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July 13, 2004


GM plants will be used to create Aids vaccine; European Farmers Eager to Try Biotech; Farm Disaster in Zimbabwe


Today in AgBioView: July 13, 2004:

* GM plants will be used to create Aids vaccine
* EU scientists to study medicinces from genetically modified plants
* Many European Farmers Are Eager to Give Biotech Crops a Try
* ‘GM banana needed to fend off pests’
* No quick fix to food problem
* U.S. wheat export group approves biotech policy back
* A Farm Disaster of a Different Color


GM plants will be used to create Aids vaccine

- The Independent, By Steve Connor, 13 July 2004

Genetically modified plants are to be used to grow vaccines against rabies and Aids, scientists have announced.

Europe's first field trial, announced yesterday, is likely to be carried out in South Africa because of fears over crop vandalism in Britain.

The GM crop could dramatically reduce the cost of producing vaccines ­ scientists estimate they can be made at between a tenth and a hundredth of the price of conventional immunisations.

Dubbed "pharming" by its opponents, this is the latest step in technology which allows medicines to be grown in plants. Although this project is concerned with injectable vaccines, other trials under consideration involve extending the research to oral vaccines which might be grown in edible raw food such as bananas.

Concerns about direct action by environmentalists opposed to GM crops has led scientists behind the project to collaborate with a South African research institute which has offered to grow the first crop there.

The EU has awarded ¤12m (£8.6m) to a pan-European consortium of scientists who aim to develop the technology for growing GM plants that can be turned into vaccines against a range of common diseases in the developing world.

Professor Julian Ma of St George's Hospital Medical School in London, the scientific co-ordinator of the project, said that it will take about two years to develop the technique before the first crop is scheduled to be grown in 2006.

Clinical trials of the first vaccine derived from GM plants are planned to take place in 2009.

"Plants are inexpensive to grow and if we were to engineer them to contain a gene for a pharmaceutical product they could produce large quantities of drugs or vaccine at low cost," Professor Ma said.

"The current methods used to generate these types of treatments are labour intensive, expensive and often only produce relatively small amounts of pharmaceuticals," he said.

It is likely the first pharmaceuticals crop will be GM maize or GM tobacco that will be engineered with a set of genes for making prototype vaccines against either HIV or rabies. By purifying the proteins from the harvested crop scientists hope to mass-produce vaccines at a fraction of the current cost.

South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research is participating in the research and is particularly interested in potential vaccines against HIV, the Aids virus.

The Friends of the Earth GM campaigner Clare Oxborrow said: "Growing medicines in plants has serious implications for human health and the environment. We recognise the need for affordable medicines to be made available to people with life-threatening illnesses but this research could have widespread negative impacts."

Professor Ma said that 3.3 million people a year die from preventable diseases such as tuberculosis and diphtheria, yet there is not the industrial capacity or funds to produce enough vaccines for everyone. "The cost of doing nothing is measured in millions of people who will die from preventable diseases," he said.


EU scientists to study medicinces from genetically modified plants

- Vietnam News Agency, 07/13/2004

Berlin, July 13 (VNA) - Scientists from 11 European Union countries plan to conduct a research to produce medicines and vaccines from genetically modified plants, the Fraunhofer Institue for Molecular Biotechnology in Aachen, Germany, said on Monday.

The programme is to produce low-cost pharmaceuticals against HIV/AIDS, diabetes and tuberculosis, said Dr. Stefan Schillberg from the Fraunhofer Institute.

The EU has decided to pour 12 million euros into the programme over five years.

Scientists expect that the medicines will be introduced on the market within the next three years. Developing countries will benefit from the programme due to cheap prices, said scientists.


Many European Farmers Are Eager to Give Biotech Crops a Try

- CBI, By Thierry de l'Escaille

Widespread European adoption would boost production, yield.

Some may be surprised to learn that many European farmers are looking to plant biotech crops.

But not Thierry de l'Escaille, head of the Belgium-based European Landowners' Organization (ELO), which represents several million farmers and other rural business owners in 25 countries that make up the recently expanded European Union (EU).

"A lot of farmers in our organization are quite interested in growing GM crops," said l'Escaille. "Biotechnology could also be a good tool to help rural areas — for the economy and for the environment."

As the owner and operator of farms in Belgium, France and the Netherlands, l'Escaille said he, too, would like the opportunity to plant biotech crops. He grows a variety of crops, including conventional sugar beets, corn and potatoes. Enhanced biotech varieties of all three of these crops have been approved for planting in the United States, but not in the countries where he farms.

A recent study found that the wide-scale adoption of these three biotech crops in Europe could significantly increase annual production, improve farmer income by more than 1 billion Euros (US$1.18 billion) and reduce spraying practices. 1

"With results like these, it's easy to understand why farmers want access to this new technology," said l'Escaille

Although the public debate over plant biotechnology continues in Europe, l'Escaille said the issue has evolved to where it is now driven more by politics than by public concerns about food safety or the environment.

"Five or six years ago, some people were asking legitimate questions about GMOs," said l'Escaille. "But most of those questions have been answered. With biotech crops, it's possible to grow food that is safe to eat and even better for the environment."

The British Medical Association (BMA), which at one time had questioned the safety of biotech crops, for example, recently said it supports the UK government's decision to allow commercial planting of biotech corn. 2

Sir David Carter, chairman of the BMA's Board of Science, said it was time to "move away from the hysteria that has so often been associated with GM foods." 3

In response to such statements by BMA and other influential groups, European attitudes toward biotechnology have gradually grown more positive since 1999. 4 Landowners, farmers and policymakers are looking to move forward.

"My personal feeling is that many of the decision makers are looking for a solution to the dispute over biotech crops," said l'Escaille. "With more balanced information, the public is beginning to see some of the benefits of agricultural biotechnology. But I can't plant biotech crops until the market is ready for them."

To date, Spain is the only country in the European Union where biotech crops are commercially grown — about 5 percent of its acreage is planted with corn. l'Escaille said Spanish members of the ELO have been very pleased with the yield and income gains achieved with Bt corn, which is enhanced with a naturally occurring soil bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis) to ward off insect pests.

On average, Bt yields were 6.3 percent higher than conventional varieties, according to a report from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications. 5 That, in addition to a reduction in pesticide spraying, has translated into extra earnings of 170 Euros per hectare, or $85 an acre.

Another study suggests that the wide-scale adoption of nine biotech crops in Europe — including corn, cotton, potatoes, rapeseed, rice, sugar beets, stone fruits (peaches, apricots and plums), tomatoes and wheat — could increase production, improve farmer income and reduce spraying. 6

l'Escaille says studies like this are stimulating the interest of farmers throughout the EU who say they need biotechnology in order to remain competitive on global markets. He said the majority of farmers in the EU are over 55 years of age and many are going out of business because their sons and daughters see no future in farming. Without access to new technologies to improve profitability, the EU farm population will continue to age and decline as young people leave the farm for more lucrative careers in cities.

Yet another concern is that biotech crop research in Europe is on the decline because of what has been perceived as the hostile political climate. While the number of biotech field trials in Europe rose sharply between 1991 and 1998, they fell by 76 percent by 2001 — from 250 in 1998 to 61 in 2001, according to a report from the European Commission. 7 As a result, the report said, scientists are leaving Europe to come to the United States or Canada to conduct their research.

"The lack of progress on the authorizations of new GMOs is having a direct impact on research activities on GMOs and GMO field trials in Europe," it said. 8

While l'Escaille says biotechnology isn't the only answer to those problems, it's a "partial solution" to the exodus of people from rural Europe and the "brain drain" of some of its most promising young scientists.

"A lot of the pioneering work in plant improvement and genetics originated in Europe – whether it was Thomas Fairchild, the father of the modern flower garden, or Gregor Mendel, whose work was the first to identify characteristics that pass from parents to offspring," l'Escaille said. "We can't afford to miss out now. Our farmers and our rural communities need to stay profitable and competitive.

"As a farmer, I can only speak for myself and many like me: We need access to this technology."


‘GM banana needed to fend off pests’

- Philippine News Agency, By LILYBETH G. ISON, July 13, 2004

Banana is a major staple for more than 400 million people in developing nations, including the Philippines.

However, black sigatoka, a banana fungus that has spread around the world since the 1960s, is a very serious and potentially devastating threat to this fruit. Other dangers come from a soil fungus known as Panama disease and weevil borers that burrow into the stalks.

There is danger that many banana varieties may one day become extinct if no genetic fix is done to this problem.

Bananas are rich in vitamins, potassium, magnesium and fiber, making them an important crop, especially in developing countries, and the most profitable export fruit in the world.

About 90 million metric tons (MT) of bananas are consumed annually in Honduras, Cuba, Uganda, Ethiopia and the Philippines.

Many banana varieties have already vanished over the years. Growers currently manage pests by the use of chemicals, spraying this crop more than any other.

US plant pathologist Emile Frison said he is developing a genetic fix that will enable bananas to defend themselves from these threats, and ensure that the banana varieties are available.

His research involves inserting a gene from rice that will work like a fungicide to fend off the black sigatoka fungus in banana.

So far, Dole, Chiquita and other food companies have no plan to introduce genetically modified (GM) bananas.

However, Frison said if GM bananas are not accepted they will be forced to grow less-productive foods that degrade the soil and yield less.

On the other hand, environmentalists and lovers of the organic food oppose GM foods as unnatural, often less tasty than the original and possibly dangerous.

Most Americans, however, don’t seem too upset about eating bioengineered corn flakes and tortillas. Last year in the United States, GM soybeans accounted for more than 50 percent of total yields; GM corn accounted for almost 40 percent.

In Europe the opposition is more potent. Polls show that only one in four Europeans favors GM foods. But this same poll says that Europeans, by a slim majority, support research into genetically modifying humans. This situation is almost the exact reverse of how Americans feel.

Frison said he has little patience with those opposed to all GMO foods, saying that the fears are not supported by the science. “They don’t want to hear anything that does not agree with their position. It’s annoying,” he said.The truth, Frison noted, lies somewhere in the middle, with a spectrum between GMO foods that are safe and those that are not.

Dangers include GMO plants that unintentionally turn toxic and hurt or kill other plants, animals or humans or that cause horrible allergies. Another fear is that rogue genes will be accidentally transferred into a complicated ecosystem to incite unintended havoc.

On the safe end of the spectrum, ample evidence exists that some genetic modifications are okay.

Frison believes that the animosity toward GMO foods comes less from science and safety than from a decade of insensitivity by highly profitable global food giants that “without a genetic fix, the banana may be history,” he said.


No quick fix to food problem

- Daily Times of Nigeria, By David Dickson, July 12, 2004

African countries require less of an Asian-style ‘green revolution’ than a ‘cultural revolution’ involving ideas, attitudes and institutions. This must include, but not be limited to, a belief in science-based innovation. If United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan had expected a simple answer when he asked scientists two years ago what they could do about the food crisis in Africa, he will have been disappointed when he received their reply last recently. The implication behind the way that Annan’s question was phrased — how can a ‘green revolution’ be achieved in Africa? — is that the solution might be found in a set of relatively straightforward scientific and technical innovations in plant breeding. After all, it was the development of new, high-yielding strains of rice and wheat that lay behind the original ‘green revolution’ that was achieved in Asia and Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. Perhaps Africa could benefit in a similar way?

But, as the scientists’ response makes it clear, Africa is a different case. The response came from a panel established by the Inter Academy Council (IAC), a body set up by scientific academies across the world to provide expert advice to the UN system and other international bodies on science-related issues. As indicated in their report – Realizing the promise and potential of African agriculture: Science and technology strategies for improving agricultural productivity and food security in Africa, many factors combine to make the alleviation of food shortages in Africa – both acute and chronic – significantly more complex than in Asia.

First is the wide diversity of farming and food systems on the continent, a reflection partly of the variety of ecological and climatological conditions, and partly of cultural traditions. Other factors range from a lack of a sound scientific infrastructure in educational institutions, to inadequate roads and storage facilities which mean that, even when food is produced, it often cannot get to where it is needed, or rots before it can be used. One of the main virtues of the IAC report is the extent to which it underlines that, unlike Asia and Latin America, there are no technical fixes to Africa’s food problems (a particularly refreshing conclusion at a time when proponents of genetically-modified foods are claiming to offer one). Rather, it emphasizes that creating a situation in which the continent is able to provide enough food for its population requires action at many levels.

Some of these are scientific; new, high-yielding crop varieties are certainly needed, and GM foods are likely to have their place, alongside new varieties produced by more conventional breeding techniques. Others range from the need to stem the brain drain of the best and brightest graduates in agricultural sciences, to the political measures required to ensure an adequate ‘enabling environment’.

If there is a weakness in the report, it is perhaps, the reluctance to send a sufficiently strong political message about the urgency of actions at all these levels. It is already widely recognised that the way farming subsidies in rich countries block market access for many farmers in poor countries is an international disgrace. But so too is the fact that spending on agricultural research in the whole of Africa in less than half of that spent by a single university in the United States. Or even that scientific research is almost non-existent in many of the continent’s universities, the legacy of decades of neglect by donor agencies and national governments alike.

Part of the problem, of course, is drawing attention to the problem is not new. It arrives on television screens across the world whenever part of the continent, be it Sudan, Ethiopia or Southern Africa, suffers a particularly severe drought, leading to widespread famine, and equally widespread — if often only temporary — concern about Africa. It is also familiar to aid agencies, ranging from the Food and Agricultural Organisation, to the centres that make up the Consultative Group in International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

The latter in particular, perhaps, receive less credit from the IAC panel than they are due for the substantial amount of work they already carry out across the continent on issues identified in the report (such as the four crop systems identified for priority treatment).

Furthermore the politics of food is no stranger to Africa. Unsurprisingly on a continent where security of food supply is the top item on the personal agenda of a high proportion of the population, there is a widely-used saying that “the politics of Africa is the politics of the stomach”. The danger is that the IAC report could, if left to fend for itself, become yet another well-meaning contribution to an ongoing debate that fails either to address or to become embedded in wider political realities.

That would be a wasted opportunity. For the report contains an important new message, namely that boosting food production and food security across the continent requires a multifaceted but coherent strategy. It is a strategy that has science and technology at its centre (and therefore requires nurturing the individuals and building the institutions capable of delivering this science, as well as a substantial increase in financial support). But it is also a strategy that acknowledges that science and technology can only take root in a fertile environment.

This means more than just persuading either national politicians or international aid agencies to put support for agricultural research even higher up their agenda. It also means ensuring that the potential benefits of agricultural science are genuinely molded to the needs of local farmers (hence the insistence in the report that farmers organisations become directly involved in research priority setting). Which in turn means concentrated efforts at using modern communications technology to provide information on the range of choices that are available. The ‘father’ of the Green Revolution in India, and one of the co-chairs of the IAC panel, M. S. Swaminathan, spoke of the way that such technology could be used for the important task of ‘demystification’ of modern science and technology (for example, in the techniques of tissue culture).

Equally important is the need to ensure that agricultural science and technology is sufficiently sensitive to the requirements of ecological sustainability. It is easy enough to say, given that soil fertility levels are already low — and that the fertiliser inputs required to reverse this are relatively high, often costing more than it does in Europe or America — that Africa can ill afford the environmental degradation that has too often accompanied efforts to boost agricultural productivity elsewhere. Yet too often ignorance, mixed with unreflective pursuit of the technical fix that chemical herbicides and pesticides offer, levy a heavy toll in both human and environmental health.

Indeed, if there is to be a revolution to meet Africa’s food needs, what is needed is less of a green than a cultural one. Perhaps it should also appropriate the Maoist slogan ‘let a hundred flowers bloom’, reflecting the fact that complementary initiatives are needed across the continent, at all scales and levels of activity. The message of the revolution should not lie in preaching a blind faith in agricultural science and technology. Rather it should underline the need to promote ideas and attitudes, and the individuals and institutions they embody, to ensure that agricultural science and technology are better placed — and better handled — to enable them fulfill the potential that they offer to the continent.

U.S. wheat export group approves biotech policy back

- Reuters, July 12, 2004, By Carey Gillam

KANSAS CITY (Reuters) - A U.S. wheat export group on Monday endorsed a set of guidelines for biotechnology companies seeking industry support in marketing genetically modified wheat, officials said.

U.S. Wheat Associates, an export marketing organization, voted unanimously Monday at a board meeting in North Dakota to endorse the set of principles developed by wheat industry groups and approved last week by the National Association of Wheat Growers.

The Wheat Export Trade Education Committee, which helps analyze and disseminate international trade information related to wheat exports, approved the proposal on Sunday.

The guidelines follow the decision in May by biotech crop leader Monsanto Co. to shelve commercial introduction of a biotech wheat variety following years of protests by overseas buyers of U.S. wheat and grain industry groups who feared the loss of export sales.

U.S. Wheat Associates spokeswoman Dawn Forsythe said that, while many concerns remain, the U.S. Wheat board thought the new policy would help ease the commercialization of a biotech wheat variety in what has so far been a hostile market.

"They recognized that principles for commercialization provides a rational approach to meet the needs of customers and U.S. wheat farmers," Forsythe said.

The guidelines would require the company releasing the technology to get regulatory approval in the United States as well as in wheat export markets that represent at least five percent of the normal export volume of any of the affected markets.

The company must also identify buyers for the new transgenic wheat, provide a trait detection test, and meet certain pricing requirements. It should also make the trait available for adaptation into public wheat varieties, according to the industry policy.

With Monsanto's plans on the shelf, Swiss chemicals company Syngenta is now seen as the leading contender to commercialize what would be the world's first biotech wheat.

Sygenta, which is not attending a series of wheat industry meetings in North Dakota this week, said it was too early to discuss its timeline for biotech wheat.

Syngenta spokeswoman Sarah Hull said the company must complete field trials before it can determine a timeline.


A Farm Disaster of a Different Color
Mugabe's Land-Seizure Campaign Leaves a Black-Owned Business in Ruin

- Washington Post, By Craig Timberg, July 13, 2004

ODZI, Zimbabwe -- Where rows of sweet corn once grew, there are now brown and dead stalks. Where beans once sprouted, there are weeds. And where 5,000 Zimbabweans long made a good living off the land, there is hunger.

Similar scenes are common on farms, most previously owned by white Zimbabweans, across this southern African nation after four years of violent land seizures under President Robert Mugabe. What is different about the Kondozi farm is that the owner of the business that was confiscated is black.

Edwin Moyo, who owned 52 percent of Kondozi, thrived at what was traditionally a white man's business in this former British colony, running a horticultural company that stocked vegetable bins throughout Britain and brought in $15 million a year to this poor corner of a poor nation.

But under a farm seizure program Mugabe has said was necessary to redistribute the ownership of land, Moyo's business met the same ruin as those owned by thousands of whites. On Good Friday, in April, dozens of police arrived with water cannons and submachine guns, Moyo said, and blocked off the road, looted the offices and beat anyone who sought to resist.

"This is something I wanted to do as a black man . . . so I could look after other people," said Moyo, 46, who owns several other business interests in Zimbabwe.

In an interview, Moyo did not blame Mugabe or his ruling ZANU-PF party, which controls most aspects of the national economy. Instead, Moyo vaguely accused "certain greedy individuals," whom he did not name, of taking Kondozi.

But former employees of the farm, opposition leaders and independent journalists say Kondozi represents the reality of land reform in Zimbabwe, where there are few, if any, checks on government power and those who wield it.

Moyo's former employees, most of whom are still out of work, said a group of top government officials who live in the area coveted Kondozi for themselves and were eager to punish independent farmers, seeing them as the financial base for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

The toll has been high for thousands of workers, their families and the region. One former employee, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of government retribution, said he had lost income equal to $100 a month -- a good wage in Zimbabwe -- plus housing and living expenses.

"Now it's disaster," he said. "I've got nothing right now."

Twenty-two farmers, most of whom are black and who sold beans, corn, melons and other crops under contract to Kondozi, also lost their livelihoods. Hundreds of other workers were employed by these smaller farms, many of which have stopped producing.

The attack was even more startling to those here because the High Court of Zimbabwe had ruled in February that the government could not take Kondozi.

The government, in newspapers it owns, has repeatedly portrayed the seizure of Kondozi as an unvarnished success of land reform and contended that the farm has resumed its earlier productivity.

But a recent visit showed that on Kondozi's 550 acres, only a few fields still had crops, and those were stunted and immature. Most fields were overgrown with weeds, including an inedible reddish plant that Zimbabweans call "witch's wheat."

Mayor Misheck Kagurabadza of nearby Mutare, Zimbabwe's third-largest city, about 25 miles from Kondozi, said suffering in the area had been widespread since the farm was seized.
Former workers and their families come to the mayor's office looking for help buying food, or a few dollars to pay school fees for their children. The situation is worse in the rural areas, the mayor said, because the prospects for work are slimmer there.

"People who used to work in that area, they are really in trouble," said Kagurabadza, a member of the Movement for Democratic Change.

Since Zimbabwean authorities began seizing land in 2000, they have taken thousands of farms, often by threatening and attacking farmers and their families.

The government has said the farms will remain the property of the state, but leases of 99 years have been given to members of the political elite. Some cabinet members have received several farms each, a development that even Mugabe has criticized.

"A man can have as many wives as he wants as long as he can look after them," Mugabe said last week in Harare, the capital. "Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about farms."

The former farm owners, most of whom are white, in many cases have fled to Britain, Australia or over the border to Zambia, where the agricultural industry is suddenly booming.

The former farm workers, almost all of whom are black, often have been left destitute because new managers often lack expertise, training and equipment. In the process, Zimbabwe has been transformed from a nation that was known as southern Africa's breadbasket into a country where hunger is common.

In April, the same month Kondozi was seized, the U.N. World Food Program reported feeding 4.5 million Zimbabweans, roughly one-third of the nation's population. Millions of citizens have fled to South Africa and other countries in search of work and food.

Two decades after white rule ended in 1980, most of the country's best farmland had belonged to several thousand white farmers. Although many Zimbabweans said they were uneasy about the ruthlessness used to seize the farms and were troubled by the hunger that resulted, there initially was support for the idea of reclaiming the most fertile land from the descendants of colonizers.

But the takeover of Kondozi provoked a reaction different from that regarding earlier farm seizures. Many Zimbabweans were puzzled over how the government could take a business that was owned by a black man, employed so many people and generated so much precious foreign currency.

In defending the takeover, despite the High Court's ruling in February, officials pointed out that although Moyo was majority owner of the business, a white family owned the land.

Yet even within Mugabe's party, the seizure provoked outrage so intense it caused a rare public fracture. Vice President Joseph Msika, who oversees land redistribution for Mugabe, sought to block the takeover.

But in an interview with the Zimbabwe Independent in May, Msika said he had no choice but to back away from the issue after discussing it with Mugabe. In the same interview, Msika blamed the farm seizure on "immoral little boys" whom he did not name.

"More people must be included in the ownership of the concerns, but not through violent and barbaric ways," Msika told the weekly newspaper. "Personally, as the chairman of the land task force, I wouldn't accept having the army and police descending on farms to forcibly evict owners, farm workers or peasants. Such actions cast a bad image on the land issue that has been a success generally."

As Kondozi's workers struggle, Moyo said he has moved on. He has written off the debt from the farm and turned his attention to a processing plant he bought in Zambia. It employs 9,000 people, a success that is bittersweet for Moyo, who said he would rather see those jobs in Zimbabwe, at Kondozi.

But, he said: "It is over and done with. This farm is gone. There's nothing to be done."