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July 20, 2004


European Commission approves biotech maize; The myth about organic food; Food relief sits unused in Zimbabwe


Today in AgBioView: July 20, 2004:

* European Commission approves biotech maize
* Monsanto's Biotech Cleared by EU for Animal Feed Use
* GMOs: Commission authorises import of GM-maize for use in animal feed
* The myth about organic food
* EU governments give mixed verdict on Monsanto's genetically modified corn
* A bounty of food relief sits unused in Zimbabwe

European Commission approves biotech maize

- EuropaBio- Press Release, July 19, 2004 (VIA AGNET)

Brussels: Today, the European Commission approved a genetically modified maize (NK603) for import, feed use, and industrial processing in the European Union. A submission to EU authorities to authorise cultivation of NK603 in the EU is not a part of this decision. NK603 maize is genetically modified to make it tolerant to glyphosate herbicide.

"We welcome the Commission decision to approve another plant biotech product in Europe, the second since 1998," says Johan Vanhemelrijck, Secretary General of EuropaBio, the European association for bioindustries. "We hope that further approvals will follow."

In December 2003, the EU's European Food Safety Authority gave a positive scientific opinion on the safety of genetically modified NK603 maize (2). This reflects the earlier opinions of other regulatory authorities worldwide, and the experience in countries in which this maize is already approved, cultivated and used.
NK603 is field maize genetically modified to tolerate glyphosate herbicide and provides farmers with additional options of weed control management in this crop. The GM field maize is approved for import and food use in Argentina, Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Colombia, Japan, Korea, Mexico, the Philippines, Russia, South Africa , Taiwan and the United States and was first approved in 2000.

(1) NK603 is a genetically modified maize developed by the Monsanto Company, a EuropaBio member company

(2) Opinion of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) on NK603 maize

EuropaBio Backgrounder on NK 603 - http://www.europabio.org/upload/articles/article_334_EN.doc

EU Commission press release - http://europa.eu.int/rapid/pressReleasesAction.do?reference=IP/04/957&format=HTML&aged=0&language=EN&guiLanguage=en


Monsanto's Biotech Cleared by EU for Animal Feed Use

- Bloomberg, July 19

Monsanto Co. won European Commission approval for one of its gene-modified corn varieties to be used in animal feed as part of European Union efforts to ease biotech- food restrictions and a trans-Atlantic trade dispute.

The decision by the EU's executive arm is the bloc's first endorsement of a Monsanto biotech product in six years. The commission is trying to speed up EU approvals of genetically modified foods, including several developed by St. Louis, Missouri-based Monsanto, the biggest producer in a global biotech crop market with sales of as much as $4.75 billion last year.

``We welcome the decision,'' said Daniel Rahier, director for industrial affairs at Monsanto in Brussels. ``It's an encouraging step.'' A split among the EU's 25 nations in June gave the commission the power to decide on the product, known as NK603.

The commission in May allowed the import from the U.S. and elsewhere of a gene-altered corn type made by Switzerland's Syngenta AG, the world's largest maker of crop chemicals. It was the region's first biotech food approval since 1998 and also followed a split among EU countries. More than 30 applications are still pending.

Monsanto shares were unchanged at $36.58 in New York Stock Exchange composite trading at 4:16 p.m. They have risen 67 percent in the past year.

`Pretty Big Win'

``It's a pretty big win,'' said Michael Judd, an analyst at Greenwich Consultants in New Jersey who has a ``hold'' rating on Monsanto shares. ``Time will tell how big the volumes are.''

The commission said it plans in a separate decision ``in the autumn'' to permit the sale of foods made from NK603. It got this authority earlier today from the EU's national farm ministers, who were divided over allowing the corn to be used in foods including biscuits and ingredients such as starch and oil.

EU approval to use NK603 in animal feed is conditioned on the EU approving it for human food, Monsanto spokesman Lee Quarles said. Monsanto calls the corn ``Roundup Ready'' because it is genetically altered to resist the company's Roundup herbicide.

Greenpeace, which has lobbied against biotech foods, said the commission was ignoring consumer demands.

``Most consumers do not want genetically modified organisms and member states have not agreed to approve them,'' Eric Gall, a Greenpeace adviser in Brussels, said in a statement. ``The commission is defying democracy by pushing through these approvals to satisfy the biotech lobby and its U.S. backers.''

Won't Eat It

More than 60 percent of EU citizens probably wouldn't eat foods with genetic modifications even if the goods were cheaper or had less fat, according to an EU survey of about 1,000 people in each country of the then 15-nation bloc published last year.

``In terms of market potential, today's approval of the corn's use in animal feed is more important'' than the food request, Monsanto's Rahier said.

The U.S., Argentina and Canada, the world's three largest growers of gene-modified seeds, have complained to the World Trade Organization about the EU's restrictions. The curbs affect products ranging from grain to tomatoes whose genetic material has been altered to add beneficial traits such as resistance to weed-killing chemicals, limiting the number on the EU market to 34 until the Syngenta and Monsanto corn approvals.

Some EU nations say the products pose threats to the environment and human health, while the commission says scientific backing and stricter EU food labeling rules justify approvals. The European Food Safety Authority last year endorsed NK603.

Rigorous Assessment

``NK603 has been subject to a rigorous pre-market risk assessment,'' EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstroem said in a statement in Brussels. ``Its safety is not in question.''

Argentina, Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Colombia, Japan, Mexico, the Philippines, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan and the U.S. have also approved the product, according to Rahier.

The EU approval of this corn type for animal feed is for 10 years. It won't necessarily reopen U.S. corn exports to the EU because the product is generally mixed with other gene-altered corn varieties that have yet to win European endorsement. U.S. corn exports to the EU have traditionally gone to Spain and Portugal.

U.S. corn exports to the EU fell to 59,182 metric tons, valued at 82 million euros ($102 million), in 2002 from 1.75 million tons, or 324 million euros, in 1997, according to the U.S. Foreign Agricultural Service in Brussels. The U.S. share of EU corn imports dropped to 2.1 percent from 64 percent.

Expanded Planting

By opening new markets to U.S. farmers, Monsanto will increase planting of Roundup Ready corn to 20 million acres next year from 16.1 million in 2004, Kerry Preete, Monsanto vice president of U.S. crop production, said in a statement. That ultimately could reach 50 million acres, Preete said.

Another Monsanto application on NK603 covers cultivation. No EU decision is yet scheduled on this or any of the more than 10 total biotech requests involving plantings, which are more controversial than imports because of concerns about contamination of conventional and organic crops.

The commission won't seek fast-track approval of plantings as part of its efforts to accelerate biotech food approvals, the commission's Wallstroem said in June.

All nations in the EU have a say over biotech decisions because the bloc's barrier-free trade rules mean a product sold in one member country can be sold in the others. Commission proposals go to EU ministers if they don't win majority support on a committee of national regulators. Failure by national ministers to decide hands the power back to the commission.


GMOs: Commission authorises import of GM-maize for use in animal feed

The European Commission authorised today the placing on the market of the genetically modified maize known as NK603 for import and processing. This decision is valid for 10 years and results from an application submitted by the company Monsanto. Imports of the maize, whether in bulk shipments, bags or other containers, will have to be labelled as containing genetically modified maize. The NK603 maize is already widely used in other parts of the world with no reports of any adverse effects on health or the environment. The authorisation today, which is backed by science, covers the specific use for imports of the GM maize and processing for use in animal feed or for industrial purposes. A separate decision in terms of authorisation of the NK603 maize for use in food will be taken in the coming months.

Full story at:

The myth about organic food

- The Manila Times, July 19, 2004, By Dr. Charles L. Cheng, M.D. (VIA AGNET)

July is Nutrition Month. It’s time to take a second look at the food we consume. Food outlets all over put up notices on products which carry the label, “organically produced rice, vegetables, ginger drink, honey, sugar or muscovado, poultry” and many more. The products are usually priced slightly higher than those, which are not labeled as such.

Many ask such questions as: What is organic food? Is it a guarantee that the food has extra health or safety benefits than those which are produced the nonorganic way?

The term “organic” is perceived by most people that such food has an aura of purity and safety. It will be noted that the real difference in organic crops is the minimal use of fertilizer, no synthetic pesticides or chemicals, restriction of biotechnology and irradiation along with some permitted use of compost.

Animals, raised organically, have large grazing areas, are given pesticide-free feeds and fed growth hormones and antibiotics.

It is difficult to make an assessment of the value of buying organic because as of this date, there have been no intensive research studies that compare the two methods of farming.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) came up with a statement that the term “makes no claim that organically produced food is nutritious or safer than the conventionally produced food.”

Dr. David Grotto, the director of Nutrition Education at the Block Integrative Cancer Care Center in Evanston, Illinois, stressed that organic is not synonymous with low fat, restricted sodium, low sugar or high fiber.

With this finding, there are some concerns about buying the expensive organically produced food. First, many nutritionists are concerned that consumers who buy the expensive organic products may limit the variety of nutritive food in their diet, thus resulting in an imbalanced diet.

Second is the practice of applying “foliar nutrients” on the plant. These are nutritional liquid suspensions sprayed into the leaves and above ground portions of the food plant.

And third, while not all preservatives in food are bad, the absence of it in organic food can cause problems to the uninformed consumers.

Thus, organic labeling in products does not necessarily mean that the food is safer or better. The American Dietetic Association came up with this statement: “Overall, organic farming does not dramatically change the nutritional value of food which depend mostly on the plant’s genetic make-up. The nutritive value depends on such variables such as: the season when planted; type of soil; amount of rain and sun; and, how it is harvested, handled and sold.”


EU governments give mixed verdict on Monsanto's genetically modified corn

- Associated Press, Jul. 19, 2004

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) - European Union governments deadlocked Monday on an application to allow imports of a herbicide-resistant corn for human consumption, but the bloc's executive body approved the same product's use for animal feed.

The opposing decisions reflect continuing divisions on genetically modified crops, despite the lifting last spring of Europe's de facto moratorium on new products.

EU agriculture ministers failed to get a majority for or against allowing Monsanto Co.'s Roundup Ready corn, which is widely grown in the United States and elsewhere, to be imported for food or food ingredients, officials said. The application did not cover cultivation.

Roundup Ready corn, which is engineered to resist the U.S. company's Roundup herbicide, received a clean bill of health from the European Food Safety Authority last year.

``Its safety is, therefore, not in question, and neither is the question of user or consumer choice,'' said EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom, who backed the application. Strict labeling laws for genetically modified products went into effect across the EU last April.

Nine EU countries -- Latvia, Denmark, Cyprus, Malta, Italy, Greece, Austria, Portugal and Luxembourg -- voted against the license. Nine others -- Czech Republic, Slovakia, Belgium, France, Ireland, Netherlands, Finland, Sweden and Britain -- voted in favor.

Hungary, Slovenia, Germany and Spain abstained, while Estonia and Poland expressed no view.

Environment ministers split along similar lines last month when considering Roundup Ready corn imports for animal feed.

That application was approved Monday by the EU's executive Commission. Under EU rules, if ministers don't agree in 90 days, the commission decides.

However, imports for feed can't start until the equivalent approval has been granted for food. That means they will have to wait until after Sept. 29, when the food application is expected to go back to the commission.

The political stalemate highlights continuing unease in Europe over biotech foods despite the resumption in May of new approvals, which had been on hold for six years due to public fears about perceived health and environmental risks.

After a similar deadlock, the commission approved a biotech variety of corn made by Switzerland's Syngenta AG for import and sale, but not cultivation.

EuropaBio, the European association for bioindustries, welcomed the commission's second approval. ``We hope that further approvals will follow,'' secretary general Johan Vanhemelrijck said Monday.

St. Louis-based Monsanto voiced similar views.

``We're hopeful that this is a signal that the European communities and its member states are serious about ending the moratorium on biotech approvals,'' said Brett Benemann, a Monsanto executive vice president.

Monsanto shares finished the session unchanged Monday at $36.58.

Despite Europe's long-entrenched resistance, genetically modified crops continue to sprout around the world in increasing number each year.

Farmers grew genetically modified plants on 167 million acres last year, compared to 4.3 million acres in 1996, according to the industry-supported International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.

Spain is the only European Union country to plant significant amounts of biotech crops, with 79,000 acres of genetically modified corn in 2003, up a third from 2002. Corn is the second most popular biotech crop globally, next to soy, followed by canola and cotton.

More than 40 percent of the corn grown in the United States is genetically modified with bacteria genes to either resist pests or Monsanto's herbicide. U.S. corn farmers have long lobbied the Bush administration to help force open the European market to their biotech crops.

The U.S. administration has accused the EU of violating international trade rules and exacerbating global hunger by hindering the marketing of genetically modified food for political, rather than scientific reasons.

Washington has said it will pursue its complaint against the EU at the World Trade Organization until it believes applications are being handled in an ``objective, predictable manner.'' An initial ruling is expected in September.


- Financial Express, July 19, 2004

Is the agri-biotech industry in India stuck in the same place or is it moving forward? "I have been watching the biotech in agriculture scene since 1985 and lately, it seems to me it is stuck. We are not making any progress," noted Dr Shantu Shantaram, Biologistics International USA. He placed partial blame for this on the lack of knowledge about the subject, which in turn came from a lack of communication from the stakeholders.

According to him the entire genetically modified foods debate was a "collosal failure of communication." Common people have been fed unscientific information on biotechnology and this has led to a fear and therefore outright rejection of biotech - at least as far as food is concerned, he pointed out. While there is a lot of excitement over pharma biotech - (which is more attractive even from the investment point of view) - when it comes to agri biotech, "all we have is one stupid Bt cotton to talk about," Dr Shantaram complained.

This is at a time when scientists like Dr Gurudev S Khush, known for his pioneering work on rice which revolutionised rice cultivation, are talking of biotech as an 'imperative'. The Dr Khush warned that the world's current production of 2.16 billion tonnes of foodgrain will need to reach 3.11 billion tonnes by 2025. Moreover the challenge would be to achieve this with even more scarce resources less water, less land (which is being taken away by buildings), less labour and less chemicals than now. The only way to increase yield, and the quantity and quality of food produced is through biotechnology, he stressed. Quoting the Nuffield report on Bioethics he said "(we) do not see any other route unless we destroy our forests."

While the scientific world was working on vitamin A enriched rice, as well as strains of crops that could withstand abiotic stresses such as salinity, drought conditions, floods and so on, there was still the matter of convincing the public of the need for biotechnology. Communication of this was important and the "media needs to report science accurately," he said. Protests across the world were slowing down growth of biotechnology, again a function of communication, or miscommunication.

Quoting a 2003-04 FAO report he said that the FAO "urges the poor countries to realise the potential of biotech. Developed countries, especially Europe need to realise that their opposition is harming the developing world.'' But a 'propaganda of fear' had been built around biotech. "Leave alone the common man, even politicians, and the media are very confused about agri biotech," Dr Shantaram said. The problem was that the anti biotech lobby was stronger; they went out to "camp among people and tell them" while "we scientists are just convincing each other," he said. This has also led to regulations for agri biotech being more stringent than that for pharma biotechnology. Despite the 'overwhelming evidence' of safety, governments still shy away from biotechnology. Public sector investment in the area is also low. Investment today will see returns only 15 years and the delay of each day is pushing that date further, warned Dr Shantaram.


A bounty of food relief sits unused in Zimbabwe
Claim of bumper crop ties aid groups' hands

- Washington Post, July 20, 2004, By Craig Timberg

BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe - Giant bags of cornmeal, labeled "USA" for the country that donated them, sit stacked 40 high in a U.N. warehouse on the outskirts of this city. Together with the cooking oil, beans and high-protein meal for porridge also stored here, there is enough to feed hundreds of thousands of people.

But there is no plan to do so.

President Robert Mugabe, the only ruler Zimbabwe has had in the 24 years since the end of white rule, has announced that a bumper harvest will produce more than enough food for the country this year, for the first time since 2000.

That means officials of the U.N. World Food Program, which like other aid groups operates only at government request, have little choice but to ignore the evidence around them -- the brown and withered fields, the beggars on the street, and the hungry faces in townships less than a mile from the warehouse, one of several the United Nations maintains in Zimbabwe.

So the World Food Program and other international aid groups here are in retreat. They are cutting staff, dismantling their distribution networks and wondering who, if anyone, will help Zimbabweans who have relied on U.N. feeding centers over the past three years. At the peak in 2003, the U.N. facilities fed more than 6.5 million people, more than half the nation's population of 12 million.

"We have to accept the government's forecasts of a bumper harvest," said Mike Huggins, a spokesman for U.N. feeding programs in southern Africa. "We only hope that people with no source of income will be able to access some of that surplus."

Few independent observers here believe there will be a surplus. In June, U.N. special envoy James Morris warned that as many as 5 million people in the country may need food aid in the coming year.

Mugabe's government has restricted information, shut down newspapers and criticized people who disagree with its pronouncements. In May, it suspended the crop estimate program conducted annually by the government in concert with U.N. officials.

Mugabe has attacked aid groups as a threat to his party and made clear his willingness to expel them if they defy his wishes. A cabinet minister last month told provincial governors they should not hesitate to tell groups that fail to coordinate their activities with the government "to pack their bags and go," according to the government-run Chronicle newspaper in Bulawayo.

Overgrown and untended

As aid groups scale back their operations, Zimbabweans are left increasingly vulnerable.

In Bulawayo, the nation's second-largest city, some residents eke out a living smuggling in goods from South Africa or Botswana to sell on street corners or in flea markets. Others stay with their parents, grandparents or cousins, one of whom might have a steady job.

In the townships and rural areas, where poverty is more severe, people are skipping meals to protect their stocks of cornmeal, which figures show have more than quintupled in price since April. Overall, the annual inflation rate is nearly 400 percent, according to government figures.

Cornmeal is central to life throughout the country. It is typically boiled into sadza, a stiff, sticky mush that often is eaten by hand. Prosperous Zimbabweans have sadza as a side dish with chicken or beef. But many poorer residents eat it at nearly every meal, often with no other food.

The corn harvest, once so bountiful that Zimbabwe exported food, has fallen sharply since 2000, the year Mugabe began violent land seizures of thousands of commercial farms owned by whites. Most of the white farmers have since fled the country, and the farms have been run by the government or doled out, generally to government cronies with little expertise in agriculture.

U.N. figures show Zimbabwe produced 2.1 million metric tons of corn in 2000, but less than 500,000 in 2002.

Yields improved to 800,000 last year, and some Zimbabweans say that better rains are making for a bigger harvest this year. Corn cobs almost fill the storage bins at some farms outside Bulawayo. But many other farms throughout the country appear overgrown and untended, the fields all but reclaimed by nature.

Official government estimates are that this year's corn harvest will be nearly triple the size of last year's, which would make it the best since 1996, when the country was still considered the breadbasket of southern Africa.

Mugabe told Britain's Sky News in May that those days were returning and the need for food aid had ended. "We are not hungry. It should go to hungrier people, hungrier countries than ourselves," Mugabe said. "Why foist this food upon us? We don't want to be choked. We have enough."

Political tactic

Controlling the food supply has long been used as a political tactic by Mugabe's party, according to observers and human rights activists, who say that as elections approach, the governing party rewards supporters with 50-kilogram, or about 110-pound, bags of cornmeal and withholds them from opponents.

Independent news reports indicate that Mugabe's camp is buying cornmeal from neighboring countries and storing it in warehouses ahead of national parliamentary elections in March.

As the election season nears, the Christian aid group World Vision also finds itself caught in the nation's political dynamics. World Vision announced two weeks ago that it was ending its general feeding program in Zimbabwe, which at its height delivered food to 1.5 million people a month.

"The government has made it clear to all agencies . . . that they do not expect a food aid operation," said Rudo Kwaramba, the top World Vision official in the country. "One has to be wise, if I may use that term, in the prevailing socioeconomic-political environment in Zimbabwe. You try the best that you can to maintain your operations."

Instead of feeding centers open to all hungry people, the United Nations and World Vision have shifted their focus to targeted programs at schools, orphanages and medical clinics.

The government has not yet sought to curtail those efforts, and if they continue, much of the food in the Bulawayo warehouse may be distributed over the course of coming months.

One recent morning at the Deli Primary School in Umguza, a rural area about 45 miles northwest of Bulawayo, students lined up with empty bowls in their hands. Awaiting them were steaming pots of an enriched corn and soy porridge, courtesy of the United Nations.

It was nearly 11 a.m., and for most of these children, it was their first meal of the day. They sat on brown grass, not far from dried cow dung left by cattle sharing the school's field, and scooped food into their mouths in the traditional way, with two fingers.

Through such targeted programs, the United Nations still hopes to provide food to 550,000 Zimbabweans next year.

But unless the government changes its mind, the United Nations does not intend to restart the general feeding centers that once fed 10 times that number.

"The government will want to be the one giving out food," said John Makumbe, a political science professor at the University of Zimbabwe in the capital, Harare. "You have your party card, you get your food. You don't get your party card . . . you don't get your food."