Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - June 4, 2004:
* Biotech for the Common Good
* EU to discuss approval of two more GMO products
* Romanians say GM soya beats smelly salami
* MS Swaminathan panel favours Autonomous Regulator
* U.S., Canada Ask WTO to Open EU's Biotech Seed Market
* Syngenta sees serious risk of EU 'brain drain'
* Russia Tightens Up GM Food Labeling
Biotech for the Common Good
- Truth About Trade & Technology, by Dean Kleckner, May 4, 2004
Will the last person to agree that biotech food is safe to eat please turn out the lights?
That was my first response when I read a summary of the new report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Issued recently, its strong endorsement of genetically enhanced crops provides further proof that biotech food is here to stay--and that its permanence is something to welcome rather than fear.
In The State of Food and Agriculture 2004, the FAO reached several important conclusions, including these:
-- GM food is safe to eat.
-- Genetically enhanced pest and disease resistant crops offer the possibility of reducing the use of agricultural pesticides.
-- Small farmers have been some of the biggest beneficiaries of biotechnology.
None of these claims is actually new. We’ve been hearing them for years from dozens of distinguished sources on the farm, around the conference table, and in the science lab. Yet it’s helpful for these indisputable facts to receive the UN’s prestigious imprimatur.
That’s due in large part to the FAO’s traditional concern for farmers in the developing world. The organization is in an excellent position to speak to the common good of all people, rather than the special interests of a few.
Some 842 million people currently eat an inadequate diet, according to the FAO’s latest numbers. That’s nearly 14% of the world’s population. These unfortunate folks are of course concentrated in poor countries where farmers still don’t make much use of modern agricultural methods. The Green Revolution hasn’t yet transformed their practices, to say nothing of Gene Revolution. The challenge of feeding the world will only increase in the coming decades, as the global population continues to increase.
Obviously, much work needs to be done--right now as well as in the future. And biotechnology is clearly part of the answer to the vexing problem of malnourishment. As assistant director-general Harwig de Haen put it in a press conference: “FAO believes that biotechnology, including genetic engineering, can benefit the poor, but that the gains are not guaranteed.”
Of course they’re not guaranteed--not when fearmongering activists in Europe and Japan are frightening people all over the planet with their panicky complaints about “Frankenfood” and the like.
The FAO’s report left groups like Greenpeace practically speechless. That’s no surprise. What are they supposed to say when an internationally respected body comes to a set of conclusions that totally contradicts what they’ve been claiming for so long?
Well, I suppose they could admit they’ve been wrong--incredibly, spectacularly, extravagantly, ostentatiously, and tragically wrong. That would be the responsible thing to do. We try to teach our children to confess their mistakes. It’s part of growing up. We should expect nothing less of political outfits run by adults.
Naturally, enemies of biotechnology have chosen the path of least
The Associated Press tracked down one Doreen Stabinsky, a Greenpeace spokeswoman, for a comment on the FAO report. “Hunger is not a problem that needs technical solutions,” she said. “It needs political will and appropriate policies.”
What a ridiculous statement. Technical solutions are of course a huge part of addressing the problem of hunger, whether they’re advances in biotechnology, fertilization, or irrigation. We’re exponentially better at feeding the world today than we were a generation ago, and technical know-how is a huge part of the reason why.
But I’m not done with Stabinsky. Who is she to talk about “political will” and “appropriate policies”? I can’t think of a more useful form of “political will” than for Greenpeace to admit that its neo-Luddite views on biotechnology have led to a wholesale rejection of “appropriate policies” and that they now need a complete revision.
Consider one of the specific points in the FAO report--the concern that biotechnology’s great promise may not reach down and help small-scale farmers in the developing world because profit-minded companies lack the incentive to invest in new crops that don’t hold tremendous commercial potential. “Even the major food crops of the poor--wheat, rice, white maize, potato, and cassava--are also being neglected,” says the report.
Wheat is being neglected? Well, that’s sort of true. Last month, Monsanto announced that it would delay plans to commercialize biotech wheat. The root cause of its reluctance, however, was not driven by economics--but by the phony fears of consumers in Europe and Japan, stoked as they are by irresponsible militants at Greenpeace.
Maybe I should quit worrying about who’s going to turn off the lights and start worrying about who’s going to turn them on--inside the heads of activists who can now count the United Nations as one of their most influential critics.
EU to discuss approval of two more GMO products
- EUObserver.com, 03.06.2004, By Lisbeth Kirk
EU environment experts are to discuss the approval of two more GMO products in June after the Commission lifted a five-year moratorium on genetically modified products a few weeks ago.
On 19 May, the European Commission gave the go-ahead to maize known as Bt-11 and made by Swiss agrochemicals company Syngenta.
The EU executive took the decision after member states failed to agree among themselves about whether or not to lift the ban.
If authorised, the two next products — both marketed by Monsanto — would be used in animal feed and industrial processing, reported Reuters.
The first product up for approval is rapeseed modified to resist the herbicide glyphosate, one of the most toxic herbicides used to kill crop weeds. Monsanto’s trade name for this is Roundup.
Later in June, EU environment ministers will discuss a possible second GMO approval at a meeting scheduled for 28 June in Luxembourg.
The path was cleared for the first GM product, Bt-11, at a meeting of agricultural ministers in April.
At the time, six member states were against, six countries were in favour and three countries abstained. As member states failed to reach agreement, the European Commission was entitled to go ahead anyway under a complex decision-making procedure.
The meeting on 16 June is the first where experts of the 10 new member states are also able to vote. This makes the outcome of the meeting less easy to predict.
Bt-11 was the first of about 30 GM products waiting for regulatory clearance.
Romanians say GM soya beats smelly salami
- Reuters, 04 Jun 2004, By Radu Marinas
VARASTI, Romania, June 4 (Reuters) - The smelly, soya-based salami that replaced meat on Romanian dinner tables during the rule of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu long symbolised the misery of communism.
Almost 15 years after Ceausescu's overthrow, Constantin Necsulescu, 61, who grows genetically modified crops on his 500 hectare (1,236 acres) farm near the Danube river, says soya now means prosperity.
"It sharply cuts my use of chemicals, labour and fuel. It's incredibly profitable. My costs have halved," he said, pointing at his newest acquisition -- a John Deere tractor.
Environmentalists accuse U.S. biotech firms pioneering genetically modified organisms (GMOs) of using poorer east European countries as a back door to a reluctant European Union.
Firms such as Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred, a unit of DuPont say good weather, fertile farmland and a favourable government attitude brought them to Romania and Bulgaria, which expect to join the EU in 2007.
"Romania allowed us field trials," said Ioan Sabau of Monsanto Romania. "Ask any farmer now and they'll tell you they are not even thinking of growing organic plants anymore."
The companies say their technology helps fight hunger and poverty but environmental groups and many Europeans oppose GMOs, which they fear might be potentially unsafe for humans.
The EU has not authorised experimental or commercial growth of new gene-modified crops since 1998.
Although Brussels partly lifted the ban in May by allowing imports of a new GM maize type, Washington says there is further to go and it will continue to challenge the ban at the World Trade Organisation.
Romania, Europe's biggest soya grower until 1989, is the sole producer of GM soybeans on the continent with about 35,000 hectares (86,490 acres) under cultivation. Experts predict huge losses for the country after it joins the EU if it develops large-scale GM crops.
"We'll surely get in trouble. There will be nothing to export if we have only GMOs on offer," said Ion Scurteli of the ANCER grain wholesalers association.
The same applies to Bulgaria, which, according to the international biotech promotion group ISAAA, has been growing several thousand hectares of herbicide-tolerant GM maize.
EU experts said they did not expect Romania to suffer.
"It's unlikely that Romania will increase the acreage of GMOs so much that it will face problems in the EU after 2007," said Mihai Dumitru, the Commission's agriculture expert in Bucharest.
For the moment, GM crops represent about 0.4 percent of the total farmland in Romania, where agriculture accounts for 10 percent of gross domestic product.
Romania, burdened with a poor environmental record and strewn with abandoned communist-era factories, has no problem with GMOs.
"We're staunch promoters of the hi-tech GMOs. Romania has ideal conditions to develop highly productive, cost-saving crops," said Constantin Sin, a senior Agriculture Ministry official.
The government plans to boost the acreage of GM soya by 40 percent and also allow GM maize in 2005, Sin added.
However, uncontrolled seed trading is common in Romania, a patchwork of contested farmland since Stalinist collectivisation was scrapped after 1989.
Neighbouring Serbia, which banned GMOs, discovered 1,000 hectares (2,471
acres) sown with GM soya in the flatlands of its northern Vojvodina province and said the seeds had been smuggled from Romania.
Pioneer said GMOs would not spread across borders if rules were observed.
"Romania must apply the EU's labelling and traceability rules," said Pioneer Romania director Ion Sabaila.
Environmentalists say there is no way to stop GM crops from spreading.
"The only natural thing about GMOs is the way that such crops spread: they do crossbreed, they do cross-pollinate, they are carried by the wind and by insects," said Greenpeace activist Dan Hindsgaul.
"The crops get mixed with normal crops...everywhere the contamination spreads, the biotech firms rejoice. They own the patent and nature spreads their patented GE genes," he added.
The government put it differently.
"It is the GMO crop that is in danger of contamination from a traditional crop, not the other way around. The genes are diluted and the loss is huge," Sin said.
MS Swaminathan panel favours Autonomous Regulator
- Financial Express, June 3, 2003
NEW DELHI: The final report of the MS Swaminathan Committee on applications of biotechnology in agriculture has proposed setting up of an autonomous National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (NBRA) with two wings, one for food and agriculture sector and the other for pharmaceutical and industrial applications.
The powers of the existing regulator, Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) under the Union environment ministry, are sought to be curtailed, limiting its functions only to biosafety and environmental safety, till the NBRA is set up. The panel has suggested that the monitoring and evaluation committee (MEC) should report to GEAC on biosafety and environment safety issues.
The promoter agency, Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) under the Union agriculture ministry, should organise testing of genetically modified (GM) crops through All India Coordinated Research Project.
Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, who received the copy of the panel report on Wednesday, said, “The secretaries of different departments of both food and agriculture ministries would review the report. After the review we will be able to come to a definite conclusion.”
He however said that he is agreeable to any suggestion which would help in ensuring better crop productivity and food security.
The interim report of the Swaminathan panel, the details of which were published in The Financial Express on April 28, had drawn criticisms from several experts like the former regulator for GM crops in US and currently chief of Biologistics International, Sivramiah (Shanthu) Shantharam who had criticised the recommendations for giving more than due powers to the promoter agency, ICAR, in matters of testing of GM crops.
Experts and NGOs had also raised doubts about functioning of the proposed autonomous regulator.
In this context when questioned to which ministry of the government the NBRA should be attached for financial support, Dr Swaminathan said “this has to be decided by the government.” In the interim report it was suggested that the autonomous regulatory authority “could be attached for necessary administrative support to the department of biotechnology”, another promoter agency.
The executive summary which was circulated to mediapersons said that the evaluation procedure of GM crops should invite farmers’ participation and not that of the NGOs. The farmer and consumer organisations should have complete information on the benefits and risks associated with GM crops. The report called for a special government-sponsored insurance scheme for GM crops and seeds.
Several experts have criticised this move as shifting of the liability from the producers of GM seeds to the government, farmers who pay premium and insurance companies.
The reported suggested testing of GM foods on basis of FAO-WHO guidelines and national food safety guidelines based on the recent report of the joint parliamentary committee on soft drinks and fruit juices. It suggested Rs 1,200 crore additional funds in the next three years for development of all aspects of biotechnology including setting up of biotech parks and autonomous regulatory authority. The report calls for preserving of agro-biodiversity zones and organic fariming areas.
U.S., Canada Ask WTO to Open EU's Biotech Seed Market
- Bloomberg, June 4, 2004
The U.S., Canada and Argentina, the world's biggest growers of gene-engineered crops, called on trade arbitrators in the first hearings of a dispute to strike down a European Union ban on new modified seed varieties.
World Trade Organization judges are expected to rule by October whether the EU's six-year-old moratorium on approving new genetically modified crops is legal under international rules, following a complaint by the three countries. The American Farm Bureau Federation has said the ban costs U.S. farmers $300 million a year in lost corn exports alone.
The EU ``has maintained its moratorium even in the face of the uncontroverted opinions of its own scientists that there is sufficient evidence to reach conclusions about the safety of these products,'' the Canadian government's legal team said in its statement to the three WTO arbitrators.
The European Commission, the 25-nation bloc's executive body, promised last month to speed approvals of the modified foods after endorsing a biotech maize variety that is resistant to the corn borer pest. The seed, made by Basel, Switzerland- based Syngenta AG, was the first approval since 1998 and will become the 35th biotech product allowed on the EU market.
``There is no basis to claim that there is a `moratorium' in the EU,'' the Brussels-based commission said in a statement on its Web site. ``There have been great efforts to make progress even in a period when the EU was reframing its assessment procedures.''
Still, more than 30 gene-altered product applications by companies including Bayer AG and Monsanto Co., the world's biggest developer of the crops, are outstanding. Global biotech crop sales were worth as much as $4.75 billion last year, according to an industry-funded group.
``Many of these applications have received not one, but two favorable risk assessments by the commission's own scientific bodies'' and ``have languished at various stages of the approval procedure with only minimal activity on the part of the decision- makers,'' said Canada's complaint.
More than 60 percent of EU citizens probably wouldn't eat foods with genetic modifications even if the goods were cheaper or had less fat, according to an EU survey of about 1,000 people in each country of the then 15-member bloc published last year.
Syngenta sees serious risk of EU 'brain drain'
- Reuters (Via Agnet), June 3, 2004
BRUSSELS - Michael Pragnell, chief executive officer of Swiss-based Syngenta, was cited as telling a biotech conference hosted by CropLife International, a federation representing the global plant science industry, that Europe's scepticism over technology, especially biotechnology, may worsen the brain drain of EU scientists flooding to more welcoming climates, adding, "When we combine regulatory uncertainty with the prevailing European mistrust of technology in its broadest sense, there is a serious risk that research investment will move elsewhere or disappear altogether. Scientists respond to these market forces and move where their skills are more appreciated."
Pragnell was further cited as saying that EU companies invested up to 30 percent more in research in the United States than vice versa.
The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, recognises the brain-drain problem but says there are major hurdles to overcome before it can stop researchers leaving Europe -- such as a lack of job mobility between businesses and universities.
Commission figures were cited as showing that Europe has 5.36 researchers per 1,000 workers, against 8.66 in the United States and 9.72 in Japan.
CropLife's Director General Christian Verschueren was quoted as saying, "The pool of people you can choose from is diminishing. The facts are undeniable. The research climate tends to be more conducive to innovation in the United States, and in the east in countries like China. This should be a wake-up call."
Russia Tightens Up GM Food Labeling
- CNSNews.com, June 02, 2004, By Sergei Blagov
Moscow (CNSNews.com) - Russia has introduced tighter labeling controls for genetically modified (GM) foods, amid public and media debate tinged with an anti-American flavor.
Environmentalists, including the leading group Greenpeace-Russia, claim that obesity problems in the U.S. are the result of GM foods.
A leading Russian news website, Utro.ru, recently commented that GM foods have turned U.S. society into a "Frankenstein's farm."
The U.S. is the world's leading producer of genetically modified food, while opposition to their use has been spearheaded by European countries.
A year ago, President Bush in a speech called the technology safe and effective, and said European governments that were blocking imports were acting on "unfounded, unscientific fears."
Modifying the genetic makeup of a plant can result in faster growth, better taste, or a greater resistance to pests or drought. Opponents, however, are concerned about possible safety risks.
Until more is known, many governments are ensuring consumers can make their own choices by requiring producers to label GM foods.
Under Russia's new rules, which came into effect on June 1, foods containing more than 0.9 percent GM material have to be labeled as such, compared to a previous threshold of five percent, which GM opponents said was too high.
Last fall, a group of Russian scientists urged President Vladimir Putin to introduce a moratorium on the production of GM food, arguing that more time and research were needed to determine the health effects on humans.
Moscow's influential mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, has also called for a tightening of labeling rules for GM foods.
The new rules are in line with those enforced by the European Union, which also stipulates that consumers must be made aware when any food product contains 0.9 percent or more of a genetically modified ingredient.
Russian consumer rights groups say the government is not doing enough to ensure that companies are complying with the law. They argue that the current fines, of anywhere from 100 to 2,000 rubles ($3-$60), are unlikely to guarantee compliance.
Greenpeace-Russia has also complained that the new rules do not apply to foodstuffs imported from the U.S.
GM additives were found in almost half of groceries randomly selected in Moscow stores, according to the results of a study commissioned by Greenpeace last April.
The environmental group charged that more and more companies were using GM foods without informing consumers.
The study, carried out for Greenpeace by the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Cytology, found that the proportion of products containing GM ingredients had increased by 20 percent since a similar study was conducted in November 2002.
Of 39 products tested, 16 were found to contain genetically modified soybean or vegetable proteins. Only one of the 16 was labeled accurately.
"GM foods have not been around long enough for us to be able to say if they are harmful," said Greenpeace campaign director Ivan Blokov.
"But consumers should be able to make a choice of whether they want to use GM foods or not. There need to be clearer labels for them to do so."
Greenpeace said the sample of products for testing had been chosen at random by a group of journalists.
Major food companies, however, accused Greenpeace of self-promotion, and alleged that its study was funded by competitors.