private-sector agricultural biotechnology research, development and deployment. Public–private partnerships and other innovative strategies to mobilize research efforts for the poor should be encouraged.
* Regulatory procedures should be strengthened and rationalized to ensure that the environment and public health are protected and that the process is transparent, predictable and science-based. Appropriate regulation is essential to command the trust of both consumers and producers, but duplicative or obstructionist regulation is costly and should be avoided.
* Capacity building for agricultural research and regulatory issues related to biotechnology should be a priority for the international community. FAO has proposed a major new programme to ensure that developing countries have the knowledge and skills necessary to make their own decisions regarding the use of biotechnology.
Europeans Appear Ready to Approve a Biotech Corn
- Paul Meller And Andrew Pollack, New York Times May 15, 2004http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/15/business/15corn.html
BRUSSELS, May 14 - The European Union appears ready to approve a genetically engineered corn, ending a six-year moratorium on approvals for biotechnology crops that led to a bitter trade dispute with the United States. Spokesmen for the European Commission said here on Friday that the commissioners were expected to approve the corn, an insect-resistant sweet corn developed by Syngenta, at its weekly meeting on Wednesday.
United States government and industry officials cautiously welcomed the move but said a single approval would not be enough to make Washington drop its complaint before the World Trade Organization about Europe's refusal to approve biotech foods.
"The approval of a single product does not affect our W.T.O. challenge," Christopher Padilla, a spokesman for the United States trade representative, said on Friday. "It does not indicate there is a consistently functioning approval process."
Fred Yoder, chairman of the board of the National Corn Growers Association, called the expected approval "a great beginning to have a full and complete lifting of the embargo in Europe." Mr. Yoder, a farmer in Plain City, Ohio, said further approvals could pave the way for the trade complaint to be dropped but that the Europeans first "have to prove they are sincere about lifting the moratorium."
The corn, known as Bt-11, will be approved only for consumption, meaning Europeans will be able to eat the corn after it is imported from other countries but European farmers will still not be able to grow it themselves. The corn contains a bacterial gene that produces a toxin making the corn resistant to the corn borer and the corn earworm. The corn is also resistant to glufosinate, an herbicide.
The approval is not expected to have much of an effect on American food and farm business. That is in part because under European rules, the corn would have to be labeled as genetically modified, which would discourage consumers from buying it and food companies from even offering it for sale.
"There is simply no market for G.M. foods in Europe as consumers have overwhelmingly rejected them," Friends of the Earth, a group opposed to crop biotechnology, said in a statement. Indeed, Monsanto dropped plans on Monday to introduce what would have been the world's first genetically engineered wheat in large measure because of opposition from food companies in Europe, which threatened not to import the wheat from American farmers.
In addition, sweet corn, the type that is eaten on the cob or canned or frozen, accounts for only about 1 percent of the American corn crop. The vast bulk of corn is field corn, the more starchy type fed to animals or processed to make corn oil, corn syrup and other food ingredients. And Bt-11, the only biotech sweet corn on the market, accounts for only about 1 percent of the sweet corn planted in the United States, Syngenta has said.
Oil-rich GM Plant May Ease Pressure on Fish Stocks
- Ian Sample, The Guardian, May 17, 2004
A genetically modified plant that produces all the healthy fats found in oily fish has been developed by British scientists. The weedy type of cress was changed to make it rich in polyunsaturated fats known as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The fats are believed to help reduce heart disease and, according to some scientists, improve brain function and mood.
Baoxiu Qi and Colin Lazarus, plant biologists at Bristol University, developed it as an alternative source of the fats. Oily fish are especially rich in omega-3; omega-6 is found in certain grains and poultry.
The cress was modified with genes taken from three different microrganisms and its production of the fats raises hopes that plants will one day be a viable alternative source. "The next step is to add the same set of genes to leafy salad vegetables such as spinach and lettuce," said Mr Lazarus.
The use of modified plants would take the pressure off severely depleted fish stocks. The potential benefits do not end there, according to the biologists. Oils made from the plants are also likely to be more pure than many fish oil supplements. People with diets lacking in the fats from fish, such as vegans, may stand to benefit.
"The problem is that the people most likely to benefit from eating these plants are the most unlikely to go near them because they are genetically modified," Mr Lazarus said. Fish and chicken are among the primary sources of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, but other foods contain them, albeit in smaller quantities. Walnuts, flax seed oil and hemp all contain omega-3 while olive oil and other vegetable oils are rich in omega-6 fatty acids.
Liz O'Neill, of the Vegetarian Society, was not convinced that vegetarians would welcome the development. "We're not crying out for it," she said. "If you make sure you eat the right foods, you can already get all the omega-3 and omega-6 oils you need. There are issues with GM and it's certainly not popular among our members."
The Vegan Society was also sceptical. "At the end of the day, this is not about human good, it's about making a profit," a spokesman said.
According to Dr Lazarus, whose work is published in the journal Nature Biotechnology today, the plants could be turned into animal feed and used in the battle against global warming.
Cows and other ruminants belch out vast quantities of methane, which accelerates warming. "If you feed cattle and sheep these polyunsaturated fats, they expel much less methane," Mr Lazarus said. The work was funded by the German crop biotechnology company BASF.
A Fear Born of Ignorance
- The Canberra Times, May 14, 2004 http://canberra.yourguide.com.au/
It's not been a good week for the biotechnology giant Monsanto - on Monday, the US company said it was abandoning plans to introduce genetically modified wheat on to the world market, and on Wednesday it said it was pulling out of research programs to trial GM canola crops in Australia. To add to the ignominy, the traditional owners of the West Kimberley region in WA have said they do not want a GM cotton industry, in which Monsanto is a major player, established in Broome.
Consumer resistance to the idea of GM crops is at the heart of Monsanto's decision to shelve its research programs, especially in the case of wheat. Global opposition to genetically modified crops is strongest in Europe - a big importer of wheat - and none of the large exporters like the United States or Australia could afford to be shut out of what is a lucrative market. The other continuing hurdle for Monsanto, in Australia at least, is agricultural industry disquiet over regulatory and legal uncertaintioes surrounding GM crop trials. It's this that has been blamed for the canola decision.
Agricultural scientists will rightly rue the Monsanto decisions and claim that the benefits of biotechnology - improved crop varieties, increased yields, reduced pesticide use and the like - have been passed up largely as a result of the scare tactics of the environment movement. It's true that many of the arguments used by the anti-GM lobby - that the creation of "unnatural organisms" will harm the people who eat them or escape to to breed with wild plants and create "superweeds", for example - have been shown to be exaggerated, but in the minds of consumers such doubts still exist.
And so, no government in Australia has felt entirely safe in embracing GM food crops, prevaricating on decisions to allow their trial and commercial use or prohibiting them altogether. Even the relative success of GM crops for non-food use like cotton has failed to sway public sentiment. Not that the GM companies themselves have helped their own cause with their sometimes heavy-handed resort to legal othreats to punish any primary producer found to be illegally growing patented crops, even if this is the result of accidental contamination from neighbouring legal crops.
Probably the biggest stumbling block to public acceptance of GM crops, however, is the perception that global food production has become over-industrialised and centralised in too few hands. Ninety per cent of the GM crops currently sold world-wide are produced by Monsanto, with just four other companies producing the rest. The mad-cow disease scare of the 1990s, the stories of environmental degradation caused by intensive, chemical-dependent agriculture practices - all have resulted in fears that it mighto be unwise to allow companies to dominate world food production, thus forcing farmers to buy their products and squeezing out traditional farmers. The rise in the popularity and availability of organic foods shows how deep-seated is this fear.
However, as anyone who has bought organically produced fruit and vegetables knows, the prices charged are higher than for conventionally produced items, and the quality or appearance generally inferior. Therein lies the problem for those who would reject the introduction of GM food
crops: genetic manipulation (which is what scientists, botanists and farmers have been doing for generations) and the latter-day use of agricultural chemicals and fertilisers have transformed the way humans live, and greatly dimoinished the effects of famine and pestilence. And GM foods probably represent the best hope for food producers to keep pace with global population growth now and in the future.
As a significant food exporter, Australia cannot afford not to be at the forefront of advances in biotechnology that might bring competitive benefits to our agricultural producers. In that regard, the decision by Monsanto to quit canola research in Australia is to be regretted. Public perceptions about the ethics of Monsanto's business operations are not the concern of government, but ensuring the public maintains an open mind and attitude about science that could benefit all Australians is. Encouraging anod broadening science education, and not just at school levels, is one way of ensuring that fear born of ignorance does not unduly influence government decision-making.
The real reason for the global resistance to GM foods might best be explained by Nicolo Machiavelli's observation that "The innovator makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old order, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those who would prosper under the new". By declaring that it has not abandoned its GM wheat dreams, Monsanto is obviously taking a long-term strategic view. It's to be hoped the lesson is not lost on Australian governments and regulators.
Farmers Organize Group to Advocate Biotech Wheat
Growers for Wheat Biotechnology intend to "tell other side of the story"
Valley City, N.D. -- Citing the need to tell a more complete story surrounding the potential benefits and opportunities of biotechnology in wheat, grain farmers from North Dakota and Montana have organized a new group. Growers for Wheat Biotechnology Inc. (GWB) intends to advocate the research, development and acceptance of biotechnology in wheat.
"For those of us who believe that biotechnology is a promising tool to keep our industry viable, we felt there was a need for a voice to tell the positive side of the story," says Al Skogen, a Valley City, N.D., farmer and chairman of the group. "We felt it was no longer acceptable to stand by and allow others to influence producer and public opinion without a reasonable discussion about the sound science, and tangible economic and environmental benefits that could be gained with biotechnology in wheat."
According to a University of Minnesota study, of the $40 billion of corn, cotton, soybeans and canola grown in the U.S. in 2002, $20 billion were produced with biotech varieties. These biotech adoption rates result directly from increases in farm-level profits. Further, it is estimated that growing these biotech crops reduced active ingredient pesticide use in North America by approximately 60 million pounds last year. Growers involved with GWB say opposition to biotechnology in wheat discourages research and development efforts that could improve the economics of growing wheat, while at the same time, promote a healthy environment.
"Wheat production is still the backbone of crop production in North Dakota and Montana, but lack of new technology opportunities has caused wheat to lose its competitiveness," says Kim Murray, a Froid, Mont., wheat grower, and secretary-treasurer of GWB. "Biotech wheat promises to help producers control weeds and pests more efficiently. It can help us produce wheat despite drought and disease, and to increase our productivity in a highly competitive global market," says Murray. "We also need to aggressively develop end-use benefits that address diet and nutritional opportunities as well as alternative uses for wheat. Biotechnology is the best way to make these prospective benefits a reality."
Skogen points out that if wheat growers don't support the development of biotechnology, further development in wheat technology could vanish, as evidenced by the recent decision by Monsanto, the world's leader in the development of biotech crops, to shelve Round-Up Ready wheat.
"Monsanto's decision could influence other private and public research entities to rethink their biotech efforts in wheat," says Skogen. "At the very least, research on wheat will continue to fall behind the leading biotech crops now being grown. That technology gap will do nothing to encourage wheat acres, better market opportunities or efficiencies over the long run."
"The primary purpose of GWB is to provide factual, credible information on biotechnology in wheat so that we all can make informed decisions about the future of our industry," says Skogen. To that end, GWB will avail its members to speak on the subject at area meetings, and welcome inquiries from the media and others as biotechnology issues are discussed.