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September 30, 2004


Wandering Genes; Facts Support Biotech; Enriched Rice A Distant Dream; Open-Source Biotech; Distortions, Lies at City Hall; Ending Poverty with Research Aid


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : Sept 30, 2004

* Wandering Grass Genes? - Being Slow Does Not Help it Compete
* There are Ample Facts to Support Biotechnology
* Enriched Rice A Distant Dream for India
* Biologists Launch 'Open-Source Movement'
* Researchers Find Allergy-Free Soybean
* GMOs and Science: What Have We Learned
* Comments On Europeans by Henry I. Miller
* Anti-GE Crowd Spews Distortions, Lies at City Hall, Farm Bureau
* Bt Cotton - Good News for Farmers in Developing Countries?
* Ending Poverty 'Requires US$70 Billion In Research Aid'

Wandering Grass Genes? - Slow Growth Does Not Colonize Environment

- Jussi Tammisola (Assoc. Prof. of Plant Breeding, Univ. of Helsinki, Finland), Letter sent to 'New York Times' and 'Helsingin Sanomat' (29th Sep., 2004) jussi.tammisola@mmm.fi

Dear Sirs, "Transgenic lawn escapes readily to environment", states Helsingin Sanomat (22th Sep., 2004) referring to a news article by N.Y. Times. The statement is untenable in a few ways.

The piece of news exaggerates the dispersion of genes from a cultivated bentgrass to grasses in nature by about 100-fold. That becomes evident by reading the original study (Watrud et al., PNAS Oct. 5, 2004).

The false conclusion is derived from the unnatural experimental arrangement, which artificially maximized the rate of distant crossing. Namely, pollen originating from the flowering bentgrass field was captured by self-sterile pot plants distributed in the landscape well in advance of any bentgrass pollen dehiscing in the nature. Due to the total lack of competing compatible pollen from the vicinity, the success of arriving distant pollen in seed production was biased upwards by two orders of magnitude.

In truly natural conditions the vast majority of the seeds originate from next door pollination. In the study in question, their actual proportion was as high as 99.97 per cent, as measured properly from wild bentgrasses.

Similar misunderstandings occurred commonly in media, when our results about gene flow in barley cultivation were reported (Ritala et al., Crop Science 42, 2002). In our study, the resolution of capturing the scarce pollen arriving from far away was greatly enhanced by using male-sterile and open-flowering experimental barley as recipient plants. One has to understand that such measurement results are not valid for male-fertile, conventional barley for which gene flow is far lower.

Furthermore, rare long-distance "findings" should always be considered with certain caution, because these may factually represent inevitable technical noise in experimentation (Ritala et al. 2002). Errors and mixing is bound to occur e.g. in the handling and analyses of millions of tiny seeds.

It is the trait that matters

Ecology does not recognize a species called "genetically modified lawn". The benefits or harms that a plant variety may cause to man or environment depend on its genetic traits, not on the methods applied in breeding.

When a lawn grass is being bred for slow growth it will neither conquer nature, other lawns nor hayfields but will be overgrown by its competitors. Natural selection will eliminate the "slowness competitor" and its progeny rapidly enough.

Natural plants only adopt traits from which they gain benefit. Corn has been changed radically by breeding during at least 7 000 years, and it cannot do without human help even in the field any more. In spite of gene flow, the new traits have not weakened its wild original form, i.e. teosinte. Sunflower oil is being bred ever healthier, but the trait - desirable for human - does not colonize nature, because it brings disadvantage to the plant itself.

Slow-growing "velvet" bentgrass would be ideal for lawn use. Noise and gasoline would be saved with decreased mowing. The lawn would keep nicely even - provided the competing stronger species are kept in control.

In contrast to what the news article states, broad-leaved weeds are commonly being controlled in lawns with certain herbicides. However, a weedy grass is difficult to control within bentgrass, because herbicides have similar effect on both species. That is why creeping bentgrass was bred to be resistant to one particular herbicide (active substance) - not to many ones as stated in the article (because that would be pointless). The trait enables changing over to a more environmentally friendly herbicide and controlling difficult weeds in the lawn without breaking soil surface.

Herbicide resistance cannot aid a plant in nature or in "ecological" production, and therefore its frequency does not increase in these circumstances. In a conventional field, however, the trait could be advantageous for a weed. Hence, biologists are now thinking over how weeds could be impeded from obtaining that benefit too easily in practice.

Good means are available. The genes for herbicide tolerance and slow growth could be attached tightly together (i.e. consecutively, in tandem) in the chromosome. That can readily be done today (ABIC2004). In that case the traits in question are always carried along in a fixed combination which as a whole brings disadvantage to the weed.

Mowed turf does not flower much. Provided the grass would be allowed to flower, however, gene flow elsewhere via pollen could be cut down by breeding the grass for male-sterility. Additional genetic means exist for preventing dispersion, and even more brilliant methods are under development. For instance, non-flowering birch was developed, and it received an environmental prize in Finland in 2004 (for the delight of allergic people).

Gene flow is age-old biology. For hundreds of millions of years genes have been moving between related plants via crossing. Bred and "wild" genes are transferred from a plant to another exactly alike in pollen. Gene flow has occurred between cultivated and wild plants for as long as agriculture has existed, i.e. at least 11 000 years.

Natural gene flow can most efficiently be measured by using genetically modified test plants. In self-pollinated crops such as barley gene flow is very limited (Ritala et al. 2002).

In plant varieties, there is a legal requirement for uniformity. Therefore, gene flow between varieties shall be restricted e.g. by applying customary isolation distances in the production of seed for sowing.

Pollen of certain cross-pollinating grasses, such as bentgrass, is light and can produce a few seeds more far than that of self-pollinating crops such as barley, wheat and oats. Basic pollination biology has been known to professionals quite well since 1930's, thanks to our lengthy plant breeding experience. Accordingly, greater isolation distances are being used for grass seed production, in order to prevent disproportionate degree of mixing of the special traits characteristic to different grass varieties.


There are Ample Facts to Support Biotechnology

- Down to Earth (India), http://www.downtoearth.org.in/interview1.asp?foldername=20041015&filename=inv&sec_id=14&sid=1

Clive James, Chairperson, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications Gives TV Jayan And Clifford Polycarp his prescription for feeding the hungry world

Is transgenic technology the only option to solve problems faced by agriculture today?
Yields from major cereals have virtually saturated. And the global population is expected to increase by 50 per cent by 2050. Now, how do you feed 9 billion mouths? Organic agriculture can at best feed 4 billion people -- that leaves 5 million unfed. We might do a little better with currently conventional agricultural technologies -- adapted germplasm improved through conventional means. These will give us a agricultural growth rate of less than one per cent per annum, but even that will leave a couple of billion people unfed. Therefore, it seems that taking the best of conventional technology and using it in conjunction with new technologies is our best option for the future.

But will that increase production?
Yes. Biotic stresses -- insects, diseases and weeds -- are estimated to reduce yields in many countries by approximately a third of the actual potential. In fact, farmers in most tropical countries have to contend with a number of crop-ravaging insects -- tropical climates are propitious for a variety of such creatures. But use of biotechnology can mitigate the losses of these farmers, quite substantially. For example, a recent AC Nielsen survey shows that annual yields of the cotton crop can be improved by 29 per cent in India by application of bt cotton. In a conventional programme, the yield increases only by 1 per cent a year.

Poor farmers around the world save and store seeds for the next cropping season. And here is a technology that requires them to go to the marketplace each time they need seeds. Isn’t that a paradigm shift?
Look, one axiom drives farmers world over: reap more than you sow. So, even a small subsistence farmer operates in exactly the same way as a large agriculturist. Roughly, they expect Rs 2.50 on an investment of Rs 1. And, if a technology — conventional or genetically modified (gm) -- does not yield such returns it is very likely that a farmer would discard it. As many as 75,000 to 100,000 Indian farmers have bought Bt cotton seeds because, on an average, they get a net benefit of us $ 150 per hectare. Besies, Bt cotton significantly reduced pesticide use. Of the seven million farmers all over the world who use biotechnology today, six million are very small, resource-poor farmers from developing countries. So, there are ample facts to support biotechnology.

New seeds are relatively less attacked by existing insects: so isn’t it a bit too early to talk about benefits?
Pest-infestations follow a pattern when conventional technology is used: a low-scale infestation is followed by a medium-level attack and then a high-level strike. Conventional technology therefore does not ensure consistent returns, while biotechnology guarantees precisely that. And investment on gm seeds yield more even when compared to the low-infestation scenario.

But a US university study has showed that pesticide use had actually gone by about 30 per cent with GM crops
Just one study! That was by Charles Benbrook, former executive director of the us National Academy of Sciences’ agriculture board. And even his data can be interpreted very differently: in fact, many agronomists have used the same data to indicate a 20 per cent decrease in pesticide use. Besides, there is a much more rigorous study by Leonard Gianessi of the us National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, which shows that herbicide use in the us has gone down by 30,000 metric tonnes after farmers started using gm seeds.

Shouldn’t unforeseeable risks of biotechnology be factored in?
One should never look at biotechnology as a solution to all problems. Like any other technology, it has its strengths and areas that need strengthening. Take Bt cotton. We started 10 years ago with a single Bt gene. Today, we have two backups ready. We have the Chinese fused genes and also Bollgard II with two genes, each of which have different mechanisms of resistance. Even before resistance to the single gene is broken down, two more genes are available. That doesn’t solve the problem completely but provides a more efficient tool to deal with breakdown. The battle between humans and the insect will continue as long as we are there.

How is it possible?
Co-existence has been practised throughout history. If you look at the seed industry, in the production of new seeds one has to provide purity in order to provide quality of product. That means that one has to employ isolation and you have look at all that issues that allows you to contain the seed area. When you produce hybrid seeds that is necessary. The seed industry has got all these rules. How do you get organic agriculture? Recent publication by Graeme Brookes about three months ago looked at the issue of organic agriculture in the UK. The general thinking is that this is a huge market and that if we do not provide organic food to people in the UK it would be a disaster.


Enriched Rice A Distant Dream for India

- Lola Nayar (IANS), Hindustan Times (India), August 14

Fears of environmental damage and food safety have held up India's plans to develop varieties of genetically modified (GM) nutrition enriched rice that could solve some of India's malnutrition problems.

"Products like salinity- and drought-tolerant rice varieties as well as the vitamin-A enriched Golden Rice have been developed but we are not getting the green signal to go ahead with field-testing," said Swapan K Datta of the Manila-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

Fears about food safety of GM agriculture products continue to be a major hurdle to solutions for problems like pests, salinity and drought, he contended. "The different kinds of rice being suggested for field testing are Golden Rice (named after its colour), pest resistant Bt rice, iron enriched rice and varieties of salinity tolerant and drought resistant rice," Datta told IANS.

He said permission for field-testing Golden Rice, which has a high level of vitamin A, has been sought in India, the US and the Philippines. "While the US has granted permission, it is still awaited in India and the Philippines," the plant biotechnologist said.

If the government gives its clearance, IRRI is hopeful that India would be able to provide farmers with Golden Rice seeds in three to five years after completing the mandatory field trials. "The product certification for farmers field-testing will depend on how quickly the government gives clearances. At least three years of field-testing is required before releasing any crop for commercial cultivation by farmers," Dutta said.

IRRI is also awaiting clearance for a blight resistant variety of Bt rice for which multi-location field-testing has already been successfully carried out in India, China and the Philippines. "So far only China has agreed to consider commercial cultivation of the stem borer-resistant Bt rice. It may start commercial cultivation of Bt rice next year," the scientist said.

As India looks to double its food grain production to 400 million tonnes by 2020, research is under way to develop transgenic crops by state-owned organisations as well as globally funded organisations like IRRI and the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). ICRISAT has been responsible for releasing 150 varieties of quality crops in India, according to William D Dar, director general of the Andhra Pradesh centre.

"We are now looking at early maturing and short duration varieties for cultivation in rain-fed areas besides drought tolerant varieties of crops. We also have three transgenic crops now ready for field trials by farmers," said Dar. He was hopeful that field trials for two varieties of groundnut and of pigeon pea would be undertaken next year.

With India planning a single-window regulatory system for faster clearance for biotechnology projects, whether for food or medical technologies, the scientists stressed the need for a better food safety evaluation system. "A well-framed food safety evaluation system is required in India so that the concerns of all people are satisfied and gene material can be used safely and freely," Dutta said.

Dar felt a single window regulatory system would "speed up the clearing process while ensuring continuous monitoring and evaluation of the GM crops."


Biologists Launch 'Open-Source Movement'

- Carina Dennis, Nature 431, 494 (30 September 2004)

'Research tools and technologies to be made freely available.'

Sydney - An initiative is being established this week with a US$1-million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, to make research tools more readily available to biologists who could not otherwise afford them.

The Biological Innovation for Open Society (BIOS) initiative will seek to make information and technologies such as plant-breeding tools freely available. It will also provide scientists with better information about what they can access and, its founders hope, establish an international community of interested researchers.

Richard Jefferson is the initiative's leader and chairman of the Center for the Application for Molecular Biology to International Agriculture (CAMBIA), which is a non-profit research institute based in Canberra, Australia. He says BIOS could spur an "open source movement" in biotechnology, analogous to the one that has developed in the computer software industry.

Plant scientists in poor countries often complain that they are shut off from recent advances in agricultural biotechnology because they cannot afford licensing fees. The initiative's first activities will be to gather a portfolio of research tools that can be used for free and to construct an easy-to-use database of patent information. It will also provide templates of licensing agreements for scientists who want to make their technologies freely available. In turn, users will be obliged to freely release innovations based on these techniques.

Jefferson says that BIOS will encompass all forms of biological innovations, including agricultural and animal-breeding tools, genetic resources, medical treatments and environmental remedies. Its running costs will be covered by funds from sponsors and what he terms "non-compulsory" subscription fees paid by licensees.

Its initial portfolio of research tools will include a new method, developed by CAMBIA, for transferring genes into plants using modified bacterial species. Jefferson hopes to publish the technique shortly and says it will side-step patents held by biotech firm Monsanto on Agrobacterium tumefaciens, a bacterium currently used for this purpose. "It's a poster child for the initiative," says Jefferson of the new method.

Much of the initial, one-year Rockefeller grant is being spent on hiring patent and computer specialists to extend CAMBIA's patent database and draw up the licensing templates. IBM is also contributing computer hardware and software in order to help get the initiative off the ground.

Some universities and companies already provide free licences for their technologies to researchers in poor countries. But Jefferson says these efforts are not sufficient to provide the "cooperative environment" that BIOS is setting out to build.

The success of the initiative will require the kind of community groundswell that buoys the open-source software movement, says Robert Zeigler of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, a network of agricultural laboratories.

It will also require a cultural shift at universities, says Yochai Benkler, an information-law specialist at Yale University. "Many universities operate on the assumption that the role of their licensing policies is to maximize revenue," he says.

Although BIOS is expecting some resistance from biotechnology companies, a few of the larger companies have actually expressed support for it. "We have had discussions with BIOS and these will continue," says Ganesh Kishore, vice-president of technology at DuPont in St Louis, Missouri. "I don't view BIOS as a threat: it will be complementary. We need many innovations to build all the products that we want to build."


Defending GM crops

- Vivian Moses, Irish Independent; Sept. 30, 2004

Sir - Arguing against the cultivation of GM crops in Europe, Petra Lawlor (Letters, Sept 24) made two highly contentious arguments.

One alleged "strong evidence of adverse impacts (of new GM crop varieties) on consumers, environment and economy". I know of none supported by evidence, only claims and assertions by various interested parties who, for political and commercial reasons, would like to keep GM crops and foods off the market. They are claims that never stand up to scrutiny but every time one is demolished, up pops another until that, too, has to be abandoned in the face of incontrovertible data. Following a definitive set of papers two years ago, nobody nowadays talks about the Monarch butterfly saga, save for the odd enthusiast who has not yet heard that the party line has changed.

The second mentions "the explicit wishes of the vast majority (70%) of the EU electorate". Explicit - on what evidence? Polls reporting a self-selected sample like the one last year in the UK's GM Nation? debate? Last year in Britain a million people are said to have demonstrated against the Iraq war but proper surveys showed that nationally there was no overwhelming majority against the war.

A survey asking only people on those marches would obviously not have been taken seriously as indicating the national mood. TheGM Nation? survey amounted to little more than that and such results cannot be taken to represent the general popular view.

Serious in-depth surveys in the UK show a small (and vocal) minority against GM technology, neatly balanced by one in support; but some three-quarters of the British population are indifferent. That may or may not also be true for other countries; I would like to see the evidence, not the guesses. In Germany earlier this year customers who were offered loaves of bread and portions of chips labelled 'GM' at reduced prices bought them five and 20 times, respectively, more often than the supposed 'non-GM' options. Explicit wishes? It depends, doesn't it?


Researchers Find Allergy-Free Soybean

- Jim Paul, Washington Post, September 30, 2004

lant geneticist Ted Hymowitz knew that finding an allergy-free soybean would take a painstaking search through thousands of varieties. So Hymowitz got a grant, fetched a hammer and pounded away until he proved he was right.

Hymowitz and fellow University of Illinois researcher Leina Mary Joseph found a seed that lacks the protein, known as P34, responsible for most allergic reactions. It took them about eight months of crushing seeds from 15,000 varieties in the U.S. Agriculture Department's soybean germplasm collection at the university. "This thing is so rare that you need the huge collection to find the needle in a haystack," Hymowitz said.

Scientists already had used genetic engineering to silence the gene that creates P34 in most soybeans. But it likely will be much easier to market soybeans that naturally lack the protein, said Eliot Herman, the USDA researcher who developed the biotech bean two years ago.

While much testing remains before farmers can grow allergy-free soybeans, Hymowitz's research shows promise for people who are allergic, said Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network based in Fairfax, Va., About 11 million Americans have some type of food allergy, according to FAAN, and several studies indicate 6 to 8 percent of children and 1 to 2 percent of adults are allergic to soy. Soy is one of the eight most allergenic foods, and the number of people with soy allergies is expected to rise as the use of soy in many foods increases.

Herman, who works at the David Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, is collaborating with Hymowitz and Joseph. While at least one seed company has been developing commercial soybeans using the genetically engineered breed, marketing could be problematic, Herman said. "To bring genetically engineered food to the marketplace costs tens of millions of dollars," he said. "If it's not genetically engineered, presumably it would be much cheaper and we could bring it out much quicker."

The allergen-free soybean comes from a plant that normally grows wild, so it will have to be crossbred into varieties that farmers grow, a process that could take 5 to 10 years, Hymowitz said. Before that happens the researchers still have questions to answer. "We look through 14,000 lines and find one that doesn't have (P34)," Herman said. "What is it about this one that makes it different? We have this real oddball and now we'll try to understand some of the biology of this."


GMOs and Science: What Have We Learned

- Peter H. Raven, Director of the Missouri Botanical Garden


I have now posted on AgBioWorld site the speech given by Dr. Raven during at the recent Vatican conference. The initial posting of that speech on AgBioView had some formatting errors and I am sorry about it. The web posting is a cleaner version - CSP


Who's Afraid of Genetically Modified Foods?


FRIEND: "What a lovely dinner party! You're such a good cook. How do you do it?"
HOST: "Well, to be honest, I got everything from that marvelous new caterer on Main Street."
FRIEND: "Horrors! I thought we were friends. Don't you realize that every food they sell has been genetically modified?"

What do people mean when they say 'genetically modified'? And what's the big fuss?

With an ever-increasing global population, massive third world hunger, and the health risks of pesticides, you would think people would see genetically modified food as a hero, coming to the rescue. Instead, in many places, genetically modified food is treated as the greatest threat ever to human civilization.

For thousands of years, when hunter-gatherers were ready to choose which of the current crops to plant for the next year, they would naturally select the better crops. Repeating this process year after year led to desirable changes.

Later, plants were genetically modified by breeders' transferring pollen from one plant to another from either the same species or from a closely related one. Sometimes the trait that the breeder wished for did not exist in any plant of the species being used in the transference, and, even if it did, it might take the breeder a long time to find the right plant.

Now, with new technology, a genetically modified (GM) plant can be produced by inserting a gene, called a transgene, even from a different species, offering the possibility of producing a plant with the wished-for characteristics. This process offers a wider choice of genes, a greater possibility of finding a gene that would produce the desired characteristic, and a speedier process. In addition, a larger crop might result, a bonus for poor countries with starving populations.

India provides a good example with its cotton crops. Cotton has been genetically modified to be resistant to three species of bollworms, its greatest nemesis. The insecticide formerly used has been continued, since the genetic modification does not protect against all of cotton's enemies, but is used only one-third as frequently as before. The amount of cotton produced has increased by 80%. And the health of the workers also improved, because of the reduction in the dangerous insecticide. The less frequent use of pesticide has even decreased the cost associated with spraying.

Using the same technique on food products will, presumably, lead to similar results — a boon to India, with limited land space and a rapidly growing population. It would seem to be a method that would be popular all over the world. And, indeed, most countries are now investigating genetic modification. But not all countries.

Many are frightened by the possibility of making a dramatic change in their agricultural products. Some believe that the resulting crops may be harmful, and that we might not discover this before it has harmed large numbers of consumers. And many countries are afraid of allowing their people to consume an already modified crop, even when there is no evidence that it is harmful.

Two such countries are Zimbabwe and Zambia. In 2002, because of starvation in both of these developing countries, the United States offered them maize. But since this maize, grown in the U.S., was a genetically modified crop, both countries refused this gift, reporting that they were fearful for the health of their people consuming a dangerous food. They continued to deny their people U.S.-grown maize, despite the potential starvation of up to 13 million of their people, because of a food shortage brought about by floods and droughts in a large section of Africa.

However, the real reason demonstrates the complex current politics of genetically modified foods. Officials of Zimbabwe and Zambia have informed members of the World Food Programme that their refusal was in actuality based upon concern that some of the genetically modified maize would be planted by their farmers. The resulting maize could cross-fertilize existing maize plants. This maize could then contaminate other plants. Cows eating maize could then not be sold in Europe, where the European Union has demanded "GM free" meat. This process could have a disastrous affect on Zimbabwe and Zambia's balance of trade, and their governments' ability to pay off their debts.

Zimbabwe eventually declared that it would accept only maize that had been milled before it was received. The milled maize, though still genetically modified, would not have seeds that could be planted.

In France, opposition goes beyond the French government. Activist Jose Bové leads a group that is adamantly opposed to genetically modified crops. In the past, Bové was jailed for destroying both genetically modified seeds and rice plants. He helped destroy a McDonald's in 1999 to protest both the U.S. trade policy and its junk food.

Recently, Bové and other activists pulled up maize crops in an area of southwest France, in order to warn the country to stop growing genetically modified crops. This maize was growing on property owned by a U.S. biotech company. Explained another activist, Joel Mamere, to Agence France-Presse, "This is legitimate, because we reject the law serving private interests."

For these French activists, and perhaps other Europeans, their hatred for genetically modified food may also be indirectly fueled by anti-American sentiment.

There are, of course, legitimate reasons to be concerned about genetically modified foods. Many scientists have been fearful that there may be unintended changes during the process which could be harmful to people.

A committee set up by the National Academy of Sciences has been studying the possible problems. The committee decided that each genetically altered food product should be individually examined. It wants additional care in the investigation of foods containing new compounds or extra large amounts of natural substances. They want the safety of new foods to be tested before being put on grocery shelves. So far, the National Academy of Sciences has found no dangers to health from genetically altered food.

So, if you're planning to throw a dinner party using American-grown foods, be careful whom you invite, especially if they are European or African. Even if they're scientists, and even if they're starving.


Comments On Europeans by Henry I. Miller

- Dr Ken Baker, ken.baker@syngenta.com

I realise that the article by Henry Miller was merely quoted from techcentralstation.com, but was it really necessary to include an article with such insulting and vitriolic comments as:

"European countries and their Union are, in comparison to the United States, in dire straits. They have aging populations and low birth rates, their productivity is in decline, and their economies are stagnant."

"Everything in Europe is not on the decline, however: Stultifying taxation, over-regulation, obstruction of free markets, unemployment, anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-Semitism, and envy of the American economic miracle are alive and well."

A cursory glance at the AgBioWorld Declaration pages indicates a considerable number of European signatories. I'm sure there are many more who receive the newsletter. Comments like those above are not constructive.

** Response From Prakash: As Dr. Baker has noted, the article was merely a posting from another source. The views posted on AgBioView are not necessarily that of AgBioWorld. I am sorry if the above mentioned article offended my readers and I offer my apology.


Anti-GE Crowd Spews Distortions, Lies at City Hall, Farm Bureau

- Harry Cline, Western Farm Press, Sept. 28, 2004, Full story at

The lies and distortion continue from the anti-biotech crowd traipsing through California hiding behind their anti-corporate, socialist, anti-human agenda in opposing agriculture biotechnology.

A news release from "Californians for GE-Free Agriculture" went out to the media promoting a series of seminars where "Midwestern Farmers Share Their Stories throughout California" about the horrors biotechnology. The program lists as speakers three supposedly Midwest farmers and a California rice grower, Ron Lee, who produces conventional and organic rice.

Where is the California grower who produces biotech corn or cotton? There are more than 600,000 acres of biotech crops growing in California and this group could not find one producer willing to debate the issue? Where are the University of California scientists who have researched and evaluated this technology?

According to the news release, "This panel provides a rare opportunity to hear first-hand from farmers and farmer advocates who have been grappling with the impacts of this as yet unproven technology" read the news release.

Unproven! That is garbage.

Who are these Midwest Farmers?
Bill Wenzel was one of the speakers. He is executive director of Wisconsin Rural Development Center (WRDC) in Mt. Horeb, Wis. WRDC is a "nonprofit organization comprised of family farmers, environmentalists, church leaders, consumers, and rural activists. It promotes social and economic justice in rural Wisconsin; to protect rural natural resources; and to activate an effective voice for rural citizens." according to its Web site.

Sure sounds like a farmer who has something to lend to the biotechnology debate in California.

George Naylor of Churdan, Iowa was another speaker. He is a small farmer and a member of the National Family Farm Coalition. He does not like Freedom to Farm. He opposes "factory farms." He wants to go back to the days of high loan rates; non-recourse government loans and government storage of surplus commodities. He basically wants the government to support him, yet claims the government is inept at evaluating and regulating biotech crops.

Naylor sued Monsanto for anti-trust and lost. He basically wants to grow propriety planting seed and sell it to anyone he wants. He was one of four plaintiffs in an unsuccessful lawsuit against Monsanto. One of his co-plaintiffs was a GMO grower.

Another speaker listed was Dan McGuire, an absentee owner of a 320-acre farm in central Nebraska. He share crops it with another farmer. He basically works for the American Corn Growers Association, a groups that claims 14,000 members in 36 states. It was formed in 1987 because a minority of corn growers did not like the way the government farm program was evolving.

The American Corn Growers Association is not to be confused with the National Corn Growers Association founded in 1957 that represents 32,000 dues-paying corn growers from 48 states and the interests of more than 300,000 farmers who contribute to the corn check-off programs in 20 states.

Who is Californians for GE-Free Agriculture? They call themselves "a unique coalition of sustainable farming, environmental, and consumer organizations united top prevent genetically engineered (GE) agriculture in California. Members include: California Certified Organic Farmers, Center for Environmental Health, Center for Food Safety, Community Alliance with Family Farmers, Ecological Farming Association, Four Elements Farm, Genetic Engineering Action Network, Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, and Organic Consumers Association."

The so-called information meetings about genetically engineered crops were charades of misinformation and distortions. They were not valid debates about biotechnology.

What is even more galling about these so called information meetings was that two were held in public buildings, the Chico City Council chambers and the Marin County Board of Supervisors offices and one was at an American Legion Hall in Arroyo Grande, Calif.

A third was held in the Sonoma County Farm Bureau building in Santa Rosa. This is ludicrous. We have been told that the California Farm Bureau Federation is spearheading the grassroots effort to turn back this anti-GMO effort in California and a Farm Bureau chapter opens its facilities to a farce like this anti-GE rally? If Farm Bureau is leading this effort, God help California agriculture.

It is one thing to host a legitimate debate on genetically modified crops. It is entirely something different to allow a group whose avowed goal is to wipe out production agriculture in California to use a Farm Bureau facility for propaganda purposes.

I wonder if the American Legion members looked into the agenda of the group renting its hall.

As for the use of public buildings, opening up to this group for this media circus is tantamount to renting the city council chamber or supervisor offices to the Ku Klux Klan or the neo-Nazi party for a rally. Again, using public facilities for a legitimate debate is worthy. Opening it for people to spew half truths and lies about California agriculture is wrong. A lot of farmers live in Chico and the city council can expect to hear about this misuse of public facilities.

Harsh words? You bet. This anti-biotechnology travesty being palmed off on California is a very serious threat to not only California growers and ranchers, but to a major source of food and fiber for California and the world.

Should the issue of biotechnology be debated? Absolutely. There are serious issues with this technology. Is it unsafe? No? Millions of dollars in research have proven that. Are there ethical, moral and economic issues with the technology? Certainly.

Californians have the right to all the facts -- not just the junk tossed out by Californians for GE-Free Agriculture and the likes. There are hundreds of legitimate scientists and farmers who are capable of presenting a balanced picture of the issue. Shams like gatherings sponsored by these radical, anti-government groups are not where the facts will be presented


Bt Cotton - Good News for Farmers in Developing Countries?

- Jikun Huang, Carl E. Pray and Scott Rozelle, id21 Research Highlight: National Science Foundation of China; January 14, 2004

Use of bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton - a pest-resistant genetically engineered variety pioneered by Monsanto - is spreading rapidly in the major cotton growing regions of China. Many environmental campaigners argue that it is inappropriate for farmers in developing countries. Do their arguments hold up? Is China's investment in biotechnology research proving profitable to farmers?

A paper from the Biotechnology Policy Process in Developing Countries' Project of the Institute of Development Studies assesses the impact of Bt cotton in China using data from research conducted with the Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy. Collected over three years from more than 400 farmers in North China, the data suggests that Bt cotton has reduced the use of pesticides and risks to the health of cotton farmers while improving both yields and farmers' incomes.

In 1997, a year after obtaining regulatory approval in the US, Monsanto, Delta and Pineland, together with their local partners the Hebei Provincial Seed Company were allowed to start selling Bt cotton seed to farmers. In the same year the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) was permitted to start selling a different variant. Chinese provincial research institutes have also produced new Bt varieties by backcrossing the Monsanto and CAAS varieties into their own local strains and selling them acSross northern China. By 2001 43 per cent of China's cotton growing area was planted with Bt cotton and five million farmers had adopted it.

Insect pests, particularly the cotton bollworm have been a major problem for China's cotton producers. Farmers have turned to Bt cotton not because of any state coercion (as critics allege) but out of frustration at the decreasing effectiveness of the dangerous cocktails of organo-phosphates, pyrethroids and DDT with which they sought to fight the bollworm. Cotton farmers had been spending $500m per annum on pesticides.

Key findings are that:
* Bt cotton has positive crop yield impacts, shifting the crop yield frontier by nearly ten percent.
* It reduces yield loss and at the same time reduces pesticide use by 35.7 kg per hectare.
* The rapid commercialisation of GM crops in China – compared to other developing countries - has been due in part to the lead role of China's public sector biotechnology research programme.
* The absence of effective intellectual property rights on novel genes or new plant varieties has combined with competition between local government firms and foreign firms providing Bt cotton varieties to keep down prices of cotton seed and to make GM technology affordable.
* Authorities have been providing conflicting Bt messages - while commercialised government and private seed companies have encouraged farmers to buy Bt cotton seed, plant protection stations and state-owned pesticide companies have tried to discourage uptake in order to sell more pesticides.
Urging wider promotion of Bt cotton in other countries with similarly significant smallholder production, the authors suggest that wherever it is introduced it is incumbent on policy-makers to: discourage unnecessary pesticide use through information, extension related training, pesticide price and marketing policies
* commission research to monitor bollworm resistance to Bt cotton over time and, if necessary, implement measures to reduce the risk that widespread use of Bt will lead to the development of pest resistance
* strengthen local biotechnology research capacity - the fact that Bt cotton was developed in China by government researchers in tandem with international companies made it more politically palatable and fostered the emergence of a local pro Bt lobby.

'Bt cotton benefits, costs and impacts in China' by Jikun Huang, Carl E. Pray and Scott Rozelle, Working Paper 202, Institute of Development Studies, September 2003 http://www.ids.ac.uk/ids/bookshop/wp/wp202.pdf
'Bt Cotton Benefits, Costs, and Impacts in China' by Jikun Huang, Carl E. Pray and Scott Rozelle, AgBioForum, 5(4): 153-166 http://www.agbioforum.missouri.edu/v5n4/v5n4a04-huang.pdf

Further Information: Jikun Huang, Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy, Chinese Academy of Sciences; Jikhuang@public.bta.net.cn


Ending Poverty 'Requires US$70 Billion In Research Aid'

- Ehsan Masood, SciDev.Net, September, 30 2004

'Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger is one of the Millennium Development Goals'

The world's rich nations need to provide US$7 billion a year for the next decade to support research and development (R&D) relevant to the needs of developing countries, if they are serious about meeting a pledge to end extreme poverty by 2015.

This is among the recommendations contained in the draft of a summary report of the UN Millennium Project, an initiative carried out by an influential group of scientists, economists and public policy specialists convened by UN secretary general Kofi Annan.

The purpose of the project, which is directed by Jeffrey Sachs, head of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, New York, is to advise international donors and poor countries on achieving what are called the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

These goals include 18 quantified targets for reducing extreme poverty in developing countries by 2015 that were agreed at the UN Millennium Summit held in New York in 2000.

The project seeks to address a situation in which more than one billion people live in extreme poverty. Of these, 90 per cent come from three regions: East Asia, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, which the report describes as "the epicentre of the world's development crisis".

The draft summary, which was posted on the Internet on Friday (24 September) for public comment, has been compiled by Sachs drawing on the analysis and recommendations of ten separate task forces that have been looking at the MDGs in detail and the steps needed to achieve them.

Overall, says the draft — comments on which are being sought by 1 November — the millennium targets will not be met unless donors urgently treble their annual aid budgets to US$180 billion. Of this, it says, US$100 billion needs to be spent annually as direct aid on infrastructure and training in the fields of education, nutrition, health and public sector management in poor countries.

The thinking behind this suggestion is that economic growth is driven primarily by private capital, but that private capital tends to avoid countries with creaking infrastructure, shaky public institutions, or a shortage of well-trained personnel.

Within the overall total, the report suggests spending US$4 billion annually on R&D in public health, and US$1 billion each on agricultural research, energy and long-term climate change.

In addition, it suggests that US$5 billion should be provided for UN organisations that offer technical assistance to developing countries.

"We are not asking for any new commitments," says Sachs. "We are simply asking for existing pledges to be met," a reference to an earlier pledge by rich countries to spend at least 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Product (GNP) on aid that was confirmed at the international conference on financing for development, held in March 2002 in Monterrey, Mexico.

The report says few countries are on track to meet the millennium targets and only five donors — Denmark, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway and Sweden — have kept their promise to meet the 0.7 per cent target. Sachs says that the report is intended in part to remind donors of their earlier commitments.

Another key aim, he adds, is to convince conservative donor governments — particularly the Bush administration in the United States — of the value of international development assistance.

Sachs says he wants to destroy the myth that "people are poor because there is something wrong with them", or something wrong with their governments. He adds: "The paradox of poverty is that poor people are the ones who most need good institutions, yet cannot afford to pay for them".

The Millennium Project's ten individual task forces involved more than 250 experts, and each task force was chaired by individuals drawn from institutions in developing countries as well as the United States.

The summary report lists the main findings from each task force, and also weaves them into eight broad recommendations on achieving the millennium targets. These include a call for improvements to soils, and better access for small farmers to roads, water and electricity.

Another recommendation is for people who live in slums to be given legal rights to the land they live on. This would allow them to use the land as security for taking out loans to build better quality housing, or start a business — as is common practice in developed countries.

The draft summary also recommends that developing-country governments need institutions — including science academies — that can provide them with independent science advice (one of the recommendations of the science and technology task force) it calls for science education in universities to be made more relevant to development.

A substantial section of the summary report also calls for closer ties between business and science. These, it suggests, should include better university-industry links, more technology parks, export processing zones, and networks of 'business-angels' and other investors who are willing to invest in riskier, technology-based companies.

The report has already generated some critical reaction. One developing-country member of the task force on hunger, for example, said she was disappointed that its recommendations made no mention of the potential for biotechnology in achieving food security.

Others argue that its treatment of science and technology does not distinguish sufficiently between the needs of the poorest and more advanced developing countries, and lacks an adequate analysis of the impact of investments in science and technology on alleviating poverty.

Steve Bass, head of the environment department at the UK Department for International Development (which helps to fund SciDev.Net), says the report's section on science is "a good listing of what might be needed". But he adds that policymakers tend to make funding decisions based on actual examples of successes and failures.

Sachs says he welcomes critical comments, and will take these into account before drawing up the final version of the summary report. But he also says that he expects to get a rough ride from donors, who are unlikely to welcome the call for a substantial increase in aid funding.

"We know that donors don't want to give any more money," says Sachs. "They would like us to say: 'so, how do we get the private sector engaged'. But the reality is that these goals will not be reached if we continue with business as usual. The hardest thing for policymakers is to accept that there is no magic bullet to global poverty."

The draft summary can be downloaded from www.unmillenniumproject.org. The deadline for comments is 1 November. The final report will be submitted to Kofi Annan in December and is expected to form the basis of a draft resolution for the UN General Assembly, as well as a major UN Summit to review progress on the Millennium Development Goals, planned for September 2005.