Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : December 6, 2004
* Peer Reviewed Publications on the Safety of GM Foods
* European Roadblock to Biotech Crops Starts to Crumble
* Science..., But 'Natural' Naysayers Stand In Way
* Patents and Trees: Response
* GM Food Claims Hard to Swallow?...Response
* Asia Holds the Key to the Future of GM Food
* GMOs, Threat or Hope? - Scholars at 2003 Vatican Meeting
* The Supermarket's Unnatural Selections
* In the Case of Biotech Crops, Ignorance Breeds Contempt
* Biotech May Hold Answer to Floods, Erosion
* Biotech Risk Assessment Research Grants
* ISB News Report - Dec 2004 Issue
Peer Reviewed Publications on the Safety of GM Foods
- Dr. Christopher Preston, AgBioView, Dec. 3, 2004. www.agbioworld.org
Complete cited references are at:
'Results of a search of the PubMed database for publications on feeding studies for GM crops.'
Introduction. There has been considerable recent comment on the lack of peer-reviewed scientific studies on the effect of GM food and feed on livestock, other animals and humans. A report by Pryme and Lembcke (2003) described 10 such studies. This report and the small number of studies is often quoted by groups opposed to the use of GM crops as justification for banning their use in the food chain. To determine the current state of the literature, I conducted a search of the PubMed database for publications on this topic.
Methods. The search strategy I used included the search terms (genetically and modified and food) coupled with crop species with known genetic modifications, including maize, soybean, canola, cotton, potatoes, tomatoes and peas. Searches also included the word transgenic instead of genetically and modified. A large number of hits were obtained by this search strategy, with most having little or nothing to do with GM food tests.
I collected papers if that had:
1. An abstract in PubMed;
2. Were a research publication, not a review or commentary
3. Reported a feeding study involving food or food products from GM crops (not purified proteins from other sources such as bacteria or other GM products) in the abstract;
4. Test subjects were mammals, birds or fish; and
5. Reported at least one measure of comparison with non-GM food.
Results. In all, 42 publications abstracted in PubMed passed these tests. The search strategy extracted most of the studies covered by Pryme and Lembcke (2003). The ones absent were not apparently abstracted in PubMed (e.g. Pusztai 1998) or were reviews (Pusztai 2002). My search uncovered several publications between 1999 and 2001 that were not captured by Pryme and Lembcke (2003).
Of the 42 publications, most examined the effects of feeding GM crop products to livestock including cattle, pigs and poultry. A smaller number examined effects on rats and mice with two on fish. As reported in the abstracts of the publications, 36 studies found no significant effect of GM crop products on the parameters measured or concluded GM and non-GM products were equivalent. Four studies reported a positive effect of the GM feed (however, two of these were GM plants engineered for improved food quality) and two reported negative effects. The studies reporting negative effects were published in 1998 and 1999 (references 3 and 4 in the list). Since 2000, 35 publications have reported no important differences or positive effects of feeding GM crops.
Almost two thirds (27) the publications extracted from the database have
been published since 2002. Many of these examined the potential effects
of GM crop on livestock performance and were clearly aimed at determining whether the reports of dangers of GM crops to livestock in the press were true.
There are at least 42 publications extractable from the PubMed database that describe research reports of feeding studies of GM feed or food products derived from GM crops. The overwhelming majority of publications report that GM feed and food produced no significant differences in the test animals. The two studies reporting negative results were published in 1998 and 1999 and no confirmation of these effects have since been published. Many studies have been published since 2002 and all have reported no negative impact of feeding GM feed to the test species.
Pryme, IF, Lembcke R. 2003. In vivo studies on possible health consequences of genetically modified food and feed - with particular regard to ingredients consisting of genetically modified plant material. Nutr Health 17:1-8.
Pusztai A. 1998. SOAFED flexible fund project RO818 (cited in Pryme and Lembcke 2003).
Psztai A. 2002. Can science give us the tools for recognizing possible health risks of GM food'? Nutr. Health 16:73-84.
List of publications collected from PubMed by year at :
Dr. Christopher Preston, Senior Lecturer in Weed Management, University of Adelaide, Australia. firstname.lastname@example.org
European Roadblock to Biotech Crops Starts to Crumble
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri) December 5, 2004
When farmers rev up their tractors next spring, they'll be planting the world's 10th commercial crop of genetically modified foods.
And they'll be planting it on more acres than ever, totaling 10 percent of the planet's farmland. Even Europe, where opposition has been stiffest, is gradually warming to the idea of genetically modified crops. This year, the European Union ended a six-year moratorium when it approved imports of two varieties of genetically modified corn sold by Monsanto and its Swiss rival, Syngenta.
Biotech seeds are making progress elsewhere, too. Genetically modified soybeans are only quasi-legal in Brazil, but they represent a third of the nation's crop by some estimates. A bill to legalize and regulate them has passed the Brazilian Senate.
Chinese and Indian farmers have embraced genetically modified cotton, and China is pushing ahead with development of genetically modified rice. Robb Fraley, Monsanto's chief technology officer, said he is "a little worried from a competitive standpoint" about the possibility of China becoming a biotech powerhouse.
Yet the technology's progress hasn't been without setbacks. Opponents of biotechnology declared victory last spring when Monsanto halted development of genetically modified wheat. Europeans eat meat from animals that are fattened on genetically modified soybeans, but European food companies are reluctant to use genetically modified ingredients in food that's consumed directly by humans. That's partly because of strict labeling requirements and partly because no company wants to be the target of a Greenpeace boycott.
This week, EU environmental regulators rejected an application to import Monsanto's rootworm-resistant corn for use in animal feed. But the rejection is just one step in a long, complex process. Earlier, Monsanto's Roundup Ready corn was approved by the EU's executive body after being rejected at the regulatory and ministerial levels.
"It's sort of one step forward and two-thirds of a step back," said Roger Beachy, president of the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. Embracing genetically modified crops would mean embracing more efficient, large-scale agriculture, he said, and that's hard for Europeans at a cultural level. "That is probably a primary -- if not the primary -- reason for the slow adoption in Europe," Beachy said. "It would represent a change from small-scale agriculture as they've known it over the centuries."
Outside of Spain, where more than 50,000 acres are planted in genetically modified corn, no European country has allowed much planting of the new crops. Some companies are throwing in the towel: Syngenta recently canceled its European field trials of genetically modified crops and moved all such research to the United States.
Fraley says European farmers are becoming more vocal about wanting access to the new seeds, and he believes that public opinion is coming around, too. Still, he said, Monsanto isn't counting on widespread planting in Europe anytime soon.
A cynic might say Europe is giving just enough ground on the biotech issue to strengthen its defense against trade complaints brought by the United States, Canada and Argentina. In this view, the moratorium has been replaced by stringent food-labeling and crop-segregation requirements that will continue to keep genetically modified food out of European supermarkets.
Fraley prefers to look at the glass as half-full. "By any standard, the scale of the adoption of the technology has been breathtaking," he said. "There's never been a technology in agriculture that has been adopted so quickly and so globally."
In all likelihood, even Europeans will eventually decide this is a technology they can't live without.
Science Makes Exciting Ag Advances, But 'Natural' Naysayers Stand In Way
'Needed Plant Engineering Gets Bum Rap'
- Robert B. Goldberg, LA Daily News, December 4, 2004
During the next 50 years, we will need to produce more food than in the entire history of mankind. And we will need to do this on a rapidly shrinking amount of land that is suitable for agriculture.
Los Angeles illustrates this point dramatically. In the 1920s, Los Angeles County was one of the most productive agricultural areas in the United States. Bean fields, citrus orchards and dairy farms were scattered across the county and the new southern branch of the University of California - now known as UCLA - had an agricultural college that provided assistance and new technology to local farmers, educated a new generation of agriculturists and plant scientists, and helped launch the California avocado industry that thrives to this day.
Fast forward to the present. Agriculture has vanished from Los Angeles County, with housing developments, freeways and shopping malls replacing the fertile fields of the past. A similar story could be told in many parts of California and the United States. Ironically, from the 1920s to present time, food production in the U.S. has increased almost 300 percent and the number of workers required to produce our food has shrunk from over 50 percent of the labor force to less than 2 percent. And the percentage of our income that we spend on food has decreased from 40 percent to only 15 percent.
How was this achieved and what are the implications for the future?
About 100 years ago, at the turn of the past century, Mendel's experiments with peas were rediscovered, and the science of genetics was born. New breakthroughs in genetics were used by plant breeders to develop hearty new crop varieties that produced more food on less land. Technological advances such as the tractor, novel irrigation systems, fertilizers and chemicals to fight off pests and weeds, as well as new discoveries about how plants grow, contributed significantly to the cheap, plentiful supply of healthy food that we buy in grocery stores today.
The achievements of the past using old technologies, however, are not sustainable in our current era of burgeoning population growth and limited resources. Just as our parents and grandparents turned to science to help give us the most productive agriculture in the world, we must do so today if we are to meet the challenge of producing a healthy supply of food with limited water, land and other natural resources.
There has never been a more exciting time for agriculture and the plant sciences. The new field of plant genomics is uncovering genes that confer resistance to drought and pests and that can increase the yield of crops significantly above what has been done by conventional breeding over the past 100 years. These discoveries have the potential for creating a new green agriculture, one that is sustainable and that can provide an adequate supply of food to the world's growing population on less land and with much smaller inputs of water and chemicals. A green agriculture that can spawn new industries, such as biofuel production to replace our dependence on oil and reduce the harmful environmental effects of burning fossil fuels.
Sadly, just as new opportunities and advances in agriculture are within our reach, an ideological battle is raging that is slowing to a snail's pace the transfer of exciting laboratory discoveries to reality in the field.
The anti-science forces of darkness have proclaimed that the same genetic engineering technologies that have given us miracle drugs that can treat cancer, diabetes and heart disease should not be used to produce new crop varieties that require small amounts of water, are resistant to pests, require no pesticides and yield significantly more food than conventional varieties.
Why? Because they are not "natural," claim the naysayers.
Yet agriculture has never been natural. The vast majority of food in a grocery store has been produced on land cleared of trees, fortified with nutrients either in the form of manure or fertilizers, and irrigated with water that is piped to the fields. This has been going on since agriculture was invented by our ancestors 10,000 years ago and is the result of a simple biological fact - plants need land, light, water and food in order to grow. Most crops that we use as food have been bred for thousands of years not to grow in the wild, but in the artificial environment that we call a farm.
If we are going to create a new kind of agriculture that is both sustainable and productive, we will need to use all of the scientific tools and discoveries at our disposal, including genetic engineering. Not to do so would break a continuous path of agriculture breakthroughs that has advanced the progress of mankind for thousands of years. In a future of rising populations and shrinking natural resources, turning our backs on modern science's potential would be a major tragedy for us and our children.
Robert B. Goldberg is a UCLA professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
Patents and Trees: Response
- Drew Kershen
Bob McGregor asked:
My initial thoughts on this excellent question are as follows:
1. Infringement of intellectual property rights (IPRs) begins when the alleged infringer makes, uses, sells, etc. the protected variety, plant, gene, cell. If the infringing act(s) occurred during the time of the patent, an infringement claim exists even if the tree itself is harvested years after the term of the IPRs have expired.
2. However, if the IPR holder waits until the tree is harvested to pursue the infringement claim, the holder may have waited too long. Legal systems have laws called "statutes of limitation" which set time limits within which a claim must be brought or the claim becomes stale and legally unenforceable, even though if brought in a timely fashion the claim would have been a valid claim. [I spare AgBioView readers the detailed arguments about when a statute of limitation for particular claims begins to "run the meter."]
3. It is interesting to note that UPOV Art. 19 Duration of Breeder’s Right subsection 2 reads as follows:
"The said period [for the duration of a plant variety protection certificate] shall not be shorter than 20 years from the date of the grant of the breeder’s right. For trees and vines, the said period shall not be shorter than 25 years from the said date."
Plant Patent laws and Utility Patent laws, so far as I am aware, do not distinguish the duration of the patent between trees/vines and other plants. All living matter patents have the same duration.
I have not done sufficient research to comment on whether the longer duration of a UPOV certificate for trees and vines is interrelated to the question that Bob McGregor asked.
GM Food Claims Hard to Swallow
- The Weekly Times, Melbourne, Australia, December 1, 2004
'Claims that GM food is safe are unfounded, say Judy Carman, Phil Davies And Kate Clinch-Jones'
David Tribe (WT, 3/11) asserts that genetically modified food plants are ''as safe to human health and the environment as non-GM varieties" and- that a recent report by the US National Academy of Sciences confirmed this.
His assertion has no scientific basis because there have been no human safety tests of GM foods and no monitoring or investigation of their long-term health impacts. Some GM foods haven't even been tested on animals. When animal testing is done it is usually inadequate because generally only newly engineered proteins are tested, not the whole food.
Furthermore, animals are not assessed for long-term exposure to GM foods and full animal autopsies are rarely done. Almost all GM food testing has been done by those with vested interests. Neither the Office of Gene Technology Regulator nor Food Standards Australia New Zealand do any safety testing of GM foods.
The US report that Dr Tribe refers to states that GM foods' 'carry potentially hazardous substances that must be assessed for safety" and gives a list of how unintended changes in GM crops may occur.
It IS clear that the report's authors find current safety testing unsuitable because they propose a new framework to systematically determine, “unintended compositional changes and health effects". They also recommend the development of new tools to "assess potential unintended adverse effects" and also suggest ways to detect health changes in the population that could result from eating GM foods.
Claims that GM foods are safe to human health and the environment simply cannot be made on the basis of our current levels of scientific understanding.
Dr Judy Carman BSc (Hons), PhD, MPH epidemiologist and biochemist; Dr Kate Clinch-Jones, BMBS Medical Practitioner; and Dr Phil Davies, BAgSc(Hons), PhD Plant Geneticist, are directors of the Institute of Health and Environmental Research.
Response from David Tribe, Ph.D., University of Melbourne
Compare these claims with the following direct quotes from the 2004 NAS report in Question "Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects" (Full report at http://www.iom.edu/report.asp?id=21496 )
Statements that contradict Carman and others WT, Dec 1, 2004.
p15: The recommendations presented in this report reflect the committee’s application of its framework to questions of identification and assessment of unintended adverse health effects from foods produced by all forms of genetic modification, including genetic engineering, and they can serve as a guide for evaluation of future technologies.
p8: Overall Findings and Recommendation: Findings
All new crop varieties, animal breeds (see the cloning subreport), and microbial strains carry modified DNA that differs from parental strains. Methods to genetically modify plants, animals, and microbes are mechanistically diverse and include both natural and human-mediated activities. Health outcomes could be associated with the presence or absence of specific substances added or deleted using genetic modification techniques, including genetic engineering, and with unintended compositional changes.
The likelihood that an unintended compositional change will occur can be placed on a continuum that is based on the method of genetic modification used (see Figure ES-1). The genetic modification method used, however, should not be the sole criterion for suspecting and subsequently evaluating possible health effects associated with unintended compositional changes.
All evidence evaluated to date indicates that unexpected and unintended compositional changes arise with all forms of genetic modification, including genetic engineering. Whether such compositional changes result in unintended health effects is dependent upon the nature of the substances altered and the biological consequences of the compounds. To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.
p41: Naturally Occurring Toxins
All foods, whether or not they are genetically engineered, carry potentially hazardous substances or pathogenic microbes and must be properly and prudently assessed to ensure a reasonable degree of safety. Furthermore, all crop strains, including organic strains, potentially express traits generated by various forms of induced mutagenesis. (Under organic regulations, radiation breeding and induced
p46: Unexpected and unintended effects can be seen with all methods of breeding.
> Traditionally breeders observe such off-types regularly; they methodologically?
p47: Because GE crops are regulated to a greater degree than are conventionally bred, non-GE crops, it is more likely that traits with potentially hazardous characteristics will not pass early developmental phases. For the same reason, it is also?
p40: Conventional plant production occasionally generates foods with undesirable traits, some of which are potentially hazardous to human health.
> Most crops naturally produce allergens, toxins, or other antinutritional substances ?
p1: Nongenetic engineering methods of genetic modification include embryo rescue, where plant or animal embryos produced from interspecies gene transfer, or crossing, are placed in a tissue culture environment to complete development. Other methods include somatic hybridization, in which the cell walls of a plant are removed and the "naked" cells are forced to hybridize, and induced mutagenesis, in which chemicals or irradiation are used to induce random mutations in DNA. The development of these approaches has enhanced the array of techniques that can be used to advance food production. However, as with all other technologies for genetic modification, they also carry the potential for introducing unintended compositional changes that may have adverse effects on human health.
Asia Holds the Key to the Future of GM Food
- John Feffer, YaleGlobal, December 2, 2004; Yale Center for the Study of Globalization http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/display.article?id=4956
'Wary Asian consumers may decide how much genetically modified food will reach the world's dinner tables'
Most media coverage of genetically modified (GM) food has centered on disputes between Europe and the United States. "But it is in Asia that the new techno-food will live or die," writes John Feffer. Asia is home to the largest consumer market, as well as the greatest number of farmers in the world. And it must now choose between accepting America's confidence in the safety and necessity of GM food, or Europe's more cautious approach. Through a variety of approaches, both the EU and the US have tried to influence ambivalent nations to move into their camps. These efforts have been met with resistance by farmers, consumers, and wary governments. And mixed results in trial operations threaten confidence in the technology. "In the end," concludes Feffer, "Asians will determine whether the new techno-foods remake the global diet or join radioactive fertilizer and cold fusion in the junk bin of science." -- YaleGlobal
The transatlantic brawl between the United States and Europe over genetically modified (GM) food is attracting much of the media's interest. Billions of dollars in sales, the genetic fate of food crops, and the future safety of human beings hinge on this debate between skeptical Europeans and American technophiles. But it is in Asia that the new techno-food will live or die.
Asia is home to the world's largest consumer base and the greatest number of farmers. If Asians accept US claims about GM food – that it is safe to eat, safe to grow, and the only way to feed growing populations – these new varieties of rice, soybeans, and corn will rule the world. If Asian countries follow the cautious lead of the Europeans, however, by labeling GM products and establishing a system that can trace health problems back to their source, biotechnology will occupy a more modest niche on the farm and marketplace.
Put another way, if the GM struggle were an election, with the United States and the European Union the two frontrunners, then Asia would be one huge swing state. And so far, the undecideds rule.
Take China. It is the only country in Asia growing a significant amount of GMOs – more than half of its cotton crop. Chinese biotech research programs employ 20,000 people in 200 labs. China claims to have developed the world's first genetically modified wheat in 1990, is now running 10 GM rice field trials, and has become the world's largest importer of GM soybeans.
Yet the Chinese government has, until now, avoided planting GM food crops for public consumption. China also joined the Like-Minded Group, a coalition of 100 developing countries favoring strict regulation of GMOs. But quietly, China is trying to corner the Asian market on GM research and development and even overtake the US sector. As Wang Feng, a biotech expert at the Fujian Academy of Agricultural Science, told China Daily, "If we do not boldly push ahead with our GM technologies, we will never have our own Monsanto or Syngenta [biotech firms]."
Not all Chinese agree with the government's policy. Shanghai resident Zhu Yanling launched the country's first consumer lawsuit (against Nestle for a symbolic US$1.64 in damages) because she consumed a Nesquik instant chocolate drink that she believes contained unlabelled GM ingredients; GM skeptics demand appropriate labeling to alert consumers to possible risks. According to a recent poll by Zhongshan University, nearly nine out of ten citizens of the southern city of Guangzhou want GM ingredients labeled – roughly the same number shows up in polls in Europe and the US. In what may be the first of many state-level challenges, Heilongjang province in the northeast, China's leader in soybean production, has banned the import of GM soybeans.
India and Indonesia have also been cheerleaders for GM research, hopeful that the new crops can feed burgeoning populations and produce pest-free crops. But when both countries began easing into the technology by planting GM cotton, they discovered mixed results: crop failures in some Indian districts, lower yields, and more pesticide use than conventional varieties in parts of Indonesia. Still, the two countries are continuing research: Indonesia plans a "bioisland" on Rempang Island near Singapore, while India pours money into bio-fortified foods, such as vitamin A-enriched rice, peanuts, and mustard.
Japan is in a similarly ambivalent position. The world's largest importer of food, Japan is a huge potential market for GM products. The government is cautiously researching GM applications, such as super carbon dioxide-absorbent trees to combat global warming.
But Japanese people, reeling from a series of food scares including beef-mislabeling, mad cow disease, and contamination of GM corn feed in the human food chain, are highly cautious. Japanese consumer groups take credit for persuading their government to stop GM rice trials and – after a March 2004 meeting between US officials and representatives of 414 Japanese consumer and environmental groups opposed to biotech foods -- for Monsanto's recent decision not to release GM wheat on the global market.
Japan has a labeling law, but it is somewhat looser than the European standard. While a product in Europe must be labeled if more than .9 percent of its ingredients are from GM sources, Japan has set the bar at 5 percent. Thailand also has chosen the 5 percent threshold. South Korea's threshold is 3 percent, and the government further requires all advertisements for food products to indicate GM presence. Neither India nor Pakistan has adopted labeling laws.
The issue, of course, runs a lot deeper than labels for consumers. As Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the US-based Oakland Institute, points out, the US and Europe look at the GM issue differently from the developing world. "The talk in the United States and Europe is about consumers," she points out. "The issue in Asia is livelihood, the farmers, and the takeover of the food system." And it is America, Mittal points out, that is transforming food production around the world through a mixture of carrots and sticks.
In terms of carrots for Asia, the US is providing research grants, such as a five-year agreement with India that has a strong biotech component. In 2002, the United States provided US$15 million for a GM research center in the Philippines. The US hopes that the research grants will serve as a hook, and that the recipients will be seduced by the new technology.
If the carrots fail, however, there is always the stick. As a warning to all GM-ambivalent nations, the US has challenged the EU in the World Trade Organization (WTO), under the presumption that a cautious stance toward the new technology is a trade barrier. When India rejected imports of a GM corn-soya blend in 2002, Washington enlisted CARE-India and Catholic Relief Services to lobby on its behalf. And Thailand must back GM foods before the United States will approve a free-trade agreement.
To counter US pressure, anti-GM activists are pushing their governments to assume the European stance. They've also been active at the international level, lobbying for the passage and ratification of the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, under which any country can justify their refusal of imports on the grounds of health and safety. Top GM-growing countries have not ratified the agreement, however.
Activists have also been working with farmers on the ground. In South Korea, for instance, organic farming nearly doubled in acreage from 2001 to 2002. In Japan, the Soy Trust movement has been contracting farmers to increase production of domestic soybeans to substitute for GM imports. In place of the modified "golden rice" that biotech enthusiasts are promoting, advocates of System of Rice Intensification (SRI) promise higher yields with less irrigation and fewer chemical inputs.
The stakes in Asia's decision on GM food are enormous: a huge market in seeds and crops, a total restructuring of farming practice, and a test of civil society's strength in countries where governments routinely dictate agricultural policy. The backlash against new technologies can be either a temporary speed bump or a significant obstacle. In the end, Asians will determine whether the new techno-foods remake the global diet or join radioactive fertilizer and cold fusion in the junk bin of science.
John Feffer, www.johnfeffer.com, currently a Pantech Fellow in Korean Studies at Stanford University, is writing a book on the global politics of food.
GMOs, Threat or Hope? - What Scholars Said at 2003 Vatican Meeting
- Zenit.org, Dec. 1, 2004-
A new, Italian-language volume gathers the addresses of speakers who attended a Vatican-promoted, closed-door session on the topic of genetically modified foods. The volume, entitled "GMOs, Threat or Hope?" ("OGM: Minaccia o Speranza?") and published by ART, includes the addresses of scientists, farmers, ministers and theologians, who attended a meeting in Rome in November 2003, organized by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
Its objective was to evaluate, from an ethical point of view, the production and use of genetically modified seeds. In the introduction, Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, emphasizes that the idea of the seminar arose from "a profound and essential exigency of the religious and moral mission of the Church," which desires to "illuminate with the light of the Gospel all that refers to human development and the affirmation of human dignity."
"The Church does so respecting the natural law, taking advantage of the results of scientific research, updating the message of the sacred Scriptures, and applying the principles of its social doctrine," the cardinal writes. Cardinal Martino states that the Book of Genesis reveals that "in the Creator's plan, created reality, good in itself, exists as province of the human person."
"The dominion of man over all other living beings, however, must not be despotic or senseless. On the contrary, he must cultivate and take care of the goods created by God, goods that man has received as a precious gift, placed by the Creator under his responsibility," the Vatican official continues.
Man's task is to cultivate, not to destroy. "To cultivate means to intervene, decide, do, not let plants grow at random. To cultivate means to empower and perfect, so that fruits will be better and more abundant. To cultivate means to order, clean and eliminate what destroys and ruins. To cultivate is the best way to look after," the cardinal stresses.
The book includes critical and favorable points of view regarding the use of genetically modified organisms. Father Gonzalo Miranda, dean of the School of Bioethics at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University, explains that "some people think that genetic manipulation of living beings is, in itself, by its very object, an ethically reprehensible act, inasmuch as it tends to alter what is natural."
The priest quotes John Paul II, who held that "in the delicate field of medicine and biotechnology, the Catholic Church is not at all opposed to progress"; rather, "science and technology are a wonderful product of human creativity which is a gift of God, given that they have made marvelous possibilities available to us, of which we benefit with a grateful spirit."
More critical is Father Roland Lesseps, director of the Theological Reflection Center of Lusaka, Zambia, who says that, from his point of view, "genetic manipulation is not in accord with the social doctrine of the Church."
The book is the latest of the documents referring to biotechnologies, published by an organization of the Holy See. In 1999, the Pontifical Academy for Life published a detailed study on "Vegetable and Animal Biotechnologies" (Vatican Publishing House). In February 2001, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences published a report on "Genetically Modified Plants for the Production of Food." In the chapter on the environment, the recently published Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church dedicates a section to biotechnologies.
The Supermarket's Unnatural Selections
- Henry I. Miller, TCS, Dec. 5, 2004
Agricultural practices have been "unnatural" for 10,000 years. With the exception of wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the grains, fruits and vegetables in our diets have been genetically modified by one technique or another.
Many of our foods (including potatoes, tomatoes, oats, rice and corn) come from plants created by "wide cross" hybridizations that transcend "natural breeding boundaries." More than 80 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves -- soft drinks, preserves, mayonnaise, salad dressings -- contain ingredients from gene-spliced plants, and Americans have consumed more than a trillion servings of these foods.
These are only a few of the surprises in store for readers of "Mendel in the Kitchen" (Joseph Henry Press, $27.95), by plant biologist Nina V. Fedoroff and writer Nancy Marie Brown, who have meticulously and exhaustively depicted the past, present and future of genetics applied to agriculture. Mixing some didactic science (including diagrams reminiscent of your high-school biology textbook) with accounts of what farmers, naturalists, plant breeders and biologists have wrought over many centuries, they offer essential context on the controversies that beleaguer the newest manifestation of genetic modification -- gene-splicing -- applied to agriculture. The authors' approach is to stimulate the intellect by tickling with a feather, rather than bashing with a sledgehammer.
By emphasizing repeatedly the centuries-old seamless continuum that exists between "conventional" and "new" genetic modification -- and the superiority of the latter -- Fedoroff and Brown effectively refute activists' skepticism and antagonism toward gene-splicing. They remind us that plant breeders and farmers -- not "nature" -- gave us Luther Burbank's "Iceberg" white blackberry, the "canola" variety of rapeseed, and seedless grapes and watermelons. "Farming and science have been intertwined for 200 years, and . . . well before then, more than 10,000 years ago, the way humans procured their food became distinctly unnatural. . . [P]eople have been genetically modifying plants for many thousands of years."
The book uses quotations liberally to make key points. Klaus Ammann, curator of the botanical garden at the University of Bern in Switzerland, places old and new biotechnology in perspective: "When we eat wheat, we consume varieties mutated by nuclear radiation. It is not known what happened with the genomes, but we have been eating this wheat for decades, without any type of problem. Today, with more extensive knowledge and new applications of the technologies resulting from [gene-splicing], we are faced with a new system where control is greater, more precise, and less risky than that of the old systems." Professor Ammann might have added that gene-splicing makes it possible actually to remove dangerous allergens from wheat (and also from peanuts, milk and other commonly allergenic foods), which would benefit millions of consumers.
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Even if plants and foods made with gene-splicing techniques were in some way fundamentally different from those made with less precise genetic technologies, the empirical evidence of their safety and acceptance would be persuasive. Gene-spliced plants, now grown in at least eighteen countries, have for almost a decade been cultivated worldwide on more than 100 million acres annually. They are ubiquitous in North American diets. From the dirt to the dinner plate, not a single ecosystem has been disrupted, or a person injured, by any gene-spliced product -- a record that is superior to that of conventional foods.
But as the world's population grows and water shortages become increasingly vexing, gene-splicing's greatest boon to both food security and the environment may prove to be the enhancement of new crop varieties' ability to tolerate periods of drought and other water-related stresses. These varieties are able to grow with smaller amounts or lower quality water, such as water that has been recycled or that contains large amounts of natural mineral salts.
Irrigation for agriculture accounts for roughly 70 percent of the world's fresh water consumption; especially during drought conditions, even a small percentage reduction in the use of water for irrigation could result in huge benefits, both economic and humanitarian. Where water is unavailable for irrigation, the development of crop varieties able to grow under conditions of low moisture or temporary drought could both boost crop yields and lengthen the time that farmland is productive.
There are thorns on the rose, however. Unscientific, overly burdensome regulation in most countries and by agencies of the United Nations has raised the cost of research and development to levels that "exclude the public sector, the academic community, from using their skills to improve crops," according to Dr. Roger Beachy, the director of the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis.
This systematically flawed public policy adds millions of dollars to the development costs of each new gene-spliced crop variety. And as Fedoroff and Brown observe, "regulators and regulations [must] become more responsive to evolving knowledge than to public perceptions and anxieties. Only then will public sector scientists be able to invest their time and knowledge in raising yields in an ecologically sound way."
Ironically, this public policy morass could easily have been avoided. Instead of creating new, draconian regulation specific to gene-splicing, governments should have approached the products of gene-splicing in the same way that they regulate similar ones -- new plant varieties, food, pesticides and so on --made with older, less precise and predictable techniques. Regulators could easily have applied preexisting regulatory policies, which generally are risk-based and emphasize surveillance and policing, rather than endless, redundant case-by-case reviews of proposals to test or market products of negligible risk. However, regulators' self-interest is served not by more efficiently doing less, but by expanding their responsibilities, budgets and bureaucratic empires.
Excessive regulation and activists' endless repetition of The Big Lie -- that the new biotechnology is unproven, untested and unregulated -- collectively constitute one of the most costly and tragic hoaxes of the last century. "Mendel in the Kitchen" goes a long way toward oppugning it.
Henry I. Miller is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of "The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution," from Praeger Publishers.
In the Case of Biotech Crops, Ignorance Breeds Contempt
- Philip Brasher, Des Moines Register, December 5, 2004
Washington, D.C. - When it comes to science, or at least science and agriculture, there is plenty of ignorance to go around these days. And that ought to cause concern among people who make their living producing food for all of us.
The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology recently convened a series of focus groups in Des Moines and Philadelphia to see how much people know about agricultural biotechnology and to see what they think about it.
The people chosen for the meetings expressed some interest in science. Here are some comments by participants in one of the Philadelphia focus groups:
"I have a problem with Angus because something like that doesn't sound too good to me. What is it? That's something that's genetically enhanced."
Speaking of Angus beef again: "It's a marketing ploy to get away from beef because of mad cow."
On genetically engineered food: "Foods that don't come from dirt."
"I thought it was when they combine two different types like brocco-flower now, which is cauliflower and broccoli together."
"They say you are what you eat. If you're eating things that are altered, then are we altering ourselves?"
To be fair, at least one of the participants came pretty close to knowing what ag biotech is - "the bugs don't eat the plants anymore" - and the Iowans were more knowledgeable than people in the Philadelphia group.
But even in Des Moines there is confusion. When the moderator asked the participants in one group whether they had eaten genetically modified foods, here were the answers:
"I have no idea."
"I suspect we have."
"The corn for instance, you used to pick out your own seed from the corn patch, and we planted the next year. You can't do that nowadays."
Of course, the truth is that foods with genetically engineered ingredients are all over the supermarket. Nearly 90 percent of the soybeans and half the corn grown this year were biotech. Pew also commissioned a national poll this fall on biotech issues, and the results mirrored the findings from its focus groups. Only a third of those polled claimed to have heard something about biotech foods.
About 30 percent of the people surveyed said that genetically engineered food is "basically safe." Nearly as many people said it was "basically unsafe." Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative, says it is remarkable Americans know so little about the crops, given how they have penetrated the market. He says consumer attitudes are so soft they could easily be changed, positively or negatively, by new events.
In other words, it could be ignorance, not familiarity, that breeds contempt. There is more than a little distrust out there already, as expressed by this Philadelphia resident who was asked about biotech food: "I think I've been eating it because they aren't going to tell you. That's how they lose money."
Biotech May Hold Answer to Floods, Erosion
- Malaya News http://www.malaya.com.ph/dec05/news3.htm
Biotechnology experts yesterday said new varieties of crops and quick-growing hardwood may help control floods and prevent soil erosion.
Dr. Saturnina Halos, chairwoman of the Department of Agriculture-Biotechnology Advisory Team (DA-BAT), asked government for research funds. She said the spate of disasters in recent weeks showed the need for biotechnology in producing trees that grow faster and develop root systems that hold water and deter weakening of soil.
"Much could be done along this line. There is always the possibility of achieving this if the scientific community is amply supported in the long-term," she told the weekly Kapihan sa Sulo in Quezon City She said there must be stable funding for at least 10 years to promote new crops that are disease-resistant.
Halos said genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are the wave of the future for Philippine agriculture because "it offers the best option against viral diseases in crops." She said viral diseases are affecting tomatoes in Misamis Occidental and Oriental while infestation continues to destroy abaca and palay. Only biotechnology offers the best hope against these diseases, she said.
Dr. Benigno Peczon, president and chief executive officer of the Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines (BCP), said biotechnology has made "great strides" that he said could lead to the commercial production of disease-resistant corn. The cultivation of Bt corn in South Cotabato sites, he said, offers hope for the reduction of crop losses as 80 percent of traditional corn varieties could be ruined by the Asiatic corn borer, the bane of local producers.
Peczon said Bt corn virtually eliminates the production of aflatoxin, a known cancer-causing agent produced by molds in kernels attacked by corn borers. With biotechnology, cheaper insulin has been produced for diabetics. This year, Peczon said, Filipinos will have access to human growth hormone, an "impossibility without biotechnology."
Peczon said Filipino scientists are also working to make rice varieties that contain Vitamin A. The Philippine Rice Research Institute in Muñoz City, Nueva Ecija, is now developing varieties resistant to bacterial blight, the main cause of reduced rice production.
USDA Biotechnology Risk Assessment Research Grants
The FY 2005 Biotechnology Risk Assessment Research Grants Program request for applications is now available on the web at http://www.csrees.usda.gov/funding/rfas/biotech_risk.html and http://fedgrants.gov/Applicants/USDA/CSREES/OEP/USDA-GRANTS-112404-001/Grant.html.
The grants will support environmental assessment research concerning the introduction of genetically engineered organisms into the environment. The deadline for submissions is February 24, 2005.
ISB News Report - Dec 2004 Issue
* Can Transgenic Crop Technology Benefit Biocontrol?
* Impact of Bt cotton on Bollworm Populations and Egg Parasitism
* Enhancing Stress Tolerance by Regulon Engineering of ABA-Responsive Genes
* All-Native Plant DNA Transformation
* Silk Purse from a Sow’s Ear? Spider Silk Production in Tobacco
* Conference on Plant-made Pharmaceuticals
* The Role of Biotechnology for the Characterisation and Conservation of Crop, Forestry, Animal and Fishery Genetic Resources