Today in AgBioView at www.agbioworld.org; September 8, 2004
* Nobody's Afraid of Gm Crops, It's All a Media Scare
* Italy Ag Minister and Pure Seed
* Contradictory signals by the European Commission
* Monsanto's bio-engineered cotton seed sales soar in India
* MORE 'BT' CORN FARMS IN PAMPANGA, COTABATO
* INDIA TO PROMOTE GMO CROPS IN NEW POLICY
* Genetically modified corn is on the rise
Nobody's Afraid of Gm Crops, It's All a Media Scare
- The East African (Nairobi), September 6, 2004, By BAMUTURAKI MUSINGUZI
Prof BRUCE M. CHASSY, executive associate director of the Biotechnology Centre at the University of Illinois in the, US, recently conducted a media discussion on biotechnology in Kampala. He talked to Special Correspondent BAMUTURAKI MUSINGUZI about the benefits of biotechnology to the African farmer
What is biotechnology?
It is simply using living systems for useful outcomes. We manufacture a lot of antibiotics using micro-organisms. In homes, we use yeast to rise bread; that is biotechnology.
There is a whole area that most people don't know about called cell culture and blood cell propagation where we grow cells, say for example blood cells, that we can give to people and use in plants. A lot of plants are propagated using micro propagation or cell techniques and that is biotechnology. Biotechnology also involves moving genes around between organisms to create transgenic organisms.
Why is biotechnology controversial?
Well, because there are some people in the world who think that we shouldn't interfere with nature, that nature knows best how to do things and that when man starts manipulating biology, he will make mistakes.
What other options do we have available in crop breeding?
I would call all crop breeding biotechnology because the objective is to change the genetic structure of a plant. So it's all biotechnology, but I think you are asking about the specific business of moving a gene from one organism to another, making a transgenic plant - what most people call a GMO (genetically modified organism) or GM plant.
There are a variety of other techniques to help improve breeding, one of which uses biotechnology but does not transfer genes the same way - it is called micro-assisted breeding and it is growing in popularity.
Is biotechnology going to solve production limitations such as pests, diseases and water resources facing Africa?
I like to think of biotechnology as a tool that is used to solve a specific problem on a case-by-case basis. So, biotechnology is not a panacea to every problem and I don't think you should listen to anyone who claims that it's the only way to do things or the best way to do things.
But if you asked me, "Can we control sweet potato weevils using biotechnology?" I would say yes. We do have a good weevil control strategy in the US with biotechnology and I think it would actually work very well here.
To take another case, if we are looking at some viral diseases, I might say, "You know, there is a good virus-resistant example of that plant over in Kenya, so why don't we get the Kenyan plant and see if we can cross your plant with it and produce virus resistance that way?"
Would biotechnology reduce the impact of agriculture on the environment?
It can be used that way. It's always foolish to make sweeping generalisation, but our experience in the United States has been that we use far less chemicals in agriculture and we don't have to plough our fields as much in many cases, so we have less erosion and a number of other benefits. But if you are not using chemicals, then that chemical reduction wouldn't be realised here.
Would it improve agricultural productivity in Africa?
It certainly can. I know that there have been experimental maize and cotton fields grown in a number of countries in Africa - there are probably other crops too that have done quite well. In South Africa, the experience in maize and cotton has been very good. I don't see any reason why it should behave any differently in Africa than it does anywhere else - this is all biology and it's all about the weather, soil and all the factors that go in agriculture.
What has been the role of the media in this controversy?
Well, the media basically is a conduit of what they hear; they try to tell the public everything that they are hearing about a particular topic of interest. In this case, the opponents of biotechnology have persuaded the people not to use this technology through the media, which the media has done because it does not judge whether the technology is good or bad and the story is true or false. They just report the story. And that has certainly caused a lot of fear because people have said a lot of scary things about the technology using the media.
What are the major barriers to agricultural biotechnology?
Well, one real barrier is certainly customer resistance. If people are afraid of the technology, it's pretty hard to deploy it, making it quite different from the other barriers. The other barriers are the same you have with the development of anything new and diffusion of that technology. It costs money to invest in new technology: you need human capacity, physical facilities, research and then to develop it into a useful product and get it marketed.
At any point in the chain, you may find out that it has not really worked the way you hoped, or it was a bad investment. So, these are hurdles even a developed and prosperous country may face and it would be worse where resources are thin.
Consumers believe it's unsafe.
I don't think consumers believe it's unsafe. Its opponents have convinced some consumers of biotechnology products that they are unsafe, yet at least half of all consumers believe it's safe and are not concerned about it. If I did a poll asking people what they think is unsafe in the food supply, they would almost certainly never say it's biotechnology, but illness or food poisoning. So, I am not sure that biotechnology has scared consumers as much as you might think. If they can get good information and they are convinced that the particular product is really okay, they will accept it.
Would growing enough food fight hunger in the world, especially Africa?
I think growing enough food can help a great deal because in other places in the world, let's take for example China and India, smallholder farmers who couldn't feed their families in previous years can now do so. With the green revolution, they also produce excess crops, sell them and generate rural development and enterprises, and this has actually fuelled the development of the Chinese and Indian economies. That said, simply growing enough food doesn't guarantee that you will deal with issues of poverty, civil strife and diseases that may come to the plants. You have a variety of externalities that just having a good crop yield cannot deal with.
From: "Alex Avery"
Subject: Italy Ag Minister and Pure Seed
Date: Tue, 7 Sep 2004 11:13:12 -0400
The Italian Agriculture Minister Gianni Alemanno is reported to have said, "Next Wednesday the European Commission will tackle the decisive question of the tolerance level for accidental GMO contamination of seed harvest areas. It is a fundamental issue, because having pure seeds has always been a condition of freedom of choice of agricultural producers".
Really? Have farmers really had 100% pure seed without ANY so-called contamination from other varieties? My understanding is that 95-98% genetic purity is standard in commercial-grade seed. How does this reality square with his above statement that “having pure seeds has always been a condition of freedom of choice?”
But Mr. Alemanno admits that “a technical zero-contamination is certainly not possible.” So how can he then urge the EC not to accept a level of contamination in seed harvest areas? He doesn’t want even 0.3 percent.
Someone please explain these contradictions to me, as they make no sense to me. He seems to be talking out of both sides of his mouth.
Director of Research
Center for Global Food Issues, Hudson Institute
PO Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421
(540) 337-6354, or -6387
Contradictory signals by the European Commission
- EuropaBio, 8th September 2004
Today the European Commission withdrew from its agenda the proposal to establish labeling thresholds for trace amounts of EU approved GM seed in conventional seed. At the same time, the Commission moved forward in approving the addition of 17 GM maize varieties to the EU Common Seed Catalogue, allowing the sale of these varieties in all 25 EU Member States.
“It is regrettable that, once again, the Commission has chosen to ignore its responsibility to establish a common European legal basis for the setting of thresholds for trace levels of GM seed in conventional seed. EuropaBio and other stakeholders are disappointed, having worked with the Commission over five years to establish practical and workable thresholds." said Simon Barber, Director of PBU, EuropaBio. "It is economically unsustainable and will unnecessarily harm the competitiveness of the European industry and its customers, the European farmers community".
"However, we do welcome the Commission’s addition of 17 approved GM maize varieties to the European Common Seed Catalogue, allowing more of Europe's farmers to see for themselves the farm level and environmental benefits of this technology.
"Absolute purity is just not possible in the production of seed, and time and again, the seed industry and farmers in Europe face extraordinary legal uncertainty because the Commission has not been able to agree on practical and workable thresholds. To allow for the present situation of unrealistic, unclear and legally disputable national legislation to remain is irresponsible." added Simon Barber. “It’s ironic that farmers may legally grow fields of GM crops, yet thresholds for trace levels of these in seed have not been established.”
EuropaBio urges the Commission to fill this gap in the European GM regulatory package by establishing clear, practical and workable thresholds, as a matter of priority.
For further information, please contact
Johan Vanhemelrijck, EuropaBio
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel: +32 2 739 11 71 Mobile: +32 475 30 62 57
Simon Barber, EuropaBio
Email: email@example.com Tel: +32 2 739 11 72 Mobile: +32 476 44 24 20
(1) About EuropaBio
EuropaBio, the European Association for Bioindustries, has 35 corporate members operating worldwide and 23 national biotechnology associations representing some 1200 small and medium sized enterprises involved in research and development, testing, manufacturing and distribution of biotechnology products. http://www.europabio.org
Monsanto's bio-engineered cotton seed sales soar in India
- Associated Press, Sep. 07, 2004
BANGALORE, India (AP) - U.S. seed giant Monsanto Co. said Tuesday it has sold 1.3 million packets of genetically modified cotton seeds in India this year, recording an almost five-fold increase over 2003 sales.
The stronger sales ``demonstrate that the Indian farmer is willing to adopt a technology that delivers consistent benefits from reduced pesticide use and increased income,'' Ranjana Smetacek, the spokeswoman of the Indian operations of St. Louis-based Monsanto, told The Associated Press.
The figures are for the 2004 sowing season, which runs from June to August.
In 2003, Monsanto sold 230,000 packets of 450 grams each and in 2002, the first year the company was allowed to sell bio-engineered cotton in India, it sold around 72,000 packets.
Monsanto's BT cotton, the only genetically modified crop allowed in India, has faced stiff opposition from environmental groups, which dampened its sales in the last two years. Monsanto's office in the southern city of Bangalore was last year attacked by protesters.
Critics say the adverse effects of GM seeds have not been studied adequately, that the seeds are environmentally hazardous and could contaminate the genes of native varieties through cross pollination, eventually making farmers poorer.
However, advocates of genetic modification say it helps fight plant diseases, increase yield and improves the nutritive value of food crops.
BT stands for bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium whose gene is injected into cotton seeds to give them resistance against boll worms, a major concern for farmers in India.
The Indian government allows BT cotton cultivation in six of its 29 states. The six states are in the western and southern parts of the country. However, in the fertile northern states, BT cotton is illegally planted by some farmers.
Four strains of BT cotton seeds are currently sold in India and scientists have developed at least one Indian variant of Monsanto's seeds.
MORE 'BT' CORN FARMS IN PAMPANGA, COTABATO
- 31-August-2004 TODAY
Whenever farmers find a crop that offers a good income and is more comfortable to work on than their existing crop, they would not take so much time to decide on whether or not they are going to adopt the new crop. There are greater chances that they would switch to the new crop to make their lives a little bit more comfortable.
Such is the case in three towns of Pampanga, particularly in Lubao, Arayat and Mexico. Traditionally, almost all farmers in these towns have been producing rice and sugar cane. Others are into banana, mango and eggplant farming. With fellow farmers in Pampanga making more profit from Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) corn, more and more farmers in these towns are going into Bt corn production in order to cut cost of production, increase yield and to reduce the use of chemical sprays.
Bt corn, a bio-engineered or genetically modified crop, is resistant to the Asian corn borer, which can cause severe yield losses.
One of the farmers is Carlos "Caloy" G. Guevarra, who operates a 10-hectare corn production area in barangay Anao, Mexico, Pampanga.
Using a Pioneer hybrid 30Y73 with YieldGard Corn Borer Protection during the dry season, he was able to harvest an average yield of a record-high 10.25 metric tons (mt)/hectare, equivalent to 153 cavans.
Guevarra said, "At a price of P7.50 a kilo corn grain, my gross income reached around P76,000, giving me a net income of more than P50,000 a hectare."
Guevarra likes to use the new technology even if he does not usually encounter corn borer problems in his farm because he claims that farmers can never really predict when the insect pest will significantly damage the corn fields. He likened the corn borer to a "natural calamity" or typhoons.
Jay Narciso of Arayat, Pampanga, considers himself as adventurous and decisive. Narciso has spent almost half of his life working abroad. He has worked in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as a staff in the service of the Saudi Arabian Interior Minister. After seven years, he moved to Switzerland and stayed in Europe for six years, after which he decided to return to his native Pampanga.
Being a son of farmers, Narciso decided to invest his earnings on corn farming. He started purchasing two tractors and ventured into modern farming practices, initially by planting conventional hybrid seeds.
"With these regular hybrids, I would yield an average of seven tons/hectare, which to regular standards is above average," Narciso said.
Eventually, he decided to upgrade into Bt corn and planted five hectares of YieldGard 818. With the new technology, his yield increased from 9 mt/hectare to 10 mt/ hectare, which improved his income by about 30 percent.
Farming is not new to another former overseas Filipino worker, Jesus Gavino, 52, from the hometown of President Arroyo in Santiago, Lubao, Pampanga. In his youth, he used to help his father in the farm during summer.Gavino spent 16 years as a heavy-lift driver in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Then, he decided to come home and venture into farming. Initially, with conventional hybrids, he would average 5 mt/hectare. Switching to YieldGard 818 gave him a yield record from 9 mt/hectare to 10 mt/ hectare.
These farmers agreed that using modern technologies in corn farming, current farm yield and income levels could still be improved.
In South Cotabato, Lanao del Sur and Isabela, a revolutionary backyard-farming venture has been changing the lives of farmers and farming communities since they ventured in Bt corn and hybrid corn farming.
Farmers who used to get about an average of 6.5 mt to 7 mt of corn from a one-hectare farm may now be able to harvest 10 mt or even more.
Such is the case of Carmelito "Lito" G. Dinopol, from barangay Topland, Koronadal, South Cotabato, who has been planting conventional hybrid corn for the last two years, starting only with 5 hectares.
Mang Lito used to apply insecticides to protect his fields from insect pests. But, unfortunately, during the rainy season, the sprayed chemicals are being washed off easily, thus, significantly decreasing yield, he observed.
From a field tour of Bt corn demonstration farm, Mang Lito was able to see for himself the added value of having corn plants with built-in protection against corn borer. Trying the new technology has improved his yield and having been encouraged by the good market price of corn, he is now helping fellow farmers in his community avail themselves of the Bt corn technology.
From Wao, Lanao del Sur, Francisco Piagola used to plant his four-hectare farm with open-pollinated corn varieties that yielded only 1.5 mt/hectare. A simple switch to corn hybrids in the '90s dramatically increased his yield to 4 mt/hectare to 6 mt/hectare. As he adopts the latest corn hybrid introduced in the market, such as the NK hybrid of Syngenta, his yield level reached 8 mt/hectare to 9 mt/hectare.
The prospect of good farm income enticed Manong Francisco to quit his 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. job to become a full-time corn farmer, thereby nurturing the farm with good farm management practices.
"I was able to send my children to school and acquired several pieces of property," he added.
In Reina Mercedes, Isabela, in Northern Luzon, Peviano Soriano, a former seaman who shifted his career to farming, likes to try and compare new kinds of corn hybrids (like those produced by Cargil Asian, Pioneer, Cornworld, Syngenta) in his farm. With fertilizer application, the corn hybrids yield from 6 mt/hectare to 8.5 mt/hectare. The experience has been helping Soriano select which variety is most suited to his farm.
These farmers believe that with the help of modern corn farming technologies, such as improved seeds or planting materials, fertilization and other recom- mended cultural practices, yields of crops, such as corn, can be tremendously improved. They all received plaques of appreciation from the Department of Agriculture and the CropLife Philippines Inc. for successfully using modern farming technologies that contribute to the attainment of the objectives of the National Corn Program. El Bill R. Madrigal/Searca-BIC
INDIA TO PROMOTE GMO CROPS IN NEW POLICY
- Reuters, Atul Prakash, 01-September-2004
India plans a new policy promoting speedy approval of GMO crops to boost yields and feed its growing population, Union Minister for Science and Technology Kapil Sibal said on Wednesday.
The policy, which should be in place within eight to nine months, would also promote foreign and private sector investment in the biotechnology sector.
"We intend to have a biotech policy as quickly as possible to supply to the farmers pest-resistant and drought-resistant seeds with high nutritional values," the minister said in an interview.
The debate on biotech grains has intensified worldwide, with advocates saying they could lead to a more secure future for food, while opponents say they could produce new toxins and allergens, affecting the health of consumers.
India opened the door to genetically modified organism (GMO) technology in 2002 after years of trials and allowed Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co. (MAHYCO), in which US biotech giant Monsanto Co. owns a 26 per cent stake, to sell transgenic cotton.
It may take many years for the approval of a second GMO crop. Sibal said at least seven GMO crops, including rice, potatoes and mustard, were being field-tested in India.
"But these products are six to seven years down the line," he said, adding that the Government would seek to speed up the approval process for biotech products.
The new policy would emphasise the use of biotechnology to increase foodgrain production to take care of India's growing food needs, the minister said.
"By 2025, we will have to produce 420 million tonnes of foodgrains to feed our population. That means we have to increase our (crop) productivity twice just to meet the demand of our people," Sibal said, adding that any surplus could be exported.
India, with more than 1 billion people, produces about 200 million tonnes of foodgrains every year.
Sibal said the Government would like to collaborate with foreign entities in setting up joint ventures for research and development of biotechnology in the country.
Crop yields have been falling in India since the 'green revolution' of the 1960s, he said, adding that hybrids were no longer an option to boost farm output as excessive use of fertilisers had changed soil composition.
The green revolution helped the country lift grains production by using hybrid seeds, fertilisers and pesticides in
fields that were largely irrigated. Nearly two-thirds of India's cultivable land depends on monsoons for irrigation.
"If we apply best agricultural practices, we can in fact double our food production, but that also will not be enough."
Sibal said the Government planned to restructure the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, which has representatives from the ministries of science and technology, environment and health.
The Government was equally keen to have bio-safety standards in place, and would only welcome private companies if such standards were complied with, the minister said.
"Biotechnology and bio-safety must go hand in hand," he said.
Genetically modified corn is on the rise
- Pacific Business News, September 07, 2004
U.S. farmers have planted an additional 4.9 million acres of genetically modified corn this year, increasing the portion of U.S. corn that is genetically modified from 81 percent in 2003 to 85 percent in 2004, the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology reports.
"Crop varieties developed by genetic engineering were first introduced for commercial production in 1996. Today, these crops are planted on more than 167 million acres worldwide. U.S. farmers are by far the largest producers of genetically modified crops," the Pew trust said.
Most genetically modified seed corn is produced in Hawaii, where a large majority of all the corn grown is raised expressly for the production of genetically modified seeds.
On the mainland, the state most quickly adopting genetically modified corn is South Dakota, where 79 percent of all corn is genetically modified. Nationally, 32 percent of U.S. corn is genetically modified.
Scientists have been experimenting with genetic modifications to plants to give them natural protection against diseases and pests, but most commercially available genetically modified plants are modified to enable them to withstand greater applications of convention pesticide and herbicide chemicals. One of the major players in the genetically modified business is Monsanto, which modifies plants so they can take extra sprayings of its best-selling product Roundup.
Other changes in genetically modified crops in the United States based on figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture: