Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : November 4, 2004
* Genomics Predicted to Transform World Economies
* Biotech Tide Turns: Three Defeats Undercut Ban Momentum
* The Social Doctrine of the Vatican Church
* Confused Stance on GM Truths - Response to Dr Ho
* As Hunger Looms, Kenya Needs to Confront the Reality of GMOs
* Italy: The Crops of Wrath
* The Knowledge Economy and Biotech
* Greenpeace Must Make An Effort to Support Biotech
* Colombian Coca Plants GM? - 'Mystery of the Coca That Wouldn't Die'
* America, Wake Up to the European Dream
Genomics Predicted to Transform World Economies
- Hank Daniszewski, The London Free Press, November 4, 2004
Nations that do not embrace the new "language" of genetics will end up backward and poor, warns a renowned economist and author who visited London yesterday. Juan Enriquez is the author of 'As the Future Catches You', an influential book which predicts that advances in genomics will soon transform the world economy.
"The ability to understand new technology will make a country rise or fall very quickly," he said in an interview.
Enriquez told leaders of London's business and research community yesterday that cracking the genetic code has created a new form of language -- an operating code for life. "We will start modifying almost every business in this world by the use of life functions."
He said manipulating the genetic code can produce amazing new products such as a weed that can detect land mines or potatoes that produce a cholera vaccine.
New genetic engineering such as animal cloning or genetically modified food has already encountered fierce resistance in some parts of the world. Enriquez said the new technologies carry risks such as bioterrorism, but nations that embrace genomics will leap ahead and prosper.
"In some countries it will run into resistance and those countries will get poorer faster."
He said some forms of cloning such as growing replacement body parts will revolutionize medicine and eliminate the need for transplant organs and artificial implants. "You will have 40 more years of life and a better quality of life."
Enriquez's book is an unusual mixture of bulleted facts, graphs and pictures designed to make his message less academic and more mainstream. In November 2002, London made a bid to become a major player in the biotech market with the opening of the Stiller Centre for Biotechnology Commercialization.
Enriquez said London is on the right track but should continue to build on its strengths in new technology and aggressively pursue the brightest researchers. "The answer for this place may not be genomics. But you better have an idea of how you will compete in the knowledge economy," he said.
Biotech Tide Turns: Three Defeats Undercut Ban Momentum
- Mike Lee, Sacramento Bee, November 4, 2004
CHICO - California farmers woke up Wednesday to a possible high-tech future - and more battles ahead over genetically engineered crops.
Voters in Butte, San Luis Obispo and Humboldt counties rejected bans on biotech crops, a serious setback for a national movement that wants to stop genetic engineering over safety and social concerns. Only Marin County adopted a ban in Tuesday's election.
"It's a good day for Butte County," said Gridley rice farmer Doug Rudd. "We knew that if they could pass it here, it was going to go right on down the state."m
Butte voters rejected the Measure D ban 61 percent to 39 percent. The race was slightly closer in San Luis Obispo County, where Measure Q was defeated 59 percent to 41 percent. In Humboldt County, where supporters pulled back after questions were raised about the legality of the ballot language, Measure M was rejected 65 percent to 35 percent. Marin County voters approved the biotech ban by a margin of 61 percent to 39 percent.
The results send a strong signal across the nation that voters in high-production farm counties aren't willing to reject the controversial technology. "(Tuesday's results) certainly suggest that ag biotechnology is not really threatened in the United States," said Gregory Conko, director of food safety policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Libertarian-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C.
Voting followed a typical pattern, said Conko. The county with the heaviest urban influence voted against biotechnology, while counties where farmers depend heavily on innovation supported biotechnology. "The results kind of look like what you would expect if you performed this experiment nationwide," he said.
Ahead for California are more proposed bans, likely with more moderate language than the first wave. For instance, they might offer sunset clauses to soften the finality of a moratorium. Some Butte farmers said they might support that idea.
"The counties that are organizing across California are not going to be at all deterred," said Renata Brillinger, director of Californians for GE-Free Agriculture, which is helping coordinate anti-biotech efforts statewide. "I don't think it will change the momentum."
Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology in Washington, D.C., said the election likely will take some steam out of the anti-biotech movement, which rushed forward with proposed bans after Mendocino County voters set a national precedent with a ban in March. "It may be that they need to take a slower approach or a more targeted approach," he said.
Using biotechnology, scientists can cut and paste DNA in ways not possible in nature. They can engineer plants to withstand weedkillers or to grow medicinal compounds. Proponents say genetic engineering reduces reliance on toxic chemicals and makes farming easier.
Opponents fear the potential unintended environmental and human health consequences of altering genetic codes. Anti-biotech forces have successfully slowed the spread of the products in Europe and Asia, but U.S. government officials and mainstream farm leaders embrace biotechnology as a way to stay competitive.
No one expects the anti-biotech forces to fold. Activists in roughly a dozen California counties are considering anti-biotech ballot measures, with Sonoma and Santa Barbara among the farthest along. Even in Butte, one campaign coordinator promised to try again for a ban next year.
Brillinger is speaking next week to a gathering of the national Genetic Engineering Action Network in Colorado, where she'll analyze the California movement for those hoping to duplicate it elsewhere. There are grass-roots movements in Oregon, Vermont, Colorado and Hawaii. Brillinger will focus on how the California Farm Bureau Federation, the California Cattlemen's Association and others rallied support in the two main farming counties. Biotech companies spent $600,000 in a failed effort to prevent the earlier ban in Mendocino County, but the vast majority of money spent before Tuesday's election was donated by in-state farmers and farm groups.
An unusual joint effort by Butte farm interests raised approximately $190,000 for the No on D campaign - more than three times the money collected by Measure D supporters. It was one of the most expensive ballot measures in recent county history.
The Organic Consumers Association in San Francisco was one of the major financial contributors to the ban campaign in Butte. Spokesman Ryan Zinn said he is laying the groundwork for state legislation that would make biotech farmers or companies liable if genes from their crop contaminate organic crops. County measures still are relevant, but they form part of a bigger strategy statewide in California," he said.
Beyond protections for organic farmers, there's likely to be a push for legislation that clarifies California's approach to biotech crops and supersedes the county-by-county policy patchwork. Like almost every other state, California defers to a complex and incomplete set of federal rules on biotech crops.
"It raises the question of at what point does the state itself step in and deal with some of the issues," said Rodemeyer at Pew.
The Compendium of The Social Doctrine of the Church
- Card. Renato Raffaele Martino and Bishop Gian Paolo Crepaldi, Pontifcal Council For Justice & Peace, Vatican City (Forwarded by Professor Vivian Moses)
This document represents the official catechism on the social doctrine approved by the Hole See and the Secretary of State. It was issued last week by Card. Renato Raffaele Martino and Bishop Gian Paolo Crepaldi (Pontifcal Council For Justice & Peace) and represents the official catechism on the social doctrine approved by the Hole See and the Secretary of State.
The following are extracts from Chapter 10 ("Safeguarding The Environment". Section 4 (A Common Responsibility), para. b is dedicate to the use of biotechnology - pp. 267-270):
1. The Christian vision of creation makes a positive judgment on the acceptability of human intervention in nature.... nature is not a sacred or divine reality that man must leave alone..... the human person does not commit an illicit act when ... he intervenes by modifying some of their characteristics or properties.
2. Modern biotechnologies have powerful social, economic and political impact locally, nationally and internationally.... above all the criteria of justice and solidarity must be taken into account
3. Equitable commercial exchange, without the burden of unjust stipulations is to be facilitated...It is indispensable to foster the development of a necessary scientific and technological autonomy of the part of these same peoples, promoting the exchange of scientific and technological knowledge and the transfer of the technologies to developing countries
4. Solidarity also means.... promoting trade policies that are favorable to their peoples and the exchange of technology that can improve the conditions of their food supply and health
5. Entrepreneurs ... involved in the research, production and selling of products derived from new biotechnologies must take into account not only legitimate profit but also common good.... by their decisions... they can guide developments in the area of biotechnologies towards very promising ends, as far as concerns the fight against hunger, especially in poorer countries, the fight against disease ad the fight to safeguard the ecosystem....
6. Public authorities must also encourage a correctly informed public opinion and make decisions that are best-suited to the common good
7. Leaders in the information sector also have an important task, which must be undertaken with prudence and objectivity... The temptation to fall into superficial information, fuelled by over enthusiasm or unjustified alarmism, must be avoided
Confused Stance on GM Truths - Response to Dr Ho
- Prof. David Tribe, The Weekly Times (Australia), November 3, 2004,
GM opponents shouldn’t be tricked by hypothetical hazards, argues DAVID TRIBE
GM crops are not a dead end as argued by Dr Mae-Wan Ho (Weekly Times October 20,). Indeed while the Victorian government has banned these new crop varieties, the area planted to GM crops globally continues to increase (up 15% in 2003 to 67.7 million hectares planted). The planted area continues to increase because farmers using GM varieties in the US, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Spain, India and China are achieving higher yields and financial returns with reduced inputs. In Australia around 80 per cent [conservatively; actually close to 95%, DT] of cotton growers are now planting GM cotton and have achieved an average 75 per cent reduction in insecticide applications without compromising yields.
Contrary to Dr Ho’s assertions, GM food plants are as safe to human health and the environment as non-GM varieties. Indeed, a recent US report (Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods, US National Academy of Sciences, 2004)) confirmed the finding of the Australian Gene Technology Regulator’s on GM canola: GM food crops are as safe to human health and the environment as non-GM varieties.
I am astounded by some of the assertions made by Dr Ho -- who appears to be unfamiliar with much genetics. Dr Mae-Wan Ho mentioned that that the total genetic content of an organism is called its "genome", and she correctly stated that genomes are continually buffeted by numerous natural DNA changes as a result of their normal life style. Students of biology now routinely learn about "the fluid genome"- that is, how numerous DNA regions inside cells are naturally affected by DNA rearrangements, which can enable an organism to respond to diseases and other challenges, and are mechanisms for generating natural biodiversity.
But Dr Ho is wrong to then suggest that 'the processes responsible for "the fluid genome" are precisely orchestrated by the organism as a whole, in a highly co-ordinated "dance of life" that’s necessary for survival'. This is absurd! There is absolutely no mechanism known to modern science that "precisely orchestrates"genetic rearrangements.
Mobile genes do exist. Dr Barbara McClintock discovered them in maize plants in the 1940s. These genes jump to random new places in chromosomes, and gene movements are triggered in every pollen grain while passing through miosis. These rearrangements occur widely across the plant and animal kingdoms, and jumping genes can move widely in nature between different species. But there is no general mechanism to ensure that all these natural DNA movements are “precisely orchestrated” as suggested by Ho.
Dr Ho is also mistaken in claiming asserts that dangerous "genetic instability" is added to GM plants during laboratory manipulation. This is not the case. Seed companies must demonstrate to the Australian government and other regulators that GM crop varieties are stable to in order to get their new varieties registered.
Dr Ho is confused by the fact that DNA configurations actually found in the final GM plant are usually a little different from the simplest possible way of inserting DNA into its new location - in other words nature is a bit untidy the way she inserts extra genes into chromosomes, and tricks Dr Ho with her carelessness.
Victorian farmers are denied better GM canola varieties because the State Government has been influenced by environmental fundamentalists like Mae-Wan Ho, and now, when drought-resistant GM crops reach the marketplace, they’ll be used by Australia’s trade competitors years before Victorian farmers grow them.
Dr David Tribe is coordinator of biotechnology at Melbourne University.
As Hunger Looms, Kenya Needs to Confront the Reality of GMOs
- Otula Owuor, East African Standard (Nairobi), November 1, 2004
The face of a starving Kenyan, struggling to swallow a handful of dry maize grains amidst the rotting carcasses of his livestock, should make even the most of selfish of us lose our appetite.
It is the kind of image once associated with some southern African nations, where the starving millions scrambled for "edible" insects, larvae, wild fruits and leaves, while well-fed academics and politicians engaged in noisy debates that somehow sidestepped the harsh reality of failed food production in the region.
Although Kenya is handling the widespread famine in a more transparent manner, thanks in the main to increased mass media coverage, it has to be remembered that officials in Ethiopia once branded their country the granary of Africa while millions perished. In Kenya, media reports that the famine is directly or indirectly causing deaths in some areas should not be dismissed.
The government - via assistant minister in the office of the president’s Dr Wilfred Machage – has stated that "it would be totally unwise to refuse food when 3.3 million Kenyans, including 1.5 million school children, are starving." This shows that the Kibaki government is humble enough to admit that when millions face starvation, beggars cannot be choosers.
In other words, it is also time to tell Kenyans that the world’s leading sources of emergency food aid may within the next month or two begin delivering in response to our national appeal. The fact is, this is likely to include genetically-modified (GM) grain. The US is the major emergency food donor to the World Food Programme and Food and Agriculture Organization. And the US does not segregate GM maize, routinely eaten by millions of Americans, from non genetically-modified maize.
Already, the Kenya Plant Health Inspection Service (KEPHIS), known for its strict adherence to the law even during the KANU days, has made it clear that any GM maize will have to be ground or milled into flour first before distribution or entry into the country. This may help prevent unauthorised growing of GM maize before the grain can be subjected to local research.
However, American maize imported over the last six years by countries in eastern and southern Africa probably included GM maize, genetically engineered to be resistant to herbicides. And this is even more true of imported soya.
Kenya may not end up in the quagmire witnessed in southern Africa, where both pro and anti-GM groups turned mass starvation into stage-managed controversies offering no short or long-term solutions. Most of these nations still have serious food shortages.
However, whichever way one looks at it, the era of GM maize, cotton and sweet potato is clearly here to stay. The Kenya government - at least the Ministry of Agriculture and President Kibaki himself - does not hide the fact that it supports the responsible use of GM crops resulting in the framework of credible research activities. This official approval extends to other appropriate technologies used to boost agricultural production and move towards food security.
In short, it is time for some frank discussions, balanced information and above all appropriate actions that will safeguard the environment, curb fears about GM foods and institutionalise responsible and transparent use of biotechnology in general and genetic engineering products and services in particular.
Our looming famine has highlighted the pressing need for a debate that was in any case bound to take place. It must begin with examining emerging trends in the field of biotechnology in this country. Regulations and policies should be set against the myths about GM crops that exist, scare-mongering propaganda must be set against reality.
The Crops of Wrath
- Carlo Stagnaro http://www.techcentralstation.com/110304A.html
"Left" and "Right" may be useful concepts in many respects, but not as far as the debate over genetically modified crops is concerned, at least in Italy.
While the general public is ill-informed about the issue, in the political realm we have a strong anti-GM lobby. In it you find all of the guys you usually see in similar movements around the world: professional politicians from the left, green activists, environmental organizations, and farmers' associations (who have a vested interest in keeping foreign competitors on the other side of the border). But, surprisingly enough, the coalition is led by Gianni Alemanno, the Italian minister of agriculture, who was an MP from the extreme right-wing party National Alliance before being appointed.
Alemanno proposed a decree law aimed at regulating the diffusion of GM crops on Italian soil. As often happens in the bureaucratic jargon, "regulating" means "getting rid of." In fact, the proposed decree would forbid the sowing of GM crops in Italian soil. The reason - to be more honest, the pretext - is the risk of "contamination" of the organic fields and the risk of a loss of biodiversity. In other words, Alemanno's emotional message is: If we accept GM crops in Italy, a huge number of typical products would be lost because of the invasiveness of the bioengineered species. Moreover, he claims, GM crops may harm public health.
The bill is self-contradictory. Initially it states that regulation should aim at favoring "coexistence" of GM and traditional crops. But then it states there can be no coexistence, because of the tendency of GM seeds to spread well beyond their field's border. Alemanno declared that he is skeptical about the opportunities in the biotech sector, yet he would fund further studies and research in order to know more. In practice, however, he would fund more research on how to trace GM crops. In other words, he would shift universities' activities from the development of new species to the fight against new technologies.
Alemanno and his leftist comrades are simply wrong. First, there is no evidence of adverse health effects as a consequence of GM foods consumption. Somebody might object that most research on the issue has been funded by the "evil multinationals," thus it's not a reliable information. Again, that is not true, since all of the anti-GM claims rest on a very small number of studies, most of which have been rejected by peer-reviewed scientific journals.
After all, most Italian scientists oppose Alemanno's efforts to ban GM crops. Professors Renato Angelo Ricci and Franco Battaglia wrote a letter to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on behalf of the Association "Galileo 2001," pointing out that "our Agricultural Minister proposes... a return to the agricultural Middle Ages." "Galileo 2001" is a scientific association which was formed a few years ago in order to support a science-based approach to public policy.
If you don't trust scientists, you might want to query those moral authorities that you think are reliable. For example, such a Catholic country as Italy should pay more attention to what the Church says. A report by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences declares that "virtually, all food plants have been genetically modified in the past; such modification is, therefore, a very common procedure... Genetically modified food plants can play an important role in improving nutrition and agricultural products, especially in the developing world."
Luckily, Berlusconi understood that liberty itself is at stake, and openly opposed the anti-GM measure. He defined Alemanno's proposal as "illiberal". "It violates consumers' freedom of choice," he said. This is a good sign. It may be a consequence of the latest electoral defeats that the center-right have suffered, or just a demonstration that, despite all of the compromises he had to accept, Berlusconi still is confident that market does it better.
Alemanno has tried four times to have his decree passed by the government, and all four times it was not on the government meeting's agenda. More important, each time the criticism got louder and clearer - to the point that today a significant number of center-right MPs and government officials have openly spoken out against it.
There is a growing sense of frustration and protest even on the part of producers, especially small and medium farmers. Often they have to comply with the big industries' goals - that tend to have more to do with protectionism than improving their situation. The more entrepreneurial farmers ask for more economical freedom, in order to gain new markets. They know that GM crops offer a unique opportunity.
The question that only time will answer is if the challenge of the latter will be fully accepted by Berlusconi. If not, such people as Alemanno would win their Luddite battle, but Berlusconi might lose his natural constituency.
The Knowledge Economy and Biotechnology
- Darunee Edwards, Bangkok Post, October 30, 2004
In previous articles in this series on plant biotechnology, factually supported details of the many benefits of plant biotechnology were provided. Whether in terms of increasing productivity on the farm, enhancing food nutrition for consumers or reducing the use of pesticides, these and numerous other benefits are varied both in terms of the force of the impact on, and number of, affected stakeholders.
World cultivation of plants from modern biotechnology is increasing year by year, from 1.7 million hectares (10.6 million rai) in 1996 to 67.7 million hectares (423.125 million rai) in 2003. At present, there are about 16 varieties approved for commercial cultivation. Eighteen countries are cultivating these biotech plants. The four major countries are Argentina, Canada, China and the United States.
Clearly, countries such as China and India, both of which are highly dependent on their farmer constituencies and huge consumer bases, cannot ignore the merits of plant biotechnology in developing their economies.
For these countries, and also for Thailand, it is important to also consider the extent to which investments in agriculture and plant biotechnology serve to develop more knowledge-based resources that create higher paying jobs.
In the past two years in the US, field tests have been conducted on 100 new biotech crops traits by 40 universities and 35 private-sector companies - from a new variety of maize with an improved nutritional profile for use as an animal feed to a type of wheat that can better withstand droughts.
China allocated a total budget of US$112 million (4.6 billion baht) for research and development on plant biotechnology in the year 2002. This programme involved at least 2,000 researchers working full time to try to the come up with new traits to benefit the agricultural systems of the country.
These numbers are astonishing in their magnitude and indicative of the enormous potential that can be tapped in countries that choose to develop the new frontiers of their knowledge-based economies through biotechnology.
One could reasonably assume that greater acceptance of plant biotechnology, which is just one facet of the entire school of biotechnology, could go an equally long way towards building a strong, more knowledge-based economy with potentially thousands of diverse, higher-paying jobs added to the economy.
One word of caution needs to be added to these predictions. Biotech applications are, and should remain, time-consuming. The development timeframe is much longer for companies and other institutions than for most other industries. Investors and other stakeholders looking to get rich overnight in the biotech industry should be wary.
Increasingly, people are developing a better appreciation of this essentially conservative scenario. This is good for prospective employees and for the institutions, both state-controlled and private, that will hire them. An investment in biotechnology requires a serious, long-term commitment and considerable financial resources, high-tech equipment, multidisciplinary sciences, and trained and qualified personnel.
It seems that one can make a fairly good case for this being exactly the sort of commitment and investment that Thailand needs as it strives to stay ahead of the knowledge-based, economic growth curve. This can only be sustained if the Thai population understands more of the science and technology and tries to produce the quality human resources required to study in this agricultural field that provides major benefits to the nation.
Since Thailand is also aiming to be the world's kitchen to provide good quality and safe food, we need to be certain that agricultural commodities are competitive. This means that crops need to give better yields, use less resource inputs, have better quality and of crucial importance, be safe for consumers and the environment.
Darunee Edwards is a deputy director at the National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology.
Greenpeace Must Make An Effort to Support Biotech
- Prof. Roger Hull, Farmer's Weekly (UK), Oct 29,2004
It appears that Greenpeace now espouses Chaos Theory with Ben Ayliffe's suggestion that growing GM soya in Argentina affects the ice fields in Patagonia (Letters Oct. 8).
As with any agricultural innovation one has to adapt the agronomic practice to the new product. Therefore, GM crops should be grown taking advantage of the trait rather than being imposed on the current agronomic practice.
There are numerous examples of the advantages of this approach with GM crops. For example: The fall in the number of cases of pesticide poisoning of farmers with the introduction of GM cotton in China and the reduction in soil erosion with the adoption of low or no till associated with growing herbicide-tolerant crops in South America. And the great increase in biodiversity (including a skylark's nest) by the strip application of herbicide to rows of GM sugar beet. The use of GM crops, and especially the new generation of such crops with properties such as drought tolerance and enhanced nutrition, has great potential as one of the approaches to enhancing food security in many developing countries.
If the policy of Greenpeace is to improve the world environment, its efforts would be better spent in assisting the proper uptake of such crops rather than the destructive approach it now takes.
The Mystery of the Coca Plant That Wouldn't Die
- Joshua DavisPage, Wired, Nov. 2004. Full story at http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.11/columbia.html?tw=wn_tophead_6
'The war on Colombia's drug lords is losing ground to an herbicide-resistant supershrub. Is it a freak of nature - or a genetically modified secret weapon?'
I've got 23 ziplock bags filled with coca leaves laid out on the rickety table in front of me. It's been seven hours since the leaves were picked, and they're already secreting the raw alkaloid that gives cocaine its kick. The smell is pungently woody, but that may just be the mold growing on the walls of this dingy hotel room in the southern Colombian jungle. Somewhere down the hall, a woman is moaning with increasing urgency. I've barricaded the door in case the paramilitaries arrive.
I drop half a milliliter of water into a plastic test tube and mash a piece of a leaf inside. As the water tints green, I notice that my hands are shaking. I haven't slept for two days, and the Marxist guerrillas have this town encircled. But what's really making me nervous is the green liquid in the tube.
Over the past three years, rumors of a new strain of coca have circulated in the Colombian military. The new plant, samples of which are spread out on this table, goes by different names: supercoca, la millonaria. Here in the southern region it's known as Boliviana negra. The most impressive characteristic is not that it produces more leaves - though it does - but that it is resistant to glyphosate. The herbicide, known by its brand name, Roundup, is the key ingredient in the US-financed, billion-dollar aerial coca fumigation campaign that is a cornerstone of America's war on drugs.
One possible explanation: The farmers of the region may have used selective breeding to develop a hardier strain of coca. If a plant happened to demonstrate herbicide resistance, it would be more widely cultivated, and clippings would be either sold or, in many cases, given away or even stolen by other farmers. Such a peer-to-peer network could, over time, result in a coca crop that can withstand large-scale aerial spraying campaigns.
But experts in herbicide resistance suspect that there is another, more intriguing possibility: The coca plant may have been genetically modified in a lab. The technology is fairly trivial. In 1996, Monsanto commercialized its patented Roundup Ready soybean - a genetically modified plant impervious to glyphosate. The innovation ushered in an era of hyperefficient soybean production: Farmers were able to spray entire fields, killing all the weeds and leaving behind a thriving soybean crop. The arrival of Roundup Ready coca would have a similar effect - except that in this case, it would be the US doing the weed killing for the drug lords.
Whether its resistance came from selective breeding or genetic modification, the new strain poses a significant foreign-policy challenge to the US. How Washington responds depends on how the plant became glyphosate resistant. That's why I'm here in the jungle - to test for the new coca. I've brought along a mobile kit used to detect the presence of the Roundup Ready gene in soybean samples. If the tests are inconclusive, my backup plan is to smuggle the leaves to Colombia's capital, Bogotá, and have their DNA sequenced in a lab.
In my hotel room, I put the swizzle stick-sized test strip into the tube filled with mashed Boliviana negra. The green water snakes up the strip. If the midsection turns red, I'll know that the drug lords have genetically engineered the plant and beaten the US at its own game. If it doesn't, it'll mean that Colombia's farmers have outwitted 21st-century technology with an agricultural technique that's been around for 10,000 years.
I first learned about the possibility of herbicide-resistant cocaine eight weeks before I arrived in South America. I was having a quiet Sunday brunch at home in California with a few friends and their Colombian guest. It was a beautiful day; we sat on the deck and chatted about upcoming vacation plans over waffles and grapefruit juice.
The conversation changed when the guest began talking about how he'd spent three years working in the military intelligence branch of the Colombian army, which has been waging a civil war against the guerrillas for four decades. His main assignment was to prevent insurgents from importing weapons and military technology.
After the US helped the Colombian military dismantle the Medellín and Cali cocaine cartels in the '90s, the guerrillas moved in and took over much of the drug trade. By the late '90s, rebels controlled more than a third of the country and had the financial clout to intensify the war and protect their newfound position as narcotraffickers. It's an extremely lucrative business. The coke habit in the US alone was worth $35 billion in 2000 - about $10 billion more than Microsoft brought in that year.
But the most intriguing development he mentioned was regular reports of Roundup Ready coca. "We started to hear about this plant three years ago," he said. "We understood then that the spraying was not killing it, but nobody wants to talk about it because it might put an end to American aid money."
Four weeks later, the scientist sends me an email saying that he has completed the DNA analysis and found no evidence of modification. He tested specifically for the presence of CP4 - a telltale indicator of the Roundup Ready modification - as well as for the cauliflower mosaic virus, the gene most commonly used to insert foreign DNA into a plant. It is still possible that the plant has been genetically modified using other genes, but not likely. Discovering new methods of engineering glyphosate resistance would require the best scientific minds and years of organized research. And given that there is already a published methodology, there would be little reason to duplicate the effort.
Which points back to selective breeding. The implication is that the farmers' decentralized system of disseminating coca cuttings has been amazingly effective - more so than genetic engineering could hope to be. When one plant somewhere in the country demonstrated tolerance to glyphosate, cuttings were made and passed on to dealers and farmers, who could sell them quickly to farmers hoping to withstand the spraying. The best of the next generation was once again used for cuttings and distributed.
This technique - applied over four years - is now the most likely explanation for the arrival of Boliviana negra. By spraying so much territory, the US significantly increased the odds of generating beneficial mutations. There are numerous species of coca, further increasing the diversity of possible mutations. And in the Amazonian region, nature is particularly adaptive and resilient.
"I thought it was unlikely," says Gressel, the plant scientist at the Weizmann Institute. "But farmers aren't dumb. They obviously spotted a lucky mutation and propagated the hell out of it."
The effects of this are far-reaching for American policymakers: A new herbicide would work only for a limited time against such a simple but effective ad hoc network. The coca-growing community is clearly primed to take advantage of any mutations.
A genetic laboratory is not as nimble. A lab is limited by research that is publicly available. In the case of Fusarium, the coca-killing fungus and likely successor to glyphosate, there is no body of work discussing genetically induced resistance. If the government switched to Fusarium, a scientist would have to perform groundbreaking genetic research to fashion a Fusarium-resistant coca plant.
The reality is that a smoothly functioning selective-breeding system is a greater threat to US antidrug efforts. Certainly government agents can switch to Fusarium and enjoy some short-term results. But after a few years - during which legal crops could be devastated - a new strain of Fusarium-resistant coca would likely emerge, one just as robust as the glyphosate-resistant strain.
The drug war in Colombia presupposes that it's eventually possible to destroy cocaine at its source. But the facts on the ground suggest this is no longer possible. In this war, it's hard to beat technology developed 10,000 years ago.
America, Wake Up to the European Dream
- Jeremy Rifkin The Washington Post, Oct 31, 2004
Europe: We love to vacation there, if we can afford it. It's the cultural Mecca many of us flock to, to awaken our senses and feed our souls. But Europe as a political entity? To Americans, it's just a creaky old set of governments presiding over a moribund economy marked by inflexible labor policies, bloated welfare bureaucracies and an aging, pampered populace. It's the state of Eurosclerosis, right?
Not anymore. Toss out that image of Europe as relic. On Friday, the heads of the 25 member nations of the European Union signed the European Constitution (to be ratified over the next two years by each state), effectively creating the first transnational political entity in history. These "United States of Europe" represent the rise of a new ideal that could eclipse the United States as the focus of the world's yearnings for well-being and prosperity. Yet our country is largely unaware of and unprepared for the vast changes that are quickly transforming the Old World and giving birth to what I call the new European Dream.
The old dream, the American Dream that made the individual the master of his fate and emphasized the personal accumulation of wealth, is faltering. A national survey taken in 2001 showed that one-third of all Americans no longer believe in the American Dream, either because it has failed them, or because they believe that in an increasingly interdependent world, it no longer works. Even the most self-reliant among us are vulnerable to phenomena beyond our control: a SARS epidemic, a terrorist attack, global warming. In this sort of world, the European Dream, with its emphasis on inclusivity, diversity, sustainable development and interconnectedness, is the world's first attempt at creating a global consciousness. And it deserves our close attention.
If you want a sense of the strength of this new vision, talk to the young adults of Europe. They're a new breed, increasingly choosing to remain on their continent rather than migrate to America, once a hope for many, especially in Eastern Europe. For them, the continent is no longer a world of warring states, walled-off cities and guards at every border, but a wide-open region where old economic, political and cultural barriers are breaking down, leading to new opportunities and new ways of thinking.
A young German woman I recently met had just completed a year studying in Spain on the EU's Erasmus exchange program, which has sponsored more than a million intra-European exchange students since 1987. She told me she now has close friends all over the continent. "We constantly visit each other, often work and vacation together, and date one another," she said. In contrast to their post-war-generation parents, who still harbor prejudices against Europeans of other nationalities, she and her friends are positive toward each other and optimistic about Europe's future, she said. A 2001 survey showed that one-third of Europeans between the ages of 21 and 35 said they regard themselves "as more European than as nationals of their home country."
There are lots of reasons for their optimism. We Americans still think of our country as the most successful on Earth, but the EU is now a close rival. With its 455 million consumers, it's the largest internal market in the world, and the largest exporting power. And the euro is now stronger than the dollar -- a reality few American economists considered possible just four years ago.
The EU's growing economic clout has humbled once all-powerful U.S. businesses. The union has blocked mergers between American companies (General Electric and Honeywell), fined Microsoft on antitrust grounds and stymied attempts by U.S. businesses to introduce genetically modified food into Europe.
In many of the world's leading industries, European transnational companies dominate. European financial institutions are the world's bankers. Fourteen of the 20 largest commercial banks in the world today are European, and European businesses lead in the chemical, engineering and construction, aerospace and insurance industries, as well as the food wholesale and retail trades. Sixty-one of the 140 biggest companies on the Global Fortune 500 rankings are European, while only 50 are U.S. companies.
Beyond this burgeoning economy, which is bound to draw capital and people to Europe in ever greater numbers, Europe also offers significant quality-of-life advantages. In terms of wealth distribution -- a crucial measure of a country's ability to deliver on the promise of prosperity -- the United States ranks 24th in the world; all 18 of the most developed European countries rank higher, with less income inequality than we have. There are now more poor people living in America than in the 16 European nations for which data is available. And America's homicide rate is four times that of Europe. My European friends can't understand why so many Americans have guns; they find the phenomenon frightening.
Why these differences exist has to do, I believe, with the nature of the dream on each side of the Atlantic. Both are anchored in the ideal of personal freedom. But each defines that freedom differently. Americans have long associated freedom with autonomy, and autonomy with property. The wealthier you are, the more independent you are, the more secure you are. Europeans find freedom not in autonomy, but in embeddedness. For most Europeans, the community's quality of life is more important than an individual's financial success. The more communities you join, the more options you have for living a full and meaningful life. Belonging -- not belongings -- is what brings security.
My European friends are far less consumed with possessions than most Americans I know, and they spend much more time with one another. It's not uncommon for family and friends to talk for four or five hours over dinner or drinks. Like many Americans, I often get antsy in these marathon sessions, but it's all part of the European sense of togetherness.
Europeans often remark that Americans "live to work," while they "work to live." Although the demands of globalization mean that Europeans have to work somewhat harder than they used to, they still get an average of five weeks' paid vacation a year, where Americans get two. And the European Dream understands the value of leisure and even idleness. In Europe, no one seems to be in a hurry to "get somewhere." A European colleague once admonished me: "The problem with you Americans is that you are unable to surrender to the moment and wait to see what pleasant experience might come your way." He has a point. Most Americans, myself included, believe that happiness isn't something that comes to us, but something we must forever work toward. Most Europeans simply don't feel that way.
Where the American Dream emphasizes economic growth, the European Dream focuses on sustainable development. Environmental awareness is much higher in Europe than in America, even if sustainable development is beginning to make inroads here as well. Compared to us, Europeans are fanatical about conserving energy. When I stay in a major hotel in Europe, I have to insert my card key into a slot to turn the lights on in my room. When I leave, I retrieve my key from the slot and the lights automatically turn off. Similarly, when I approach an escalator in most airports, it doesn't begin to move until a light beam signals my presence.
Europeans accept heavy taxes on gasoline and opt for smaller cars to save energy and reduce the effects of global warming. America consumes nearly one-third more energy than the 15 most developed EU countries, even though they have a combined population that's nearly 100 million more than that of the United States.
The American Dream depends on assimilation, but the European Dream is based on nations' preserving their cultural identity and coming together in a multicultural universe. The EU's inhabitants break down into 100 or more different languages and dialects, making the region one of the most culturally diverse in the world.
The American Dream is wedded to love of country and patriotism; the European Dream is more cosmopolitan and outward-reaching. Europeans now provide 47 percent of all the humanitarian assistance in the world. (The United States contributes 36 percent) While Americans are willing to use military force to protect our self-interests, Europeans favor diplomacy and economic aid to avert conflict.
Of course, Europe hasn't suddenly become Shangri-La. For all the talk of preserving cultural identity, Europeans have become increasingly hostile toward newly arrived immigrants and asylum seekers from other parts of the world -- even as their continent becomes more attractive to these very people. Anti-Semitism is on the rise again, as is discrimination against Muslims and other religious minorities.
For the European Union itself, many difficulties remain, including integrating the 10 new Central, Eastern and Southern European member states, whose economies lag far behind the wealthier Western and Northern members. The EU's governing machinery in Brussels is a maze of bureaucratic red tape, and its officials are often accused of being aloof and unresponsive to the needs of the European citizens they supposedly serve.
But the point is not whether the Europeans are living up to their dream. We Americans have never fully lived up to our own. What's important is that Europe has articulated a new vision for the future that differs from ours in fundamental ways. Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission, has admitted that the EU's goal is to establish "a superpower on the European continent that stands equal to the United States." When I asked him to explain what he meant, he spoke of the European vision as one of a new type of power, based not on military strength but on economic cooperation and the construction of communities of conscience, a new kind of superpower based on waging peace.
Utopian as that may sound, remember that 200 years ago, America's founders created a new dream for humanity that transformed the world. Today, a new generation of Europeans is creating a radical, and worthy, new dream.
Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, is the author of "The European Dream: How Europe's Vision of the Future is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream" (Tarcher/Penguin). Author's e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org