Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - May 27, 2004:
* Attitude Adjustment Needed
* Is it time to accept GM foods in the UK?
* GM Crop in the EU
* Food Scares - fact or fiction?
* French split over green charter
Attitude Adjustment Needed
- Truth About Trade and Technology, by Bill Horan, 5/27/2004
Just as wild packs of ravenous wolves prey upon the weakest members of the herds they hunt--the old, the young, and the injured--the enemies of biotechnology are trying to push their political agenda in specially selected locales. Their latest victory comes in Vermont, where the governor has just signed a bill requiring seed manufacturers to label genetically modified seed, starting in October. All sales will be reported to the state agriculture secretary as well.
That may not sound like much. After all, when we talk about Vermont we’re talking about a state with a population smaller than the total number of legal immigrants who came to the United States last year.
Yet some people hope this political cherry picking is only a start. As the website of one anti-biotech group proclaims, Vermont’s new labeling obligation “is an important first step toward enacting more stringent regulation later.”
What the activists really want, of course, is for their “stringent regulation” to strangle agricultural biotechnology right out of existence. This elitist attitude may come to affect people who won’t ever set foot in Vermont. As a new report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization makes clear, farmers in the developing world have the most to gain from advances in biotechnology.
The bottom line is that when a group of Vermont activists brag about “an important first step toward enacting more stringent regulation later,” they’re talking about hurting farmers in Africa--even if the activists themselves don’t realize it.
Driving biotechnology out of business was the motivation behind a ballot initiative three months ago in California’s Mendocino County, where voters approved an outright ban on planting biotech enhanced crops. A similar measure may appear on the ballot in nearby Humboldt County this fall.
The most curious thing about each of these jurisdictions is that biotechnology doesn’t currently play a big role in the decisions of local farmers. Although biotech plants comprise the vast majority of America’s soybean harvest and roughly half of its corn acres, there aren’t any soybean or corn farmers in Mendocino County.
Vermont does grow some corn, but in microscopically small quantities. If some mysterious blight were to pass through the state and destroy its entire corn crop, I doubt consumers would know the difference upon inspecting their grocery-store receipts. When it comes to agricultural biotechnology, Vermont is more or less inconsequential.
But the state does produce plenty of food. When many people think of Vermont, they think of maple syrup harvested by family farmers who live in log cabins. This popular picture hardly captures the complexity of the maple-syrup industry, of course. The important thing to know is that Vermonters want people from elsewhere to think about Vermont as a place of pristine nature. The log-cabin imagery appeals to just about everyone, and especially members of a consumer culture that increasingly wants “organic” alternatives. Vermonters believe their state can serve as a kind of brand name for boutique shoppers--and they think anti-biotech politics may enhance an idea of Vermont that they’re trying to sell.
If these decisions affected only folks in Mendocino County and Vermont, my inclination would be to leave them alone. Far be it from me to say they shouldn’t pass silly laws. If they want to become modern-day Luddites, then that’s their business.
Yet the anti-biotech campaigns in California and Vermont are about more than the politics of symbolism. There’s a grand strategy at work here, and it directly affects those of us who use biotechnology now and hope to use it more in the future.
To put it simply, the activists are trying to win enough small-bore victories to put a crimp in genetically enhanced food everywhere.
Their successes in Mendocino County and Vermont may look like piecemeal gains. But if they keep up this track record of accomplishment over the course of several years, suddenly they will have created such a complicated patchwork of rules governing biotech products that food companies may begin to consider if the cost of compliance is worth it. Consumers may feel the same way if biotech food, despite its higher efficiency at the producer level, winds up carrying prices that make organic food look like a bargain.
The bad news is that the anti-biotech crowd may yet experience more success. Voters in Humboldt County may not be the last California county to approve a ballot measure modeled on Mendocino County’s. Monsanto’s decision to pull back from developing biotech wheat may embolden North Dakota’s anti-biotech leaders, who have been frustrated by the political process previously but may now feel energized.
The good news is that those of us who believe in using science to improve quality of life now understand what we’re up against. We also know that to fend off the wolves we must first stop running--and prepare ourselves for a good fight.
Bill Horan, a Board Member for Truth About Trade and Technology grows corn, soybeans and grains on a family farm in Northwest Iowa. Over 50% of the crops grown on his farm are produced under contract for various end-users.
Studies indicate that genetically modified crops are safe for human consumption. Is it time to accept them?
- The Times (London), May 27, 2004
The Catch in the Rye
Genetically modified crops are being grown extensively in North and South America and China and have become a part of the normal diet there. In Europe the contention continues despite the fact that millions of US citizens eat GM soya without any ill-effects. European consumers' opposition to GM foods has had serious repercussions for plant research, for the commercial development of new crops and, most importantly, for developing countries that could benefit most.
Several countries in Africa and elsewhere have resisted growing them, mainly for fear of being unable to export them to the European market.
These concerns have resulted in an unprecedented effort to investigate those anxieties and communicate with the public, particularly in the UK. The first of these initiatives were the extensive farm scale evaluations of three GM crops (herbicide-resistant beet, oil seed rape and maize), results of which were published last year, followed by the advisory committee on releases to the environment's report to the UK government. There has also been a major review of the science relevant to GM crops and food, chaired by the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser.
In addition, the UK Agricultural, Environmental and Biotechnology Commission has produced a series of reports on the scientific, social and ethical implications of sowing GM crops, and the paper published this year by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, "The use of genetically modified crops in developing countries", reaffirmed its earlier conclusion that "there is an ethical obligation to explore these potential benefits responsibly, in order to contribute to the reduction of poverty and to improve food security and profitable agriculture in developing countries".
Finally, the British Medical Association recently stated: "The BMA shares the view that there is no robust evidence to prove that GM foods are unsafe" and that "genetically modified food has enormous potential to benefit both the developed and developing world in the long term."
What more do we need?
Professor Derek Burke, Cambridge
I am a British farmer and I am uncertain about the prospect of growing GM crops.
On the one hand, I am convinced that they would give me the opportunity to grow crops using fewer pesticides and thus reduce my production costs. On the other, I have to be wary of losing customers. If my consumers want GM-free food then I would be a fool to want to give them anything else, even if I think they are worrying about nothing.
I am certain about one thing. At the moment we are importing GM crops into the UK by the boatload. We are all wearing them and we are all eating them directly or indirectly. What is more, our Government is intent on handing out more consents to more imported GM products.
If we prevent our farmers from using this cost-saving technology, but at the same time provide markets for foreign farmers who adopt it, then we are placing UK farmers in a very uncompetitive position.
Some may describe the policy of a Government that gives foreign farmers advantages over its own as mistaken. I would call it treachery.
Guy Smith, St Osyth, Essex
I am wholeheartedly in favour of taking full advantage of the potential benefits of this technology. There has not been a single example of harm suffered by a consumer of GM food. We all have been eating GM tomatoes for nearly two decades without problems. The suggestion that we can be harmed by eating a gene, absorbing it through our gut wall and somehow being affected by it, is fanciful in the extreme.
In my rural area some have even been scared into thinking that those living downstream from a field sown with a GM crop are somehow at risk. One wonders what!
I shall go out immediately and seek some Bt11 corn at my supermarket; and if it is not stocked I shall ask why not.
R. W. Gray, Cheselbourne, Dorset
If studies of GM crops show them to be safe and not likely to cause any damage to the environment, then I am all for them. It is all very well for people in developed countries, where there is more food than is needed, to get high and mighty, but for those in the Third World who face starvation and for whom hunger is a daily experience, GM technology could be a lifesaver.
If there were scientific reasons why GM crops are undesirable, then I would be against them. However, what worries me is the fact that many people are against them simply because they are in ignorance and fear the term "Frankenstein foods".
Manjit Singh, Leicester Skewed priorities HOW extraordinary that supermarkets which boast "no GM" fill their shelves with salt-laden processed food which undoubtedly contributes to sickness and many deaths. Why don't organisations such as Greenpeace get their priorities right? Could it be because they fear that it might threaten their interests (ideological as well as practical) in "organic" food?
Alan Pavelin, Chislehurst, Kent
Put the stuff on the shelves and let the customers decide for themselves. We've heard all the arguments over and over again and need neither the pressure groups nor the companies, both pursuing their own interests, to tell us what to eat.
The taste for GM foods may, at this point, be restricted to a minority but that's true for lots of items: retailers sell kosher or halal meat and pork products in the same store. Foods for vegans and other vegetarians do not prevent the sale of meat. The same should hold for GM products.
Sheila Moses, London NW6
Nature and nurture
I am against GM crops. People should not be playing God with nature and altering the natural, genetic state through which living organisms develop.
Jeffrey Woodhouse, Halton, Lancashire
I'm all for GM crops, antibiotics, anaesthetics, aspirin, telephones and wheels.
John Romer, London W5
From: "Gordon Couger"
Subject: GM Crop in the EU
Date: Thu, 27 May 2004 03:29:37 -0500
With the price of soy beans that may be more than double the historic lows that have be dogging the market in the recent years, I wonder how true the greens of the EU will be to GM free food as it becomes increasingly expensive as the supplies of large GM free sources of beans evaporate if they actual test them. Many of the beans that the EU has been accepting from Brazil as GM free are raised from black market Monsanto seed.
With the end of the historic low ag prices, food costs will start to play a more important part in people choices even in the first world. Look at how we squeal at the price of gasoline, and it is still less expenses than it has been for most of the 45 years I have been buying it in terms of constant dollars and it has only gone up 45% and will drop lower than where it started as soon as oil backed up in tankers gets unloaded when the congestion at Chinese ports is resolved.
The greens ban on GM crops depends on there being a perception there is a market for them. When there is a surplus of crops, growers are willing to do a lot more to please an eccentric buyer but when there is a market for what ever you grow, you grow what pays the best. And around the world growers and governments are seeing that genetically modified crops are better in every way for the soil, ecology and population.
Many of the people in the rest of the world are growing tired of the EU trying to dictate to the rest of the world how the run their business by passing laws that withhold trade if the country does not conform to what the EU thinks is correct. Their unwillingness to trade with countries that use DDT to combat malaria should also be taken to the WTO.
In the long run it is thier own people that they penalize by not embracing efficient agriculture as it takes more and more of their disposable income to put food on the table. Keeping that money from being reinvested in their economy.
Unless the climate is very favorable over then next 30 years, with ever increasing mouths to feed and the large majority of the world resisting any change in agriculture the years of bin busting surpluses may be over. The world has used more grain than it has produced for three years in a row and it is starting to show in the prices. Soybeans are sure having a good run and the forecasts look like we will just make the amount used or less across the board, assuming normal yields and we don't have normal subsoil moisture over much of the worlds farm land. I think that that the crop estimates are overly optimistic both in planted acres and yields. I don't we will produce as much as we use this year in most commodities.
Gordon Couger www.couger.com/gcouger
Food Scares - fact or fiction?
- Globe and Mail, By By Robert Wager, May. 26, 2004
At the beginning of the twentieth century milk had a dubious safety record.
Many people became ill and often died from milk-borne bacterial infections. Pasteurization solved the pathogenic bacterial problems and milk became a safe healthy choice for consumers. But if one reads the newspapers of those days, many people claimed the pasteurization process was un-natural, would create poisons or would destroy the essence of the milk. Some still proclaim that today. Fortunately regulators don't believe such quaint rhetoric.
Modern day food scare marketing began in earnest in 1989 when a particular communication company and lobby group persuaded the media that a pesticide used on apples (Alar) was carcinogenic and killing our children. The media blitz was huge and soon that pesticide was removed from the market. But real research showed that, in fact Alar was not the toxic nightmare it was portrayed to be. One would have to drink 13,000 litres of apple juice a day to increase the risk of cancer.
The former Surgeon General Dr. Koop stated in 1991, "If Alar ever posed a health hazard, I would have said so ... Alar-treated apples products posed no hazard to the health of children or adults."
The following year the American Medical Association editorialized how the Alar scare had taken science out of context and the risks were blown out of proportion. These facts did not matter, as the scare story had already done the damage and lined the pockets of those responsible for it in the first place. From fruits to vegetables to meat, the food scare campaigns are prolific.
Fish has been part of our diet since the beginning of time. We have all read or listened to the media tell us how dangerous farmed salmon is, but is it really? Lets look at the PCB scare stories.
A press release in the summer of 2003 from a Non-governmental Organization
(NGO) warned the consumer of toxic levels PCBs in farmed salmon. The story ran all over North America. Next came the article in a January 2004 issue of the journal Science. Together these stories painted farmed salmon in a less than favourable light.
But the media did a very poor job of showing the public proper context of the levels of PCBs found. It is well documented that PCBs can be found everywhere on the planet. As we get better at measuring lower and lower levels, we find PCBs in more places. But, and this is a big BUT, just because we can measure something does not mean the levels are toxic.
In the case of farmed salmon, the levels found were about 3 per cent of the allowable limit of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization, the British Food Standards Agency and the European Union. It doesn't matter how many zeros the authors put behind the values (by changing the units), it still was 3 per cent of the world standards for PCBs in fish.
Now the real shame is these scare stories may have put some people off eating healthy omega-3 fatty-acid-containing foods. There is mounting evidence that a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids is very good for the heart. Salmon, farmed or wild, are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and should be a part of a healthy diet. PCB levels continue to drop around the world. Definitely a good thing, but that will probably not stop groups from trying to use relatively low, non-toxic levels to advance their agendas.
Another prime example is the recent media blitz after an article was published that found acrylamide in fried foods. Acrylamide is naturally produced when starchy foods are heated to high temperatures. Laboratory experiments have shown that very high doses of acrylamide, when fed to rats, can cause cancer.
As soon as acrylamide was measured in fried foods the next food scare was on. Another NGO in the United States immediately petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), claiming, "Acrylamide might cause cancer in humans." But later that same NGO had to admit the study they quoted, as support for their claim, did not find an association between acrylamide and cancer. The International Journal of Cancer and the British Journal of Cancer both published reports that did not find any link between acrylamide and cancer.
And the context for the average person goes like this. One would have to consume over 150 pounds of French fries every day in order to increase the risk of cancer from acrylamide. At that level of food intake, a miniscule increase risk of cancer would be the least of one's problems.
Canada is still suffering from our first and only case of " Mad Cow Disease." Since it was discovered, one case was also found in the U.S. Everyone is very familiar with the huge amounts of scare marketing around this issue. Yet if one asks experts at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis you find out the risk of contracting vCJD from tainted beef is "as close to zero as you can get".
This has not stopped the media from bringing forward "reported experts" who claim mass deaths are coming for those who eat beef. They claim only diets of "Natural Food" are safe. Or only vegetarian diets are safe. And lately, because massive numbers of vCJD cases are not showing up, they have switched to trying to persuade the public that Alzheimer's diagnoses are really vCJD.
According to the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service, clinical studies show there is virtually zero risk of getting vCJD. Now critics will say 'but that is not No risk.' The critics also know there is no such thing as risk-free anything. So they pump up the minuscule risks to advance their agendas.
Now the Grand Daddy of food scares involves hundreds of millions of dollars around the world. One Non Governmental Organization alone is spending more than $100-million dollars to try to scare the public into believing food biotechnology (Genetically Modified Food) is dangerous. They have made claims like 'GM maize would cause homosexuality, impotence and mental retardation and leave behind millions of dead bodies, sick children, cancer clusters and deformities.' These types of statements have had disastrous effect on millions of people in famine stricken areas of the world. The United States donates about 70 per cent of the worlds' food aid but does not segregate GM crops from non-GM crops. Therefore, all food aid from the U.S. is considered genetically modified.
Two years ago NGO's persuaded certain leaders of African countries to block the food aid coming from the U.S. The African leaders were lead to believe the food aid was poison. The leaders refused to distribute the food aid and millions of people were left starving. Jump-ahead two years and the same NGO's are at it again in Angola. They have persuaded the Angolan government to reject 38 million pounds of corn food-aid from the U.S. Two million people are starving right now because of this.
In the Far-East rice is a staple crop for billions of people. But rice is low in several vitamins and minerals. According to the WHO several hundred thousand children go blind each year from lack of Vitamin A in their diet. Scientists have been successful in engineering Beta-carotene (Vitamin A
precursor) into rice. The genes came from the daffodil and a bacterium. The engineered rice is called "Golden Rice" because it has a yellowish colour. Presently this rice is being crossed with local varieties of rice from different areas and analyzed for environmental considerations.
Once again critics have claimed many false things about this type of biotechnology-fortified rice. These scare tactics have pushed back the date for free distribution of golden rice to subsistence farmers by years. How many children will go blind unnecessarily because of this particular scare campaign? Only time will tell.
So according to critics of food biotechnology, there are too many risks from growing and consuming food biotechnology crops and many say we should all convert to "naturally" produced food to be safe. But if one looks at what the experts say about food biotechnology versus "natural food," a completely different picture comes into focus.
The American Medical Association released a report in January of 2004. In it they say: "Attempts to introduce GM foods have stimulated not a reasoned debate, but a potent negative campaign by people with other agendas. Opponents ignore common farming practices and well investigated facts about plants, or inaccurately present general problems as being unique to GM plants."
The European Commission sponsored 81 research projects over 15 years covering all areas of concern and determined that food biotechnology "has not shown any new risks to human health or the environment, beyond the usual uncertainties of conventional plant breeding. Indeed the use of more precise technology and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably make then even safer than conventional plants and food."
The International Council for Science (an umbrella group that represents of over 100 academic and scientific organizations from around the world) did the most comprehensive review on the safety of food biotechnology to date. In their report entitled New Genetics, Food and Agriculture: Scientific Discoveries-Social Dilemmas, they looked at several questions about food biotechnology including:
- Are they safe to eat?
- Will there be any effect on the environment?
They stated, "Further there is no evidence of any ill effects from the consumption of food containing genetically modified ingredients. Since GM crops were first commercially cultivated in 1995, many millions of meals have been made with GM ingredients and consumed by people in several countries, with no demonstrated adverse effects."
They go on to say, "There are also benefits to human health coming from GM foods."
Vitamin enriched rice; healthier corn and reduced pesticide usage are a few examples. And with respect to the environment they say, "there is no evidence of any deleterious environmental effects having occurred from the trait/species combinations currently available."
Critics will say 'but what if' ... or 'you can't prove GM food is completely safe.' In a sense they are correct, as it is impossible to prove a negative. It will never be possible to prove anything is ever 100-per-cent safe. But since none of us can see the future, the only way we can determine the relative safety of anything is through a history of safe use. To that end over two trillion meals worth of GM crops have been grown and eaten without a single documented case of harm to anyone. If one compared the GM food safety record to some of the "natural foods" being offered as better alternatives it becomes very clear food biotechnology products are far safer than the alternatives so often advanced by the critics.
The FDA lists microbial contamination (a problem with using manure
fertilizer) as the most dangerous hazard in food. The second most dangerous hazard is naturally occurring toxins. It is well known that 99.99 per cent of the toxins we consume are from natural sources.
The next time a food scare hits the airwaves it may be advisable to first ask what is being 'sold' by those who bring forward the claims. Remember we have one of the safest food supplies in the world and scare tactics should not be allowed to change that. There is no doubt that food scare campaigns can influence public perception, but when public policy is driven by pseudo-science, the result is bad public policy. Bon appetite
Robert Wager is a member of the Biology Department at Malaspina University College in Nanaimo, B.C. Robert Wager has a science degree in microbiology and a masters of science in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of British Columbia.
French split over green charter
Chirac's plan to put environment on a par with human rights divides politicians and scientists
- The Guardian, By Kim Willsher, May 27, 2004
France is proposing to make a historic change to its constitution by giving environmental issues as much weight as human and social rights.
The controversial Environment Charter, initiated by President Jacques Chirac, will enshrine the right of all French people to "live in an environment which is balanced and respects their health."
The proposal, which is being debated by parliament, has divided Mr Chirac's own centre-right UMP party, some of whom have called for fundamental parts of the bill to be scrapped. While most agree with the basic principle, many doubt whether it is a constitutional issue as opposed to a matter for a change in the ordinary laws.
Fierce disagreement centres on an article which states that if an action is deemed to pose a "serious and irreversible" threat to the environment, then the state can intervene and stop it. Critics say that its sweeping clauses could stifle scientific research and lead to long and complicated legal disputes.
Professor Maurice Tubiana, president of the Academy of Medicine, which, along with the Academy of Sciences, is opposed to the amendment to the constitution, said: "All modern technologies carry a risk, whether it's the car, electricity or nuclear power."
Others claim it does not go far enough in making polluters pay for the damage they cause, as stated in the declaration of the 1992 Earth summit in Rio.
Mr Chirac called on MPs to support a "superior interest _ which was more important than ordinary laws".
The prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, agreed: "It is very important that France shows itself to be the conscience of the planet," he said.
The justice minister, Dominique Perben, who opened the parliamentary debate, said the critics were wrong about the controversial article: "It doesn't stop scientific research or economic activities," he said.
"It's time politicians responded to the concerns of our citizens about the protection of the environment. It's not a case of giving up economic and social development, but of making this compatible with preserving the environment."
The Green party said it was "very disappointed" with the new text, which it described as a trompe l'oeil ; however, supporters say it will make the scientific world more responsible.
"Science can do things for the good and for ill," said a leading astrophysicist, Hubert Reeves.
"It's necessary to be vigilant and reflect on the implication of research.
"Awareness of the risks that human activities could cause to humanity and nature means we have to adopt a principle of precaution.
"That principle has its place in the Environment Charter and the charter has its place in the constitution.
"To take this principle out of the charter would be to refuse to confront the risks with responsibility."
The text will put put the environment on an equal constitutional footing with the "rights of citizens established in 1789" and economic and social rights introduced in 1946.
Legal experts say enshrining it in the constitution means an ordinary citizen could bring legal action if he or she believed the state or authorities were not taking measures to preemptively protect the environment over, for example, genetically modified food and pesticides.
A Socialist party MP, Christophe Caresche, said his group wanted to be positive but dismissed the charter as a "false good idea".
"The initial idea was ambitious and wide reaching," he said, but it could backfire on environmentalists because it was "not precise enough and leaves a lot open to interpretation."
The charter will have to be finally passed by a national referendum or by a vote by both houses of parliament.