Today in AgBioView Weekend from www.agbioworld.org : November 20, 2004
* We Don't Need Any Lectures from This Pampered Prince
* Soya on Rice to Go: Brazil and China to Legalize GM Crops
* Europe Surrenders in Biotech War
* Biotech is Better
* Google Scholar
* Frankenstein Food Is Good for You and Other Toxic Shocks
* Implications of GMF Tech for Sub-Saharan Africa
* GM Food Debate: How Language Choices Affect Public Trust
* FDA Proposes Draft Guidance for New Plant Varieties
* Feeding Prejudice
We Don't Need Any Lectures from This Pampered Prince
- The Daily Express, November 18, 2004
Why can't Prince Charles learn to keep his mouth shut on aspects of
life about which he clearly knows the square root of nothing from
first hand experience ("Our robot children", November 17).
His latest critical comments about 21st century education follow his
sanctimonious lectures to his future subjects on a wide range of
He has pontificated on everything from architecture to protecting the
world's energy sources (fine words indeed from a man who drives a
gas-guzzling 6. litre Bentley), and has condemned genetically
modified foods which could provide millions of people in Third World
countries with the opportunity of life beyond the age of five.
I, and I suspect millions of people like me, need no lessons in how
to live our lives from a pampered, multi-millionaire Prince.
- Tony Thorn, Bordon, Hants
Soya on Rice to Go: Brazil and China are Set to Legalise GM Crops
- The Economist, November 20, 2004
Adouble blow is coming for the opponents of genetically modified (GM)
foods, from two of the world's big farming nations. China, where many
farmers already grow GM cotton, is likely soon to authorise
commercial growing of GM rice. And Brazil is close to setting up a
mechanism that could legalise all GM crops.
Brazil's farmers already plant lots of GM soya, especially in the far
south where seed is easily smuggled in from Argentina. In theory this
is illegal. But last month, well after planting had begun, it was
authorised by presidential decree, as happened last year. The
government knows it cannot enforce current law, and would face
trouble if it tried. Instead, a bill to regulate GM crops has already
passed the Senate and is now back with the Chamber of Deputies. These
latter are not hurrying, since the bill also covers human stem-cell
research, a far more contentious issue. But few doubt it will be
passed. And because the GM regulators will be named by the ministry
of science, their hand will probably be light.
The effects could be significant. Brazil is the world's
second-largest grower of soya after the United States (where nearly
all soya is GM). Brazil expects a huge soya crop, maybe 60m tonnes,
in the new season, and up to a third could be GM. With long-term
legality assured, that proportion might rise fast-and future harvests
with it: the GM seed, derived from Monsanto's herbicide-resistant
variety, does not in itself raise yields, but it does cut costs,
making soya more attractive to plant.
Soya traders in Brazil face an opportunity and a problem. They will
probably have more to export, and it will be welcomed by some
markets. But new European Union rules require GM and non-GM crops,
even if destined only for cattle-feed, to be kept strictly apart. The
big traders, multinationals such as Bunge and Cargill, say this can
be done, at a price. But many others have doubts, given Brazil's huge
number of growers and the long supply chain. At best, it will be
Such an obstacle to trade has given GM's foes one big victory this
year: Monsanto stopped trying to sell a GM wheat, because North
American farmers feared a loss of exports, both to Europe and Japan.
But Chinese backers of an approval for GM rice turn that argument on
Global trade in rice is small: only about 25m of the 400m-odd tonnes
(in milled-rice terms) that the world produces. And China's share is
tiny: it grows nearly 30% of the world crop, but trades only 1m
tonnes or so each way. So why worry, ask its GM scientists? China
stopped growing GM tobacco a few years ago, for trade reasons. But if
Japan and South Korea, its main rice-export markets, object to GM, so
be it, say GM's backers: nearly all of China's growers and all its
consumers will benefit.
Technically, China is well prepared. Its scientists have been
developing GM rice varieties-mainly pest-resistant, but also
herbicide- or disease-resistant-for years. And for three years now
they have conducted "pre-production" trials, giving the new seeds to
many farmers in diverse areas and leaving them to get on with it. So
far, says Jikun Huang, director of the Centre for Chinese
Agricultural Policy, the trials show pesticide use down by 80% and
yields 4-8% up. The scientists are also conducting their own regional
trials in Hubei and Fujian provinces, partly as a check on the
farmers' results. The new harvest is just in, and if all has gone
well, the scientists argue, why wait for still more trials?
A go-ahead is not certain. China's environmental-protection agency
shares the standard doubts about GM; and in today's China, even
unofficial environmental campaigners are not negligible. Greenpeace
has been campaigning among farmers in Yunnan province against the new
rice. And some agriculture-ministry officials see the present ban on
it as a useful protectionist tool. Yet China's biosafety committee,
due to meet soon, looks likely to say yes. One reason is the health
of farmers themselves: in China, crop-spraying is not as safe as in
richer countries. And consumers know and fear the risk from pesticide
residues. Overall, Mr Huang says, a consumer survey done for his
centre found 80% ready, at equal prices, to buy GM rice. Greenpeace
offers a less creditable reason: some scientists on the committee, it
says, have interests in firms set up by their institutes to develop
If the committee says yes, the final government decision would
probably be the same. At which point, enter Monsanto? It would have
the incentive. The new GM rice is all hybrid, so seeds can not be
saved from one harvest to sow for the next (unlike GM cotton, whose
Monsanto variety is widespread in China, but brings Monsanto few
follow-on sales there). And all China's maize is hybrid, and much of
its non-GM rice; so farmers are accustomed to buying fresh seed. Yet,
in rice, China's scientists are ahead of Monsanto's.
The big effects could come in another way, argues Scott Rozelle, an
economist at the University of California who has worked closely with
Mr Huang. India's farmers, once they were allowed to do so, rushed to
sow GM cotton. And India's scientists have plenty of biotech-rice
skills. If its government, fearful of lagging behind China again,
were to set both boffins and farmers free, India also might rush into
GM rice. Brazil too, maybe: its new law will not apply only to soya.
So quite soon big new rice supplies might be available for export-and
the genie of GM food truly out of the bottle.
Europe Surrenders in Biotech War
- Alex A. Avery & Dennis T. Avery, Hudson Institute, November 12, 2004
The European Commission has just approved a biotech corn variety for
human consumption in Western Europe's 25 countries. The EC also says
that individual countries cannot block farmers from growing approved
crop varieties. In effect, the EU is finally surrendering to the
reality that genetically engineered crops are safe and effectively
Environmental activists all over the world must be crying into their
fair-trade, organic coffee and wondering what their next fundraising
scare will be.
The EC's decision effectively ends a "biotech war" between the U.S.,
which pioneered biotech crops, and Europe, where Greenpeace and other
prominent eco-groups call them "Frankenfoods." The activists have
claimed for years that biotech crops would poison people, create new
food allergies, and unleash "superweeds" that would overwhelm the
natural environment. None of this has happened.
European governments, particularly their environmental ministers,
contributed heavily to consumer fears by echoing all but the most
ludicrous claims of the activists. The European Union also officially
blocked imports of biotech commodities, lending further support to
the notion that they posed health and environmental risks. When the
EU required all genetically-modified foods to be prominently labeled,
supermarkets simply yanked them from shelves rather than lose
Both the EU and member governments have contributed sizeable funds to
activist groups that claimed the gene-modified crops were risky.
Sometimes the government support was even noted on the activist's
anti-biotech leaflets, lending a clear impression that the
governments agreed with the activists' danger claims.
The ugliest attack in the biotech war was actually launched against
poor famine victims in southern Africa after the drought of 2002.
European activists, including Jesuit priests, told African
governments that American corn donated as food aid was "poison." Many
African officials refused to distribute the corn, even to people so
desperate for something to eat they were boiling poisonous roots.
The President of Zambia personally ordered thousands of tons of
American corn-the same corn we eat in our corn flakes and taco
chips-deported from his country despite the food crisis.
The EC's latest decision effectively ends the transatlantic biotech
war. The newly approved corn is herbicide-tolerant, which allows
farmers to more effectively control weeds and reduce soil erosion.
Many countries, including China, Canada, India, Argentina, and South
Africa are already growing genetically modified crops extensively.
For example, nearly 60% of China's cotton is biotech. In fact, one
fourth of all the world's fields of corn, soybeans, cotton, and
canola are now biotech.
The EC's decision means that American farmers can now plant approved
biotech varieties without fear of government trade barriers in
important European trade markets. Monsanto already has an
herbicide-tolerant wheat variety ready for launch. U.S. wheat growers
asked them not to market it in the face of the EU boycott.
Biotech potatoes that resist the ravenous potato beetle and the
deadly late blight that caused the Irish Potato Famine have also been
developed-some by universities-but were pulled from, or never put on,
the market for fear consumers might boycott the French fries and
Such boycott fears will now recede, though activist groups have a
long history of repeating charges even after they have been refuted
by reality. Millions of Americans, for example, still believe that
farm pesticides cause human cancer-even though the U.S. government,
American Cancer Institute and the American Medical Association have
dismissed such concerns.
We can be sure that despite the acceptance of biotech crops in
Europe, the eco-groups will come up with a new scare. After all,
sharks drown if they stop swimming.
Alex Avery is director of research and education for the Hudson
Institute's Center for Global Food Issues; Dennis T. Avery is based
in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center
for Global Food Issues.
Biotech is Better
- Dean Kleckner, Truth About Trade & Technology
Every weekend during the football season, we come across reminders of
the stubborn fact that a good defense can keep you in a game for a
long time--but that you generally won't win unless your offense also
decides to show up and play.
Something that has concerned me for a long time about the state of
the debate over biotech foods is that we supporters of biotechnology
often find ourselves on defense. We're constantly forced to reassure
people that it's perfectly safe to eat and okay for the
environment--because we're always hearing from know-nothings who
charge that it's unhealthy for our bodies and bad for the earth.
In other words, in the game of public perception, "they" are always
on offense and in a position to score, and "we" are always on defense
and trying to swat the ball away.
But what if we were able to do more than claim that biotech-enhanced
foods are as safe for you as conventional varieties--and actually
state that they're better for you? And I'm not talking about the hazy
future of biotechnology, at a point when scientists have learned to
make food healthier by boosting their vitamins and reducing their
cholesterol content. I'm talking about right now.
About a decade ago, Hispanic women in South Texas were found to be
giving birth to babies with six times as many neural-tube defects as
non-Hispanic women. NTDs are the result of openings in the brain or
spinal cord during embryonic development. They result in spina
bifida, hydrocephalus, and anencephaly.
For years, nobody understood why this was happening. But now
researchers have discovered a link between eating unprocessed corn
and NTDs. It turns out that unprocessed corn, which is often ground
into tortillas and other foods, contain large amount of a deadly
mycotoxin called fumonisin.
Fumonisin enters the food chain when pests chew holes in crops,
creating pathways for fungi and molds to do further damage. One
particular kind of mold that often infests corn is called Fusarium.
Farmers have another name for it: ear rot. Fusarium leaves behind
fumonisin, which blocks cells from absorbing folic acid, an essential
vitamin. And a lack of folic acid is the leading cause of NTDs.
There's nothing wrong with consuming trace amounts of fumonisin. But
larger doses are positively unhealthy--as we now know from studying
those Texas babies suffering from NTDs.
There are a few ways we might combat NTDs. One would be to educate
women who eat foods derived from unprocessed corn to increase their
folic acid intake. According to one estimate, pregnant women who
supplement their diets with folic acid can decrease NTDs by as much
as 70 percent.
Another method would be to plant more Bt corn--because corn that has
been bred to fend off pests is less likely to suffer from the kind of
damage that leads to Fusarium infestation.
So consider this irrefutable fact: If we grow and eat more biotech
corn, NTDs will afflict fewer babies.
Put another way, it means that biotech food is not just safe to
eat--it's safer to eat. Folks, this is how we begin to turn the game
around. Like an interception deep in the other team's territory, we
move from defense to offense and have a chance for seven points.
Let the enemies of biotechnology now explain why they oppose biotech
food when we have scientific proof showing that its use will reduce
birth defects in certain populations.
"Perhaps faced with results like these, government regulators around
the world should require farmers to plant Bt corn," write University
of Illinois professor Bruce Chassy and University of Oklahoma
professor Drew Kershen in a recent assessment.
I wouldn't go quite that far. Farmers should retain as much choice as
possible in determining what they plant, and consumers should have an
equal amount of freedom in choosing what they eat. At the same time,
their decisions should be as informed as possible--and they need to
know that a diet consisting of biotech-enhanced corn may carry with
it important health benefits for pregnant women and their children.
One thing's for sure: I like playing offense a lot better than defense.
http://scholar.google.com (Thanks to Sandeep Prakash for the alert!)
'We believe everyone should have a chance to stand on the shoulders of giants'
Google Scholar enables you to search specifically for scholarly
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Just as with Google Web Search, Google Scholar orders your search
results by how relevant they are to your query, so the most useful
references should appear at the top of the page. This relevance
ranking takes into account the full text of each article as well as
the article's author, the publication in which the article appeared
and how often it has been cited in scholarly literature. Google
Scholar also automatically analyzes and extracts citations and
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citations of older works and seminal articles that appear only in
books or other offline publications.
Frankenstein Food Is Good for You and Other Toxic Shocks
- Rosie Murray-West, Daily Telegraph (UK), Nov 20, 2004 www.telegraph.co.uk
Don't touch the organic carrots, Michael Pragnell of GM food producer
Syngenta tells Rosie Murray-West
Bonfire night may have just passed but I'm not expecting any
fireworks when I go to meet Syngenta head Michael Pragnell. We're in
Switzerland, for a start, but when people keep describing him as
"straight", "fair" and, rather damningly, "a former finance
director", I begin to think it is going to be a pretty damp squib.
First impressions bear this out. Pragnell, 57, is scholarly, and
actually rather charming. He takes my coat himself (and even appears
to know where the cloakrooms are), and happily positions himself on
the sofa. I'm encouraged, though, when he begins our interview by
castigating a perfectly blameless wooden staircase for being
"dominant and overwhelming".
"I keep expecting to see the Fuhrer come down it with Marlene
Dietrich on his arm," he complains. "But it's not a health and safety
hazard - we use non-slip varnish."
If you'll pardon the pun, after the staircase the only way is up. The
conversation ranges from international development through Harold
Wilson's policies to his wife's home-made jam. And just don't get him
started on organic vegetables - you may never eat a misshapen, muddy
Of course, Pragnell has a vested interest in us not liking organic
carrots. Not only is Syngenta almost synonymous with genetically
modified produce, but it also makes pesticides and fertilisers by the
bagful, and we're not talking horse manure. When Pragnell and his
wife sell their home-grown produce at the local church fete back in
Britain, you can be sure that those potatoes won't be bearing a Soil
"Organic food is highly toxic," he proclaims. "Sticking to an organic
regime just puts plants under greater and greater strain - and life
for farmers in the UK is only going to get more difficult as the
result of organic farming."
I'm thinking of cancelling my organic vegetable box straight away,
and when he starts mentioning words like "mycotoxins", I'm convinced.
I don't know what a mycotoxin is, but it doesn't sound like something
I want with my dinner.
I'm pretty sure that this morning's lunch in the Syngenta canteen
wasn't mycotoxins on toast. The company has an almost Brave New World
approach to agriculture, as borne out by the pictures of happy pigs
and fields of waving wheat that adorn the annual report.
Despite the fact that it caused a minor sensation earlier this year
by withdrawing all of its research into GM crops from Britain to the
US, Pragnell insists that we will accept them in the end, and
probably by the end of this decade.
Friends of The Earth don't quite see it that way. When news of the
Syngenta GM move leaked out in July, their GM campaigner Clare
Oxborrow said that it proved that "there is no future for GM
technology either in the UK or Europe".
When questioned on the issue, Pragnell admits that the announcement
could have been handled better, but is adamant that it was merely an
organisational change, since the organisation still employs large
numbers of people in the UK. "It was the logical consequence of a
totally rational thought process," he says. "That wasn't what got
reported, of course."
Environmental campaigners seem to be the only people that make him
irritated. "It's ironic," he says, "that in their opposition to the
application of science to agriculture they are working against all
those things that they say they are working for, like alleviating
poverty in the developing world and improving education standards."
He laughs, and confesses. "Sorry, I'm standing on my soapbox again."
I'm not sure what happened to make him into such a pro-science
zealot. He is a linguist by training, which is probably just as well
for someone who spends his weeks in Basle and his weekends in the UK.
After graduating from Oxford he wrote off to "all the sort of routine
people one does" but says that although he wanted to be in business
"I didn't know which company and it didn't seem to matter".
It's four years since the merger, and he reckons it's gone "very
well", but the one thing that Syngenta hasn't achieved is making the
British public believe that what the tabloid press has dubbed
"Frankenstein food" is safe to eat.
"What it will take is for one of us to launch a product that has an
actual, tangible consumer benefit," Pragnell says. "Then they will
say 'Ah, I get it, this is a force for good.' " One high hope
Syngenta has to change public opinion is a product called Golden
Rice, which contains added beta-carotene.
The company, which is developing this in conjunction with the
Rockefeller Centre, claims that this could help prevent blindness in
Closer to home, he has hopes of a high-lycopene tomato, which could
help prevent prostate cancer. "You can see how housewives would go
for that," he says. "It would seem worth paying a premium for."
High-lycopene tomatoes, however, are still a long way off for British
consumers - and so is the acceptance of GM food, if that comment from
Friends of The Earth is anything to go by.
We're almost at the end of our time together, and I ask Pragnell if
I've missed anything about him. I'm expecting another tirade about
NGOs, or even an anecdote about his two sons (they like cricket,
apparently, but I don't hear much else), but he wants to talk about
an entirely more defining experience. "I was educated by Benedictine
monks," he says earnestly. "It was a tough school - I wouldn't, and
didn't, put my own sons through it. It taught me the virtue of hard
work - these are all things you don't learn once you pass the age of
"It was puritanical, and less than wholly forgiving," he says, fixing
me with a slightly scary smile. "You did penance if you did wrong."
Suddenly I'm glad I didn't tell him about our organic vegetable box;
I don't think I could have taken the public castigation.
As for that poor staircase, I reckon it'll be dismantled before the
year is out.
Implications of GMF Tech for Sub-Saharan Africa
- Crop Biotech Update, November 19, 2004, www.isaaa.org/kc (via Agnet)
The economic gains from using genetically modified (GM) crop
technology in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) are potentially large, say Kym
Anderson and Lee Ann Jackson in a working paper released by the World
Bank Group. The gains are felt most from using nutritionally enhanced
GM wheat while the estimated benefits are diminished slightly by
European Union’Äôs current barriers to GM foods.
The authors used the global economy-wide computable general
equilibrium model known as GTAP. They specifically noted that if SSA
countries impose bans on GM crop imports in deference to EU market
demand for non-GM products, the domestic consumer loss net of that
protectionism boost to SSA farmers would be more than the small gain
derived from greater market access to the EU.
Anderson and Jackson conclude that African countries need to assess
whether they share the food safety and environmental concerns of
Europeans regarding GM organisms. Otherwise, they have much to gain
from adopting GM crop varieties especially second generation ones.
The paper is a product of the Trade Team, Develop ment Research
Group, which aims to better understand the contributions of new
technologies and trade policies to economic welfare of the developing
world. The full paper is available at
The Discourse of The GM Food Debate: How Language Choices Affect Public Trust
- Cook, G.; Robbins, P. T.; Pieri, E., Eldis, November 19, 2004
This report examines how the UK public responded to information about
GM food technology. It assesses how new technology is communicated to
the public and how it is assessed by them.
In 2003 when the UK government sponsored a GM National Debate,
consisting of an economic review, scientific review and public
consultation. The authors made a qualitative discourse analysis of
data from this consultation process, to discover: the ways in which
GM food technology was presented in the UK press during the first
half of 2003 ; the views of stakeholders about public knowledge and
opinions of GM ; the effect of the language used in press reports and
stakeholder statements on public
Key findings include:
In general, the four newspapers analysed held consistently to either
a pro GM stance (The Times and The Sun) or an anti GM stance (The
Guardian and The Daily Mail), and this is reflected in their choice
of writers and sources, their selection and presentation of stories,
and in the language used.
Many articles discussed the issues in a narrow frame as a purely
technological issue divorced from a wider historical, political and
Pro-GM newspapers and interviewees typically presented the issue as
purely scientific, and subscribed to a deficit model of public
understanding, attributing opposition to GM to ignorance and fear.
In contrast, the focus groups participants, placed the GM issue in a
wider context, linking it to other political events and conflicts
(notably Iraq), and drawing analogies with past commercial and
Focus group participants were largely unconvinced by pro GM
arguments. Although there was general support among both interviewees
and focus group participants for the idea of a public consultation on
a new technology, there was also general cynicism about the National
Debate on GM on both sides. In particular, the view was expressed
that the consultation was a publicity exercise only, that policy
could not be affected by "ordinary" people, and the key decisions had
already been made by an élite.
Language choices by journalists and stakeholders reflected an
entrenched view of the debate as a conflict. This sense of division
was echoed by various language choices by focus group participants,
such as, for example, a constant polarisation of "us" and "them".
Although focus group participants were not sensitive to all
linguistic nuances, their responses to texts, and to specific
wordings within them, revealed a view of press, politicians and
stakeholders as manipulative.
The main determinant of focus group reactions to the texts they were
shown was not the language but their perception of the author or the
Full PDF version of the report: How language choices affect public trust
FDA Proposes Draft Guidance for Industry for New Plant Varieties
Intended for Food Use
- FDA Talk Paper, T04-52, November 19, 2004; Media Inquiries:
301-827-6242, Consumer Inquiries: 888-INFO-FDA
To address the possibility that material from a new plant variety
intended for food use might inadvertently enter the food supply
before its sponsor has fully consulted with the Food and Drug
Administration (FDA), FDA is announcing the availability of a draft
guidance document entitled "Guidance for Industry: Recommendations
for the Early Food Safety Evaluation of New Non-Pesticidal Proteins
Produced by New Plant Varieties Intended for Food Use."
This draft guidance discusses the early food safety evaluation of new
proteins in new plant varieties, particularly in new bioengineered
varieties that are under development for possible use as food for
humans or animals. The draft guidance also describes procedures for
communicating with FDA about this evaluation.
The issuance of draft guidance was proposed in August 2002 in a
Federal Register Notice (67 FR 50578) published by the Office of
Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) as part of proposed Federal
actions to update field test requirements and to establish early
voluntary food safety evaluations for new proteins produced by
Rapid developments in genomics are resulting in dramatic changes in
the way new plant varieties are developed and commercialized.
Scientific advances are expected to accelerate over the next decade,
leading to the development and commercialization of a greater number
and diversity of bioengineered crops. As the number and diversity of
field tests for bioengineered plants increase, the likelihood that
cross-pollination due to pollen drift from field tests to commercial
fields and commingling of seeds produced during field tests with
commercial seeds or grain may also increase. This could result in
low-level presence in the food supply of material from new plant
varieties that have not been evaluated through FDA's voluntary
consultation process for foods derived from new plant varieties
(referred to as a "biotechnology consultation" in the case of
FDA believes that any potential risk from the low level presence of
such material in the food supply would be limited to the possibility
that it would contain or consist of a new protein that might be an
allergen or toxin.
Under the proposal, developers would provide FDA with information
about the food safety of the new protein at a relatively early stage
of development of the crop. Once a developer decides to commercialize
a particular crop, the developer would still be expected to
participate in FDA's voluntary premarket consultation process. To
date, all new plant varieties developed through biotechnology that
are intended for food and feed marketed in the United States have
completed the consultation process before they entered the market.
While FDA has not found and does not believe that new plant varieties
under development for food and feed use generally pose any safety or
regulatory concerns, this guidance is consistent with FDA's policy of
encouraging communication early in the development process for a new
plant variety. Such communication helps to ensure that any potential
food safety issues regarding a new protein in such a new plant
variety are resolved prior to any possible inadvertent introduction
into the food supply of material from that plant variety.
The proposed draft guidance represents FDA's current thinking about
the approach for assessing the food safety of new proteins produced
by new plant varieties. An alternate approach may be used as long as
it satisfies the requirements of applicable statutes and regulations.
Written comments on the draft guidance may be submitted up to 60 days
from the date it is published in the Federal Register to Dockets
Management Branch (HFA-305), Food and Drug Administration, 5630
Fishers Lane, Rm. 1061, Rockville, MD 20852.
- Susan R. Owens, EMBO reports, vol. 4, no. 3, pp 229-232, 2003;
2003 European Molecular Biology Organization
'Reluctance within the European Union to accept genetically modified
crops may hinder the benefits of this technology reaching the
The words "impractical and unenforceable" were used by the European
food and drink association, the CIAA, to greet the European Union
(EU) legislation on the labelling of genetically modified (GM) food
that is likely to become law later this month. The new ruling
requires that all foods containing more than 0.5% GM produce are
labelled as such. Controversially, the ruling extends this to all
highly processed products derived from GM crops that no longer
contain any traces of the dubious GM DNA or protein, such as oils.
Critics fear that this will lead to an unnecessary paper trail for
these goods, which is open to fraud and abuse as it cannot be based
on simple detection methods. Although this may eventually lead to a
lifting of the current EU ban on GM products imported from the USA,
it will be a logistical nightmare for US producers as around 70% of
the soybean and 30% of the maize that they grow is genetically
engineered, and no such labelling of their downstream products is
required. Not surprisingly, the USA are becoming increasingly
frustrated with this cautious EU attitude, and it has caused further
deterioration in what were already strained trade relations.
These new labelling laws are being hailed as a victory for the
European consumer after numerous scare stories about GM crops. The
flames of societal anxiety that these have created have been fanned
by a prevailing wind of negative opinion in the news media,
opposition by activist groups, a lack of reliable information on the
current safeguards in place, a growing mistrust in industry and a
general lack of awareness of how our food production system has
evolved. In the developed world, Europe is essentially alone in its
scepticism about genetic engineering.
Outside the EU, crops enhanced by biotechnology are being grown on
more than 130 million acres, most predominantly in the USA,
Argentina, China and Canada, and food ingredients produced from these
crops are found in thousands of products consumed worldwide. There is
no unequivocal evidence of harm to our health or the environment, but
there is still an intense debate about the value and safety of these
crops. Indeed, the anti-GM lobby has been very successful in catching
the media's attention, not least through one of their most ardent
supporters, the heir to the British throne.
In one of his many condemnations of the technology, Prince Charles
warned in June 2002 that a price would be paid for pushing nature too
far: "I think it's going to cause the most appalling problems [...]
we're tampering with something fundamental, trying to redesign
nature." These and other similar sentiments have reverberated around
Europe and beyond, and have created an anti-GM mood that will be very
difficult to reverse.
In a continent of surplus, there is no obvious need for this
technology. But it is a well-known fact that the world's population
will hit 9 billion by the year 2050, and even as soon as 2020 there
will be at least 1.5 billion more mouths to feed. This explosive
increase in the world's population, along with the continuing
deterioration of arable land, scarcity of fresh water and increasing
environmental stress, pose serious threats to global agricultural
production and food security. Clearly, the gains generated by the
Green Revolution have hit a ceiling. The world's population now
stands at 6 billion, and it is estimated that 800 million people are
still undernourished. The potential of genetic engineering to produce
more drought-resistant, disease-resistant and nutritious food must
therefore place GM crops among what Jeffrey Sachs dubbed "Weapons of
mass salvation" in the 24 October 2002 issue of The Economist.
Indeed, several crops have been engineered to increase their
usefulness in Africa, South-East Asia and Latin America, including
virus-resistant sweet potatoes, salt-tolerant tomatoes,
metal-tolerant maize, trehalose-producing rice to withstand drought
and, possibly the most notorious, the pro-vitamin-A-enriched 'golden
rice'. One of its developers, Ingo Potrykus formerly from the ETH
(Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule) in Zurich, Switzerland, firmly
believes that this product can help to alleviate the suffering of the
400 million rice-eating poor who are deficient in vitamin A and, in
particular, the 500,000 children who go blind every year as a result.
"This was a crazy idea and everybody believed it would not work," he
said at the European Plant Science Organisation conference in
Brunnen, Switzerland, last October.
With the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, it took Potrykus'
group in Switzerland and Peter Beyer's group in Freiburg, Germany,
nine years to develop golden rice, and it is now ready to be planted
in farmers' fields. Unbeknown to them at the time, golden rice
actually breaks 70 intellectual property rights, but on the whole,
industry is co-operating, and these rights are in the process of
being waived. However, as a GM crop, its introduction has met severe
opposition, and it is now being subjected to rigorous testing. Named
after its colour, which is due to the concentration of the vitamin A
precursor -carotene in the grains, the researchers estimate that only
100 grams a day will provide 50% of the recommended daily allowance
of the vitamin.
But this has been ridiculed by GM opponents who claim the figure is
nearer an indigestible 9 kilograms a day. "Greenpeace are in the
privileged situation where they can claim something and we have to do
experiments to prove them wrong," said Potrykus. These particular
experiments are due to be completed in 2004, but even then, there are
still numerous hurdles to be jumped, and the unpredictable GM
opponents to be persuaded, before the seeds can be provided free of
charge and without limitations to the farmers, as planned. "Life is
getting very difficult if you try and do something effective," he
lamented. "It's better to stay with basic science."
The argument that GM food can feed the poor does not cut any ice with
the opponents of this technology. They insist that there is enough
food to feed the world's population and that the problem is simply
one of distribution. "The fundamental reason why hunger persists
relates to the fact that poor people lack money to buy food that is
readily available or that they are deprived of access to, control
over, or ownership of the productive resources necessary to produce
it themselves," states the Five Year Freeze report
(http://www.fiveyearfreeze.org) published in October 2002 and
supported by 120 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) including
Greenpeace, Oxfam and Action Aid. "Without addressing this underlying
problem, proponents of GM are avoiding the real causes of hunger and
food insecurity," it concludes.
Aina Edelman, representing the Norwegian Farmers and Smallholders
Union at the EMBO members meeting in Oslo, Norway, last October,
argued that GM crops prolong the use of monocultures, and maintained
that changing people's diets is the only solution to malnutrition.
"We need to have more diversity, not less, if we are going to meet
food requirements. We need to encourage people to grow and eat a
diversity of crops." Moreover, privately developed GM crops increase
the dependency of farmers on industry, and snare the farmers into
buying expensive seeds and chemicals from one harvest to the next.
"True food security on an international level can only be achieved by
food sovereignty on a local and national level."
Ironically, GM crops, particularly if they were to be provided
without industrial restrictions, could help to provide such
sovereignty: for much of Africa, the poor live in rural areas where
the agricultural potential is low and the natural resources are
limited. Food must be locally produced in quantities that are
sufficient and dependable, even on poor soil and in years when the
environmental conditions are unfavourable.
NGOs such as Greenpeace have been very effective in stressing the
potential risks that this technology poses to human health and the
environment, and in highlighting that these have still not been
adequately assessed. So effective, in fact, that the ripples of these
protests have been felt in the developing world. When offered US aid
in the form of GM maize to feed his starving population, Zambia's
president Levy Mwanawasa said, "I would rather let my people starve
than eat this toxic food." This globalization of fear has been rapid,
but as GM technologies are being introduced at a speed that far
outpaces the capacity of these developing countries to assess the
risks and benefits, it is not surprising that they are taking their
cue from Europe. Of course, this may ultimately lead to a rejection
of this approach in the countries that could potentially benefit the
And even if the principle of GM crops is accepted, there is still the
governing issue of trade, as some farmers would not wish to grow
produce that could not be exported to Europe. "The EU is not an
island anymore. Biotech is not going to progress around the world if
it stays this way," Channapatna Prakash from Tuskegee University, AL,
USA, warned at the EPSO meeting.
For GM crops to have a chance of being accepted throughout the world,
therefore, a dialogue must be established with the public in EU
countries to increase understanding and, more importantly, to gain
their trust. Although there are links between knowledge and
acceptance, these are far from one-to-one, and other factors come
into play. In Denmark, for instance, public knowledge about GM crops
is high, but acceptance is low, whereas in Spain the opposite is true.
"It's not just understanding, it's how we bring about trust. Our
increasingly affluent society is preoccupied with risk and has lost
touch with agriculture," Prakash said. Moreover, scientists that are
associated with this issue have quite an image problem, and are
generally perceived by the public to be attached to industry, with
all the self-serving intentions that this seems to imply. "There is a
media fascination with maverick scientists. It is important that we
have more activism to counter the misinformation," Prakash concluded.
Michael Bevan from the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK, believes
that this cannot be done by scientists alone and that a conduit needs
to be involved. "The message needs to come from someone the public
trust. We must start to build networks with opinion leaders."
Change has always been difficult to accept, particularly in an area
as emotionally charged as food. One major problem that needs to be
overcome is the public's rather old-fashioned perception of the food
production industry. The idyllic image of the cow roaming free on the
Alps still persists, so it is hardly surprising that the sudden
interference of biotechnology seems like a huge step away from this.
In reality, genetic engineering is not so far removed from the
processes that have previously been used to transform crops.
Added to this is the mistrust caused by the speed with which the
technology was introduced. According to Martin Frid from the Swedish
Consumer Coalition, GM organisms (GMOs) were being discussed in the
late 1980s, but "no-one predicted that one US
company--Monsanto--would introduce them onto the market so quickly."
Effectively, the technology was introduced into the USA before
legislation was in place, and this is held up in other countries as
an unacceptable way forward, he continued. Helge Torgesen from the
Institute of Technology Assessment, Vienna, Austria, puts this down
to the fact that "innovations are not automatically welcomed here.
There is less identification here with a 'Corporate Europe' than a
'Corporate US'." Not to mention the fact that the US population
generally places much more trust in its regulatory bodies, such as
the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of
Potrykus is still hopeful that golden rice will be accepted by
farmers in developing countries, but knows that it will be an uphill
battle that is essentially out of his hands. "It depends upon the
political success of a radical anti-GMO lobby supported by an EU
attitude," he said. Encouragingly, he has found that people in Europe
are supportive of his development as people are truly concerned about
the fate of blind children. "The public is not against the technology
if they see a reason for it. In the EU, they don't see why they
should accept a risk--if there is a risk--if there is no benefit."
Equally, using the fate of poor farmers as 'emotional blackmail' for
these crops to gain acceptance in the EU should be avoided. Torgesen
warns that this message requires more sophistication. "Emotional
appeals to save starving children are a bit hard to swallow and
counter-productive as many people are turned off by such statements."
Consequently, there needs to be 'a golden rice for Europe'. Bevan
said, "We as scientists need to make it seem beneficial to the
consumer. At the moment, it only benefits the producer. We need to
make products that the public can see are valuable and can't be done
any other way."
Interestingly, recent research from the Broom's Barn Research Station
in Suffolk, UK, which was published online in January 2003 in
Proceedings of The Royal Society of London, series B
(www.pubs.royalsoc.ac.uk), indicates that GM herbicide-tolerant crops
can be of benefit to the environment by increasing numbers of
endangered wildlife. This, of course, must be balanced against the
many reports that have suggested they have a negative impact on the
environment (for a debate, see Trewavas & Leaver, EMBO reports 2,
455-459 (2001); and Flothman & van Aken, EMBO reports 2, 644-647
(2001). Nonetheless, if genetic engineering can be shown to
counteract certain trends about which society is concerned, the
acceptance of GM crops is much more likely to be forthcoming.
With golden rice, the proof of principle has been established, and
this technology could help to feed the poor and increase the
nutritional quality of their food intake. To expect GM food to cure
such a complex issue as world hunger is totally naive and
unrealistic, but it is a potentially useful tool that should not be
dismissed out of hand by more privileged countries.
Unfortunately, the current focus of agricultural research funding is
on high-technology approaches, which are designed to benefit
large-scale industrial agriculture rather than the needs or interests
of developing countries.
Ingo Potrykus still hopes that one day it will be possible to
assemble, in one variety of crop, a series of transgenic
quality-traits such as provitamins, high-quality protein and high
iron levels, combined with a series of agronomic traits such as pest
and disease resistance. "But it must be done only by someone who can
afford to be considered crazy," he said.