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Date:

October 29, 2004

Subject:

Culling Politics from the Food; Traditional Risks; Mathaai U Turns; African American Greens; Changing Genes to Feed the World; Witch Against Biotech

 

Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : October 29, 2004

* EU Authorises GM Maize for Import
* Culling Politics from the Food Supply
* Risk from Conventionally Bred Crop Varieties?
* Nobel Laureate Supports Biotech Capacity Building
* Report Tackles Plant Biotech Progress In Africa
* Facilitating Small-Market Biotechnology-Derived Crops?
* Conference on World Hunger
* An African-American Environmentalist Group Supports GM Crops
* Changing Genes to Feed the World
* Economic Effects of GM Rice Adoption
* Gene Flow Among Related Brassica?
* Organic Industry Lobby Misrepresents Own Rules
* Organic Land Hogs
* Now Witches are Also Against Biotech!
--

EU Authorises Monsanto GMO Maize for Import

- Reuters, Oct. 26, 2004

The European Union authorised imports of a genetically modified (GMO) food made by world biotech pioneer Monsanto (MON.N) on Tuesday, its second approval since lifting a five-year ban on new GMOs, officials said.

"It is adopted, there were no problems," an official at the European Commision, the EU's executive arm, told Reuters. The Commission used a legal default procedure that kicks in after months of deadlock between EU governments to issue an approval for a Roundup Ready maize type known as NK603.

The maize has been modified to resist the herbicide glyphosate to allow farmers to manage weeds better. When imported, it will be used to make products such as starch, oil, maize gluten feed and maize meal, and for use in animal feed.

Tuesday's approval is the EU's second after the 25-nation bloc restarted new GMO authorisations in mid-May and put an end to a longstanding moratorium on new biotech imports that had angered major trading partners such as the United States

Under the EU's complex decision-making process, if EU member states fail to agree after three months at ministerial level on allowing a new GMO into the bloc, then the Commission may rubberstamp an authorisation.

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Culling Politics from the Food Supply

- Ted Sheely, San Francisco Chronicle, October 28, 2004
 
Should California embrace the future or turn back the clock? That's the question thousands of Golden State voters will face on Tuesday.

No, I'm not talking about the presidential election. President Bush and Sen. John Kerry may not agree on a lot of things -- Iraq, tax cuts or Social Security -- 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 using technology that's accepted by scientists, conservationists and the majority of men and women who work the land in California, 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 products containing even tiny traces of foods with genetic enhancement.

After licking their wounds from that defeat, anti-biotech activists regrouped and decided to focus on a couple of California counties where there wasn't a large biotech presence. In March, Mendocino County did their bidding with a vote to ban genetically modified crops. The measure was symbolic; there aren't any biotech crops grown there. The climate and the soil aren't right for America's predominant biotech crops such as soy, corn and cotton, 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 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, Martha Devine.

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. The University of California also has a systemwide biotechnology program. 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 hypoallergenic 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 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, about 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.

Let the voters examine the facts about biotech crops. Then they'll understand the benefits and make the right choices.
--
Ted Sheely is a farmer who lives in the San Joaquin Valley town of Lemoore (Kings County), where he raises cotton, tomatoes, wheat, pistachios and garlic. He is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org), a grassroots advocacy group based in Des Moines, Iowa.

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Risk from Conventionally Bred Crop Varieties?

From Prakash: An AgBioView reader, Mr. Tilman Kluge of Germany asked me whether any conventionally bred varieties of crops have been proven unsafe and thus removed from cultivation/market or from seed catalogues because of unexpected negative effects on health or environment.  To answer this, I sought help from Henry Miller who in turn got Dave Longtin to send me the following information.

Just imagine the global outcry if these crop varieties had been developed through biotechnology? An important point to recognize here that we have always lived with certain risks from crop breeding because of the tremendous benefits it brought to agriculture. While there were some problems occasionally, none was catastrophic.  Problematic varieties can simply be ignored, or pulled from cultivation.  Biotechnology is no different.  If any thing, GM crops are far more safer because of their relative precision, knowledge base, substantial safety studies, and regulation involved.

=========

From Dave Longtin:
 
Please find below excerpts from my USA Today along with a complete list of citations. In addition to the Lenape and that toxic celery variety you already know about, there was a strain of celery that caused outbreaks of phytophotodermatitis among grocery store workers in the western United States during the mid 1980s. That particular strain resulted not from selective breeding, but from a random mutation. To my knowledge, that accidental celery variety was never taken off the market.

There also were varieties of squash in Alabama and California that were removed from production because they contained dangerous levels of cucurbitacin, as well as a type of zucchini that caused severe food poisonings in Australia during the early 1980s.
 
=======

U.S. Needs to Allay Biotech Food Fears

- David Longtin and David Lineback,  USA Today, January 26, 2000. Excerpts below..

Here's a story right down the alley of biotech critics: A few years ago, celery growers introduced what they thought was a wonderful new strain. Highly resistant to insects, it promised to boost yields dramatically. There was just one problem: People who handled the celery developed a serious rash. Dermatologists learned that the celery was shedding psoralens, natural chemicals that irritate the skin when exposed to sunlight.

The story is true, but here's another fact for those fearful of biotechnology: Traditional breeding techniques, not biotech wizardry, created that creepy celery back in the mid-1980s.

This month, government representatives from around the world are in Montreal to set the rules under which genetically engineered foods are to be tested and traded internationally. While these U.N.- sponsored talks are meant to focus on the environmental effects of cultivating biotech crops, larger issues of consumer safety inevitably will creep into the discussions.

And traditional breeding practices have never been as safe as most people believe. Over the past few decades, several conventionally derived varieties of crops have been pulled off the U.S. market because they possessed dangerous genetic defects.

In 1981 and 1982, new types of squash were taken out of production in Alabama and California when tests showed that these crops contained abnormally high levels of cucurbitacin, a substance that attacks cells. During the same period, 22 people in Queensland, Australia, contracted severe food poisoning after eating zucchini that possessed huge quantities of cucurbitacin. Many of the victims developed agonizing cramps and persistent diarrhea, and collapsed an hour or two after ingesting about 3 grams of zucchini. Like that irritating celery, these vegetables were not genetically engineered.

Potato making a comeback. Ironically, one of the most notorious crops ever produced might be on the verge of a comeback, thanks to biotechnology.

When it was commercially introduced in 1967, the Lenape potato seemed to have much to recommend it as a potato chip: less sugars, more solids and better chipping qualities than other varieties. But soon after its public debut, researchers found that the Lenape also contained slightly higher levels of toxic glycoalkaloids than allowed under federal regulations. While it is unlikely that this product would have killed anyone, many scientists believe there is a link between glycoalkaloids and spina bifida, a serious birth defect.

The Lenape had not been created by any high-tech wizardry, but through a time-honored breeding method. Scientists merely hybridized two distantly related potato varieties, then painstakingly tried to sort out the good characteristics from the bad.

References
---
 
Seligman PJ, Mathias CGT, O'Malley MA, Beier RC, Fehrs LJ, Serrill WS and Halperin WE. Phytophotodermatitis from celery among grocery store workers. Archives of Dermatology 1987 Nov; 123: 1478-1482.  

Rymal KS, Chambliss OL, Bond MD and Smith DA. Squash containing toxic cucurbitacin compounds occurring in California and Alabama. Journal of Food Protection 1984 Apr; 47(4): 270-271. This article also describes the Australian zucchini food poisonings.

Akeley RV, Mills WR, Cummingham CE and Watts J. Lenape: a new potato variety high in solids and chipping quality. American Potato Journal 1968; 45: 142-145.  

Zitnak A and Johnston GR. Glycoalkaloid content of B5141-6 potatoes. American Potato Journal 1970; 47: 256-260.

Sinden SL and Webb RE. Effect of variety and location on the glycoalkaloid content of potatoes. American Potato Journal 1972; 49: 334-338.

**********************************************

Nobel Laureate Supports Biotech Capacity Building

- Crop Biotech Update, Oct. 29, 2004 http://www.isaaa.org/kc

The 2004 Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai has called for biotechnology capacity building in Kenya and  other developing countries to enable safe adoption  of the technology. Maathai, who is also Kenya's assistant minister for  environment and natural resources, won the coveted prize for her long standing  crusade against environmental destruction in Africa.

During a live national  television talk show in Kenya, the Nobel Peace Laureate said that agricultural  biotechnology is here to stay and the best "we  could do is to train the people involved to be able to minimize any inherent  risk." She gave the example of Kenya where President Mwai Kibaki mid this year supported the use of biotechnology to boost food production in the  country while commissioning a modern biosafety greenhouse for Bt maize trials  being conducted by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute and the International  Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

Kenya is in the process  of enacting biosafety laws and policy that is expected to open up the country  for commercialization of transgenic crops like cotton  and maize. The environmentalist's support for agricultural biotechnology  comes amidst realization that conventional technology alone can no longer meet  food production demands, and that agricultural biotechnology is increasingly  becoming an important component of global food security strategy.

For more of the Kenya Biotechnology Information Center, visit http://www.isaaa.org/africenter

******************

Report Tackles Plant Biotech Progress In Africa
- Crop Biotech Update, Oct. 29, 2004 http://www.isaaa.org/kc

In a report published online by Agbioforum on The Status of Plant Biotechnology  in Africa, Jennifer A. Thomson of the University of Cape Town, South Africa  recounts the progress made so far by South Africa, Egypt, and Kenya in the  field of plant biotechnology.

Thomson tracks the progress  of various projects underway in Africa, including the University of Cape  Town's maize streak virus (MSV) - resistant  maize, drought-tolerant maize, and vaccine production in tobacco; The South  African Sugar Experiment Station's herbicide-resistant sugarcane; The  Council for Scientific and Industrial Research's fungi-resistant maize and millet; Cairo's Agricultural Genetic Engineering Research Institute's  insect-resistant Egyptian cotton; and Kenya's Agricultural Research virus-resistant  sweet potatoes. Thomson looks at current setbacks as well, as GM crops move  slowly from the experimental to the commercial stage, while meeting regulatory  requirements on the way.

So far, Thomson reports,  the biotech crops under study show promise. The sugarcane resistant to the  herbicide glufosinate ammonium showed phenotypic stability  in field trials. Field trials are pending for AGERI's insect-resistant  long-staple GM cotton strain, developed by crossing Egyptian elite germplasm  with Monsanto's Bollgard II. Other GM crops that have been in field trials  for more than one season include potato tuber moth-resistant potatoes, virus-resistant  squash and tomatoes, corn borer-resistant maize, and drought-tolerant wheat. More crops are in the field trial stage, and some companies have expressed  interest in their commercialization.

Agbioforum recently released a special issue of its online magazine, this  time focusing on Progress, Achievements, and Constraints for Plant Biotechnology  in Developing Countries. With guest editors Nigel Taylor, Lawrence Kent, and  Claude Fauquet of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, St. Louis, Missouri,  U.S.A., the special edition contains more articles that discuss the experiences  of various organizations and agencies in introducing biotechnology to the developing  world.

 Read Thomson's  article at http://www.agbioforum.org/v7n12/v7n12a02-thomson.htm.  For more articles, access the full issue at http://www.agbioforum.org

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"What can Public Research Agencies do to Facilitate the Regulatory Consideration of Small-Market Biotechnology-Derived Crops?"

- Workshop on November 8 and 9; Venue: USDA-APHIS, 4700 River Road, Riverdale, MD 20737

The workshop will address issues surrounding the commercialization of small-market biotechnology-derived crops, specifically, identification of barriers to entering the regulatory process and will investigate models to overcome these barriers. The goal is to help expedite the presentation for regulatory processing of publicly funded small-market crops developed through biotechnology methods. If these crops are not commercialized, consumers and growers alike will be unable to judge potential benefits of the technology.

With about 100 experts with diverse backgrounds in fields such as crop research, development, registration, and commercialization, the workshop will work to address the obstacles to entering the regulatory process, as faced by small-market biotechnology derived crops in the United States.

Sponsored by The National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy (NCFAP); The Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA-CSREES); The Agricultural Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA-ARS)

More information: Dr. Sujatha Sankula

**********************************************

Second Annual Conference on World Hunger

 - December 2, 2004; University of Maryland, College Park  http://www.intprog.umd.edu/hunger2/

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), every night almost 800 million people in the developing world go to sleep hungry, despite the fact that the world's overall food production is sufficient to meet the demands of its population. In addition, approximately 1.2 billion people exist on less than a dollar per day. The total represents nearly one-third of the world's population.

Hunger in the midst of plenty is one of the most difficult development challenges of our time. Aggregate food production continues to increase, yet hunger continues to blight the lives of one-seventh of the world's population.

Consequently, the University of Maryland's Office of International Programs, Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (JIFSAN), Center for Sustainable Development, and College of Agriculture and Natural Resources are holding a second annual one-day conference to address the seriousness of world hunger.

Full schedule, list of speakers, directions and registration information available at:
http://www.intprog.umd.edu/hunger2

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Genetically Modified Foods

- African American Environmentalist Association. http://www.aaenvironment.com/GM.htm

"extremist....calling for bans on useful, relatively safe products. ....As part of a minority group with a long history of disadvantage, we do not have time for these games."

Like most human planetary management issues today, such as global climate change, the GM foods issue is hugely complex. GM foods have great promise and great dangers. AAEA leans in the direction of aggressive market production with needed oversight regulations in a global management context. If all goes well, one thing is certain, we will have to feed about 12 billion people everyday in the next 50 years.

Good and evil are moral choices humans are free to make. As applied to technology, these moral choices present great opportunities and great dangers. We manipulate atoms to light our buildings and to make weapons of mass destruction. Companies produce chemicals to make our lives easier, but sometimes cut corners in the management, storage and disposal to maximize profits. We utilize coal, oil and gas for our cars, businesses and utility needs, but these same natural resources pollute our air and water without adequate protections.

Twenty first century choices face us in stem cell research, cloning and genetically modified foods. Proponents and opponents present their cases and policy-makers are faced with protecting the public interest. Unfortunately, human history is littered with cases of indiscretions by people with evil intentions. It is within this context that we look at the case for genetically modified and engineered organisims and foods.

We support prudent use of genetically modified foods. We believe that labels should be placed on all GM products. We also understand the risks involved, but believe the benefits far outweigh the costs. Starvation is much more dangerous to more people than any threat presented by GM foods. Droughts and famine are increasing throughout the world, particularly on the continent of Africa.

Although some traditional environmental groups insist that they are simply providing facts about potential health and environmental effects of GM foods, others oppose it as a Frankenstein product. Of course, none of these groups have programs to feed the world's hungry. Some USA based social justice groups, such as the Africa Faith & Justice Network are opposing USA policies that impose GM food aid on southern African countries facing severe drought and famine. In addition to concerns about health effects, they think it is a tactic to blatantly benefit agri-business, not poor and hungry people.

We understand the health concerns, but see nothing wrong with agri-business profiting from such exchanges. Captialism feeds America. In fact, Americans are suffering more from overeating than lack of food. As planetary managers, we must understand that there are no benign systems that can provide for human needs and we are obligated to protect the planet to the maximum extent possible. One major advantage of GM food is that crops genetically engineered to resist weeds and bugs enable farmers to decrease pesticide and herbicide use. Of course, superweeds and bugs could also be inadvertently created. Planetary management is very complex and serious business.

The fight over the use of genetically modified corn provides a good example to illustrate the issues involved in the use of this product. Interestingly, one of the leading opponents to new GM produce, Europe, has preliminarily approved (January 2004) the sale of GM corn via the European Commission. The Council of Ministers will make a final decision this year. Opponents promise to sue to stop the use of GM corn in the EU. Environmental opponents believe GM products threaten biodiversity and will release pootentially harmful contaminants into the environment.

We support Friend of the Earth's proposed "GM Contamination and Liability Bill" being introduced in the British Parliament. The bill calls for a strict approach to any future planting of GM crops, including those planted for trial purposes. It stipulates minimum separation distances between GM and organic/conventional crops, clarifies liability issues if cross-contamination occurs, and ensures the regulation of GM is simple and that all overseeing bodies are self-funded. We do not support the Five Year Freeze associated with the bill.

Genetically modified technology will not eliminate hunger and malnutrition because dysfunctional governments and economies create problems with production, access and distribution of food. Flawed policies, greed and imcompetence will always keep some people in ignorance and poverty. However, GM foods can improve survivability and increase productivity of plants in inhospital conditions. GM foods can also reduce the need to use large quantities of herbicides and pesticides. Of course, this does not stop Mendocino County, California -- considered by some to be the center of America's anti-biotechnology movement-- from holding a vote to prohibit GM plants and animals from being raised or kept in the county.

Such anti-GM entities consider it to be the biggest uncontrolled biological experiment going on in the world today. Although proof of serious harm to humans, animals and plants has yet to be definitively proven, opponents fear that humans and the environment could be damaged through accidental cross-pollination of GM products with natural plants. This is a legitimate fear, but is not sufficient to ban the use of all GM products. Proponents point out that negative effects are nonexistent, pointing out that not a single stomach ache has been reported since the Food and Drug Administration first approved genetically engineered crops for human consumption in 1994. Great Britain's Food Standards Agency also favors the use of GM foods. Of course, most health effects of concern, including cancer and the results of long-term damage to the immune system take years to become evident. And then there would be the complex task of directly associating any damaging effects with GM products.

All types of foods and organisms have been genetically engineered: corn, cotton, tomatoes, soybeans, sugarbeets, oilseed rape, maize, salmon, pigs, cows, and the list goes on. With about 6 billion people eating everyday, we need every reasonable tool known to man to assure adequate nutrition for Earth's residents. GM foods, property utilized, can help meet these needs in a number of ways: pest resistance, herbicide tolerance, disease resistance, cold tolerance, drought tolerance and salinity toleranc, among others. Many countries are growing GM crops: U.S., Canada, China, Argentina, Australia, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Mexico, Romania, South Africa, Spain and Uruguay. Interestingly, according the USDA approximately 54% of all soybeans cultivated in the U.S. in 2000 were genetically-modified.

In the U.S., three government agencies have jurisdiction over GM foods: EPA evaluates GM plants for environmental safety, the USDA evaluates whether the plant is safe to grow, and the FDA evaluates whether the plant is safe to eat. Mandatory food labeling is also a complex issue. The FDA's current position on food labeling is govered by the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which is only concerned with food additives, not whole foods or food products that are considered GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe). The FDA contends that GM foods are substantially equivalent to non-GM foods, and therefore not subject to more stringent labeling. If all GM foods and food products are to be labeled, Congress must enact sweeping changes in the existing food lableling policy. The Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act (HR 2916) is probably a good place to start for food labeling.

Just as AAEA supports nuclear power with the belief that there should be serious oversight, we support the use of modified foods in the same way. We believe that traditional environmental groups go to far in calling for a ban on nuclear power and GM. They could still provide 95% of the same constructive criticisms and oversight in these areas, but are extremist when calling for bans on useful, relatively safe products. We understand that part of this extremism partially comes as a reaction to the extremism of greedy, unscrupulous capitalists abusers. As part of a minority group with a long history of disadvantage, we do not have time for these games.

However, we have serious concerns about human genetic engineering, particular cross species modifications and cloning. We fear that the Hitlerian contingent will take experiments with human DNA into an area of manufacturing humans for some ungodly reason and mad scientists will inexorably attempt to pierce the species genetic barrier and mix humans with animals FOR IMPROVEMENTS. Cinema has caught these images in The Matrix and The Island of Dr. Moreau. We would join our extremist colleagues in the traditional environmental movement in calling for a total ban on this type of unethical and immoral activity.

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Changing Genes to Feed the World

- A review by David Pimentel, Science, Vol 306, Issue 5697,  815, 29 October 2004

"Mendel in the Kitchen A Scientist's View of Genetically Modified Foods by Nina Fedoroff and Nancy Marie Brown; Joseph Henry Press, Washington, DC, 2004. 366 pp. $24.95, C$32.95. ISBN 0-309-09205-1."

In Mendel in the Kitchen, Nina Fedoroff (an expert in plant molecular biology and genetics at Pennsylvania State University) and Nancy Brown (a science writer) present a clearly written history of plant breeding that focuses on the new field of the genetic engineering of crops. They emphasize the many contributions that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) now make toward increasing food supplies while at the same time raising the nutritional levels of some foods.

In the initial chapters, the authors review early plant breeding research, such as the development of hybrid corn, that featured the transfer of genes within crop species. This approach made enormous contributions to fostering the growth of crop yields during the Green Revolution. Crop improvements developed through plant breeding were responsible for approximately 40 percent of the increase in yields; the remaining 60 percent stemmed from greater inputs in fossil-fuels energy, fertilizers, and pesticides. Between 1950 and 1983, yields of crops (especially cereal grains) doubled to quadrupled. On a global scale, grains provide approximately 80 percent of the calories consumed by humans. Thus, the Green Revolution was vital for feeding billions of people around the world.

Though highly successful, these efforts at improving the qualities and yields of crop plants through breeding were relatively slow compared with the advances propelled by subsequent developments in the fields of molecular biology and genetic engineering. Formerly, plant breeders had to depend on manipulating (through the establishment and crossing of selected lineages) the genetic material within a particular crop to increase yields. Now, genetic engineering technology provides a means by which beneficial genes can be relatively rapidly transferred between different plant species or even taken from essentially any other organism and introduced into crops. For example, as the authors point out, this technology has been used to improve the resistance of winter rye, carrots, and other crops to freezing conditions.

However, to date plant breeding, genetic engineering, and other agricultural technologies have not been able to keep pace with the continuing growth in the global human population. (The current population numbers nearly 6.5 billion, and each day there are more than a quarter million additional people to be fed.) The World Health Organization recently reported that around the world more than 3.7 billion people are now malnourished--the largest number in history. Contributing to this nutritional problem are declines in per capita cereal grain production that, according to data collected by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, began in 1984 and continue to the present.

Several places in the book, Fedoroff and Brown emphasize the value of developing herbicide-tolerant crops to help increase yields by controlling weeds. Although raising such genetically engineered crops can reduce weed infestations, there is little evidence the new technology is significantly more effective for weed control than current approaches that combine the use of herbicides and tillage. Nevertheless, companies working on GMOs (which include many firms with substantial interests in agricultural chemicals) have placed a heavy emphasis on developing herbicide-tolerant crops. This focus has contributed to the increased use of herbicides to control weeds and the resulting increase in environmental pollution.

Although they discuss freezing tolerance in crops, the authors do not mention a related issue: the tremendous opportunities that genetic engineering offers for developing perennial grains. At present, most agricultural grains are annual crops, which means the soil has to be tilled and the fields replanted every year. These tasks require the annual investment of an enormous amount of energy, both fossil and human energy. The annual tillage also contributes to the serious soil erosion afflicting croplands in the United States and elsewhere around the world. If perennial grains were developed, farmers might have to replant only once every five or six years. This use of biotechnology would be especially beneficial for many farmers in developing countries, who currently may have to spend more than 400 hours per hectare hand-tilling their fields before planting their crops.

I found the authors' criticisms of organic agriculture surprising. They report that yields from organic farming are significantly lower than those for most conventionally grown crops and therefore conclude that a shift toward organic foods would require significantly more cropland. This is not the case. Long-term experiments (lasting 22 years) conducted at the Rodale Institute that compared conventional corn and soybean production with two different organic technologies found that the yields were approximately the same. In fact, during drought years corn yields from the organic treatments were significantly higher than those from the recommended conventional approach. The organic farming technologies also offered the advantage of avoiding applications of insecticides and herbicides, whereas conventional corn production uses more insecticides and herbicides than any other crop grown in the United States.

Overall, organic approaches would reduce the use of fossil energy in corn production by about 30 percent and substantially increase the organic matter in the soil. The authors' discussion of organic farming emphasizes its potential drawbacks while neglecting the opportunities it offers to conserve fossil energy resources, reduce soil erosion, and reduce global warming.

The criticisms expressed here reflect my disagreement with the authors' positions on several topics covered in the book. But they should not overshadow the fact that Fedoroff and Brown present a strong case that plant breeding and genetic engineering have made and will continue to make substantial contributions to our food supply.

Certainly, increased awareness and appreciation of the potential benefits of GMO research will enlarge the scope to cover additional dimensions, such as the development of perennial grain crops. Researchers from many disciplines, social scientists, and any readers desiring a broad perspective of the rewarding applications of genetics in agriculture will find Mendel in the Kitchen most helpful.
----
 The reviewer is in the Department of Entomology, Comstock Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA. E-mail: dp18@cornell.edu 

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Economic Effects of GM Rice Adoption

- Crop Biotech Update, Oct. 29, 2004 http://www.isaaa.org/kc

Welfare gains stand to  be more significant than farm productivity gains as a result of the potential  health-enhancing attributes of golden rice. This  was the conclusion of Kym Anderson and colleagues in a World Bank Policy Research  Working Paper entitled "Genetically Modified Rice Adoption: Implications  for Welfare and Poverty Alleviation."

Substantial welfare gains are expected even assuming that golden rice has  no positive effect on farm productivity. There is also no valuation of the  non-pecuniary welfare gain of Vitamin A deficient persons from being able to  reduce that vitamin deficiency through access to golden rice. The authors who  were from the University of Adelaide, Australia and the Danish Research Institute  of Food Economics in Copenhagen at the time of the study, added that if developing  countries particularly Sub-Sahran Africa would adopt golden rice, the welfare gains and alleviation of poverty and ill-health would be even greater. The  gains would even be more significant if golden rice adoption encouraged the  adoption of other GM rice and other crop varieties.

See the full report at http://econ.worldbank.org/files/38016_wps3380.pdf

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Gene Flow Among Related Brassica?

- Simon Barber

In Oct. 26 AgBioView is a piece (extract below) quoting natural hybridisation between oilseed rape (species not identified) and wild mustard (species not identified).

The majority of oilseed rape gown in the western world is made up of Brassica napus and wild mustard is the common name given by some (North America for instance) to Sinapis arvensis, though in this report it may be another species.

I am unaware of any report where cross fertilization of S. arvensis by B. napus has resulted in fertile offspring. Please would you provide me with the reference showing this, or am I considering introgression amongst the wrong species?

Many thanks, Simon Barber. Brussels, Belgium.

> Superweed Dreams; Norman Ellstrand Digs Deep Into Transgene Fears
> New Scientist, October 23, 2004, volume 184; issue 2470
> In fact, the first known case of unintended, natural hybridisation
> between a transgenic crop (oilseed rape) and a wild species (wild
> mustard) was one of dozens of presentations on the topic of
> crop-to-wild gene flow at a meeting in Amsterdam last year. That

*********
Response from Prof. Norman Ellstrand

Thanks to Barber for his posting and to Prakash for calling this to my attention. 

One of the problems of writing a book review for the public is the need to increase accessibility. In this case, accessibility comes with the sacrifice of taxonomic names. The oilseed rape in question is Brassica napus; the wild mustard in question is B. rapa. For those who know the hybridization/introgression literature on the two species, it should be no surprise that they would be the ones for which transgenes first migrated to the wild. The report of these spontaneous transgenic hybrids (the first such plants recognized) is available both in the chapter by Warwick et al. in the reviewed book and in an article by Warwick et al. in the August 2003 issue of Theoretical and Applied Genetics.

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Reply Again from Simon Barber

Actually, one can go a fair way back to U in the 1930s and find his diagrammatic Triangle that shows the relationships among the Brassicas. B. napus (the commercial canola in question) itself is an interspecific cross between B. oleraceae and and B. rapa (the wild turnip in the piece I commented on). B. rapa is itself grown as a canola crop (though acreage is small, it is favoured by some farmers because of its need for fewer frost free days) and also as turnip (another form). 

Had the cross actually been between B. napus and Sinapis arvensis (called wild mustard by most farmers on the Canadian prairie) there would have been uproar amongst the farming community. One of the advantages of the novel herbicide tolerant canolas that so many farmers choose to grow is the ability to control this previously very difficult to control related weed species.

It's probably worth remembering too that the issue of interspecific hybridisiation is not new in the biosafety debate - rather is was the first major drivers regarding biosafety. Since the first field trial of a genetically modified plant (as it happens B. napus) in Belgium in 1986 the Brassica research community and government regulators have shown lots of interest in this area. The OECD has published a "biology" of B. napus which goes into interspecific crossing potential in some detail, See http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/28/22/27531440.pdf  This draw heavily on the work of Warwick and others who continue with interesting work in this area.

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Organic Industry Lobby Misrepresents Own Rules to Undermine Competitors and Promote Fear in Consumers

- Center for Global Food Issues, Hudson Institute

The Organic Trade Association (OTA), the lobby organization for the $10 billion organic foods industry, is falsely claiming that so-called genetic contamination of organic crops from genetically engineered crops will have "detrimental effects on the organic industry, and ultimately consumer choice."

Churchville, VA (PRWEB) October 25, 2004 -- The Organic Trade Association (OTA), the lobby organization for the $10 billion organic foods industry, is falsely claiming that so-called genetic contamination of organic crops from genetically engineered crops will have "detrimental effects on the organic industry, and ultimately consumer choice."

The statements of the OTA's executive director, Katherine DiMatteo that "organic agricultureust be protected from contamination and damage from genetically engineered crops," is simply an attempt to stifle competing farmers and limit their ability to supply consumers with safe and superior products at a lower cost than achievable by organic farming methods.

The OTA is fully aware that for more than 40 years, organic has been a process based standard attesting to "the ability of organic operations to follow a set of production standards and practices," not a guarantee of pure content. The US Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program (NOP) Final Rule makes clear regarding genetic drift that the "the presence of a detectable residue of a product of excluded methods alone does not necessarily constitute a violation of this regulation. As long as an organic operation has not used excluded methods and takes reasonable steps to avoid contact with the products of excluded methods as detailed in their approved organic system plan, the unintentional presence of the products of excluded methods should not affect the status of an organic product or operation."

http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/NOP/standards/FullText.pdf

These facts are corroborated by recent research conducted by the Organic Materials Research Institute that found one-quarter of all certified organic fruits and vegetables tested by government agencies contained detectable residues of synthetic pesticides prohibited under current organic regulations. Yet these products retained their organic status as do the farms growing them.

The OTA is propagating a lie by pretending so-called genetic contamination threatens the organic industry or consumer choice. Pollen is natural and the pretense that organic farmers should be "protected" from the pollen from the crops of neighboring non-organic farmers is totally unrealistic and contrary to nearly 50 years of organic rules.

The Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues is a tax-exempt, 501(c)3 non-profit organization that examines food policy and technology. Media contact: Alex Avery, Center for Global Food Issues, Hudson Institute PO Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421, (540) 337-6354, or -6387; aavery@rica.net

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Organic Land Hogs

- Andrew Page, New Scientist, October 30, 2004
http://www.newscientist.com/inprint/ Via Agnet

Andrew Page of Epsom, Surrey, UK, writes that research shows that organically farmed land supports wildlife better than intensively farmed land, but this is not the same as demonstrating that a move to organic farming would be good for biodiversity (9 October, p 9).

The point of farming is to produce food, not to occupy land. Therefore we should compare the environmental impacts of different means of producing a certain quantity of food, not different ways of occupying a given acreage of land.

Organic farming makes extravagant use of land. If we took the land and labour that would be used to produce an amount of food by organic means, we could, using intensive farming methods, produce the same food using not much more than half the land and significantly less labour.

In principle, the spare labour could then be used to manage the spare land in the interests of wildlife. If this comparison still showed that the organically farmed land prod uced better biodiversity, that would be an impressive result indeed.

If we occupy land, we ought to do so effectively. At worst, organic farming could result in huge amounts of land being taken unnecessarily into agricultural use.

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Now Witches are Also Against Biotech!

Read on at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2004/10/29/NBGRE9FM091.DTL

Earth mother.... She calls herself a practicing Witch, with a capital "w." She calls herself a Pagan, a Goddess, a peace activist, an eco-feminist. She calls herself Starhawk, a name that came to her in a dream.
Starhawk is a harsh critic of the Monsanto Company and the biotechnology industry's efforts to produce genetically modified food products. She is a practitioner of permaculture: a system of ecological design for sustainable gardens, agriculture, housing, industry and cities.

She conducts workshops for protesters planning to participate in nonviolent demonstrations. Her husband, a former lawyer who drives a taxi, is also a peace activist. He served two years in federal prison for burning his draft card to protest the Vietnam War.

Starhawk talks about global warming, the melting of polar ice caps, the collapse of the North Sea ecosystem, and the Earth's fast-rising temperatures. "Nature is what sustains us. Too often, we don't pay attention to that," she said. "We think we're independent from the natural world, that somehow we're above and beyond it. The Earth is what we live on and live from. And because we don't pay attention to nature, I think we're in a situation where the health of the natural world is critically challenged. ... But we seem unable to pay attention to that as a society."

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