Today in AgBioView at www.agbioworld.org; September 13, 2004
* EU Drops Ban on GMO Seeds
* Europe urged to embrace GM foods
* Public Policy Morass in Biotechnology
* Coffee genetic code is cracked
* Monsanto's gene-modified cotton sales to India rise 5-fold
EU Drops Ban on GMO Seeds
European Commission also ends ban on labeling of conventional seeds
- CalTrade Report, Sep 13, 2004
BRUSSELS, Belgium - 09/13/04 - For the first time ever, the European Union has approved the planting and sale of genetically-modified (GMO) or biotech seeds throughout its 25-member states.
At the same time, the EU also dropped a proposal on how much GMO material may be tolerated without labeling in batches of conventional seed - a controversial requirement that has bounced between the European Commission's various departments for over a year.
The move authorizes the cultivation of 17 different strains of corn seed developed by the US-based international conglomerate Monsanto Co.
The corn seeds were from a parent crop that had been approved before the European Union established its ban against biotech foods in 1998.
In a statement, EU Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner David Byrne said the corn "is safe for human health and the environment, and has been grown in Spain for years without any known problems."
However, the commission withdrew its proposal setting purity levels for labeling of seed containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Before the ruling, the GMO seeds only had national authorizations issued by France and Spain. The ban meant that only farmers in those countries could buy and plant them.
The decision comes as the contents of a French food safety agency AFSSA - Agence Française de Sécurité Sanitaire des Aliments - study has concluded that crops developed through biotechnology "might benefit human health."
According to an attaché report posted recently on the DOC's website, the recently published French government study stated that crops developed with resistance to insects "would reduce farmers' and consumers' exposure to harmful pesticides and molds."
The French study also said that because genetically modified corn has less insect damage, "fewer molds can develop, especially benefiting corn-fed cattle raised for human consumption."
The study, which was reportedly conducted by analyzing scientific reports from various sources focusing on the production and processing of biotech crops, also said the scientific development of Vitamin-A enriched biotech rice should be supported, adding that such rice is not a "utopia" but a "reality."
According to the USDA website, the authors of the report studied four cases - the insect resistant corn, the glyphosate resistant sugar beet, the Vitamin A enriched rice, and some genetically modified micro-organisms.
The report said that cultivation of biotech crops, especially insect resistant crops, "allows farmers to reduce their uses of pesticides," adding that "this is especially true for cotton, and to a lesser extent, for corn."
The AFSSA underlines that development of biotech crops in developing countries would be especially beneficial to the health of farmers, because most farmers apply pesticides without proper protective outfit.
The report was more cautious on the development of genetically engineered micro-organisms - "the lack of scientific data does not allow the experts to conclude on the potential benefits or danger of these products."
The French government document broadened the heated debate in the EU on GMOs to include the technology's potential benefits by concluding "that even though no health problems have been linked to a biotech crop to date, such risks cannot be precisely identified or quantified."
But, it said, any scientific evaluation of the overall potential risk of biotech crops "is arduous since no health problem such as toxicity or allergy has ever been directly linked to a biotech crop."
Europe urged to embrace GM foods
- BBC, By Richard Black, 12 September, 2004
A major conference on genetically modified crops has opened in Germany with calls for Europe to embrace GM food more enthusiastically.
Several speakers said GM plants were shown to be safe, predicting Europeans would begin to accept the technology.
Not surprisingly, at an event organised by the biotech industry, the calls were greeted with enthusiastic applause.
But they must first overcome public mistrust in Europe about the technology and firms behind it.
So far, speakers said, there was no evidence that GM food posed any danger to human health.
They also said there was no evidence growing GM crops caused environmental harm - a claim which is hotly contested.
Canada is one country where agricultural biotechnology is widely used.
At the conference opening, the Industry and Resources Minister for the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, Eric Cline, said plants with modified genes could provide many other things besides food.
"We cannot ignore the potential that ag-biotech research offers," he said.
"Whether its greener fuels and fabrics, foods grown without chemicals added to it, more sophisticated drugs and, most importantly, ensuring an adequate food supply for the growing world population."
There is a big Canadian presence here because until now this conference has always been held in North America.
This is the first time it has come to Europe and that is no accident.
The organisers have brought it here now because they believe Europe is opening up for biotech business.
Earlier this year, the European Union ended its five-year moratorium on new GM foods.
Last week, it approved for the first time a variety of GM seed for planting throughout EU territory.
But if European institutions are changing their stance, the question is whether Europe's citizens will follow suit.
Industry chiefs here predict they will, but admit it may take some years to overcome public mistrust about the technology itself and the motives of companies behind it.
Public Policy Morass in Biotechnology: More from 'The Frankenfood Myth'
- Henry Miller and Greg Conko
(From Prakash: AgBioWorld readers will know that we have run occasional excerpts from "The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution" (Praeger 2004) by Henry Miller and Gregory Conko. This is not, strictly speaking, an excerpt, but is based on the final chapter, Chapter 9, of the book, which summarizes the public policy morass that exists today and offers ways that we might emerge from it. The authors' proposal of comprehensive solutions to current, flawed public policy distinguishes it from other books on this subject.)
Over the past two decades, regulators in the United States and many other countries have created a series of rules for the new biotechnology, also known as recombinant-DNA technology, gene splicing, or genetic modification. Regulatory policy has consistently treated the technology as though it were inherently risky and in need of intensive oversight and control, but a broad scientific consensus holds that it is merely an extension, or refinement, of less precise technologies that we have long used for simiYlar purposes. Except for wild berries, all of the grains, fruits, and vegetables grown in North America and Europe come from plants that have been genetically improved by one technique or another.
Regulations specific to gene splicing have hugely inflated the costs of research and development and have made it difficult to apply the technology to many classes of agricultural products -- especially ones with low profit potential, like crops grown by subsistence farmers for their own use. That is unfortunate because the introduced traits often increase productivity and are beneficial to the environment, including a reduced need for water and chemicals. We would have been far better off if, instead of cYreating regulations specific to the new biotechnology, governments had approached the products of gene splicing the same way they did similar products -- pharmaceuticals, pesticides, new plant varieties, and so on -- made with older, less predictable techniques.
But regulators, always eager to expand their empires and budgets, have been egged on by activist groups whose members fear technological progress and are suspicious of for-profit agricultural companies. The activists understand that overregulation, which not only inflates R&D costs but also discourages innovation, advances their agenda. And paradoxically, rather than demand scientifically sound, risk-based regulation, some corporations have jeopardized their own long-term best interests -- as well as those of consumers -- by lobbying for discriminatory, excessive government regulation to gain short-term advantages. The companies hope that superfluous regulation will act as a type of government seal of approval for their products, and that the time and expense required by oveYrregulation will make competitors less likely to enter the market. Those companies, of which Monsanto is the prototype, seem not to understand the ripple effect of their advocating overly restrictive regulations based on the false premise that gene splicing is uniquely worrisome and risky. But the consequences are becoming more difficult to deny.
In May Monsanto announced that it was shelving plans to sell a gene-spliced variety of wheat, attributing the decision to changed market conditions. However, the reluctance of farmers to plant the variety and of food processors to use it as an ingredient, clearly a factor in that decision, stems directly from overregulation of the new biotechnology in important export markets. Days later, Monsanto announced that it was also suspending plans to introduce its gene-spliced canola into Australia, after concernYs about exportation led farmers there to call for bans, and led several states in that country to restrict field trials and postpone commercial approval.
Other companies openly acknowledge giving up plans to work on certain applications of the technology precisely because of excessive regulations. Bayer CropScience is one example: After receiving tentative approval from the British government for a gene-spliced variety of corn, the company decided not to sell it because additional regulatory hurdles would delay commercialization for several more years.
To remove the unnecessarily stringent controls on the new biotechnology will require reform within the United States and abroad. Some of the remedies needed at home are also applicable to other areas of research: Regulatory policy must, like doctors, first do no harm; sound science and common sense should be the basis for decisions; both the degree and the cost of oversight must be commensurate with the potential risk; and policy makers should design regulations to work with market forces, which will come Yinto play in any case.
Federal agencies also need to reform the way they regulate the products of the new biotechnology. Most important is replacing regulations that restrict all gene-spliced organisms, regardless of risk, with policies that trigger regulatory scrutiny only if a product has characteristics that suggest moderate to high risk. Just because the process of gene splicing is involved does not mean that an activity should be subjected to case-by-case review. That is like subjecting only grant proposals that arrive on cYertain days of the week, or only cars that have disk brakes and radial tires, to especially rigorous scrutiny.
At the same time that the U.S. government begins to rationalize public policy at home, it must stand up to the other countries and organizations that are responsible for unscientific, debilitating regulations abroad. U.S. representatives to international bodies -- like the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the United Nations' agency for setting food-safety standards -- must be directed to support rational, science-based policies and to help dismantle politically motivated, unscientific restrictions. All science and economic attachés in every U.S. embassy and consulate around the world should have biotechnology policy indelibly inscribed on their diplomatic agendas.
Other steps would also help to change public policy that is hamstringing the new biotechnology. First, individual scientists should participate more in the public dialogue on policy issues. Perhaps surprisingly, most scientists have not demanded that policy be rational; instead they have insisted only on transparency or predictability, even if that delivers only the predictability of research delays and unnecessary expense. Others have been seduced by the myth that just a little excess regulation will assuYage public anxiety, neutralize activists' alarmist messages, and bring about a golden age for technology. Although proponents of regulations have made those claims for decades, the public and activists remain unappeased, and technology continues to be shackled.
Scientists are especially well qualified to expose unscientific arguments and should do so in every possible way and forum, including writing scientific and popular articles, agreeing to be interviewed by journalists, and serving on advisory panels at government agencies. Scientists with mainstream views have a particular obligation to debunk the claims of their rogue colleagues, whose declarations that the sky is falling receive far too much attention.
The second step involves groups of scientists -- professional associations, faculties, academies, and editorial boards of journals. Those organizations should do much more to point out the flaws in current and proposed policies. For example, scientific societies could include symposia on public policy in their conferences and offer to provide advisers to governmental bodies and the news media.
Third, reporters and their editors can do a great deal to explicate policy issues related to science. But in the interest of so-called balance, the media often give equal weight to all the views on an issue, even if some of them have been discredited. All viewpoints are not created equal. Journalists need to distinguish between honest disagreement among experts, on the one hand, and unsubstantiated extremism or propaganda, on the other.
Fourth, biotechnology companies should set aside short-term advantages and oppose unscientific, discriminatory regulations that set dangerous precedents. Companies that accept governmental oversight triggered simply by the use of gene-splicing techniques, regardless of the risk of the product, will suffer many unintended consequences of that flawed approach. Those include reduced profits and productivity because of the cost of compliance with unnecessary regulations, difficulty in obtaining venture capitalY for a field perceived as risky, lawsuits based on procedural violations that harm nobody, and adverse public opinion that equates a high degree of regulation with danger.
Fifth, venture capitalists, consumer groups, patient groups, philanthropists, and others who help bring scientific discoveries to the marketplace, or who benefit from them, need to increase their informational activities and their advocacy of reform. Their actions could include outreach campaigns intended to educate reporters, policy makers, and consumers about the benefits of gene-spliced products and the risks of overregulation, as well as cooperation with and financial support of organizations that advoYcate rational, science-based public policy.
Finally, the government should no longer assume sole responsibility for regulation. Nongovernmental agencies already accredit hospitals, allocate organs for transplantation, and certify the quality of consumer products as varied as seeds and bulletproof glass. Moreover, to avoid legal liability, following safe practices is in the best interests of the practitioners of agricultural biotechnology.
Flawed regulation of the new biotechnology has slowed the rate of innovation in that crucial area of research. We need to find other, more scientific and efficient ways to guarantee the public's safety while encouraging new discoveries.
As we have argued throughout this book, the costs of the present public policy toward the new biotechnology far outweigh its benefits. We have identified several examples where the balance is overwhelmingly negative. The failures of government, industry, and the media, the excessive regulation, pseudo-controversies, and endless repetition of The Big Lie by activists collectively constitute one of the most costly and tragic hoaxes of the last century.
None of this was necessary. We would have been far better off if, instead of implementing regulation specific to the new biotechnology, governments had approached the products of gene-splicing in the same way as they regulate similar productsnew plant varieties, food, pesticides and so onmade with older, less precise and predictable techniques. Regulators could simply have applied to the products of the new biotechnology preexisting public policy, which is (more or less) risk-based and which emphasizes surYveillance and policing, rather than endless, redundant case-by-case reviews of proposals to test or market products.
Whatever the level of affluence we enjoy in our personal lives, government policy toward the new biotechnology has impoverished our public lives. Government regulators, activists, and many in industry have failed the simple test proposed by Mahatma Gandhi to determine the validity of strategies designed to meet the most basic human needs: “Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you have seen, and ask yourself if the steps you contemplate are going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anytYhing by it? Will it restore to him control over his own life and destiny?” The adoption of some of the remedies described here will help to amend, even in this small realm and in a limited way, the validity of historian Barbara Tuchman’s sad observation that “mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity.” And it will help governments, and the rest of us, to pass Gandhi’s test.
Coffee genetic code is cracked
Brazilian scientists have decoded the genome for coffee, the National Coffee Association USA reports.
- Pacific Business News, September 11, 2004
The trade group says the coffee bean's DNA has 35,000 genes and 200,000 DNA sequences that have been mapped by the Brazilian agricultural research agency Embrapa and Sao Paulo-based research foundation Fapesp worked after a two-year, $2 million project.
"We are going to create a super coffee that everyone can benefit from eventually," Brazilian Agriculture Minister Roberto Rodriques says.
The average coffee tree has a productive life of 15 years, and the Brazilian researcher say they hope to double that. It is worth noting that Hawaii coffee growers have trees that produce beans much longer than 15 years and some of them believe that the natural productive cycle of the coffee tree can be much extended in the absence of predation by blights and pests. (Coffee trees can live for many generations but don't yield coffee cherries that long.)
"The project will achieve these new varieties exclusively by cross-pollination and other natural measures," NCA says. "The genetic code will not be used to create genetically modified plants."
Brazil, already the world's largest coffee producer, says it will restrict the use of the DNA database to Brazilian institutions for five or six years and then make it available to Brazilian private companies. Officials have not specified how many years it will take before the data are made available to other nations.
Monsanto's gene-modified cotton sales to India rise 5-fold
- Economic Times, September 10, 2004
CHICAGO: Monsanto, the world's biggest developer of genetically engineered crops, said its 2004 sales of modified cotton seed rose more than five fold in India, the company's third-largest market for the seed.
Indian growers bought enough of Monsanto's Bollgard cotton seed to plant 1.3 million acres in 2004, up from 230,000 acres last year, spokesman Bryan Hurley said.
India, which first permitted gene-modified cotton in 2002, limits planting to the west and south in six of the nation's 29 states, Hurley said.
Total land area planted globally with Monsanto cotton seeds, which resist some insects, rose by 1.3 million acres, or 10 per cent, to 14.3 million acres this year, largely because of India, Hurley said. US sales rose 2.9 per cent to 10.5 million acres, and China fell 5 per cent to 1.9 million acres, the St. Louis-based company said.
"The biggest driver, in India especially, is the benefit the farmer is seeing in reduced pesticide use and better yield," Hurley said.
Monsanto's Bollgard cotton seeds contain a protein from a soil microbe called Bacillus thuringiensis, or BT, that protects the crop from bollworms.
Global sales of all genetically modified seeds this year rose 14 per cent to 172.4 million acres, from 150.8 million last year, Monsanto said. Soybeans are the biggest market, with 105.3 acres planted this year, the company said.