Today in AgBioView: July 9, 2004:
* GMOs to Eradicate Poverty, Says Dept
* "Orange banana to boost kids' eyes"
* No such thing as natural farming
* Better breeding through biotech
* Greenpeace inquiry
* GE AMENDMENTS HAMPER RESEARCH IN GERMANY
* Seed dealership operator favors GM wheat
* CARTAGENA PROTOCOL AND AGRI-BIOTECH
* Europeans don't quaff, but scoff at bioengineered beer
* Now Prince Charles Supports Alternative Cancer Treatments
GMOs to Eradicate Poverty, Says Dept
- BuaNews (Pretoria), July 8, 2004, By Zibonele Ntuli
The National Department of Agriculture says the use and application of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) will play a crucial role in eradicating poverty.
However, the department has raised concerns that there are risks involved inthe application of biotechnology.
GMOs are organisms in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating or natural recombination.
The added characteristic on plants reduces the need for chemical pesticides therefore increasing the resistance to insects, diseases and other pests that are capable of destroying crops.
All genetically modified foods are carefully assessed by laboratories to ensure that they are equal or better in ways to the conventional product and will not increase allergenicity or toxicity.
Briefing the media yesterday, Genetic Resources Director Julian Jaftha said government had passed the Genetically Modified Organisms Act to ensure that all activities involving the use of GMOs limited the possible harmful consequences to the environment.
Dr Jaftha said the Act also made a provision for the determination of requirements and criteria for risk assessment that would ensure GMOs were appropriate and not hazardous to the environment or human and animal health.
The GMO Act is administered by the Directorate Genetic Resources and makes provision for a Registrar, two regulatory bodies; Advisory Committee and Executive Council and Inspectors.
"The Registrar is responsible for the administration of the Act, the Advisory Committee is responsible for evaluation of risk assessment data within every application and the Executive Council for taking a decision on whether a specific activity should be authorized or not," said Dr Jaftha.
He said the inspectors were responsible for monitoring authorized activities with GMOs throughout the country.
He said the Advisory Council and the Executive Council had produced the guidelines for applying for the use of GMOs.
"These guidelines aim to provide general information on the provisions of the Act, functioning of the bodies appointed in terms of the Act, how applications are processed and provide assistance to the applicant on how to apply for a permit.
"The guidelines will aid in public understanding of the administration of the Act and increase transparency towards the regulation of GMOs in South Africa," he said.
The Department of Agriculture has since approved the planting of three GMO crops namely the insect resistant cotton, herbicide resistant cotton and insect resistant maize.
From: "John W. Cross"
Subject: High carotenoid banana
Date: Thu, 8 Jul 2004 11:09:41 -0400
"Orange banana to boost kids' eyes"
- New Scientist, 07 July 04
This is an interesting case of a naturally-occurring variant that is being introduced into the food supply. Other than screening for excess carotenoids, what is known about this fruit? Has the safety profile or its substantial nutritional similarity to cultivated bananas been tested? The article states that for centuries these bananas have been given to help children wean, but what does that prove? Ah, but, it's natural!
No such thing as natural farming
- The San Diego Union-Tribune, Maarten J. Chrispeels, June 16, 2004
News reports about the recent demonstration in San Francisco against genetically engineered crops and Mendocino County's ban on such crops suggest to the casual observer that we would all be better off by avoiding the application of new agricultural technologies, while embracing "natural farming" techniques.
But what, exactly, do we mean by natural? And what would be the costs to society of abandoning our current technology?
Right now, the food available in our stores is cheaper, more plentiful and more nutritious than ever before in our history. Yet we worry about the way food is produced on farms and about the genetic makeup of the plants used by our farmers. "Are they using natural plants and farming the natural way?" we ask ourselves.
Perhaps it is time to kill off a few myths about farming. There is nothing natural about farming. An agricultural landscape may look attractive -- a vineyard in the San Diego backcountry for example, or a sunflower field in full bloom in the Provence in France -- but its creation required the complete destruction of the natural ecosystem and its replacement by an agricultural ecosystem.
Further, to grow so many of the same plants in one field while at the same time suppressing the growth of other plants -- in this case, weeds -- is not natural. This is true even if farmers practice crop rotation, or "inter-cropping," the practice of growing two or three crops at the same time. Such an ecosystem is not what nature intended, and as a result we must continuously supply fertilizers, and apply weed control, disease control and insect control measures to keep that artificial ecosystem going.
The most important question is not whether it is natural, but whether it is sustainable in the long run. Do our practices destroy the resource base, or do they maintain it for future generations?
And what about the plants? Are they natural? Well, our crop plants were domesticated 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, and in the process their genetic makeup was changed considerably and irreversibly. Changed so much in fact that crop plants generally cannot survive in nature.
Although all the plants in our canyons and mountains are not native -- there are many invaders -- there are no runaway crop plants to be found. They simply can't survive there.
Further, the genetic makeup of our crops keeps on changing. This is true whether a San Diego tomato farmer buys the latest hybrid seeds from a crop breeding company or whether a corn seed selector in Chiapas, Mexico, selects seeds from this year's harvest for planting the next season.
In subsistence farming communities all over the world, seed selectors -- usually women -- carefully select seeds from the best plants and keep them for planting. This does not maintain the genetic "purity" of these land races but rather produces constant genetic change so that the crop remains adapted to its ever-changing environment.
In our society, ever since the 1900s, plant breeders have been making new gene combinations to produce the best planting materials. The so-called genetically manipulated or "GM crops," sometimes referred to as "GMOs," are simply the latest expression of plant breeders' desires to produce the best crops for the farmers. In such GM crops, new genes are introduced by a combination of molecular techniques and traditional plant breeding.
Because molecular techniques are used at the start, the genes can come from any organism: another plant species, a microbe or even an animal. Animal genes will not be used to create new food plants but may be introduced to create plants that manufacture pharmaceuticals. The productivity of our agriculture, whether conventional or organic, can only be maintained by constant genetic improvement because the disease organisms and crop pests keep on evolving.
Which brings me to the recent vote in Mendocino County to reject the growing of genetically manipulated crops in the county. This was another battle pitting organic farmers against biotech companies. We love these David and Goliath stories.
The campaign and the vote were discussed recently in this newspaper under the headline "For Mendocino County, natural's the only way to grow." Without being explicit, the headline reinforced the popular belief -- not based on scientific evidence -- that some types of agriculture -- in this case, organic -- are somehow more natural than conventional methods.
The use of manure, that symbol of virtuous farming, does not make those practices any more natural. Instead of worrying about what is natural, which is impossible to define, we should worry about sustainability.
If certain farming practices are unsustainable -- irrigation with groundwater that is not replenished, for example -- they should be taxed rather than subsidized to make them less attractive to farmers. If certain new pesticides are less toxic to people and the environment than the traditional ones used by organic farmers, their use should not be stigmatized by those seeking economic advantage for their own farming practices. If certain GM crops make agriculture more sustainable because they permit less pesticides to be used or conserve water they should certainly not be banned but embraced by society.
Rejecting modern technologies would be a disastrous development if we are to help feed the 9 billion people who soon will inhabit our planet. To achieve that goal, we must seek out the best agricultural practices and combine them with the best genetic crop varieties -- whether produced by molecular and/or traditional means -- so as to achieve food security for all, including the 800 million who are now without a secure food supply.
The organic farmers of Mendocino County and elsewhere are shrewd business people. By sticking to manure and certain older chemical fertilizers and pesticides, by banning newer ones and by banning GM crops, they have hoodwinked the public into believing they are "natural" farmers. The public is willing to pay a premium for their organic wines, and they are happy for anyone to spread their groundless message that they are farming in nature's way and others are not.
Chrispeels is a professor of biology and director of the San Diego Center for Molecular Agriculture at the University of California San Diego.
Better breeding through biotech
- The Economist, July 8th 2004
IN MANY countries, biotechnology and food are uneasy bedfellows. The wholesale rejection of genetically modified crops by consumers in much of Europe might have been expected to cause caution among firms interested in turning an honest buck from agricultural biotech. But as proponents of genetic modification are wont to point out, GM is as old as agriculture itself—for what is selective breeding for better plants and animals if it is not a form of genetic modification?
One way to get around consumer suspicions while taking advantage of modern genetic technology might be to do the actual genetic modification the old-fashioned way, by mating selected sires with selected dams, but to use biotech to decide which sires and dams to mate together. And that, indeed, is the business planned by MetaMorphix, a firm based in Savage, Maryland.
A recent press release from Cargill describes its collaboration with MetaMorphix. See also Pyxis Genomics and BoviBank.
Two years ago, MetaMorphix acquired the livestock genotyping business of Celera, a company founded in 1998 to sequence the human genome. It then joined up with Cargill, a big agribusiness firm, to commercialise a genetic test that will help to reveal, prior to slaughter, a cow's propensity to produce desirable meat. That task is being accomplished by analysing thousands of so-called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in the bovine genome. A SNP is a place where the genomes of individual animals vary by a single genetic “letter” (ie, one of the chemical base pairs that encode the information in DNA). SNPs are convenient markers for different versions of particular genes, and different versions of genes result in differences between animals. What MetaMorphix and Cargill are trying to do is find out which SNPs are associated with variations in meat quality—such traits as flesh colour, amount of marbling, wetness and tenderness—so that these can be identified before an animal is killed, and suitable animals thus be reserved for breeding.
Over the past two years, Cargill has studied 4,000 cattle, trying to correlate MetaMorphix's genetic markers with meat quality—and with other important traits, such as growth rate. Almost 100 useful SNPs have been identified from this study. The result is a prototype testing kit which the firm plans to start using in August. The first “designer meat” produced this way is expected to come to the supermarket shelves within a year.
Besides enhancing flavour, marker-assisted breeding may help to improve animal health and productivity. Pyxis Genomics, based in Chicago, has linked up with BoviBank, a Norwegian company, to identify SNPs that could enhance cattle's resistance to mastitis, an infection of the mammary glands. Meanwhile, several publicly funded programmes are under way with the goals of eradicating scrapie (a sheep disease similar to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as mad-cow disease), and of producing cattle that are resistant to Johnes disease, a fatal bacterial infection of the small intestine.
The logical next step, having once bred a cow or sheep that has been optimised for a desired characteristic, would be to reproduce the result by cloning it. But cloning mammals has proved difficult, and even if it could be done routinely, it might not go down well with the average shopper. Using SNPs to keep animals breeding true, however, could not possibly offend anybody. Could it?
- FAZ, July 9, 2004
DESSAU. Prosecutors may file charges against 92 Greenpeace members who damaged a field where a company had planted a test crop of genetically modified wheat in May, a spokesman for their office said on Thursday. The company, Syngenta, says the group of protesters caused damage estimated at EUR20,000 ($24,800), according to the newspaper Mitteldeutsche Zeitung. The crop was planted in Bernburg, a city located in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt.
GE AMENDMENTS HAMPER RESEARCH IN GERMANY
- Crop Biotech Update, July 9, 2004
The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) said that the draft amendment prepared by the German federal government on the Genetic Engineering Act restricts innovation and research in Germany.
In a statement, the DFG noted that it opposes three aspects of the draft amendment. One is that the draft assumes that a particular risk is automatically attached to the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Second, is that the amendment intends to hold users of GMOs responsible for “intrusion” by GMOs into conventionally or ecologically produced seeds. Thirdly, the DFG does not agree with the planned separation of the Central Commission for Biological Safety into two committees and the inclusion of members without technical expertise.
The DFG also frowned on the suggested establishment of a federal register for recording the location of GMOs, as well as the long lead time prior to sowing GMOs.
For further information contact: Prof. Jörg Hacker, Department of Molecular Infection Biology, University of Würzburg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The statement in German is available at http://www.dfg.de/aktuelles_presse/reden_stellungnahmen/2004/download/gentechnikrecht_0604.pdf.
Seed dealership operator favors GM wheat
- Minot Daily News, July 08, 2004, By MARVIN BAKER
MANHATTAN, Kan. - Betty Bunck believes it is in the best interest of Kansas wheat producers to accept genetically modified wheat.
Bunck, who operates a certified seed dealership and 2,700-acre farm in extreme northeastern Kansas, takes the same stance as the Kansas Wheat Commission and supports ongoing research for the release of GM wheat.
Bunck will be in Bismarck this weekend to attend the U.S. Wheat Associates board of directors summer meeting. The meeting begins Saturday and concludes Tuesday. She expects GM wheat will be a topic of discussion. The board will consider adoption of policy favoring biotech research in wheat.
''I believe that down the line, we'll have to use it,'' Bunck said. ''Ninety-five percent of the soybeans we sell are genetically modified and so is the corn. Farmers will accept it, it's just that the consumer won't.''
The Kansas Wheat Commission recently made a statement supporting the development of GM wheat. Public relations director Marsha Boswell said her organization supports the U.S. Wheat Associates, Wheat Export Trade Education Committee and National Association of Wheat Growers' position statement on biotechnology.
According to Bunck, Kansas winter wheat producers have been watching the GM wheat developments in North Dakota and Canada for about three years. She said it was almost disappointing when the Monsanto chemical company pulled the plug in May on future research of GM wheat, primarily because of Canadian Wheat Board and North Dakota producer opposition.
''When Monsanto had it (research) I thought it would be in existence by now,'' Bunck said. ''Canada didn't want it and North Dakota went along with that. We think it's going to happen.''
The Monsanto research was geared toward hard red spring wheat that is mostly grown in North Dakota and Saskatchewan, so Kansas farmers, who produce most of the winter wheat in the United States, watched from a distance, assuming that GM winter wheat would be several years behind GM spring wheat, Bunck said.
Now, she isn't sure. Although the Syngenta chemical company is working on a similar biotech program, the setback will probably be decades and not years for introduction of biotech winter wheat.
She said, however, the biggest problem in releasing biotech wheat, at least in Kansas, is that farmers are more concerned about the cost of purchasing the product than they are the political ramifications.
''A lot of farmers go to the bin for their wheat where they will purchase other seed like corn and soybeans,'' she said. ''GM wheat would be an added expense. There's a royalty fee and that's an issue.''
Boswell said that on behalf of the Kansas Wheat Commission, biotechnological research in wheat holds great promise for the future, and the U.S. wheat industry recognizes the advancements.
The Kansas Wheat Commission has taken six specific positions on GM wheat. One of them signifies clear support for continued development.
''We are confident that biotechnology will deliver significant consumer and producer benefits,'' a statement said. ''We support continued biotechnology research and product and market development. We invite valued and interested customers to join with us in a working partnership to explore the emerging biotechnology industry.''
Another problem, on a much larger scale, is in consumer demand, according to Bunck. She said most farmers she knows will accept GM wheat, but consumers don't like the label ''genetically modified.'' Bunck gave examples of several GM products such as seedless grapes and seedless watermelons and said a lot of products nowadays are genetically modified and consumers may not always be aware of it.
''Consumers have to be educated, especially foreign consumers,'' Bunck said. ''It's coming, it's new technology and I think they'll (Kansas farmers) like it down the line. We'll just have to treat it as a high-class commodity.''
CARTAGENA PROTOCOL AND AGRI-BIOTECH
- Crop Biotech Update, July 9, 2004
“The biotech community needs an international agreement to harmonize regulatory supervision of biotech. 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,” says Willy De Greef of The Plant Biotechnology Institute for Developing Countries (IPBO), Department of Molecular Genetics, Ghent University, Belgium.
In his article entitled “The Cartagena Protocol and the future of agri-biotech,” De Greef observed that the regulation of biotechnology, via the Cartagena Protocol, poses a threat to the efforts of public research institutions to create sustainable solutions for food security and health problems in developing countries. At present, the way that the protocol is being implemented, according to the author, limits the capability of practitioners and scientists to use biotechnology to improve the quality of life for the poor in developing countries.
To improve the situation, the author suggests that a platform for public sector research be created to provide a venue for the concerns and needs of the scientific community in the implementation of the Cartagena Protocol. Likewise, he also suggested that scientists should be represented at the Protocol meetings; the positions for the public goods research sector be defended; and information on the impact of regulatory options currently being debated be provided.
For more information, email Willy De Greef at email@example.com. His commentary was also featured at Nature and can be downloaded at http://www.nature.com/cgi-taf/DynaPage.taf?file=/nbt/journal/v22/n7/full/nbt0704-811.html&filetype=pdf
Europeans don't quaff, but scoff at bioengineered beer
- USA Today, By Matt Moore, July 8,2004
COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Spurned across the continent by food-fastidious Europeans, the biotechnology industry has turned in its quest for converts to the ultimate ice breaker: genetically modified beer.
A consortium of the world's largest biotech companies led by Monsanto (MON) helped fund a Swedish brewer's new light lager that's produced with the usual hops and barley — and a touch of genetically engineered corn.
Brew master Kenth Persson hopes to profit from the notoriety his biotech brew is generating, while biotech companies hope it can gently sway consumers as European regulators slowly reopen the continent to genetically altered foods. (Related link: Kenth)
But those are tall orders to fill.
A series of food-related health scares in recent years, from mad cow disease to poisoned poultry, have stoked fears among many Europeans about so-called GM foods.
Europeans insist that such food be clearly labeled, a vivid contrast with U.S. consumers, who don't appear bothered that so much of their processed food includes genetically engineered soy and corn and isn't labeled as such.
Indeed, most of the European Union's 457 million residents are adamant about their food being kept free from any sort of modifications, genetic or otherwise.
And that might help explain why Kenth beer is hardly a barroom hit.
The brewer won't say how many bottles have been sold since the beer was unveiled earlier this year in Denmark and Sweden. But he says 4,000 bottles are on their way to stores and pubs in Germany and he's in talks with stores in the United Kingdom.
Although research on GM foods hasn't yielded any nightmare scenarios about damage to life and limb, Nicholas Fjord of Malmoe in southern Sweden is not entirely convinced, either.
Despite reassurances that genetically modified products are safe, an image keeps popping up in Fjord's mind about a relative whose mother took Thalidomide in the 1960s because she was assured it was safe.
"So safe, indeed, that he has no elbow or knee joints and, despite living a good life, has been hindered since his birth," Fjord recalled. Granted, that's an extreme fear, he said, but one that seems to be strong in Europe.
A study conducted earlier this year by Finland's National Consumer Research Center showed that of all the concerns about manufactured food that Finns have, genetically modified foods topped the list. Some 60% of the population expressed "strong concern," according to the survey.
In April the EU lifted a six-year moratorium on new biotech food, but just barely. The previous month, it approved the sale of a modified strain of sweet corn, grown mainly in the United States. But any food containing that corn must be labeled as genetically modified.
U.S. farmers argue that the labeling amounts to a de facto ban and the Bush administration says it will continue pushing its biotech trade complaint at the World Trade Organization.
And that's where Kenth comes in.
The beer was created because Monsanto felt the biotech debate "never rose further than the inner circle of scientists, politicians and (nongovernment organizations)," said Mattias Zetterstrand, a Monsanto spokesman based in Stockholm, the Swedish capital. "Our wish was to contribute to this situation by making an abstract discussion more concrete."
The corn in Kenth was approved for use in 1998, before the European moratorium started, and is grown in Germany. The Monsanto-created corn seed is spliced with a bacterium's gene to resist the corn borer pest without the need for insecticides.
Zetterstrand wouldn't say how much the biotech consortium contributed to the project, but said the companies haven't purchased equity in the small Swedish brewer and won't share in sales of the beer. The other companies involved in the project are Bayer CropScience, DuPont, Plant Science Sweden, Svaloef Weibull and Syngenta.
The brewer, Persson, said he realizes that selling a genetically modified beverage in the European Union can be a risky proposition — especially when its label touts GM ingredients unabashedly.
Greenpeace activists chased Kenth-ladened beer trucks in Sweden and Denmark, discouraging store and tavern owners from buying the brew, when it was first introduced, and Greenpeace continues to pressure big grocery chains to avoid stocking it.
Dan Belusa, a Greenpeace spokesman, said the protest encouraged ICA, a large Swedish grocery store chain, to remove Kenth from its shelves.
"Basically no GM foods are sold in Europe because consumers and retailers make a conscience choice to say 'no' to them," he said.
The brewer and Monsanto say Greenpeace's efforts haven't deterred their plans.
Kenth is now being sold through the Swedish state-owned liquor monopoly, Systembolaget, in southern Sweden and there have been no protests. But its availability is limited.
At a recent barbecue in Ingaroe, a small town about a 30-minute drive from Stockholm, a six-pack of the bottles was offered up for a taste test. The beer was poured in glasses and offered up.
All in all, everyone who quaffed said it tasted just fine, just like other beer.
They weren't put off by its label, which proudly denotes its GMO use.
"To me, it's strictly the taste test," said media consultant Debi Vaught-Thelin. "If the beer is made with GM ingredients and tastes OK to me, then yes, I will drink it happily."
[NOTE: Besides expressing his opinions on cancer treatment (see letter below), Prince Charles is also a strong supporter of organic agriculture and opposes biotechnology.]
'You may have overstepped the mark,' cancer expert warns Prince of Wales
An open letter to the Prince of Wales: with respect, your highness, you’ve got it wrong BMJ Volume 328, p 118
- British Medical Journal, Volume 328, p 118, By Michael Baum
In this week's BMJ, a leading breast cancer expert warns the Prince of Wales that he may have overstepped the mark with his public support for alternative medicine.
"Over the past 20 years I have treated thousands of patients with cancer," writes Michael Baum, Professor emeritus of surgery at University College London. "The power of my authority comes with a knowledge built on 40 years of study and 25 years of active involvement in cancer research."
"Your power and authority rest on an accident of birth. I don't begrudge you that authority, but I do beg you to exercise your power with extreme caution when advising patients with life threatening diseases to embrace unproven therapies."
He adds: "It is in the nature of your world to be surrounded by sycophants who constantly reinforce what they assume are your prejudices. Sir, they patronise you! Allow me this chastisement."
"I have much time for complementary therapy that offers improvements in quality of life or spiritual solace, providing that it is truly integrated with modern medicine. But I have no time at all for "alternative" therapy that places itself above the laws of evidence and practices in a metaphysical domain that harks back to the dark days of Galen."
"With respect your Highness, you've got it wrong."