Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : October 10, 2004
* Kenyan Environmentalist Wins Nobel Peace Prize
* AgBioWorld Congratulates Maathai for Her Nobel Peace Prize
* Maathai's View On AIDS Raises Eyebrows - "HIV Was Invented as a Bioweapon"!
* The Toxic Politics of Biotech
* Voices of Innovation
* Green Genes Withdraw Support for Anti-GMO Initiative
* Brazil to have Own Transgenic Cotton
* Brazil to Announce GMO Solution This Week - Ag Min
* GM Crops Essential: Scientist
* The Men In White Coats Are Winning, Slowly
Kenyan Environmentalist Wins Nobel Peace Prize
- Samson Mulugeta, Associated Press, October 9, 2004
When news arrived Friday near the foothills of Mount Kenya that she
had won the Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai celebrated in the best
way she knows: She sank to her knees and planted a tree.
Maathai, 64, a deputy minister in the Kenyan government who
pugnaciously fought previous governments to stop deforestation, has
already helped plant more than 25 million trees in a continent beset
by environmental devastation. She is the first African woman to win
the prize, and beat out 194 other contenders.
The Nobel committee's selection immediately made Maathai a global
celebrity. But she is no overnight wonder. Through a group she
created in 1977, the Green Belt Movement, she preached a single
message to fellow Africans: If you mismanage your resources, you will
The Peace Prize has traditionally gone to figures promoting peace and
security. Maathai's selection underscores the committee's contention
that "peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living
Announcing its selection, the committee said, "We believe that
Maathai is a strong voice speaking for the best forces in Africa to
promote peace and good living conditions on that continent." It also
hoped its selection would spotlight Africans' unheralded struggle to
improve their lives.
Maathai had been harassed and imprisoned by the government of former
President Daniel arap Moi, who stepped down in 2002. After years as
an outside critic of the Kenyan government, Maathai was swept into
office that same year when the ruling party lost power. She is now a
member of Parliament and an assistant environment minister.
Friday, she greeted her award as a victory to Africa -- and African
women in particular. "This is extremely encouraging to the people of
Africa and the African woman," she told the BBC. "It is a recognition
of the many efforts of African women, who continue to struggle
despite all the problems they face."
Maathai, a mother of three grown children, did not know until a few
hours before the announcement that she had even been nominated. "I
thought it was a joke. ... I want to commend the committee for being
the biggest secret keepers. I had no clue," she told Reuters. "I was
shaking and crying and I looked at the mountain -- this mountain that
has inspired me for many years. I particularly liked the fact that
the news reached me here in Nyeri, at home in front of Mount Kenya."
Standing 5-foot-8, Maathai is known in Kenya as a blunt-spoken figure
who has redefined the role of women in a nation where they often are
treated as second-class citizens. In the past decade, she has
successfully stopped the construction of an office building in a
Nairobi park and the destruction of a state forest to build luxury
homes. She also has campaigned against the use of genetically
Educated by Irish Catholic nuns, Maathai was a scientist before she
became an activist. She was one of the first Kenyan women to earn a
doctorate in biology and went on to become the first professor at the
nation's university. Her outspokenness soon got her booted out, and
she began a group that has worked to avert desertification in Kenya
by planting trees.
Her prize was celebrated across Africa. "It's all very exciting,"
said Nnimmo Bassey of the Friends of the Earth Nigeria, speaking by
phone from Lagos.
"We environmentalists are sometimes portrayed as anti-development,
as anti-progress, but this award is a great vindication that caring
for the environment is crucial to Africans who live so close to the
AgBioWorld Congratulates Maathai for Her Nobel Peace Prize
- From Prakash:
AgBioWorld congratulates Prof. Maathai for winning the Nobel Peace
prize and commends her superb work on the Green Belt movement to
plant trees in Kenya to stem the deforestation. We also hope that
she would recognize the tremendous role biotechnology can play in
improving the environment and livelihood of her people.
However, she has earlier been controversial with her views on AIDS (
"HIV/Aids was invented as a bioweapon in some laboratory in the
West," see below) and also opposed to GM crops. Along with Vandana
Shiva and Tewolde Egziabher, she has issued a statement that "We do
not believe that such companies or gene technologies will help our
farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century. On
the contrary, we think it will destroy the diversity, the local
knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers
have developed for millennia and that it will thus undermine our
capacity to feed ourselves."
Prof. Wangari Mathai also said: "History has many records of crimes
against humanity, which were also justified by dominant commercial
interests and governments of the day. Despite protests from citizens,
social justice for the common good was eroded in favour of private
profits. Today, patenting of life forms and the genetic engineering
which it stimulates, is being justified on the grounds that it will
benefit society, especially the poor, by providing better and more
food and medicine. But in fact, by monopolizing the 'raw' biological
materials, the development of other options is deliberately blocked.
Farmers therefore, become totally dependent on the corporations for
Further, a 1998 new piece: "Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai
not only believes that up to 90 percent of imported food consumed by
the elite in Kenya's urban centres are biologically engineered, but
also that Monsanto has taken over a banana-engineering project at
Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta University of Agricultural Technology (JKUAT).
She says she fears that seeds could be used as a political weapon by
the corporations to 'starve' poor countries. ''The trouble with the
terminator technology is that it can easily be used as a political
weapon against poor countries, just like our people are dying because
they cannot afford the cost of AIDS drugs'' she said"
In fact, Greenpeace is celebrating her prize in a big way. See
More links to the new Peace Laureate's Views and Opposition to
Biotechnology and GM Crops:
Maathai's View On AIDS Raises Eyebrows
-- The Star (South Africa) via SAFA-AFP, October 09 2004
Washington - The United States on Friday congratulated Kenyan
ecologist Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel
Peace Prize, but tempered its praise over her claim that HIV and Aids
is a biological weapon aimed at wiping out the black race.
The state department said Maathai's selection reflected well on Kenya
and the Kenyan government, in which she serves as assistant minister
of the environment, and added that she had worked tirelessly to
preserve African forests.
"She's had many long years of environmental activism," spokesperson
Richard Boucher said. "We're delighted to see that she's the first
African woman to have been selected for this unique honour." "We
think she's been a very prominent and important activist on
environmental issues, and we have great respect for that," he said.
While focusing on praise for Maathai's environmental work and noting
that she had worked with officials from the US embassy in Nairobi in
that area, Boucher allowed that Washington had had serious
disagreements with her on other matters.
"We certainly have not agreed with her on everything," he said. "We
do some things together with her, but we haven't agreed on
Boucher declined to outline the areas of disagreement, but a senior
State Department official said later that Washington vehemently
objected to Maathai's comments about the origin of HIV and Aids.
"She said HIV/Aids was invented as a bioweapon in some laboratory in
the West," the official said. "We don't agree with that."
The official pointed to a report of those comments published in late
August by the East African Standard, a Kenyan newspaper, in which
Maathai was quoted as saying that HIV and Aids was created by
scientists for the purpose of mass extermination.
"We know that the developed nations are using biological warfare,
leaving guns to the primitive people," the Standard quoted Maathai as
telling a public workshop in central Kenyan town of Nyeri on August
30. "They have the resources to do this."
"Aids is not a curse from God to Africans or the black people," she
said, according to the paper's account of the meeting. "It is a tool
to control them designed by some evil-minded scientists, but we may
not know who particularly did."
Maathai, 64, was honoured by the Nobel committee for standing at the
"front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic
and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa".
In 1977, she founded the Green Belt Movement, the largest
tree-planting project in Africa aimed at promoting biodiversity and
at the same time creating jobs and giving women a stronger identity
Voted Time Magazine's "Hero of the Planet" in 1998 and a household
name in her country, Maathai said the award had been the "biggest
surprise in my entire life".
The Toxic Politics of Biotech
- Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko, www.TechCentralStation.com,
October 6, 2004
How far does grass pollen travel? Ask someone who has hay fever, and
the response is likely to be "much too far." But unsatisfied with
that answer, the folks at our Environmental Protection Agency decided
they needed an elaborate experiment -- which they performed with a
gene-spliced, herbicide-resistant grass. They found that the pollen
spread more than a dozen miles downwind, farther than previously had
been measured. Predictably, the results have been blown out of all
proportion by hot air from anti-biotechnology activists.
Hard-core opponents of biotechnology are practically giddy with
delight. "This does confirm what a lot of people feared -- expected,
really," said Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Well, she's right about one thing: There is nothing about this
study's results that were unexpected. In fact, finding that pollen is
blown downwind is a revelation on a par with the discovery that you
get wet if you venture outside in a thunderstorm.
As to the results eliciting fear, the report serves as yet another
reminder (not that one was needed) that discussions of
biotechnology's risks and benefits must be placed within the context
of agriculture in general, including older, "conventional" techniques
of genetic modification. What "location, location, location" is to
real estate, "context, context, context" is to biotechnology. All
pollen travels; not just that from gene-spliced plants. The spread of
pollen is not itself a problem - except maybe for allergy sufferers,
but that has nothing to do with genetic engineering.
The alarmist reports from activists -- including activists employed
by government agencies -- invariably emphasize the things that might
go wrong with biotechnology, while studiously omitting the essential
context. In fact, every hypothetical risk of gene-spliced organisms
also exists -- and is often greater -- with conventional breeding
For example, although standard assessment methods for new plant
varieties are usually able to identify potentially harmful products,
occasionally the imprecise, trial-and-error techniques of
conventional breeding methods lead to problems. Two conventionally
bred varieties each of squash and potato and one of celery were found
to contain dangerous levels of endogenous toxins and were, therefore,
banned from commerce.
There have been no such problems with gene-spliced foods, which is
not surprising given that the more precise and predictable
gene-splicing techniques allow plant breeders move single genes that
have been carefully studied and tested. Not a single health or
environmental mishap has been observed despite the widespread use of
gene-spliced crops and foods for more than a decade.
Nevertheless, anti-biotechnology NGOs fret continually over the
alleged "uncertainty" about the safety of the new biotechnology.
Never is there any hint that similar -- and often greater --
uncertainties characterize the more conventional breeding techniques.
Consider, for example, the wheat variety Triticum agropyrotriticum,
created by hybridizing bread wheat with a wild grass called
quackgrass or couchgrass, which contains all the genes from both
Do the grass genes make the new variety of wheat more allergenic?
Toxic? Invasive? No one -- least of all government regulators or
activists -- seems to care.
Why is there no discussion of these issues? Because the activists
aren't interested in minimizing risk -- that's already been done.
Their goal is to frighten the public and intimidate regulators into
further tightening the already stultifying regulation of
Reminiscent of the recent rhubarb over pollen, the Union of Concerned
Scientists earlier this year claimed to have found gene-spliced
material in "conventional" seed preparations, and was quick to
condemn this "contamination." The Center for Science in the Public
Interest has raised various similar concerns about gene-spliced
plants, including the "transfer of the engineered gene to other
species, the emergence of pesticide-resistant pests, and the adverse
effects on small farmers or developing nations."
When considered in a vacuum -- as though farmers, plant breeders and
others had never before sought and wrought genetic improvement of
food plants -- these seem like legitimate concerns. However, since
the 1930's plant breeders have performed "wide cross" hybridizations
in which large numbers of "alien" genes are moved from one species or
one genus to another to create plant varieties that cannot and do not
exist in nature. Common commercial varieties derived from wide
crosses include tomato, potato, oat, rice, wheat and corn, among
others. Triticum agropyrotriticum is one of these.
When plant breeders and food producers use pre-gene-splicing
technology such as wide-cross hybridization and mutation-induced
breeding, they lack knowledge of the exact genetic changes that
produced the useful traits. More important, they have no idea what
other changes have occurred concomitantly in the plant.
Only the use of gene-splicing techniques allows breeders to identify
and describe fully the changes that have been made in the progeny.
This increased precision and predictability make foods from
gene-spliced organisms safer than conventional ones -- but
paradoxically they are far more intensively regulated. Neither
government regulators nor the minions at the radical NGOs have shown
the slightest concern about the real risks of plant breeding.
Instead, they bleat endlessly about the hypothetical risks of
The NGOs' selective memory, in effect, repudiates biology and the
history of agriculture. Gene flow is ubiquitous. All crop plants have
relatives somewhere on the planet, and some gene flow commonly occurs
if the two populations are grown close together. Growing hundreds of
crops, virtually all of which (save only wild berries and wild
mushrooms) have been genetically improved, the practitioners of
"conventional" agriculture in North America have meticulously
developed strategies for preventing pollen cross-contamination in the
field -- when and if it is necessary for commercial reasons.
A perfect example is canola -- the general term for the genetically
improved rapeseed developed by Canadian plant breeders a half-century
ago. The original rapeseed oil, used as both an industrial lubricant
and an edible oil, can be harmful when eaten because of high levels
of a chemical called erucic acid. Conventional plant breeding led to
the development of genetic varieties of rapeseed with low
concentrations of erucic acid, and this "canola" oil has now become
enormously popular. High-erucic acid rapeseed oil is still used as a
lubricant and plasticizer, however, so the high- and low-erucic acid
varieties of rapeseed plants must be carefully segregated in the
field and thereafter during processing. Farmers and processors
accomplish this routinely and without difficulty.
Bothered by pollen? You can take an antihistamine. Unfortunately,
there doesn't seem to be any antidote to the toxic politics of
Henry I. Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, headed the FDA's
Office of Biotechnology from 1989-1993. Gregory Conko is Director of
Food Safety Policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Their
book, "The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the
Biotech Revolution" was published last month by Praeger Publishers.
Voices of Innovation
- BusinessWeek, Oct 11, 2004
'Yuan Longping; Director General Of China's National Hybrid Rice
Research & Development Center And A Pioneer In Hybrid Rice Technology'
What remains to be done in addressing global food shortages?
Food security is still a very serious problem because of the growth
of the world's population and the reduction of arable land. Some
experts estimate that in the year 2030, the world population will be
8 billion. Now it is about 7 billion.
What's the answer?
The only way to solve the food shortage problem is to increase the
yield of the grain crop per land area through the advancement of
science and technology.
What innovations must you use?
The big change, I think, is the use of biotechnology. We must
incorporate this approach into our breeding program. In the materials
we need to use in [hybrid] rice, their potential is almost tapped. So
we must find a new source, other than rice, with new genes. But if
you want to use new genes from another species, you cannot use
conventional methods. We must use biotechnology.
Many in the West distrust genetic engineering. Does this concern you?
There are many kinds of genetically modified crops. In some
transgenic plants [which contain artificially introduced genes], the
genes from microorganisms such as bacteria help the plants to resist
insects. Bugs that eat these plants will die. How about the effects
on human beings? For some genes, we should be very careful. But for
genes from maize or wild rice, there should be no problem.
Green Genes Withdraw Support for Anti-GMO Initiative
- James Tressler, The Times-Standard
EUREKA -- The group that authored an initiative banning genetically
modified organisms in Humboldt County is now urging voters to defeat
the measure in November.
The Humboldt Green Genes, a coalition of organic farmers and
environmentalists, easily gathered the 4,400 signatures to qualify
the proposed ban for the November ballot. But the group is pulling
the plug on its support after learning that the measure's language
had some potentially fatal legal flaws.
"We're basically admitting we made some big mistakes in the (wording)
of the ordinance," said Green Genes Co-Chairwoman Martha Devine. "The
best thing to do is rewrite it and make it a much better ordinance."
Measure M, which would have followed on the heels of a similar ban
passed in Mendocino County in March, called on the county
agricultural commissioner to arrest anyone caught growing or
possessing genetically modified seeds or crops. Such enforcement
measures drew criticism from District Attorney Paul Gallegos, who
argued the county commissioner doesn't have the authority to arrest
Some of the scientific language in the ordinance was also criticized
as inaccurate by some area scientists. For instance, Humboldt State
University biology professor Milt Boyd noted that the proponents had
even provided an incorrect definition of DNA.
Devine said that after voters hopefully defeat Measure M in
November, the Green Genes will go back to the drawing board. Along
with addressing the flaws in the current measure, the new measure
would also have what's known as a "severability clause." That means
if flaws were found in the new measure, the problems could be
addressed without killing the overall measure. The new measure also
would call for a 10-year halt on allowing genetically modified crops
in the county, rather than the permanent ban called for in the
existing measure. Devine said the 10-year period could be a better
idea because it could allow the ordinance to be revisited if at some
point some genetically modified organisms are found to have benefits.
It's not clear when the new measure would be back before voters. The
next scheduled election after November isn't until November 2005. The
Green Genes could either wait until then or go for a special
election. Devine said the group hasn't decided yet which course to
Meanwhile, the group's immediate goal is to get the message out to
supporters to vote no in November. "We feel good about this
decision," Devine said. "We don't want to be like President Bush and
Iraq, walking into a bad situation and continuing on with it despite
all logic to the contrary."
Even if the Green Genes are dropping their support for Measure M, the
measure will still appear on the Nov. 2 ballot. That's because the
ballots have already been ordered.
Brazil to have Own Transgenic Cotton
- Gazeta Mercantil, October 8, 2004
Fortaleza, 10/08/2004 - The public agricultural research company,
Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuaria (Embrapa), expects to
place on the market, within five years, the first genuinely Brazilian
strain of transgenic cotton.
"The technology for cultivating genetically modified crops has no
turning back. It is going to be introduced naturally, with the
advantage of minimizing production costs," said Embrapa researcher
Roseane Cavalcanti dos Santos, noting that farmers want to see the
Law of Biosecurity passed. The average cost of a hectare of cotton is
about US1,000, with about 40% of it going to fight pests and blights.
According to the specialists, the technology for genetically modified
organisms is just another tool for the farmer. "No one will be
obliged to use this technology. The aim is to make agriculture
competitive and sustainable," said Cavalcanti dos Santos, who
defended a doctoral thesis on transgenic cotton last year at the
Universidade de Brasilia (UnB).
Her study is based on the identification and isolation of a gene that
codifies for a protein with potential as an insecticide and
subsequently is introduced into cotton plants to give them resistance
to insect pests. The research brings an animating perspective to the
control of insects, which cannot be attained with massive
applications of chemical insecticides, raising the cost of production
and polluting the environment.
Brazil to Announce GMO Solution This Week - Ag Min
- Alastair Stewart, Osterdowjones Commodity Wire, 7 October 2004
SAO PAULO, Oct 07, 2004 (ODC via COMTEX) -- Brazil will agree to
rules governing the planting of genetically modified soybeans during
the 2004-05 season this week, Agriculture Minister Roberto Rodrigues
With farmers already planting GM soybeans in the south of Brazil -
regardless of the fact it is illegal under current rules - President
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva could issue a decree legalizing its use,
just as he did for the 2003-04 season, he said. "The question will be
resolved this week...maybe in a question of hours," Rodrigues said on
the timing of any decree. He said he had been talking to government
ministers about GMOs Thursday.
Brazil is the last major agricultural exporter to legislate GMOs.
Environmental and consumer rights groups have waged a six-year battle
to prevent the government from allowing their use. But illegal use
gradually grew and now accounts for around 30% of the total crops,
according to seed associations. The Senate approved a biosafety bill
on Wednesday, which opens the way for GMOs. But the b
be voted on by the lower house, which has a full agenda. Rodrigues
said the government realized it needed immediate legislation for the
current harvest and said there was a possibility the biosafety bill
could be attached to another vote to be made in the next few days.
Another alternative would be the lifting of the legal barriers to the
planting of GMOs. Industry sources believe a federal tribunal may
overturn an injunction on the production and sale of Monsanto's
RoundUp Ready beans in th
the government would prefer to avoid issuing another decree, which
would cause a face-off in the cabinet between the pro-GMO lobby, led
by Rodrigues, and those against GMOs, led by Environment Minister
Marina Silva. Brazil is the world's No. 2 soybean producer and up to
90% of producers in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul use the
technology, according to seed associations.
GM Crops Essential: Scientist
- Peter Trott, The West Australian, 07-Oct-2004
Genetic modification will provide the key to maintaining farm
productivity under increasingly harsh conditions of drought, salinity
and frost, according to CSIRO plant scientist Thomas Higgins. He said
the outstanding success of genetically modified cotton was an example
of what could be achieved using GM organisms and using biotechnology
to aid conventional breeding.
Dr Higgins told a forum held by the Australian Academy of
Technological Sciences and Engineering at Curtin University that the
economic benefits of GM cotton had been estimated to average $77 a
hectare from 1996 to 2002. Without GM cotton, the whole Australian
cotton industry worth about $1.5 billion a year would have
But since the adoption of GM cotton resistant to insects and
herbicide-tolerant, the use of the major pesticide had been cut 90
per cent and major environmental benefits had been achieved. Dr
Higgins, deputy chief of CSIRO's division of plant industry, said the
moratoriums on GM food crops, including a ban in WA until 2007, were
likely to be temporary and would be lifted as soon as the
agricultural industries sorted out trade issues.
Canola is the first GM food crop approved for commercial release by
the Australian Gene Technology Regulator, but the main canola States
- WA, NSW, South Australia and Victoria - all have moratoriums on GM
Dr Higgins said it was essential that GM options be available for
crops other than cotton. The scrutiny of claims by GM proponents was
much more rigorous than the study of claims made by opponents. Many
internet sites carried false and misleading claims.
"We must challenge the misinformation and ensure that government
policy is well informed with robust science," he said.
CBH technical market services manager Peter Portmann said much of the
concern about GM canola in W~A was generated by lack of knowledge
about how markets would react rather than evidence of problems
selling the product. He expected GM canola from WA would fetch prices
not significantly lower than non-GM canola but segregation would be
costly and raise risks of contamination.
The canola industry was heavily reliant on the use of a herbicide,
atrazine. The difficulties of a ban in Australia or overseas on
canola produced using atrazine outweighed the potential market risks
of GM canola.
The Men In White Coats Are Winning, Slowly
- The Economist, 09-Oct-2004
IF YOU are a stay-at-home European or Australian, it is quite
possible that never, knowingly or not, have you eaten any genetically
modified (GM) product. But, unknowingly, you may well be wearing one
right now: GM cotton is widely grown. And you may have been treated
with a drug produced with the use of GM. Wide public support has
enabled anti-GM zealots to win battles on the food front in Europe
and elsewhere; and fear of losing trade deters GM in other countries
that grow and export the stuff, even if they would readily eat it
themselves. Yet, overall, the enemies of GM are losing the war.
That might sound unlikely: this year's big GM news was not an advance
but an inglorious retreat. Monsanto, an American agri-business that
is the main commercial promoter of the technique, and thus the
arch-villain for its enemies, decided not to bring its GM wheat
variety to market, not even in the largely GM-tolerant United States.
But food is a special case. It is easy to shout "Frankenfood" and
scare someone into taking no risks, real or imagined, with his bread
or burgers; not so easy with his shirt. However the war may go in the
supermarkets or cattle feed-lots, the non-food uses of GM technology
have ensured that the technology is here to stay. And those uses are
At the microscopic level, bacteria are routinely modified to produce
enzymes for use in industrial processes. Cotton is so far the only
widespread non-food GM crop. But others are on the way. Researchers
are modifying potatoes, even trees, to suit the paper industry; GM
oilseed rape (canola) can make better detergents or lubricants. Sheep
can be altered, as Australian scientists have done, to grow more and
better wool (though not yet, as one American website spoofed, wool so
tungsten-rich that it works as a filament in light bulbs). Both
plants and animals can be altered to produce pharmaceuticals; the
resultant "bio-pharming" is still in its infancy, but its commercial
day will come.
And a huge new use for GM crops is already under way. To produce
bio-fuel or bio-plastics, made from maize or sugar, say, rather than
petroleum, you don't need a GM "feedstock", but why not? The exhaust
is not going to spray out deadly footloose Frankengenes (or any genes
Not that the way ahead is clear. The spread even of non-food GM will
be affected by the vagaries of public perception. You may be happy to
fill up with GM-derived fuel, but remain uneasy about GM food. If so,
anti-GM militants argue, you must say no to both: whether it goes
into your mouth, into the steer that ends as your beefsteak, or into
your petrol tank, GM maize is grown in fields not far from non-GM
maize, and may "contaminate" it. So stop the lot. And, good science
or not, that is a real commercial argument: one may think the fear of
non-food GM crops quite irrational, but if lots of consumers do fear
them, the most cynical farmer may be entirely rational not to plant
Applied to cotton, that argument has plainly carried little public
weight. Cottonseed oil is in fact eaten, notably in margarine, but
few people associate cotton with food. No such luck for any sort of
grain. The argument will surely affect bio-fuel projects in Europe:
such fuels may be acceptable, but not GM-based ones.
Yet, whatever the uncertainties, non-food GM is indeed going ahead,
for all the propaganda against it, some solid, some arguable and some
fictitious. It is quite true that Monsanto's GM seeds cost more than
others, and that it tries to keep a grip on the use and supply of
them; too tight a grip, say those who speak for third-world farmers.
But it is not true, for instance, that its (or other people's)
pest-resistant GM cotton has lower yields. A recent study in western
India reported significantly higher ones. And, yield apart, quite
certainly this cotton can bring higher profits, because it needs far
less spraying. A Chinese study of two cotton-growing provinces in
2001 estimated savings of $250 per hectare (2.5 acres) in labour and
insecticide--which, by the way but not by chance, also means far less
poisoning of farmers by sprays.
The best answer to those who doubt GM's practical benefits comes not
from researchers but farmers. On one (pro-GM) estimate, in 1997 the
world grew 1.4m hectares of GM cotton; last year, 7.2m ha. In
America, which introduced it, by now 75% of cotton is GM. China
authorised its commercial planting only in 1997; by 2001 there were
1.5m ha, 30% of the cotton area; last year 2.8m ha. India, the
world's biggest cotton-grower, began with GM cotton only in 2002, and
in 2003-04 planted less than 100,000ha. But in the new season that
figure would treble, predicted a Monsanto joint-venture that already
sells $12m a year of seed there. The actual spread may well have been
In all three countries, those figures are the result of choices made
by farmers, not by bureaucrats or supply companies. The anti-GM
notion that third-world farmers have to be arm-twisted or deceived
into GM planting is nonsense. If they can measure the results in
renminbi or rupees, farmers will embrace GM.
So much for the notion that the only real gainer from GM crops is
wicked, multinational Monsanto. In fact, on the seed-supply side, it
has rivals. Swiss-based Syngenta, its big European competitor, is
moving into GM cotton, through a deal signed in August with Delta and
Pine Land, an American market leader already offering Monsanto
versions. Though mostly under licence from Monsanto, its Indian
competitors have recently produced GM cotton varieties of their own.
China's Academy of Sciences developed its own varieties in the
mid-1990s, and now offers more than 20, adapted to varying climatic
or soil needs.
The low-down on Roundup
Nor yet is it true that the whole thing is really a plot to sell
Monsanto's Roundup herbicides, by hooking the farmer on crops
modified so they can be safely sprayed with Roundup, but with nothing
else. That may sound plausible of soya, the world's main GM crop,
which is nearly all modified to be herbicide-tolerant. Similar GM
cotton varieties indeed exist. But the main GM cotton is Bt cotton,
named after a tiny bug, Bacillus thuringiensis, whose insect-fighting
properties have been transferred (to several crops besides cotton)
not to sell more herbicide, Roundup or any other, but to require less
What is notable about GM cotton is how little has been altered. The
sundry GM varieties are built to aid farmers, not textile mills.
Resistant to pests, herbicides or both, the result is still cotton.
Here is just a new way of producing the stuff.
But many other GM ideas, in the pipeline or farther off, will alter
the product, as old-style breeding does. There will be no tungsten
sheep-fleece, but sheep in future will grow not just more wool, but
softer wool. Old flowers will get new colours or scents: a Melbourne
company has already released purple GM carnations; in Indiana an
academic is at work on the scent of roses. Lawn and golf-course grass
will be tougher, trees more resistant to drought, or adapted to clean
up contaminated soil.
Other shifts are already producing "the same old stuff", but in novel
ways. Pigs or indeed potatoes can produce human proteins for medical
use (though none has yet received authorisation), foot-and-mouth
vaccine can come from alfalfa, genes from enzyme-making bacteria can
do the same job in tobacco, and useful new enzymes can be found and
put into old bacteria. Researchers see few limits, other than human
timidity, to how far they can go.
The paper industry illustrates the diversity of GM. Its basic raw
material is trees. Researchers in New Zealand and Chile have produced
pest-resisting pines. Oji Paper, a Japanese giant that uses
fast-growing eucalyptuses from South-East Asia, has put carrot genes
into them so they can flourish in acid soil. But GM can go further.
Trees contain not only the cellulose that papermakers want, but
lignin-crudely, the stuff that makes a tree a tree-which they don't.
Separating the two is costly; how nice to use trees that start off
with less lignin. They can be created. Researchers at the State
University of North Carolina have bred aspens with only half the
lignin of ordinary ones-and, it turned out, they have the additional
advantage that they grow faster. Do not expect Canada or the Nordic
countries to be shortly covered with GM pines; commercial use of GM
trees in Europe is at least ten years off. Butit is on its way.
Likewise with starch. Papermakers use it-several tonnes are required
per 100 of finished paper-both to bind the pulp fibres together and
to "size" the surface, so you can print on it. In Europe and North
America, the starch often comes from potatoes. But spuds produce two
kinds of starch: amylopectin, which papermakers like, and amylose,
which they dislike. In the 1990s the world leader in potato starch,
AVEBE, a Dutch co-operative, developed a GM potato containing more
amylopectin, less amylose, but was thwarted by the European Union,
which forbade its marketing. AVEBE is now growing a new version,
though it will be years before it can reach the market. Through a
Swedish subsidiary, BASF, a German chemicals giant, also has created
a high-amylopectin GM potato. The Swedish authorities gave permission
for an experimental plot in 1999, and last April for large-scale
planting. The company would love to grow its potato elsewhere in
Europe. But the EU's consent is still required and that has not yet
Nor need potatoes be the only source of engineered starch. The world
grows 190m tonnes a year of cassava, nearly all for food or animal
feed. But its starch too can go into paper, and in Thailand a little
already does. That could become a lot: Thailand grows enough cassava
to be the only significant exporter, and recently decided to allow
commercial GM crops. If public fears of GM food and "contamination"
can be overcome, cassava could be one.
The whiff of fear
Those fears have already affected tobacco. It is a "halfway house":
cigarettes are not eaten, but they are consumed. Tobacco has in fact
already been genetically modified, both to produce more nicotine and
less. The now-vanished high-nicotine cigarettes landed their maker,
Brown & Williamson, with a (failed) lawsuit from America's Food and
Drug Administration. Today's low-nicotine GM ones just do not sell
very well: Vector, which makes them, recently put on hold plans for a
Neither outcome had much to do directly with GM. But growers of
ordinary tobacco hate Vector's GM smokes; partly, although they will
not admit it, because "low-nicotine" is hardly their favourite
slogan, but also, as with food crops, for fear of contamination and
consumer reaction, even though Vector grows its GM weed outside
traditional tobacco areas.
Not least, ordinary growers fear for their exports and, as with food,
they may be right. In the 1990s China was the first country to grow
GM tobacco, aiming to improve the crop's resistance to viruses.
Within a few years, foreign pressure forced it to cry off. Doubts in
Europe will deter both European and other growers and processors.
SEITA, as France's cigarette monopoly was then called, was once
authorised to do research on GM tobacco, but made little commercial
use of the results.
What about bio-pharming, for which tobacco is well suited because it
produces lots of leaf and has been much studied? This prospect
arouses fewer fears-at least in Kentucky, says a source there, where
the first bio-pharmed crops have been grown. The rival varieties are
very different. And the money could be good. A hectare's output of
cigarette tobacco is worth about $9,000. As against? Well, one
enthusiast in 2002 estimated the same hectare could grow over
$400,000-worth of a skin-growth hormone, or near $5m of an
anti-coagulant protein. That is surely dreamworld: as supply of the
protein rose, its value would fall, and anyway only a portion of such
riches would reach the grower. Even so, the sums (not least, far
lower labour costs) are still interesting.
Down on the pharm
There is no visible end to the technical possibilities of
bio-pharming. America, well ahead of Europe in this respect, has
recently been issuing 30-40 permits a year for field trials: tomato,
potato, alfalfa, lupin, rice and maize are among other favoured
plants. Far smaller organisms can be used: bakers' yeast is one. And
the list of potential products is vast: human albumin and
haemoglobin, interferon, vaccines for hepatitis-B, anthrax, cholera
and diarrhoea are among the few that a layman has even heard of.
The time between field trials and commercialisation is long,
however--at least six years, because any hopeful results still need
testing and must then win regulatory approval. But in time
bio-pharming and other uses of GM will become a familiar, low-cost
means of producing, in volume, things that were once rare. Insulin,
for instance, has long been made by putting the human gene for it
into a helpful bacterium. Previously, it came, in a less than ideal
form, from the pancreatic glands of slaughtered pigs.
The big, publicly visible boom in non-food GM, however, is likelier
to come in chemicals, plastics, fibres and fuel. Instead of
petroleum, these will be derived from maize, soya or other
crops--sugar beet in Europe, say. In time, plants may even be
modified to make polymers themselves; it was done experimentally, but
then dropped, by Britain's ICI and later Monsanto in the 1990s.
Metabolix, a research company in Massachusetts, is now getting
bacteria to grow finished plastics that are biodegradable.
The use of farm crops for such purposes is not new. After long
research into maize-based plastic, Cargill (grains) linked up with
Dow (chemicals) in 1997 and their joint-venture, which began
production in 2000, now sells about 140,000 tonnes a year for
packaging and bedding. Nor need the crops be GM: Cargill Dow's maize
has not been. But it could be. The ethanol makers who already supply
over one-fifth of Brazil's motor fuel use sugar cane, but they could
as well use soya, some of it the theoretically illegal, but in fact
amnestied, GM versions that local farmers have eagerly adopted. And
the first step in any such process, fermentation of the maize (or
other) glucose, involves enzymes, which these days are usually
produced using GM: new "super enzymes" are found by experiment, and
the appropriate genes to produce them are fed into some fungus or
bacillus that will do the job better than nature till then has done
it for herself.
Many organisms are used--DSM, a Dutch chemicals company, lists
34--and the enzymes go wider still: into detergents, cheesemaking
(instead of rennet from calves' stomachs), cotton-weaving and
countless other processes, new and old.
But that is all scientists' stuff. The world, perhaps to its own
peace of mind, has only a nascent idea of it. Greater awareness will
come when, to the joy of farmers and governments of oil-lacking
countries, the men in white coats have advanced enough for the suits
to set their enzymes to work, profitably, on what any eye can see in
Yes, but how soon? The key word here is "profitable". Even at today's
output (about a thousandth of world plastics output), says Cargill
Dow, sales of its maize-based plastic "will barely scratch the
surface" of its $750m investment. DuPont, with Genencor, a biotech
leader, has put genes from two organisms into a third, to help turn
maize glucose into a fibre that it calls Sorona. But it is still far
from commercial production, let alone profit.
And those two are well-publicised products, already some way down the
road, from world leaders. In the Netherlands, DSM, which makes a
feedstock for nylon, is studying sugar beet as a source. Given the EU
protection that beet needs to make it competitive with imported cane
sugar, can this ever make a profit?
Bio-fuel (which does not depend on GM, but could well use it) is more
advanced. Yet not far. Brazil's output, near 4 billion American
gallons (15 billion litres) a year of sugar-based ethanol, leads the
world. America makes maize-based ethanol, usually mixed
one-part-in-ten with petrol. But even with a tax break of 52 cents a
gallon (13.7 cents a litre) of pure ethanol, the 80, mostly small,
plants will make only 3 billion-plus gallons this year, or less than
2% of all motor fuel used. Bills now before Congress propose 5
billion gallons by 2012; that would by then mean only about 2.5%.
Of course, with high oil prices, these ethanol plants may multiply
faster than expected: in oil terms, about $10 on a barrel of crude
matches the ethanol subsidy, and oil has risen more in price than
that this year. And Brazil's lower-cost ethanol could boost supply
(but-you guessed-imports pay a duty of 54 cents a gallon: at bottom,
the ethanol subsidy is about farm incomes, not replacing oil).
The EU, producing both bio-diesel and ethanol, is far behind. In all,
it makes about 700m gallons a year. Its aims (and motives) are a bit
higher: 5.75% of consumption from bio-fuels by 2010. But that too
will need subsidies.
The use of GM on the farm crops--and in making the enzymes to work on
them more efficiently--will in time speed up and cheapen the
production of bio-fuels. But none of these figures suggest the new
processes and fuels are about to take over the world tomorrow morning.
Indeed, profit is the big doubt for these grand oil-replacement
dreams: they depend much on its price. Pharmaceuticals--especially,
though not alone--face a huge and poorly mapped quagmire of
intellectual property rights. Yet the real hurdle for non-food GM may
still be public opinion.
The pharmaceutical and chemicals companies are mighty, and are quite
capable of lobbying hard on behalf of their GM-based innovations. But
GM's foes are many, and they can be unscrupulous with facts. If
anything goes wrong-- as in America in 2002, when GM maize, born of
seeds from the previous year's bio-pharmed crop, was found in fields
of ordinary soya--the news swiftly reaches far more people than ever
hear of the routines in place to avoid such errors. GM needs skills,
and courage, in its public relations no less than its laboratories or