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July 1, 2004


EU's Self-Inflicted Wound; Syngenta Leaves UK for US; Zero Tolerance No Good; Cartagena and AgBiotech's Future


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - July 2, 2004:

* Firm shuts British project on GM crops
* The self-inflicted wound of EU bio-tech rules
* Zero GM tolerance no good - Maf
* Cotton farmers escape 'death trap'
* Agbiotech Firms Realign Product Focus
* Drugs in Mexican Crops?
* The Cartagena Protocol and the Future of Agbiotech
* New German genetic engineering law and reactions

Firm shuts British project on GM crops

- Daily Telegraph, By Roger Highfield, 01/07/2004

The last big biotechnology company working on genetically modified crops in Britain is to transfer its efforts to the United States.

Academics said the departure of Syngenta, with the loss of 100 jobs, marked the final nail in the coffin for GM research in Britain. They blamed the Government as much as environmental groups and gave warning that a brain drain might follow.

"If you are looking for a symbolic moment, this is it," said one professor of plant genetics. "It is the end of big plant biotech in the UK. But, then again, can you blame them?"

Earlier this year, the GM food lobby was dealt a blow when Bayer CropScience gave up attempts to grow GM maize in Britain. Now the Government faces further embarrassment with Syngenta moving its project from Bracknell, Berks, to North Carolina, according to today's issue of the Times Higher Education Supplement.

Syngenta is the largest agribusiness in the world and produced the first GM product on the British market: tomato puree. A spokesman said it planned to invest £10 million in a biology complex in Bracknell focusing on herbicides and fungicides.

Many plant scientists have already left Britain and some said Syngenta's move might prompt a further exodus to GM-friendly countries such as America and Australia. Prof Michael Wilson of Warwick University said GM science had been undermined by Britain's "Luddite landscape."

He said: "Anyone who isn't about to retire will leave the country. We are all feeling, 'What the hell is the point'."

Prof Anthony Trewavas of Edinburgh University said morale in the plant science community was at an all-time low. "We are noticing a reduction in students wanting to do molecular courses. They don't see a career in it anymore. All they hear is antagonism and anxiety."


The self-inflicted wound of EU bio-tech rules

- International Herald Tribune, Terry Wolf and Dee Vaughan, July 2, 2004

WARSAW Soccer fans know the worst thing that can happen is an "own goal" - a self-inflicted wound. Sadly, that is exactly what the European Union's new regulations governing the approval, sale, labeling and importation of food and feed derived from biotechnology will do. By putting political pandering ahead of prudent policy and sound science, the regulations will result in higher prices and fewer choices for European consumers, without a single health or environmental benefit.

The most significant regulation requires the labeling of food products made with genetically-modified ingredients. Though this sounds sensible, it is anything but. Due to the misinformation about biotech foods that has circulated through the EU, the real impact of the regulations will be to remove from the market food products made with genetically modified corn (maize), soy and canola.

This will leave consumers with fewer options, and the reduced competition will raise prices.

The labeling requirements pose many other problems. First, they almost certainly violate several World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements. They will likely exacerbate distortions in trade between the EU and the United States - and many other countries that produce biotech food and export it to Europe.

Second, the labeling requirements are technologically unworkable. Once a grain or oilseed has been converted into oil, there is no way to detect whether the oil was made with genetically modified ingredients. Since much of the corn, canola and soy sold in Europe for human consumption has already been processed into oil, the regulations have a fairy-tale feel.

Third, the regulations are hypocritical. They require labeling of vegetable oil made with genetically modified soy or canola grown in the United States or Argentina, but not the labeling of cheese, wine or beer produced in the EU using genetically modified enzymes - something which occurs quite often. There is no logical reason for this disparity, other than the arbitrary use of a politically charged issue to impose a form of protectionism.

Biotechnology is not going away. The use of genetically modified corn, soy, canola and cotton was up 15 percent in 2003 alone, with most of that growth taking place outside the United States - in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China and South Africa. The reason is simple: biotech crops boost yields while protecting plants from diseases and pests, increasing tolerance to environmental stress and minimizing the presence of harmful mycotoxins and aflatoxins. Because they require fewer pesticides and other chemicals, and reduce energy use by farmers, they improve the environment. And every scientific study has clearly demonstrated that they are safe for our health.

The day will come when the technology becomes more attractive to consumers also in Europe. When that day comes, Europeans will be better served by a regulatory regime for agricultural biotechnology that is built for the challenges of the future rather than the fears of the past.

Fixing this should not be difficult, because the technical and scientific positions of the United States and the EU are actually very close. For example, the technical annexes of the European regulations are almost identical to those in the United States - both are based on guidelines of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which were developed jointly by European and U.S. experts in collaboration with experts from other OECD member countries. Likewise, a substantial number of EU member states are investing billions of euros in the research and development of various forms of biotechnology.

It is only the intrusion of politics - more precisely, the willingness of public officials to spread myths and exploit the resulting public fear - that accounts for the difference of positions.

The EU would do far better to think creatively about how to harness the power of biotechnology than to kick an "own goal," which is most assuredly the impact of the new labeling regulations.

Terry Wolf, a farmer from Homer, Illinois, is chairman of the U.S. Grains Council. Dee Vaughan, a farmer from Dumas, Texas, is president of the National Corn Growers Association. They are currently traveling through Europe to discuss biotechnology issues with farmers and public officials.


Zero GM tolerance no good - Maf

- Stuff, 02 July 2004, By GEOFF TAYLOR

Agriculture and Forestry Ministry staff have questioned the practicality of New Zealand's zero tolerance policy to genetically modified seed imports after an accidental release of minutely contaminated maize seed.

But Greens co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons said the standards should be retained and were practical if border controls were good enough.

The seed was inadvertently planted in the Waikato and other regions after a US testing company failed to report the contamination level of 0.05 per cent or one seed per 2000 as it considered it to be too small to be relevant.

Maf had ensured the maize seed was separately harvested and "devitalised" and was likely to be used as stock feed.

Maf director of plant biosecurity Richard Ivess said Maf was meeting seed merchants about possible compensation to cover costs caused by the need for separate storage, transportation and processing of the maize seed.

Mr Ivess said Maf was looking at the practicality of maintaining the policy of zero tolerance to accidental presence of GM seed.

Finding low levels of GM seeds in imported corn seed would become more common as New Zealand's means of detection improved.

Mr Ivess said the European Union was considering a tolerance threshold of about 0.5 per cent.

But Ms Fitzsimons said seed was being deliberately mixed in the US.

She said New Zealand and other countries needed to retain zero tolerance standards and the US testing organisations would comply to fit the market.


Cotton farmers escape 'death trap'

- Times of India, July 1, 2004

VADODARA - Though nearly 3,000 cotton farmers across the country have committed suicides because of bankruptcy, their counterparts in Gujarat feel untouched by the tragedy.

There has been no report of any farmer committing suicide in the state due to crop failure or debts. Many feel there are reasons for entrepreneurial skills of farmers. Gujarat---the largest producer of cotton in the country---has skilfully adopted a newer technology to its benefit. "Maharashtra has the maximum 35 lakh hectares of land under cotton cultivation and Gujarat has only 17 lakh hectares. However, when it comes to productivity, Gujarat leads with 35 lakh bales (one bale is 175 kg) which is highest in the country," says Umed Patel, research scientist at Surat Cotton Research Centre.

"One of the factors influencing the production is that nearly 30 per cent cotton fields in the state are not dependent on rains. Cotton fields in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh are dependent on rains," he adds.

There are farmers preferring BT cotton to increase the yield. Out of 17 lakh hectares, BT cotton is used in nearly one lakh acre.

"The cultivation of BT cotton is expected to increase 10 times this year with more farmers preferring the hybrid variety. BT cotton not only increases the yield but also avoids use of pesticides. It is popular because of providing results within 45 to 90 days compared to cultivation from normal seeds which take around 120 days," says Vipin Patel of the Gujarat Khedut Sangharsh Samiti.

Also, cotton farmers in Gujarat get a good selling price. Sources in the industry suggest that cotton price went up to Rs 2,700 last year compared to Rs 2,200 earlier.

"Farmers benefit from a strong co-operative structure which has a network at the smallest level. Even banks give credit to farmers. As a result, money lenders don't have a hold to break the farmers' back here," says KR Shah, adviser, Gujarat Kapas Utpadak Hit Rakshak Sangh. However, there are other issues of concern. "There should be a provision to reduce cotton varieties from 214 to 22 to produce uniform quality," adds Shah.


The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications has developed two videos on the Bt corn experiences in the Philippines. The country is the first Asian country to approve the commercial planting of a genetically modified feed/food crop. The first 7-minute video is entitled “Better Choices: The Lagao Farmers Story” and documents the testimonies of small farmers from a village in Mindanao who have planted Bt corn for the first time. The second 15-minute video “Asia's First: The Bt Corn Story in the Philippines” focuses on the seven year process that brought to fruition Bt corn in farmers' fields, particularly the role of government, the public and private sectors, as well as nongovernment organizations and media. For more information on these videos, email m.navarro@isaaa.org.


The website of the Russia Biotechnology Information Center (RuBIC) can now be seen at http://www.rubic.ru/. The RuBIC is one of the newest network member of the of the Global Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).

Agbiotech Firms Realign Product Focus

- Nature Biotechnology 22, 791 (July, 2004); Jeffrey L Fox, Reprinted in AgBioView with the permission of the editor.

It has been a Dickens of a time lately for agricultural biotechnology: the best and the worst of times and also in between. Many recent events, announcements and reports, whose overall import and eventual impact are being interpreted differently, suggest that sharp differences of opinion on the future of this technology are still far from settled.

Some events are clearly positive for the agbiotech industry. For example, on May 21, the Canadian Supreme Court sided with Monsanto of St. Louis, Missouri in its patent infringement lawsuit against canola farmer Percy Schmeiser. Four days earlier, the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations released a report, "The State of Food and Agriculture 2003–04," lauding the potential of agbiotech but also asserting that "many crops and traits of interest to the poor are being neglected."

"I certainly think it's an optimistic time," says Val Giddings, who is the Biotechnology Industry Organization's (BIO) vice president for food and agriculture. For example, he says, "The FAO report is huge...and is nothing but positive, even though some say that it criticizes industry for not focusing enough on developing countries, [which] is the responsibility of governments and foundations." Whether the current war of rhetoric between agbiotech proponents and opponents will be quelled soon seems doubtful, however. Calling the FAO report a "public relations exercise to support the biotechnology industry," the members of a Barcelona-based international coalition of grassroots organizations and agbiotech critics are blasting FAO for "breaching its commitment to consult" with them and similar groups, and they also are calling the report a "stab in the back to the farmers and the rural poor."

Similarly, critics are unhappy with the Canadian Supreme Court ruling that Schmeiser infringed Monsanto patents that protect the company's genetically modified (GM) canola seeds. For example, Kristin Dawkins, vice president at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, calls that ruling "a major setback for farmers in Canada" and says that such "legal liability issues are another reason why this technology has not benefited farmers, and instead has been designed to benefit biotech seed companies."

However, in this case as well as in a similar US case involving Mississippi farmer Homan McFarling, who bought Roundup Ready soybean seeds but later planted seeds from GM crops that he harvested and saved, Monsanto's attempts to obtain damage assessments were rejected by the Canadian Supreme Court and by a federal appeals court on April 9, respectively.

Whether the current war of rhetoric between agbiotech proponents and opponents will be quelled soon is doubtful, however Critics further complain that agbiotech brings few direct benefits to consumers and also continues to be regulated largely in secrecy. For example, although the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports receiving 16 new applications for "biopharming" permits in the past 12 months, virtually every detail about them "is shielded from public view," says Greg Jaffe of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, which released a report on this subject June 2. "It is unnecessarily risky to use crops like corn or rice without a much stronger and more transparent regulatory system," he adds.

To be sure, USDA Secretary Ann Veneman announced last January a comprehensive review of its biotech regulatory procedures, a review that Giddings and his colleagues at BIO say is sure to improve transparency. And a panel of the World Trade Organization was expected in June to begin reviewing US, Canadian and Argentinean claims that European countries are unfairly delaying reviews of would-be imports of agbiotech products.

Such reviews may be necessary to stem the trend of large agbiotech firms canceling product development because of public resistance. On May 10, Monsanto announced it was deferring plans for marketing GM herbicide-tolerant wheat in the United States and Canada "until such time that other wheat biotechnology traits are introduced." Instead, the company will "realign" agbiotech research "to accelerate the development of new and improved traits in corn, cotton, and oilseeds" (Nat. Biotechnol. 22, 645, 2004). On May 19, Basel-based Syngenta announced its decision not to market its GM sweet corn, despite being authorized by the European Commission to begin selling but not yet growing that product (see p. 795). Similarly, at the end of March, Bayer CropScience, in Monheim, Germany, announced that it was giving up attempts to commercialize its GM maize in Britain as a forage crop despite obtaining conditional approval, citing "constraints" and "undefined timelines."

But Giddings maintains the agricultural sector of the biotech industry is sound and is "continuing to grow...with no retrenchment, but a sharper focus on areas that are likely to deliver. In looking at the numbers that cross my desk, there are no trends in the wrong direction."

Drugs in Mexican Crops?

- Nature Biotechnology 22, 803 (July, 2004); Francisca Acevedo, Reprinted in AgBioView with the permission of the editor.

To the editor: As a representative of a recently formed biosafety discussion group in Mexico with an interest in plant-manufactured products, I and the group applaud your editorial in the February issue (Nat. Biotechnol. 22, 133, 2004) highlighting the controversy over the use of food crops, such as maize, in the production of pharmaceuticals.

The article suggests two nontechnical levels of segregation to prevent drugs or drug intermediates in food or feed crop species finding their way into the food chain: geographical and cultural. From our perspective in Mexico, the second choice (that is, not using food plants for producing drugs or other industrial compounds) is the best. Although geographical segregation might work in some regions and countries, this is not the case in Mexico, even if we were to decide to consider its territory a 'drug-producing plant'–free area.

Mexico's domestic maize supply, including imports (6 million tons during 2001; ref. 1), runs on the order of 24 million tons. Fifty-three percent of this is used as food1. We import maize grain from the United States every year, we have migrants moving between the United States and Mexico constantly and we share borders where pollen does not need a passport for free movement. The average maize consumption in Mexico runs in the order of 350 grams daily1, which translates into around 600 (ref. 2) culinary dishes. This means that maize intake is probably one order of magnitude higher in Mexico than it is in the United States. This maize is consumed in the form of products much less-processed than those in the United States.

At the First Meeting of the Parties of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety held in Malaysia last February, Mexico officially stated that it will prohibit the release into the environment of genetically modified (GM) maize that could be regarded unsuitable as food3. Even though this is an important and relevant move, it will not be effective unless the three National American Free Trade Agreement countries agree to similar policies.


1 http://faostat.fao.org/faostat
2. Bourges, H. in La Alimentación de los Mexicanos (eds. Alarcon-Segovia, D. & Bourges, H.) 97–134 (El Colegio Nacional, México DF, 2002). 3. http://www.cibiogem.gob.mx/noticias/2003/agosto/index.html

Mexican Biosafety Discussion Group (GEF project MEX/01/G32/A/1G/99), National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO), Coordinadora de Análisis de Riesgo y Bioseguridad, Liga Periférico-Insurgentes Sur 4903, Parques del Pedregal, Tlalpan, 14010 Mexico. facevedo@xolo.conabio.gob.mx


The Cartagena Protocol and the Future of Agbiotech

- Nature Biotechnology 22, 811 - 812 (July, 2004); Willy De Greef, Reprinted in AgBioView with the permission of the editor.

Willy De Greef is at the The Plant Biotechnology Institute for Developing Countries (IPBO), Department of Molecular Genetics, Ghent University, K.L. Ledeganckstraat 35, B-9000 Ghent, Belgium. willy.degreef@ibrs.be

Vitamin A enriched 'Golden Rice' is one of several biotech products stalled in development because of a hostile regulatory environment exemplified by the Cartagena Protocol. Pallava Bagla/Corbis SygmaCurrent developments in the regulation of biotech, particularly in the Cartagena Protocol, represent a serious threat to the efforts of public research to create sustainable solutions for the food security and health problems of the developing world. They already severely limit the capability of its practitioners to translate the promise of transgenic technologies into improved quality of life for the poor. In parts of the industrialized world, they lead to a brain drain. They do not acknowledge that most innovative research in agricultural biotechnology is done in public research institutions working towards public goods outputs.

It has to be stated upfront that the biotech community needs an international agreement to harmonize regulatory supervision of biotech. Therefore, it is not an option to wish the Cartagena Protocol to fade away; we would have to negotiate another agreement on the same subject if it were not there. However, the current content and direction of its governance are damaging the prospects of biotech to the point where the Protocol is essentially a substitute for an attempted ban on agbiotech that does not want to declare its name.

The public research community has so far not acted as a major stakeholder in the international regulatory decision-making platforms that shape the future of their work. At the first Meeting of the Parties (MOP1) of the Cartagena Protocol, there was no representation of the scientific community as a stakeholder, against more than 100 representatives of the nongovernment organization (NGO) community with a rabidly antiscience and antitechnology agenda. The 'scientific information' sessions of the meeting were dominated by fringe figures who have been widely discredited in the scientific community, but who, in the absence of a reputable voice for science, are seen as the providers of scientific information to this process. In total, over 20 'information sessions' about biotech were organized around the MOP1, most of them presenting lurid tales about 'the existing and proven dangers of biotech.' Not a single presentation was made about the promises and the benefits of genetically modified (GM) crops.

This campaign is producing a regulatory environment for biotech where its most significant contributions are stalled. For example, the vitamin A enriched 'Golden Rice' project, seen a few years ago as one of the most significant single contributions of biotech to public health improvement in the developing world, has been stalled for half a decade, and in the current regulatory environment does not have much hope of reaching third world farmers. Current research on abiotic stress resistance in crops is delivering technical breakthroughs that, in a rational regulatory environment, could reach the farmer by 2010. Instead, they struggle to even make it into field trials.

Part of the problem is that the policy environment for biotechnology is effectively set in the Cartagena Protocol, which is a Multilateral Environment Agreement (MEA) dealing with essentially agricultural and health issues. It is a poorly informed platform, almost devoid of serious inputs from the field of reputable biotech and biosafety research (and agriculture for that matter). In the absence of the scientific community as a stakeholder, fringe science and political ideology has taken the place of an informed process.

The scientific community cannot turn its back on this process if it wants the results of its innovation drive in the life sciences to reach those who need it most. The consensus view of the participants in the Cartagena Protocol seems to be that biosafety regulation is a matter of controlling the actions of a small number of multinational technology companies. Nowhere in the policy discussions is it recognized that most of the genetic engineering of crops relevant to the developing world is done in the public sector. Once that research moves out of the laboratory and into the field, it is subject to the same oppressive regulatory constraints as anything produced by Monsanto (St. Louis, MO, USA), Syngenta (Basel), Dupont/Pioneer (Wilmington, DE, USA) or Bayer CropScience (Monheim am Rhein, Germany). The current situation presents an immediate threat to the future of public research of GM crops in two major areas:

Exchange of research material has become much more difficult. The provisions of the Advanced Informed Agreement (AIA) for import of GM organisms intended for release in the environment make no distinction between an experimental release and a commercial scale release. Consequently, data requirements have become much heavier than before. This is particularly true for GM plants produced in European Union member states.

The negotiations for a Liability & Redress regime in the Protocol entirely ignore the scenario in which the technology developer is, say, a Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) center or a national university or a government agency from a developing country. The negotiations are likely to use scenarios about the seed sector and the food chain familiar to the private sector for crops such as hybrid corn, and from there to extrapolate towards a general requirement of containment and segregation of GM and non-GM crops that is simply not achievable for most subsistence crops, and out of the question for crops in centers of genetic diversity.

To change the situation, it is urgent to create a platform of public sector research institutions, to give a voice to the concerns and the needs of the scientific community in the Cartagena Protocol implementation process, to create a credible source of scientific information for the Cartagena Protocol, to ensure representation at the meetings of the Cartagena Protocol, to defend positions for the public goods research sector and to provide information on the impact of regulatory options debated. An important early requirement is to create a much improved understanding of:

* The impact of the emerging regulatory framework on the delivery of the public goods research and development agenda;
* The consequence of the regulations on the total cost of research projects, and the need to rethink research project definition and funding criteria accordingly;
* The consequences of the commitments of parties to their own public research strategies;
* The consequences of the proposed framework for Liability and Redress on public R&D in biotechnology.

Timing is tight; the second Meeting of the Parties (MOP2) of the Protocol is scheduled for June 2005. It is vital for the research community to be present there and to bring an informed view on biotechnology to the process. Several scientists have agreed to start up a network aimed at giving a voice to public goods research in the upcoming negotiations on implementation of the Cartagena Protocol. The startup phase is facilitated with help from the European Federation of Biotechnology (EFB). This network is open to all public sector scientists with an interest in the policy environment for biotech. This article is an invitation to all interested parties to join this effort.


New German genetic engineering law and reactions

- Bio-Markt.info, 2.07.2004

Consumer Minister Renate Künast (photo) praised the genetic engineering law passed by the German Parliament on 18.06.2004 as a success for consumer protection and for farmers who want to cultivate gmo-free. ?Germany is one of the first EU countries to create a legal framework for the protection of gmo-free agriculture?, said Künast. The parliamentary parties of the social democrats and greens had decided to change the bill for a new genetic engineering law from a bill requiring approval into one not needing approval. ?We were in a hurry?, explained the minister. ?After the EU Commission cancelled the de facto moratorium on the gmo issue in the EU, we urgently needed regulations to protect gmo-free agriculture against considerable impairments through cross-breeding, additions and other gmo access. This is exactly what the new genetic engineering law does?.

Fundamental elements of the law:

- Protection of gmo-free agriculture: organic farms and gmo-free conventional farms are protected against insidious dominance of gmo
- Regulation of liability: farmers that use genetic engineering are liable jointly and severally for gmo pollution in gmo-free farms, irrespective of fault.
- Location register: public federal register with detailed information about land plots on which gmo are cultivated.
- Extended retention period: for security reasons the data must be saved up to 15 years.
- Protection of ecologically sensitive zones: the change of the federal environmental law (§ 34 a) allows the direct intervention of the nature protection authorities in order to guarantee the protection of ecologically sensitive zones against gmo pollution.
- Conduct regulation: the Federal Office for Nature Protection (BfN), the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) and the Federal Office for Consumer Protection and Groceries Security (BVL) are to be involved in the issue and release of genetically modified organisms. If there is any dissent between the authorities involved, the Federal Consumer Protection Ministry can clarify through briefing.
- Good professional practice: current demands were embodied: minimum distances, documentation duties, rules for the use of gmo fertilizers.
- Product information duty: gmo merchandisers are bound to inform about compliance with the demands of good professional practice by means of an instruction leaflet. They are liable for incorrect product information.

Federation of the Organic Food Industry (BÖLW) welcomes the new law

The changes in transparency and liability meet important BÖLW demands for the genetic engineering law.

BÖLW chairman Dr. Felix Prinz zu Löwenstein (photo) is satisfied with the
result: "We think it is especially important that the liability for damage caused by cross-breeding and mixing are clearly assigned to the causers: genetic engineering users". The German genetic engineering law acts as a signal for other European countries, continues Löwenstein.

BÖLW also welcomes the regulation that gmo issuers will be liable: "It must be obvious that persons who use genetic engineering for the purpose of earning money have to be liable for potential damage", said Dr. Alexander Gerber, manager of BÖLW. The nationwide, public federal register with detailed information about the plots of land where gmo is cultivated fulfils another important BÖLW demand.

By contrast, the German Farmers Association (DBV) criticized the decision of the German Parliament. ?The security of coexistence is not achieved, so the DBV would advise all farmers not to cultivate genetically modified plants?, states a DBV press report.