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July 15, 2004


NGOs Applaud FAO Biotech Report: Agricultural Biotechnology: meeting the needs of the poor?


Today in AgBioView: July 15, 2004:

* NGOs Applaud FAO Biotech Report
* GM foods test European unity
* More acres for GM food crops
* Modified crops: the pros and cons
* Scientists unravelling tomato's genes

NGOs Applaud FAO Biotech Report

Press Release, July 15, 2004

More than 40 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and stakeholders in civil society from around the world have signed an Open Letter to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) supporting FAO's new report in favor of using agricultural biotechnology to help meet the needs of the poor and undernourished. (Agricultural biotechnology: meeting the needs of the poor? UN FAO, May, 2004)

The signatories to the Open Letter supporting the FAO are from countries in both the North and the South, including India, Pakistan, Nigeria, South Africa, Canada, the U.S., and European countries in both the East and the West.

This broad support for biotechnology on behalf of the poor contrasts with some groups opposed to biotechnology. Those groups expressed their dissatisfaction with the FAO report in an Open Letter released in June of this year.

Far from "abandoning the poor," as those groups have suggested, the FAO report is specifically focused on how agricultural biotechnology can best be used to meet the needs of the poor and malnourished.

Both the Open Letter and the UN report acknowledge that "while there are potential risks from the use of agricultural biotechnology, the potential benefits are both large and greatly needed, given the challenges humanity faces in feeding a larger, more affluent population from an already limited land and resource base."

The Open Letter in Support of the UN report applauds the agency for a balanced and reasoned document and for moving the debate about agricultural biotechnology beyond polarizing rhetoric toward the question of how best to apply that technology to help feed needy populations.

To view the Open Letter and see the list of current signatories, please visit: www.internationalconsumers.org

For more information contact:

Alex Avery, Director of Research
Center for Global Food Issues, Hudson Institute
Phone: (540) 337-6354, or -6387
Email: aavery@cgfi.org



NGOs in support of FAO report, "Agricultural biotechnology: meeting the needs of the poor?"
(see http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/focus/2004/41655/index.html)

An open letter to Mr. Jacques Diouf, Director General of UN Food and Agriculture Organization

July 16, 2004

Mr. Jacques Diouf
Director General
UN Food and Agriculture Organization
Geneva, Switzerland

Dear Mr. Diouf,

We, the undersigned NGOs and civil society stakeholders involved in farming and agricultural issues, wish to express our support and agreement with the FAO report released Monday, May 17 ("Agricultural biotechnology: meeting the needs of the poor?").

We applaud the FAO for moving the discussion about agricultural biotechnology away from polarizing political rhetoric and either/or debates toward how best to utilize and apply agricultural biotechnology to the needs of the world's poor and undernourished. This is a most welcome advancement of the international discussion.

The FAO is to be commended for its balanced, well-reasoned approach. The report acknowledges that while there are potential risks from the use of agricultural biotechnology, the potential benefits are both large and greatly needed given the challenges humanity faces in feeding a larger, more affluent population from an already limited land and resource base.

Far from proposing a "technological fix" to food security problems, the report acknowledges that biotechnology alone cannot solve the problems of the poor and that a multifaceted approach is needed to address systemic poverty and malnutrition in developing regions. The report also stresses the need to carefully assess the socio-economic, food safety, and environmental impacts of biotechnology on a case-by-case basis, considering both the opportunities and risks.

Importantly, the report acknowledges that biotechnology offers tremendous promise in increasing food security, food safety, and economic opportunities for smallholder farmers in developing countries. Biotechnology can speed up conventional breeding, address intractable disease problems, create crops that resist disease and insect pests and displace toxic chemicals that harm the environment and human health, help combat difficult endemic livestock diseases, and improve the nutritional quality of dietary staples heavily relied upon by the poor. Because the technology is embodied in the seed, these may be easier for small-scale, resource-poor farmers to utilize than the technologies of the previous and successful Green Revolution.

While currently led by the private sector and focused on developed countries in the West, the report notes that there are critical opportunities ahead for biotechnology to address the particular needs of the poor and that cooperation and adequate funding are needed to ensure that the needs of the poor are not neglected and barriers to access are overcome.

Noted in the report are public-private partnerships, increased funding for public-sector transgenic crop research, and technical and regulatory capacity-building in developing countries to ensure they have the skills and knowledge necessary to make their own decisions about the use of biotechnology.

The report notes that the emerging evidence on the economic impacts of transgenic crops for smallholders is positive, with enhanced incomes and reduced pesticide exposure.

Finally, the report highlights some of the difficult agricultural and nutritional problems faced by smallholders in developing countries, and the unique and powerful ways that agricultural biotechnology can address these issues.

Perhaps most importantly, this FAO report acknowledges the food safety of transgenic products currently on the market. The report stresses that regulation should be science-based and noted the critical role of the Codex Alimentarius Commission and International Plant Protection Convention in easing international tensions in trade and food aid.

We commend the FAO and your office for weighing in on this important yet still contentious area and offering reasoned optimism about the role that agricultural biotechnology should play in meeting the needs of the poor and humanity in the 21st century.


Alex Avery, Director of Research
Hudson Institute, Center for Global Food Issues

Frances B. Smith, Executive Director
Consumer Alert and
Coordinator, ICCS
Washington, DC

Dr. Richard A. Herrett
Consultant, Formerly head of the non-profit Agriculture Research Institute

Prof. Jaroslav Drobnik, President
Biotrin (Non-profit Biotech Education Organization)
Czech Republic

Dr. Alena Gajdosova, Deputy Director
Institute of Plant Genetics and Biotechnology
Slovak Academy of Sciences
Nitra, Slovak Republic

Dr. Michael A. Wilson
Department of Biological Sciences
University of Warwick
(Formerly CEO Horticulture Research International 1999-2004)

Dr. Peter Langelüddeke
Hofheim, Germany

Dr. Narpat S. Shekhawat
Biotech unit. JNV University
Jodhpur, India

Dr. Vivek Damle
Mumbai, India

Dr. Robert Wager
Malaspina University College
Nanaimo, Canada

Farzana Panhwar, President
The Sindh Rural Women's Up-lift Group
Hyderabad, Pakistan

Dr. Phil Larkin
Senior Principal Research Scientist
CSIRO Plant Industry
Canberra, Australia

Dr. Thomas R. DeGregori
Professor of Economics
University of Houston

Waldemar Ingdahl, Director
Tankesmedjan Eudoxa

Deroy Murdock, Senior Fellow
Atlas Economic Research Foundation

Thompson Ayodele
Institute of Public Policy Analysis

Dr. Tim Evans, President and Director General
Centre for the New Europe

Greg Conko
Competitive Enterprise Institute
Washington DC

Dr. Chris R. Tame, Director
The Libertarian Alliance
London, England

Karen Kerrigan, Chairman
Small Business Survival Committee
Washington, DC

Parth J. Shah, President
Centre for Civil Society
New Delhi, India

Barun Mitra
The Liberty Institute
New Delhi, India

Alberto Mingardi, Director
Globalization and Competition Policy
Istituto Bruno Leoni

Carlo Stagnaro, Director
Environmental Policies
Istituto Bruno Leoni

Jay Lehr, Science Director
The Heartland Institute

Elizabeth Whelan
American Council on Science and Health
New York

Paul Driessen
Senior Policy Advisor, Congress of Racial Equality
Senior Fellow, Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow

Dr. Boudewijn Bouckaert, Director
Department General Jurisprudence and History of Law
Member, High Council for Justice
Erasmus Lecturer, Harvard Law School
Gent, Belgium

Brian Lee Crowley, President
Atlantic Institute for Market Studies
Halifax, Nova Scotia

Dr. Don Ross, Professor
University of Cape Town
University of Alabama
Cape Town, South Africa

Garrett J. Glass, Executive Director
Digital Freedom Network
Newark, New Jersey

Dr. Krassen Stanchev, Executive Director
Institute for Market Economics
Sofia, Bulgaria

Leon Louw, CEO
Free Market Foundation of Southern Africa
Johannesburg, South Africa

Martin Chren, Director
The F. A. Hayek Foundation Bratislava
Bratislava, Slovak Republic

Dr. Yuri N. Maltsev
Carthage College
Kenosha, Wisconsin

Fred Oladeinde
The Foundation for Democracy in Africa
Washington, DC

Horacio R. Marquez
The Latin America Finance Group, Inc.
Princeton, NJ

GM foods test European unity
The battle for hearts and minds over genetically modified foods in the UK has moved into schools.

- Weekly Times (Australia), July 14, 2004, By JESSICA PURBRICK-HERBST

BRITISH school councils have angered the Blair Government by outlawing genetically modified ingredients in school meals.

So, last week, the UK Government hit back, challenging the school councils by citing EU laws that rule GM food is safe.

However, some school councils have decided to disregard any EU directive and prevent the "contamination" of ingredients destined for school meals by undertaking a rigorous testing program.

In the UK, we have also seen a further dilution of EU policy with the establishment of local government GM-free zones, under the guise of protecting local organic and traditional agricultural industries, and widely-conflicting scientific evidence relating to cross contamination.

Backed by EU community legislation to prevent the introduction of GM crops and products, local governments are holding the EU Commissioners in a tight fist.

So, what does this mean for the future of GM technology in the EU? Most likely the answer the biotech companies are looking for is held within the 10 new member states.

All based on agricultural economies, the 10 new EU members are desperate to attract outside investment to kick-start their waning economies, educate their workforce and enhance living standards through improved wage conditions.

Possibly not the best reason to undertake new and innovative technology, but at least they are giving GM foods a go.

The rest of Europe is divided. France, Germany and Italy continue to face mass protests, crop burnings and general mayhem when dealing with the GM food issue.

On the other hand, governments in Finland, Ireland, Sweden, the Netherlands and the UK continue to vote in favour of the introduction of GM crops and products and have all invested heavily in the technology at home.

But what do the consumers really think? If you follow the activists -- Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace -- you are likely to believe their research findings that 70 per cent of consumers are against GM food and will not knowingly purchase products that have been genetically modified.

The question the survey didn't ask was, what did the surveyed consumers understand about GM food?

I suggest that if asked, the answer would be very little.

While a view of "Frankenstein foods" prevails and fish genes in broccoli is still the mainstream understanding of GM foods, then we have a long way to go in convincing Joe Public that GM products are the future for producing safe resource efficient food.

Ironically, European animals have been munching their way through GM maize and soya animal feeds for years to which consumers were either none the wiser, or had little interest in understanding the supply chain.

Without the continued championing of the issue through activists, I would think that most consumers would happily purchase products based on quality, country of origin and environmental co-existence.

The recent EU approval of GM maize to be marketed as tinned or frozen sweet corn, will provide Europeans with the opportunity to protest without burning crops or vandalising research facilities.

They will be able to vote with their feet, either through purchasing the products or not.

If consumers walk away from the GM products then supermarkets will follow the lead and continue with non-GM foods. This will be the true litmus test for the biotech companies and their years of research and capital investment.


More acres for GM food crops

- Bakeryandsnacks.com, 15/07/2004

Ministers in the EU recently blocked a move by biotech giant Monsanto to launch a GM corn onto the market but finding a favourable response in less cynical countries the firm said yesterday that Argentina had given the green light.

The Argentinian government's approval for plantings of Monsanto's Roundup Ready corn, also known as NK603, could potentially reach 5 million acres, said the biotech giant.

But while consumers remain suspicious of genetically modified foodstuffs, most acutely demonstrated in Europe, the introduction of ingredients derived from the NK603 crops into food formulations is unlikely, despite tough new rules on labelling of GM ingredients now in place in the EU25.

Nonetheless, Monsanto said yesterday that the firm is looking forward to growth in the market. "The new approval in Argentina indicates that the major crop-producing countries around the world continue to recognise the safety and benefits of biotechnology agricultural products," commented Brett Begemann from Monsanto.

In 2004, Monsanto's global biotech acres rose by 14 per cent to 172 million acres, up from 150 million acres in 2003.

Last year, a panel at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) declared that NK603 was as safe as conventional maize but at a meeting in Luxembourg last month, EU 25 ministers refused to authorise the maize, which has been modified to tolerate Monsanto's Roundup herbicide.

The decision has now bounced back to the Commission for clearance, and industry observers suggest Brussels will give the go ahead, particularly in light of its decision last month to allow imports of another biotech sweetcorn, Bt 11 from Swiss firm Syngenta.

NK603 maize is cleared for use in food in the US, South Africa, Australia, Canada and Japan. Non-GM maize, or corn, is grown commercially in over 100 countries, with a combined global harvest of 590 million metric tonnes. The major producers of maize in 2000 were the US, China, Brazil, Mexico, France, and Argentina.

Also this week, research scientists at the firms Ceres, Monsanto and DuPont subsidiary Pioneer Hi-Bred International, working to sequence the maize genome, announced that their findings are now available online.

The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) said that the maize sequencing information is now on a searchable database hosted at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.


Modified crops: the pros and cons

- Pretoria News, By Bruce Venter, July 15, 2004

Genetically modified (GM) food is expected to provide a solution to Africa's food crisis, but experts have raised concerns, saying that GM crops are not necessarily economically viable for small-scale farmers.

GM crops are currently grown commercially in more than 40 countries, with over 110-million ha under cultivation.

Insect and herbicide resistant soyabeans, cotton and maize are the favoured GM crops, while a sweet potato resistant to a virus capable of destroying Africa's entire harvest is set to sprout on the continent.

As GM technology improves, farmers will be able to cultivate bananas capable of producing human vaccines against infectious diseases and fruit trees that yield fruit years earlier.

GM technology may be invaluable in developing economies, especially in Africa where drought and disease-resistant crops can boost production for struggling small-scale farmers.

However, the environmental action group Biowatch has warned that GM technology may not be that fertile, saying it is not cost-effective to small-scale African farmers struggling to find western markets for their produce.

South Africa is the only African country which currently commercially produces GM crops, with cotton, maize and soya in production.

Farmers said that the main benefit of growing insect-resistant cotton was the saving on pesticides, especially in combating a type of moth caterpillar, known as "bollworm", that destroys cotton balls.

Koot Louw of Cotton South Africa (CSA) said that 70% of the country's cotton production was from genetically altered seeds.

He said GM crops allowed for improved crop risk management.

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss of Biowatch disagrees, saying savings on pesticides are not that attractive.

"Reduced pesticide costs promised by the GM crop are attractive, but they still have to spray pesticides to keep other pests away," she said.

According to Louw, GM seed remains cost-effective. He said 3 000 small-scale and 1 000 commercial farmers were planting GM seed.

Not so, argues Pschorn-Strauss.

"Small-scale farmers are already trapped in a cycle of debt due to recurring drought and they now have to pay exorbitant amounts in technology fees for GM seed," she said.

A spokesman for a GM seed supplier said technology fees for farmers on irrigated land was R750 for a 25kg bag of seed.

Dry-land farmers pay R350.

"Farmers have a choice as to what seed they purchase ... they are not forced to use GM seed," he said.

The company also produces ordinary seed, which costs half the price.

Despite this, only 10% of the cotton produced in the country during 2002/2003 was harvested by small-scale farmers.

According to Louw, producing cotton for export is not viable.

"We cannot compete with the subsidised crop produced in advanced countries," he said.

South Africa only manages to produce roughly 50% of its 70 000-ton annual cotton requirement, importing the rest from Zambia and Zimbabwe, despite the advantages of GM seed.

Limpopo cotton farmer, Sass Koggel, is not convinced of the advantages of GM seed.

"GM seed may offer an increased yield and pest-resistant crop, much of which is yet to be proven beyond doubt, but companies producing GM seed remain quiet about the disadvantages," he said.

Koggel questions the environmental impact of GM seed.

"What happens in the event of cross-pollination, if modified genes transfer into the natural system; what will that do to our environmental bio-diversity?" he asked.

Benefits of GM crops

# Increased crop yield
# Improved resistance to herbicides and disease
# Innovative products and agricultural techniques
# Increased food security for developing countries
# Enhanced quality of processed crop

Controversies over GM crops

# Unintended transfer of modified genes into natural system
# Increased dependence on industrialised nations by developing countries
# Foreign exploitation of natural resources
# Violation of a natural organism's intrinsic value
# Domination of food production by select few.

Scientists unravelling tomato's genes: Genome project promises to revive protests over genetic manipulation of food

- The Vancouver Sun, July 14, 2004, BySarah Staples

An international scientific consortium is sequencing the entire genome of the tomato, a "model" fruit that would be used to help usher in the next generation of biotechnology-boosted "healthier" fruits and vegetables.

But the move, headed by scientists from Cornell University and featuring participants from Canada, Europe and China, promises also to revive protests over the genetic manipulation of fruits and vegetables.

Experimental tomatoes and other fruits now being envisioned for the dinner table within a few years bear more than passing resemblance to the doomed "Flavr Savr" -- the first GM tomato approved for sale in the mid-'90s, which was removed from stores in Britain and elsewhere after it became a lightening rod for controversy.

The International Solanaceae Genome Project, or SOL, formally began work last year and aims to publish the full genetic sequence -- roughly, a DNA-level blueprint -- of the tomato within two years, Jim Giovannoni, a U.S. Department of Agriculture research molecular biologist, said Tuesday at an international meeting of food technologists in Las Vegas.

Emphasis is mainly on designing genetically enhanced produce that would be rich in vitamins and in anti-oxidants such as carotenoids, which are present in some fruits and vegetables more than others and are believed to have anti-cancer properties, among others.

Scientists figured out as early as 1991 how to control fruit ripening, and are now working on "more appropriate or more intelligent genetic engineering" projects. Biotechnology tools and methods are being used "to assist and accelerate traditional breeding approaches," said Giovannoni, who is based at Cornell University's Boyce Thomson Institute for Plant Research, in Ithaca, N.Y.

At universities around the world, and in the laboratories of food companies such as Unilever and Lipton, experiments are underway to understand how natural effects, such as ripening, may be linked to levels of "healthy" substances.

The tomato genome is a fitting choice for the consortium to study because of its relatively simple DNA structure and similarity to a host of other popular fruits and vegetables, and it could lead to "enhanced" future generations of bananas, melons and even coffee, in addition to tomatoes, he said.

"There's a lot of work going on. The opportunity is to go out of tomatoes and go into systems where such mutations don't exist; to do with other fruits what you can already do with [selective] breeding of tomatoes," he said.

A longer shelf life was the main selling point of the Flavr Savr tomato, developed by Calgene Inc. of Davis, Calif., in 1991 and approved for sale in the U.S. and other countries beginning in 1994.

Despite hugely successful initial trials held in San Francisco, which showed the fruit to be a potential best-seller, it was targeted early on by activist groups including Greenpeace, which decried it as a visible symbol of the advent of so-called "Frankenfoods," and was taken off the market shortly thereafter, after public opinion turned negative.

Wayne Roberts, coordinator of the Toronto Food Policy Council, a unit of the Toronto Public Health Department, said in intervening years the biotech industry has been looking for ways to improve its image by emphasizing the potential nutritional benefits of GM foods.

Although "not philosophically opposed to scientists' experimenting with nutritional enhancements" to fruits and vegetables, Roberts said field trials would have to be carefully monitored under greenhouse conditions, and no new GM foods released before scientists fully understand the genetics of their natural cousins.

Roberts said despite millions spent on public relations by the biotech industry, polling has consistently revealed that up to 85 per cent of Canadian consumers would prefer strict labelling requirements for GM foods.