Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - May 24, 2004:
* A Call for a Gene Revolution
* EU is out of step over regulation of modified products
* Commission give the green light to GM crop
* Maize in grace
* Feeding the world: GM foods come to the rescue
* Fighting biotech foods carries a big risk
* France risks EU biotech spat
* Francis Wevers: Time to stand up to anti-GM thugs
* Leading environmentalist urges radical rethink on climate change
A Call for a Gene Revolution
- New York Times (Editorial), May 24, 2004
Few scientific developments have provoked more shouting than genetically modified foods. Plenty of people, especially in Europe, call them Frankenfoods and argue that we do not know if they cause cancer or fatal allergy. Genetically modified crops, which carry transplanted genes from other species to make them easier to grow or more nutritious, should indeed be the subject of intense debate — just not this debate.
Are these foods safe to eat? The evidence is overwhelming that they are, a conclusion endorsed by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization last week in its 2004 annual report. The report's main contribution is that it focuses on the real problem with genetically modified crops: they are not aimed at helping the world's hungry.
The F.A.O.'s laudable message is that farmers in Africa struggling with a patch of millet, cowpeas or cassava — armed only with a hoe and a prayer — need crops engineered to resist drought or local pests. Agriculture is the livelihood of 70 percent of the world's poor, a population that is growing considerably, even as soil and water are becoming depleted. Billions are already malnourished because their staple crops supply few nutrients. Genetic engineering can help on both counts.
The poor need a "gene revolution" to follow the 1960's "green revolution," which helped hundreds of millions by increasing the yields of wheat, rice and other crops. But so far, there's only been a gene revolution for agribusiness. The genetically engineered food industry is controlled by a few corporations, such as Monsanto and DuPont. They have little incentive to work on crops poor people grow, or to share their licensed technology. To allow widespread research on poor-country crops, these companies must release the technology for humanitarian use.
Many poor countries, in addition, are suspicious of genetic engineering. The F.A.O. urges them to realize its potential and welcome engineered products. Wealthy countries must sponsor research, while critics of modified foods, especially in Europe, need to realize that their opposition is harming the developing world. They should be working not to ban these foods, but to put them in the mouths of the world's hungry.
Subject: NYTimes.com Article: A Call for a Gene Revolution
Date: Mon, 24 May 2004 08:23:12 -0400 (EDT)
This editorial has a number of factual problems.
1. It selectively ignores the planting of biotech crops in counties which do have hungry populations.
2. It proposes that the solution to the problem is expropriation of the investment of th biotech innovators. This (rather communistic) solution would discourage further investment and stall development of 2nd generation crops with gene targets that are more consumer-oriented.
Perhaps the NY Times would like to explain how it was that the Soviets were not great leaders in ag biotech?
3. It ignores the effect that the over-regulation of biotech crops has had in preventing more widespread and creative adoption of this technology.
John W. Cross
EU is out of step over regulation of modified products
- Financial Times (Letter to editor), By GREGORY CONKO and HENRY MILLER, 24 May 2004
Sir, The premise of Steven Druker's rant that the US criticises Europe's application of the precautionary principle yet uses it itself ("America's hypocrisy over modified produce," May 18) is absurd. The example he invokes to prove his case, the requirement in US law for the review of food additives before they are sold, proves exactly the opposite.
Under American law, a new food or food ingredient is either "generally recognised as safe" (GRAS) or it is a food additive and requires government review and approval. The maker of the product gets to determine whether or not the product is GRAS.
The objective of pre-marketing regulation generally is to circumscribe potentially high-risk categories of products, such as food additives (which are, by definition, not generally recognised as safe), pesticides, prescription drugs and nuclear power plants. In contrast, all of the gene-spliced, or "genetically modified" (GM) plants now on the market are widely recognised to be in a negligible or very low risk category, as will be most future varieties.
The US National Research Council observed 15 years ago: "With classical techniques of gene transfer, a variable number of genes can be transferred, the number depending on the mechanism of transfer; but predicting the precise number or the traits that have been transferred is difficult, and we cannot always predict the (traits) that will result. With organisms modified by molecular methods, we are in a better, if not perfect, position to predict the (traits)."
An analysis by the European Union that summarises the conclusions of 81 different EU-funded research projects spanning 15 years concluded that because gene-spliced plants and foods are made with highly precise and predictable scientific techniques, they are at least as safe, and often safer, than their conventional counterparts. And David Byrne, EU commissioner for health and consumer protection, has acknowledged that Europe's precautionary labelling and traceability rules have nothing to do with protectin3g consumer health or the natural environment.
Therein lies the fundamental difference between the US and European approaches to the precautionary principle. Many, if not most, countries impose extra scrutiny on higher risk categories of activities, technologies, and products. But out of ignorance, caprice or protectionism, Europe has chosen vastly to over-regulate a negligible-risk, proven, beneficial technology
Henry I. Miller, The Hoover Institution, Stanford, CA, US
Gregory Conko, Director of Food Policy Safety, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC, US
Commission give the green light to GM crop
- Cordis News, 2004-05-24
The European Commission has approved the import and marketing of a type of genetically modified (GM) sweetcorn, known as BT11, for human consumption, thus ending a six year de facto moratorium on GM products.
'GM sweetcorn has been subject to the most rigorous pre-marketing assessment in the world. It has been scientifically assessed as being as safe as any conventional maize. Food safety is therefore not an issue, it is a question of consumer choice,' said David Byrne, EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection.
'The new EU rules on GMOs require clear labelling and traceability. Labelling provides consumers with the information they need to make up their own mind. They are therefore free to choose what they want to buy. The Commission is acting responsibly based on stringent and clear legislation,' he added.
'This decision is valid for ten years and addressed to the company Syngenta. Any imports of the canned vegetable will have to show clearly on the labelling that the corn has been harvested from a genetically modified plant,' said a Commission statement.
The genetically modified corn will only be imported, not grown, in Europe. An application for cultivation is, however, pending.
In January, the Commission approved the BT11 sweetcorn, and Member States were given until the end of April to raise objections. As no national government came forward to oppose the authorisation, the crop received automatic clearance from the Commission. It is the first GM food approval since April 1998.
The EU has been under pressure from the United States and other major agricultural exporters, who have been arguing that the de facto ban was unscientific and therefore illegal under international trade rules. US officials say they will press ahead with their complaint at the World Trade Organisation despite the EU decision.
In a parallel development, the biotech industry has begun to reduce investment, particularly in Europe, where the majority of consumers do not want to eat genetically modified foods. On 10 May, the US giant Monsanto shelved plans to launch the first ever GMO wheat due to a lack of market demand. A month earlier, Germany's Bayer Cropscience gave up attempts to grow GM corn commercially in the UK.
The European Greens warned Commission President Romano Prodi on 18 May that lifting the moratorium when several countries continue to oppose it 'might be seen as an abuse of power.'
What remains to be seen now, is whether the EU will give a green light to growing GM crops.
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Maize in grace
- Local Government International Bureau, 24|05|2004
The European Commission has agreed to allow imports of fresh and tinned genetically modified sweetcorn, ending a five year EU ban on new licences. The decision to authorise the marketing of Syngenta’s Bt11 maize will be valid for ten years and will cover any imports of the vegetable.
Bt11 maize, which is already sold in Europe as an ingredient in animal feed, snacks and confectionery, will appear on supermarket sales over coming months but must be clearly labelled as genetically modified.
The Commission took its decision, last week, after EU Agriculture Ministers failed to agree to lift the ban. The UK was one of six countries pressing for Bt11 to be approved, claiming that continuing the ban could provoke a trade war with the United States. Other Member States, led by France, disagreed.
Consumer Protection Commissioner David Byrne refuted suggestions that he and his Commission counterparts had overridden Ministerial authority by authorising the maize. He said the move had been “the next logical step” and was “fully in conformity with democratic systems we’ve put in place in the EU.” He also claimed to have widespread support in the European Parliament.
Europe’s environmentalists fear that the decision could open the door to more GM foods being allowed in the future. More than 30 applications are waiting for commercial approval and Mr Byrne said that following the Bt11 decision, the approval process “will become easier.”
Feeding the world: GM foods come to the rescue
- The Union Leader, May 24, 2004
A UNITED NATIONS agency has estimated the world will have 2 billion more mouths to feed during the next 30 years and that the solution to feeding them is to enable poor farmers to grow genetically modified crops.
The endorsement by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization might do much to dispel the mixture of superstition and protectionism that has blocked the spread of biotech crops outside of a handful of countries. In the face of starvation, some African countries refused U.S. donations of genetically modified corn out of an irrational fear of "Frankenfood." Other African nations had more rational reasons: They feared that if the genetically modified corn got into their seed supplies the European Union, traditionally hostile to GM crops, would refuse to buy their corn.
The European Union, faced with suits before the World Trade Organization, is finally beginning to weaken on this point and is moving to lift restrictions on importing — but not growing — GM crops.
The U.N. agency found no health or ecological drawbacks to GM crops. The benefits to poor farmers are that GM seeds offer higher yields and are resistant to disease, pests and droughts, and have the environmental benefit of needing less chemical fertilizer and pesticide.
The agency rightly urges wealthier agricultural nations to develop and disseminate GM seeds for poor farmers and to develop GM seed for "orphan crops" — millet, sorghum, cowpeas — typically grown mainly in poor countries as well as such Third World crops as bananas, cassava and rice. And the FAO urges that the results be carefully monitored.
However, making farmers in the poor countries of the world more productive is only part of the solution. The huge agricultural subsidies in the developed world undercut Third World farmers in their own markets and bar them from the huge and affluent markets in the United States and European Union. Letting poor farmers make a fair profit by giving them access to markets would be as big a boost as giving them access to GM seeds.
Fighting biotech foods carries a big risk
- Grand Forks Herald, By Terry Wanzek, May. 23, 2004
JAMESTOWN, N.D. - Anti-biotech activists declared victory last week when Monsanto announced it was shelving plans to press ahead with a form of wheat that has been genetically modified to resist herbicide. There was a long round of congratulatory patter about saving America's amber waves from transforming into dreaded Frankenfood.
In one respect, the activists earned their celebration. But their victory is a Pyrrhic one, built upon the illusion that they've stopped the forward march of biotechnology in agriculture. They're completely blind to how biotechnology helps farmers, the environment and consumers.
To be sure, there are short-term marketing concerns about biotech enhanced wheat. Over the long term, however, fighting biotechnology places a huge risk on the future reliability and safety of our food.
Here's the fundamental problem: In my area, I can plant an acre of wheat and, depending on yield and price, expect to reap as much as $160 for it. If I plant the same acre with biotech corn or soybeans, however, I can earn about $200 with lower production costs.
When I was growing up, North Dakota was wheat country wheat was everywhere. But many farmers have shifted away from this traditional staple for simple economic reasons: Wheat is not keeping up with the technological advancements and is becoming too costly to grow. In the last five years, wheat production in the United States has fallen by about one-third.
In leaving wheat, many of my neighbors understandably have entered the corn and soybean markets and this means most of them have embraced the very biotechnology the activists are trying to defeat. About half of all the corn and more than 80 percent of all the soybeans being planted this spring are genetically enhanced, according to the Department of Agriculture.
These figures have been rising steadily since biotech crops first were introduced commercially about a decade ago and will increase even more in the years ahead.
That's because biotechnology has improved the bottom line for farmers. It has enabled us to boost our productivity and grow crops in cleaner fields. We're creating a friendlier environment for wildlife and reducing soil erosion. There are other cost benefits as well: Because we're making fewer trips across the field, we're reducing the wear and tear on our tractors and burning smaller amounts of fuel. On the acres I currently dedicate to corn and soybeans, I'm actually going to have a reduced fuel bill this summer even as prices at the pump are spikingand biotechnology is the reason why.
Critics sometimes deride this as a "producer benefit" that doesn't help consumers. Yet, the cost of production is built into the price of food and my savings in the field are passed on to shoppers in the grocery store. I believe an abundant supply of high quality and affordable food is a consumer benefit. Anybody concerned about surging milk prices can appreciate this.
Others fear biotechnology is "unnatural." They need to understand that there's never been a credible scientific study anywhere showing these crops to be harmful to human health. A new report from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization says as much. People who complain about them remind me of the folks who once worried that microwave ovens would destroy the nutritional value of foods.
Biotechnology actually is on the cusp of incredible progress, such as producing a strain of wheat that withstands drought better than current varieties. Another kind will be safe for people with wheat allergies to eat. (This, by the way, is an obvious and compelling "consumer benefit.") None of these welcome developments become a reality, however, if the most basic forms of biotech wheat are kept from the marketplace.
The consequences for American farmers and consumers could be dire. As news stories have indicated, the World Trade Organization could announce soon that America's cotton subsidies are unfair under international trade rules. Although the Bush administration is expected to appeal the decision, few people believe it will win.
That bell you hear ringing may be a death knell for federal farm supports linked to yearly price and production and not just for cotton, but all commodities.
As Washington rearranges its relationship with farmers over the next few years, those of us who earn our living as food producers will have to find innovative ways to remain competitive in the global market. We're going to need all the help we can get and if we can't get it from the government, can't at least a portion of it come from sound science and modern biotechnology?
Wanzek, a former state legislator and board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org), grows corn, soybeans, and wheat on his farm in North Dakota.
France risks EU biotech spat
- EUPolitix.com, 24 May 2004
Paris could be on a collision course with Brussels over its attitude to genetically modified food, according to comments from the French government.
French farm minister Hervé Gaymard on Monday said that France would always take the word of national food safety authorities over the European Commission.
Gaymard told French daily Le Figaro that when it came to GM authorisations France would act “in every case according to the opinion of our food safety body, AFSSA – whatever the opinion of the commission may be”.
“I have never been the strongest advocate of GMOs and France is firmly committed to remaining very vigilant.”
But a commission spokesman told Eupolitix.com that in the case of a crunch decision the last word always rests with the EU's own advisory panel EFSA.
And she pointed out that a similar course of action by the Elysée two years ago landed France in serious trouble.
In the wake of a late 20th century BSE scare France maintained a ban on British beef three years after the rest of the world, and only backed down when faced with the prospect of massive fines from Brussels.
The commission began legal action when Paris in 1999 dismissed an EU opinion that British beef was safe, listening instead to Afssa who said there were still health concerns.
But the French chose to revise their opinion in 2002 when threatened with £100,000 a day fines – and new scientific reports from national authorities.
Gaymard also told Le Figaro that if Brussels failed to come up with rules on the coexistence of gene altered and conventional crops, “we will take national measures”.
France, he said, is open to the use of biotech in the pharmaceutical sector but “remains precautionary” when it comes to GM agriculture.
France does not however currently have any plans to block the approval of biotech corn BT-11 given by the commission last week.
And it has so far been in favour of authorising another GM crop – Monsanto marketed NK603.
Francis Wevers: Time to stand up to anti-GM thugs
- New Zealand Herald, 24.05.2004
Call me naive if you like, but I'm really at a loss to work out why Greenpeace has decided to focus its New Zealand anti-GM campaign on genetically modified soybean meal fed to chickens.
The Rainbow Warrior sailed into Auckland recently, bedecked in banners proclaiming the guilt of Inghams, the chicken producer that has sourced a shipment of non-GM soy but can't make promises about the future.
Also caught in the Northern Hemisphere green raider's sights was burger chain McDonald's.
So why does Greenpeace take on the one crop in the world where the transgene has been so successful in raising yields that within the next 18 months to two years it will be all but impossible to find secure supplies of non-GM varieties? It's inexplicable.
Soybeans and soymeal are grown mainly in the United States, Argentina, Brazil and parts of Asia. They have wide use in the food chain and are used in large quantities as a high-protein feed for animals, as well as in processed foods for humans.
They come very close to being the ubiquitous food crop, ranking alongside wheat and corn.
Soybeans were an obvious candidate for genetic modification, to make them easier to grow and to increase yields.
Being a low-growing plant with abundant green leaves, the soy crop was often overburdened with weeds. Getting rid of weeds either before or after harvest was a time-consuming and, therefore, costly process.
When scientists isolated a gene that could be used to make host plants tolerate the herbicide glyphosate, soybean growers eagerly picked up the altered plant.
Glyphosate, or the more commonly known Roundup, is the wonder broad-spectrum herbicide that neutralises on contact with the soil. It was, and still is, hailed as the first environmentally friendly broad-spectrum herbicide because of its effectiveness while leaving negligible harmful residues. This is the sort of herbicide Rachel Carson dreamed of when she wrote Silent Spring.
Using glyphosate to manage weed growth in herbicide-tolerant soy fields allows growers to achieve several desirable objectives.
First, they can reduce their cultivation costs. For most soy growers, weed control previously required up to 14 mechanical cultivation passes over the crop between seeding and harvesting. The cost in labour, machinery and fuel was considerable.
Secondly, with glyphosate-tolerant plants farmers could introduce a no-till or low-till cultivation regime, which means less soil disturbance and, therefore increased nitrogen fixation.
There's clear evidence that no-till and low-till agriculture are hugely beneficial to soil health - something that environmentalists must be in favour of, surely.
Thirdly, farmers get an increased yield because of the reduction in competition between crop and weeds.
So the result is a win for the farmer and a win for the environment.
When the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) scare hit Europe a few years ago and scientists laid the blame on the meatmeal fed to cattle, there was a rapid search for alternative high-protein feed sources. Soymeal fits the bill. As a result, European farmers have been buying it in large quantities. For a few years, those who cared were able to obtain non-GM soy from Brazil. But, as southern Brazil farmers watched Argentine neighbours grow the glyphosate-tolerant varieties and increase their yields, they started to smuggle GM varieties in and grow them, despite the Brazilian Government's ban on GM crops.
Last year, the Brazilian authorities were forced to acknowledge that most of their southern soy crop was glyphosate-tolerant, and lifted the ban in southern states. Now the northern soy farmers are looking south.
Predictions are that within the next 18 to 24 months it will be impossible to buy soymeal on the global market that doesn't include at least some glyphosate-tolerant varieties.
Greenpeace tried to counter the inevitability of this development by publishing a report that claimed it was possible to obtain non-GM soy supplies as a feed supplement for dairy cows at an additional cost of only 1p (3c) a litre of milk.
It quoted a British dairy farmer who said, "if there was more demand, GM-free feed would become more mainstream".
And there's the crux of the issue.
Greenpeace appears to have determined that it is able to change a global commodity market - not through normal participation in the market but by the sorts of pressure and commercial coercion that, if companies indulged in it, would result in the full force of legal sanctions.
The campaign involves explicit bullying of fast-food chains, chicken producers, customers, scientists, growers, shippers - anyone who continues to trade in or use soymeal derived from transgenic plants.
And let's also remember there are no published papers from reputable scientists anywhere in the world that support any of the environmental, animal or human health safety issues Greenpeace raises so relentlessly and vocally.
How can it get away with a global campaign based on misinformation and the explicit desire to sabotage an entire commodity market, with no one standing up to hold it to account?
I suppose you could say it is not getting away with it. King Canute had to confront the ghastly truth that the inevitability of moons and tides are not subject to the paltry power of individual men.
And so it will be for Greenpeace. The market for non-GM soy will not develop to a dominant position despite everything that Greenpeace throws at it - history and economics teach us there is only a small niche for old technologies.
But in the meantime the northern green raiders will continue to cost the users of a new technology major damage to their brand values, to business and to profits, and no one will take them to task for it.
Maybe it's time someone did.
* Francis Wevers was the executive director of the Bioscience Policy Institute and Life Sciences Network.
'Only nuclear power can now halt global warming'
Leading environmentalist urges radical rethink on climate change
- The Independent, By Michael McCarthy, 24 May 2004
Global warming is now advancing so swiftly that only a massive expansion of nuclear power as the world's main energy source can prevent it overwhelming civilisation, the scientist and celebrated Green guru, James Lovelock, says.
His call will cause huge disquiet for the environmental movement. It has long considered the 84-year-old radical thinker among its greatest heroes, and sees climate change as the most important issue facing the world, but it has always regarded opposition to nuclear power as an article of faith. Last night the leaders of both Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth rejected his call.
Professor Lovelock, who achieved international fame as the author of the Gaia hypothesis, the theory that the Earth keeps itself fit for life by the actions of living things themselves, was among the first researchers to sound the alarm about the threat from the greenhouse effect.
He was in a select group of scientists who gave an initial briefing on climate change to Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Cabinet at 10 Downing Street in April 1989.
He now believes recent climatic events have shown the warming of the atmosphere is proceeding even more rapidly than the scientists of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) thought it would, in their last report in 2001.
On that basis, he says, there is simply not enough time for renewable energy, such as wind, wave and solar power - the favoured solution of the Green movement - to take the place of the coal, gas and oil-fired power stations whose waste gas, carbon dioxide (CO2), is causing the atmosphere to warm.
He believes only a massive expansion of nuclear power, which produces almost no CO2, can now check a runaway warming which would raise sea levels disastrously around the world, cause climatic turbulence and make agriculture unviable over large areas. He says fears about the safety of nuclear energy are irrational and exaggerated, and urges the Green movement to drop its opposition.
In today's Independent, Professor Lovelock says he is concerned by two climatic events in particular: the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which will raise global sea levels significantly, and the episode of extreme heat in western central Europe last August, accepted by many scientists as unprecedented and a direct result of global warming.
These are ominous warning signs, he says, that climate change is speeding, but many people are still in ignorance of this. Important among the reasons is "the denial of climate change in the US, where governments have failed to give their climate scientists the support they needed".
He compares the situation to that in Europe in 1938, with the Second World War looming, and nobody knowing what to do. The attachment of the Greens to renewables is "well-intentioned but misguided", he says, like the Left's 1938 attachment to disarmament when he too was a left-winger.
He writes today: "I am a Green, and I entreat my friends in the movement to drop their wrongheaded objection to nuclear energy."
His appeal, which in effect is asking the Greens to make a bargain with the devil, is likely to fall on deaf ears, at least at present.
"Lovelock is right to demand a drastic response to climate change," Stephen Tindale, executive director of Greenpeace UK, said last night. "He's right to question previous assumptions.
"But he's wrong to think nuclear power is any part of the answer. Nuclear creates enormous problems, waste we don't know what to do with; radioactive emissions; unavoidable risk of accident and terrorist attack."
Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, said: "Climate change and radioactive waste both pose deadly long-term threats, and we have a moral duty to minimise the effects of both, not to choose between them."