Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - May 26, 2004:
* Syngenta’s enhanced sweet corn moving with the markets
* Feed starving masses, not irrational fears
* Partial surrender on 'Frankenfood'
* Opportunities in plant genetics being missed, say European Science Academies
* GM foods
Syngenta’s enhanced sweet corn moving with the markets
- Checkbiotech, May 26, 2004, by Robert Derham
A report stemming from an interview with a Syngenta employee and French newspaper caused some confusion when it determined that Syngenta’s Bt-11 enhanced sweet corn will not be marketed in Europe.
Earlier this week, the French newspaper Les Echos, interviewed Syngenta employee André Goig. The interview noted that current food industry trends do not see a market for Syngenta’s sweet corn, Bt-11.
However, Syngenta will continue to market the sweet corn variety to the six countries that have approved Bt-11 for cultivation purposes and human consumption. In addition to these six countries, there are an additional seven other countries that have approved Syngenta’s sweet corn variety for food usage. The EU became the eighth international governing body to approve the Bt sweet corn variety last week.
Checkbiotech has learned that Syngenta will continue to sell its Bt-11 seeds in the six countries where it is currently approved for cultivation. In return, the producers in those countries will decide, in coordination with the food industries in EU countries, whether or not Bt sweet corn will be sold in grocery stores for consumers.
According to consumer studies in Germany and other countries, a key driving force in consumer demand for enhanced food crops is the price. A recent study by the German television broadcasting company ARD, demonstrated that consumers in Germany were willing to purchase genetically enhanced produce that was clearly labeled as such, if the price was less than conventional or organic produce.
Reduced prices for Bt sweet corn can be realized since a gene, isolated from a bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis, provides the sweet corn with a protein that gives the sweet corn a natural resistance to specific groups of insects that damage corn crops. This natural resistance translates into dependable yields for producers and reduces the need for growers to use other crop protection methods—all of which can translate into savings for the consumer.
Farmers have been using the Bt protein as a pesticide in agriculture for the past 40 years and are commonly used in organic crop cultivation, because it readily breaks down in the environment and causes no harm to humans or animals.
In January 2003, Syngenta re-submitted a request to the EU to approve Bt-11 for cultivation purposes within EU member states. Currently, the cultivation request has been forwarded to the European Food Safety Authority and is awaiting their judgment.
Countries who have approved Syngenta’s Bt-11 sweet corn for all purposes: Argentina, Canada, Japan, South Africa, and the USA
Countries who have approved Syngenta’s Bt-11 sweet corn for food consumption only: Australia, China, EU, Korea, New Zealand, The Philippines, Russia, and Switzerland
Feed starving masses, not irrational fears
- USA TODAY (op-ed), May 26, 2004
Some 842 million people - 13% of the world's population - don't have enough food to eat each day. Millions of them face starvation in Africa because of droughts and armed conflicts in countries that include Sudan, Angola and Uganda.
In one sense, that's an old story - so old, it makes even sympathetic eyes glaze over. But it could have a new happy ending that, remarkably, has yet to be written. While the script promises a reliable, cheap food supply for all who are hungry, some fear that outcome the way villagers were terrified by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein monster.
In fact, fearful environmentalists and their political allies call the solution "Frankenfood," crops genetically altered to resist disease, pests and drought, or staples engineered to add nutrients. Such crops could transform health in the poorest nations, the United Nations (news - web sites)' Food and Agricultural Organization said in a report last week. Biotech rice alone could prevent 500,000 cases of blindness and 2 million children's deaths each year as a result of vitamin A deficiency.
Yet most of Europe, where a purist view of agriculture reigns, has banned biofoods because of health and environmental worries. That has caused some African nations to reject U.N. donations of foods containing bioengineered seeds; they fear their agricultural exports would be shut out of Europe.
The U.N. report challenged European myths about genetic modification, which has existed since our ancestors used microorganisms to make bread, wine and cheese. No serious illnesses tied to these foods have been documented, it notes. In the U.S., most foods are genetically modified in some way and must meet rigid safety standards.
Technology is never risk-free, but given the minimal risks, denying the food to starving people defies reason and conscience.
Major biotech firms, under political pressure to do more to tackle world hunger, are addressing the problem. They have shared proprietary data with researchers across the world and field-tested many crops in poor countries, where the companies' profit potential is limited.
The biggest hurdle is the lack of acceptance because of opponents' scare tactics or unfounded fears:
In the midst of a famine that killed millions, Zambia and Zimbabwe in 2002 turned away corn donated by the U.N. because some contained bioengineered seeds. Zambia, whose president called the crops "poison," still bans biotech foods. Sudan, Mozambique, Angola and Zimbabwe will accept only milled products that can't be planted and intermingled with native crops.
The 25-nation European Union (news - web sites) last week ended a six-year moratorium against biotech food by allowing imports of one strain of processed sweet corn that can't be planted. Virtually all other biotech foods are still banned.
Agricultural giant Monsanto shelved plans on May 10 to introduce the world's first genetically engineered wheat, bowing to the worries of U.S. and Canadian farmers that Europe and Japan would reject all North American wheat imports.
Critics say biotech foods could spread allergens and toxins, and little is known about long-term safety issues. Fanatical opponents vow to destroy fields where the crops are grown and shut down a biotech conference in San Francisco in June.
Biotech food isn't a panacea, and its use need not race ahead of reasonable safety testing. But it could significantly improve the lives of billions. Groundless fears shouldn't be allowed to stand in the way.
Partial surrender on 'Frankenfood'
- Washington Times (op-ed), May 26, 2004
The European Union recently surrendered to sound science in the debate over genetically modified foods (GMOs). Specifically, EU commissioners lifted the six-year moratorium on GMOs by allowing the Swiss-based Syngenta to sell its sweet corn. David Byrne, the EU commissioner for health and consumer protection, said the corn "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."
While the decision is a welcome one, it represents only a partial victory, since the EU continues to enforce tight labeling and traceability requirements on GMOs. Under EU dictates, records of all transactions involving GMOs — both where the materials came from and where they were sent — must be kept for years. In addition, all processed foods containing GMOs must be labeled as such. Coincidentally, the only exception is for foods processed by genetically-modified aids, such as enzymes used in the manufacture of wines and cheeses.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) is expected to formally hear the United States' complaint against the EU ban in the near future. One of the first pieces of evidence that U.S. trade officials should offer is the recently released 2004 annual report of United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. It was unambiguous regarding the safety of GMOs: "Currently available transgenic crops and foods derived from them have been judged safe to eat and the methods used to test their safety have been deemed appropriate." Besides, GMOs have been on the market for years. It would long have been obvious if they caused adverse health effects or provoked allergic responses.
More than 30 GMO products are awaiting EU approval, some whose applications have been standing for years. The time it takes for the EU to handle those applications, and those for new GMOs, will demonstrate its sincerity or lack thereof.
In the meantime, the U.S. has no reason to drop its WTO complaint, since European opposition to GMOs remains strong. Over the weekend, four Greenpeace activists blockaded a ship full of GMO maize and corn attempting to unload at the port of Corinth. Considering the nonexistent health risks of GMOs, it is likely that anti-GMO activists truly fear that genetically modified foods will not bite back, causing an adverse effect on their fundraising efforts.
In making the announcement, Mr. Byrne said, "I'm much happier to be guided by science than ideology." Time will tell if EU commissioners — and consumers — will follow that wise guidance.
Opportunities in plant genetics being missed, say European Science Academies
- CORDIS News, May 25, 2004 (Via Agnet)
A report by the European Academies of Science Advisory Council (EASAC) has called for a more coordinated approach, as well as increased funding, so as to enable Europe to capitalise on advances in plant genetics.
The report claims that the application of new tools and methods in plant genetics to conventional farming is being held back by a lack of a coherent research strategy at European level and the impact of legislation.
The EASAC claims that plant genetics could benefit agriculture in ways unrelated to genetic modification, and therefore also recommends that the EU Member States do more to assist the development of plant genetics in developing countries.
In order to promote plant genetics abroad, more investment in this area of research is first needed at home.
'Until recently, much of the research on crops in the European Union has been carried out in public institutions,' said Professor Gian Tommaso Scarascia-Mugnozza. However, we recognise that most crop research is now carried out in the private sector, and that, in the present political climate, many companies are pessimistic about the future of research on plant genetics and of its application in Europe. It is evident that they are reducing their in-house research located in the European Union, and this is having an impact on the level of funding in universities.'
Vice-Chairman of the EASAC, Professor Edoardo Vesentini, urged both policy makers and the general public not to let the recent controversy over genetic modification to overshadow achievements in other areas of plant genetics. He listed such successes as cross-bred varieties of oilseed rape, cotton, soy and maize that are tolerant of weedkillers or resistant to insects. 'Some scientists have likened the potential impact of the new plant genetics on conventional crop breeding to that of the jet engine on air travel,' he added.
The report notes that plant genetics can be used to create new industries. For example, new methods can be employed to produce crop plants to be used as renewable fuels, or an environmentally friendly source of chemicals.
The organisation also highlights how EU legislation can have an unintended impact on plant genetics. 'The Commission and Parliament need to be more aware of the way in which the development of policies in areas such as energy, chemicals and recycling can accidentally restrict research into crop plants,' said Professor Scarascia-Mugnozza.
- The Economist, May 25th 2004
Genetically modified (GM) crops were first commercially cultivated in the early 1990s. The theory was that by conferring resistance to pests and weed-killers, genetic modification would increase yields, cut prices and, eventually, enhance the nutritional value of crops. Researchers have even found a way to grow decaffeinated coffee beans that offer as much flavour as the regular kind. Many poor countries are embracing GM crops in the light of apparent successes with GM maize.
However, outside America (and especially in Britain and the rest of Europe), GM foods have met shrill opposition from consumers who worry that they are unsafe, unnecessary and bad for the environment. These fears are largely groundless, but the backlash led the EU to ban the importation of GM foodstuffs in 1998. The ban was a blow to the biotechnology industry, which is booming in America, and in May 2003 America challenged it at the WTO. America has argued that the ban hurts not just biotech firms, but farmers in developing nations, and prevents famine-gripped countries such as Zambia from accepting GM food aid. In May 2004 the European Commission lifted a five-year moratorium on genetically modified produce, and despite pressure from European customers, Brazil recently lifted its GM ban voluntarily. European customers are now free to choose whether to eat GM foods, or pay more for the old-fashioned kind. In Britain, at least, it seems inevitable that bio-engineered crops will become commonplace.