Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : December 10, 2004
* Greenpeace Declares Victory Against Wheat Patent!
* Biotech Crops Said on Rise Around World
* Plant Biotech Gone Global: Research and Production In 63 Countries
* Half of China's crops may be GM by 2014
* India Becoming Major GM Crop Hub
* Crop Biotechnology: Feeds for Livestock
* A Matter of Taste: The Acceptance of GM Food
* Actions Speak Louder Than Words
* Laser-Etched DNA in Crystal
* Seeds of Stupidity
* GMO Music!
* The Fertile Mind: Designing Africa's Green Revolution to Reduce Hunger
Greenpeace Declares Victory Against Wheat Patent
- Ronald Bailey, Reason Online, http://www.reason.com/rb/rb120804.shtml
'Except it wasn't really a patent. And Greenpeace didn't really have anything to do with it'
"Monsanto's wheat patent withdrawn in Europe following Greenpeace opposition," crowed a Greenpeace press release in October. "In a clear victory for Greenpeace and Indian farmers, European Patent office (EPO) on 23rd September revoked the patent on Indian 'Nap Hal' wheat variety following a legal opposition filed by Greenpeace at the EPO in February," it continued.
The release is artfully constructed to give the impression that the much-demonized corporate bad guy, Monsanto, had been beaten by the righteous claims of Greenpeace activists and poor Indian farmers. But that's not what happened at all.
Greenpeace's claim fails on almost every level. First, Monsanto was not the patent holder. Monsanto had sold not only the rights to the wheat variety but also its entire European wheat and barley business to the French seed company RAGT Genetique S.A. in May 2004. "Yes, we know that the patent went to another company," says Divya Raghunandan, Greenpeace's chief campaigner on the issue in India. "When we opposed it in January, it was Monsanto's. Putting Monsanto's name in the press release is more like a reference to our earlier action."
Greenpeace also claimed that the EPO had "revoked the patent on Indian 'Nap Hal' wheat variety." But that's not right either. "Indian farmers raise soft-milling varieties all over the place," says Raghunandan. "We don't believe that Monsanto should have been awarded a patent because what it did was not really an invention." Raghunandan thinks patents should only be awarded when an invention is new and non-obvious.
However, new crop varieties are treated differently. According to Jeff Rodwell, an intellectual property rights lawyer in London with the firm Reed Smith, new plant varieties are not patented, but given "plant variety rights" (PVR). Patents are awarded for novel "inventions," whereas PVRs are awarded for the creation of a new strain of plant exhibiting attributes not hitherto seen in a created thing. The genes in the new wheat variety were certainly not "invented," but they were put together in novel combinations never before seen in nature. (This can be done by traditional crossbreeding as well as by isolating and inserting specific genes directly to create a new variety.) But for brevity's sake let's just call them patents.
In this case, Unilever, from which Monsanto had acquired the original patent application in 1998, had created a new strain of wheat with novel soft-milling qualities by crossbreeding European wheat with an Indian variety. So the PVR was awarded not "on Indian 'Nap Hal' wheat variety," but on a novel variety of European wheat that incorporated the soft-milling characteristics. "You could equally well say that the EPO awarded a PVR on a European strain of wheat," said Rodwell. In other words, Greenpeace's claim that Monsanto--or Unilever, or RAGT--had merely piratically "patented" poor Indians' traditional Nap Hal wheat is false.
Greenpeace's challenge was part of its ongoing "No Patents on Life" campaign. Greenpeace objects to corporations using traditional crop varieties as sources of novel characteristics for commercial varieties. They call this "biopiracy." Greenpeace activists argue that corporations take genes from landraces and then sell improved crop varieties back to the farmers without having paid the traditional farmers for the genes they took.
This is silly -- because Indian farmers, or any other farmer, can simply choose not to buy seeds from Monsanto, RAGT, or anyone else and just keep growing their traditional varieties. Farmers are not stupid; they will buy only what they think will improve their yields and incomes. Farmers don't buy seeds to improve Monsanto's profits; they buy seeds to improve their own profits. The farmers weren't able to liberate the characteristic by crossbreeding or biotechnology, so seed corporations are doing them a favor by placing desired genes into superior varieties.
Finally, note the crafty phraseology of the press release headline. The patent is withdrawn "following Greenpeace opposition." For that matter, the patent was also withdrawn "following" the Democratic National Convention and "following" the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere. On September 10, 2004, RAGT sent a letter to the EPO that "requested that the patent be revoked." Does Greenpeace have any evidence that its opposition led to this revocation? "We don't have any direct evidence about why the patent was withdrawn," admitted Raghunandan.
But Claude Grande, the vice managing director of RAGT Genetique, tells me: "It was entirely an internal company decision. We asked that the patent be withdrawn purely for commercial reasons--we do not think that we would be able to make any money trying to sell those types of seeds. Greenpeace's opposition had nothing to do with the decision."
Hey, claim credit for a dubious victory and move on--that's the Greenpeace way. Raghunandan says that the group may now try to challenge Monsanto's American patent on the wheat variety. Greenpeace activists had better hurry up--when I asked Monsanto spokesman Chris Horner about it, he said, "Well, we're trying to get out of the wheat business and we're not doing anything with those patents at all now." Another Greenpeace "victory" is in the offing. --- Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His new book, Liberation Biology: A Moral and Scientific Defense of the Biotech Revolution will be published in early 2005.
Biotech Crops Said on Rise Around World
- Libby Quaid, Associated Press, December 8, 2004
Biotech crops are flourishing in the United States, but they're also taking root across the globe, accounting for about $44 billion in crops in five leading countries, according to a report Wednesday by an industry group.
Argentina has planted $8.9 billion worth of genetically engineered soybeans and corn. In China, biotech cotton is worth $3.9 billion. There are $2 billion in genetically altered canola, corn and soybeans growing in Canada, and Brazil has biotech soybeans worth $1.6 billion. The United States eclipses them all with its nearly $28 billion in biotech soybeans, corn, cotton and canola.
The report, by a University of Minnesota researcher for the industry's Council for Biotechnology Information, anticipates that growth of these gene-altered crops will soar, particularly in Asia, Latin America and parts of Africa. "What I'm suggesting is that we are probably at the threshold of a much larger and more extensive adoption of plant biotechnology," said C. Ford Runge, director of Minnesota's Center for International Food and Agriculture Policy. "You can conclude there are many more crops in the pipeline than the four major ones that I mention."
The study found that more than half of the world's soybeans are now biotech varieties. Thirty percent of all cotton comes from biotech seeds, and 15 percent of corn and canola are genetically engineered, the study said. Traditional plant breeding requires growing generation after generation of plants to develop a specific trait, such as corn that resists insects or potatoes that bruise less easily. Genetic engineering is like a high-tech shortcut; scientists transfer certain traits by attaching genes from one organism to another.
Even in Europe, where fears run high about the safety of gene-altered food, there has been substantial research and development of new crops. However, activity slowed dramatically in 1999, after the European Union placed a moratorium on biotech crops. Officials agreed to resume approvals earlier this year, but a political stalemate remains.
The study asserts that the EU can slow the global spread of biotech crops but cannot halt it. The study found that eight other countries are producing significant amounts of biotech crops. They are South Africa, Mexico, Australia, India, Romania, Spain, Philippines and Uruguay. Greenhouse experiments and other research and development has been done in 63 countries, Runge found.
Activity isn't limited to traditional row crops. Many biotech vegetables and fruits -- such as potatoes, tomatoes, squash, sweet peppers, papaya, melon, banana and apples -- are in various phases of research or approval. And researchers in many countries are working on biotech tobacco, coffee, peanuts, mustard, cocoa and other crops.
In the United States, a recent report raised concerns about whether state governments have the legal and financial tools they need to oversee the fast-growing industry. The study by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology looked at 17 states working with federal officials to oversee biotech crops.
Plant Biotechnology Has Gone Global: Research And Production Underway In 63 Countries
- Press release, December 8, 2004 Via Agnet
Less than a decade after the first biotech crop was commercialized in 1996, biotech crops are now being grown in 18 countries, and research and development is being conducted in another 45, according to a study by a leading U.S. food and trade policy analyst. "The international adoption and diffusion of biotech crops has gone global and is poised to transform production and development around the world," said C. Ford Runge, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for International Food and Agricultural Policy and Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Applied Economics and Law.
"Tens of thousands of lab, greenhouse or field trials have been conducted on about 57 food and fiber crops in countries on every continent." The study, "The Global Diffusion of Plant Biotechnology: International Adoption and Research in 2004," reported the global commercial value of biotech crops grown in 2003-'04 crop year at US$44 billion, 98 percent of that value came from five countries -- the United States, Argentina, China, Canada and Brazil -- growing one or more of four biotech-enhanced
crops: soybeans, cotton, corn and canola.
To date, the United States is the leader in producing biotech crops, with $27.5 billion in value in 2003-'04 from growing biotech-enhanced soybeans, corn, cotton and canola. The other top five countries in terms of current biotech production include: Argentina with $8.9 billion in value from soybeans and corn China with $3.9 billion in value from cotton Canada with $2 billion in value from canola, corn and soybeans Brazil with $1.6 billion in value from soybeans In the next decade, as more developing countries grant approvals to these and other biotech crops in development, some studies estimate the global value of biotech crops will increase nearly fivefold to $210 billion.
Adoption of these crops in developing countries could raise the gross domestic product in those countries by 2 percent. The United States is the leading adopter of biotech crops, approving 15 crops to date, including corn, cotton, canola, soybeans, chicory, cotton, flax, melon, papaya, potatoes, rice, squash, sugar beets, tobacco and tomatoes. Corn, cotton, soybeans, canola, squash, papaya and tobacco are the only crops with significant planted acreage. From 1991 to 2003, the United States conducted field trials, with traits being researched in 24 crops in 2003. Trials included research on fungal-resistant potatoes, peanuts, plums, bananas, rice, lettuce, salt-tolerant cucumbers, herbicide-tolerant peas, onions, tobacco and many others.
"We see continuing expansion of commercial and scientific possibilities for plant biotechnology in the next decade and beyond," said Runge. "Major expansions in biotech crop approvals and plantings are expected in Asia, Latin America and parts of Africa." While North America is the epicenter for plant biotechnology research, more than half of the 63 countries engaged in biotech research, development and production are developing countries. Western Europe, China, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Australia and India are centers of influence that will help lead development into the future, the study finds.
China has emerged as a major center for biotech research. Its government has invested several hundred million dollars, ranking it second in the world in biotech research funding behind the United States. According to the study, other regions also are investing heavily in biotech research to improve agricultural production and rural incomes: South Africa, which has already approved biotech varieties of corn, cotton and soybeans for planting, now ranks sixth in the world in the amount of acres planted with biotech varieties. The country is poised to lead the continent in development. India, where farmers grow and sell insect-resistant cotton, has at least 20 academic and research institutions involved in plant biotech research covering 16 crops. Many Indian scientists hope to usher in a second "Green Revolution" while adding another facet to its already-booming, knowledge-based economy.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, five biotech crops are now approved, and field trials are being conducted on a variety of plants. Argentina leads the way, followed by Brazil. While biotech research and development in Europe slowed significantly following the European Union's 1999 de facto moratorium on biotech crop approvals, which has since been lifted, Europe's stance on biotech crops can not prevent biotech adoption in the rest of the world. "If the European Union continues to restrict activity in the sector, it will slow down this global diffusion, but it cannot stop it," said Runge. "If, on the other hand, the EU engaged plant biotechnology, it will encourage rapid international diffusion and adoption."
The study is available at http://www.apec.umn.edu/faculty/frunge/globalbiotech04.pdf .
Support for the study was provided by the Council for Biotechnology Information, but the findings are entirely those of the researchers, based on published sources, government data, private sector reports and personal interviews. The findings are those of the authors alone and not the University of Minnesota. SOURCE Council for Biotechnology Information
Half of China's crops may be GM by 2014
- Randy Fabi, Reuters
Half of China's farm fields may be growing genetically modified crops in 10 years, as Beijing invests hundreds of millions of dollars in the new technology, a biotech industry-sponsored report said yesterday. China increased its biotech cotton production for the fifth straight year in 2003-2004, planting 2.8 million hectares or about 68% of its annual cotton crop, said Ford Runge, author of the study and an agricultural economist at the University of Minnesota.
"China's disposition to biotech might be characterized as aggressively engaged," Mr. Runge said. China ranked second in the world in biotech research funding behind the United States, accounting for as much as one-third of global spending on plant biotechnology, the study said.
China is developing and testing a wide variety of gene-altered crops, such as corn, soybeans, rice, potatoes and tomatoes. A pioneer in developing biotech rice, Beijing could release its first variety as early as next year, other analysts say.
India becoming Major GM Crop Hub
- The Economic Times, December 10, 2004 http://economictimes.indiatimes.com
India is emerging as a significant player in the $44-billion global genetically modified (GM) crop business and is set to become a "centre of influence" that will help lead development, says a new study. Since the first commercialisation of GM crops in 1996, these are being grown in 18 countries while 45 others are engaged in research and development, according to a study, 'The Global Diffusion of Plant Biotechnology: International Adoption and Research in 2004'.
"The international adoption and diffusion of biotech crops has gone global and is poised to transform production and development around the world," said C Ford Runge, author of the study and director of the University of Minnesota's Centre for International Food.
India has only approved commercial cultivation of insect-resistant cotton, though researchers have conducted field trials on drought-tolerant canola, insect-resistant cotton and tobacco. Further experimental research is being conducted on cabbage, potatoes, rice and tomatoes in India.
Besides China, which ranks second after the US in research funding, several other regions are investing heavily in biotech research to improve agricultural production and rural incomes, the study stated. South Africa, which has already approved GM varieties of corn, cotton and soybeans for planting, now ranks sixth in the world in terms of acres planted with biotech varieties.
"India, where farmers grow and sell insect-resistant cotton, has at least 20 academic and research institutions involved in plant biotech research covering 16 crops," the study said. In fact, the study highlighted that many Indian scientists hoped to usher in a second green revolution using its knowledge based economy, with GM crops playing a pivotal role.
Crop Biotechnology: Feeds for Livestock
- University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources Publications
Some food shoppers are concerned about the safety of biotech crops and of food animals raised on biotech feeds. This publication summarizes scientific research on the topic.
Free publication that you can download at
A Matter of Taste: The Acceptance of Genetically Modified Food
- Alexander Unkart, Office of Science and Technology, December 7, 2004
Most Americans and Austrians would never pass up a good meal. Right? Think again.
What would cause an Austrian to leave the table while his American companion stays put and enjoys the meal? The dreaded words, "Made wit genetically engineered food."
"Opinion polls in Austria show that more than 80 percent of the Austrian population say they would not buy genetically modified (GM) food," Martina Hörmer from REWE Austria, operator of the country's largest supermarket chain, told bridges. "The main reasons are that biotechnology is still seen as risky and people do not see any particular advantageous effects for consumers. Indeed it is seen more as a potential threat for Austrian farmers, who mostly work in small structures. That is why we decided also in the future not to put such food in our range of products."
On the other side of the Atlantic, attitudes are quite different. Some 68 percent of Americans are willing to consume cows and chickens that have been fed genetically modified corn or soybeans, according to a 2003 survey conducted by Benjamin Onyango of Rutgers University's Food Policy Institute. Sixty-nine percent of the respondents said they would eat GM fresh fruits and vegetables.
The technique of genetic modification, also known as "genetic engineering" or "recombinant-DNA technology," was first implemented in the 1970s. Since then, on-going debates have focused on whether it is right that humans are "playing god" in attempting to change the genetic codes of organisms. For many people, genetic modification is a source of fear and uncertainty.
Fear not, the Americans would say. "As we have evaluated the results of the seeds or crops created using biotechnology techniques, we have seen no evidence that the bioengineered foods now on the market pose any human health concerns or that they are in any way less safe than crops produced through traditional breeding," said Dr. Jane E. Henney of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in a statement appearing on the agency's Web site.
But back in Vienna, Josef Pröll, Austria's federal minister of agriculture, recently added his voice to the debate over GM foods by issuing a charter entitled "Österreichische Charta für Gentechnikfreiheit" (Austrian Charter for Freedom From Genetic Engineering). The document noted that Austrian consumers as well as farmers are skeptical about GM foods and do not see any advantages. Consequently, farmers should be able to grow crops without using GM seeds. In addition, the charter suggests that Austrian food suppliers "must" join forces with consumers and farmers who do not favor GM food. The document does not carry the force of law.
The European Union, to the consternation of GM cheerleaders in the United States, recently revised its rules on GM labeling to include feed and most food products derived from GM crops (even if there are no detectable GM genes in the final product) and lowered the threshold level for adventitious presence of GM material. Yet the EU officially recognizes that approved GM foods are as safe as conventional foods, and mandatory labeling is justified solely by the desire to provide informed consumer choice.
In the United States, biotech pesticide products are regulated at the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). These products include bioengineered microorganisms with pesticidal action as well as products produced by plants that act within the living plant as pesticides to protect the plant. This latter category is called "plant-incorporated protectants" or "PIPs."
EPA's biotechnology program is based on a number of important principles, explained Douglas Parsons, the communications director in the Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances. These principles include sound science, transparency in decision making, consistency and fairness, collaboration with regulatory partners, and building public trust. "Given our intellectual and scientific investment in regulating biotechnology, the agency stands ready to meet the future challenges necessary to safeguard this technology for the future, and continue the important work of protecting public health and the environment," Parsons said.
Opponents of GM foods often cite possible safety issues as the basis for their opposition. EPA, Parsons said, ensures that its regulatory system is based on the best available scientific information and principles. "Our regulatory decisions must be supported by rigorous and high scientific standards. We believe that the existing regulatory system is working well and produces decisions that are scientifically defensible and protective of public health and the environment."
According to Parsons, the regulatory oversight of biotech products starts in the field testing phase and follows it throughout its life cycle-from introduction, to commercialization to consumption. EPA, in cooperation with FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), regulates all phases.
"EPA has a long history in biotechnology and has developed a comprehensive regulatory program," Parsons said. "We require scientific data in five key
categories: product characterization, toxicology, non-target organism effects, and exposure and environmental fate, and resistance management. If any concerns or questions arise from the five categories of test described above, a higher tier of testing is required to allow EPA to more thoroughly evaluate the potential risks. Also, given the scientific nature of our regulatory decisions, EPA routinely consults with our Scientific Advisory Panel, an outside panel of scientific experts, as well as the USDA, the FDA, and others to ensure the science supporting our regulatory decisions is sound."
Although to date there have been no verifiable negative effects of GM foods on humans, many Europeans remain leery and harbor the notion that GM foods might carry unknown risks. In Austria, the public has turned its back on GM foods. According to a survey by the ISMA institute 88 percent of Austrians would decline to buy products like meat, milk or eggs if the packaging indicated that the animals have been fed with GM feed. Not surprisingly, in 2001, the commercial production of genetically modified crops in the E.U. accounted for approximately 0.03 percent of total global GM crop production in comparison to the United States which produced more than half of all GM crops for that year.
"U.S. farmers are innovators and rapid adopters of new technologies, so the advantages of biotechnology are attractive to them," said Sean Darragh, executive director for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), told bridges. BIO's membership includes more than 1,000 companies, academic institutions and biotechnology centers.
"American farmers have benefited greatly from the economic and environmental benefits of agricultural biotechnology," Darragh said. "With improved product quality and quantity, U.S. farmers have reaped $20 billion annually from these crops, as well as reduced pesticide use by 46 million pounds per year."
"Consumers are also benefiting," he continued. "Consumers are becoming increasingly comfortable with the technology because they are beginning to understand that agricultural biotechnology is making food healthier, safer and more environmentally friendly by the day."
"Most importantly, our farmers and consumers know that these products are safe," Darragh said. "Biotech agriculture crops are regulated by three U.S. government regulatory bodies, FDA, USDA and EPA. Each has independently deemed the technology fully safe for human consumption, and safe for the environment. The American Medical Association agrees."
For now, Europeans are not buying into the American belief that genetically modified foods are safe for consumption. It will be interesting to see if this attitude will persist over the coming years as scientific progress in the GM food sector continues to be made every day.
* U.S. Food and Drug Administration - http://www.fda.gov
* U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - http://www.epa.gov
* U.S. Department of Agriculture - http://www.usda.gov
* Biotechnology Industry Organization - http://www.bio.org
* Austrian Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management - http://www.lebensministerium.at/en/minister/
* J Plant Physiol. 2003 Jul;160(7):735-42. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/
* Consumer Acceptance of Genetically Modified Foods: Role of Product benefits and Perceived Risks by Benjamin Onyango - http://www.foodpolicyinstitute.org/docs/reports/BEN.pdf
Article Guilty of the Sin of Omission
- David Tribe, The Weekly Times, Australia, December 8, 2004
The truth about GM is out there, writes David Tribe
In their response to my article supporting GM foods Judy Carman and others last week mentioned an important US National Academy of Sciences report on GM foods.
But they make many materially relevant omissions of what the report actually says. The US report repeatedly warns that conventional bred crops "carry potentially hazardous substances that must be assessed for safety"- this is highly relevant to the thrust of the WT article, but left out.
The report is a call for a new framework for testing of conventional crops for "unintended compositional changes and health effects" as these crops, unlike genetically engineered crops, are currently not rigorously tested before release. Also left out.
I call on the Institute of Health and Environmental Research to explain why their article so selectively quotes from the US National Academy report so as to obliterate its conflict with their own radical interpretation. Biased or misleading use of evidence is simply not acceptable for institutions that represent themselves as sources of professional advice on health issues.
There is now one genetically engineered crop, BT-maize, that offers profound safety benefits - namely reduced chances of birth defects and human cancer because of lower fumonisin toxin levels.
A nuanced food safety process can allow people and stock animals to benefit from this recent scientific advance. --- David Tribe is a biochemist, public health microbiologist, and molecular biologist, with Department of Microbiology and Immunology, at the University of Melbourne. **********************************************
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
- Dean Kleckner, Truth About Trade & Technology http://www.truthabouttrade.org/
Some people are best known for the promises they don't keep.
Several months ago, the European Union said it would start considering approvals of new genetically modified foods for the first time in six years. This was a promising development indeed--and it offered hope that perhaps the Europeans were rethinking their harsh and ignorant opposition to agricultural biotechnology.
At the time, I urged cautious optimism. "I've placed a moratorium on my pessimism about the Europeans," I said. Then I warned that it may not be in place for long.
Now it's back.
In the final days of November, the Europeans once again failed to deliver on their promises when an influential EU panel refused to approve imports of a kind of corn that has been scientifically bred to resist rootworm. Although the European Food Safety Agency twice has reported that there's no reason to believe this variety of corn will have a harmful effect on public health or the environment, a dozen nations voted against it.
I sincerely feel sorry for these people, because apparently they don't think they can trust what their own food experts are telling them.
Because of the EU's complicated voting rules, in which some votes carry more weight than others, neither side of the debate won a majority. The twelve mostly-smaller countries opposed were Austria, Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland, and Slovenia. Eight countries voted in favor and five more abstained.
The result is not a final defeat. It's possible to believe that nothing ever completely dies in the mazelike bureaucracy of the EU. In this case, the matter now goes to EU government ministers, who have until February to make their own ruling. If they can't reach a resolution, there's still another alternative: the EU head office, which in fact may approve the corn.
But this is a long and arduous route, and every painful step of it only serves to highlight Europe's fundamental hostility to biotechnology. It's bad enough that obstructing biotechnology hurts the interests of European farmers and ordinary European consumers. It's even worse that anti-biotech attitudes in Europe have had harmful repercussions elsewhere. China has been slow to approve biotech crops, even though its enormous population would benefit from the productivity increases, because Beijing worries about Europe banning what it grows. In Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe have refused to accept food donations intended to feed famine victims for similar reasons--in other words, fear of raising European ire is literally allowing people to starve.
The enemies of biotechnology in Europe and elsewhere certainly count many Luddites in their ranks. There are some people who simply won't accept agricultural biotechnology no matter what. It's impossible to have a meaningful conversation with them because their opinions stem from faith rather than reason.
But there are more self-serving motivations at work as well. Consider the findings of a new World Bank study, which points out that Europe has fallen so far behind on biotechnology that using onerous regulations to try to rein in the rest of us actually represents a rational economic strategy. It's rooted in the notion of "comparative disadvantage".
Here's what the World Bank says: "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."
The World Bank doesn't endorse this tactic. Quite the opposite: The authors of this report wish Europe would embrace biotechnology. Their motive is merely to understand Europe's behavior, which can't be explained in total by the activities of a small number of radical protestors.
The problem with looking at the world through the lens of comparative disadvantage, of course, is with the solution it proposes. Rather than urging the stragglers to catch up with the leaders--something that's eminently possible in the fast-paced field of biotechnology--it tries to slow down the entire race. In other words, many Europeans who in their heart of hearts know that biotechnology is safe in every conceivable way would rather deny its benefits to us than try to take advantage of its benefits for themselves.
If this is how the Europeans keep their promises, please spare me the experience of watching them actually break one.
Laser-Etched DNA in Crystal
As a genetics instructor, I've spent years searching for an accurate DNA model to illustrate the 3-D DNA double helix. I gave up long ago; all the available teaching aids were unsuitable - ball and stick, space filling, paper cutout and other models either were technically inaccurate or failed to convey the natural beauty of the real thing.
When I saw those now-common laser-etched glass block tourist souvenirs (of the Statue of Liberty, for example), I wondered if I could contract with the company to make a DNA laser etch. Googling found someone already had the idea and is making the models? and it's even right handed! So I bought one. I have no interest (financial or otherwise) in the company - I just thought there'd be colleagues who might like a true and accurate DNA model on their desk, or as a gift or award to a geneticist. Take a look: http://www.bathsheba.com/crystalsci/dna/.
Retail price is $50 plus shipping. There is also a smaller keychain for $19.00
- Alan McHughen, University of California, Riverside
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has a neat DNA store online where you can buy many 'DNA-theme' items such as T shirts, ties, caps, jewelry, Watson doll etc and all the proceeds go towards their research. Check this out too http://dnastuff.com/
Seeds of Stupidity
- Check Mate Public Affais (Canada), December 2004 http://checkmatepublicaffairs.com
Every now and then I run into a story so ridiculous, it actually makes you stop and laugh out loud. The following piece of junk science - about poor Iraqi farmers now beholden to US multi-national seed corporations - definitely qualifies.
In fact, it's so insane I almost hesitated to profile it, for fear of drawing attention to allegations so far out in left field that they're not even in the same zip code, much less the same ball park.
Internet gossip/newshound Pierre Bourque highlighted http://checkmatepublicaffairs.c.topica.com/maacWnnabcjlVcgZhnReafpMnD/
this particular story on his website. In breathless fury, the article regales us with, "Iraqi farmers will no longer be permitted to save their seeds. Instead, they will be forced to buy seeds from US corporations -- which can include seeds the Iraqis themselves developed over hundreds of years."
The article concerns the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV. The actual convention can be seen http://checkmatepublicaffairs.c.topica.com/maacWnnabcjlWcgZhnReafpMnD/
here.) The interim government in Iraq has joined over 55 other countries and signed unto this convention.
Under the terms of the convention, a country may prohibit farmers from saving specific seeds from protected varieties of plants. Iraq chose to follow this rule - but this only applies to registered varieties that satisfy the requirements of the Plant Variety Protection Law.
It is simple acts like signing conventions and respecting international treaties which will pull Iraq into the 21st century. Establishing a framework of laws and principals is a welcome step to any developing democracy.
But more to the point - guess how many Iraqi farmers are going to be affected by this new order?
None. There is not a single ‘protected’ variety of plant currently being sold or marketed in Iraq. In other words, this doesn't affect Iraqi farmers one iota.
This doesn't stop activists from screaming "the US has declared a new war against the Iraqi farmer." Criticize all they want -- they're still wrong.
It's hard to get any blunter than this. This isn't a case of two differing viewpoints or interpretations. There's no amount of subjective analysis needed to counter this ludicrous allegation - it's just plain wrong.
When contacted to comment on this particular article, the Monsanto spokesperson I spoke to was nonplussed. "I'm not even sure we even HAVE a biotech business in Iraq," she replied.
Monsanto is certainly used to being criticized. They've shared blame for a long list of biotechnology related scares. But surely, even the most strident of Monsanto-haters has to realize the difference between healthy skepticism and a line like "In a short time, Iraq will be living under the new American credo: Pay Monsanto, or starve."
Welcome to the age of Internet "journalism." Articles like this (which, tragically enough, are still being highlighted on the front page of hosting website) are an end result of closed-mindedness and prejudice. When you take emotional hot-button issues such as the war in Iraq and USA global multi-nationalism and throw in some genetically modified food issues, the end result is hardly surprising.
Monsanto is used to it. Will you be ready when it happens to you?
Genetically Modified Orchestra?
I defend good science - which sometimes includes GMO foods. But very rarely do readers see me defend GMO music...
'The GMO's' - "a blend of Blue Rodeo and The Eagles" - are a creation of a agricultural-minded people 'with other day jobs'. The band consists of Ag communications experts Len Kahn, Rob Hannam and Owen Roberts, Botany Professor Doug Larson, and Rob McLean - aka the husband of Ontario Soybean communications maven Lisa.
The band, based in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, is starting to achieve some success, and has just released their debut CD. I think it's due to the strength of their slogan... "Banned in Europe. Tolerated in Japan. Accepted in America. Loved in Canada."
The Fertile Mind: Designing Africa's Green Revolution to Reduce Hunger
- -- Elizabeth Royte, OnEarth, Natural Resource Defense Council, Winter 2005
'A renowned expert in tropical agriculture is designing a green revolution to reduce Africa's staggering hunger'
Pedro Sánchez won the World Food Prize in 2002 and a MacArthur Foundation award in 2003 for his pioneering work in raising food yields in developing nations. The director of the tropical agriculture program at Columbia University's Earth Institute, Sánchez is also co-chairman of the Hunger Task Force of the United Nations' Millennium Project, which has set ambitious targets for reducing poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation, and discrimination against women by 2015. Sánchez spoke recently about his work with Elizabeth Royte.
Why should people in the United States care what happens to African farmers?
- Land resources are more threatened in Africa than anywhere else in the world. There is very little forest left outside of the Congo basin. The loss of biodiversity has been tremendous. And environmental destruction equals poverty. The people who can fix the problem are the farmers. They're the ones in charge of the biggest chunk of arable land.
You won a MacArthur fellowship in large part because of your work with agroforestry -- improving food crop yields by planting trees. How does that work?
- When you plant leguminous trees such as peanuts and peas and other fast-growing trees after a corn harvest, they take tremendous quantities of nitrogen from the air during the dry season and make it into useful nitrogen in the soil. In Kenya, I'm aware of maybe 150,000 farm families who say they are no longer hungry as a result of this approach. The trees also provide an important secondary benefit, which is firewood. About one acre of fallow land produces sufficient firewood for a family for a year. So that eliminates long treks for women who have to go to the bush and carry back enormous loads of firewood -- which also depletes the remaining biodiversity.
So this is partly about empowering women and girls?
- Women do as much as 80 percent of the farming in Africa. They have to farm and fetch water and firewood and take care of the children and somehow cook and feed the family. It's a 16-hour day. Also, girls are the last ones to go to school because they are supposed to stay at home and help mama take care of the kids. Out of 100 million school-age children in sub-Saharan Africa right now, 40 million are out of school, and most of them are girls. Now, one reason these kids don't go to school is there's nothing to eat or drink there. We're advocating school feeding programs with locally produced food, not imported food aid. That way, there will be more kids in school, they'll have a better chance of an education, and it will significantly increase agricultural demand. We also strongly recommend that governments improve women's access to credit, education, and ownership of the land.
The first green revolution led to an enormous increase in food production, but at a very high environmental cost. Could that happen again in Africa?
- The original green revolution of the sixties and seventies was one of the most amazing achievements of humankind in the last century. Production tripled in the developing world. In India, 200 million people were going to starve to death, and now India is a food exporter. But in those days we weren't conscious of environmental issues. Fertilizer was so cheap, especially in the United States, and we applied too many pesticides to control insects and diseases. Forty years later, we know a lot more. We know the importance of organic fertilizers, of zero or minimum tillage to decrease erosion, and of plants taking carbon dioxide from the air and sequestering it in the soil, not only to negate global warming but as the basic energy source of microorganisms. We've learned that there are beneficial bugs, that not all bugs are bad. So the kind of green revolution we are advocating in Africa now is one that is ecologically sound.
Still, some environmentalists criticize you for favoring the use of genetically modified seeds in Africa.
- Quite a bit of Bt [Bacillus thuringiensis] corn and cotton is being cultivated in Africa right now because it cuts down on insecticide use, just as it does here. So far, the scientific evidence shows no detrimental effect from genetically modified crops that hybrid crops have not shown. This is very important. In an open-pollinated crop like corn, with separate male and female flowers, the male pollen, like a sperm, has to reach the female flower. It's wind-dispersed. So it can fertilize some of the native female corn flowers. But that has been happening since we've had hybrid corn, for almost 90 years. My emphasis is on using biotechnology and conventional breeding for traits that the poor like and need. The poor do not need [Monsanto's herbicide-tolerant] Roundup Ready soybeans. But they certainly could use a drought-tolerant corn. And there are some important advances in conventional breeding and biotechnology that seem to be headed in that direction. In India, which has a lot of saline soils, breeders are putting genes of mangroves, which grow in saltwater, into rice to make it salt-tolerant.
But how can farmers be self-sufficient if they need genetically modified seeds?
- We're not going for self-sufficiency. We're going for ecologically sound, profitable farming. I want the woman with five kids to be well nourished and get out of poverty. But you're not going to get rich. I don't care how much corn you can grow on one hectare of land. It just isn't big enough.
What if all that woman wants to do is to feed her family?
- She wants to get rich! There's no lack of motivation here. Some of these farmers in Kenya suddenly realized they could put only part of the farm into corn because it was yielding three times as much per hectare. So they planted kale, onions, and tomatoes that they could sell to the markets. They began to make money. Then they diversified and got a milk cow, and that changed everything. We have farmers now who have two or three cows. They sell the milk to their neighbors and they're making money. They're even selling manure.
Your recommendations have implications beyond individual prosperity, don't they?
- Getting these people out of poverty and making them trading partners is good business for everyone. We're turning them into consumers. And we're talking about a market in Africa of about 800 million people. But it's not just economics. In a globalized world the poor can watch CNN and see how well others live; this is a cause of unrest, and of migration. To address the root causes of terrorism you have to eliminate poverty. So increasing agricultural production and eliminating poverty is good for everybody. It's good for business. It's good for security. It's also good for us to feel like human beings, and that's one of the reasons I got into this business.