Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : August 19, 2004
* Feeling Pure Won't Help The World's Poor
* Swiss Cabinet Rejects GM Crop Moratorium Initiative
* Australia - GM Foods: Perception vs. Reality
* Precautionary Principle and the WTO Law
* Can Beggars be Choosers?
* Lack of Laws and Rejection of GMOs Is Hurting Africa
* GM Crops - A Valuable Option for Subsistence Farming
* Bt Corn Videos from ISAAA
* Funding for Studying Gene Flow
* Pure But Not Yet!
* New Crop Composition Database
* Ill Advising Indian Farmers on Bt Cotton
* Aussie Biotech Meeting
Feeling Pure Won't Help The World's Poor
- Julian Baggini , The Guardian (UK), August 17, 2004
As a fervent advocate of ethical consumerism, I seriously suggest that you consider flying long haul, wearing Levi's and drinking coffee at Starbucks. The fact that no one else seems willing to give the same advice is a sad indictment of the ethical consumerism movement. For what should be one of the most important moral campaigns of our day has been hijacked by woolly-minded, anti-scientific, eco-narcissists.
Ethical consumerism should be about using our purchasing power to make the world a better place. Instead, it is characterised by three almost religious convictions: that multinationals are inherently bad; that the "natural" and organic are inherently superior; and that science and technology are not to be trusted.
Irrational prejudice against multinationals is connected to incoherent opposition to globalisation. Anti-globalisation campaigners seem blind to the irony that it was precisely the increased interconnectedness of peoples and trade characteristic of globalisation that allowed their worldwide opposition movement to flourish.
The growth of multinationals is just one aspect of globalisation, and the homogeneity it brings is regrettable. Even this can be overstated, however: no one would confuse Madrid's Puerta del Sol with Piccadilly Circus just because there were MacDonald's at both. But the erosion of some national differences is neither entirely bad nor a burning ethical issue. And if you care about morality, the multinationals can be a force for good.
For instance, say you fancy a coffee in Italy. Go to a local cafe and the chances are the beans they grind have been bought at market prices from farmers who receive so little that they can barely make a living. Go to Starbucks, however, and even if their fairtrade brew isn't available that day, you can sip your latte in the knowledge that the company does have policies that improve the welfare of growers in the developing world. This isn't my opinion, but that of Sophie Tickell, senior policy adviser at Oxfam. Starbucks is a huge purchaser of coffee worldwide and should be lauded and encouraged to go further by ethical consumers. Instead, it is usually one of the first targets for anti-globalisation protesters' bricks.
While the sins of multinationals are magnified, their better deeds are dismissed. Levi Strauss, for example, is a long-standing member of the Ethical Trading Initiative, which requires adherence to a base code setting out a "minimum requirement for any corporate code of labour practice". It is true that the ETI is pretty toothless and members' records are far from perfect. But is it more ethical to buy from a smaller, non-multinational that probably has no ethical standards at all?
If multinationals are the ethical consumers' betes noires, organic and GM-free food are their haloed heroes. For example, the magazine Ethical Consumer will automatically put a black mark against any company that supports or is involved in non-medical GM technology. But it is ludicrous to assume that all GM products are unethical. Even if you are deeply sceptical of companies such as Monsanto, it is obvious that GM foods have the potential to improve yields and therefore the livelihoods of farmers in developing countries. This is not just corporate spin. Philip Stott, professor emeritus of biogeography at the University of London, spoke for many independent experts when he argued in this paper that "to deny GM technology to the developing world would be unforgivable".
Opposition to GM has little to do with real ethics and everything to do with eco-narcissism. It is not concern for others that fuels most of the growth in organic, GM-free food. It is a desire to keep ourselves pure, to avoid ingesting what we perceive to be harmful toxins. Never mind that there is nothing wrong with most non-organic foods: the feeling that we defile the inner sanctums of our bodies by eating food treated by pesticides is rooted in an almost religious, superstitious worship of "the natural". Dressing this up as an "ethical" choice is self-serving self-deception.
Connected to this is the deep mistrust of science which goes beyond reasonable suspicion. It's not just that we don't trust scientists or technology, we seem to feel that for any scientific fix there must be a price. Natural justice demands that cheaper, longer-lasting tomatoes come at a cost. Even the poor are not allowed to get richer, if it means using more technology. There is something almost puritanical in this, perhaps connected to the Protestant work ethic. No short-cuts to virtue are allowed.
I say all this, not because I am opposed to ethical consumerism, but because I passionately believe in it. I do buy fairtrade coffee. I buy recycled and biodegradable goods. When I visited East Africa I tried to make sure my trip benefited local people. I make an effort to buy clothes from companies that have at least some standards governing their suppliers' labour rights, even though realistically there are no businesses with excellent records on this, unless you want to look like a member of the Mamas and Papas.
What I won't do is let these ethical choices be determined by prejudices which demonise big business and glorify nature so that I can feel pure and pious. Truly ethical consumerism requires a harder-headed look at what is in the interests of the world's poor. If that means ripping up the standard ethical consumer's checklist and starting again, so be it.
Julian Baggini is the editor of the Philosophers' Magazine and the author of What's It All About? Philosophy and the meaning of life, published next month by Granta.
Swiss Cabinet Rejects GM Crop Moratorium Initiative
- Swissinfo, August 18, 2004 http://www.swissinfo.org/
The government has come out against a proposal calling for a five-year moratorium on genetically modified (GM) crops in Switzerland. It said such a move would damage Switzerland's standing in the field of agricultural research as well as its trade relations with other countries.
Put forward by a coalition of environmental groups, consumers and farmers, the people's initiative calls for a ban on the farming of GM crops for use in food, and the importing of GM seeds and fodder. Supporters collected almost 121,000 signatures - 100,000 are needed for a people's initiative - in just seven months last year, after parliament voted to reject a moratorium on GM crops.
But on Wednesday [18 August], the cabinet said that a law on genetics that came into effect in January this year adequately protected humans, animals and the environment against abuses. It said that the law had already set out a procedure authorizing the import and distribution of Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs. It added that the legislation was precautionary and aimed at protecting non-GM agriculture.
Added to this, said the government, was the fact that the procedure for allowing genetically modified plants in the country was likely to take several years.
Ministers also said that the initiative went too far and could damage Switzerland as a place of scientific development, even if research was not directly targeted by the moratorium. In a statement, they said that scientists could be tempted to conduct their work elsewhere if the future of GM crops remained uncertain in Switzerland. Another point for the government was that if the country accepted a moratorium on imports, this could have a damaging effect on its trade relations and Switzerland could stand accused of violating international treaties.
Australia - GM Foods: Perception vs. Reality
- Craig Cormick, August 19, 2004 http://www.ferret.com.au/articles/d5/0c0252d5.asp
Depending who you listen to, you might easily presume that most Australians are dead set against genetically modified foods, or you might easily presume that most Australians donít mind too much at all about genetically modified foods.
The truth, as ever, lies somewhere in between. The most accurate recent surveys show that about 50% of Australians will eat GM foods and about 50% wonít.
This hasnít changed very much over the past few years, but the drivers of attitudes have changed. In 1999 and 2001, when Biotechnology Australia first conducted major Australia-wide studies into consumer attitudes towards gene technology, the major reason for people rejecting GM foods was health and safety concerns.
In late 2003, when the last phase of the study was undertaken, this had changed to the rejection of GM foods being based more on a lack of perceived consumer benefits in the foods.
This has been one of the major problems with GM foods, for while the GM crops that the foods are derived from often have agronomic benefits for the farmers; there are no perceived benefits for the consumers. So if you ask a consumer to add up the risks and benefits of eating GM foods, even if they perceive the risks to be quite small, they are still larger than the perceived benefits.
When looking at the balance of risk versus benefit, and moral acceptability of GM foods, over the last five years the risk has increased from 67% in 1999, to 74% in 2001 and was at 74% in 2003. Benefits by comparison dropped from 66% in 1999 to 57% in 2001 and were 51% in 2003. The moral acceptability also dropped from 62% in 1999 to 59% in 2001 and was 53% in 2003.
When it comes to comparing risks and benefits, they are not of equal value in the publicís mind. Risks can be very vague, but benefits must be quite specific. Risks are often perceived to be higher than they actually are, but benefits need credible evidence. And risks will be accepted without any acknowledgement of benefits, but benefits are best accepted with an acknowledgement of risks.
There have also been some other significant changes in public attitudes in the last two years, particularly after September 11 and the Bali and Madrid bombings. Australiansí concept of risk has changed enormously, and we are now seen to live in a much more risky world, and perceived risks have risen highly in society. As a result there is, of course, a tendency to view risks as more extreme and go to greater measures to avoid risk.
It also means that the public may be more susceptible to scare stories, such as are often disseminated by anti-gene technology activists, and less likely to be influenced by the over-promising of the pro-gene technology activists.
Something else of importance to note when studying public attitudes is the relativity of them, and our surveys have shown that GM food concerns are much lesser than concerns about pollution, the greenhouse effect and nuclear waste. Earlier studies, conducted in 2001, and replicated later in the UK and the USA with similar findings, found that GM food concerns were also less than high concerns about food poisoning, pesticide residue in foods and human tampering of foods.
And, most importantly, we also know that attitudes towards GM foods are driven more by attitudes towards food in general, and food safety, than attitudes towards the technology. So a health food buyer, who is very concerned about what is in their food, will tend to be more concerned about and avoid GM foods. However, someone who doesnít care too much about what they eat will have much less concern about GM foods and wonít care so much if they eat them.
No surprise then to find that GM doughnuts, which are labelled as containing GM soy, arenít suffering major loss of sales in supermarkets. However, if a GM soymilk came out I suspect the reaction would be very different.
A key question relating to public attitudes, for food manufacturers and retailers, is whether they are a strongly influence behaviour. The figures show that perhaps they arenít. For while the risk benefit acceptability showed a large drop in support for GM foods, the figures relating to whether a person would eat them rose from 32% in 1999, to 49% in 2001 and then dropped slightly to 45% in 2003.
Also very significant is that there is high trust in food regulators, even when knowledge of exactly who the key regulators were was low (Food Standards Australia New Zealand and the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator)
And what about knowledge of what GM foods are? About 30% of the population incorrectly believed that foods that had the flavour changed, had nutritional enhancements, were artificially coloured or had preservatives in them were all genetically modified!
We also know that regardless of increased risk perception, a majority of people (56%) feel that Australia should accept some degree of risk if it would enhance our economic competitiveness. And 73% of people disagree with the statement that the risks of gene technology outweigh the benefits to the point that all research and development should be stopped.
So what does it all mean? Put simply, public attitudes towards gene technology are not simple, and are driven by many things as well as being situation dependent - so while a person might be against GM canola as a crop, they could well support GM cotton. And one person who uses genetically modified insulin might not want to eat GM products, but another doesnít mind having a little bit of GM soy in their doughnuts or chicken nuggets.
If asked, will Australian consumers ever broadly accept GM foods, Iíd say, only if the following are achieved: proven consumer benefits are developed; less misinformation and scare tactics in the public domain; there is an increased profile of regulators, and the foods are less linked to multinational food companies.
*Craig Cormick is the manager of public awareness for the government agency Biotechnology Australia: (02) 6213 6805 or firstname.lastname@example.org ; Details of all surveys referred to can be accessed on Biotechnology Australia's website: www.biotechnology.gov.au
Precautionary Principle and the WTO Law
- Lawrence A. Kogan
I wish to inform you about a new paper I prepared†that was recently published in†the Seton Hall (Univ.) Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations.†It is intended to enhance public understanding of how divergent views towards the role of science in assessing and managing public risks have given rise to international trade tensions that threaten U.S. industries, such as biotechnology.†
The article: 1) compares and contrasts the competing†EU (precaution-based) and US (risk based) approaches; 2) discusses the evolution of the formal precautionary principle in international law†and the legal consequences of adopting a precaution-based model of risk regulation; 3) discusses the EU's intentions to establish the precautionary principle as an absolute international legal framework standard to govern the use of science and technology by ALL countries; and 4)†explains the†relationship between the precautionary principle†and WTO law.†
It is accessible at:
Can Beggars be Choosers?
- Fackson Banda AllAfrica.com August 17, 2004. Via Agnet
Lusaka - The policy dilemma confronting Zambia over whether or not to accept genetically-modified maize, offered as food aid by the United States, has thrown up urgent questions over the way - and the extent to which - debate over the issue has been allowed in the country.
When the government rejected the US offer in August, many commentators described the move as a bold step aimed at asserting the country's national pride. But with the UN World Food Programme (WFP) estimating that nearly three million people faced starvation in Zambia, the rejection was seen by some Western observers as unreasonable - the UK Financial Times newspaper called it "absurd".
Now, following strong international pressure, a re-think is in the offing.
It is not as if there has been no public discussion about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). On 12 August the government organised a public debate in order to gauge the scientific evidence and other views. The debate highlighted deep divisions among Zambian scientists on the benefits of biotechnology.
The government v oiced two concerns: initially, it highlighted the possibility of ill- health resulting from consumption of GM food. It later added an economic concern, saying GM crops may end up contaminating local non-GM crops and endanger Zambian agricultural exports to Europe, which maintain strict guidelines on GMOs.
These discussions were held against a backdrop of little media coverage of GMOs. According to one media content analysis, only four newspaper articles appeared on the issue throughout 2000. Almost all covered biotechnology in a general way, with little local contextualisation.
Focus group discussions organised by Panos in 2001, in conjunction with the Zambia National Farmers' Union (ZNFU), showed that farmers too were divided on the issue. While most small-scale farmers wanted more information on the subject, commercial farmers were opposed to GMOs, citing as their main reason the possibility of losing European markets for their existing non-GM exports. The European Union accounts for 53 per cent of Zambian exports - mostly made up of processed and refined foods, primary agricultural commodities and floricultural, horticultural, animal and leather products.
Largely based on this trade-related rationale, ZNFU was among those organisations that welcomed the government's rejection of the US food consignment - others include the Organic Farming Association and the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection.
The scientific case for rejection is led by Dr Mwananyanda Mbikusita-Lewanika of the National Institute f or Scientific and Industrial Research. He says there is compelling evidence that GMOs would have a negative impact on the local breeds such as millet, sorghum and traditional maize, with the possibility of causing an ecological problem that would affect farming. Dr Lewanika says that the government would do well to err on the side of caution by invoking the 'precautionary principle' clause of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, arguing that his fears are borne out by a peer-reviewed study that showed GM plants to have had adverse ecological effects on Mexican local maize varieties.
According to the precautionary principle, even if there is no clear scientific evidence that a seed type is dangerous, the government can decide to take the precaution of refusing it, if there is likelihood that it might be harmful. Quoting research projects from around the world focusing on potential ill effects, such as toxicity, resistance to antibiotics, allergies, loss of biodiversity, and resistance to pesticides, Dr Lewanika builds a case for rejecting GMOs.
Dr Lewanika lays down two basic preconditions for allowing GMOs into the country. Firstly, he says, there is a need to develop a national biosafety framework to regulate biotechnology and GMOs. Second, the government must build the capacity to detect and monitor GMO substances in foodstuffs coming into Zambia.
Alongside this dominant position has emerged a pro-GMO perspective. The proponents are largely drawn from a pool of University of Zambia (UNZA) scientists, amo ng whom are some who have been working with South Africa's Muffy Koch, a senior microbiologist who is serving on the South African government's working group developing GMO regulations and drafting the country's position paper for the International Biosafety Protocol.
Foremost among these are Dr Luke Mumba, dean of the School of Natural Sciences, and Dr Fastone Goma, a medical doctor in private practice and research scientist in the School of Medicine. Dr Mumba, quoting research sources from around the world, argues that "in the developed world there is clear evidence that the use of GM crops has resulted in significant benefits", including higher crop yields, reduced farm costs, increased profits and improvements in the environment.
He also asserts that research focusing on "second generation" transgenic crops - those more to do with increased nutritional and/or industrial traits - has led to such beneficial products as iron- and vitamin-enriched rice, potatoes with higher starch content, edible vaccines in maize and potatoes and maize varieties able to grow in poor conditions.
In drought-prone Zambia, says Dr Mumba, hardy, genetically-modified maize would be a useful contribution to ensuring food security. "ÖGiven the importance people place on the food they eat," adds Dr Mumba, "policies regarding GM crops will have to be based on an open and honest debate involving a wide cross-section of society".
But Dr Mumba and Dr Goma have complained of having been left out of the planning committee for the national debate held in August. Both suggest that, if indeed it is true that GM maize might contaminate local crop varieties, the GM maize grain should be milled so as to ensure that it is consumed by the starving masses without there being the possibility of storing any of it for the next farming season. The position is shared by ZNFU.
Although most of the debate has been confined to scientific polemics, there has been some ideological-nationalistic opposition to GMOs. Led largely by Women for Change' s executive director, Emily Sikazwe, this argument suggests that the US government, pressured by huge seed transnational corporations, has an interest in establishing future markets on the African continent for its GM food exports. Sikazwe says the US is not willing to offer non-GM maize in place of GM food aid.
What is clear from the debate so far, though, is the absence of the voices of the most affected people in rural areas. Bishop Peter Ndhlovu, the head of the Bible Gospel Church in Africa who has visited hunger-stricken villages, says: "The food crisis in rural Zambia is more grave than can be imagined from an urban perspective." This echoes many concerns that the debate has been so urban-centred and elite-based that it has largely ignored the concerns and urgent needs of the rural poor.
The emphasis on scientific evidence as a basis for policy-making has rendered the 'public debate' elitist. Those who are not schooled in science have largely been on the sidelines, apart from some vocal civil society organisations.
While there is obviously a desire to learn more about the 'science' of GMOs, there is increasingly a political-economic movement that seeks to highlight the issue of unequal power relations between rich and poor nations as well as the role of multinational corporations in perpetuating research and development that may seek to 'scientifically' justify GM food.
It is also clear that there is a general lack of information about GMOs, especially among rural populations, including small-scale farmers.
There are signs that the government has actively marginalised the voices of those who would support GMOs. This trend is also evident in the largely one-sided way the media have covered the issue in Zambia, favouring those opposed to introducing GM technology into the country. The policy dilemma confronting Zambia over whether or not to accept genetically-modified maize, offered as food aid by the United States, has thrown up urgent questions over the way - and the extent to which - debate over the issue has been allowed in the country.
Lack of Laws and Rejection of GMOs Is Hurting Africa
- David Kaiz, The East African (Nairobi), August 18, 2004 http://allafrica.com/stories/200408180102.html
Nairobi, Aug 16, 2004 -- There are no compensating mechanisms in place in the event that the use of genetically modified organisms may cause damage, writes DAVID KAIZA.
African countries are losing the initiative in the battle to control the impact of biotechnology on the continent, experts have warned. An international workshop held in Jinja, Uganda, on July 15 warned that time was running out for Africa to take the challenges posed by advances in biotechnology.
The agenda for the workshop titled, "High Level Policy Dialogue on Bio-safety Frameworks in sub-Saharan Africa," was to come up with a framework on how laws regarding GMOs could be written, especially on whom liability would fall in the event that a product of biotechnology causes damages. It was attended by biologists and lawyers from Egypt, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The protocol on biological diversity was adopted in 2000, in Cartagena, Columbia, but hardly any country in Africa, with the partial exception of South Africa, has adequate regulations. South Africa has so far come up with a law on biotechnology and has adequate regulations to control the entry and use of products of biotechnology, especially genetically modified organisms. Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania are still trying to finalise their policies, meaning there exists no specific laws in the region to protectL indigenous organisms and agriculture from the onslaught of GMOs.
Similarly, there are no compensating mechanisms in place in the event that the use of GMOs may cause damage - this at a time when the Ugandan government is giving tacit nods to the importation of GM foods, and at a time when the region's scientific community believes that GMOs have already been smuggled into the region.
Godber Tumushabe, the executive director of the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment based in Kampala, said government policies on biotechnology were characterised by confusion. "The countries are at different stages and the roadmaps are confusing. There are several stops along the way and you stop when there is no funding. The final destination may not even be there," said Mr Tumushabe.
The Cartagena Protocol, which introduced controls on trade in GMOs, gives countries the prerogative on what living modified organisms (LMOs), of which GM foods are only a variant, can enter their borders. The conclusion and ratification of the protocol was seen as a triumph by smaller countries in the face of the US position that GMOs were not any different from other natural plants and animals.
The US argument that Africa needed GM foods to overcome its food deficit has been resisted by a majority of African nations. But legal and biotechnology experts say that the climate of negativity towards biotechnology will hurt the continent.
While the three East African governments have pledged to put 2 per cent of their gross domestic product into research, observers say that this is barely done. While the government of Egypt funds scientific research up to 100 per cent from its own resources, East African governments put only 5 per cent of their own money into GM research.
The region has now been placed under one research centre under a New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) initiative, and, according to Dr John Mugabe, Nepad executive secretary of Science and Technology Forum, some $30 million (Canadian) will be made available to fund biotechnology research.
Professor Ossama El-Tayeb, the director of the Microbial Biotechnology Centre, University of Cairo, warned that biotechnology would soon become a matter of national security, and which countries, which did not invest in mastering the technology would find their food sources under foreign control.
There is no GM research work currently in Uganda because there is no enabling law. Kenya, meanwhile, has for some years now been carrying out research. Tissue culture bananas, which take only 12 months, instead of 18 months to mature, have already been tested.
The construction of a $128,205 bio-safety Green House at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) Biotechnology Research Centre will make possible biotechnology research of pest resistant maize in Kenya. The facility, a part of the Insect Resistant Maize for Africa (IRMA) project, is supposed to help save some of the $90 million, or about 400,000 tonnes of maize, that Kenya loses every year to pests.
In Uganda, droughts, when they occur, strike off 30 to 50 per cent of farmers' expected harvests annually. But Uganda has blocked any biotech research until an enabling law has been created. But research in the region is only a small fraction of global research. To this end, experts say that the entry of biotech products into the region needed to be regulated.
Dr Charles Mugoya, executive director of the Uganda National Council of Science and Technology, says that stopping research was harmful to the country's interests. He said that writing a law for a process that did not exist in the country would be meaningless.
He said that there are three distinct levels of research for which the laws cannot be the same: laboratory containment trials in which control of atmosphere and process can be maximised; field containment trials in which environmental contamination cannot necessarily be stopped; and commercial release in which developments are out of the hands of the creators of the product.
"The use of containment does not really require legislation," Dr Mugoya said. "We in Uganda wanted to do the same except there was a section of the population which said in order for the public to have confidence, then you must have some form of legislation."
Dr Patience Kemeri-Mbote, a lecturer in the Department of Private Law, University of Nairobi, said: "To say that you need to develop a new law before you begin to develop biotechnology is not entirely useful."
GM Crops - A Valuable Option for Subsistence Farming
- Shantharam and Kameshwar Rao, BioScience News (via Agnet), http://www.bioscinews.com/files/news-detail.asp?NewsID=7629†
It has been nearly four decades since the "Green Revolution", the last major technological intervention that really contributed to the improvement of economic conditions of poor farmers in Asia.
That scientific revolution stands fatigued today and the yield potential of the major food crops has stagnated. There seems to be no other trick in the green revolution bag to tackle the problem. Asian and African agriculture is in critical need of new technological intervention. Fortunately a new technological frontier has opened up in the past twenty years, but it is finding it very difficult to gain a foot hold in Asia and Africa.
GM crops have undoubtedly proved to be beneficial to growers by enhancing their income, and the technology has acquitted itself wherever the crops have been allowed to grow; in North America, Argentina, Brazil, The Philippines, and Australia. However the technology has become an unwitting victim of anti-biotech propaganda, and many parts of Asia and Africa have avoided making any bold regulatory decisions to move the technology forward.
The fact of the matter is that GM crops have been proved to be safe by every competent scientific ands regulatory authority in the world and have been supported by very high quality risk assessment researchers from North American and the European Union for almost two decades now. There is no other product or variety of crop or animal that has been tested and tried as much as GM crops, and yet the opponents of GM crop technology keep insisting that not much is known about its safety or environmental impacts.
It is because of their persistence, the regulatory safety bar has been raised so high as to make the technology unaffordable to developers and poor farmers. This is sheer injustice to the farmers, who need and deserve to take a crack at this technology and determine for themselves about its utility and benefits.
The dubious argument against introducing GM crops to Asia and Africa is that these ancient continents are the centers of origin and diversity of a majority of food crops, and that introduced "transgenes" from the GM crops will contaminate and pollute the wild and weedy relatives of the crops and destroy the precious diversity for ever. There is simply no substance to this argument. Indeed, it is true that general biodiversity has been destroyed all around the world, but not because of any introduced crop varieties or GM crops, but due to the destruction of habitat.
If we need to preserve biodiversity, GM crops present the best option to do so as they will produce more on the same amount of agrarian land mass as it is available now and protect the environment by cutting down on the use of recalcitrant chemicals in agriculture. The same GM crop technology also presents some hitherto unheard of options to improve the nutritional quality of these staple crops that will directly benefit the malnourished and the undernourished in the same parts of the world.
GM crops are products of a sound technological marvel that deserve to be given a fair chance and it is high time the Asian and African countries move expeditiously to bring those benefits to their impoverished people.
Shanthu Shantharam, Biologistics International, LLC, USA, and Prof. C. Kameswara Rao, Foundation for Biotechnology Education and Awareness, Bangalore, India.
Bt Corn Videos
- Drew Kershen
Today (Aug. 18) I viewed for the first time the two ISAAA:† Asiaís First:† The Bt Corn Story in the Philippines (18.5 minutes); More Choices:† The Lagao Farmersí Story (5.5 minutes).† Both are excellent in every regard Ė substantively, visually, musically.† I highly recommend these videos to everyone.† The cost from ISAAA is $10. †These can be used in many settings as excellent stories to educate about agricultural biotechnology.
Congratulations to ISAAA for these superb videos.
Funding for Studying Gene Flow
UC Riverside earns $1.5 Million National Science Foundation Grant to examine how engineered crop genes stray: Research to be done through UCRís Biotechnology Impacts center
- August 17, 2004 Via Agnet; Norman Ellstrand, principal investigator
RIVERSIDE, Calif. -Ė The National Science Foundation has awarded UC Riverside a $1.5 million grant to research the unintended spread of engineered plant genes, an issue at the heart of the controversy over genetically modified foods.
That phenomenon was illustrated recently when engineered genes from corn grown in the United States strayed into remote fields of corn in Mexico. UC Riversideís project is unusual because it will examine both the natural and the human factors that spread transgenes from engineered crops into non-engineered crops and natural populations.
"This hasnít been done before, and Iím excited to get started," said Norman Ellstrand, a professor of genetics who is also director of UCRís Biotechnology Impacts Center. "Our project involves social scientists with diverse expertise ranging from international trade to farmersí decision making in genuine collaboration with biological scientists who study gene transfer and the evolution of invasive species."
The project, which begins Sept. 1, will assemble faculty and graduate students from botany and plant sciences, economics, sociology, and statistics into three multidisciplinary teams.
∑ One group will focus on natural processes that affect dispersal of genes such as wind, timing of plant flowering, or proximity to compatible wild relatives.
∑ A second team will focus on human elements, including farmer management and transport of seed through local and international trade.
∑ The third team will employ state-of-the-art mathematical and computational modeli ng to estimate the timing and patterns of the spread of transgenes across space and national borders as well as their ecological consequences. The result will be the first global model of gene flow that accounts for both human and natural processes of gene dispersal.
Pure But Not Yet!
- Thomas R. DeGregori. Full article at http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=76
The opposition to transgenic crops by environmental organizations is beyond rational explanation, since the introduction of transgenic crops has led to significant reductions in pesticide use in the U.S., as well as in other countries such as China in which transgenic crops are grown.
Herbicide tolerant crops have allowed for the expansion of conservation tillage, which conserves soil, water, and biodiversity, and saves fuel along with reducing pesticide use (Fernandez-Cornejo and McBride, 2004, 27). In addition to the absolute reduction, the "substitution caused by the use of herbicide-tolerant soybeans results in glyphosate replacing other synthetic herbicides that are at least three times as toxic and that persist in the environment nearly twice as long" (Fernandez- Cornejo and McBride, 2004, 28, see also ED 2004 for comparative figures on the toxicity of glyposate compared to pesticides used in either conventional or organic agriculture such as copper sulphate). For those still under the illusion that "organic agriculture" does not use pesticides or at least, does not use synthetic pesticides, see USDA 2004.
The World Health Organization in its comprehensive study of pesticides and chemical contaminants in water, places glyphosate in a category where "it is unnecessary to recommend a health-based guideline value for these compounds because they are not hazardous to human health at concentrations normally found in drinking water (WHO 1998).
Glyphosate binds to the soil rapidly, preventing leaching, and is biodegraded by soil bacteria. In fact, glyphosate has a half-life in the environment of 47 days, compared with 60-90 days for the herbicides it commonly replaces. In addition, glyphosate has extremely low toxicity to mammals, birds, and fish. The herbicides that glyphosate replaces are 3.4 to 16.8 times more toxic, according to a chronic risk indicator based on EPA reference dose for humans (Fernandez- Cornejo and McBride, 2004, 28).
The depth of emotional commitment of the NGOs to the opposition to transgenic food crops can be seen in their partially successful attempts to prevent U.S. provided maize from being used for famine relief in Southern Africa, because some of it might be transgenic. To some of us, it seemed that they would prefer to see Africans starve rather than see them eat food grown in violation of their ideological preconceptions. Though the NGOs claimed that there was more than enough maize available locally to manage famine relief, none of them with their multi-million dollar annual expenditures offered any financial assistance to procure any relief food or other aid (Morris 2004).
The anti-transgenic forces have lost every round of the scientific argument, and every claim of adverse impact that they have made has been massively refuted. It would be difficult to find a respected scientific society or scientist of any reputability (as distinguished from the small number of scientists with varying degrees of competence that make up the anti-GM roadshow) to support the anti-transgenic cause. Equally impressive is the tens of thousands of competent scientists who have remained relatively silent on the issue. Had there been any of the dangers that the critics claim, one can be reasonably sure that many of them would have been motivated to at least sign one of the activist lists. They have not done so. Yet, most public opinion surveys in the U.S. and Europe find about 70% of the public believes that the scientific community is divided on the issue.
The list of scientific organizations and leaders in modern science, including Nobel Prize winners, who support transgenics is large and growing, as are the numbers of working scientists who are endorsing the technology by using it in their scientific work in any number of endeavors, including the creation of new pharmaceuticals which some of the activists do not oppose. To be consistent the activists should oppose all genetic engineering.
The number of national and international scientific societies in micro and molecular biology, medicine, plant genetics and physiology, ecology etc. that have recognized the potential benefits is impressively large, and the absence of any that currently oppose it is equally impressive. The strength of the endorsement varies, and many include caveats about the need for food and environmental safety provisions and case-by case approvals, but all have taken issue with the strident opposition to the technology. Since 2000, we have seen a number of national academies of science and other prestigious multidisciplinary transnational organizations issue carefully researched reports in support of the technology (RS et al. 2000, ICS 2003, IAC 2004a&b, IFST 2004, NRC 2004, USDA FAS 2004 - on the report of the French Food Safety Agency). Add in the support of those international organizations that do both scientific and applied work in helping to feed the world's population including organizations based in Africa, Asia and Latin America (Persley 1999, RS et al. 2000, ECA 2002, FAO 2004, MPH 2004, IFPRI/ISNAR 2004, ILSI 2004).
The continued global growth in the planting of transgenic corn, soy, canola and cotton represents real victories, but they could become pyrrhic victories unless the technology is allowed to expand into other areas of food production. In spite of all of these "wins" in the scientific arguments and in the increased plantings, one can argue that we are losing the war in that the activists have successfully poisoned the public's mind in Europe and elsewhere, making the further use of transgenics in new food production difficult if not impossible.
The science may be overwhelming but the critics still win the public relations battles. A correspondence to a journal that claims transgenic Bt corn harms the Monarch butterfly wins wide publicity in spite of the fact that the piece had been previously peer-reviewed and rejected by the same journal and by another respected journal. An activist dressed as a butterfly makes great TV and newspaper pictorials and spreads the activist's message far and wide leaving a lasting impression in the public's mind. A large number of peer-reviewed articles in leading journals based on major field studies that found that the Bt corn caused less damage to the butterfly than did any other method of growing the crop, were not newsworthy, and therefore never entered the broader public's mind. Some of the research was published before the study that found harm, and there were six multi-authored, peer-reviewed articles in PNAS - Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America - based on field research (for bibliographic detail, see DeGregori 2004, 115-116). Given that Bt corn has considerably reduced pesticide use and that Bt cotton has led to a 50% reduction in pesticide use - roughly 2 million pounds in the U.S, beneficial, non-target insects, such as the Monarch butterfly have actually fared "much better under these conditions" as has the environment overall from transgenic crops (Gewin 2004).
A new strategy is needed if the larger battles are to be won. If the activists argue for the consumerís right to know what they are eating, we ought to call their hand and raise them. We do not have to accept their position to argue that if the consumers have a right to know about transgenic breeding of food crops, they also have a right to know about the other forms of breeding that have created modern agriculture.
Many of our crops are products of "unnatural" species crosses that "nature" somehow did with humans involved only to the extent of selection. Modern bread-wheat is the product of three such crosses, while human plant breeding crossed the species barrier as early as 1884 with a sterile cross of wheat and rye. Modern agronomy, however, has allowed us to increase the diversity of wheat varieties from this narrow genetic base. For example, "wheat agriculture in the United States has experienced an increase in the number of varieties grown from 126 in 1919 to 469 in 1984" (Dalrymple 1988, cited in Brush 2004, 36, see also Cox 1991). Read on at http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=76
Development of the International Life Sciences Institute Crop Composition Database
- Ridley, W., Shillito, R., Coats, I., Steiner, H., Shawgo, M., Phillips, A., Dussold, P., Kurtyka, L. 2004. Journal of Food Composition and Analysis. 17: 423-438.
In May 2003,the International Life Sciences Institute released an online comprehensive Crop Composition Database(http://www.cropcomposition.org) that provides up-to-date information on the natural variability in composition of conventional crops. The database is a compilation of data on the nutrients, anti-nutrients, and secondary metabolites for maize and soybean samples obtained from controlled field trials, in multiple world-wide locations over a 6-year period. .....The database complements existing food and nutrient databases and should be of interest to research and regulatory scientists in many areas such as plant biology, food science, and animal nutrition.
Ill Advising Indian Farmers About the Utility of Bt Cotton
- Shanthu Shantharam
I saw this news report in a Bangalore Daily called Deccan Herald http://www.deccanherald.com/deccanherald/aug182004/s4.asp.
It is hard to verify the truth of this report, but it is really bad if dealers, sales people and some government extension workers are ill advising farmers about the utility of Bt-cotton as alleged. No matter what the truth is, this is the kind of reportage that anti-GM forces will latch on to and go to town crying endlessly and discredit the technology. Hope someone responsible will verify this report and bring out the truth. This also points to the unsatisfactory stewardship of Bt-cotton by the purveyors.
Ausbiotech 2004 National Biotechnology Conference
- Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre , November 7 - 10, 2004 ††††††††