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December 14, 2004


Biotech possiblilites; Europe Promotes Tragedy; Russian Regulations; Rice Genome Decoded; Asia Holds Key


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : December 14, 2004

* The possibilities of biotechnology
* Europe Promotes Tragedy in Uganda
* Russia hauls food regulations into line with EU
* Rice genome is decoded; now expect new varieties to crop up
* Asia Holds the Key to the Future of GM Food


The possibilities of biotechnology

Biotechnology can help improve agriculture and the economy of both Karnataka and India

- Deccan Herald, BY C S PRAKASH, December 13, 2004

Agriculture forms the backbone of Karnataka’s economy, employing much of its population. Modern scientific approaches to improve agriculture can help revitalise farming in our state by enhancing crop productivity; cut down the use of chemical inputs on the farm; empower our crop plants to be more tolerant to stress such as drought and salinity; develop new value-added products; improve the nutritive value of food; enhance the profitability of farming; and thus overall, improve the quality of life for both farmers and consumers in this state. Biotechnology is clearly the most revolutionary tool to impact agricultural research since the discovery of genetics by Mendel.

Many of the important crops in Karnataka have diseases and pests that are taking away much of the harvest. Examples include: dieback disease of the pepper, leaf curl virus on tomato, blast of rice and ragi; bunchy top of banana and borers on avare.

Little ammunition

Conventional plant breeding has little ammunition to deal with these problems in an expedient and effective manner. These problems can be significantly minimised in an ecologically-friendly manner with the development of genetically reprogrammed seeds designed to resist these disease attacks, while minimising or even eliminating costly and hazardous pesticide sprays.

With no more arable land available for agricultural expansion in Karnataka, enhancing stress tolerance in crop plants will permit productive farming on currently unproductive lands. Abiotic factors such as drought, heat, cold, soil salinity and acidity cripple our crops seriously constraining their growth and yield. One could extend the growing season of crops and minimise losses due to environmental factors. The shelf life of fruits and vegetables can be prolonged to minimise losses due to food spoilage, expand the market opportunities for farmers and also improve food quality.

There has been much human misery caused by hazardous substances in many of our food crops — such as the presence of toxins in sorghum, cyanide in tapioca, aflatoxins in groundnut and antimetabolites in chickpea, horsegram and sweet potato. Biotechnology has the capability to ‘silence’ these undesirable traits and thus improve the quality of these ‘humble’ food crops so critical to the nutrition of disadvantaged and resource-poor consumers.

Prolonged ‘vase life’ of cut-flowers will help broaden the market for horticulturists, while reducing losses and minimising their dependency on expensive cold storage. Human and livestock health can be improved through crops with enhanced nutritional quality traits such as iron-rich rice and vitamin A-rich groundnut oil, and through the production of edible vaccines and other pharmaceutical proteins. Crops with industrial applications such as those producing enzymes, ‘designer’ starch and oils, biodegradable plastics and industrial chemicals can also be developed to reinvigorate the Karnataka economy and create jobs. Crop plants that can clean up soil, water and air through ‘phytoremediation’ can be developed and planted in critical areas. Trees that grow faster with fewer disease and pest problems can be developed with positive impacts both on the rural economy and the environment.

Not futuristic

Many of these developments in agricultural biotechnology sound like ‘science fiction’ but they are not futuristic! They are already a commercial reality or in the developmental phase in the West. They have great relevance in improving the quality of life in Karnataka and India. The strategic integration of biotechnology tools into our agricultural research can revolutionise our farming. Compared to the “green revolution”, the “gene revolution” is relatively scale neutral, benefiting big and small farmers alike. It is also environment friendly.

Thus, it can be of great help to the smallest farmer with limited resources, in increasing farm productivity through the availability of improved but powerful seed. It is, however, critical that public institutions such as UAS (both Bangalore and Dharwad), IISc, Seribiotech, IIHR and Bangalore University be strengthened in biotechnology research as much of the targeted research on food crops can come from public sector research.

While most scientists and policy-makers recognise that biotechnology is not a panacea for all agricultural problems in India, it is the single most powerful tool India has right now to address this problem that can work in synergy with other agricultural approaches. Dozens of scientific societies including the Indian National Science Academy have declared that biotechnology is a safe means of improving food production. India has an excellent regulatory system to ensure that biotechnology-derived products are safe for human use and for the environment. Thus, it is important that Karnataka moves ahead in integrating biotechnology briskly into its agricultural research programme and to make use of this science to advance the quality of life of its people.


Europe Promotes Tragedy in Uganda

- Tech Central Station, By Roger Bate, December 14, 2004

If Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback is correct, European scaremongering is delaying the re-introduction of DDT into Uganda. And this will have deadly consequences.

Sen. Brownback (R-Ks) has just returned from a Ugandan health fact-finding mission. He told me that EU trade policies "will lead to an increase of deaths among pregnant women and children in Africa. DDT was used to rid Europe and the US of malaria. Now it can't even be sprayed indoors in limited settings to save vulnerable lives in Africa. God help us."

Ugandan farmers are being told that they could lose millions of dollars in fruits and vegetable exports into the European Union (EU) market when the Ugandan government imports DDT for the prevention of malaria. European protectionism is odious at the best of times, but this alleged EU threat borders is particularly egregious, and should be pre-emptively challenged by Ugandans through the WTO. There is no evidence that any of the DDT, which could be used to save thousands of babies from malaria, would ever reach any agricultural products; and even if it did, there is no evidence of any harm from DDT in produce, even at relatively high doses.

Robert Karyeija, the principal health inspector in the Ugandan agriculture ministry, said the EU -- the largest importer of Uganda's agricultural products -- was considering suspending buying its produce for fear of DDT intoxication. In an interview with the New Vision newspaper last Thursday in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, he said:

"The European Retailers Produce working group for Good Agricultural Practice is considering suspending exportation of our agricultural products as soon as the government imports DDT."

Mr. Karyeija explained that this would be catastrophic not only to the private sector, but also to government revenues. Apparently Uganda could lose up to US$23 million annually if EUREP-GAP, an EU exporters body, suspends buying local products because the consumers in Europe and America want organic products. EU importers claim to be concerned that DDT would spill over to agricultural fields, especially in rural areas, due to poor application of indoor spraying, making the eventual harvests inorganic. This is ridiculous.

First, the notion of organically produced food is misleading, since much European organically produced food uses inorganic pesticides, such as copper sulfate (and technically DDT is an organic chemical anyway). Second, there is no evidence that anything but tiny trace amounts (possibly not measurable) of DDT could ever reach crop production (the concern about DDT was when it was used in tons in farming, not ounces in malaria control, where most of that already small amount ends up absorbed into walls). Third, and most importantly for any WTO challenge, there is no evidence of any harm from trace amounts of DDT in crops, so boycotting Ugandan produce because of DDT contamination is untenable under WTO rules.

But the concern about DDT is being tacitly re-inforced by lack of unity in the Ugandan health department over using DDT. A decision was made over the summer by the Ugandan Ministry of Health to use DDT procured by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. But insiders I spoke with, who wish not to be named, say that overseas pressure to drop DDT use means the decision is on hold. Most aid agencies, whose historic actions have largely been ineffectual and often counterproductive, tend to want to stay under the radar. Therefore, the advice they give is predicated on annoying the fewest people, so they shy away from advising the use of insecticides since it upsets green groups who vociferously oppose nearly all man-made chemicals.

After complaints about the Global Fund's early actions by Senators Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.), the Fund has improved. As long as this continues and the Congressional oversight remains, especially the Senators' calls for outcome measurements, then it should continue to expand its work in Africa. Governments could increase funding to deliver what Africans want (drugs, insecticides and other resources), rather than what western aid agencies want to give them (mainly seminars, educational programs and consultants). If they do the former then we might start to see a reduction in the worst tropical diseases.

Unfortunately, the greens and Europeans with their well-oiled media machine are likely to win this battle. Ugandan agricultural officials will point out that alternative insecticides and bed nets are an option, (even though they don't work as well), and that Uganda cannot afford to lose exports. The health department, which is so reliant on aid, will only push its donors so far, and given the resistance from USAID, WHO and others on the use of insecticides, they will likely crumble.

For the thousands of Ugandan children whose lives could be saved, but who have no voice in this debate, it will be a tragedy. But just another tragedy on top of so many others perpetuated by European greens and the farm lobby.

Roger Bate is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a Director of Health advocacy group Africa Fighting Malaria.


Russia hauls food regulations into line with EU

- nutraingredients.com, December 14, 2004

14/12/2004 - A new Russian food standard (GOST) concerning consumer information on packaged food products is due to come into force on 1 January 2005. Angela Drujinina looks at how the change will effect consumers and food manufacturers, and its potential impact on international trade.

A new Russian food standard (GOST) concerning consumer information on packaged food products is due to come into force on 1 January 2005. Angela Drujinina looks at how the change will effect consumers and food manufacturers, and its potential impact on international trade.

The new GOST P 51074-2003 has certainly been developed with the requirements of international standards in mind. Indeed, Russia hopes that the standard will remove a number of technical barriers within international trade, and provide for an objective evaluation of product quality and safety.

“Changing economic conditions and the necessity to integrate into the European and international market (the expected joining the WTO) have demonstrated some weaknesses of the existing standards and the necessity to reform the old system,” said Maria Koval, general director of CVS Consulting which organised November’s GOST conference.

“The Russian GOSTs must be changed to correspond to the ISO standards, the Alimentarius Codex, and the EU regulations on safety of food products. It is also necessary to introduce the indicators that will guarantee the revealing of faked products in special laboratories and that will help to develop the testing methods enabling authorities to identify the faked and bad for health food products.”

In order to achieve this, the new GOST sets stricter rules for the type of information that must be available on food packaging. Manufacturers must state what raw materials or biologically active flavours are contained in their products, and provide information about all the minerals and vitamins contained in the product.

In addition, packaging must contain approved recommended daily amounts, the number of calories and provide information about the amount of protein, fat and carbohydrate contained in the product. Information on whether a product is “grown with only organic fertilisers,” “grown without pesticides” or “without preservatives” must also be provided.

Information about genetically modified food products or products prepared with GM raw material or components must also be provided and information about diet or disease-preventing properties of certain food products can be printed, so long as the manufacturer can prove its claims. Manufacturers must also put the name and address of an organisation authorised by the producer to receive complaints from consumers. The address must be on the territory of the Russian Federation.

Besides all this, the GOST R 51074-1997 sets concrete requirements for classifying certain food products, prohibits the use of ambiguous phrases such as “environmentally clean” and allows producers not to list components of which there is less than 2 per cent in the product, in accordance with the EU Regulation 2003/89/EU.

According to the Federal Agency on Technical Regulations and Metrology, the introduction of the new GOST well benefit both consumers and manufacturers. The standard provides a clear set of directions that must be followed if manufacturers do not want to violate laws and regulations currently in effect. And consumers, for their part, will receive full information about products to help them make the right choice when they buy food.


Rice genome is decoded; now expect new varieties to crop up

- The Japan Times, Dec. 14, 2004

An international team of scientists has completed the sequencing of the rice genome, an accomplishment that should lead to the development of new varieties of rice to meet different needs, including resistance to disease.

Takuji Sasaki of the National Institute of Agrobiological Science (left) presents farm minister Yoshinobu Shimamura with data on the sequencing of the rice genome at the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.

Researcher Takuji Sasaki of the National Institute of Agrobiological Science and head of the Japanese team in the international effort, said Monday that scientists from 10 economies completed mapping some 370 million out of 390 million base pairs -- or 95 percent of the genome -- with an accuracy of 99.99 percent.

The team made the report to agriculture minister Yoshinobu Shimamura.

Analysts say they expect the research to contribute to the identification of useful genetic functions and lead to rapid improvement of crop varieties and an increase in food production.

The results could also be used for production of new varieties of maize and wheat that have similar features in their genetic maps to rice.

The rice used for the research was a Japanese variety called Nippon Bare, in which the researchers found an estimated 40,000 genes.

Japan took the lead in deciphering the rice genome in 1991 and continued to play a central role after the international joint research team began decoding the genome in 1998, and was responsible for studying six of the 12 chromosomes found in rice, team members said.

The international team declared in December 2002 that it had deciphered the genome after mapping 92 percent of it but has continued the project to map the remainder.

The researchers said they are the first to release the results of precise deciphering of the rice genome. The results have a margin of error of less than one-10,000th, the researchers said earlier.

The international team includes researchers from the United States, Taiwan, Thailand, China, South Korea, India, France, Britain, Brazil and Japan.

GM corn, soybeans found growing wild

TSUKUBA, Ibaraki Pref. (Kyodo) Genetically modified corn and soybeans have been found growing wild near Shimizu port in Shizuoka Prefecture, citizens' groups opposing GM foods said Monday.

The groups also said GM rapeseed has been found growing wild near Fukuoka's Hakata port. Members of the groups suspect the plant was spilled during the transport process.

The discovery of GM rapeseed follows its detection at ports in Ibaraki, Chiba, Kanagawa, Aichi, Mie and Hyogo prefectures.

"Corn and soybean seeds are less likely to disperse than rapeseed, and it's amazing that they grow wild," said Masaharu Kawata, a lecturer of chemical biology at Yokkaichi University in Mie Prefecture.

Groups including Stop GM Seeds Network Japan conducted the study by collecting the plants and testing them.

The GM corn includes genes that kill insects such as moth worms, while the GM soybeans are engineered to be more resistant to weed killer.


Asia Holds the Key to the Future of GM Food
Wary Asian consumers may decide how much genetically modified food will reach the world's dinner tables

- YaleGlobal, 2 December 2004, By John Feffer

PALO ALTO: 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.