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June 8, 2004


BT in Punjab; Indian Firebrand; Feed Labels; Zero Tolerance; Chinese Scientists Push GM Rice


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - June 9, 2004:

* RE: Bt Cotton in Punjab
* Burkina summit to examine role GMOs may take in feeding Africa
* Indian firebrand battles biotech
* Zero tolerance for GM crops could be eased
* Health and environment the main concern

Subject: RE: Bt Cotton in Punjab
Date: Wed, 9 Jun 2004 00:19:15 -0700
From: "Sivramiah Shantharam"

It is good news that farmers in the State of Punjab are demanding the release of Bt cotton. It is indeed true that Punjab Agricultural University tests with Bt-cotton had demonstrated the effective performance of Bt-cotton along with increased yield. It seems the reason that Monsanto/Mahyco Bt-cotton varieties were not approved for Punjab earlier was because they were susceptible to leaf curl virus disease. Now if there are Bt-cotton varieties that are resistant to leaf curl virus disease, there should be no earthly reason why they should not be allowed for commercialization in Punjab. By approving the new varieties for Punjab, one can abate the menace of illegal varieties to a certain extent. If that is the case, then why not give legal approval for tested varieties that are leaf curl virus resistant without having to go though a whole bunch of tests and reviews. The regulatory review of these new varieties can be appended to the existing review of other Bt-cotton varieties in an iterative manner and take a quick decision. That would make immense sense and will be within the ambit of known regulatory procedures in the country.

Shanthu Shantharam
Biologistics International LLC
Ellicott City, MD 21042

Burkina summit to examine role GMOs may take in feeding Africa

- Agence France Presse, June 9, 2004

Burkina Faso is to host a three-day summit this month at which west African leaders will discuss the importance of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in boosting food production on the world's poorest continent.

The US-sponsored conference in Ouagadougou from June 21-23 is to help the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) understand the science and technology of GMOs to help improve African agricultural productivity, a statement from the US embassy in Burkina Faso said Wednesday.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization has said that 23 out of 53 African states suffer from dire food shortages, primarily due to drought, and has suggested that biotechnology could help farmers in Africa and the rest of the developing world to feed another two billion people in 30 years.

Biotechnology has been used, with some measure of success, to breed drought-resistant crops as well as new strains of African staples such as rice and cassava that require less water.

Genetically modified foods have met with some resistance in Africa, evinced by Zambia's refusal in 2002 of badly needed food aid from the United Nations because it had been engineered.

Water conservation, biotechnology, public and private partnerships in the agricultural realm are among the themes to be discussed at the conference expected to attract some 400 government ministers, experts and representatives from non-governmental organizations.

Joining Burkina President Blaise Compaore at the conference will be his counterparts from Ghana, Mali and Niger, the US embassy statement said.

Uganda in April hosted an international conference on food security aimed at highlighting the malnutrition crisis that currently afflicts some 200 million Africans.


Indian firebrand battles biotech

- Associated Press, By Paul Elias, June 6, 2004

The firebrand who for two decades has fiercely fought biotechnology in her native India was complaining yet again about the men in lab coats who say they know best how to manage the world's food supply. And the audience was enthralled.

"Ten thousand years of expertise in feeding us is a woman's expertise," Vandana Shiva railed. "That work is now being claimed as an invention by a handful of corporations."

The decidedly liberal crowd at the University of California at Santa Barbara whooped and cheered adoringly as Shiva took on the likes of Monsanto, a company she sees as bent on overtaking India's centuries-old agricultural practices.

She'll be repeating the message to a less-friendly crowd as she joins demonstrators outside the annual convention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization that opens in San Francisco on Sunday. She'll also be leading anti-biotech workshops.

Then, Shiva is off to deliver the commencement speech at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

Shiva, who lives on a farm outside New Delhi, brings an image of Third World authenticity to an organic farming crusade that wraps Luddite sensibilities in a fiery anti-imperialistic message. To Shiva, biotechnology is an ecologically dangerous tool for Western corporations to win global domination of agriculture.

Shiva, 51, made her initial mark in the West in the 1980s when she and Jeremy Rifkin were among the few voicing opposition to the then-novel technology of combining genetic material from separate plant species to produce food.

In the developing world, that technology was supposed to help prevent blindness among the millions of poor people whose diets lack vitamin A, by engineering daffodil genes into new, patented varieties of "golden rice."

Shiva led the opposition to the idea, arguing that such high-tech solutions would enslave subsistence farmers to a first-world economic scheme and rob India of its agricultural heritage a theme she's expanded on in one way or another in 16 books and hundreds of essays.

The rice has not yet been distributed as the debate continues.

Shiva also has used India's courts to slow down Monsanto's efforts to establish new markets in the world's second most-populous country. Her lawsuits kept the St. Louis-based biotech company from selling its genetically engineered cotton seeds in India until last year eight years after it was approved in the United States.

She is now pressing her lawyers to take her fight to the World Trade Organization, where the United States sued the European Union to open up its markets to biotech food.

"Vandana is tireless, a great communicator and she bridges the First World and the Third World," Rifkin said. "She can lecture at the university and be out on the hustings with local villagers."

To biotech proponents, however, she's a false prophet preaching to a small choir of activists while hurting the millions of poor people she claims to protect.

"I believe that Vandana Shiva's notoriety is better known among Western academic and activist circles than in her native country," said C.S. Prakash, a Tuskegee University biotechnology researcher who frequently attacks Shiva in conservative journals. "While she is admired by certain naive elites in the West, her relentless attack on modern farming techniques and open economies can only keep countries like India backward."

But even Prakash admits a grudging respect for the international folk hero.

"Vandana Shiva is probably among the most effective environmentalists in the world," Prakash said. "As a fellow Indian, I'm really proud of her. As an Indian woman she has accomplished so much even if she's wrong."

Patrick Moore, the Greenpeace co-founder who became an industry lobbyist, calls Shiva a patronizing elitist who was born to wealth and privilege and revels in her celebrity.

"She knows nothing of the people she's purporting to help," Moore said.

That particular charge upsets Shiva the most. Her parents were middle-class government bureaucrats and farmers during her childhood, she proudly declares, and her entire college career was funded by academic scholarships.

"I scored very high," she said, with trademark bravado.

Shiva, who is divorced and has no children, was educated as a nuclear physicist she holds a doctorate from the University of Western Ontario. But activism appears to be, well, a genetic trait.

Her grandfather died in the 1950s during a hunger strike protesting government reluctance to build a school for girls in his town.

"I lost my grandfather for the cause of education of girls," she said proudly.

Shiva's mother was a schools superintendent in Pakistan before becoming a farmer in northern India, and her father was a forestry official who taught her about conservation.

She first dabbled with activism in the late 1970s as part of the women-led "Chipko Movement," which stopped timber companies from harvesting thick Himalayan forests near Tibet.

Then she turned to academics.

But after getting the doctorate, she decided to give up working with subatomic particles and take on global agricultural and environmental issues. She founded the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, based in New Delhi.

Her transition from academic to activist was completed in the early 1980s as she was worked with the United Nations, exploring international environmental disputes. She made a connection between political violence and Western influence over Indian resources like water and seeds vital to farming.

"I said, 'It's too big. I'm going to save things,'" she recalled. "So I started saving things."

Since then, she has doggedly traveled the world, from South Africa to Canada, unflappably delivering her sermon to anyone who will listen.

Only one question seemed to momentarily trip her up during her time in Santa Barbara: What do you do to relax?

"My life is my hobby," Shiva replied after regaining her composure. "I practice always what I believe."

Zero tolerance for GM crops could be eased

- New Zealand Herald (VIA AGNET), By Anne Beston, June 8, 2004

Officials are, according to this story, reconsidering New Zealand's "zero tolerance" threshold for GM plants, a move that looks set to rekindle the GM debate - just when the Green Party had decided to adopt a softer line to help Labour get re-elected.

Greens co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons was cited as saying that any attempt to lift the threshold would meet strong opposition, adding, "If Labour is interested in remaining the Government after the next election, they would be quite foolish to do something that would be such a red rag to a bull for the Green Party. I actually don't think Labour will go there, but if they try, we will use every avenue open to us."

The story notes that the Greens' hard line on keeping the moratorium prevented any chance of coalition talks between the two parties after the 2002 election.

The Greens dropped their demand for reinstatement of the GM moratorium at the weekend conference, saying they were prepared to open negotiations with no bottom line after next year's election.

But now the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry is looking at the "practicalities" of New Zealand's "zero tolerance" policy for genetically modified organisms after the latest accidental release of contaminated maize seed.

MAF spokesman Brett Sangster was quoted as saying that maintaining the strict zero tolerance threshold "was clearly an issue. There is a lot of work involved in maintaining a zero-tolerance regime and we are having a look to see what other countries do in the same circumstances."

Ms Fitzsimons called that "code for, 'We don't think it's practical to maintain it'."

Health and environment the main concern

The Straits Times (Singapore), June 9, 2004 Wednesday, By AIRANI RAMLI
(MS) Genetic Modification Advisory Committee Secretariatfor Chairman, GMAC

WE REFER to Dr Andy Ho's commentary, 'Frankenfoods - we need to know' (ST, May 29), and the letters, 'Labelling GM food not easy' (ST, June 1) and 'Don't duck tough questions about GM food' (ST, June 4), from Mr Alvin Loo Eng Kiat and Mr Daniel Koh Kah Soon respectively.

Labelling does, indeed, provide consumers with the information to make choices. However, as Mr Loo pointed out, the issue is not a simple one. There are two key issues that need to be considered before an effective labelling programme can be implemented, such as which types of foods are to be labelled and the determining of threshold levels. We also need to factor in the requirement that any such programme must be scientifically based so as not to fall afoul of World Trade Organisation rules.

There are also issues related to analysis. As a result of protein and DNA degradation during manufacturing or preparation, very little or no DNA can be detected in products such as purified lecithin (for example, soya lecithin), refined vegetable oil (for example, corn oil), starch derivatives (for example, maltodextrin, glucose syrup, corn starch), hydrolysed plant protein (for example, soya sauce powder) and heat-treated or processed finished products (for example, canned products).

The critical issue is ensuring the safety of these products to human health and the environment. However, as Dr Ho highlighted, labelling does not equate to safety.

The story of monarch butterflies and GM maize has been proven to be unlikely. A series of papers in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in 2001, including two by Dr John Losey, have shown that it is very unlikely that monarch butterfly larvae could have been poisoned by maize pollen that had been genetically engineered to contain a natural insecticide. Dr John Losey was one of the key authors from Cornell University who had first published the paper in the journal, Nature, that showed the impact of GM maize pollen on monarch butterflies.

So far, there has been no conclusive evidence that any of the GM foods in the market are unsafe. The Genetic Modification Advisory Committee (GMAC) has studied and evaluated reports on the safety tests and risk assessments of GM foods available in the market here, for example, soya bean, corn and canola oil, and agree that they are safe for consumption.

These safety tests and risk assessments are based on well established and accepted scientific evidence, which include but are not restricted to, tests on dietary exposures, toxicity and allergenicity. GMAC will continue to study and evaluate the safety tests and risk assessments of all foods containing GM organisms (GMOs) before they are released into Singapore.

As for the issue of labelling, it is still being examined (see other letter).

GMAC's primary objective is to ensure public and environmental safety, while allowing for the commercial use of GMO and GMO-derived products by companies and research institutions, in compliance with international standards.

GMAC released, in August 1999, the Singapore Guidelines for the Release of Genetically Modified Organisms. They can be found at www.gmac.gov.sg

Using GM rice strains, farmers may be able to save up to 190 yuan

- Business Daily Update, June 8, 2004

Leading Chinese biotechnology scientists last spring began lobbying the central government to allow the commercialization of genetically modified
(GM) rice varieties. Although their efforts have not resulted in positive results, experts suggest their campaign could eventually result in the development of China's plant biotechnologies. "Our GM rice technologies are technically mature and ready to commercialize. What's lacking is the leadership's bold decision," said Zhu Zhen, a leading rice scientist and deputy director of the Bureau of Life Science and Biotechnology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

A group of leading Chinese biotechnology scientists recently released a report urging the central government to allow, as soon as possible, the commercial planting of GM rice. Late last month, an official with the GMO Safety Office, under the Ministry of Agriculture, said the government had not made a decision on the GM rice issue. No country has approved the commercialization of GM rice. Some GM crops -- including soybean, cotton, corn and tobacco -- have been commercialized in some nations. Soybean crops account for 61 per cent of the GM crops harvested annually. Chinese researchers, in recent years, have developed several GM rice varieties resistant to China's major rice pests. The varieties include strains that can resist stem borer, by using Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), delta endotoxin and cowpea trypsin inhibitor CpTI genes; protease inhibitor rice; planthopper and bacterial leaf blight, by using the rice plant disease resistance Xa21 gene; and fungal-resistant rice. China has the largest field for GM rice trials, and the country's plantation technologies and management of GM rice surpass those of Monsanto, the US-based biotechnology giant, and Germany-based Bayer, said Wang Feng, a biotechnology scientist with Fujian Academy of Agricultural Sciences. He chairs China's largest GM rice field-trial site. Yet, the Chinese Government, facing increasing international pressure, adopted a cautious policy in 1999. Chinese media eventually stopped reporting on the nation's plant biotechnology achievements, and many labs involved in the GM rice studies began shifting their research. "At that time, China was preparing to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). On the one hand, the government worried that other countries, especially those in the European Union (EU), used the GM issue as a pretext to block China's WTO entry," said Huang Jikun, director of CAS's Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy. "On the other hand, the government hoped to wield GM technologies as a shield to defend its own fragile agriculture from the effects of foreign grain exports." The situation is changing. Smoother situation Li Qing, head of the policy department under the China National Centre for Biotechnology Development (CNCBD), said the international community is gradually warming to plant biotechnology. EU officials, after implementing a strict ban on GM products for more than a decade, is beginning to adopt a more flexible attitude towards plant biotechnologies.

"The changing political environment has prompted the Chinese scientists to push GM rice," Li said. The Chinese Government last year substantially increased funding for GM rice research. An Daochang, CNCBD's deputy director, estimates one-third of the money is being spent on GM technologies. Zhu estimates between 25-30 per cent of China's plant biotechnology investments are spent on GM rice programmes. The Chinese Government has become the world's second-largest spender on plant biotechnologies. The United States is first. China in the past two years has advanced preparatory work to commercialize GM rice. China is expected to launch at least 10 GM rice field trials between 2001 and 2005 with the aim of proceeding towards commercialization, Guo Longbiao, a leading rice scientist with Hangzhou-based China National Rice Research Institute, said.

The EU's more flexible attitude towards plant biotechnologies is the result of the bloc's failure to keep up with scientific developments, Zhu said. The United States and some European countries in the 1980s developed different varieties of GM soybean and wheat. But, given Europe's stricter restrictions, EU scientists are still researching GM wheat. Meanwhile, US-based GM soybean has conquered the world market. "If a technology is not commercialized, it will never achieve significant progress. I hope China will not miss the opportunity," Zhu said. Other factors may prompt authorities to change their opinions on GM rice. Policy-makers, due to declining grain output over the past five years, have worried about food supplies, Huang said. Many farmers, given the high costs of fertilizers and pesticides used on grain crops, decided either to give up their land or turn to cash crops. China's grain output last year reached 430.7 million tons, down 81.6 million tons from 1998.

The country's per capita grain output last year fell to 333 kilograms from 411 kilograms in 1998. In particular, the production of rice -- which feeds 90 per cent of China's 1.3-billion-plus residents -- has decreased from 200 million tons in 1999 to 168 million tons last year, indicates a report published recently by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications. The shortage of rice triggered a 27-per-cent rise in rice prices in China in the year's first quarter, indicate Ministry of Agriculture statistics. Meanwhile, international rice prices rose only 9.1 per cent. Mass production of GM rice varieties that are resistant to pests may alleviate the problem, Huang said. (US $ 22.90), annually, per hectare planted.

For example, if China commercialized GM rice in 2002, the technology might have saved the nation US $ 4.2 billion in 2010, Huang estimated. Scott Rozelle, an agricultural economist with the University of California, Davis, said GM rice, if widely used, would have an even greater impact, compared with GM cotton, on China's agriculture sector. Rozelle has for years researched China's agricultural biotechnology. He works for the Chinese Government on several agricultural consulting programmes. GM cotton has become a "miracle crop" in China since it was commercialized in 1996. More than half of China's cotton is genetically modified. One reason for the success of GM cotton is the crop has helped farmers cut production costs, by an average 30 per cent, GM advocates suggest.

Also, the crops reduced farmers' exposure to chemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers. Huang suggested failed efforts, including strict safety regulations, to prevent imports of GM soybean should make decision-makers understand such moves will not help Chinese farmers cope with the effects of foreign imports. China, in June 2001, adopted a safety certificate system, which required importers of GM crops to have safety certificates, issued by the Ministry of Agriculture, for the products. China, however, did not issue the certificates between 2001-03. Temporary certificates were issued to allow importation of GM crops, which were mainly soybean. China's delay in issuing safety certificates did not prevent a flood of GM crops from entering the country. China has been the world's largest importer of GM soybean in the past three years. The country imported 20.74 million tons of soybean, worth US $ 4.8 billion, last year. That was up 82 per cent over the previous year. More than 90 per cent of the soybean crops imported by China have been genetically modified. In late February, China's Ministry of Agriculture issued safety certificates that allowed the importations of five GM varieties -- one strain of soybean, two strains of corn and two varieties of cotton. All are produced by US-based Monsanto. Growing opposition Since the late 1990s, opponents -- from environmentalists and economists to consumers -- have become more vocal in their opposition to GM technologies.

Pang Cheung Sze, an opponent of GM crops with Greenpeace China, contends China lacks effective and transparent biosafety management regulations. "Determining whether GM technologies are good or bad depends on biotechnology scientists, who benefit from the commercialization of GM crops. An independent, fair judgment is important," Sze said. "Given the gene flow between GM plants and related species, cultivation of GM rice could threaten the environment." Several scientists from environmental and agricultural institutes agree with Sze.

Xue Dayuan, a research fellow at the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Science, said the Bt gene used to make GM cotton resistant to insects could cause the pests to evolve into "super" bugs that are impermeable to most pesticides. Chang Ruzhen, a scientist specializing in soybean crops with the Institute of Plant Varieties under the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), said gene pollution -- such as that experienced in Mexico, on wild corn varieties, in the late 1990s -- could occur in China if the country plants massive amounts of GM rice and soybean. "China has the world's oldest varieties of wild soybean and rice species. If their natural genes are destroyed by floating genes from GM varieties, it will be a disaster," Chang said.

Most consumers, meanwhile, are concerned about whether GM crops will affect people's health. Zhu Yanling, a Shanghai-based consumer, sued Swiss food giant Nestle late last year. She alleged the company did not label GM ingredients in some of its products. The Ministry of Agriculture in 2002 listed 17 products under five categories of GM plants -- soybean, corn, rapeseed, cotton seed and tomatoes. The ministry also required those products be clearly labelled as GM products. Zhu lost the case, which was decided last April. Many People still share her concern. In a consumer survey, commissioned by Greenpeace in February in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, 87 per cent of respondents said they wanted food producers to label their GM products. Forty per cent of respondents said they would purchase non-GM foods, and 24 per cent said they would choose GM products. Seventy per cent of respondents said they would lose confidence in a food brand if they learned its products contained GM ingredients. Fifty-five per cent of respondents said they would not buy GM products for their children. Environmentalists and consumers' groups claimed victory on May 10 after Monsanto announced it would not produce GM wheat, which had been widely expected to be its next big GM product. Monsanto's decision was reportedly in response to environmentalists' escalating opposition to GM crops. The decision was a major setback for the company, which has pioneered the genetic development of crops. Economists have also argued against the possibility of China developing genetically modified grain. Xia Youfu, a commerce professor with the University of International Business and Economics, said China's plant biotechnologists lack business management experience. China, he added, does not have large biotechnology firms such as Monsanto. "So, if China commercializes GM rice technologies, small and new Chinese biotechnology firms will be easily defeated by Monsanto or Bayer," Xia said. "The huge Chinese market will be dominated by these foreign giants." Since 1996, when China commercialized GM cotton, Monsanto's market share of GM cotton seeds has expanded. In some provinces, Monsanto accounts for half of the market. Steady advance Previously, China's biotechnology scientists never attempted to refute environmentalists' claims and/or accusations.

Now, they are speaking up -- more forcefully, and more often. Jia Shirong, a renowned plant biologist with CAAS' Institute of Biotechnologies, chaired, for more than five years, the tests to determine the safety of GM crops. The tests were conducted in the tropical island of Hainan Province. None of the findings -- various tests were conducted -- indicated GM crops would severely affect the environment, Jia said. "As for gene floating, it always exists in nature. But it is nothing to be worried about, because transplanted genes, such as Bt, have proven harmless to humans and the environment," Jia said. Zhang Qifa, an academic with CAS and dean of Huazhong University of Agriculture's School of Biotechnology, agrees with Jia. Zhang said most genes being transplanted into GM rice -- such as insect-resistant Bt -- have been transplanted into commercialized GM plants, such as soybean and cotton, over the past 20 years. The genes would affect rice much the same way they have cotton and soybean, Zhang added.

"Most of the world's soybean oil is produced from Bt soybean. It has been consumed by humans for a decade, without negative side effects," Zhang said. Zhang has led China's Bt rice research for 10 years. Gerard Barry, a leading scientist with the Manila-based International Rice Research Institute, said China's scientists and institutions have a lengthy, fruitful experience in GM rice research. In addition, scientific studies on the biosafety aspects -- crops, food and environmental criteria -- of these products have been published in science journals. Yet, environmental groups still argue the effects of GM crops might not be felt for several years. "Suggesting people will be harmed 1,000 years later, due to GM food, is like suggesting the earth will be destroyed by a big disaster after 10 centuries. Neither assertion is based on science," CAS' Zhu said. Even though there could be some side effects, people must objectively decide whether the potential risks outweigh the obvious benefits, Zhu added. In addition to the economic benefits, GM rice will reduce the need for dangerous pesticides, which will benefit farmers' health, Zhu said.

"Rice is produced by farmers, who are concerned about the productivity of their crops, earning an equitable return on their investments, and the health and welfare of their families and land," Barry said. "So, they should have the right to participate in the decision about whether the country will develop GM rice." Huang said if China commercializes GM rice, the benefits would outweigh the possible economic losses resulting from import bans on China's rice. China exports less than 1 per cent of its rice. China, in recent months, due to declining output, has imported more rice from Thailand and Viet Nam. Zhu said India and some other countries have rapidly developed GM technologies in recent years. China, he suggested, runs the risk of losing the opportunity to be a world leader in biotechnology if it doesn't commercialize its technologically advantageous GM rice before other nations commercialize their GM products. China's biotechnologists should not worry about Monsanto, said Wang Feng with the Fujian Academy of Agricultural Science. The situation has changed since China commercialized GM cotton. Then, China had to rely on Monsanto's technologies. Now, the nation has its own, strong GM rice technology. That means China's biotechnology firms can compete with large foreign rivals. "We lack biotechnology giants such as Monsanto. On the other hand, that is because we have not commercialized many GM crops," Wang said. "If we do not boldly push ahead with our GM technologies, we will never have our own Monsanto or Syngenta."