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September 16, 2004


Vatican Seminar on GM crops; GM's middle ground; New Zealand to ratify Cartagena; Brazil to Vote on Gene-Modified Soy


Today in AgBioView at www.agbioworld.org; September 16, 2004

* Vatican Seminar on GM crops
* Catholic Institute for International Relations Report on GM Crops
* Struggling to find GM's middle ground
* New Zealand Government to ratify Cartagena Biosafety Protocol
* Strict guidelines spell end of GM-free product claims
* Brazil Senate Set to Vote on Gene-Modified Soybean Bill
* Biotech potatoes could save fish
* Biotechnology Laboratory Launched At Unam
* `GM foods must be brought under PFA Act`

From: "Mertxe de Renobales"
Subject: Vatican Seminar on GM crops
Date: Thu, 16 Sep 2004 14:42:38 +0200

Dear Dr. Prakash:

Regarding the note that Prof. Kershen sent to AgBioWorld on August 27 (copied below), and considering that the seminar organized by the Vatican on the Moral Imperative for Agricultural Biotechnology is drawing near, would it be appropriate to encourage list members to write to Rev. Renato Cardinal Martino in support of GM crops for 3rd world countries? (for other countries as well, but I understand that the Vatican seminar is concerned primarily with world hunger and ways to alleviate it). If you do, this is the address of Cardinal Martino, taken from the CIIR web page in which the same action is suggested, although their idea is quite the opposite!:

Rev. Renato Cardinal Martino
Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace
Piazza S. Caliston 16
00120 Città del Vaticano, ROME

Thank you very much for AgBioWorld and for your attention.
Best regards,

Mertxe de Renobales Scheifler
Bioquímica y Biología Molecular / Biokimika eta Biologia Molekularra
Facultad de Farmacia / Farmazi Fakultatea
Univ. País Vasco / Euskal Herriko Unib.
Aptdo. 450
E-01080 Vitoria-Gasteiz

Tel - +34-945-013097
Fax - +34-945-013019

Catholic Institute for International Relations Report on GM Crops

-Drew L Kershen

Dear Friends: I have read this latest Catholic Institute for International Relations Report on GM Crops. As one could expect, it is the same old nonsense that CIIR has published before. CIIR apparently releases a new (more accurately, recycled) scare campaign and misinformation about every three-four months. I think responding again just gives greater exposure and publicity to ignorance and irrationality.

I did learn by reading the missive that CIIR is apparently funded by the European Commission, just as the EU and some individual EU nations fund Greenpeace and other anti-biotechnology NGOs. This is a shameful use of taxpayer money -- making them support ideological positions that most assuredly do not know they are being made to support. In my opinion, this missive and its funding are shameful and disgusting.

Drew L. Kershen, Earl Sneed Centennial Professor of Law, University of Oklahoma College of Law

>What's wrong with GM?
>Catholic Institute for International Relations, August 2004


Struggling to find GM's middle ground

- BBC, By Richard Black, 16 September, 2004

If a 3m-high inflatable maize cob can keep GM foods out of Europe, the biotech industry doesn't have a hope.

For the duration of the Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference (ABIC) here in Cologne - one of the world's biggest annual gatherings of business people and scientists in the biotech field - a group of protestors have maintained a vigil outside under the shadow of their giant cob.

The group, led by the German NGO Misereor, say "no to GM in Europe" and "no to GM in the developing world".

"Large-scale farmers could benefit from such a technology for a time," said Misereor's Bernd Nilles. "But it will never be sustainable.

"There's a huge lack of acceptance of genetic engineering in politics and society, and it just isn't an effective tool to fight hunger and starvation."
Overwhelmingly, the 700-odd delegates inside the conference hall beg to differ.

Misereor's troops have been kept at a safe distance by a phalanx of extremely large security guards, many sporting pony-tails and unwise facial hair which would provoke ridicule if worn by gentlemen less physically imposing.

Linked outcomes

Lucky they were there, though, as one saved delegates from major calamity one morning by confiscating my plastic bottle of water.

"We have to take it; it is a security risk because you might hit someone over the head with it," he said, with no trace of a smile.

I suggested that my microphone, equally long and much more solid, was capable of causing considerably more damage if wielded aggressively (something which has come to mind during more than one rambling and un-editable interview).

"Yes but you need that for your work," he said.

I was tempted to say that my need for water was considerably more primal - but given the lavish conference hospitality, getting hold of another bottle inside was not likely to be an issue.

If there is a global food crisis which only GM agriculture can prevent, you wouldn't have guessed it from the laden tables of free food and drink.

This is the first time that the ABIC has been held in Europe - and it's no co-incidence that it's come in a year when the European Union has lifted its five-year moratorium on new GM foods, and, for the first time, approved a GM seed variety - a Monsanto maize - for planting throughout EU territory.

Biotech companies and the German state of Nord-Rhein Westphalia would not have spent 1.5m euros on the conference if they didn't scent business opportunities.

"Definitely there's a shift in public opinion within Europe," said Ashley O'Sullivan, president and CEO of the Canadian company Ag-West Bio, and a member of the ABIC foundation board.

"Europeans are looking, I think, at the North American experience and seeing that these things have been grown quite successfully for a number of years now and they're not causing damage to the environment, they're not causing any human health issues; in fact these technologies are safer."

Polar opposites

Whether or not that's true - and whether the European public is following the lead of the European Commission in moving to embrace GM - what just about everyone here agreed on is that Europe's position may be crucial for Africa.

Many African countries export food to the EU, and if European consumers want their food GM-free, that sets limits on what African farmers can do.

Lovemore Simwanda, from the Environmental Conservation Association of Zambia, was quite happy for Europeans to remain sceptical. The United States, he said, was pushing genetically modified food on Africa before African governments could establish legislation and infrastructure to evaluate and monitor it.

"They want to dump the products of the technology on to Africa, and then say 'you can manage it by putting the laws in place'", he said.

"But we think it should be the other way round. We need to know what the technology is, and then have the capacity to handle the technology, have the infrastructure in place, have the legal framework and policies in place, and then you have the right expertise to implement this."

Other African delegates, such as Florence Wambugu of the Kenya-based organisation Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International, were more positive about the potential GM crops have for Africa.

"We need to look at what is going on in other developing countries like China and India and Brazil," she said.

Noting that GM crops are being used in some African countries, she commented: "Small-scale farmers are benefiting from better health because they are not inhaling the pesticides; there is money in their pockets; and they are benefiting because there are fewer toxins."

Genetic modification is, I would suggest, a uniquely polarising issue.

I can't think of another subject - with the possible exception of macro-economic theory - where intelligent and concerned people can look at the same set of facts and come up with such divergent conclusions.

And I say "concerned" deliberately, because there is a view that biotech researchers are uniformly Frankenstein-like scientists who want to inflict their evil creations on an unsuspecting world for their own financial gain.

Iron vision

Such people may exist in the biotech world - though I suspect they inhabit boardrooms rather than research laboratories.

But among scientists one chats to at a gathering like this - possibly over a bottle of Swedish GM beer - there are many who, rightly or wrongly, genuinely believe they are creating something which will benefit humankind.

Many admit that they were naïve in believing the public would accept transgenic organisms without demur; "we got it wrong and need to listen more" was a common refrain.

And a trend that was clear here is that researchers are increasingly looking to step away from bringing novel genes into plants. Instead, they're working on ways of changing the plant's own genome, for example by introducing double copies of important genes, or changing the cues which switch a gene on and off.

Tony Connor, from the New Zealand Institute for Crop and Food Research, is working on ways of engineering plants which use DNA only from that plant.

"We want to overcome the requirement to use things like viruses or bacteria as vectors for gene transfer," he said.

"Now we can get everything we need from the host plant; this technology should overcome fears about moving genes from one species to another, and to be honest that was the main motivation behind this research."

Chris Somerville, from the Carnegie Institution, closed the conference with a talk on what new kinds of genetic modification we can expect in the near future.

"Most of the people who are dependent on rice are starving for iron," he said.

"The minimum number is eight hundred million; and the problem is compounded by the fact that many people with poor diets also have intestinal parasites that make the matter worse.

"I have reason to predict that there is going to be a major international effort to make transgenic plants for the developing world that have improved iron as a high priority."

But, as he acknowledged, this would be a different biotech world from the one we have now.

Middle ground?

Of biotech varieties planted today, almost all are engineered for one of two traits - herbicide tolerance or insect resistance - the vast majority are cotton, soy and maize; and they're widely used in just a handful of counties.

He could have added that seeds are produced and distributed as a profit-making venture by big agribusiness companies, rather than by non-profit groups intent on helping the needy.

Big questions remain over who will pay to implement the vision Chris Somerville was putting forward, even if it were to be accepted as socially and environmentally desirable.

Ten minutes into his talk, Misereor finally made their presence felt inside the conference hall, as two ladies leapt to their feet, produced a cassette-player and a lyric sheet and launched into an anti-GM song.

"There is no future for the big polluters," they sang; then, changing person, "We've got the soya, we've got the lawyers, the politicians in our pocket."

The security guards finally had their moment in the sun, removing the two protestors, still chanting; as they left the hall, Chris Somerville commented "I don't think they could have been listening".

It could be a summary of the whole GM debate.


New Zealand Government to ratify Cartagena Biosafety Protocol

- Press Release, 16 September 2004

The government will ratify the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, Environment and Associate Foreign Minister Marian Hobbs announced today. Public consultation on ratification attracted more than 1200 responses, mostly in favour.
"We are ratifying the protocol because New Zealand is a good international citizen and we are committed to comprehensive biosecurity," Marian Hobbs said.

New Zealand will join more than 100 countries that have ratified the protocol. The Cartagena Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity regulates international trade of certain types of genetically modified organisms known as living modified organisms (LMOs).

"We support people being informed about what's imported and exported. It can be seen as an extension of border biosecurity," Marian Hobbs said. "By working with countries that have ratified we are protecting our future trade.

"Ratification allows us to ensure the best interests of New Zealand and other agricultural exporters are taken into account in the development of the protocol. It means we have an inside track in helping determine international practice for governing trade in these products and will have an active voice in the future development of the protocol.

"We already have law covering the importation of organisms that come within the protocol so there'll be no change in the case-by-case way we deal with GMOs imported or used in New Zealand. Regulations will be put into place to ensure that New Zealand exporters of LMOs meet identification, reporting and other requirements of the protocol."

New Zealand signed the protocol in May 2000 and will ratify next year, following completion of Parliamentary processes.

The Cartagena Protocol came into force on 11 September 2003. The first formal meeting of the parties was in February, which New Zealand attended as an observer. New Zealand aims to attend the next meeting in June 2005 as a party to the protocol.

The consultation took place over six weeks in June and July. A document summarising the responses can be found at: www.mfat.govt.nz/foreign/env/biosafety/submissionsindex.html


Strict guidelines spell end of GM-free product claims

- New Zealand Herald, 16.09.2004, By SIMON COLLINS

New Zealand is unlikely to see claims of GM-free food after strict draft guidelines issued by the Commerce Commission yesterday.

The new draft reaffirms the commission's longstanding policy that any claim that a product is "GM-free" will breach the Fair Trading Act if it contains any trace of genetically modified products, or if any of its components have been made by a process involving genetic modification.

Food and Grocery Council director Brenda Cutress said most food manufacturers would respond by simply not taking the risk of claiming their products were GM-free.

"It's very, very complex making sure, for the hundreds of thousands of ingredients that get used in food manufacturing, that nowhere in that supply chain has GM been involved," she said.

But she said the commission had always taken the same "absolute stance", so GM-free claims were already rare.

"What this paper does is create some certainty, and that's always a good thing."

Commerce Commission chair Paula Rebstock said the paper would feed into joint transtasman guidelines to be approved by the commission and Australia's Competition and Consumer Commission.

The paper proposes that "GM" should mean not just a detectable trace of GM products but any ingredients that were made by GM processes.

"Foodstuffs produced from GM soya or maize may contain neither protein nor DNA resulting from genetic modification in their final form," it says.

"For example, lecithin, a commonly used emulsifier made from soya, would contain no detectable levels of GM.

"This would also be the case for many of the refined cooking oils."

Testing for GM can be difficult but evidence can also be gathered through examining production records, correspondence and other documentation, enabling the commission to trace the use of GM "even where there is no detectable level of GM in the final product".


Brazil Senate Set to Vote on Gene-Modified Soybean Bill

- Bloomberg, Sept. 15, 2004

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is pushing lawmakers to approve a bill this week to make legal production of genetically-modified crops before farmers start planting in October.

Three Senate committees are scheduled to vote on the legislation today and a vote by the full upper house may come as early as tomorrow, said Senator Ney Suassuna, the sponsor of the bill, in an interview in Brasilia. Senator Jose Agripino Maia, leader of the opposition Liberal Front Party, said senators may vote on the bill tomorrow.

The law would lift a ban on planting, research and commercialization of genetically-modified beans and help boost exports from the world's second-largest soybean producer, Senator Ideli Salvatti, the leader of Lula's Workers' Party in the upper house, said in an interview. Rising grain output has helped fuel a 33 percent surge in Brazilian exports this year, helping pull South America's biggest economy out of recession.

``Brazil needs this legislation to be more competitive and export more,'' Carlos Sperotto, vice president of the National Agricultural Confederation in Porto Alegre, in Rio Grande do Sul state, said in an interview.

By planting transgenic beans, farmers may boost production by 15 percent and reduce production costs by 30 percent, as less herbicide is needed, Sperotto said. Brazil expects to produce a record soybean crop of 60 million tons next year, up from 49.8 million tons this year.

Biotech potatoes could save fish

- Penticton Herald, September 16, 2004 (VIA AGNET)

Robert Wager is a researcher in the field of genetically modified foods at Malaspina University College in Nanaimo. He made this article available to the Penticton Herald in response to the article "P.E.I. farm pleads guilty after pesticide kills thousands of fish," Penticton Herald, Sept. 15. We have decided to reprint the article here owing to our valley's reliance and interest in the agriculture industry.

While critics say bio-engineered crops may pose hazards to the natural order, in some cases biotechnology can actually help prevent environmental catastrophes caused by traditional methods of farming.

But heavy-handed bans on biotech products by food companies are keeping the fruit of this technology from delivering benefits to the environment.

Recently a tragedy happened on the East Coast of Canada. In July 2002, heavy rains in Prince Edward Island washed an agricultural insecticide, applied to potato fields, into the Wilmot River and thousands of fish died as a result.

The potato farmers used a conventional chemical insecticide, azinphos-methyl (AZM), to manage Colorado potato beetle damage to their crops. Some have claimed that conversion to organic farming would have prevented this accident and many others like it. But most insecticides, synthetic or natural, are non-specific and deadly to many animals.

There is one notable exception.

Contrary to popular belief, many organic farmers use several types of insecticides including the chemicals rotenone and pyrethrums, and a common soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).

Rotenone is deadly to fish and therefore not very environmentally friendly. It was recently implicated in the development of Parkinson's disease, so not very healthy for humans, either.

The organic insecticide pyrethrum is an oil extract of Chrysanthemum plants. It is a collection of at least a dozen different chemical compounds, which have a variety of biological activities.

The EPA classifies pyrethrums as a "likely carcinogen". Pyrethrums have recently been demonstrated to increase limb deformities in developing amphibians and to possess anti-microbial activities. These properties of pyrethrums are definitely detrimental to the environment.

Organic farmers have also been using bacteria to combat insect pests for more than 40 years. The soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt, has been a main agricultural tool of organic food production. The Bt bacteria make a protein (cry3A) that is specifically toxic to caterpillar-type insects. This natural insecticide is both safe for all non-caterpillar insects and harmless to all other animals and plants.

Biotechnology scientists isolated the cry3A gene from the bacterium and transferred it into crop plants. The result is crops that protect themselves from caterpillar type insects without the need for other organophosphate insecticides.

Presently the government-approved crops that contain a Bt gene are corn, potato, cotton and tomato. The use of these biotechnology crops has resulted in hundreds of millions of kilograms of organophosphate insecticides not being applied to the environment.

The benefits of increased yields for the farmer and reductions in organophosphate insecticide use clearly make the adoption of Bt crops an environmentally sustainable biotechnology.

Concerns raised by opponents of Bt crops include the potential spread of pollen with the engineered DNA to other plants, use of antibiotic marker genes, and Bt resistance development in insects. But potatoes, unlike corn, reproduce asexually (without pollen transfer).

The United States' Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in its Revised Bt Crops Assessment 2001 document, states there is no foreseeable risk of transfer of the Bt cry3A genes from potatoes to other plants. The antibiotic resistance marker gene is not active in the plant, and therefore no antibiotic resistance protein is produced in the potato.

Resistance development in insects is a risk regardless of whether the insecticide is a whole bacterium, one protein, a natural or synthetic chemical. All Bt crops grown in North America have accompanying insect resistance management programs.

These plans are designed to reduce the likelihood of resistance development in insect pest species. To date, these programs have been very successful in preventing Bt resistance in pest species.

Conventional farmers are passionate stewards of the land. Many would like to grow the environmentally friendly Bt potatoes. Unfortunately, their biggest buyer, McCain Foods, will not accept them.

McCain Foods is the No. 1 buyer of potatoes in North America, and its position on Bt potatoes can be read on its Web page (www.mccain.com). In summary, it says:
"In North America, a small percentage of potatoes were genetically modified to better protect the plants against pests and disease ...
"With the concern expressed by some customers, McCain Foods in North America decided not to accept any GMO potatoes effective with the 2000 crop, and has instituted testing procedures.

"While McCain Foods believes that biotechnology has the potential to offer many positive benefits for people around the world, it is in the business of providing what its customers want and will always listen carefully to their concerns."

I believe McCain Foods' blanket refusal to consider Bt potatoes is shortsighted. Bacillus thuringiensis has been demonstrated to be safe as a result of more than 40 years of use in organic agriculture. More precise use of only the cry3A gene has not changed the safety record, and no one anywhere has been harmed from any biotechnology-developed Bt crop.

It is the awakening of the environmentalist in us all that should help pressure the largest potato buyer in North America to change its policy on Bt potatoes, which offer a safe, effective insect management strategy. Clearly this biotechnology option, in this location, makes the most sense -- the environment deserves it, we deserve it.
The adoption or rejection of food biotechnology products should be done on a case-by-case basis. The built-in environmental protection and stable yields for the farmers clearly make Bt potatoes the right option in this case.


Biotechnology Laboratory Launched At Unam

- The Namibian (Windhoek), September 15, 2004

A GENE Modified Organism Testing, Training and Research Laboratory was officially launched at the University of Namibia on Monday.

Unam's Dr Kandawa Schulz said the idea of setting up a biochemistry and biotechnology laboratory for research was initiated - way back in 1998 already - as there was no institution dealing with the application of modern biotechnology techniques.

She said the Laboratory had an important role to play in assisting Government and interested institutions in reinforcing and implementing the National Biosafety Framework by testing and monitoring the movement of grain, seeds and other items that might be genetically modified.

"The testing of genetically modified organisms will start off slowly because it is not anticipated that there will be too many requests coming in during the first years," she said.

The laboratory would carry out capacity building through training and research.

The Convention of Biological Diversity (UNEP-GEF) funded the laboratory equipment.


`GM foods must be brought under PFA Act`

- Business Standard, September 15, 2004

The Government must bring the genetically modified (GM) foods under the purview of the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act (PFA Act), felt speakers at a two-day national symposium on biotechnology, which concluded in Ahmedabad on Saturday.

Speaking on the issue of ‘Safety Evaluation on Genetically Modified Foods: Indian Regulatory Review’, P K Ghosh, senior vice-president, BioCare SBU, Cadila Pharmaceuticals Ltd, said that while no genetically modified foods are being produced in India as of now, the situation will not remain so for too long.

“With genetically modified foods likely to be produced in the country soon, there is a need to bring these under the purview of the PFA Act, as these can be toxic, allergic and have nutritional effects,” said Ghosh.

The biggest advantage of the GM food is that these are tolerant to insects, diseases, herbicides and the like, but are known to be toxic and allergic. “Some of the factors that need to be considered for safety of GM foods are that the description, including source and sequence of transgenes and effects of GM foods on mammalian cells, must be documented on the products,” he said.

Ghosh, however, added that one of the biggest compromise that will have to be made regarding GM foods is that no safety studies are conducted on humans before GM foods are introduced in the market.

At present, the Indian regulatory guidelines are those under the Environment Protection Act 1986 and Rules 1989. Companies wishing to introduce GM foods have to obtain a certification from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAP) before they can be introduced.

To cite an instance, Bt cotton is a genetically modified seed that has been granted permission in India and is gaining popularity among cotton farmers because of its resistance against bollworm.

Making a few suggestions about GM foods, Ghosh stated that foremost, it is the responsibility of the government to ensure safety of GM foods.

“Companies also must give complete information on processes through which a GM food has been developed, he said.

Ghosh added that the government must publish a list of ‘safe genes’, which means that once a gene is notified as safe, companies will not be required to seek approval from the authorities every time they want to introduce it into the market. “There is also a need to put in place a mechanism to monitor GM foods for implicated long term risks,” felt Ghosh.


- BBC, September 15, 2004

The director of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Andrew Natsios, began talks yesterday with the government in Khartoum. He had talks with the first vice-president and the minister of the humanitarian affairs. The talks touched on the Darfur issue and the future of peace process in southern Sudan following his talks with the (Sudan People's Liberation) Movement in Rumbek.

Natsios, who left for Darfur today for a one day visit, held talks with UN agencies' officials, donor countries' and foreign organizations' representatives. The meetings discussed the efforts made by aid workers in Darfur, the humanitarian situation and means of providing further support.

The minister of humanitarian affairs, Ibrahim Mahmud Hamid, said the meeting with USAID director discussed the humanitarian and security issues in Darfur.

He pointed out that the meeting discussed future peace plans in the south by focusing on the means to reduce the costs of transport and improving sea and railway transport, as well as demining.

The minister said that the government has asked the USAID to increase aid to other parts of Sudan which will help in combatting locust. He pointed out that an agreement had been reached on holding a special meeting on the issue of locusts with the minister of agriculture to discuss aid.

He added that the USAID had promised not to bring in the controversial genetically modified (GM) material, but at the same he affirmed that GM processed food has been brought in.

He added, however, "The American aid (donors) have pledged that they would not bring in GM material. And if they did, it would be in processed food which does not harm the environment, such a (cooking) oils and maize flour which are not harmful to the environment.