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March 3, 2005


Brazil Wakes Up; Is Roundup Bad?; Attack of the Killer Crops; Selling Public Sector Science; Care Where Your Food Comes From?


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : March 3, 2005

* Brazil OKs Law to Legalize Biotech Crops
* Is the RoundUp Herbicide Toxic? ...Some French Scientists Think So
* .... Trewavas, Monsanto and Avery Respond
* Attack of the Killer Crops?
* Greenpeace Founder Blasts Greenpeace (Again)
* Can Public-Sector Scientists Become Better Salesmen?
* Borlaug: 60 Years Fighting Famine and Poverty, and Going Strong
* I Don't Care Where My Food Comes From.. And Neither Should You


Brazil OKs Law to Legalize Biotech Crops

- Alan Clendenning, Associated Press, Mar. 3, 2005

'Brazil Approves Law to Legalize Genetically Modified Crops, a Victory for Monsanto'

Brazil's lower house of Congress has endorsed the creation of a framework to legalize biotech seed sales in Latin America's largest country, a triumph for U.S.-based biotechnology firm Monsanto Co.

The move, hotly protested by environmentalists, was approved Wednesday and clears the way for rules that would allow Monsanto to sell genetically modified soy seeds in Brazil, where soy production has boomed over the last decade. The modified seeds were banned in Brazil, but their use has been widespread by Brazilian farmers who use cloned or smuggled versions of the company's popular Roundup Ready seeds to cut production costs.

Monsanto has complained for years that it was being robbed of profits from the widespread illicit use of a seed it developed. Greenpeace issued a statement decrying the decision and calling on Brazilians to fight "against the corporate strategy of dominating food production."

But the bill, passed by a vote of 352-60, has already been approved by Brazil's Senate and is expected to be signed into law by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. He has twice approved temporary decrees approving the harvesting of modified soy even though the crops were technically illegal.

Monsanto said Thursday it will not comment until Silva signs it. Greenpeace said it would lobby for Silva to veto the bill, claiming the commission that would approve GM seeds in Brazil is stacked with a small group of science and technology experts inclined to sanction the seeds and lacks representation from government officials specializing in the environment.

Brazil is second only to the United States in soy production, but easily has the potential to become the world's largest soy producer because of cheap land, low labor costs and plentiful water. International demand for soy has skyrocketed in recent years, driven by ever-increasing purchases by China for soy used in products ranging from animal feed to cooking oil.

Monsanto's soy seed is engineered to withstand the spraying of herbicides, which saves farmers money by cutting down on the number of workers and weed killers needed. Brazil's ban on such crops did little to stop farmers, because it was rarely enforced. The St. Louis-based company disputed claims that GM crops harm the environment, saying many Brazilian farmers have boosted their profits while significantly reducing the amount of herbicides used to kill weeds.

Experts estimate about 30 percent of Brazil's soy is grown with genetically engineered seeds, but the figure is near 90 percent in Brazil's southernmost state, where the seeds were first introduced in the 1990s after being smuggled in from neighboring countries with no bans on them.


Is the RoundUp Herbicide Toxic?

From Prakash: The following abstract of an upcoming paper questioning the safety of Glyphosate (Roundup) herbicide was forwarded to me by Dr. Joe Perry of UK. See responses below from Tony Trewavas, Monsanto scientists and Alex Avery.

Press Release

Pr. Gilles-Eric SERALINI's group in the University of Caen (Normandy, France) just published original results concerning the toxicity of Roundup. It is one of the most used herbicides worldwide and the most used with genetically modified plants (GMOs).

The majority of GMOs commercialized in the world are designed for food and feed. These plants have been modified to remain alive after herbicide absorption, this herbicide being spread on the cultures. This greatly facilitates its use, as well as the presence of its residues in the food chain. It is also evoked as a common pollutant in rivers.

It is shown in this work that human placental cells are very sensitive to Roundup, to concentrations lower than the agricultural use. This could explain miscarriages and premature births in the United States in farmers. Moreover, below toxic levels, the effects of Roundup are measured on the synthesis of sexual hormones; this allows us to classify this herbicide in potential endocrine disruptors. Finally, the effects of Roundup are always greater than those of glyphosate, which is known as its active compound.

This work was supported in particular by CRIIGEN (http://www.crii-gen.org/ ) and by The "Fondation pour une Terre Humaine" Contact : Pr. Gilles-Eric SERALINI, tel. 33 2 31 56 54 89, criigen@ibfa.unicaen.fr

"Differential effects of glyphosate and Roundup on human placental cells and aromatase
Sophie Richard, Safa Moslemi, Herbert Sipahutar, Nora Benachour, Gilles-Eric Seralini; Environmental health perspective doi:10.1289/ehp.7728 (available at http://dx.doi.org/) Online 24 February 2005"

Abstract: Roundup is a glyphosate-based herbicide used worldwide including on most genetically modified plants in which it can be tolerated. Its residues may thus enter the food chain and glyphosate is found as a contaminant in rivers. Some agricultural workers using glyphosate have pregnancy problems, but its mechanism of action in mammals is questioned. Here we show that glyphosate is toxic on human placental JEG3 cells within 18 hr with concentrations lower than the agricultural use, and this effect increases with concentration and time, or in the presence of Roundup adjuvants.

Surprisingly, Roundup is always more toxic than its active ingredient. We tested its effect on aromatase with lower non-toxic concentrations, the enzyme responsible for estrogen synthesis. The herbicide acts as an endocrine disruptor on aromatase activity and mRNA levels, and glyphosate interacts within the active site of the purified enzyme, but its effect is facilitated by Roundup formulation in microsomes or in cell culture.

We conclude that endocrine and toxic effects of Roundup and not only glyphosate can be observed in mammals. We suggest that the presence of Roundup adjuvants enhances glyphosate bioavailability and / or bioaccumulation

Response from Prof. Tony Trewavas

In 'Ames et al., 1990. Dietary pesticdes, 99.99% all natural. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA' there are descriptions of results with cultured cells. Mainly investigators were looking for chromosome breakage and about half of the natural pesticides tested were active in this regard.

Allyl isothicyanate instituted chromosome breakage at a concentration about 200,000 times less than the concentration of sinigrin its glucosinilate in cabbage. Allyl isothicyanate is also an active mutagen and transforms cultured cells. Chlorogenic acid (about 250mg is drunk in each cup of coffee) also breaks chromsomes of cultured cells and is an active mutagen. It is active at concentrations about 100 times less than its concentration in coffee beans and similar to its concentration in apples, pears, peaches, plums, cherries and apricots. Caffeic acid which is the breakdown product of chlorogenic acid is also active at breaking chromosomes at less than its concentration in roasted coffee and close to its free concentration in apples, lettuce, endive and potato skin. Saffrole braks chromosomes in cultured cells at concentrations about 100 fold less than the concentration in nutmeg and at ehsame concentration as black pepper.

As regards exposure to oestrogens from glyphosate. Setchell et al., 1997, Lancet 350, 23-27 showed that babies consuming soymilk instead of breast milk had a 12 fold higher level oestrogen in their blood and huge amounts of genestein, a tyrosine kinase inhibitor. Comparisons of oestrogen mimic exposure between natural and synthetic compounds are to be found in Nilsson Toxicological Pathology 28, 420-431. (2000). Endocrine disrupters are generally providing effects at 0.0001% or less of the circulating oestorgen level in the normal female and I imagine that glyphosate ids substantially less than this more like DDT which is three orders of magnitude lower again.

Finally there has been a fuss in the UK recently over sudan I in chile powder. The amounts are trivial and the risk is like smoking one cigarette in your lifetime. However the risks from capasaicin, the natural hot flavouring in chile are rather more substantial. Lopez-Carillo et al., International Journal of Cancer 106, 277-282 (2003) report that those consuming a whole chile pepper on a daily basis have a 17 fold higher risk of contracting gastric cancer. Capsaicin is about 80% of the natural pesticide in chile (most natural pesticides are 2-10% dry weight)and this information has been used to set safe levels of capsaicin consumption in the EU.

Professor Anthony Trewavas FRS. FRSE
Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology, Edinburgh, UK

Response from Monsanto Scientists

Re: Richard S, Moslemi S, Sipahutar H, Benachour N, Seralini GE. 2005 Differential effects of glyphosate and Roundup on human placental cells and aromatase. Environmental Health Perspectives (in press)

- Prepared by: Donna R. Farmer, Ph.D and Daniel A Goldstein, M.D., The Monsanto Company, St. Louis, Missouri.

Richard et al imply that Roundup (see note) is an endocrine disruptor based on effects in human tumor cells originally derived from a cancer of the placenta. Aromatase activity, which is required for the production of certain steroid hormones, was decreased when these tumor cells were exposed to high concentrations of Roundup in a Petri dish for 18 hours.

The study, while interesting, has no relevance to a living animal. The implications of this in vitro experiment are contradicted by extensive live animal data and field studies reflecting real-world conditions.

The cells used in this study were taken from a human placental tumor, put into a Petri dish, and covered with culture media containing Roundup or other test materials. This direct exposure to high concentrations is vastly different than what would occur in a human or animal body, i.e. - the concentration of Roundup reported to have caused a reduction in aromatase activity was orders of magnitude greater than would result from the highest possible human exposure under real conditions. The direct exposure used in this study intentionally bypasses normal processes limiting absorption and cellular exposure and avoids normal metabolism, digestion and excretion that would protect cells from the minute amounts of chemical.

These cell lines are used as mechanistic research tools and are not recognized or accepted by any regulatory agency or other scientific body in the world for the assessment of human health risks.

Glyphosate has been tested extensively in higher order animals (Giesy 2000; Williams 2000). There is no evidence for developmental or reproductive effects in multiple species despite numerous high-dose tests by different manufacturers (EU, 2002). Furthermore, studies with surfactants in Roundup agricultural herbicides have demonstrated no target organ toxicity or effects on the embryos, fetus, or placenta (Williams 2000).

Walsh et al (2000) previously suggested that Roundup had endocrine disruption potential based on decrease in progesterone synthesis in mouse Leydig tumor cells exposed to supra-physiologic concentrations of formulated herbicide in a Petri dish. Monsanto and an academic collaborator (Levine 2003; Heydens 2003) repeated this experiment with the inclusion of a sensitive cytotoxicity assay that assessed mitochondrial membrane damage. This experiment demonstrated that decreased progesterone synthesis resulted from surfactant-induced mitochondrial membrane damage. In separate follow-up experiments, a number of surfactants commonly found in household products were tested. Each of these surfactants produced concentration-dependent decreases in progesterone synthesis and cytotoxicity comparable to that observed with concentrated Roundup formulation when tested in these mouse tumor cells.

The results of these studies underscore
(1) the non-specific action of a variety of surfactants on cellular function in an in vitro test system and
(2) how this secondary activity can confound the results when surface-active agents are used in in vitro test systems.

Based on estimates of human exposure to Roundup herbicides from agricultural and residential uses by various routes, and based upon the non-specific metabolic effects of surfactants on tumor cells in Petri dishes, it is apparent that Roundup will not disrupt steroid synthesis in vivo under biologically relevant conditions.

The Roundup (TM) product line consists of multiple agricultural and residential use products with varying ingredients and concentrations. Richard et al have not specified the product or formulation used in their research. The term Roundup is used herein to refer generally to Roundup agricultural herbicides having glyphosate as their active ingredient.


EU 2002.

Giesy JP, Dobson S, and Solomon KR., Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, (2000) Vol. 167, pp. 35-120.

Heydens, W.F., Levine, S.L., Farmer, D.R., Han, Z., Wall, C., Papadopoulos V. 2003. Non-specific alteration of steroidogenesis in MA-10 Leydig cells by supra-physiological concentrations of the Surfactant in Roundup Herbicide. Toxicologist, page 131.

Levine, S.L., Farmer, D.R., Heydens, W.F., Han, Z., Wall, C., Papadopoulos V. 2003. Non-specific alteration of steroidogenesis in vitro by supra-physiological levels of surfactant. Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 22nd annual meeting abstracts.

Richard S, Moslemi S, Sipahutar H, Benachour N, Seralini GE. Differential effects of glyphosate and Roundup on human placental cells and aromatase. Environmental Health Perspectives (in press)

Walsh Lance P, Chad McCormick, Clyde Martin and Douglas M. Stocco Roundup Inhibits Steroidogenesis by Disrupting Steroidogenic Acute Regulatory (StAR) Protein Expression, Environmental Health Perspectives Volume 108, Number 8, August 2000.

Williams G, Kroes R, Munro IC. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, (2000) Vol. 31, pp. 117-165.


Response from Alex Avery:

Ok, glyphosate is not a common pollutant in rivers. Second, the effects on human placenta cells bathed in comparatively high concentrations of roundup or glyphosate (0.05-2%) is irrelevant, as it's a completely unrealistic exposure pathway -- unless you inject roundup into the womb!

The placenta cancer cells were exposed to roundup and glyphosate at 0.1 to 2% Roundup. They didn't get any significant cell mortality until 0.8% concentration of roundup (~1.5% for glyphosate). What would the effect be if the placenta cells were exposed to 0.8-1.5% cayenne pepper, capsacin, mint oil, pyrethrum, rotenone, etc? Hmmmm.

The authors admit that "acidity of the 2% Roundup or glyphosate solution (pH 5.80 ± 0.08 instead of pH 7.91 ± 0.16) reduced cell viability only 23% after 18 hr, and thus could not alone explain the 90% reduction of cell viability observed at this concentration."

Yeah, only one quarter of the in vitro placenta cancer cell toxicity could be attributed to the acidity of the solution.

Moreover, the authors also are forced to admit that roundup/glyphosate is rapidly excreted from the body, mostly in the feces. So much for significant womb exposures.

There is ZERO evidence that glyphosate is connected to miscarriages. What this paper is trying to do is springboard off of the work by Tyrone Hayes and friends. Hayes says atrazine at 0.05 ppb induces aromatase activity, increasing conversion of androgen to estrogen, thereby feminizing male frogs.

This is the newest tack that the endocrine disruption activist researchers are taking in trying to gain legitimacy and induce fear over agri-chemicals. That's why about 80% of this paper is examining impacts of roundup on aromatase activity -- in vitro. Again, not realistic or relevant to normal exposure pathways.

The editor in chief of EHP is a HUGE proponent of pesticides as endocrine disruptors and has pushed this heavily at EHP. Unfortunately, he wasn't sufficiently humbled by the hugely embarrassing "false alarm" he took part in when the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and he claimed that water from Minnesota ponds caused frog deformities -- it turned out, when conducting the FETAX assay with Xenopus laevis, water from Minnesota is naturally too soft and leads to abnormal embryo development. When EPA researchers conducted the same tests on the same water, with just a little bit of salt added, the Xenopus frogs developed normally. EHP published the paper anyway -- NO SHAME!


Alex Avery, Center for Global Food Issues, Hudson Institute


Attack of the Killer Crops?

- Ronald Bailey, Reason, March 2, 2005 http://www.reason.com/rb/rb030205.shtml

'Activists still trying to scare poor farmers with bad science'

Activists are again trying to frighten poor people in developing countries by claiming the U.S. is poisoning them with genetically modified food. Never mind that 280 million Americans have been eating biotech-enhanced crops for nearly a decade with zero evidence that it has caused anyone so much as a sniffle or a bellyache.

Friends of the Earth tested samples of corn and soybean distributed both commercially and as aid to several Central American countries, to see if they contained genetically modified varieties. They really needn't have bothered, since it's public knowledge that 85 percent of U.S. soybean acreage and 45 percent of its corn are sown in biotech crop varieties that are resistant to pests and herbicides. What would be surprising is if they found no genetically enhanced corn or soybeans in food shipments from the States. The activists merely went through the motions of testing the crops to place a scientific façade on their latest biotech scare.

FOE claims to have found the genetically modified "StarLink" corn variety in the some of the food shipments. The press release notes, accurately, that "StarLink has never been authorized for human consumption anywhere in the world due to the potential allergenic content of its genetically modified protein." Sounds serious, right? Not really.

In October 2000 activists seized on the news StarLink, approved by the Environmental Protection Agency only for animal feed, had been detected in two brands of taco shells, prompting recalls and front-page headlines. Lost in the furor was the fact that there was little reason to believe the corn was unsafe for human consumption—only an implausible, unsubstantiated fear that it might cause allergic reactions.

After the fact, even StarLink's parent company Aventis agreed that it was a serious mistake to have accepted the EPA's approval for animal use only. Because so many crops can be eaten by both people and livestock, most biotech proponents favor planting genetically modified feed-crops only if they are proven safe for humans, too.

In the end, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that there was absolutely no evidence that anyone had suffered any adverse reaction to eating foods containing StarLink corn. FOE activists, eager to push their anti-biotech campaign forward by frightening uninformed poor people, have simply ignored the CDC's findings.

Today, resistance to pests and herbicides and some diseases are the chief improvements offered by biotech. And most of those enhancements have been made in developed countries' leading commercial crops, like corn, soybeans, and cotton. The next frontier will be applying genetic enhancements to crops that feed the hungry in developing countries. However, this progress could be significantly slowed by an activist campaign against biotechnology that threatens to increases the risk of starvation for millions.

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) estimates that global food production must increase by 40 percent in the next 20 years to meet the goal of a better and more varied diet for a projected world population of some eight billion people. As biologist Richard Flavell concluded in a 1999 report to the IFPRI, "It would be unethical to condemn future generations to hunger by refusing to develop and apply a technology that can build on what our forefathers provided and can help produce adequate food for a world with almost two billion more people by 2020."

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization argues that biotech can be a "pro-poor agricultural technology," pointing out that it "can be used by small farmers as well as larger ones; it does not require large capital investments or costly external inputs and it is relatively simple to use. Biotechnologies that are embodied in a seed, such as transgenic insect resistance, are scale neutral and may be more affordable and easier to use than other crop technologies."

A 2004 Rand Corporation report agrees, noting "the key component of the Gene Revolution technology is improved seed. This being the case, all farmers, small or large, should be able to take advantage of the Gene Revolution; theoretically, the Gene Revolution is scale-neutral, providing that one can pay for the seed."

Kenyan biologist Florence Wambugu concurs that crop biotechnology has great potential to increase agricultural productivity in Africa without demanding big changes in local practices. A drought-tolerant seed will benefit farmers whether they live in Kansas or Kenya.

The world's poor farmers recognize this, even if the anti-biotech activists who claim to speak for them don't. Thousands of poor Indian farmers nearly rioted in 2002 when the Indian government, spurred on by activists, was poised to destroy the genetically modified pest-resistant cotton they had planted. Faced with this farmer revolt, the Indian government backed down. The subsequent crops of biotech cotton performed spectacularly, boosting yields as much as 80 percent, reducing pesticide use by 70 percent and increasing farmers' cotton-related income fivefold.

"In order to protect our population it is of utmost importance now more than ever to act with great caution," claims one anti-biotech activist. For the sake of the hungry poor in Central America, let's hope that their leaders show even greater caution in heeding this bogus FOE scare campaign.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His new book, Liberation Biology: A Moral and Scientific Defense of the Biotech Revolution, will be published by Prometheus Books in June.


Greenpeace Founder Blasts Greenpeace (Again)

Letter to the Editor (Sent), Vancouver Sun
Bruce Cox has done a fine job of demonstrating the accuracy of my claim that Greenpeace uses misinformation instead of science to support its zero-tolerance policy against genetically enhanced food crops ("Greenpeace: Still fighting, still here," Feb. 26; ). He repeats the Greenpeace line that a person would have to eat nine kilos of Golden Rice to get enough vitamin A to prevent blindness. And he has the nerve to use Dr. Ingo Potrykus, the co-inventor of Golden Rice, to support this falsehood.
Dr. Potrykus has made it very clear that only 100 - 300 grams of Golden rice per day will cure the worst effects of vitamin A deficiency in Asia and Africa where 500,000 children go blind each year from this cause see: http://www.agbioworld.org/biotech_info/topics/goldenrice/how_much.html

Cox also tries to link Golden Rice to “the mantra of industrial giants like Bayer and Monsanto”. As with the nine kilo assertion this is entirely false. Ingo Potrykus and his co-inventor, Dr. Peter Beyer, are academics who used government grants for their research. The Golden Rice Humanitarian Project will offer the seeds free to any farmer in a developing country who makes less than US$10,000 per year. Meanwhile Greenpeace’s zero-tolerance campaign of misinformation helps ensure that another 500,000 children will go blind this year. In Ingo Postrykus’ own words, this is a crime against humanity.
Patrick Moore, Ph.D.
Chairman and Chief Scientist, Greenspirit Strategies Ltd., Vancouver

> Greenpeace: Still Fighting, Still Here

- Bruce Cox, Vancouver Sun, February 26, 2005
> 'Patrick Moore's attack defined sensationalism; we embrace science to defend our forests, oceans and food'
> Patrick Moore may no longer be a member of Greenpeace, but he will always be a campaigner.... . Read at...


Can Public-Sector Scientists Become Better Salesmen? Biotechnolgy Meeting Convenes Here (in St. Louis)

- Eric Hand, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 2, 2005

Nearly 50 university, nonprofit and government biotechnologists from around the globe will try at a two-day conference beginning today at the Donald Danforth Plant Sciences Center in Creve Coeur.

Center president Roger Beachy wants them to talk up the benefits of public research into genetically modified foods and crops, an industry where debate so far has largely been between for-profit companies like St. Louis-based Monsanto and environmental activists. "We think the absence of the voice of public-sector scientists skews the discussion," he said.

Beachy hopes to encourage public-sector scientists to weigh in by attending a meeting in June for the Cartagena Protocol, a treaty that governs biosafety rules. With Washington University researchers advocating on the stem cell research issue before the Missouri Legislature, some scientists are finding themselves in an unusual position: To get public money or permission, they have to join the political fray.

The Cartagena Protocol took effect Sept. 11, 2003, after 50 nations ratified the treaty. It was named for the Colombian city in which it was primarily negotiated in 1999. The treaty contains safety rules for genetically modified organisms, specifying, for example, that food products must be labeled and that the international transport of any modified organisms must be declared.

To date, 114 nations have ratified the treaty. The United States has not.

The treaty is mute about the benefits of biotechnology, said Joel Cohen, a researcher with the International Food Policy Research Institute, which is based in Washington. He says that's because treaty negotiations included for-profit scientists, representatives from the environmental ministries and non-governmental organization activists, but didn't include public-sector scientists. "Nobody has mobilized these scientists before," he said. "The meeting in St. Louis is intended to address that void."

Public-sector scientists in 15 countries have genetically engineered 45 crops, according to a paper Cohen published January in the journal Nature Biotechnology. All but one of the crops - an insect-resistant cotton in China - are stuck in a regulatory pipeline and have not been released commercially. For-profit companies are good at navigating regulatory agencies, but the public researchers need more money for that, Cohen said.

Cohen, who will present his work at the Danforth Center today, says that some environmental organizations have unjustly ignored the potential benefits of public-sector engineered products, which would be freely available. "They prefer this black-and-white split between right and wrong," he said.

That's not true, said Kristin Dawkins, vice president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a nonprofit group in Minneapolis that opposes genetically engineered foods. She says the goals of public-sector biotechnologists are well-intentioned and sincere, but perhaps too hurried.

Dawkins calls for more research into the health and ecological effects of genetically modified organisms before they are released commercially. Two conference attendees, a regulator from Tanzania and a researcher from Colombia, said that farmers in their countries were less concerned with possible hazards of modified products and more concerned with their potential price tags.

Beachy said that this is where the scientists need to be better salesmen and let people know about products that would eventually be free. He understands the risks of scientists venturing into a political arena. "There will be accusations, that public scientists are dupes of the big companies and pushing a profit motive" he said.

Washington University professor Steve Teitelbaum knows about becoming an advocate. The bone doctor became the university spokesman on the issue of stem cell research. He has spent many nights dining with state legislators and debating opponents. "My career would be much better served if I wasn't doing this," he said. "My dream is to win this battle and go back to the lab full time."

The Cartagena Protocol

* Sets up a biosafety clearinghouse where information about genetically modified organisms is filed and shared after commercial approval.
* Requires products to be accompanied by labels and documents that identify the scientific name and characteristics of genetically modified ingredients.
* Operates under the "precautionary principle," meaning that worst-case scenarios for a genetically modified product can justify banning it, even if no scientific evidence exists of it causing harm.

Source: United Nations Environment Programme Convention on Biological Diversity


Norman Borlaug: 60 Years Fighting Famine and Poverty, and Going Strong


When a young wheat researcher named Norman Borlaug arrived in the Yaqui Valley, northwestern Mexico, in 1945, the research station there was sadly dilapidated. Its condition reflected the sorry state of wheat farms in the Valley, devastated each year by stem rust. Undeterred, Borlaug literally used his own two hands to set up experimental wheat plots. This was part of his research for a joint initiative between the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture and the Rockefeller Foundation aimed at raising Mexico’s production of basic food crops, wheat and maize included. His efforts were watched by surrounding farmers, who at first deeply distrusted him. But they had a change of heart the year stem rust razed the Valley’s wheat fields -- all, that is, except Borlaug's experimental plots. Soon local farmers were growing his rust resistant wheats and doubling their harvests.

Not satisfied, Borlaug continued working on a wheat plant which, besides resisting rust, would produce much higher yields. He transferred dwarfing genes from the Japanese wheat Norin 10 to his test materials. The resulting varieties had short, sturdy stems that held up under the weight of the extra grain they produced. In 1962, Mexico released the first semidwarf wheats. A few years later those varieties were adopted in South Asia and allowed inhabitants to go from near starvation to surplus in a couple seasons. This was the start of the so-called "Green Revolution" -- rapid and widespread transformation from traditional to more science-based farming. In 1970 Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize, partly for the millions of lives saved by the Mexican-born wheats.

A Long-lived and Productive Legacy

In the 1960s the Mexico/Rockefeller Foundation collaborative project evolved into two research organizations: INIA (later INIFAP), Mexico’s national agricultural research institute; and CIMMYT, an organization founded to combat poverty by increasing the productivity, profitability, and sustainability of maize and wheat farming in developing countries.

Borlaug’s philosophy and approaches became a big part of CIMMYT, embodied in effective practices such as "shuttle breeding." Borlaug and his colleagues had developed semidwarfs quickly by running two breeding cycles per year instead of one: a winter cycle in the northern desert of Sonora and a summer crop in the central Mexican highlands. This not only fast-forwarded selection, but also exposed test varieties to radically different day lengths, temperatures, altitudes, and diseases. The resulting plants were broadly adapted; they grew well in numerous environments. Shuttle breeding continues today within Mexico and between CIMMYT and partners in places like China. Hands-on, field based training, and CIMMYT’s international testing systems for maize and wheat are other Borlaug legacies.

Still very active, Dr. Borlaug turned 90 in 2004. He has remained an indefatigable promoter of agricultural research to help the poor in the developing world, a commitment that we are proud to share.


US Sees German Opposition to GM Diminishing

- AgBiotechNet.com, March 1, 2005

"There are small indications that the rejection of agricultural biotechnology by German politicians and parts of the media is slowly diminishing," says a report by the US Department of Agriculture Foreign Agriculture Service.

"Politicians of the opposition parties aggressively use the argument that the new German genetech law inhibits economic progress. They are blaming the current governing coalition parties of damaging the image of a progressive German economy and society," notes the report. However, it also points out "It appears that more farmers will grow GMO corn in 2005 than did in 2004." Nevertheless "Greenpeace is not giving up its efforts to ‘educate’ the Germans that GMOs are an important and dangerous evil."

For the 2005 production year, about 100 German farmers registered fields for the planting of Bt corn. The German genetech law, which came into effect in February 2005, requires farmers to report the exact location of GMO fields, field size and the GMO trait to a national public register, the Standortregister .Farmers have to report their GMO planting intention any time from nine months to three months before actual planting. For crop year 2005, farmers have indicated intentions to plant nearly 1,000 hectares of GMO corn, predominantly varieties containing the Monsanto trait MON810. In 2004, almost 300 hectares were planted to GMO corn.

Since there are no GMO varieties yet approved for planting in Germany, seed producers have to source seeds from those approved for use in Spain. Based on the German seed law requirement, seed producers need to obtain a marketing permit for these Spanish varieties from the German Federal Seeds Register (BSA), which is under the supervision of the Federal Ministry of Consumer Protection, Food and Agriculture (BMVEL). The permission was finally granted on 24 Feb 2005.

In a joint press statement of the feed manufacturer Maerka Maerkische Kraftfutter and Monsanto Germany, Maerka made a promise to the farmers in the Brandenburg region to offer the same price for the corn grown in the neighborhood of GMO corn fields as they would pay for other corn regardless of the level of GMO presence. Maerka assured that they will carefully test delivered corn for the level of GMO presence. The seed producers are currently in the process of negotiating similar assurances with other feed manufacturers so that all corn producing farmers in the neighborhood of GMO corn fields will be able to sell their crop at normal market prices.

In 2000, 2001 and 2003 German seed breeders applied for the official registration of five Bt corn varieties at BSA. Obligatory planting tests required by the German seeds law and performed under the supervision of BSA have been successfully finalized. In case of conventional seeds (non-GMO varieties), BSA autonomously decides whether or not to register the new varieties. In the case of GMO varieties, BMVEL is actively involved in the approval process.

Although not required at the time, one of BMVEL’s core concerns in this case is the seed producers’ lack of a monitoring plan for GMO crops. According to a press report, Greenpeace Germany is intensively lobbying BMVEL not to register the new varieties. The next BSA meeting on variety registration is scheduled for early May 2005. The registration of Bt corn varieties in Germany would eliminate the need to obtain special marketing permits for these GM varieties. It would also allow for unlimited planting of GMO seed. The special permit only allows for the marketing of up to five tons of seed per approved variety.

The results of a 2004 coexistence research program involving 300 hectares of Bt corn, were officially provided to BMVEL. The research was financed by the State of Sachsen-Anhalt and the Federal Ministry of Research (BMBF). The Federal Biological Research Institute (BBA) originally had planned to participate in this project but was ordered by BMVEL not to take part in the program. BMVEL now claims that this study is not sufficient to evaluate the cross-pollination risk of corn. Therefore, in 2005, BMVEL will initiate a study to research the dispersion of corn pollen. For this project, non-GMO varieties of yellow and white corn will be used.

Press articles indicate that BMVEL continues to prevent leading BBA genetech researchers from participating in coexistence research with real GMO products, even if these projects are supported and financed by BMBF. There have also been cases during recent years where BMVEL stopped federally funded biotech research in projects which could potentially provide significant variety improvement, such as resistance to fire blight in apple trees.


(Blast from the past....)

I Don't Care Where My Food Comes From.. And Neither Should You

- Ronald Bailey, Reason Online, September 25, 2002 http://www.reason.com/rb/rb092502.shtml

"People should know where their food comes from," an organic farmer from Montana declared at a conference on agriculture and the environment I attended this past weekend, sponsored by the Political Economy Research Center. This notion is increasingly popular among political environmentalists. It is usually a shorthand way to express opposition to genetically enhanced crops and to convey approval for their organic equivalents. From a nutritional and ecological point of view, the idea is bunk.

First, a bit of background. It is not at all surprising that most Americans think that chickens come plastic-wrapped without bones, that milk pours from gallon jugs, or that fresh fruit can be picked year around. After all, less than two percent of the country lives on farms today. But when I was growing up in the 1960s I knew exactly where at least 90 percent of the food I ate came from: my family's crops. Every tomato, bean, squash, cucumber, pea, potato, ear of corn, turnip, mustard green, carrot, and cabbage I ate came from our huge garden. We picked wild blackberries and grew gallons of strawberries. We had cherry, apple, peach, walnut, and European chestnut trees. We canned nearly everything and had a root cellar. Our honey came from more than 20 beehives.

As for meat, we raised and slaughtered all the beef, pork, chicken, goat, lamb, and turkey we ate. Our milk came from our dairy herd, and we spent many hours churning butter. The domesticated meat was occasionally supplemented with squirrel, groundhog, opossum, and mud turtle. Although I didn't much care for them, our fish consisted of crappies and catfish taken from the farm ponds. My father's standing orders for butchering the beef was to make as many steaks as possible and turn everything else into hamburger. The meat was wrapped in waxed butcher paper and stored in giant freezer chests. We had a smokehouse in which we salted our own hams. I even knew the names of the cows and pigs we ate. You can't know much more about where your food comes from than that.

It is precisely this personal food history that makes me cherish modern grocery stores and restaurants. American grocers can choose what they offer their customers from among more than 320,000 different packaged foods. As a kid, it was an enormous treat to go to the local Piggly Wiggly to buy tasty exotic prepackaged items like hot dogs, spaghetti, and Velveeta. (Incidentally, it was Piggly Wiggly that invented the novel concept that customers should be allowed to roam a store's aisles and pick out their own groceries.) And the proliferation of fine restaurants in the last two decades has been amazing.

Which brings me back to the absurd assertion that everybody should know where his or her food comes from. I knew where my food came from because it took my family a huge percentage of our time just to do the mind-numbing and back-breaking labor of raising it. Of course, we sold our surplus cows, milk, and wool for money so that we could buy incidentals like clothing, medicines, books, refrigerators, televisions, tractors, trucks, and cars. And no one hectored us about knowing where those items came from.

One of the great glories of modern life is the enormous elaboration of the division of labor and how the efficiencies gained from that division makes people much wealthier than they could otherwise be. Since we all don't have to stitch our own clothes, bake our own bread, compound our own medicines, or even cook our own meals, we are all much better off. This is why as a society we can afford to have economic niches like pet dentists and manufacturers of elastomolds for pastry chefs who specialize in baking madeleines.

And why should they care? Food today is cheap, nutritious, and safe. The last century has seen a vast improvement in food quality and safety. In millennia past, food and water were the chief sources of many deadly diseases. Consider that as recently as 1933-35, a U.S Public Health Service survey found that 5,458 children between the ages of 1 and 15 died from diarrhea and enteritis, most caused by food-borne pathogens. By contrast, a recent survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that just 29 Americans died of food-borne illnesses between 1993 and 1997. Meanwhile, stomach cancer rates are down by 75 percent since 1950 because old-fashioned food preservation techniques like salting, pickling, and smoking have been replaced by refrigeration.

That doesn't mean people are or should be prevented from learning about where their food comes from, if that's the way they want to spend their time. Among life's greatest pleasures are fine dining and food connoisseurship. The expanding division of labor and our growing technological prowess is nurturing more and more differentiation among foods, permitting the creation and appreciation of thousands of wines, cheeses, chocolates, coffees, teas, and so forth. I might prefer parmigiano-reggiano versus your inexplicable fondness for boursin. Or I might think that Rombauer Napa Valley Zinfandel is nectar and sniff at that swill from Australia that you quaff. Today, you can choose "slow food" (though it has some unsavory ideological baggage) over fast food, or choose both when that suits you.

Nor is there anything wrong with waking up on Saturday mornings to rush out to the local farmers market. I, too, cannot resist organic heirloom tomatoes. I buy organic not because such foods are ecologically or nutritionally superior--they aren't--but simply because the local lady who grows the Brandywines, Mortgage Lifters, and Yellow Pears I crave chooses that method of production. I'm glad she grows them, not least because that means that I don't have to anymore. For those who are deluded enough to think that organic foods are nutritionally superior, the market makes the opportunity to buy them widely available, generally at a 30-percent price premium. (Ideologically motivated organic aficionados should keep in mind that organic production typically yields a third less food than other means. That means that more land is being plowed down, leaving less for forests and other wildlands.)

But there is something wrong with the puritanical notion that it's a sin to live in blithe ignorance of the ultimate sources of your nourishment.

Life is too short for most people to learn how to fix their computers and cars, and too short for most to learn about food production.

And that's just fine. Eating shouldn't be a moral duty; it should be a pleasure.

Ronald Bailey, Reason's science correspondent, is the editor of Global Warming and Other Eco Myths (Prima Publishing) and Earth Report 2000: Revisiting the True State of the Planet(McGraw-Hill).