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May 31, 2004


Borlaug Urges More Research; Kenya Prepares GM Maize; Organic Movement Led by Corporations?


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - May 31, 2004:

* Borlaug Urges More Agricultural Research to Help Poor Countries
* Kenya prepares to grow genetically modified maize
* EU lifts ban on GM maize
* Labelling GM food not easy
* IAEA Mutation Breeding Review
* The Organic Foods Movement: Led By Multinational Corporations Or We The People?


Borlaug Urges More Agricultural Research to Help Poor Countries Africa especially needs increased food output, Nobel winner says

- AllAfrica.com, May 20, 2004, By Kathryn McConnell

With new plant diseases emerging and the amount of the world's farmable land holding steady, the international research and aid communities must increase efforts to develop and share with developing countries information about new agricultural technologies and methods, says Norman Borlaug, 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

In a May 20 speech at the National Press Club, Borlaug said Africa, in particular, needs access to improved agricultural technologies.

"Africa is the biggest worry" to those involved in agricultural research and international development he said. Borlaug was in Washington to present the inaugural of what will be a series of annual lectures named for George C. Marshall, whose "Marshall Plan" of foreign aid begun in 1947 helped Europe recover from World War Two.

The lecture series was established by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to honor internationally recognized leaders in the field of development. USAID supports agricultural research aimed at improving food production and nutrition, protecting crops against new strains of crop diseases, and increasing environmental protections as a result of improved farming practices.

Borlaug, known as the "father of the green revolution" for his historic work in agricultural research, is credited with "saving more lives than any other person in the world," said Syed Hasan Ahmad, ambassador to the United States from Bangladesh, in introducing Borlaug at the lecture.

Borlaug's work in the 1960s and 1970s developed higher-producing cereals, saving millions of lives in Bangladesh and in other developing countries, Ahmad said. Moreover, he said, Borlaug's work helped Bangladesh move from needing large amounts of U.S. food aid to now being able to produce a "modest surplus" of food.

In developing Asia, Borlaug noted in his lecture, improvements in agricultural technologies lead to an increase of cereal production from 309 million tons in 1961 to 962 million tons in 2000.

Yet, Borlaug said, "Africa has been left behind" in benefiting from the green revolution because of burdensome government bureaucracies and poor infrastructures. For instance, he said, many African countries have few paved roads, and those they do have lead to mines instead of into farming areas, inhibiting the transfer of agricultural inputs and knowledge to farmers, he said.

Countries in the region are also experiencing a high rate of population growth and a declining level of soil fertility, increasing their need for improved food production, he said.

Borlaug said one of his "dreams" for developments in agricultural biotechnology in this century is finding ways to transfer the immunities to the plant disease rust that were developed for rice to other cereals such as wheat, maize, sorghum and barley. Rust is a fungus that stresses plant development.

Another of Borlaug's wishes is to develop methods to transfer more wheat proteins to dough for leavened breads, a nutritional improvement, he said.

Biotechnology holds great potential for developing more food varieties with resistances to insects, disease and weeds, improved nutritional quality and increased yields, Borlaug said.

But, he said, people who are demanding proof that species developed through biotechnology are 100 percent safe are unrealistic.

"There is no zero risk in the biological world" and adherents to the "precautionary principle" who want proof of 100 percent surety that a new plant is safe are holding back progress in scientifically sound agricultural research, he said.

In addition to the need for developing better producing and more environmentally safe agricultural plant species through biotechnology and other technologies, Borlaug said more research is also needed on ways to improve irrigation efficiencies. Farmers in developing countries also need more training in the use of the right types and efficient amounts of fertilizers for their soil, he said.

In developing countries, especially, progress in agriculture is linked to achieving peace, Borlaug said. "You cannot build peace on empty stomachs, he said, quoting John Boyd Orr, the first head of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

Boyd said that 56 percent of countries with the highest levels of hunger are experiencing civil conflict, he said. Countries with low agricultural production also have the highest levels of illiteracy, a wasting of the country's future talent, he added.

USAID's Collaborative Agricultural Biotechnology Initiative (CABIO) is designed to help developing countries access and manage the tools of modern biotechnology through research, strengthened public institutions and public outreach.


Kenya prepares to grow genetically modified maize

- The Sunday Standard, By Carole Kimutai, May 30, 2004

Every year, Kenya loses Sh7.2 billion ($90 million) to a pesky insect that attacks maize stalks.

The stem borer, which eats away 400,000 tonnes of maize — about 15 per cent of farmers’ annual harvests — has been on scientists’ minds for a long time.

Now, a new project to develop insect resistant maize on the continent is likely to put farmers at rest.

The Insect Resistant Maize for Africa (IRMA) project uses Biotechnology to develop varieties of the crop that are resistant to insects, and in particular the stem borer.

Already, a Sh10 million ($128,205.12) Biosafety Level II Green House for Genetically Modified maize has been constructed at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) Biotechnology Research Centre complex.

The BGH will be the first in East Africa, making Kenya the only other country — other than South Africa — to have a greenhouse for maize on the continent. Construction work on the BGH began in March 2003.

The IRMA project is a being jointly implemented by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), which is funded by Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture.

Inbred lines

Plants from Bt maize seed that are infested with insect pests will be grown and evaluated for resistance. Seed increase of Bt maize inbred lines and crosses will also be made between Bt maize and other locally adapted maize germplasm to develop locally adapted maize types.

There will also be other research to confirm the efficacy of the technology and refine its utility.

Kenyan scientists will not be looking for new genes, but investigating the effectiveness of Bt genes (cry1Ab and cry1Ba) against Kenya stem borers or stalk borers that damage maize plants in most parts of Kenya.

Dr Stephen Mugo, a maize breeder from CIMMYT and Dr Ben Odhiambo, a plant pathologist from Kari, will head the project team.

Mugo says a green house allows plant growth during times when the normal external environment cannot allow it at the desired speed.

"When using greenhouses, crops can grow in winter with extra lighting, heat and water supplied. Likewise, in the tropics, supplying extra humidity, as well as disease and pest control, can enable the growth of high value crops," explains Mugo.

Restricted access

The greenhouse has a head house capable of serving eight greenhouse units.

Mugo says: "This particular green house is designed to allow containment of genetically modified plants to grow. It is designed to have bio-safety features to ensure restricted access by humans, livestock as well as pests, and contains whole plants, seeds and other tissue from the genetically modified plants."

That is why its called a Bio-safety Level II Green House Complex.

Mugo says all necessary bio-safety design requirements for growing GM maize have been followed.

Dr Diego Gonzalez de Leon, a consultant on the IRMA project, designed the green house, and a local contractor undertook construction work under the consultant’s supervision.

The BGH complex currently has three green houses. Green House I and II contain immature maize plants while Green House III is for mature plants. Notable characteristics of the rectangular shaped green house are the bio-safety features that have focused on security, emergency situations, personnel, sanitation, pollen management and material disposal. All these are in accordance with Kenya’s regulations and guidelines on bio-safety.

Catherine Taracha and Murenga Mwimali, both scientists from Kari who underwent a six-month on-the-job training in CIMMYT, Mexico, have specialised in biosafety, green house operations, and molecular analysis. Regina Tende, a masters student in entomology using biotechnology, is also in the team.

One enters the biotechnology green house through a corridor that connects it to the Biotechnology Research Centre, with the permission of an authorised member of staff. The main entry to the BGH uses a secret code and an electronic card to open.

All the green houses have a double door system, a clearly labelled set of rules, type of experiment taking place and telephone numbers of three persons to be contacted in case of an emergency.

Emergency precautions include extra glass windows in case of a breakage. All personnel working at the BGH have been taught how to make a replacement. In case of a high-magnitude earthquake, all materials in the BGH are to be destroyed. Fire fighting equipment and an emergency push bar exit door connected to an alarm system has also been installed.

To ensure effective management of pollen, all spaces on the doors have been sealed with rubber and every green house fitted with a 50-microns wire mesh to avoid pollen leaving the green house; maize has 80 microns.

Dr Odhiambo says when researching on transgenic material, certain specific safety guidelines are mandatrory: "We will be very careful when it comes to pollen dispersion and that is why we had to fit in the wire mesh."

All members of staff, including security officers, have been trained on handling material in the BGH, including use of white lab coats inside the green house, red coats while inside specific green house rooms, and blue coats while potting plants. While potting, soil will be mixed in the ratio of 1:1:1 Sand: Soil: Cocopit. The soil is stored in special containers and a passage connects it to the sterilising room.

The steriliser

The BGH has a sterilisation system in place. Sterilising involves wetting all material coming in specifically soil and any going out which also includes plant material.

The steriliser has iron metal bars that heat up and rotate when the machine is switched on.

When the hot metals come into contact with the wet material, steam is produced at very high temperatures. The material stays in the steriliser for four to five hours.

All green houses have red bio-hazardous bins where all destroyed plant materials and used soil is disposed.

Material is then taken to the sterilising room before being put in the gas incinerator, 10 metres from the greenhouse, where it is burned. The ash is then buried in a trench dug near the incinerator.

The final phase of the experiment will be green house III where the mature maize plants will be located. After they have produced combs, the seeds will be put in a seed store and the maize stalks destroyed. The seed store operates under a two-lock system.

That is, a metallic door and a seed cabinet. There is a cabinet specifically for storing transgenic seeds.

The seeds will be put in envelopes clearly labelled with the number of seeds and date of harvest. This is a way of keeping records of seeds that come in and go out.

Odhiambo says it is a way of monitoring so that the researchers can tell from the mature plants that survive the infestation stage and grow on to maturity and the number of combs that are produced.

Operations in the green house have, technically, already begun. "We have grown maize for mock trials while training staff on its operations. However, growing of Bt maize will only commence when seeds are available in Kenya," says Mugo.

Bt maize is an effective way of controlling insect pests compared to using poisonous insecticides. Bt maize is an environmentally friendly way of controlling pests because it specifically targets the stem borer without affecting other (non-target) organisms that are part of soil diversity.

Farmers have been using Bt insecticides for 60 years. The first crop incorporating the Bt technology first went on sale in 1996, in the form of cotton protected against a caterpillar pest.

Bt technology is available for cotton, fodder, maize and sweet corn crops as well as potatoes.

Specified research

As soon as the Kenya Standing Technical Committee on Imports and Exports
(KSTCIE) headed by Kenya Plant Health Inspection Services (KEPHIS) inspects the green house on the authority of the National Biosafety Committee (NBC), Bt maize can be grown. An application requesting for inspection has already been sent to the chairman of the committee. Approval to introduce Bt maize seeds and carrying out the specified research in the greenhouse has already been granted by the NBC. The project is now waiting for KEPHIS to issue a permit before Kenya’s first GM maize can be grown.

The Ministry of Agriculture and the National Council for Science and Technology (NCST) are putting up modalities for the introduction and use of GMOs in the country. The final implementation of the GMOs policy blueprint will be undertaken by KEPHIS.

According to the International Service for Acquisition of Agro-biotech Applications by December 17, 2002, countries growing GM foods included the US, South Africa, Australia and India, among others. It is reported that other countries are also likely to be using GM ingredients in processed foods.

In Africa, Uganda has allowed the importation of GMOs while Zimbabwe and Zambia have rejected GM food aid.


EU lifts ban on GM maize

- The Sunday Standard, By Argwings Odera, May 30, 2004

The European Union this week lifted a six-year moratorium on Genetically Modified maize, surprising protagonists in the "food wars".

Campaigners against GM food saw the EU volte face as cowardice in the face of a suit filed in the World Trade Organisation by the US, the world’s biggest GM foods producer. The US argued that the moratorium, in place since 1998, had blocked an estimated $250 million in annual sales from its heavily subsidised farms.

Anti-GM campaigner Eric Gall of Greenpeace said: "The European Commission is supposed to represent the interests of European citizens and the environment, but it has chosen in this case to defend US farmers and narrow agro-business interests."

Genetic modification involves the copying and transfer of genes from one living organism to another — in this case from an animal to a food plant. The plant’s genetics are altered to improve resistance to disease, weather and pests.

The EU announcement, in Brussels, stipulated that the GM maize, called Bt-11, developed by the Swiss biotechnology company, Syngenta, is to be canned, clearly labelled as GM food, and sold for human consumption in supermarkets.

EU’s commissioner in charge of food safety, Mr David Byrne, said scientists had assessed the maize to be as safe as any conventional maize.

Africa, especially Zambia, has been accused of being beholden to European anti-GM campaigners who express fears that there is no scientific proof showing the long-term effect of human beings eating GM food.

Faced with a killer famine in 2002, the Zambian government rejected 26,000 tonnes of US food aid in October of that year because the shipments contained GM corn that was not thought to be safe. The Zambian agriculture minister expressed concern that the maize could pollute the country’s seed stock and hurt its export markets.

Kari scientists say Africa needs more explanation and full access to the EU scientific assessment instead of the usual announcements from press.

"It would be sad if Zambians died in their thousands from starvation because of EU fears while they (EU) knew their position did not have basis in science. This is an international scam that needs to be investigated, and I believe that the EU position was political," said a senior scientist who preferred not to be named, fearful of losing foreign donor support for research projects.

Zambia’s position was informed by the EU moratorium, which threatened trade sanctions on any trading partner who welcomed GM maize. The EU, accused of misleading Africans to the extent of prescribing to them death by hunger, has since denied that the moratorium influenced Zambia’s rejection of the food.

The Zambian position sent consternated the world. In Washington, the Bush administration expressed fear that other countries in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East would also reject GM food.

This compelled the US to file a lawsuit last year with the WTO against the EU for imposing a ban they said was based on political considerations instead of scientific fact.

Kenya’s position in the debate has been delicate, with pressure being exerted on the government to allow importation of GM food, just like its neighbour, Uganda.

Proponents see GM crops to be the solution to Africa’s hunger, while their opponents argue that farmers on the continent have trouble accessing the markets they need to sell their crops and genetic engineering of crops is not their biggest priority.

Africa is sufficiently fertile and only needs sound agricultural policies, support for hi-tech farm implements, removal of US and European farm subsidies and resumption of fair trade to prosper.

Kenya Agricultural Research Institute scientists, led by Prof James Ochanda and Dr Florence Wambugu, have made significant strides in agricultural bioscience studies.

Dr Wambugu argues that the anti-GM campaigners were, in reality, opposed to Africa’s advancement in bioscience. Her comments, she laments, have been distorted to make it appear as if she advocates for the supply and importation of GM products. South Africa is a major global producer of GM products alongside Egypt. Kari scientists have been struggling with their own research into GM maize, among other crops like Wambugu’s disease-resistant sweet potato.

A GM maize research laboratory facility that President Mwai Kibaki was scheduled to open early this year was put off, even though the centre has carried on with tests widely seen as illegal because of Kenya’s anti-GM position and the absence of legislation regulating research and planting for commercial purposes.

The Kenyan government policy bans all importation of GM products even though food aid distributor World Food Programme admitted recently that relief maize distributed to Kenya could be genetically modified from one of their main US markets.

Labelling GM food not easy

- The Straits Times (Singapore), June 1, 2004, By ALVIN LOO ENG KIAT

IN HIS commentary, 'Frankenfoods - we need to know' (ST, May 29), Dr Andy Ho writes that consumers have the right to know if a food has been genetically modified (GM).

However, the labelling of GM foods is not only a choice of whether to label but also one of what to label.

Take GM corn, for example. Corn and its products are available in many forms to consumers. Corn can be sold unprocessed or it can be processed into high fructose corn syrup, a sweetener used commonly in the food industries.

If GM foods have to be labelled, then do items that use corn syrup made from GM corn need to be labelled as genetically modified?

This could lead to an array of products, such as soft drinks, baked goods and candy, being labelled as genetically modified.

There is another problem. Corn syrup is so highly processed that even sophisticated laboratories would not be able to detect if a corn syrup was made from normal or GM corn.

So, to what extent should the labelling of GM foods be enforced? Should it be enforced all the way along the food processing chain or should it stop when technology is no longer able to differentiate between GM and non-GM foods?

And who should be responsible for the costly process of tracing a corn syrup back to its original source?

Then there is the problem of how much of a GM component an item should contain before it is labelled as a GM food.

The European Union has stated that the contamination of non-GM crops with GM crops is inevitable so it allows a maximum of 1 per cent of GM material in non-GM foods. This contamination occurs when the pollen and seeds of GM crops are carried by wind to neighbouring plots of land planted with non-GM crops.

What level of contamina-tion would the Government be willing to accept?

Should consumers be informed about the level of contamination as well?

The labelling of GM foods is very complicated and the issues I have raised are merely the tip of the iceberg.


IAEA Mutation Breeding Review

Issues are available online as PDFs at:



The Organic Foods Movement: Led By Multinational Corporations Or We The People?

- Axis of Logic, By Paul Cienfuegos, May 31, 2004

In the past few weeks, the USDA has once again attempted to weaken the federal organics standards that so many Americans have worked hard to enshrine into federal law. These changes would have allowed food labeled as "USDA Organic" to contain hormones and antibiotics in dairy cattle, pesticides on produce and potentially contaminated fishmeal as feed for livestock. As happened with a number of other outrageous recent USDA actions, citizens groups and the organic food industry rallied in opposition, and were successful in reversing the proposed changes.

The newest round of protests against such changes reminds us of the more than 200,000 letters Americans sent to the USDA back in 1997/98 pleading with the agency to not allow toxic sludge, irradiated food, and GMOs to be included in a list of allowable food growing practices for the then-new federal organic food regulations. The USDA backed down then as well, in the face of the outpouring of public opinion. It seems we have won again. Or have we?

Could it be that handing regulatory authority over to the USDA regarding organic foods creates a larger problem than it solves? And is it conceivable that this problem could have been averted entirely if we the people had thought more critically about our safe food movement's own decision-making processes?

Let's review the history.

FULL ARTICLE AT: http://www.axisoflogic.com/artman/publish/article_8356.shtml