Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : June 3, 2005
* Biodiversity Depends on Biotechnology
* US Argues Biotech Rules Too Costly for Exporters
* The GM Debate - Who Decides?
* Scientists Trace Corn Ancestry from Ancient Grass to Modern Crop
* The Economist vs. the Green Mantra
* ... A Reader Responds...
* Kumho Award Winner (Steve Tanksley) Criticizes US Science Policy
* Biotech Quick-Fixes Will Not End Hunger in China - Lancet!
* What is Science For?
Biodiversity Depends on Biotechnology
- Christian Verschueren, Globe And Mail, June 1, 2005
Government ministers from 119 countries are meeting in Montreal this
week to discuss the Cartegena Protocol on Biosafety - a tool
governing the international trade of genetically-modified organisms.
Its aim is conservation of the world's biological diversity.
Unfortunately, many of the objectives being pursued at this meeting
are misguided and unlikely to address the root causes of biodiversity
degradation. If this meeting is to be successful, and if the world's
biodiversity is to be properly protected, there needs to be a greater
recognition of the important role biotechnologies have to play. It
may not be intuitive, but it is a fact: agricultural technologies,
including biotechnologies, are necessary for the protection and
enhancement of biodiversity. By maki ng agriculture more efficient
and productive on limited land areas, biotechnologies help feed and
clothe an ever-growing world population, while preventing destruction
of new habitats and ecosystems.
Take as an example, no-till farming techniques. Made possible by the
use of biotech seeds, no-till farming means leaving land unplowed
before planting a crop. By maintaining a permanent layer of topsoil,
not only does this technology save time and labour, prevent erosion
and reduce the loss of soil moisture, but it also helps to preserve
and enhance biodiversity by providing a congenial environment for
soil organisms, many bird species, small mammals and reptiles.
Over the past decade, a group of farmers in Ghana have been using
this agricultural technique under a unique public-private
partnership. Adoption of no-till has led to higher yields both in
normal and drier years, and it is estimated that in the 10-year
period from 1990 to 2000, more than 100,000 Ghanaian farmers have
adopted no-till methods on about 45,000 hectares.
These farmers have understood what many others refuse to acknowledge
- biotechnology is not the enemy of sustainable agriculture and
biodiversity protection, but rather, is vital to it. At the Montreal
meeting, it is imperative that government delegates do not move
further down a path that places undue burdens on biotechnology.
Of particular concern is the development of an international
liability plan specifically for agricultural biotech products. Under
the terms of this proposal, the developers of these products - or
indeed, those who use them - could be held liable for any damage to
the environment perceived to have been caused by their use.
Setting aside the question of exactly who decides when environmental
damage has occurred, this not only places unfair restrictions on the
developers and users of these products, but misses the point of
biodiversity conservation by ignoring the effects that other
technologies and human activities have on biodiversity. Industry has,
and will continue to be, responsible for its products and
technologies under legal systems that already exist nationally and
internationally. It is worth noting that the biotech industry is one
of the most carefully regulated industries in the world.
But industry goes even further, complementing regulation with
comprehensive stewardship programs throughout a product's lifecycle.
From its discovery or development through to its ultimate use,
industry works to ensure these technologies are used properly and
safely. Placing too heavy a potential liability burden on a single
industry risks making that industry financially untenable, even when
there has never been recorded damage from its activities.
A more sensible approach is to ensure that the proven benefits of
biotechnology are maximized and any risks are minimized. This is best
accomplished when decisions are based on sound science and risk, and
are the result of agreement between governments and communities and
the users and developers of biotechnology.
Implementation of the biosafety protocol should focus first on
helping countries build their own regulatory and scientific
capacities, so that they can properly use and control biotechnology
within their borders. It should avoid diverting resources from the
protection of biodiversity to the establishment of unnecessary,
unworkable regulations. The overarching principles and obligations
set out in the biosafety protocol are commendable and desired.
Indeed, if properly implemented, the biosafety protocol has the
potential to represent a new global spirit to encourage innovation,
development and capacity-building for biotechnology, while also
achieving the goals of conservation, sustainable agriculture and
equitable sharing of the technology's benefits.
This planting season marks 10 years since the first biotech crop has
been commercially available to farmers. Since then, over a billion
hectares have been planted in some 17 countries, representing over
half of the world's population. And, it is noteworthy that the
absolute growth in biotech crop area over the last year was, for the
first time, higher for developing countries than for industrial
countries. These figures represent an international vote of
confidence in the benefits of biotechnology for cons umers and
farmers alike around the world.
We hope that decisions taken this week will ensure those who want to
benefit from this technology can continue to do so.
Christian Verschueren is director-general of CropLife International,
a global federation representing the plant-science industry and led
by a group of companies including BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow
AgroSciences, DuPont, FMS, Monsanto, Sumitomo and Syngenta.
US Argues Biotech Rules Too Costly for Exporters
01/06/2005 - Demands for both the US and Canada to take
responsibility for genetically modified (GM) food contamination and
sign up to the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol are likely to be
frustrated, writes Anthony Fletcher.
North American food and bitoech lobbyists appear to have successfully
convinced both governments yet again that mandatory labeling for GM
crops would be too costly, and would adversely affect exports.
As a result, both the US and Canada have still not signed the
protocol, which is being discussed this week at a summit in Montreal.
But the tide of global opinion appears to be against them.
Representatives of 119 governments are expected to adopt binding
rules this week on papers required to accompany GM commodities such
as wheat, maize and soy when they are transported across borders.
These rules will ensure that only approved GMOs enter the territory
of respective parties signed up to the Cartagena Protocol on
Biosafety. The European Commission said it would push for
documentation requirements that are "clear, meaningful, practical
for both exporters and importers of agricultural products, and
consistent with EU law."
However, both the US and Canada, along with other major grain
exporting countries such as Argentina, Australia, Chile and Uruguay
(collectively known as the Miami Group), argue that compulsory
labeling would create serious paperwork requirements and fear that
the protocol would extend to food products containing GMOs as well.
In addition, the US has consistently demanded the inclusion of a
provision in the Protocol that would, in effect, elevate World Trade
Organisation (WTO) rules above those of the Biosafety Protocol. The
US, along with food and ingredient exporters, was motivated by
concerns that the Biosafety Protocol could be used as a protectionist
device to favour domestic GMOs over foreign ones.
Pro-Cartagena campaigners have not given up hope. A letter to the
Canadian environment minister Stéphane Dion from a group including
Greenpeace and the Canadian National Farmers Union invited the
minister to see for himself Canadian GM canola found to be growing
wild in Japan.
"If the government does not act now to hold manufacturers and
exporters liable for contamination then the dangers associated with
GM contamination will only increase," said Greenpeace Canada GM
campaigner Eric Darier. "The case of Canadian GM canola contamination
in Japan is further proof that the Canadian government is complicit
with agri-biotech companies such as Monsanto."
The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is the only international treaty
governing the cross-border transport of genetically modified
organisms and a supplementary agreement to the 1992 Convention on
Biological Biodiversity. The rules set out in the protocol are
intended to promote the conservation and sustainable use of
biological diversity and protect the public from the potentially
harmful effects of GMOs.
The protocol entered into force on 11 September 2003 and currently
has 119 parties.
The US, the driving force behind the Miami Group, is the world's
largest producer of GM crops. It exports over $60 billion of
agricultural products a year.
The GM Debate - Who Decides?
- Panos Report, London, June 2005. Download the pdf file at
Since their introduction a decade ago, genetically modified crops
have swept across the world, as well as aroused strong passions in
scientists, environmentalists, politicians and the public. Drawing on
case studies in Brazil, India, Kenya, Thailand and Zambia, Panos
London's report The GM Debate - Who Decides? explores how decisions
are made about GM crops in developing countries.
Download the pdf file at
Who really decides?
Our case studies demonstrate that the framework for decision-making
on GM crops varies considerably between countries, according to
specific political, economic, agricultural and environmental
contexts. Opinions, even among common interest groups, are not
homogeneous across the developing world. Despite these differences,
it is possible to draw some broad conclusions about how governments
in developing countries make decisions, and who has access to
* GM technology is regulated by agencies within ministries of
agriculture, commerce, science and environment. Parliaments mostly -
though not always - have a large role in deciding the content of new
* Different groups of citizens vary in their access to different
parts of the policy-making process. Scientists, international donors,
the biotechnology industry and groups representing commercial farmers
tend to have good access to ministries of agriculture, commerce and
* Scientists are involved in most stages of the decision-making
process and tend to have good access to decision-makers across all
* Consumer groups and other NGOs are more successful at accessing
ministries of environment and public health, and sympathetic MPs,
than the often more powerful ministries of agriculture, commerce and
Plans to adopt genetically modified (GM) crop in countries around the
world are being developed at a rapid pace. The decisions that are now
being made about GM crops will affect generations to come, on issues
as wide-ranging as food safety, nutrition, livelihoods, the
agricultural economy and the long-term sustainability of agricultural
But the use of GM technology in agriculture is highly controversial,
and has resulted in debate that tends to be polarised. Given the
controversy and complexity of GM issues, how do governments in
developing countries decide whether GM crops are to be grown? To what
extent are citizens able to influence decision-making? And how is the
media engaged in informing and enabling discussion around this issue?
Panos London is working to enable wider participation in policymaking
by producing objective information on GM and related issues, by
analysing the policymaking process around GM, and by working with the
media to support coverage of GM.
Scientists Trace Corn Ancestry from Ancient Grass to Modern Crop
Indigenous farmers bred the plant for hardiness and better food quality
Cultivated corn was domesticated from teosinte more than 6,000 years
ago. During the process, corn lost the ability to survive in the
wild, but gained valuable agricultural traits. The suppression of
branching from the stalk resulted in a lower number of ears per plant
but allows each ear to grow larger. The hard case around the kernel
disappeared over time. Today, we see just a few ears of corn growing
on one unbranched stalk and enjoy larger ears covered with many, many
rows of soft corn kernels.
Native Americans living in what is now Mexico began domesticating
teosinte, or "grain of the gods," more than 6,000 years ago. By
selectively breeding each generation, ancient farmers drastically
changed teosinte's appearance, yield, grain quality and hardiness,
culminating in today's corn.
See the corn and teosinte contrasting picture at
The Economist vs the Green Mantra
- Daryl D'Monte, One World South Asia. Infochange India, Full
commentary at http://southasia.oneworld.net/article/view/112562/1/5339
I occasionally read The Economist for the same reasons and with the
same scepticism that I read columns by Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar
and Gurcharan Das -- they are iconoclastic and eminently readable
but, in the final analysis, too far right for my comfort. You might
call them 'radical conservatives'. This sums up the British
magazine's April 23 cover story entitled 'Rescuing Environmentalism'.
Not surprisingly, it makes a strong plea for market forces -- Adam
Smith's 'invisible hand' of profit, a panacea for all economic
problems -- when it comes to valuing natural resources.
It cites an essay called 'The Death of Environmentalism' by two
unnamed greens "with impeccable credentials," who allege that
environmentalists are "politically adrift and dreadfully out of
touch". It is hardly news that a magazine which represents the views
of The City (the financial hub of London, which gives the metropolis
its power as the world's leading financial centre) derides greens for
espousing what is known as the 'precautionary principle'.
Under this tenet, greens oppose the introduction of a new technology
whose harmful effects are not yet known. Two typical examples are
genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and nuclear power. In sharp
contrast to the US, Australia, Argentina and Japan, Europe has
decided for the time being not to allow genetically modified seeds to
enter its consumer foodchain simply because not enough is known about
Proponents of both genetically modified organisms and nuclear power
make exaggerated claims regarding their productivity. In the case of
GM crops, for instance , global biotechnology giant Monsanto, which
has its subsidiary in Maharashtra known as Mahyco, claims that its Bt
cotton seeds will not only earn farmers better yields but also cut
down on the use of pesticides (cotton is the biggest user in the
country). This has bound farmers who have switched to GM varieties
into buying the more expensive seeds on the market. What Monsanto
doesn't reveal is that its Bt seeds are only resistant to Monsanto's
own brand of pesticide, which makes farmers perennially dependent on
This is both bad economics as well as bad science. Also, not least,
bad morality. All votaries of free market principles must be aware
that monopolies of any kind distort the market. The introduction of
this and other new seed hybrids has witnessed suicides by farmers in
India's peninsular states, which partly caused two chief ministers,
Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh and S M Krishna in Karnataka, to
lose state elections exactly a year ago.
Without sounding vituperative against a magazine that stands out as
an exemplar of lucid writing, displaying an ability to tackle
ponderous subjects in an easily accessible manner, one wonders what
stand The Economist took on another thorny issue -- cigarette smoking
-- say 20 years ago. The archives might prove this columnist wrong
but he would wager that it argued that the anti-smoking lobby was a
lunatic fringe, denying that smoking was a health hazard. It would
have called this "bad economics" due to the enormous taxes that
cigarettes yield to the treasury. And, as a parting shot, it might
have made out the ultimate case for its rigid dogma -- laissez faire
-- which would be to allow each person to decide whether or not to
kill himself as a matter of free choice. This is what the industry
- Author: Sivramiah Shantharam, June 3, 2005
Comment: I read Daryl D'Monte's The Economist vs the Green Mantra
with interest. Like all modern day environmental writers and
activists who have developed ideological antipathy toward modern
science and technology based on misunderstandings, D'Monte does not
seem to have grasped the basics of mdoern biotechnology of GM crops.
He says that Bt cotton seeds of Monsanto are resistant to Monsanto's
own pesticide thereby promoting the sale of its chemical. How
woefully wrong one can get?
Monsanto's Bt cotton is an insect resistant variety engineered with a
gene from a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), hence
Bt cotton. It is resistant to cotton bollworm, a dreaded pest of
cotton and not to any pesticide. In fact, the Bt gene is the
pesticidal gene that is bulit into the cotton plant. By the way,
insect resistant does not mean pesticide dependent.
Environmental activists opposed to GM crops have spread another myth
that herbicide resistant crops are herbicide dependent meaning they
need more herbicides to grow leading to more sale of the chemical.
This is another travesty of scientific facts.
It is this kind of their own misunderstanding of the basics of modern
science and biotechnology that is the root cause of so much discord
about the biotechnology around the world.
I noticed that Mr. D'Monte has many misconceptions of nuclear
technology as well. I think people like Mr. D'Monte should consult
knoweldegeable scientists and technologists and gain basic
understanding of the subject matter before venturing to write reams
to miseducate their readers.
Kumho Award Winner (Steve Tanksley) Criticizes US Science Policy
- Lee Hyo-sik, The Korea Times, June 3, 2005 http://times.hankooki.com/
Cornell University professor Steven D. Tanksley, winner of the sixth
Kumho International Science Award, criticized the United States
government for allowing a few religious groups to dictate the
direction of the country's science policy.
"The current U.S. administration should include scientists and the
general public in the decision-making process for a series of
important science issues, including stem cell research," Tanksley
said in a news conference held Friday at the Kumho Asiana Group
headquarters in central Seoul. It took place before an award ceremony.
"The U.S. should make every effort to devise a wide range of sound
science policies by listening more to scientists and concerned
scientific organizations, otherwise the nation would be left behind
in many crucial science areas in the coming years," the plant
molecular biologist said.
Touching on the safety of the genetically modified organisms (GMOs),
Tanksley said that some segment of the population could be allergic
to certain genetically-altered products in the same way as other
conventionally-cultivated crops such as peanuts.
"GMOs do not pose higher risks to the population. What scientists
should do is find the scientific mechanism that makes people allergic
to certain types of GMOs, and test them thoroughly before being
marketed to consumers,'' he added. He predicted that a variety of
high yielding crops, including tomatoes and rice, will be developed
and commercialized over the next 10 years thanks to a breakthrough in
the field of plant molecular biology.
Tanksley has been chosen as the recipient of the Kumho International
Science Award, dubbed the Nobel Prize in plant biology, this year for
his contribution to plant molecular biology. Tanksley has had a
successful career filled with activity and achievement. The
51-year-old was among a team of Cornell scientists who cloned the
first gene for disease-resistant tomatoes.
Observers praised the research that opened the doors to cloning
similar resistance genes in other plant species to increase their
yield and enhance nutritional quality. The Kumho International
Science Award, established in 2000 and presented annually to
outstanding scientists in plant molecular biology and biotechnology,
also gives winners a $30,000 prize.
Biotech Quick-Fixes Will Not End Hunger in China
- Editorial, The Lancet, v.365 (9473):1746 May 21, 2005
This year, China is expected to become the first country in the world
to commercialise a genetically engineered major food grain crop
(rice). With less than 10% of the world's arable land, 22% of the
world's population, and 142 million hungry people, China seems to
have ample justification for its policy of aggressive research into
genetically modified (GM) foods as a way of boosting crop yields. But
whereas the promise of bumper harvests will be welcome news to many
of the country's cash-crop farmers, GM rice is unlikely to ease the
woes of those who need more food.
By signalling that genetic modification is one route to providing
food for all, China has bought into a common misconception: that
upping food production will eliminate hunger. China's own history of
trying to feed its huge population has shown that larger quantities
do not necessarily counter nutritional inequalities. By the
mid-1990s, China had achieved the target of ensuring sufficient food
production for its population, but many residents of remote rural
areas still go hungry because of huge disparities in regional food
China is, understandably, keen to realise the financial benefits of
its two decades' investment in GM research, and the economic rewards
for farmers that can afford to cultivate engineered seeds are
potentially great. However, this approach will make little headway in
feeding China's malnourished millions unless the underlying causes of
hunger--poverty and inequitable access to land and trade--are
properly addressed. For China to achieve its goal of food for all,
it must look beyond the economic lure of biotech options and focus on
meeting the basic needs of the country's poor.
From Prakash: Lancet editors must stick to their expertise on
medical issues. Their editorial above simply exposes their ignorance
on non-medical issues at best and be seen as very stupid at worst.
Write to the editor at
What is Science For?
Four experts offer their thoughts, as part of spiked's Einstein survey.
2005 - announced as Einstein Year - marks the centenary of the
publication of Albert Einstein's equation E = mc2. To mark this
occasion, spiked surveyed over 250 renowned scientists, science
communicators, and educators - including 11 Nobel laureates - to find
out what they would teach the world about science and why, if they
could pick just one thing.
At the London launch of the survey - at the Royal Institution on 10
May - we invited four of the survey respondents to offer their
thoughts on the question: 'What is science for?' Their answers are
linked to below:
Simon Singh - When spiked asked various folk which bit of science
they would most like to teach the world, there was one response that
was given over and over again: the scientific method. In other words,
it seems that scientists wanted to explain the nature of science to
non-scientists. So, what is science?....'
Colin Berry - 'The essence of the scientific method is a reluctance
to accept any hypothesis until compelled to; you might say that the
whole of experimental science is based on the idea that you must try
to disprove any idea you have. Like the mathematician Godel, you
should live on the basis that while "X" may be true, it is best to
consider it false despite the evidence in its favour so far....'
Tracey Brown - 'Science has a special authority. It is a way of
observing and understanding the world that transcends our
subjectivity, our policy preferences, prejudices and what we find
tasteful. This gives scientific understanding a privileged status in
Philip Ball - 'Gerard 't Hooft was right about the Einstein survey:
it is absurd to identify one single thing that everyone should know
about science. But he was wrong to imply that the survey was
worthless as a result. The point about such questions, as about lists
of "top tens", is not that they provide meaningful answers but that
they stimulate thinking about the topics to which they pertain....'
Read on full stories at http://www.spiked-online.com/articles/0000000CAB83.htm