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 perish.
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 environment."
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 modified food.
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 earth."
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 seeds." http://www.greens.org/s-r/17/17-17.html
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" http://www.grain.org/bio-ipr/?id=29
In fact, Greenpeace is celebrating her prize in a big way. See http://www.greenpeace.org/international_en/news/details?item_id=610897
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 http://www.iol.co.za/index.php?set_id=1&click_id=22&art_id=vn20041009111509155C102035
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 everything."
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 in society.
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 methods.
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 species.
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 biotechnology.
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 gene-splicing -- which never materialize.
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 biotechnology.
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 http://www.times-standard.com/Stories/0,1413,127~2896~2454542,00.html
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 people.
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 pursue.
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 said Thursday.
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 bill must still 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 the next few days, freeing its use. Many in 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 disappeared.
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 food crops.
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 steadily multiplying.
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 at all).
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 them.
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 even faster.
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 pesticide.
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 been forthcoming.
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 nationwide roll-out.
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 the fields.
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 finance departments.