Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org: April 18, 2005
* The New Fundamentalism
* Reburnishing Golden Rice
* Britain may pay price for botched GM debate, says Reith lecturer
* India: The Blooming Saga of BT Cotton
* GM Crops - Parked, Not Planted
* China's Problem With 'Anti-Pest' Rice
* Hold Your Horses
* Company will seek new area to plant genetically modified rice
* No Greater Risk Posed
* Lupin Flour Anaphylaxis
* Zambia faces 150,000 tons maize shortage
The New Fundamentalism
- Dick Taverne, Nature Biotechnology 23, 415-416 (April 2005); www.nature.com/nbt. Reprinted in AgBioView with permission of the editors.
The past few decades have witnessed a growing influence of 'green' activists who approach environmental issues with a semi-religious zeal and seemingly little regard for evidence. The increasing prominence of these viewpoints in the media and in political circles is a significant cause for concern; it imperils not only the future of the biotech enterprise but also the health of society as a whole.
Alternative medicine and organic farming are fashionable. Many claims made for them lack scientific veracity and are largely unchallenged by the media. In contrast, scare stories abound about the health threats of the triple mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) vaccine, genetically modified (GM) crops and pesticide residues in food. Frivolous campaigns against MMR vaccines represent a clear and present danger to public health; they discourage parents from immunizing their children against potentially life-threatening illnesses. But perhaps a more nebulous concern for society as a whole is that scaremongering by activists potentially alienates the public and politicians from biotechnologies as a whole. And it is these technologies on which our future health and wealth depends. If we allow new technology to be summarily dismissed on the basis of unsubstantiated claims, we may equally well succumb to the racists, chauvinists, religious fundamentalists and other peddlers of unreason who endanger the future of a tolerant society.
In Europe, the issue on which green activists have focused most intensely is the genetic modification of crops. As an outsider approaching the matter without preconceptions or any academic or financial interests, I was surprised first, how arguments about the merits of a technology are so one-sided, with the leading scientific academies and a mass of publications in respected scientific journals on one side and a dearth of peer-reviewed research or any attempt to respect evidence on the other. The scientists are cautious, emphasize the need to judge each issue case by case and avoid generalization; the opponents make wild generalizations that do not stand up to critical analysis.
My second surprise was the stridency and dogmatism of the opposition. Evidence in favor of transgenic crops is either ignored or dismissed cavalierly on the flimsiest grounds. Discredited claims of damage to human health or biodiversity are continually repeated. Depressingly, a number of aid agencies, nongovernmental organizations dedicated to reducing hunger and disease in the world, join forces with green lobby groups and uncritically support their denunciations of the technology. Together, they act like members of an esoteric club who talk only to each other and because they are convinced of their noble purposes--saving the planet in the case of the green lobbies--feel no need to consult experts. Furthermore, they have wide support in the media, whose own knowledge or respect for expertise is often well disguised. Consequently, scientists in the field have been driven on to the defensive.
Because many significant benefits have already been achieved and a long list of potential benefits are in an advanced stage of development, we have a moral duty to promote the technology. It is amazing how rapidly the use of the technology has spread: transgenic crops now cover over 80 million hectares in 18 different countries. In 2004, for the first time the largest increase in the area cultivated was in the developing world. Over 6 million small farmers now benefit from Bt cotton modified to resist the bollweevil. China, the main beneficiary, has developed several different varieties, and their cultivation has resulted in the use of 60-80% less pesticide. The crop has brought savings of as much as $500 per hectare and an improvement in farmers' health from the lessened need to spray.
In KwaZulu, South Africa, 92% of cotton growers, mainly women, adopted Bt cotton over the 5-year period to 2003, and the number is still rising. Their income had increased by 77% by the second season, although transgenic seed is twice as expensive as nonmodified cotton3. Similar success stories can be told about India, Brazil and Mexico.
There is every reason to suppose that the developing world will benefit even more in the foreseeable future. China has taken the lead in the technology with 141 types of transgenic crops and 65 already in field trials. Its motto appears to be: 'Let a thousand GM crops bloom'.
There are also products currently under development that have the potential to improve the health, wealth and welfare of large portions of the world's population. Examples include Golden Rice5, a transgenic strain that accumulates -carotene (which is converted into vitamin A in the body) and transgenic rice engineered to be enriched in iron6; today, according to the World Heath Organization (Geneva), there are more than 100 million vitamin A-deficient children worldwide, and 400 million women around the globe who suffer from iron deficiency. Work is also underway to engineer plants, such as tomatoes and bananas, for use as oral vaccines7, 8, 9 in developing countries, where a lack of adequate refrigeration facilities and personnel with the necessary training to safely administer injections hinder existing vaccination programs. For small-holder farmers cultivating crops in regions susceptible to environmental stress, researchers are developing transgenic tomatoes that thrive on salty water10 or rice that can resist cold, drought or high salinity.
Why do green lobbies oppose a technology that can improve the welfare of individuals and lead to better use of land and resources and more food for the undernourished? The benefits of Bt cotton are dismissed by the unsupported statement that it "is killing the natural parasitic enemies of the cotton bollworm and increasing the number of other pests" and that its success will be short-lived as the bollworm will become resistant to the insecticide1. In fact, after eight years, there is as yet no evidence of pesticide resistance; strategies such as cultivating refuges alongside transgenic crops seem to have proved more effective than expected12. In addition, no mention is made that the bacterium that produces Bt toxin has been sprayed on crops for decades by organic farmers as an alternative to chemical pesticides.
In the case of Golden Rice, Greenpeace alleges that the project is worthless on the grounds that "a child would have to eat about seven kilograms a day of cooked Golden Rice to benefit". According to Potrykus and colleagues who originally developed it, this overestimates the amount a child would have to eat by more than 15 times. Other opponents argue that nobody wants it because it tastes awful and that people who eat it will lose their hair and their sexual potency.
Opponents repeatedly allege that consumption of transgenic plants harms our health. The fact that Americans have safely been doing so for over eight years (with not a single law case) and that all the scientific academies have found no evidence of harm is simply ignored. Again, it is still claimed that Bt corn kills Monarch butterflies. One study did show that larvae survived less well when fed on milkwood leaves covered with an unspecified amount of pollen from Bt corn, but this finding was observed under artificial laboratory conditions rather than the field; it was later described as a worst case scenario, "just as an airline crash is the worst case scenario for flying". In contrast, when the impact of the pollen was tested in field studies, it was not found to be substantially different from that of conventional corn.
In fact, the real objections of the most vociferous green lobbies are not based on scientific evidence but are more fundamental, indeed fundamentalist. They are based on the belief that humans are interfering with nature and that modern science has gone too far in seeking to control nature. It is a kind of new religion, which as Michael Crichton observed has recreated its own version of traditional Judaeo-Christian beliefs and myths: it has its own Eden, when mankind lived in a state of unity with nature; the Enlightenment was responsible for the Fall, after we had eaten of the tree of knowledge, science; pollution of nature is original sin, and salvation will be found through 'sustainability'.
Indeed, Greenpeace exemplifies this fundamentalist approach. During the hearing of a committee of the House of Lords on the regulation of transgenic crops, its director was asked: "Your opposition to the release of GMOs [genetically modified organisms], that is an absolute and definite opposition...not one that is dependent on further scientific research?" He replied "It is a permanent and definite and complete opposition".
The spread of this new religion, particularly in Europe where its influence is growing strongly, is dangerous for two reasons. First, it could turn Europe into an intellectual and technological backwater, at least where research into biotech is concerned: already agribusinesses are virtually forced to emigrate and much research into plant science is being moved elsewhere. Pharmaceutical companies too are threatened by a small sect of fundamentalists, the animal rights activists, who campaign forcefully, often violently, against the use of any animals in scientific procedures. These extremists take the view that human rights must be subordinated to the rights of animals and if animal rights are threatened, humans must be made to suffer. Pharmaceutical companies could well follow agricultural companies and abandon research in Europe. Indeed, European politicians would be wise to remember the history of Islam in the Middle Ages, which ceased to be the center of contemporary learning in medicine and science because the quest for knowledge was suppressed by the forces of religious dogmatism.
Second, if the march of unreason is not halted, the consequences will not be limited to biotech and industries based on it. The Enlightenment was one of the most hopeful and wonderful episodes in the history of mankind because it gave birth both to modern science and to liberal democracy. If we turn our back on the evidence-based approach and science, we turn our backs on the Enlightenment and undermine one of the foundations on which a civilized society is built.
-- Dick Taverne is chair of the charity Sense About Science, founded to promote the evidence-based approach to scientific issues. He is a member of the UK House of Lords and has developed a special interest in science and the environment. He recently published "The March of Unreason-Science, Democracy and the New Fundamentalism." firstname.lastname@example.org
Reburnishing Golden Rice
- Editorial, Nature Biotechnology 23, 395 (April 2005); www.nature.com/nbt . Reproduced in AgBioView with the permission of the editor.
The revelation last month that Syngenta has mistakenly distributed an unapproved variety of GM corn containing an ampicillin resistance marker over the past four years reveals a monumental foul up. It's ironic then that the same company deserves credit for a classic piece of industrial development applied to a public good. Syngenta has brought the world 'Golden Rice 2,' an improved version of transgenic rice engineered to produce -carotene (provitamin A). The company has developed the crop to the point where it might now fulfill its promise as a remedy for certain forms of malnutrition that principally affect people in developing countries.
Golden Rice first burst onto the scene five years ago. It was heralded then by some as biotech's solution to a staggering human health crisis: vitamin A deficiency, which is responsible for 3,000 deaths per day and 500,000 cases of infant blindness per year. The problem is that Golden Rice was miscast as a panacea for the world's poor. In fact, it is one of many solutions that need to be developed in tandem, including educational initiatives to promote consumption of fruit, vegetables and animal products, local efforts to fortify existing food staples with vitamin A and international programs to distribute dietary supplements in developing countries.
Low-tech solutions by themselves, however, can only do so much. The poorer the family, the less likely they are to receive a balanced diet, particularly in times of famine when fruit and vegetables are in short supply. And the more rural the family, the smaller the chance they will get to hear about educational programs or benefit from vitamin A?fortified foods or supplements distributed by aid programs.
Ingo Potrykus, one of the codevelopers of the original Golden Rice strain, understood this. He developed carotene-enriched rice as a biological solution to the same problem, one that is much simpler. A single Golden Rice grain potentially allows a subsistence farmer to produce 1,000 grains of rice, from which might be produced 1,000,000 seeds, and so on. From one kernel, a farmer could grow 20,000 tons of rice in two years after four generations. And Golden Rice has fewer cost and aid implications: educational programs and vitamin supplements need annual budgets, networks for delivery, and they foster dependency. Rice seed, on the other hand, can be replanted each year at no extra cost to the farmer.
This argument would be compelling were it not for the fact that even the best lines of the original Golden Rice accumulated -carotene to levels that supply only 15-20% of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vitamin A. Biotech opponents, such as Greenpeace, have seized on this to claim that Golden Rice is 'a technical failure' because malnourished children would need to consume kilograms of rice to attain any tangible benefit (a position that conveniently ignores the reality that most people are only partly deficient in vitamin A and require only a small supplement to their daily carotenoid intake). Even last month, Greenpeace claimed in a press release that Golden Rice would "exacerbate malnutrition and undermine food security because it encourages a diet based on a single industrial staple food."
What Syngenta has now done in Golden Rice 2 is to replace the daffodil phytoene synthase gene with the equivalent gene from maize (p. 482). The consequence is that the new strain accumulates levels of the provitamin A that are more than 20-fold higher than those of the original. Syngenta scientists estimate that Golden Rice 2 could provide 50% of the RDA for vitamin A, although overall bioavailability would depend on the presence of dietary oils and proteins.
This is just the sort of thing that happens when you set goal-focused industrial R&D on a problem: they get on it and solve it. It might not always be pretty science. It might not always offer huge mechanistic insights or fundamental understanding. But it works and it usually works quite quickly. Unlike Golden Rice, which was the product of an academic collaboration between the groups of Potrykus and Peter Beyer with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, the new rice strain is entirely a product of Syngenta's corporate R&D funding. Does that mean that the company aims to monopolize on its valuable product through exhorbitant licenses or sales? Actually no, not at all.
Syngenta is a member of the Humanitarian Golden Rice Network, which has obtained free licenses for humanitarian use of the necessary technology from more than 32 different companies and universities. The company will work with breeders in the public rice research institutions in Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, South Africa, the Philippines and Vietnam to make locally adapted varieties of Golden Rice 2 freely available to small-scale farmers with incomes less than $10,000. Once approved for release, varieties directly bred from Syngenta's rice will become the farmer's property, which they will be able to resow year after year without payment.
Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and their political allies in European governments and nongovernmental organizations will not welcome Golden Rice 2. They will continue to reject and stall biotech products at the mere hint of a transgene, no matter what the humanitarian value of the crop and no matter how spurious the environmental concerns. But there comes a time when arguments against a GM product that could help prevent blindness in hundreds of thousands and death in millions each year should be seen for what they are: ideological bigotry.
Golden Rice is an exception to the rule that we don't give away gold or grain for free. It cannot change the way the world works. And it cannot reverse all the health or economic inequities that exist around the globe. But it can change for the better the plight of the world's malnourished, if only those rigidly opposed to GM crops would let it.
Britain may pay price for botched GM debate, says Reith lecturer
- Roger Highfield, DAILY TELEGRAPH (UK)< 16/04/2005 Science Editor
Britain may have "thrown the baby out with the bath water" because of its poor handling of the debate about GM crops, according to Lord Broers, the BBC Reith lecturer. Lord Broers, who will discuss risk and responsibility when he gives his final lecture next month, spoke out yesterday as experts warned that the country is falling far behind in plant science. This, they say, is a direct result of public hostility to GM food. The agrobiotech industry is now pulling out of Britain. Rather than discussions about the merits of each GM crop, say the scientists, the debate has been reduced to pro and anti GM.
"The GM debate and how it has been conducted is an example of how we, as a society, seem unable to contemplate such difficult emotive issues," said Lord Broers, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, who argues in his lectures that technology holds the key to the future of the human race.
The increasing importance of GM crops, notably maize, soybean and cotton, is highlighted by the amount of land planted with GM crops. It rose 20 per cent last year to 81 million hectares - five per cent of the Earth's cultivated crop land.
More than eight million farmers in 17 countries planted GM crops in 2004, and 90 per cent were poor farmers in developing countries. "Surely, things like plant breeding, which by some estimates have had a critical role in feeding millions of people, need to be considered carefully and rationally before being rejected," said Lord Broers. "We can't afford to risk throwing the baby out with the bath water."
This week, in Lyon, the BioVision Life Sciences Forum has been told that there is an urgent need for agriculture to be overhauled because the planet will need to provide food for nine billion people by 2050. The current world population is approximately 6.4 billion.
"The research cutbacks in the UK have been mentioned several times at the meeting," said Prof Dick Flavell, the chief scientific officer of the American company Ceres. "They look inappropriate and demoralising."
There is evidence that the GM industry in Europe "is withering on the vine", added Prof Chris Leaver, he head of Oxford University's plant science department and chairman of the executive committee of the Biochemical Society. "Because of the failure of our Government to give their strong support in the face of public opinion polls manipulated by well-organised opponents, the agrobiotech industry is leaving the UK and other parts of Europe."
Syngenta and several other large plant-breeding and agricultural biotechnology companies have merged and transferred their research overseas. The EU has reduced funds available for agricultural research. Major research institutes, including universities, are having problems obtaining sufficient funds and attracting high quality graduates, costing much of the earlier British lead in plant biotechnology.
Despite Greenpeace's opposition to GM, Dr Doug Parr, its chief scientist, said that plant science was important for agricultural improvement and the laboratories' problems were not good news. "We are certainly not anti plant science. There are applications, even gene techniques, we are supportive of," he said. How genetic crops are reaping rewards around the world Health crops: Fish oils, notably omega-3 fatty acids, have been shown to benefit brain, heart and body, but it is a diminishing natural resource. Growing long chain omega-3-rich transgenic plants instead could increase public consumption while relieving pressure on dwindling fish stocks.
Vaccine production: Genetically modified plants are to be used to grow vaccines for use in combating HIV, tuberculosis, diabetes and rabies. Because plants are cheap to grow, they could produce large quantities of drugs or vaccines at a cost up to 100 times lower than conventional production. And they will help get vaccines to remote places without the need for refrigeration. "We are addressing the serious issue of global inequality of health," said Prof Julian Ma, scientific coordinator, St George's Hospital Medical School, London.
Biofuels: European targets are aiming for 5.75 per cent of all fuels in 2010 to be biofuels produced from crops. Using GM technology, it is possible to boost alcohol yields of crops, such as sugar beet, which has the potential to substitute 25 per cent of total fossil petrol currently being used by the EU. This would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by almost two per cent.
Disease resistance: Viruses and fungi cause the deaths of millions of people in developing countries by destroying crops. An epidemic in the Puna district of Hawaii in the 1990s almost destroyed the papaya industry until the GM variety was introduced in 1998.
Insect resistance: A naturally-occurring soil bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis, Bt) has been used as a pesticide by organic and salad farmers for decades.
Herbicide tolerance: GM crops have been developed so that farmers can use a single herbicide, simplify crop rotation and improve farm safety (the herbicides degrade rapidly in the soil and are less poisonous than those used on conventional crops). Herbicide tolerance has been added to oilseed rape, maize, soybeans, sugar beet, cotton and rice. In the US in 2002, 81 per cent of their soybean crop, 59 per cent of the upland cotton and 15 per cent of the maize was GM herbicide tolerant.
India: The Blooming Saga of BT Cotton
- Kunal Bose, BUSINESS STANDARD (India), 18 April 2005
'The government took all the right steps despite some serious opposition and the results are there for all to see'
In retrospect it appears that India was right in approaching the issue of allowing domestic production of seeds of Bollgard cotton or Bt cotton with an open mind and their use by farmers. But the government had to put up with unrelenting campaign against Bt cotton by non-government organisations (NGOs) and local hybrid seeds producers.
A recent survey of the field experience of farmers actually growing cotton using seeds incorporating transgenic Bt technology should be laying to rest the environmental concerns as also the fear that standing Bt cotton would damage other crops in the nearby fields.
Alternative gene construct is globally such a sensitive issue that when Monsanto targeted India as a potential market, it had to subject its genetically modified cotton seeds to a series of laboratory and field trials before it could win the approval of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee for local production and marketing of Bt cotton seeds.
"The government did the right thing by addressing all the genuine concerns of agronomists, user mills and NGOs before allowing commercial cultivation of GM cotton. This gave confidence to the farmers and the success of the first batch encouraged a large number of others to grow Bt cotton," according to Mohit Jain, one of the country's leading producers of cotton yarns. The results of the survey of Bt cotton use conducted by IMRB International based on a sample of 3,199 farmers in 20 growing districts in six states, including Andhra Pradesh, where it all began, Karnataka and Maharshtra show cultivation of transgenic crop led to a 58 per cent improvement in productivity and a 60 per cent rise in profits.
The survey confirms much to the satisfaction of the authorities involved in giving a host of sanctions that farmers in different agro-climatic zones with small to large holdings benefited equitably from growing transgenic cotton.
One compelling reason for growing Bt cotton is to fend off bollworm attack, which would from time to time lead to major crop losses in both India and Pakistan. The prospect of a big reduction in the use of pesticide and significant productivity improvement also encouraged India to go for this crop variant.
India's normal cotton productivity was up 34 per cent from 302 kg a hectare in 2002-03 to 404 kg a hectare in 2004-05, thanks largely to technology mission's work. Even then our productivity compares poorly with that of most major cotton growing countries, including Pakistan.
"The IMRB survey tells us that users of transgenic seeds are able to get an additional 58 per cent or 2.95 quintals an acre compared with conventional cotton. Indian Cotton Mills' Federation's vision statement says that the country would need 35m bales of 170 kg each by 2010. Since land requirements of other crops will not allow cotton area expansion much beyond 9.5 million hectares, there has to be an increasingly bigger reliance on Bt cotton and vertical production growth," said Jain.
According to the survey, Bt cotton farmers are able to save as much as Rs 1,137 an acre on pesticide account due to reduction of four to five spraying. While this goes to show the in-built resistance of Bt cotton to pest attacks, the economy in spraying is good for the environment. Farmers are happy making an extra profit of Rs 5,950 an acre by using transgenic seeds.
As Nikhil Rawal, executive director of IMRB International, said the survey was an eye-opener. "We were expecting the new technology to be superior. But what we did not expect was the extent of difference between Bt and non-Bt cotton on all important parameters, such as yield, pesticide spray reduction and farmer profitability."
But farmers have now started complaining that the price of Rs 1,600 for a 450 gram Bt cotton seeds is pretty stiff. This is because the only one allowed so far to offer Bt technology here, Monsanto, is said to be charging a hefty fee for knowledge transfer.
In perhaps another two seasons, there will be at least three more companies with alternative gene constructs producing GM cotton seeds on a commercial scale. Of course, this is to be preceded by field trials in central and northern parts of the country. Two are said to be sourcing technologies from IIT Kharagpur and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Like Monsanto, these two will be using a foreign gene sourced from a soil bacterium. The third company's search for a foreign gene has led it to ve protein.
What will happen to Bt cotton seeds prices with more than one in the field in a couple of years is a foregone conclusion. Experts have started anticipating the future prices, which are considerably less than the current prices of Monsanto seeds. Monsanto's response to the emerging competition will be to introduce a supposedly more effective Bollgard II.
Competition among seeds producers will do a world of good to the cotton economy. An important objective of all technology missions whether for cotton or oilseeds is to create condition for the production of quality seeds. The recent improvement in Indian cotton productivity is in "no small measure due to the delivery of high quality seeds in sufficient quantities and at the right time," according to Jain.
The share of GM cotton in the total Indian cotton production is still negligible. Compare this with the 50 per cent share of GM soybeans in the total world production of the crop. That the food minister Sharad Pawar has an open mind on transgenic crops is clear from the fact that he has no objection to imports of GM oilseeds. As natural deduction this bodes well for Bt cotton.
GM Crops - Parked, Not Planted
- David Walker, Open I (UK), April 15, 2005 Via Agnet
Of course, our generally democratic form of government provides us with the opportunity to elect a member of parliament(MP) to represent our interests. Once elected then our MP, together with the party he represents, has the responsibility to decide where our interests lie and act on issues accordingly.
We may not like the outcomes, but that is not to say our MP has not acted appropriately. He is elected to represent our interests rather than our opinions and in most instances he almost certainly knows more about the issues than we do, and is, therefore, better equipped to assess where our interests lie.
Come election time, however, the MP has to face the reality of popular opinion, and reflect it if he is to get reelected. On some issues our interests may be at variance with our opinions. Such an issue is that of genetically modified crops. All the scientific and practical evidence suggests that the delays in the adoption of the technology is and will continue to cost the country dearly. Further, there is no evidence genetically modified crops, if appropriately managed, pose any threat to health or the enBvironment. Clearly our interests are in the adoption of the technology.
Environmental groups h ave, however, found the issue an attention grabbing one and have been able to raise concerns sufficiently for a majority of people still to have concerns about the technology. This, of course, is very well known and, at election time, respected by politicians and political parties.
Genetically modified crops became of age as a significant issue for the UK public in 1999 when environmental groups ambushed the publication of three high profile reports which generally exonerated the technology. After their field day with BSE, the mad cow disease, the tabloids recognized a circulation swelling opportunity and Frankenstein foods were born. Even, the British Medical Association was fooled. Faced with a gaping hole between the advice it had received from high profile political and scientific sources and tabloid generated popular opinion, the government managed to engineer an excuse to delay decisions with a three-year farm scale assessment of environmental issues. It, thereby, bought some time, or so it thought.
The issue, however, was to be too good a one for environmental activists to allow to be sidelined in this manner, or to be decided by scientific study. The issue was kept alive by the attempts of the activists to sabotage the study. And they were particularly active during the 2001 general election when, of course, politicians were most attentive to our opinions and least so to our interests.
The studies are now complete and the reports published. There was no evidence that genetically modified organisms had any impact on the environment but that the manner in which they were used could effect bio diversity, the selected method of measuring environmental impact, positively or negatively.
Both sides claimed a victory. And this undoubtedly gave the politicians and political parties the clue as to how to park the issue. Simply adopt a policy that seems to accommodate both sides.
The Government has concluded there is no scientific case for a blanket ban, but "a precautionary approach" necessitates case-by-ca se assessment. This sounds like a scientific approach but probably is not. The implication, however, is that no commercial production of genetically modified crops is expected until 2008 at the earliest. This, after the three-year farm scale trials have been completed, is three years away.
The opposition Conservatives would "... ban any commercial planting of GM crops until or unless the science shows that this would be safe" which might appear to be reference to a milestone passed. The Conservative shadow en vironment secretary, however, is reported to have said that gene-spliced crops would have no future under a Conservative-led government in Britain unless conclusively proved to be safe, which suggests otherwise.
The issue might seem stalled. But as member states of the European Union have also failed to come to agreement, decisions are referred to the European Commission who are bit by bit opening the European door to genetically modified crops. As the political process has failed, so paradoxically the issue has been referred back to civil servants for resolution.
One wonders quite why and how it got into the political domain in the first place. Such technical matters are best decided by those who know and not those who don't want to know.
China's Problem With 'Anti-Pest' Rice
- David Barboza, NEW YORK TIMES, April 16, 2005
WUHAN, China -- The farmer reaches down into a sack he keeps stored on the second floor of his house in a small farming village south of here and pulls up a fistful of rice that he says has no equal. "This is really remarkable rice," he says, forcing it into the hands of his guests. "All you do is plant it and it grows. You don't need to use all those chemicals any more."
The farmer and other crop growers in this area call this unique variety "anti-pest rice" because it acts as its own insect repellent in the rice paddies. But some Chinese growers and foreign specialists say they suspect much of this region's rice has been genetically modified.
And in China, it is illegal to sell genetically modified rice on the open market. The environmental group Greenpeace, which had rice in this area tested by an independent lab in Germany, says the results show that some of the rice was altered with a gene that creates resistance to pests.
Although experiments with gene-altered rice are under way in most rice-producing countries, including the United States, no country produces it for commercial sale. Cultivation and consumption have been tempered by criticism over the potential health or environmental consequences. Although no such effects have been proved, the opposition has worried regulators, leading them to be cautious in approving gene-altered rice. It also has prompted reluctance among growers around the world to embrace a crop that msay be labeled Frankenstein food.
Yet in several small villages around Wuhan, in Hubei province, a large rice-growing region in central China, genetically engineered rice appears to be for sale, even by government officials who are supposed to be enforcing a ban on its sale until it is approved for commercialization, perhaps this year.
Chinese officials hope the commercialization of genetically engineered rice in China, the largest producer and consumer of rice, will be a momentous global event, because rice is the world's largest and most important food staple. If the technology works, genetically engineered rice could offer higher yields.
But now activists like Greenpeace are warning that in Hubei, genetically engineered rice has prematurely seeped into a corner of China's food system. They say the possible health and environmental risks are worrisome because genetic engineering is still in the experimental stage.
If biotech rice has found its way into the food system here, China has become the first place in the world where a major crop, in this instance rice, is being directly consumed by humans - and without regulatory approval. But there are many unanswered questions, starting with the scale or even the existence of any risks to health.
Gerard Barry, a scientist at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, said there was virtually no evidence that genetically modified crops were harmful to humans. He said the gene used in China's biotech rice could be similar to the gene in what is called BT corn and cotton, which is approved for use in Europe and the United States. "There have been multiple approvals in corn and cotton, and there has been nothing to suggest allergies or other problems," he said.
There are other unanswered questions. Chinese government officials say they are beginning their own investigation, so aside from explanations from local farmers, there are no official answers to questions about how much or how long the rice has been sold and how many people may have eaten it. Greenpeace said it bought rice in seed markets and had the suspect packages tested by GeneScan, a respected biotech lab in Germany.
Many sellers here said the supplies came from a local university that specializes in biotech rice research. They said bags of rice could be bought there. But the university store was also out of the rice. "All the anti-bug seeds have been sold out," said a woman operating the store at the Huazhong Agriculture University in Wuhan. "We started to sell them around January, and it was the most popular product and sold out in the middle of February."
At a government-owned seed market south of Wuhan, a sales agent said the "anti-pest rice" was no longer available and in any case, it was not legal to sell it. There was none at the government store, he said. But minutes later, after some negotiation, the government sales officer agreed to sell a bag of "anti-bug rice" for a premium price. His assistant then pulled a bag from under a shelf and placed it in a dark bag.
The bag of seed has the same label that Greenpeace identified as containing a variety of genetically engineered rice. The label shows a lightning bolt striking a bug. The package does not identify the seeds as genetically modified rice but only as "anti-pest" rice.
Greenpeace's accusations are certain to complicate China's aggressive push to commercialize genetically engineered rice, which proponents had hoped would drastically alter the debate over the safety of genetically modified crops.
Scientists here hoped the Chinese government would approve biotech rice and declare its consumption safe later this year, setting the stage for other rice-producing countries in Asia to introduce their own versions of biotech rice. But now, China is dealing with a situation that has plagued biotech efforts in other parts of the world after unapproved varieties of corn, for example, leached into the food supply and black market biotech seeds were smuggled across borders.
In the United States, genetically modified corn is a growing portion of the market, and modified soybeans are widely sold and well accepted. But the health and environmental concerns that crept up in the late 1990's have stalled the commercialization of biotech wheat.
This week, Anheuser-Busch, the nation's largest beer maker and the No. 1 buyer of rice, threatened to stop buying rice in Missouri if some farmers grew genetically modified rice in field tests. Yesterday, however, the company reached a compromise after the state pushed the farmers to grow the gene-altered crops 120 miles from other rice fields.
Fears in Europe and America that the crops have not been sufficiently tested has spurred debate over the last seven years, but not in China, where biotech research, particularly on rice, is largely driven by government labs trying to improve crop yields and reduce pesticide use. But now, the government investigation, led by China's agriculture ministry, will examine Greenpeace's assertion that a group of "rogue scientists" have sold experimental varieties of genetically altered rice on the open market to consumers in Hubei.
"This is irresponsible and dangerous," says Sze Pang Cheung, a Greenpeace official who helped uncover the sales in Hubei and estimates that more than 1,000 tons of genetically engineered rice are on the local market. "The government needs to act. If they cannot control G.E. rice even at the experimental stage, how are they going to control large-scale commercialization?"
Still, just a day after Greenpeace announced its findings, seed market officials in Hubei talked openly about the popularity of the "anti-pest rice" and admitted selling it at a premium price, saying they had recently run out of stock.
Farmers and seed market officials here say the planting of biotech seeds is widespread in the region and has occurred for about two years. But they also say many farmers do not eat the rice they harvest. Some farmers think that anything that kills a field pest could also prove harmful to people.
But the farmer holding the fistful of rice in his home says he and his family eat all the anti-pest rice he produces. "Why not?" he says with a broad smile. "I don't believe the government would poison its own people."
Hold Your Horses
- ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH, 15 April 2005
IT'S UNDERSTANDABLE that Anheuser-Busch wouldn't want to brew its beer with rice grown to produce anti-diarrheal drugs. Fairly or not, from a marketing standpoint it's a no-brainer: Ick. But the brewery's threat to boycott Missouri's rice crop is an over-reaction to a theoretical hazard. The brouhaha in the Bootheel shows the need for reasonable, science-based rules to assure safety in the new business of "biopharming."
Ventria Bioscience of California has genetically engineered rice to produce human proteins used in drugs. Ventria wants to grow its rice on 200 acres in Scott County, south of Cape Girardeau. It may expand to more than 20,000 acres.
Ventria has a laudable goal, since diarrhea and dehydration kill 1.3 million children a year around the world. In fact, the infant industry of biopharming holds the promise of better and cheaper drugs. But some farmers, environmentalists and food companies fear that genetic traits of the new rice may spread to rice used for food. That would saddle the industry with the cost of testing and separating different types of rice. And it would give Europe more reasons to discriminate against yet another American ˙farm export. Just ask Monsanto.
It's not an unfounded concern. Traits of another type of rice, altered to resist herbicides, spread to other rice plants growing in the same fields in Arkansas. Could birds, wind or floods spread Ventria's altered rice to other conventional rice fields? Maybe. For its part, Ventria says its rice plot will be seven miles from the next nearest rice field.
Enter the 500-pound gorilla: Anheuser-Busch The brewery says it will stop buying Missouri rice if the U.S. Department of Agriculture approves Ventria's plan. Anheuser-Busch is the nation's biggest single consumer of rice, so its threat sends a chill through Missouri's rice farmers -- and the politicians who represent them.
Anheuser-Busch employs 5,000 of our neighbors and holds the affection of St. Louis for its corporate largesse. It's almost as much a symbol of our city as the Gateway Arch. But it has an unbecoming habit of throwing its weight around in Missouri. Its threat against Missouri's $100 million rice industry is premature. The wiser course would be for Anheuser-Busch to monitor the Ventria project closely, to see if its worries are valid. Signs of contamination can be spotted early.
In the meantime, it might lobby for regulations that will let biopharming and conventional farming safely co-exist. American farmers have been growing genetically-altered crops for more than a decade, without damage. Much corn, soy and cotton grown today is bioengineered to tolerate herbicides or ward off pests.
Much of that has roots in St. Louis, which has become an international center for plant biotechnology, by the grace of Monsanto, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and the Missouri Botanical Garden. In the future, we may be known more for plants than for beer.
It would be a shame to see one industry hurt another. In making the call on Ventria's proposal, the Agriculture Department should rely solely on good science.
Company will seek new area to plant genetically modified rice
- Bill Lambrecht, St. Louis, Post-Dispatch, April 15 2005 http://www.stltoday.com
WASHINGTON _ The California company whose plan to sprout pharmaceutical rice in the Bootheel triggered a boycott threat from Anheuser-Busch Co. said Friday it would seek a new Missouri planting site away from commercial rice fields.
Under an agreement reached during a meeting in St. Louis with brewery officials and political leaders, Ventria Bioscience will amend its application with the U.S. Department of Agriculture so that its genetically engineered rice is planted at least 120 miles away from the prime rice fields of southeast Missouri.
As part of the agreement, Anheuser-Busch dropped its threat to stop buying rice from Missouri growers.
Gov. Matt Blunt called the agreement "a huge step forward" for agriculture, Missouri's plant-science industry and Ventria's goal of finding medicines that can help children.
"It is imperative our state has an environment that encourages the biotechnology industry and value-added agriculture opportunities, which will help sustain Missouri's economy for generations to come," Blunt said in a statement.
Scott Deeter, Ventria's president and chief operating officer, said he planned as early as this weekend to inform the Agriculture Department of a new site for planting the pharmaceutical rice. He would not disclose potential locations.
A government decision on Ventria's application is due any day, and Deeter said his company still intends to plant its engineered rice this spring. "We have to move pretty quickly" he said in an interview, adding that he was pleased with the agreement.
The announcement provided a new twist to a controversy that has embroiled politicians, rice farmers, the food industry, environmentalists and Missouri's plant-science researchers. Fearing potential contamination of their crops and a loss of markets, rice growers in southern Missouri responded with outrage to Ventria's plan to genetically engineer rice to produce human proteins for use in drugs and other products.
The proteins, lactoferrin and lysozyme, both occur in breast milk, saliva and other bodily fluids. They are valued for their capacity to aid in combating bacteria, viruses and other bodily invaders. Leading food companies and environmental advocates - both of which oppose open-air cultivation of plant-made pharmaceuticals -- joined Missouri rice farmers effort to derail Ventria's plan.
The momentum tilted this week to rice growers when Anheuser-Busch declared that it wouldn't buy Missouri rice for its beer because of concern that the pharmaceutical rice couldn't be kept separate from edible rice.
Among its concerns, the brewery noted that the Food and Drug Administration had not declared the pharmaceutical rice safe for consumption and that no test existed for detecting the presence of the gene-altered rice in conventional rice.
No Greater Risk Posed
- Robert D. Lucas, Barbados Advocate, PH.D., Food biotechnologist, April 18 2005
Recently in the press, there have been some concerns about proteins in genetically modified foods, causing allergenic reactions when they are consumed by humans. It is therefore necessary to clarify the situation, so that there are no misconceptions.
Even before the advent of recombinant DNA technology, it was known that some plants derived from conventional breeding were responsible for allergenic, anti-nutritional and toxic reactions when consumed. For example the levels of cyanogenic glycosides in cassava and some legumes can lead to death or chronic neurological disease if these foods are eaten uncooked.
These foods were being consumed before the age of genetic engineering, so it is alarmist to imply that the risk engendered by using genetic engineered foods is any greater than that from conventional foods.
Foods derived from recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology are subjected to more rigorous safety testing, than are foods derived from conventional breeding. For example, in the case of allergenicity, the decision tree approach is used in assessing the risks associated with the consumption of foods. This method has been advocated by the International Food Biotechnology Council (IFBC) and the Allergy and Immunology Institute of the International Life Science Institute (ILSI) for the determination of allergenicity in rDNA-derived foods. The source of genetic material is classified as 1). Commonly allergenic; 2). Less commonly allergenic and; 3) of unknown allergenic potential.
This can be done because eight foods contain more than 90 per cent of all the known food allergies in the world (IFT Expert Report on Biotechnology and Foods: Human Food Safety; Evaluation of rDNA Biotechnology-Derived Foods. Food Technology. Vol.54: 9 :53-61). If the genetic material used in genetic engineering is derived from an allergenic source (, the rDNA derived food must be considered allergenic. The next step in the procedure is the determination of the immuno reactivity of the introduced protein in the rDNA derived food, with immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies from the sera of individuals allergic to the donor organism. Five immuno-reactivity tests are done. If all are negative, the skin prick test, double-blind, placebo controlled food challenge or digestive stability tests are then done. If the immuno-reactive test and these other tests are negative, then the likelihood is small that the food is allergenic. When there is no history of allergenicity in the genetic material, its amino acid profile is compared with the amino acid profile of known allergens.
If there is agreement between the two profiles, then the rDNA derived is allergenic. Additionally, the digestive stability test is also done. Allergens tend to be quite stable in the presence of protease. If the rDNA derived food is easily digested, it is not allergenic.
The tests outlined above are not done for conventional foods. It is quite obvious that it is easy to detect whether or not rDNA derived foods are allergenic. It is also evident that there is no greater risk to the consumer in eating rDNA derived foods, than there is from conventional foods.
-- Robert D. Lucas, PH.D., Food biotechnologist,
Lupin Flour Anaphylaxis
- Thomas R. DeGregori
Here's another report of allergenicity of lupin
Lupin: a new hidden food allergen. 2004. William B Smith, David Gillis and Frank E Kette. MJA 2004; 181 (4): 219-220 on-line at
--- Alan McHughen, University of California
Zambia faces 150,000 tons maize shortage
Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa said his country will face a shortage of 150,000 tons of maize this year due to poor rains in parts of the southern African country, the official Times of Zambia newspaper reported Monday.
Addressing a public rally at Lufwanyama in Copperbelt Province Sunday, Mwanawasa said his government would not fail to import the deficit as the country has recently reached the completion of the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative, hence qualifying for a 3.9-billion-US-dollar debt relief. He assured the nation that the hunger in 2002 induced by poor rains will not occur again, he said.
Zambia has reported poor rains in its western, southern and central parts in the just ended rain season, sparking fear of widespread famine.
"In 2002, there was hunger in the country and government has rejected GMO (genetically modified organism) maize from donors who predicted that a considerable number of people would die of hunger, but this did not happen and I can assure you that no one will die, " he said.
The president also said that the Food Reserve Agency still has 111,000 tons of maize in stock, which would be able to last for three months.