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Date:

November 30, 2004

Subject:

Ducking the Truth; EU Deadlock Unbroken; Food for All?; Christianity; GM Language & Public Trust; Philippine Experts Dispute Claims

 

Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : November 30, 2004

* Ducking the Truth about Europe's GMO Policy
* EU Deadlock Over Biotech Products Unbroken
* Five EU Nations Hope to Keep Lid on Genetically Altered Food
* Food for All? Policies, Investments, Incentives and GM Crops
* On Religious Beliefs and Christianity
* GM Language: The Discourse of Arguments for GM Crops and Food
* Discourse of the GM Food Debate: How Language Choices Affect Public Trust
* India: Conference on Agri-Biotechnology
* Philippines: Biotech Experts Dispute Claims vs. Bt Corn's Effects
--

Ducking the Truth about Europe's GMO Policy

- Lawrence A. Kogan, International Herald Tribune, November 27, 2004 http://www.iht.com/articles/2004/11/26/opinion/edkogan.html

If something walks, quacks and swims like a duck, it probably is a duck. So the only thing surprising about a recent World Bank report is that otherwise reserved scholars minced no words in calling the European Commission's obsession with avoiding genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, blatant trade protectionism.

The European Commission has long attempted to justify its strict health and environmental regulations as necessary to protect the public from uncertain risk associated with genetically modified crops. The World Bank report debunks this myth and offers empirical evidence of the commission's true motives.

What is really behind the commission's stringent regulations is European industry's comparative disadvantage in the use of genetically modified, or GM, crop technology. In drawing this conclusion, the study points to the significant role played by European industry in lobbying for protectionist barriers.

It is refreshing to see the report's authors move beyond the conventional wisdom that the European Union has been reluctant to allow GM crops and foods because Europeans are more concerned with protecting the natural environment and are less trusting of their food safety regulators than Americans are. The European Commission's anti-GM stance is so strong that it had to be based on more than just "cultural preferences."

The deeper question is this: Why would European producers lobby for overly strict rules that they too must face? What do they gain?

The simple answer is based in classical trade economics. As the authors note, "when faced with a more efficient competitor, the optimal response of farmers in countries with a comparative disadvantage in GM adoption is to lobby for (or at least not resist) more-stringent GM standards."

Faced with increased competition in GM products from larger American, Canadian and Argentine GM exporters - which account for three-fifths of the world's soybean exports and four-fifths of global maize exports - domestic EU producers lobbied their governments and the European Commission to adopt strict GM controls.

Of course, GM imports also generated widespread opposition among outspoken and politically influential European consumer and environmental groups. This gave rise to a convergence of civil society and industry concerns that moved member state governments and the European Commission to respond in a politically popular manner that also sought to eliminate EU industry's comparative economic disadvantage. That disadvantage could be eliminated only by creating artificial "product differentiation," first with the GM moratorium and then through strict EU-wide traceability and labeling regulations.

All of this, of course, was rational from an economic and political point of view. However, it is also arguably illegal from the perspective of international trade laws enforced by the World Trade Organization.

Perhaps worse still, EU biotech policy has had serious global repercussions, profoundly influencing the decisions of other food-exporting nations to avoid or severely restrict the use of GM technology. China, which has a steady but growing agricultural trade with Europe, has been unwilling to approve GM food production for fear of losing EU market access. But with nearly one-fifth of the world's population, China is in desperate need of the kinds of yield increases GM crops offer.

EU policies have also encouraged developing countries such as Zambia and Zimbabwe to shun GM food aid for fear that even their non-GM food exports would be tarnished with a "GM taint" and be denied access to EU markets.

Some experts have blamed the now-ended GM moratorium for these decisions, but poor countries are scarcely in a better position now that the moratorium has been replaced with potentially crippling GM labeling and traceability rules.

Furthermore, as I discuss in a recent article in the U.S. journal The National Interest, EU support for antibiotech campaigns by nongovernment organizations has even stymied basic research and development programs in countries like the Philippines. There, EU-funded activists have helped to reduce the financial incentives for research into GM products by raising needless hurdles to research. Activist campaigns have even made consumers reluctant to accept such publicly funded GM products as nutritionally enhanced "golden" rice. Tragically, while European industry has gained economically from these policies, developing countries have continued to suffer the human losses of hunger and disease.

The World Bank's findings are doubly disturbing because they reflect the observation by many other scholars of a growing trend in the use of EU regulatory policy to disguise trade barriers. Considering the significant economic interests at stake in international trade, one cannot help but suspect that similar motivations underlie precautionary principle-based regulations, such as proposed EU regulations on chemicals or its directives on hazardous wastes. Those, too, are rules that walk, quack and swim like protectionist ducks.

(Lawrence A. Kogan, an international environment and trade attorney, has advised the U.S. National Foreign Trade Council on trade and environmental issues.)

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

EU Deadlock Over Biotech Products Unbroken

- Paul Geitner, Associated Press, Nov 30, 2004

European Union governments failed to break a deadlock Monday on whether to allow imports of a corn modified by U.S. biotech giant Monsanto to resist rootworms, despite a ruling last month confirming its safety. A committee of national experts split 8-12 with 5 abstentions, said European Commission spokeswoman Barbara Helfferich. Because of the weighted voting system, neither supporters nor opponents gathered the necessary majority.

The committee has repeatedly deadlocked since the EU ended its six-year moratorium on accepting applications for new genetically modified foods in May. Such products remain controversial across Europe, where many see them as potential health and environmental risks.

The deadlock means the file goes to EU government ministers, who have three months to consider it. If they fail to break the impasse, it goes back to the EU head office, which is likely to approve it, as it has with other applications this year. The European Food Safety Agency has twice reported that the variety of corn considered Monday -- known as MON 863 -- is "unlikely to have an adverse effect on human and animal health, or on the environment."

The agency offered its first backing in April, but Germany had asked for further study before it would consider agreeing to allow the sale of the product in the European Union. Germany joined Britain, Finland, Sweden, Portugal, Netherlands, France and Estonia in voting to approve the application. Slovenia, Poland, Austria, Malta, Hungary, Luxembourg, Lithuania, Latvia, Cyprus, Italy, Greece and Denmark voted against. Slovakia, Ireland, Spain, Czech Republic and Belgium abstained.

Monsanto had applied for authorization for import and processing of MON 863, such as for animal feed, but not cultivation or human consumption. Bryan Hurley, a spokesman for St. Louis-based Monsanto, called Monday's developing "disappointing," considering that the food safety agency has signed off on the product. "We're disappointed that the process is not working more immediately," Hurley said, confident the matter will be sorted out as was the case with Monsanto's herbicide-tolerant maize NK603, which the EU last month authorized the sale of for use in food. "This is just one step," he said.

Also Monday, the committee was unable to agree on European Commission proposals to overturn national bans on certain EU-approved, genetically modified products in five EU countries. Those proposals also now go to the ministerial level for consideration early next year. A biotech industry spokesman, Simon Barber of EuropaBio, accused EU governments of "flouting the law that they put in place." "The EU's Food Safety Authority has rejected all the 'new' information provided by these member states," he said. "They have no scientific basis to maintain their bans."

Environmentalists, however, accused the EU head office of "caving in" to the United States, Canada and Argentina, which are challenging the European Union's rules on biotech crops at the World Trade Organization.

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

Five EU Nations Hope to Keep Lid on Genetically Altered Food

- Scott Miller, The Wall Street Journal Europe, November 29, 2004

The European Union's opening of its markets to genetically modified crops faces a challenge from five European nations who say they have the right to say what's safe and what's not, regardless of EU decisions. Austria, Germany, Luxembourg, France and Greece today will tell regulatory authorities that they want to continue long-standing bans on types of genetically modified corn and rapeseed oil, even though the European Commission has already ruled the strains are safe.

It is an important test for the huge U.S.-dominated industry in genetically modified products that has made extremely limited headway in Europe. The U.S. already has sued the EU at the World Trade Organization over its approach to the products. Under pressure, the EU has eased restrictions, albeit gingerly, on genetically modified crops -- a technology gaining favor with farmers around the world and also produced by European companies. But a number of the EU's 25 governments continue to openly worry about the crops' safety and many opinion surveys continue to show the public harbors environmental and health concerns.

Under EU rules, the five nations have the right to ask for permission to ban genetically modified, or GM, products under a so-called "safeguard clause." But they have to present new scientific evidence to back up their fears. Commission scientists have already reviewed their evidence and found it doesn't have merit. Still, Austria, for one, plans to tell authorities that it should continue to ban a type of GM corn made by Syngenta AG of Switzerland because all the possible toxic and allergic effects haven't been fully tested for human consumption.

"It should not be allowed on to the market in a major way," said Michel Haas, director of the biotechnology department at Austria's Ministry of Health and Women. "GM is still a technology where a lot issues have to be considered."

The GM industry says it is high time for the bans to be lifted. "We are looking at implementing an EU law which was put in place by, among others, these same member states," said Simon Barber, director of the Plant Biotechnology Unit of EuropaBio, the European association of bio-industry firms.

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

Food for All?

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4038189.stm

Most experts say there is no simple solution. We will need 60% more food to meet the needs of the world's growing population in the next 30 years, according to UN figures. Although the world's population has doubled since 1960, food production has more than kept up. But pressures are mounting on the land and water resources we need to feed the planet.

BBC News asked a range of experts how we can meet our growing demand for food without destroying the environment.

"The best way is through the economies of scale in corporate farming" - Dennis Treacy, Smithfield Foods
"We need to recognise the consequences of what we buy and where we buy it" - Tom Oliver, Campaign to Protect Rural England
"If people eat less meat then yes it's quite possible to feed the world in a sustainable way" Peter Melchett, Policy Director, Soil Association

"More food must be produced while using and degrading less water" Anders Berntell, Stockholm International Water Institute
"Urgent attention must be given to better policies, investments and incentives" Stan Wood, Senior Scientist, IFPRI
"There is a whole host of technical and political options which can be combined" " Josef Schmidhuber, Senior economist, FAO ----------

Policies, Investments, Incentives and GM Crops

- Stan Wood, International Food Policy Research Institute

I don't think there's any silver bullet solution. Demand is growing, rapidly in some places, so farmers need to increase the amount they produce from a given area of land - otherwise we'll expand agricultural land use and destroy more habitats and biodiversity.

At IFPRI, we believe that growing demand could be met sustainably if sufficient and urgent attention was given to designing better bundles of policies, investments and incentives. Rich countries must continue to strengthen regulatory frameworks and provide incentives for farmers to utilise more environmentally friendly practices. Reducing over-production stimulated by subsidies would lighten the environmental burden.

In developing countries, there are often technologies available to improve productivity, but farmers have few incentives to adopt them. Opportunities are further constrained by rural poverty and underinvestment in other areas - roads, education, health, and rural electrification. However, even if most farmers adopted current best practices over the next 10-15 years, this would not be enough - we also need new and better technologies.

In the longer run, and where risks have been carefully assessed, this likely includes genetically modified crops.

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

On Religious Beliefs and Christianity

- Prof. Piero Morandini, Milan, Italy

Dear Dr. Arnison, I read with interest your comments in AgBioView. These sparked some thoughts which I try to present below. I must confess in advance I am not a theologian nor an expert in comparative religious studies.

> In our North American society most adults would not admit to belief in Santa Claus but
> never the less go to church to worship a God that seems to have about as much credibility.

The Christian religion has an incredible record of witnesses going back to Christ's time: you can find gospel fragments basically dating back to a few years after Christ's death (e.g. some fragments discovered in Qumran or those from Egypt now at Magdalen college Oxford http://dejnarde.ms11.net//magda.htm ). In other words, most of the things recounted in the gospel can be traced to ocular witnesses (not sure this is the correct translation) and could have been refuted by people who had lived the events. You may believe that all the gospel is basically a fantasy after the other, but you'd have a hard time trying to demonstrate it. Many archeological and historical concordances with the Gospel are available: for instance the kings and the other rulers mentioned in the gospel (e.g. king Herod the great or Pontius Pilate) were real people living at the time. On the front of the church tradition, the list of popes is established back to St. Peter in Rome, one of the 12 apostles.

A very different situation is for instance the Mormon religion, where they deny, to my knowledge, the presence of any "proof" for the things recounted in their books (I admit, though, I have a very limited knowledge on this).

Similar things can be said of Moslem religion when they speak about Christ, seen as another prophet, but whose description is made roughly 600 years after the event took place. This does not deny of course the possibility that the Coran is an inspired book or that is right, but raises the question of how the writer could refer to these things in an accountable way. In other words, many religion claim to be inspired and the Chrstian religion is no exception to this. The Christian religion claims also to be a revealed religion where God revealed himself by becoming a human being and living among us. The difference is in the fact that there are many proofs that in Christianity things are not pure myth without relationship to reality. Of course there is no scientific proof for believing in the divinity of Christ or the holy Trinity (being spiritual they are not measurable, as explained once by Pope John Paul II) and these things belong to the realm of faith.

This is to mean that putting the Christian religion on the same level of accountability as Santa Klaus is not a statement supported either by fact nor by reasoning. Indeed, science was born and thrived only in the Christian west, where the Christian tradition allowed a vision of the world that was highly rational, because the creation was seen as intelligible, made by a God who did not do things capriciously, but out of love and intellect. I could provide some literature on this, if you wish. On the concept of myth and its importance in religion there are nice pages in the book of Joseph Pearce "C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church", but you might find more information going directly to the original source, that is Tolkien and his worldview.

> I am not opposed to the positive and sustaining aspects of religions only just the tendency
> of religious people to try and make others see things their way. Same thing for fanatics like Ho.

The Christian tradition is still alive after 2000 years exactly because is not just a bunch of rules, be they moral rules or cult, but because it is the encounter with a person, living here and now, who claims to be the son of God. This is my experience and the experience of many friends of mine.

The difference with the "religion" propagated by Ho and colleagues is that the latter does not demand any use of the reason to believers, nor provides them with much understanding of the reality, both concerning the material or the spiritual world.

Lastly, such pagan, pre-Christian religion does not convey much love to fellow human beings (e.g. Zambia or DDT) but rather only to Nature, from where man is, inexplicably, excluded.

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

Genetically Modified Language: The Discourse of Arguments for GM Crops and Food

New book by Guy Cook, Routledge Press, UK. Hb: 0-415-31467-4; Pb: 0-415-31468-2 http://www.routledge.com/featured/featured10.asp

The author of the acclaimed Discourse of Advertising, Guy Cook is a leading expert on the communication of controversial technologies – on how companies (and governments) use language to persuade us that 'everything’s alright, really, it is.'

Take the whole GM debate. In fact, take this particular sentence: 'Genetically modified plants will change the nature of life on Earth.'

Now think how both proponents and opponents would agree fully. But their interpretations will be very different: For proponents, GM will fight plant pests, lessen environmental damage, combat world hunger, improve nutrition and thus life quality, and indeed, create tastier fruits and vegetables. Agree?
Or maybe you agree with the opponents, who believe that GM will damage wildlife, create new health risks, exploit poor farmers, undermine democracy, and disrupt Nature –without bringing any benefits. Cook has taken the debate onto a whole new level, by critically examining the language being used. It is written in the belief that understanding how people talk and write about GM can be as important to making our minds up about it as the scientific facts; and more generally, that such analysis can provide crucial insights into the nature of power, conflict and decision-making in the contemporary world.

----
Review of 'Genetically Modified Language' By Guy Cook

- Laurence Phelan, Independent on Sunday (London), November 28, 2004,

Guy Cook is very coy when it comes to explicitly expressing his own opinion about the potential merits or hazards of genetically modified foods, but he still makes a key contribution to the debate by analysing the language used by the scientists, politicians, journalists and campaigners who have been most strident.

Opponents of GM have often been guilty of couching their arguments in unhelpfully emotive language which exploits and exacerbates a general unease about scientific progress. The Daily Mail's famous neologism "Frankenstein Foods" comes to mind. But Cook reveals an equivalent tendency in selected pro-GM speeches made by Bush, Blair and the president of the Royal Society, Lord May.

He shows that the pro- lobby's contribution to the debate largely consists of denouncing the opposition as irrational, in wording that often has pejorative connotations - "dogmatic" or "fundamentalist" - and that they are liable to invoke anti-progressive spectres every bit as frightening as Frankenstein, such as Galileo's papal tormentors and Hitler. Cook accuses scientists of making the unsubstantiated assumption - which is to say he accuses them of being unscientific - that the public would come round to GM if only they had a better understanding of the science and the whole nature of risk. Actually, what little evidence there is would suggest the opposite.

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

The Discourse of the GM Food Debate: How Language Choices Affect Public Trust

Full paper at http://www.regard.ac.uk/research_findings/RES-000-22-0132/report.pdf.

The GM debate brings together many areas of contemporary controversy: the authority of scientists; conflicts of expert and public opinion; the ethics of intervention in nature; globalisation; the growth of corporate power; decision making processes; democracy and citizenship; food production and safety; medicine and health; risk assessment and management (Lappe and Bailey 1998).

Each perspective upon the debate has its own discourse, and the convergence of these discourses can create many misunderstandings when discourses and actors conflict in the public arena. As all players increasingly realise, linguistic choices and framing devices are likely to prove crucial in determining the eventual outcome (AEBC 2001:15). Yet among all the many analyses of GM technology, the link between the language and the social construction of the debate has received little attention. The purpose of this project was to examine aspects of this interaction.

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

India: Conference on Agri-Biotechnology

- Dharwad, India, December 15-6, 2004 http://www.bangalorebio.com/

With the dawn of the new Millennium, Karnataka state in India has been making waves in biotechnology through its pro-active governance and vision. Great strides have been made in the biotech sector by way of the unique Millennium Biotech Policy.

The main purpose of the conference is to ensure that Indian agriculture can harness Agricultural biotechnology, which is expected to usher in an era of increased farm productivity in an environmentally sustainable manner for Indian agriculture. Biotechnology tools provide unprecedented opportunities for improving food quality and food production.

While a handful of biotechnology-derived crops with a few traits have already made a remarkable impact on the global food production and environmental quality, much more benefits can be realized with greater adoption of this technology in a wider variety of crops such as reduced use of pesticides and fuel, savings in labor costs, food at affordable costs, greater choice of nutritionally enhanced food products, stress-tolerant crops, foods with improved flavor, taste and longer shelf life; hypoallergenic foods like groundnut and wheat and elimination of harmful toxins. Other biotech tools such as tissue culture, marker-assisted selection and biopesticides offer much promise in improving the efficiency of agriculture and horticulture.

To harness the benefit of biotechnology with minimal problems, the UAS-Dharwad conference aims to identify priorities for agricultural biotechnology research for India, identify challenges for biotech development, create an awareness of the potential benefits of the technology, and address the perceived concerns related to its use by fostering appropriate communication and dialogue among the various stakeholders, farmers, scientists, regulators, policy makers, food industry, consumer organizations, farmers groups, media and NGOs.

See http://www.bangalorebio.com/ for more information or contact Prof. M. S. Kuruvinashetti

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

Biotech Experts Dispute Claims vs. Bt Corn's Effects

- SEAMEO SEARCA Biotechnology Information Center, Philippines November 25, 2004 http://www.searca.org/

Benigno Peczon, chair of the Biotech Coalition of the Philippines (BCP), has expressed surprise over allegations that an official of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has warned about plant-to-animal transfer of gene traits as risky.

Peczon stressed that the expert quoted in the report, Dr. Shrimohan Jain, was not even listed in the IAEA directory, leading to speculations that the statement "could have been fabricated to suit the needs of groups opposing biotechnology and all other safe, scientific and viable improvements in agricultural crops. 

Regarding the claim by Jain that transgenic genes can produce monsters such as "super weeds" or "runaway species", Peczon pointed out that there is consensus that the consequence of transfer depends upon the trait encoded and its interaction with the environment. Thus, the regulatory agencies require thorough studies of GM crops on a case by case basis. He further added, "In the case of Bt corn, which is the only crop approved for commercial planting in the Philippines, there is no shred of evidence that t1he Bt corn will turn into a weed. Just for the record, has anybody ever seen a stalk of corn growing in areas where it is not cultivated?"

Peczon also scored a recent column in a business newspaper for "simply feeding on the hysteria that biotechnology is a monster that utilizes traits from bacteria to produce crops to feed the world's hungry billions."

Biotechnology has been ridiculed and likened to a plague, Peczon said, even when it has contributed much to develop disease-resistant crops and increase yields, to the benefit of farmers in many countries. "Neither has there been foolproof evidence to declare that native varieties would vanish and agricultural dependency on multinationals would reign supreme. No crop or other organism has become extinct because of biotechnology," Peczon said.

There is no argument against better yielding, more nutritious rice or corn crops, particularly in countries that need to feed zooming populations threatened with hunger and social upheavals, the BCP official said. Peczon stressed that he has yet to find specific cases of bacilli or other bacteria specific to plants or animals wreaking havoc on Bt corn or other crops. 

Thus far, he added, there has been no report of such viral recombination causing toxicity or abnormalities on people who have ingested them. Neither have we read in scientific publications anything about controlled experiments supposed to have shown that mice, newts, and toads fed with GMO plants developed abnormally enlarged kidneys.

Peczon also called for a thorough inquiry into allegations that farmers exposed to Bt corn or had eaten the same in Tuka, Bagumbayan, Sultan Kudarat, and Kalapagan, San Mariano, Davao developed nose bleeding, vomiting, fever and flu-like symptoms. "It would be to the interest of the Filipino people to know once and for all if these allegations are true, and if they're not, then those who use them to malign biotechnology must apologize," Peczon said.

A previous study about supposed Bt toxin contamination conducted by Dr. Terje Traavik of the Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology on 39 B'laan farmers in Sitio Kalyong, Landan, Polomolok, South Cotabato has not withstood rigorous scientific validation, Peczon explained. On the contrary, University of the Philippines-Manila medical experts who conducted a medical investigation in said area discovered that many of the complaints were manifestations of other types of illnesses. For example, one complained of a1moebiasis and another of tuberculosis.

On the economic benefits of Bt corn, Peczon said continuous experiments have yielded a wealth of data on the control of pests and fungi by the stronger corn variety developed with biotechnology. "The ultimate aim is to produce nutritious crops that resist pests and improve the lot of our corn farmers particularly during the wet season when pest incidence is high," he explained.

"As to the dangers posed by Bt corn, experience has shown that it is the resistance to agricultural modernization and improved production that are fueling protests and tagging biotechnology as a scourge," Peczon complained.

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

The Editor, Business World, Philippines

Dear Mr. Locsin:

In response to Mr. B. Lopez column on November 18, 2004-" Bt corn ailments in Mindanao", may we share the following to shed light on B. Lopez misleading information:

The biosafety issue of creating "super weeds" or "runaway species" from genetically engineered crops is carefully looked into by concerned biosafety regulatory agencies. From the part of technology generators, this concern is rigorously evaluated, after all, if the end in view is to commercially use the product, then, the product or the crop must pass this test. The biosafety test is conducted following the universally accepted scientific principles of risk assessment on a case-by-case basis. Regulators re1view scientific studies conducted locally and abroad in order to ascertain that such concern is minimized or totally eliminated.

If one were to look at the literature available, one would find an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence and knowledge base that addresses the potential risks related to GM crops. Numerous international organizations and scientific bodies, including the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Health Organization (WHO), Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC), and the International Council for Science (ICSU), have conducted study after st1udy to evaluate the food, feed, and environmental safety of GM crops and have concluded that all currently available GM crops on the market are as safe as their conventional counterparts.

The incident in Sitio Kalyong, Landan, Polomolok, South Cotabato happened in July last year and NOT two years ago. When the incident was reported in the press, the Department of Agriculture together with SEARCA BIC and the Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines conducted a dialogue in Polomolok. There were medical doctors (Dr. Ma. Bella Siasoco, Pulmunologist, UP Manila-Philippine General Hospital, East Avenue Medical Center, St. Lukes Medical Center, Philippine College of Chest Physicians; Dr. Floreci1ta Padua, Allergologist-Immunologist, National Kidney Institute, Philippine Society for Allergology and Immunology; Dr. Nina G. Barzaga, Professor of Medical Microbiology and Immunology, UP Manila-College of Public Health and Director, Institute of Biotechnology and Molecular Biology, National Institutes of Health and Dr. Ma. Gemma Tapnio, Medical Officer V of the Municipal Health Office of Polomolok) in the dialogue in order to clarify the concerns of the allegedly affected B'laans. The medical doctors tr1ied with difficulty to establish the medical history of complainants, which is a standard protocol in medical examination, because of vehement objection from a representative of SEARICE. MASIPAG and SEARICE claimed to have wanted to help the indigenous community and therefore facilitated the extraction of blood samples from B'laans and sending of same to Dr. Traavik in Norway for analysis.

The affected residents complained of having smelled a pungent smell prior to feeling ill. The complaints (coughing, vomiting, headache, dizziness, stomach ache) happened to a cluster of patients and involve multi-organ systems. Since the symptoms develop almost immediately after smelling something, the doctors explained that this points more to toxicity or poisoning and not to allergic symptoms or even viral respiratory infection. Many have history of respiratory illness long before a small plot of Bt corn1 plants were planted in the area. The Bt corn plants do not emit any smell. 

Even before the dialogue in Polomolok, the incident was already brought by SEARICE to the attention of Dr. Lynn Crisanta R. Panganiban, Chairperson, National Poison Control and Information Service (NPCIS), College of Medicine, University of the Philippines. After analyzing the documentation from the affected individuals, the NPCIS indicated that the clustering effect on the manifestations of symptoms at almost the same period is more indicative of a chemical exposure than biologic exposure. 

Earlier (August 2003), the medical mission conducted by the municipal health office reported that majority of the patients were diagnosed to have suffered from upper respiratory tract infection which has been a common illness for the past few months and this illness has also been accounted to other 23 barangays of Polomolok. Dr. Edwin Dipus, the Municipal Health Officer, concluded that it was "premature to conclude that the illnesses are due to factors other than viruses causing respiratory tract infection1." 

The B'laan community needs government assistance to improve their livelihood and quality of life. After the dialogue, the Department of Agriculture in Region 12 distributed improved seeds to the farmers. A follow-up medical mission was also recommended but our sources in the area informed us that the complainants were not cooperative as some external parties identified to be anti-GMO advised them not to. It was a sad development. We only hope that our government will continue to provide assistance to impro1ve the lives not only of B'laans but to all our indigenous brothers and sisters.

When local immunology expert Dr. Barzaga challenged the methodology and findings of Dr. Traavik, the Norwegian scientist claimed that his study is incomplete. The affected residents of Polomolok were farmers and are therefore constantly exposed to the common soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis. Naturally, there will be antibodies produced by our body as a natural immune response. Dr. Traavik admitted that the results " has shown a coincidence in time which may or may not show a cause and effect relation1ship between the production of antibodies against Bt toxin and the disease allegedly suffered by these farmers and individuals." 

As to when Dr. Traavik intends to complete his study and submit its findings, we do not know. We only hope that when he does, he will have the courtesy to submit it to proper authorities first instead of calling a press conference. 

Mr. B. Lopez and MASIPAG have been ardent anti-GMO advocates. We respect their opinions and would appreciate rational discussion that would elevate our understanding of a novel technology that when used responsibly and judiciously can help contribute towards our twin goals of food security and environmental integrity. Concerns about the technology should be thoroughly discussed in a rational manner, with open mind and not with alarm. 

We hope you would kindly publish this letter. Thank you.
Very truly yours, Sonny P. Tababa, Network Administrator, Biotechnology Information Center

---------------------------
The Editor, Business World, Phillipines

Dear Sir: THE November 18, 2004 column, "Bt corn ailments in Mindanao," written by Mr. Bernardo Lopez is yet another calculated move to picture biotechnology as a monster, and that it would do no good to the country.

I beg to disagree. 

Mr. Lopez has been in the forefront of the anti-biotechnology movement in the country and it is but normal for him to continue his impassioned attacks, even if they are full of inconsistencies and are, in the main, baseless.

Since he sees nothing correct in biotechnology, it is but natural for him to engage in twisting facts, misinforming and scaring the public in the process. To him and his allies, the real gains and health-friendly attributes of biotechnology are an illusion.

Mr. Lopez' article is a complete rehash of previous stories. The claim of Norwegian scientist Dr. Terje Traavik that Bt corn toxin caused an unusual outbreak of illnesses in a remote village in Mindanao is being challenged by Dr. Nina Gloriani Barzaga of the University of the Philippines-Manila College of Public Health. 

Moreover, Dr. Traavik has yet to come up with pertinent scientific data to establish his claim, before going to town and causing panic among the people. I visited the site of Traavik's study along with a medical team from UP Manila and the Department of Agriculture to verify if ever the reported Bt corn poisoning took place.

During our inspection and consultation early this year, Barzaga told journalists that Traavik's statement that "blood samples from several people in Southern Philippines carried increased levels of three different target antibodies showing evidence of an immune reaction to the Bt toxin built into the maize gene to combat pests" needs to be evaluated based on the basic principles of immunology and immunobiology. 

According to her, it is important that Traavik specify which isotypes of antibodies were found to have increased in these individuals, the levels of increases, and the specific antigenic epitopes that these antibodies recognized. His data should also be able to establish that the presence of these antibodies correlated with clinical signs and symptoms of hypersensitivity (or any biologic activity) among these individuals. Barzaga also challenged Traavik to provide the medical world with the scientific data1 to prove his claims, as well as the details or methods of his study. Thus far he has failed to comply. 

Barzaga, who is also the director of the Institute of Biotechnology and Molecular Biology-National Institutes of Health Philippines and research director of the Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines, earlier assailed Traavik for causing "undue public panic" when he disclosed to the media the results of his inconclusive preliminary study.

"It is also important for Traavik to indicate what types of tests were performed, and in which laboratories these tests were performed. There are accepted standardized and validated procedures used in any allergenicity testing," she said.

Another puzzle in Mr. Lopez's article is the mention of a certain Dr. Shrimohan Jain of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whom Mr. Lopez quoted as saying in a Manila seminar recently that "while plant-to-plant transfer of gene traits is less risky, plant-to-animal is very dangerous because of unpredictable mutations that may produce monsters such as pesticide-resistant "super-weeds" or "runaway species." 

There is consensus that the consequence of transfer depends upon the trait encoded and its interaction with the environment. Thus, the regulatory agencies require thorough studies of GM crops on a case by case basis. In the case of Bt corn, which is the only crop approved for commercial planting in the Philippines, there is no shred of evidence that the Bt corn will turn into a weed. Just for the record, has anybody ever seen a stalk of corn growing in areas where it is not cultivated?

Would Mr. Lopez comment on the fact that more and more governments (18 so far) are now approving the use of genetically-modified crop like Bt corn, GM canola, Bt cotton, and GM soybeans? 

I am sure that no one wants to play "mini God" in this endeavor but we all have a role to provide for the future so that the entire human race will survive.

- Benigno D. Peczon, Ph. D., President, Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines

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