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October 22, 2004


Food not politics; Feed the world; More GE in Africa; Butte County Farmers Against Measure D


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : October 22, 2004

* Food Not Politics
* Nurture the Heart, Feed the World
* ... Hesser and Borlaug Endorse Biotech Research
* UN Farm Chief Calls for More Genetic Food Investment in Africa
* Scientists Try to Demystify Biotechnology for the Media
* California Butte County Farmers Against Measure D
* The Consequences of Fear


Food Not Politics

- Ted Sheely, Truth About Trade & Technology

Should California embrace the future or turn back the clock?

That's the question thousands of Golden State voters will face on November 2.

No, I'm not talking about the presidential election. President Bush and Senator Kerry may not agree on a lot of things--Iraq, tax cuts, Social Security, etc.--but both of them support agricultural biotechnology, according to an American Farm Bureau survey.

Activists in four California counties, however, are now trying to ban what Bush and Kerry endorse--a mainstream farming choice utilizing technology that's accepted by scientists, conservationists, and the majority of men and women who work the land in my state, around the nation and across the globe.

Previous attempts to hinder biotechnology at the ballot box have failed. Two years ago, Oregon voters soundly rejected a complex and costly initiative that would have slapped special labels on food products containing even tiny traces of genetic enhancement.

After licking their wounds from that defeat, anti-biotech activists regrouped and decided to focus on California counties where there wasn't a large agricultural presence. In March, Mendocino County did their bidding with a vote to ban genetically modified crops. It was a symbolic measure because there aren't any biotech crops grown there. The climate and the soil aren't right for America's current leading biotech crops, so the Mendocino measure has had little practical effect. The same is true for Trinity County, which approved its own ban at a county executive meeting in August.

On Election Day, however, the number of California counties outlawing biotech crops could triple as voters consider bans in Butte, Humboldt, Marin, and San Luis Obispo Counties.

It's a safe bet that at least the Humboldt County initiative will fail. "I think it's fatally flawed," said Milt Boyd, a biology professor at Humboldt State University and a member of the local Democratic Party. "The science is wrong, the language is imprecise."

He's got that right. The Humboldt County measure actually defines DNA as "a complex protein" when in fact it's a nucleic acid. These are important distinctions in Professor Boyd's classroom--and they're no less important in our laws.

Even the group that collected more than 4,000 signatures to put the anti-biotech measure on the Humboldt ballot is urging voters to turn it down. "We're basically admitting we made some big mistakes" in the wording, said the group's co-chairwoman.

She can say that again. Her group's scientific ignorance would be laughable if it didn't threaten to do so much damage to farmers in California. Have these people even bothered to look at the evidence? The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says biotech foods are safe to eat and farm. So does the National Research Council, here in the United States. So do professors at California's public universities.

That's because they know how much biotechnology is delivering right now and how much it will offer in the future.

Consider this: Scientists at the University of California at Berkeley recently created a form of hypo-allergenic wheat through biotechnology. If it moves into commercial development, it will be a boon to people who suffer from wheat allergies. Similar work is now being done on soybeans, which almost certainly will lead to safer products, especially baby foods.

Yet the anti-biotech crowd apparently couldn't care less. I just wish they had to explain their views to a roomful of mothers who have infants with soy allergies.

Of the four California counties voting on agricultural biotechnology next month, the one to watch is Butte. It actually has a significant amount of agriculture. Moreover, the farmers there have done an effective job of organizing themselves. Earlier this year, some Mendocino voters reacted negatively to biotech companies becoming financially involved in what they considered a local matter. In Butte, however, the big companies have stayed away. Local farmers have bankrolled virtually all of the opposition movement. Their slogan is "Food Not Politics."

Meanwhile, something like two-thirds of the money for the ballot initiative--the folks whose motto ought to be "Politics Not Food"--has come from the Organic Consumers Association, based in Minnesota.

I'm convinced that if voters examine the facts about biotech crops, then they'll understand the benefits and make the right choices. After all, how bad can something be if both George W. Bush and John Kerry support it?

--- Ted Sheely raises cotton, tomatoes, wheat, pistachios and garlic in the San Joaquin Valley and lives in Lemoore, California. He is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology, a national grassroots advocacy group based in Des Moines, Iowa, formed by farmers in support of freer trade and advancements in biotechnology.

Nurture the Heart, Feed the World

by Leon Hesser; Amazon.com price $13.97; Hardcover, 132 pages, Synergy Books; (November 2004); ISBN: 0974466883. http://www.twovagabonds.com/index.htm

Leon Hesser was Director of the U.S. Government's worldwide program to increase food production in less-developed countries. After he retired from State Department, he spearheaded programs to increase food production in 20 nations of Asia, Africa and the former Soviet Union.

Florence Hesser was professor of education at George Washington University for 20 years and became well acquainted with President and Mrs. Carter while their daughter Amy was in her after-school program for four years. At the request of the Saudi Royal Family, she started a Reading Center in Saudi Arabia *********

In telling the remarkable life stories of these two vagabonds, Nurture the Heart, Feed the World conveys three positive messages:

First, it poses a challenge to others who may regret that they have not gone to college, by saying in effect: "If we can do it, you can too!" Florence and Leon Hesser were tenant farmers in Indiana with two children; they sold the farm business when Leon was 30 so he could go to Purdue. She worked as a secretary until age 35 when she entered Purdue as a freshman. They both obtained doctorates and went on to the world stage to accomplish extraordinary things.

Second, the story portrays America as a charitable country that strives to improve the quality of life of the world's poorer people. Besides U.S. government assistance, the Ford and Rockefeller and other foundations, universities and non-government entities help less-developed countries increase food production, improve education and provide health care. Americans can be proud.

Third, the story helps people become more aware of the extraordinary contribution -- relieving world hunger - made by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug.

Reviews: "Your book is clear, funny, moving, honest and informative" - Walter P. Falcon Distinguished Professor of International Agricultural Policy, Stanford University

"It is a story well told about lives well lived" - Robert D. Havener, Ford Foundation
********* ****

'Hesser and Borlaug Endorse Biotechnology Research'

Nurture the Heart, Feed the World, by Leon Hesser with Foreword by Norman Borlaug, 1970 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and father of the Green Revolution, is an inspiring new book just off the press.

The book also will help more people become aware of the extraordinary contribution -- relieving world hunger -- made by Norman Borlaug: Dr. Borlaug is credited with "saving the lives of more people than any person who ever lived." His interaction with Dr. Hesser in helping avert starvation in South Asia in the 1960s is described in the book.

At the close of his Foreword for the book, Dr. Borlaug says: "In conclusion, 34 years ago in my acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, I said that the Green Revolution had won a temporary success in man's war against hunger, which if fully implemented could provide sufficient food for humankind through the end of the 20th century.

This has happened. I now say the world has the technology -- either available or well advanced in the research pipeline -- to feed a population of 10 billion people. This compares with the world's population of 6 billion at the turn of the 21st century and 1.6 billion when I was born in 1914. But a sustained combination of conventional breeding and biotechnology research will be needed to ensure that the genetic improvement of food crops continues at a pace sufficient to meet growing world populations."

UN Farm Chief Calls for More Genetic Food Investment in Africa

- Demian McLean, Bloomberg, October 19, 2004

Oct. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Seed makers like Monsanto Co. should develop more genetically modified crops for Africa to ensure stable food supplies, the head of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization said during a visit to Washington.

"I would like to see the private sector taking maybe more risk on the future by focusing on potential markets," Jacques Diouf, a native of Senegal, said in an interview today after a speech to a Howard University audience.

The Rome-based UN agency helps nations modernize farming techniques and boost nutritional levels in the developing world, and in times of famine mobilizes food donations.

Diouf's comments may herald a wider role for genetically modified crops in Africa, the continent most vulnerable to crop failures and a place that scientists say could benefit from improved plant species. Gene-altered foods in the past two years have split the U.S. from the European Union and some African states because of health and safety concerns.

About 842 million hungry people around the world, many of them farmers, are an untapped market for genetically engineered seeds, Diouf said. Monsanto, based in St. Louis, is the world's largest maker of such seeds, which can improve crop yields and help resist drought.

Twenty of the 25 countries that the U.S. monitors worldwide for possible famines are in Africa, according to Roy Stacy, a former U.S. State Department official who heads the Famine Early Warning Systems Network in Washington.

African Farmers A shift toward genetic crops may depend on what African farmers choose to grow. Much of southern Africa cultivates cassava, sorghum and millet, and companies like Monsanto are focused on different crops. "Our whole business strategy is organized around corn, cotton and oil seeds, mostly in the Americas," Monsanto spokesman Bryan Hurley said in an interview.

Though Monsanto isn't focusing on African staples like sorghum or cassava, it has contributed genetic patents that can be applied to African crops. One of the biggest beneficiaries of these donations is the nonprofit Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis.

Roger Beachy, president of the center, said he has been using Monsanto technology designed for sweet potatoes to African cassava, also known as tapioca root. The crop is a staple for 600 million Africans, and is prey to a virus that destroys up to 60 percent of yields each growing season, according to Beachy.

In 2000, the Danforth center had its first success with a virus-resistant cassava in the St. Louis laboratory. Beachy predicted the plant will be ready for planting in Africa within six years, after it undergoes health and environmental tests.

Safety Concerns Questions about the safety of bioengineered crops remain an issue for much of Europe and some African countries. In 2003, Zambia and Zimbabwe rejected U.S. corn donations as a famine loomed, fearing the grain might contain genetically modified seed. The move was applauded by the European Union, which had a moratorium on such food imports.

Zambia has since relaxed its opposition to bioengineered crops. "There was a misunderstanding that we had a blanket refusal to accept modified grain," Inonge Mbikusita-Lewanika, Zambia's ambassador to the U.S., said in an interview. "Today the biggest obstacles are price and availability."

Switzerland-based Syngenta AG, which competes with Monsanto in the market for genetically modified seeds, resumed selling to South African farmers in September after defeating an effort by activists to block the marketing of its products. The group, called Biowatch, also has targeted Monsanto.

The European Union's next health-policy chief, Markos Kyprianou, pledged last week to approve more biotech foods, expanding the market after a six-year ban. The European Commission endorsed a Monsanto corn for feed in July and a Syngenta corn for food in May. These are the only two biotech approvals since 1998 and followed a split among member nations that gave the commission the power to decide on its own.

"These foods have been poked, punched, examined, studied more than any food in the history of world, and there has been no danger found," Beachy said.

Scientists Try to Demystify Biotechnology for the Media

- R. Balaji, Business Line (The Hindu; India) 21-Oct-2004

Is agri-biotechnology getting a raw deal because of controversy dogging the use of genetically engineered crops? Yes, said scientists at a workshop organised last week for journalists at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, Patancheru, near Hyderabad.

There is more to biotechnology than just genetic engineering or transgenic crops, which involves transferring a gene from a related or unrelated organism and putting it into a crop plant to give it the beneficial trait that the gene carries, they said.

The three-day workshop held last week sought to demystify a topic that has evoked strong emotions in developed and developing countries. The workshop sought to increase the awareness of journalists and to enable them to better address the issues and thereby, help the public come to an informed decision.

As the Head of Communications at Icrisat, Mr Rex Navarro, put it, the gene revolution has a global impact in improving agriculture production and rural economy, as much as the green revolution a few decades back. But the gene revolution, a tool in biotechnology, has not been well understood by the public. There is a need to inform and educate.

Important components of public acceptance of biotechnology are trust and awareness -- trust that the public holds in the regulatory agencies and the system. According to Mr Jim Shannahan of the US-based Cornell University, trust in the regulatory agencies had helped the public accept genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Factors that build trust are open communication, a clear agenda, public-private collaboration and a clear awareness of the benefits.

According to Dr K. K. Sharma of Icrisat's Genetic Transformation Laboratory, the common perception that the increased commercialisation of biotechnology may exclude poor farmers from benefiting from the process need not hold true. Increased research in public sector institutions meet their needs.

Scientists, officials from the Department of Biotechnology representatives from the private sector and biotechnology associations made a presentation. But participants could not help notice the absence of those who had less faith in the potential that biotechnology or genetic engineering had to offer.

Apart from Icrisat, the other organisers were the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre of India International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications and the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

However, those making a presentation on the topic recognised the need for stringent regulations needed to address the bio-safety issues -- the possible adverse impact that genetic engineering could have on human and environmental health. The experiences of handling a range of genetically engineered crops over the last decade shows no reason for fear of such an impact.

Mr Paresh Verma, Director-Research Bioseed Research India Pvt Ltd stressed that "hardcore breeding" is needed as a background material for biotechnology which has to be a component of traditional breeding systems. A gene with a specific trait has to be transferred into an existing crop variety that has other beneficial traits.

It would help if the Government has a clear roadmap for exploiting biotechnology and puts in place a strong deterrence against the violation of bio-safety norms.

Scientists said that the concentration of beneficial traits such as better productivity, resistance to pests and diseases -- what scientists call biotic stresses, or resistance to droughts -- abiotic stress -- is something that traditional breeders have been trying.

But what took them years to achieve through systematic breeding of crops in the field, geneticists are doing in the lab by precisely identifying the genes and transferring them into crops. Biotechnology has only made it possible for scientists to break the barriers between living organisms and exploit the genetic traits in any of them for the benefit of farmers and consumers.

According to Professor Farid Wahliyar, Global Team Leader for Biotechnology, Icrisat, research is aimed at "harnessing biotechnology for the poor." Chickpea and groundnut yields could increase by 30-50 per cent, if water is not a constraint. Biotechnology can help create drought-resistant crops.

Farmers are spending more than a billion dollars on insecticide sprays, which could be avoided if crops are insecticide-resistant. Reducing insecticide sprays holds significant benefits for the environment. According to Mr R.V. Ramaniah, a scientist in the Department of Biotechnology, there are stringent guidelines to ensure bio-safety. The Environmental Protection Act, 1986, rules on GMOs, and a host of other legislation including the Seed Act, Plant Variety Protection and Farmers Rights Act ensure the safe use of such technology. There is a multi-level monitoring system that keeps a close watch on genetic research and the process of transferring the crops to the farmers' field. Over 60 research institutions in the public sector and 35 in the private sector are involved in transgenic research.

Biotechnology is here to stay. Dr Margarita Escaler, Manager, Global Knowledge Centre on Crop Biotechnology, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), said there is a continuous increase in the number of countries using biotechnology for crop improvement.

Despite a strong emotional resistance to genetically modified crops, the area under such crops had increased from 1.8 million hectares in 1996 to about 68 million hectares in 2003, she said.

California Butte County Farmers Against Measure D

View their commercial at http://pacsatpost.com/connexion/Pride.mov

The Consequences of Fear

- CropBiotech Net, http://www.isaaa.org/kc

David Ropeik takes a look at "The Consequences of Fear," an European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) paper that explores the effects of both fear and risk misperception, and correlates them with risk management strategies.

As a result of some of the decisions we make when we are fearful, Ropeik writes, along with some of the choices we make when we are not fearful enough, and because of the ways our bodies react to chronically elevated levels of stress, the hazards of risk misperception may be more significant than any of the individual risks about which we fret.

Contributing to the effects of fear is 'the mean world syndrome,' where various sectors, including the media, use an approach to make risks sound as dramatic, threatening, and urgent as possible. With this in mind, Ropek recommends that (1) government and business should take a holistic approach to risk as they formulate risk management policy, considering how people perceive a risk, and how they are likely to react to government policy about that risk; (2) risk communicators must convey information to people in ways that help them to keep risk in perspective; and (3) those who develop the methodologies of valuation analysis must design ways to quantify the effects of perception, so that these effects can be included in analyses of the costs and benefits of various risk management strategies.

Download the full article in PDF format at http://www.nature.com/cgi-taf/DynaPage.taf?file=/embor/journal/v5/n1s/full/740}0228.html&filetype=pdf


Landline: Bitter Harvest

- Marc McEvoy, Sydeny Morning Herald (Australia)

Bitter Harvest, ABC, noon Sunday

"Origin of the Species" could have been the title for this BBC special, the first of four Landline programs about genetically modified crops. If you've ever worried about cauliflowers growing out the back of your head after eating supermarket vegies, this series is worth watching. And you don't have to be Peter Singer to understand the bio-ethical implications of genetic engineering or, as a Senate fundamentalist might say, playing with "the work of the devil".

"Bitter Harvest" ploughs through the history of GM biotechnology since genes were first transferred from one organism to another at Stanford University in 1972. Despite commercial success, questions persist about the environmental safety of GM crops and the legal and moral dilemmas of, as Mary Shelley once opined, "the most radical experiment ever conceived against the natural world".