Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org ; September 9, 2004
* Europe Gives GM Seed Green Light
* Have A Little Faith In The Makers of GM Foods, They're Not Trying To Kill You
* Call for Govt. to Sponsor GM crops in Developing Countries
* The Seeds of a Biotech Future - Case Study Golden Rice
* European Consumers Put Up Tough Fight
* California: Anti-GMO Measure Draws Concern Over Constitutional Rights
* Liability of Rejecting The New Biotech
* Behind The Organic Label
* US Chemist Attacks Consumer Magazine's Food Safety Work
* Corrections to the ERROR In The Sept. 8 AgbioView
Europe Gives GM Seed Green Light
- Richard Black, BBC NEWS (UK), Sept. 9, 2004
For the first time, the European Union has approved a
genetically-modified seed for planting. The European Commission,
which made the decision, says the crop, a variety of maize developed
by the company Monsanto, can now be grown in any EU nation.
Observers say a sudden switch to growing GM maize is unlikely. The
Commission's move to clear the insect-resistant variety of maize has
met with a mixed reaction. The maize, known as MON810, has been
modified to be resistant to the European Corn Borer, an insect pest.
In 1998 it was approved for use by the governments of Spain and
France, and has been grown in Spain. Under European law, any seed
which is approved in one EU country is automatically approved in all
the others. But the process of extending approval for MON810 beyond
France and Spain was suspended for five years by the EU moratorium on
new GM products. The moratorium was lifted in May this year, and the
European Commission has now approved MON810 throughout the bloc.
David Byrne, the European Commissioner for Health and Consumer
Protection, said in a statement that the maize has been "thoroughly
assessed to be safe for human health and the environment " "It has
been grown in Spain for years without any known problems; it will be
clearly labelled as GM maize to allow farmers a choice," he said.
Land and law
But Becky Price of research and campaigning group GeneWatch UK told
the BBC that assessment of MON810 may be a contentious area. "When
this was assessed back in 1998, all a company had to do was to
present notification that the crop was 'substantially equivalent' to
non-GM varieties," she said. "If they were applying now, they would
have to supply data showing that the crop is substantially
Beate Gminder, a spokeswoman for the Commission, told the BBC that
any farmer within the EU is now legally entitled to buy and grow
MON810, even though some countries like the UK have established their
own sets of rules for assessing biotech crops. "It is legally not
possible that the UK cannot allow planting if they haven't put in a
safeguard clause," she told the BBC.
By a 'safeguard clause', Ms Gminder referred to national legislation
designed to prevent spread of transgenic material from
genetically-modified crops into neighbouring fields of related plants
- also known as 'co-existence legislation' - an issue which several
European governments are grappling with. "The problem is that only
Denmark has established such legislation," Geert Ritsema of Friends
of the Earth told the BBC. "To release these GMOs now is a recipe for
Governments can however register an exception from the EC ruling on
health and safety grounds, allowing a suspension of the legal right
to plant within their borders - though they then have to prove their
case "Some EU member states including some of the newly-joined
countries are sceptical about genetically-modified food, and we will
be encouraging them to protest," said Geert Ritsema. There are
seventeen variants of MON810, and the decision covers all of them.
"All seventeen are southern varieties - designed for use in warm
climates - so it's unlikely they will be adopted by northern
farmers," said Becky Price.
A more important issue which may prevent the adoption of MON810 is
public opposition to GMOs, still strong in many European nations.
Whatever happens with MON810, the symbolic significance of this
development cannot be overstated; a continent which has led
opposition to genetically-modified agriculture is now, for the first
time, allowing a GM crop to be planted throughout its territory.
Have A Little Faith In The Makers of GM Foods, They're Not Trying To Kill You
- The Nation (Thailand), September 9, 2004.
Why is everyone so afraid of GMOs' What makes you think a plant will
be dangerous to consume just because its genetic material has been
changed' The molecular structure of the DNA in every cell in every
organism on this planet is made up of the same nitrogen bases, sugars
and phosphates. What if someone really did take a gene (a segment of
DNA) from a herring and splice it with the DNA in a tomato plant. Do
you think the tomato plant would suddenly turn into a freaky monster
of a plant that will kill you when you eat it'
The genetic makeup of all living things changes from one generation
to the next. That is why no two humans are the same. Besides, the
fact that different genes are mixed through sexual reproduction,
genetic mutations also happen all the time in nature, bringing about
changes that are sometimes beneficial. That is how humans evolved
Please have a little faith in the scientific community. The people
developing GMOs are not secretly plotting to poison the Earth and its
inhabitants. Surely they want to make the Earth a better place for
themselves and their children, just as you do.
I propose that if some Thai farmers do not want to take advantage of
new improved breeds and want to produce specifically non-GMO crops
for sale to the paranoid consumers of the EU then they should be
allowed to set up zones where GMO crops are not grown within a
certain radius. This would protect against any possible
'contamination' by wind or insect-carried pollen. Then a wonderful
organisation like Greenpeace could share a little of its donated
funds to provide financial assistance for the non-GMO farmers to have
their products tested, rather than spending all their resources
scaring and misleading the public.
- Valerie Suwanseree, Bangkok
Call for Government to Sponsor GM crops in Developing Countries
- Sean Mac Connell, Irish Times; Sep 09, 2004
As many groups reacted angrily to the EU Commission's decision to
allow seven types of GM modified seeds to be used in the EU, the
Government is being asked to sponsor the use of biotechnology in
developing countries. Dr Clive James, founder of the Acquisition of
Agri-Biotech Applications, said in Dublin yesterday that he would be
asking the Government to help facilitate the acquisition and transfer
of agricultural biotechnology from industrial countries for the
benefit of resource-poor farmers in the developing world.
Welsh-born Dr James, who said his organisation's mission was to
alleviate hunger and poverty in the developing world, added that in
the last eight years there had been tremendous development in the
food, animal feed and fibre sectors.
He conceded that crop biotechnology was not a total solution but part
of an overall one and that the issue of using GM crops was a very
diverse one. "I accept that in science one can never be absolutely
sure about anything but as far as I can ascertain and I have
published and reviewed internationally recognised information on the
global status of GM crops, they present a wonderful opportunity to
combat poverty," he said. Dr James, who will speak tomorrow at the
Agricultural Science Association Conference in Waterford, said seven
million Chinese cotton farmers were growing GM crops.
As a result, he said, their annual wage of $1,250 had increased by
$250 a year and the use of pesticides on the crop had been reduced by
half. "This has meant a 30 per cent reduction in health problems
experienced by farmers and a 30 per cent increase in production," he
said. He added that the Chinese government was carrying out extensive
research on GM crops and the whole area was no longer the province of
private First World chemical companies.
The use of transgenic crops could ensure that the existing arable
land available globally could be used for the needs of a growing
population without expansion and this would safeguard our forests and
other endangered habitats, he said. Dr James, who is a guest of the
Monsanto food biotechnology company while in Ireland, rejected any
suggestion that the new technologies were being "tried out" on poor
counties where controls were not as strict as the developed world.
He also said that the Chinese government had retained control over
the seed it produced for their farmers, charging them for its use.
However, one concern he had was the possibility of resistant strains
of GM crops.
The Seeds of a Biotech Future - Case Study Golden Rice
- John Mason, Financial Times (England), September 8, 2004
Golden rice, the much-publicised genetically-modified rice able to
increase the vitamin A content of the diets of the under-nourished,
could finally appear in farmers' fields in 2006. It will be no
"silver bullet" but could still make a useful contribution to
tackling a global health problem which kills or blinds millions of
children each year, its supporters argue.
Biotech bananas, resistant to the highly destructive leaf fungus,
black sigatoka, and the banana weevil, are at an earlier stage of
development. But, if successful, banana production in some parts of
the world, relieved of blight, could rise increase by 75 per cent.
Both are products of partnerships between public and private sectors
to apply biotechnology to the needs of the poorest in the developing
world. However, such alliances remain in their infancy, restricting
the scope for non-commercial applications of biotechnology.
Applying biotechnology remains difficult, not least because of
continuing debates over the desirability of the science. To some
extent, these tensions may relax in future, particularly if
discoveries about the genomes of plants allow high-tech solutions
that avoid the most controversial transgenic techniques.
However, funding research for high-tech crops for the poor remains a
huge problem, with private sector programmes, driven by the need to
show a profit, increasingly dwarfing public sector projects. Louise
Fresco, assistant director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture
Organisation (FAO), said recently: "The widening molecular divide,
which generates a gap between the promise and reality of the impact
of biotechnology, is a cause for concern".
Progress on developing such crops is likely to be slow, according to
the Pew Initiative on Biotechnology, a US think-tank. "While only a
small number of GM crop traits have been commercialised to date,
others that hold promise for less developed countries are either at
earlier stages of research or are only theoretical. Thus, the
possibility of biotechnology providing immediate and dramatic
benefits to alleviate hunger or poverty seems relatively low, except
perhaps in specific areas with a limited number of crops," it says.
Public-private partnerships are increasingly seen as the way forward,
but progress in agreeing them has proved hard. The Rockefeller
Foundation was instrumental in negotiating the pooling of
intellectual property rights that enabled the golden rice research to
More recently, it built on this experience to set up the African
Agricultural Technology Foundation - an African-led organisation to
facilitate new partnerships for projects such as the
sigatoka-resistant banana. The foundation has made progress,
attracting the interest of most large international seeds companies
and the US Department of Agriculture. However, finding the recipe for
a successful partnership is still elusive, as the FAO said in a
report on agricultural biotechnology published earlier this year.
It identified a number of key ingredients. These include both parties
having to gain, probably financially, from the partnership;
governments needing the political will to negotiate with the private
sector (which can be difficult given public mistrust of big
companies) and both parties being prepared to make sustained,
long-term investments to finance research that almost always takes
longer than expected.
Even if these steps - and others to build public sector research
capacity - are taken, they might not prove enough, the FAO report
warned. "These steps could be helpful, but they are no guarantee that
the resulting technologies would ever reach the poor. Given that
conventional technologies available today have not yet reached the
poorest farmers' fields, the new biotechnologies may not fare any
better," said the FAO.
European Consumers Put Up Tough Fight
- John Mason, Financial Times (England), September 8, 2004
'The debate about GM food is more heated in the UK and the rest of
Europe than it is elsewhere'
Europe's biotechnology industry stands at a crossroads. The rejection
by consumers of genetically-modified (GM) crops has left the industry
uncertain how to develop, in the case of larger companies away from
their historical base as suppliers of agri-chemicals.
Developing GM products that sell well in the US or Asia appears not
to be an answer. Why spend millions (of pounds) on developing
products that, even if they pass the tests of Europe's tough
regulatory regime, may never be stocked in the shops?
However, the industry has plans for a viable future in Europe, as a
recent joint initiative with the European Commission has shown. In
essence, it aims to tailor its technology to what European consumers
will accept rather than rebel against it.
"Plants for the Future", the brainchild of Phillippe Busquin, the EU
research commissioner, is an attempt to agree a long-term research
strategy for the European biotechnology industry that secures its
future by acknowledging public concerns.
"The future competitiveness of Europe's agricultural and food
processing industries will depend on plant genomics, biotechnology
and their smart application," said the authors of a discussion paper
prepared for a conference on the issue in June. However, while
investment in biotech is increasing in the US, Canada, Asia, India
and South America, the position in Europe is declining as a result of
political inertia caused by the polarised debate between advocates
and opponents of the technology.
The public, both sceptical and confused, is left caught in the
cross-fire, the authors, who come from various backgrounds in
industry, said. "We need to take a more holistic approach. Used as
part of a broader system, modern biotechnology can be a helpful
addition to our current agricultural mix, although their (GM crops)
misapplication could potentially have some adverse health and
environmental effects. Europe should proceed responsibly in
developing biotechnologies while minimising any adverse effects,"
Agreement on what this long-term strategy might be - and this would
require the blessing of everyone from industry through to consumer
groups - has yet to be reached. However, the authors sketched out
their ideas for a "bio-economy" that scientists, industry and the
public can all buy into.
In a speculative vision of Europe in 2025, the paper foresees an
enhanced economic role for agriculture, with farming producing not
just food, but environmentally-friendly biofuels to substitute for
fossil fuels. Other plant-based bio-materials could also be produced
to meet the sustainability agenda, such as biodegradable polymers.
Plants could also be developed to produce both novel foods with
particular health benefits or tackle allergies, while the
understanding of genomics will enable plants to become even more
central to the creation of new drugs to combat human health problems.
The authors were optimistic about the prospects that the public may
eventually warm to biotechnology. "As more wild plants are cultivated
and new food products are created, culinary culture will witness an
unprecedented renaissance," they forecast. "Consumers will have a
bountiful choice of tasty fruit and vegetables with a good shelf
life. As enjoying and experimenting with good food becomes an
important part of the culture, interest in junk food will wane."
Apparently, this will also apply to wine, where new biotech grape
varieties could help Europe's industry to adjust to the challenges of
climate change and more volatile weather patterns. Rebuilding
consumer confidence remains crucial, the authors accepted. In an
important strategic move, they acknowledge that "co-existence" - the
growing of biotech crops alongside conventional or organic varieties
- must be real to keep public sympathy. Developing biotech crops that
are sterile and thus avoid the controversial problems of
cross-pollination is one way to ensure this, they maintained.
The agenda is broadly mirrored by the strategies now being adopted by
industry. Monsanto, the US biotech company, is currently working on
GM crops that contain omega-3, the fatty acids usually found in fish
that help to prevent heart disease. Such products, the company has
argued, will have clear consumer benefit.
Syngenta, its Anglo-Swiss rival, has a similar approach. While
remaining committed to developing GM crops for non-European markets,
it has adopted an altogether different strategy for Europe, says
David Jones, head of business development at Syngenta. "Wherever we
operate, we need consensus."
Syngenta's European strategy is threefold:-- Using the understanding
of genomics, but stopping short of using GM techniques, to develop
better performing varieties of produce, including tomatoes and
melons.â-Using GM technology to produce biofuels where there are no
human health concerns but clear environmental advantages over
conventional fossil fuels.-- Using GM technology to produce
"biopharma" products from plants, based on the assumption that the
public is more accepting of the need for "high science" in the
development of drugs.
Provided consumer concerns are addressed, the opportunities are
great, says Mr Jones. However, he warnsthat time is short. Given
lengthy research lead times, the industry has perhaps four or five
years to get going and establish an agenda that wins public support.
"The groundswell of consumer support needs to happen," he says.
Smaller companies with smaller research budgets have fewer options
than the likes of Syngenta. Cropdesign, a Belgium-based biotech
company, will continue to look outside Europe for its main markets,
says Herman Van Mellaert, its chief operating officer. Cropdesign
has concentrated on developing higher-yielding, salt-resistant
variants of maize and rice. The company will continue to do so,
seeking partners to bring its ideas to market.
Mr Van Mellaert is confident European consumer sentiments towards
biotechnology will turn around in time. However, the speed at which
this happens is crucially important since this could determine the
size of Europe's biotech industry and the products offered to
European farmers and consumers, he adds. "Who will be the supplier
and get the benefit: European companies or foreign companies? And
will their products be designed with the needs of European or US
farmers in mind?" asks Mr Van Mellaert.
California: Anti-GMO Measure Draws Concern Over Constitutional Rights
- James Tressler, The Times-Standard
It sailed easily onto the November ballot -- and seemed to have
relatively little opposition. But as if suddenly attacked by a swarm
of locusts, a proposed measure banning genetically modified crops in
Humboldt County has fallen on hard times.
First the Humboldt County Democratic Party last month held off on
supporting Measure M after a leading Humboldt Statue University
professor found errors in some of the scientific language of the
measure. Then this past week District Attorney Paul Gallegos
attacked the teeth of the measure as unconstitutional and said that
it could be thrown out by the courts if ever challenged. Gallegos
even reportedly called on the measure's backers to abandon their
Gallegos pointed to a clause in the proposed ordinance, which voters
will decide on Nov. 2, that allows the county agricultural
commissioner to impose jail sentences on anyone caught growing or
producing genetically modified crops should the ban go into effect.
The measure also calls on the agricultural commissioner to impose
fines on would-be violators.
Such punishment measures could be in conflict with the U.S. and state
constitutions, which leave the power to jail people exclusively with
the court system. "There is no due process rights connected with the
ordinance's means of imprisonment, and that, in my eyes, is
unconstitutional," the district attorney was quoted as saying in a
news report earlier this week.
Gallegos could not be reached for further comment in time for this
story, but his counterpart, Public Defender James Steinberg said he's
inclined to agree with Gallegos' assessment. "I haven't read the
measure, but it's obvious that an agricultural inspector can't do
that (jail people)," Steinberg said.
However, Steinberg said such initiatives often have what is called a
"saving clause" written into the language of the ballot measure that
says if parts of the law are stricken by the courts the remainder of
the law will stand. That could mean that genetically modified crops
would still be illegal in the county, even if courts find the
enforcement tools unlawful.
But the ordinance, which can be viewed at the county Elections Office
website ( www.co.humboldt.ca.us/ elections), has no such disclaimer
-- which could throw the entire ordinance in jeopardy. "Without the
severability clause, they do have problems -- fortunately they're not
my problems," said County Elections Manager Lindsey McWilliams. The
elections manager added, "It's on the ballot and it's staying there."
Earlier this year, county Agricultural Commissioner John Falkenstrom,
who has since retired, didn't take a position on the measure -- but
he did indicate he saw problems enforcing such a ban. He also said he
predicted such a ban could face court challenges.
The recent controversy has reportedly thrown the measure's authors,
the Humboldt Green Genes -- a coalition of environmentalists and
organic farmers -- into confusion over whether or not to keep
supporting the ordinance. Martha Devine, co-chairwoman of the Green
Genes, told the Times-Standard that the group is in the process of
deciding what to do next. That decision could be announced at a press
conference the group may hold early next week, Devine said.
The Green Genes are trying to follow in the footsteps of Mendocino
County, which in March became the first county in the nation to pass
a ban on genetically modified crops. Supporters of such bans argue
the nation's food supply must be protected from genetically altered
foods, in part because they argue the long-term health risks of such
altered foods aren't yet known.
In July, the Green Genes easily surpassed the roughly 4,300 valid
signatures to qualify the measure for November. Locally, no groups
have formally opposed the measure. The Humboldt County Farm Bureau
has remained neutral, while the North Coast Growers' Association
supports the ban.
Liability of Rejecting The New Biotech
- Excerpt From Chapter 6: by Henry I. Miller, Gregory Conko 'The
Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech
Revolution' ;Praeger Publishers; (August 30, 2004) , ISBN: 0275978796
To this point, our discussion has focused on the civil liability of
farmers who grow gene-spliced crops, and on agricultural
biotechnology companies that produce and market them. Agricultural
processors and food companies too may face civil liability, but from
a different, and perhaps unexpected, direction for their refusal to
purchase or to use gene-spliced varieties.
To see how, consider that the response by some in the food industry
to anti-biotechnology protestors and to controversies like StarLink
corn, has been to try to avoid gene-spliced crops altogether in their
food or feed supplies. This strategy carries risks of civil liability
that must be carefully considered. Design Defect Liability: The
Gerber Example As we discussed in chapter 5, in 1999 the Gerber foods
company succumbed to activists' pressure, announcing that its baby
food products would no longer contain any gene-spliced ingredients.
Indeed, Gerber went farther and promised to attempt to shift to the
use of organic crops that are grown without synthetic pesticides or
However, in its attempt to head off a potential public relations
problem, Gerber may have unintentionally increased the health risk
for its baby consumers and, thereby, its legal liability. Studies by
USDA entomologist Patrick Dowd and Iowa State University plant
pathologist Gary Munkvold show that gene-spliced Bt-corn crops have a
significantly reduced incidence of infestation by the mold Fusarium
and therefore lower concentrations of the mold's cancer-causing
mycotoxin, fumonisin.50.5 For the sake of argument, let us assume a
mother discovers that her Gerber-fed baby has developed liver or
esophageal cancer. On the child's behalf, a plaintiff's lawyer can
allege strict products liability based on mycotoxin contamination in
the baby food as the causal agent of the cancer. Such a claim would
allege that under products liability law, the contamination is a
manufacturing defect caused by the baby food's departing from its
intended product specifications, "even though all possible care was
exercised in the preparation and marketing of the product."
The plaintiff's lawyer can also allege a design defect in the baby
food, because Gerber knew of the existence of a less risky design
--namely, the use of gene-spliced varieties that are less prone to
Fusarium and fumonisin contamination but deliberately chose not to
use it. Instead, Gerber chose to use non-gene-spliced, organic food
ingredients, knowing that the foreseeable risks of harm posed by them
could have been reduced or avoided by adopting a reasonable
alternative design -- that is, by using Bt-corn, which is known to
have a lower risk of mycotoxin contamination.
If Gerber attempted to answer this design defect claim by contending
that the company was only responding to consumer demand, the company
would encounter a facet of the law that subjects a design defect to a
risk-utility balancing in which consumer expectations are only one of
several factors used to determine whether the product design (i.e.,
the use of only non-gene-spliced ingredients) is not reasonably safe.
The Restatement of Torts holds that "The mere fact that a risk
presented by a product design is open and obvious, or generally
known, and that the product thus satisfies expectations, does not
prevent a finding that the design is defective." However, the fact
that "a product design meets consumer expectations may substantially
influence or even be ultimately determinative on risk-utility
balancing in judging whether the omission of a proposed alternative
design renders the product not reasonably safe."
Nevas an independent basis for denying a liability claim. Gerber could
also attempt to respond to this design defect claim by arguing that
if its baby food, which contains no gene-spliced ingredients, were
judged not to be reasonably safe, consumers would be denied a market
choice. However, this argument would enable the plaintiff's lawyer to
add an additional claim to the lawsuit: that Gerber is liable because
it failed to provide adequate instructions or warnings.
For example, Gerber could have labeled its nonbiotech baby food with
a statement such as: "This product does not contain gene-spliced
ingredients. Consequently, this product has a very slight additional
risk of mycotoxin contamination. Mycotoxins can cause serious
diseases such as liver and esophageal cancer." The Hypoallergenic
Foods Example: Peanuts and Soybeans The example above, which
postulates damage from higher levels of toxin in non-gene-spliced
corn, is probably a less likely scenario than liability for an
allergic reaction. Allergies to peanuts and soybeans, for example,
are quite common. Between 6 and 8 percent of children and between 1
and 2 percent of adults are allergic to soybeans. Although only about
1 percent of the population is allergic to peanuts, some individuals
are so highly sensitive that exposure causes anaphylactic shock.
Dozens die every y
Fortunately, biotechnology researchers are well along in the
development of peanuts, soybeans, and other crops in which the genes
coding for allergenic proteins have been silenced or removed.55
According to University of California, Berkeley biochemist Bob
Buchanan, scientists are rapidly accumulating knowledge about how to
reduce the allergenicity of major allergens, work that has been
accelerated significantly by a dog model that he and his colleagues
have shown to be effective for a variety of foods (peanut, tree nuts,
cereals, and milk). He estimates that candidates for commercial
hypoallergenic varieties of wheat could be developed within the
decade, and nuts somewhat later.
Once these products are commercially available, agricultural
processors and food companies that refuse to use these safer food
sources will open themselves to products-liability design-defect
lawsuits. Property Damages and Personal Injury: Contribution and
Indemnity Exposure Potatoes are a booming crop, primarily due to the
vast consumption of french fries at fast-food restaurants like
McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's. However, growing potatoes is
not easy, because they are preyed upon by a wide range of voracious
and difficult-to-control pests, such as the Colorado potato beetle,
aphid-spread viruses, potato blight, and others. To combat these
pests and diseases, potato growers use an assortment of fungicides
(to control blight), insecticides (to kill aphids and the Colorado
potato beetle), and fumigants (to control soil nematodes). Although
some of these chemicals are quite hazardous to farm workers, forgoing
them could jeopardize the sustainability and profitability of the
entire potato industry. Standard application of chemical inputs
enhances yields more than 50 percent over organic potato production,
which eschews most synth
Consider a specific example. Many growers use methamidophos, a toxic
organophosphate nerve poison, for aphid control. While methamidophos
is an EPA-approved pesticide, the agency is currently reevaluating
organophosphate use and could ultimately prohibit or greatly restrict
the use of this entire class of pesticides.58 As an alternative to
these chemicals, the Monsanto Company developed a potato that
contains an endogenous Bt gene to control the Colorado potato beetle
and another gene to control the potato leaf roll virus spread by the
aphids. Monsanto's NewLeaf potato is resistant to these two scourges
of potato plants, which allowed growers who adopted it to reduce
their use of chemical controls and increase yields. Farmers who
planted NewLeaf became convinced that it was the most environmentally
sound and economically efficient way to grow potatoes, but after five
years of excellent results it was withdrawn from the market. Under
pressure from anti-biotechnology organizations, McDonald's, Burger
King, and other restaurant chains had informed their potato suppliers
that they would no longer accept gene-spliced potato varieties for
their french fries. As a result, potato processors such as J. R.
Simplot inserted a nonfarmer-processor contracts and informed farmers that they would no
longer buy gene-spliced potatoes.59 In spite of its substantial
environmental, occupational, and economic benefits, NewLeaf became an
unacceptable variety. Talk about market distortions!
Now, let us assume that a farmer who is required by contractual
arrangement to plant non-gene-spliced potatoes sprays his potato crop
with methamidophos (the organophosphate nerve poison) and that the
pesticide drifts into a nearby stream and over nearby farm laborers.
Thousands of fish die in the stream, and the laborers immediately
report to hospital emergency rooms complaining of neurological
symptoms. This hypothetical scenario is, in fact, not at all
far-fetched. Fish kills attributed to pesticide runoff from potato
fields are commonplace. In the potato-growing region of Prince Edward
Island, Canada, for example, a dozen occurred in one thirteen-month
period alone, between July 1999 and August 2000.60 According to the
UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, "normal" use of the
pesticides parathion and methamidophos is responsible for some 7,500
pesticide poisoning cases in China each year.
To continue our hypothetical scenario, the state environmental agency
brings an administrative action for civil damages to recover the cost
of the fish kill, and a plaintiff's lawyer files a class-action suit
on behalf of the farm laborers to recover personal injury damages.
Several possible circumstances could enable the farmer's defense
lawyer to shift culpability for the alleged damages to the
contracting processor and the fast-food restaurants that are the
ultimate purchasers of the potatoes. These circumstances include the
farmer's having planted Bt potatoes for the previous several years;
his contractual obligation to the potato processor and its fast-food
retail buyers to provide only non-gene-spliced varieties; and his
preference for planting gene-spliced, Bt potatoes,the contractual proscription.
If these conditions could be proven, the lawyer defending the farmer
could name the contracting processor and the fast-food restaurants as
cross-defendants, claiming either contribution in tort law or
indemnification in contract law for any damages legally imposed upon
the farmer client. The farmer's defense lawyer could argue that those
companies bear the ultimate responsibility for the damages because
they compelled the farmer to engage in higher-risk producpractices than he would otherwise have chosen. These companies chose
to impose cultivation of a non-gene-spliced variety upon the farmer
although they knew that in order to avoid severe losses in yield, he
would need to use organophosphate pesticides. The defense lawyer
could argue that the farmer should have a legal remedy to pass any
damages (arising from contractually imposed production practices)
back to the processor and the fast-food chains.
Companies that insist upon farmers using production techniques that
involve foreseeable harms to the environment and humans should be
legally accountable for that decision. If agricultural processors
and food companies manage to avoid legal liability for their
insistence on non-gene-spliced crops, they will be "guilty" at least
of externalizing their environmental costs onto the farmers, the
environment, and society at large.
Behind The Organic Label
- Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times, September 6, 2004. Full story at
'As the industry grows, skeptics are challenging the health claims.'
These are good times for those who grow and sell organic foods. But
there may be trouble in paradise.
Prompted by a quest for safer, healthier diets and a cleaner
environment, more American consumers are buying the bountiful
harvests of organic farmers. Last year, U.S. spending on organic
foods reached close to $10.4 billion, making this the fastest-growing
segment of the American food industry. Amid scares over mad cow
disease, mercury in fish and produce tainted with harmful bacteria,
new customers are joining existing ones in embracing organic foods as
a sanctuary from harm and a surer route to long life and good health.
But as organic products -- and their claims to superiority -- have
grown more common, scientists, policy analysts and some consumers
have begun to ask for proof. Where's the evidence, they ask, for the
widespread belief that organic foods are safer and more nutritious
than those raised by conventional farming methods?
The short answer, food safety and nutrition scientists say, is that
such proof does not exist. Indeed, by one well-established measure of
healthfulness -- contamination with fecal matter and potentially
harmful bacteria -- some organic foods may pose greater risks to
As food fights go, this one might not be as raucous as the cacophony
over low-carb diets or reshaping the food pyramid -- yet. But since
1989, when organic-food activists raised a nationwide scare over the
pesticide alar in apples, many scientists have seethed quietly at
what they perceive as a campaign of scare tactics, innuendo and
shoddy science perpetrated by organic food producers and their allies.
Now, many of those experts, who had been content to pursue their
research in academic anonymity, are being called to testify before
congressional committees and weigh in on a swirling public debate
about America's diet. As they begin to find their voice, the organic
food industry may find them about as welcome as a plague of aphids.
And it will take more than cow manure and dried chrysanthemum leaves
to make them go away.
Dr. Joseph D. Rosen, a Rutgers University food science professor on
the cusp of retirement, is one of the organic food industry's newest
pests. For years, Rosen said, he kept his head down, conducting and
publishing narrow research on how to measure pesticide residues in
food. But he was moved to begin speaking out in 2002, when Consumer
Reports inveighed against proposals to irradiate meat -- a measure
Rosen believes could prevent more then 350 deaths per year due to
Last month, at the American Chemical Society's annual meeting in
Philadelphia, Rosen presided over a daylong symposium that asked the
question: Is organic food healthier than conventional food? "There's
certainly not sufficient science to prove that the claims of organic
food advocates are true," he said.
The symposium was the second this year to question the benefits of
organic food. In March, the First World Congress on Organic Food
convened scientists, farmers and consumer analysts to consider the
safety and nutritional aspects of organic food. It too found a dearth
of evidence to support claims of superiority.
"We don't have a huge wealth of literature here," said Dr. Ewen C.D.
Todd, director of Michigan State University's National Food Safety
and Toxicology Center, which hosted the gathering. "It's going to be
difficult to say science has spoken," he added.
"This really, truly is a coming of age for the organic movement,"
said Alex Avery, director of research and education at the Hudson
Institute's Center for Global Food Issues and a vocal critic of the
organic food industry. "They have been legitimized to the point where
they're no longer the kooky fringe, and they're now subject to the
same intense, microscopic scrutiny that conventional farming has
been. This is a mark of their success."
Those meeting under the banner of the American Chemical Society's
agrochemical group -- chemists, toxicologists, microbiologists and
risk analysts -- were admitted skeptics to begin with. As lone
voices, many have spoken out before. But for what may be the first
time, they are raising their voices together.
These critics picked apart studies and reports posted on websites,
cited in the media and touted in organic marketing that suggest
organic food is a safer and more nutritious choice. They presented
data collected by the federal government, studies published in
respected journals of food safety and nutrition and, in some cases,
results from their own labs to show that differences are, at best,
tiny and probably meaningless.
And they traced the growing tentacles of a onetime counterculture
movement that has begun to look and act more like an industry
dedicated to expanding its market and increasing its influence on
controversial issues of food safety and supply, such as bioengineered
crops and irradiation of food.
In the process, the skeptics called into question one rationale that
drives buyers of organic food. By one recent survey, two-in-three
consumers of organic food make their choice believing it will support
"better health." "Right now, the organic movement is fairly strong
because it's generally recognized that these products are safer and
more nutritious," said Christine Bruhn, director of the University of
California's Center for Consumer Research at UC Davis.
But, Bruhn said, the organic business may be in trouble if consumers
come to believe that the products are not necessarily healthier for
them. "It's a market philosophy that's built on a house of cards. You
blow those cards and there might be some tumbling," said Bruhn.
That is especially true because the price tags of organically grown
foods are typically higher than those of their conventional
counterparts. With some produce -- carrots, for example -- the
difference can be a matter of pennies. But for many products -- such
as peaches, eggs and dairy -- the organic label can add considerably
to the bill, sometimes doubling the price.
Rutgers' Rosen said that consumers who spend more for organically
raised foods in the belief that they have more vitamins or fewer
pesticide residues and fewer contaminants should understand a few
things about the studies that have helped lead them to that belief.
First, he said, most were not designed, conducted or published
according to accepted scientific standards, and many were done by
groups that openly promote organic foods. One of the most-cited -
widely used as evidence of organic food's higher vitamin content -
was published in 1948 by Firman Bear, a long-retired Rutgers food
scientist who has since acknowledged his study was not designed to
assess organic crops nor to compare nutritional values.
Beyond that, well-designed studies that have found differences in
organic food -- say, in vitamin C content or in pesticide residues --
have found differences so small that most scientists say they are not
Ruth Kava, director of nutrition at the New York-based American
Council on Science and Health, has combed through most of the studies
cited in support of the belief that organic produce is more
nutritious. At least half of those studies, Kava said, suffer from
crippling inconsistencies in how the produce samples were gathered,
analyzed and compared. And even where vitamin differences appear to
be well-documented, Kava said, they are so tiny as to be
Looking at one comparison of vitamin C in a market basket of organic
and conventionally grown vegetables, Kava acknowledged a slight edge
for the organic crops. But it amounted to a difference of around 10%
of the recommended daily intake requirement for vitamin C. For most
adults, she said, "I'm not sure it matters," and their consumption of
fruits could easily make up the difference.
Residue risks weighed
Differences in pesticide residues are the subject of much fiercer debate.
Synthetically produced fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides used by
conventional farmers are subject to extensive regulation. The federal
government and, often, states (California is included) have set
strict limits on what types and amounts they will allow on fruits and
vegetables making their way to market. In most cases, those limits
are based on analyses aimed at protecting the most vulnerable or
voracious consumers of fruits and vegetables.
Supporters of organic agriculture maintain that synthetic pesticides
-- even when consumed in tiny doses -- accumulate in the body over a
lifetime, and may interact with one another in unpredictable ways.
Cumulative pesticide risks are not well understood, these advocates
say, and until they are, fewer pesticide residues means less risk.
This is especially true, they argue, for infants and children who
take in a greater proportion of fruits and vegetables based on their
size and who have more fragile immune systems than adults.
"The argument is that less is better than more, even though more may
be minuscule," said Todd of Michigan State University. "You can say
you've got a better safety margin, even though many other things may
Advocates of organic agriculture often fail to note that organic
farmers also use potentially risky herbicides, pesticides and
fertilizers. But the natural compounds that government regulations
allow organic farmers to use, including manure, sulfur, copper,
pyrethrum (an insecticide made of dried African chrysanthemums), and
rotenone (an insecticide derived from the roots of tropical plants
that is highly toxic to fish), are not tracked and limited by
government regulators, said Christine Chaisson, a risk-analysis
specialist with the LifeLine Group, a not-for-profit corporation that
develops methods to analyze risk. That, she said, makes it difficult
to conclude that organic food poses less risk to consumers than its
conventionally grown counterparts.
Last June, the Organic Center released a study, based on data
collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that found
conventionally grown fruits and vegetables were eight times more
likely to contain pesticide residues than organically raised crops.
But Michael F. Hare, a toxicologist with the Texas Department of
Agriculture who reviewed the report for the American Chemical
Society's panel, found that, of the fewer than 20% of conventionally
grown samples in which a pesticide residue was found, the amount
usually fell between 1% and 5% of the limits considered safe by
federal government standards. Although organic crops were less likely
to show pesticide residues, Hare said at these low levels, neither
crop could be declared meaningfully safer than the other.
The belief that organic foods are healthier is most vulnerable when
it comes to food contamination issues, scientists have said.
In a year when the federal government has issued contamination
warnings for dozens of crops, the safety of organic produce is coming
under more intense scrutiny. When it comes to fruits and vegetables,
organics have one key vulnerability, which is organic farmers' far
heavier reliance on cow and pig manure as a source of fertilizer. And
where you have animal manure, particularly if it has not been
carefully aged and processed, the risk of contamination by dangerous
E. coli, salmonella and citrobacter bacteria is greatly increased.
The Organic Trade Assn. notes that the U.S. Department of Agriculture
has set strict standards for organic farmers' use of animal manure.
But many farmers who market their products as natural or organic may
not always adhere to them, and the safety standards remain a topic of
debate among toxicologists. In recent years, at least two outbreaks
of E. coli contamination -- in strawberries and lettuce -- have been
associated with organic foods, and alfalfa sprouts marketed in
natural foods stores were recalled for salmonella contamination.
In a study published in May in the Journal of Food Protection,
University of Minnesota professor Francisco Diez-Gonzalez reported
that in a comparison of organic and conventionally raised crops
plucked directly from the fields, organic vegetables were more than
five times likelier to show fecal contamination -- an indicator that
produce could harbor harmful pathogens -- than were those grown
Scientists in Philadelphia last month also took aim at organic
poultry, where flocks are often allowed to roam, as an organic
product whose contamination rates are higher than those among
conventionally grown flocks. Because some flocks raised as organic
poultry are exposed to wild birds and their droppings, several
studies have found higher rates of potentially harmful bacterial
contamination among such birds than among conventionally raised
In the end, the organic versus conventional contest may have to be
settled by consumers' tastes, their budgets, and their commitment to
environmental principles. From a health perspective, said Bruhn of UC
Davis, it's a contest that pits one set of safe products against
another. But it is also, she added, a marketing imbroglio that
befuddles consumers and can fill those who cannot afford organic
food's premiums with guilt.
"The critical thing is getting good fruits and vegetables and dairy
products into the mouths of consumers. People need to use their funds
to buy the healthy products their family likes," Bruhn said. In the
meantime, she added, let the comparisons -- and with them, a new
scientific debate -- begin. "I look forward to seeing the evidence."
US Chemist Attacks Consumer Magazine's Food Safety Work
- Jim Giles, Nature, September 9, 2004 ; Vol 431 No 7005 pp111-228
Consumer Reports 'ignored' research, says scientist .
A food chemist has accused a leading consumer publication of using
flawed science in its food safety surveys. The researcher says that
Consumer Reports, which has four million subscribers, ignored
published research that contradicted its tests on food irradiation,
and used an unscientific toxicity scale to measure pesticide residues.
Joseph Rosen, who works at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New
Jersey, made the claims at a session on organic food at the American
Chemical Society's annual meeting in Philadelphia on 23 August. The
magazine rejects the allegations, saying its surveys are based on
rigorous science developed by professional toxicologists and
Rosen says he first looked into Consumer Reports' methods after
reading an article on irradiated meat, which it published in August
2003. This examined US food producers' claims that treating meat with
beams of electrons or -rays kills harmful bacteria. It concluded that
treated meat had a "slight off-taste" and offered no safety benefit
to the "careful cook".
The magazine regularly examines industry claims, and its defenders
say that it is a counterweight to the food industry's marketing. The
magazine is "highly effective" in its approach, says Caroline
Smith-Dewaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the
Public Interest, a Washington-based group that campaigns on food
But Rosen says that Consumer Reports based its irradiation article on
reports from just two trained taste testers, and ignored a 2003 test
involving more than 100 subjects conducted by researchers at Kansas
State University. That study found that consumers could not tell
irradiated from non-irradiated meat.
Consumers Union, the New York-based advocacy group that publishes
Consumer Reports, says that it knew of the Kansas research, but that
the magazine does not typically run consumer panels. "We evaluate
attributes and not preferences," says Urvashi Rangan, a toxicology
and environmental health expert with the union. She adds that the
article stated that the off-taste was subtle and might be missed by
Rosen also says it is alarmist for the magazine to state that the
energy in irradiation is "150 times the dose capable of killing an
adult", as consumers are not exposed to the beams. Rangan counters
that the measure was needed to correct food industry promotional
material, which portrays the beams as no more powerful than sunlight.
The magazine's work on pesticides also aroused Rosen's ire. A March
1999 article used a specially designed toxicity scale to compare
residues on fruits and vegetables. Consumer Reports concluded that
parents should avoid giving children large amounts of some produce.
Rosen says the evaluations used arbitrary factors, and that the scale
confuses the maximum safe amount of a residue that can be consumed at
once with that which can be consumed over a lifetime. Rangan concedes
there is an arbitrary element to the weightings, but says that they
were needed to allow comparison of residues in different foods.
"I was struck by the shoddiness of their work," says Rosen, who
advises the American Council on Science and Health, a lobby group
generally supportive of the food industry. He says he gets no
research money from the organization.
Corrections to the ERROR In The September 8 AgbioView
- Nill, Kim" Add to Address Book
The fraction of U.S. corn acres planted to biotech-derived varieties
is less than half the false number you stated within the first
paragraph below. It is also contradicted by the final sentence within
your fourth paragraph below.
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
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.