Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org: August 18, 2005
* More crop for the drop
* Ending hunger in China
* Price increase sought for GM soy in Brazil
* GM junk fine; keep fruit free
* EU faces busy GMO timetable but no end to deadlock
* There's a gene in my soup
More crop for the drop
- Washington Times, By Henry I. Miller, August 17, 2005
The worst East Central U.S. drought in almost 20 years is decimating harvests of corn and soybeans, threatening farmers' economic survival and disrupting commercial shipping on several of the region's busiest waterways.
The dry spell, now in its fifth month, is scorching some of America's most productive farmland and draining tributaries that feed the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, critical routes for hauling goods to and from Midwestern cities. Low water levels exert a far-reaching ripple effect: Barge operators lighten their loads to keep vessels from scraping the bottom. This slows delivery of commodities such as salt, petroleum products and building materials, and could impede the movement this fall of newly harvested crops.
But droughts are just acts of God, about which nothing can be done, right? Wrong. Scientists might be able to provide a partial solution -- if federal policymakers permitted it.
Gene-splicing, sometimes called genetic modification (GM), offers plant breeders tools to make old crop plants do spectacular new things. In the United States and at least 17 other countries, farmers use gene-spliced crop varieties to produce higher yields, with lower inputs and reduced environmental effects. Despite the hampering of research by activists and governmental overregulation, gene-spliced crop varieties are slowly but surely trickling out the pipeline in a handful of countries.
Most of these new varieties are designed to be resistant to pests and diseases that ravage crops; or to be resistant to herbicides, so farmers can adopt more environment-friendly no-till farming practices and more benign herbicides. Others possess improved nutritional quality. But the greatest boon of all both to food security and to the environment, long term, may be the ability of new crop varieties to tolerate periods of drought and other water-related stresses.
Where water is unavailable for irrigation, developing crop varieties able to grow with low moisture or temporary drought could boost yields and lengthen farmland productive time.
Even where irrigation is feasible, plants that use water more efficiently are needed. Irrigation for agriculture accounts for roughly 70 percent of the world's fresh water consumption -- even more in areas of intensive farming and arid or semi-arid conditions -- so introducing plants that grow with less water would allow freeing up much of that essential resource for other uses. Especially during droughts, even a small percentage reduction of water used for irrigation could result in huge benefits, both economic and humanitarian.
Plant biologists have identified genes that regulate water utilization that can be transferred into important crop plants. These new varieties are able to grow with smaller amounts or lower-quality water, such as recycled water or water containing large amounts of natural mineral salts.
Aside from new varieties with lower water requirements, pest- and disease-resistant gene-spliced crop varieties also make water use more efficient indirectly. Much of the loss to insects and diseases occurs after the plants are fully grown -- that is, after most of the water required to grow a crop has been applied. Therefore, using gene-spliced varieties that experience lower post-harvest losses in yield means the farming (and irrigation) of fewer plants can produce the same amount of food. We get more crop for the drop.
Gene-splicing can conserve water in other ways. Salty soil is the enemy of agriculture: Fully one-third of irrigated land worldwide is unsuitable for growing crops because of the presence of salt, and every year nearly half a million acres of irrigated land worldwide is lost to cultivation.
Scientists at the University of California, Davis, have enhanced salt tolerance in crops as diverse as tomatoes and canola. The transformed plants are so tolerant to salt they not only grow in salty soil but can be irrigated with brackish water.
There are thorns on the rose, however. Unscientific, overly burdensome regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Agriculture Department and the United Nations' agencies has significantly raised the cost of producing new plant varieties and kept many potentially important crops from reaching the market. Several EU member countries have national bans on gene-spliced varieties, in clear violation of EU rules. The European Commission has repeatedly proven itself incapable of removing the barriers. Such policies chill U.S. farmers who export to the EU.
This discriminatory and excessive regulation -- which flies in the face of scientific consensus that gene-splicing is essentially an extension, or refinement, of earlier techniques for crop improvement -- adds millions of dollars to the development costs of each new gene-spliced crop variety. These extra costs, and the endless (and gratuitous) controversy about cultivating these precisely crafted and highly predictable varieties, discourage research and development.
Innovation has become too costly and risky. That is food for thought as the drought parches the American heartland.
Ending hunger in China
- Letter to The Lancet, by Indur Goklany
Your Editorial on ending hunger in China (May 21, p 1746)1 rightly notes that it is a common misconception that upping food production will eliminate hunger. But reducing food production by eschewing yield-enhancing genetically modified crops, as you apparently favour, will only make matters worse.
Basic economics tells us that if supply drops, prices will go up, more people will be priced out of the market, and even more of China's rural poor will go hungry.2 Lower prices also make it easier for governments (and philanthropies) to purchase food for distribution to the needy. In fact, lowering food prices by increasing food production is perhaps the surest method of increasing poor people's access to the food supplies they need. It is hardly surprising that the reduction in global hunger (in both absolute numbers and as a proportion of the global population) over the past half century has been accompanied by higher production and lower food prices (in inflation-adjusted terms).2,3
Another method of reducing hunger is to increase the purchasing power of the poor. Here, too, the bumper crops about which the Editorial is dubious will be a boon. Wealthier farmers will boost the economy of rural areas (where over 60% of China's population resides), which means more rural jobs, more people with greater purchasing power, and, therefore, less hunger.
You claim that China's approach, by which I presume you mean efforts to enhance production, 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. This is a statement of intent, not a practical programme. What is your approach for properly addressing these problems that have proved intractable for millennia, and for bringing these lofty intentions to fruition?
* The views expressed here are my own and not necessarily the US government's nor any of its units. I declare that I have no conflict of interest.
Office of Policy Analysis, US Department of the Interior, Washington, DC 20240, USA
1. The Lancet. "Biotech quick-fixes will not end hunger in China." Lancet2005;Â 365:Â 1746.Â Full Text | PDF (38 KB) | CrossRef
2. Goklany, IM. "Saving habitat and conserving biodiversity on a crowded planet." BioScience 1998;Â 48:Â 941-953
3. Goklany, IM. "The future of the industrial system." In: BourgÂ D and ErkmanÂ S, Editors, Perspectives on industrial ecology,Â Greenleaf Publishing, Sheffield Â (2003).Â In: BourgÂ D and ErkmanÂ S, Editors, Perspectives on industrial ecology,Â Greenleaf Publishing, Sheffield Â (2003).
Price increase sought for GM soy in Brazil
- Reuters, August 18, 2005, By Robert Derham
Brasília – As the use of genetically modified soy grows in Brazilian, so have the negotiations from agribusinesses to raise the seed prices.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, companies met with Brazilian farmers and officials to discuss seed prices for the use of genetically modified soy.
During the National Confederation of Agriculture (CNA) meetings, companies informed farmers and cooperatives they would like to receive R$ 0.88 ($1 = R$ 2.33) per kilogram from sales its genetically modified (GM) soybeans.
The purpose of the meetings was to reach an agreement on royalty payments for 2005/06 crop planting, but so far a solution is not in sight.
“We had planned to reach an agreement, but this still hasn’t happened,” said CNA vice-president Carlos Sperotto.
The offer from Monsanto was nothing new for Brazilian farmers. A similar price was suggested back in June and July of this year.
Commenting on the price increase, a Monsanto official told Reuters, "Given the gains that this technology has shown, it's a return of four times the amount invested by the farmer."
However, Carlos Sperotto, vice-president of the Brazilian Agriculture and Ranching Confederation told reporters, "Farmers want to pay when they have the beans in their hands, not before the harvest."
Due to a lack of government subsidies that many western countries enjoy, many Brazilian farmers are hesitant to pay a premium price out of fear from environmental elements such as drought and flooding, which would leave them empty handed.
However, Brazilian farmers do understand and appreciate the value of Roundup Ready soy. As of last year, negotiations led to a post-harvest royalty payment of two percent in some regions of Brazil.
Yet, farmers argue that a seed price increase would only encourage illegal black market trading of transgenic soy, because illegal seed prices could be obtained for about half the proposed price.
Black markets for GM soy flourish in many south American country, including Brazil. Estimates have pinned total harvest figures stemming from GM soy ranges to as high as 90 percent – much of which is harvested from illegal seeds.
Although Monsanto’s name attracts most of the attention during these ongoing negotiations with Brazil, revenue from a price increase would be shared across a field of companies that also have an invested interest.
Some of the interested Brazilian companies that stand to gain from a price increase are Embrapa, Coodetec and the Mato Grosso Foundation, which all have genetically engineered seed varieties and distribute them under license in Brazil.
Talks between Brazilian farmers and companies are expected to continue, with the hope that an agreement can be reached soon.
GM junk fine; keep fruit free
- Sydney Morning Herald, By Kirsty Needham, August 18, 2005
Genetically modified cakes and doughnuts do not scare consumers, but they baulk at the genetically modified rosy tomato, and are even suspicious of the seedless watermelon.
Public attitudes to genetically modified food are becoming increasingly complex, but are driven more by attitudes to food than gene technology, says Biotechnology Australia.
The government agency's manager of public awareness, Craig Cormick, said a survey had found that shoppers would eat GM junk food but did not like the idea of meddling with fresh fruit and vegetables. They were against genetic engineering by multinational corporations, but Australian technology attracted less resistance.
Modifying the genes of plants was seen as more acceptable than modifying animal genes.
"Consumers are becoming increasingly sophisticated. They want more and more complex information to help them make decisions," Mr Cormick said.
Australians remained split on the consumption of GM foods. Consumers concerned about pesticides and chemicals in their foods were also concerned about genetic modification. Those with few food concerns tend not to be worried about genetically modified food.
Mr Cormick attributed the misconceptions to the fact "more people live in metropolitan cities … and have no experience and little knowledge as to how food is actually produced".
"The ordinary consumer doesn't understand almost all food is produced using a lot of pesticide, herbicide and chemical inputs," he said.
Biotechnology Australia does consumer research to inform policy on genetic engineering.
The most common foods that are labelled as genetically modified are canola oil, soya, cottonseed oil, and doughnuts and cake icing using GM soy.
"There is not much resistance to GM in a doughnut," Mr Cormick said. "If someone is eating a doughnut they are less likely to be concerned."
The Parliamentary Secretary for Health, Christopher Pyne, said no genetically engineered food could be sold in Australia without being approved by Food Standards Australia. The authority has given the green light to 25 GM foods including corn, sugar beet, cotton, canola, soyabean and potato.
EU faces busy GMO timetable but no end to deadlock
- Reuters, By Jeremy Smith, Aug 17, 2005
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU governments face a slew of decisions in the next few months on whether to allow more imports of genetically modified (GMO) foods but nothing is expected that might break Europe's deadlock over biotechnology.
With EU institutions mostly closed in August, ministers and national experts will be asked to process a backlog of applications for new GMO approvals in four crammed months.
That doesn't necessarily mean they will be able to agree.
In fact, although the EU ended its six-year unofficial biotech ban in May 2004, the last time national governments could agree on authorising a new GMO product was back in 1998.
Since then, many meetings end in deadlock as "pro" and "anti" camps balance each other out and more and more countries sit on the fence, undecided on the benefits of biotech foods.
Three new GMO approvals have been issued since the ban ended, all by a European Commission rubberstamp -- a default process that kicks in when EU states repeatedly fail to agree.
Agriculture ministers will resume their monthly meetings from September, when they should discuss whether Greece should lift its ban on 17 types of a Monsanto GMO maize seed.
The pace may quicken in October as the Commission is keen to present several more GMOs for approval by the end of the year.
"October looks like it's going to be busier than September," one EU diplomat said. The month will probably start with a meeting of EU food safety experts, who will debate a similar GMO seed ban imposed by Poland and possibly another by Hungary.
October's ministerial meeting may also see voting on two Monsanto maize types: GA21, for use as a food processing ingredient, and MON 863, for use in food. Environment ministers may also debate another GMO maize approval that month.
And that's not all. The whole atmosphere on biotechnology could change in Brussels in early October due to the World Trade Organization's expected ruling on a case brought against EU biotech policy by the United States, Canada and Argentina.
NO END TO DEADLOCK
EU countries have ended meetings in deadlock 14 times in a row, either as ministers or national experts, on approving new GMOs usually for use in industrial processing or as animal feed. Consumer opinion has been overwhelmingly opposed to GMO foods.
Under the EU's complex weighted voting system, the EU-25 must achieve a majority to approve a new product or reject it.
If there is deadlock at national experts level, the dossier escalates to ministers -- and if they fail to agree after three months, the Commission may issue a default approval.
"It looks like it's going to be busy but the result will be the same. There will be no opinion," a Commission official said.
But the most controversial area is yet to come. So far, the Commission has shied away from asking member states to allow imports of more GMO crops for growing in Europe's fields.
Around six "live" GMOs are waiting for approval -- maize and rapeseed types, and a starch potato -- but no dates have been set for any meeting.
Diplomats say the Commission will probably not want to submit any of these to a vote before its agriculture department finishes a report on how EU states are dealing with coexistence -- or how farmers separate conventional, organic and GMO crops.
Fewer than half of EU states have proper coexistence laws despite reminders from the Commission to use its guidelines on separation distances and natural crop buffers like hedgerows.
The Commission's report is not expected until at the end of the year or, more likely, in early 2006.
In theory, it would provide the basis for a framework EU law on coexistence for governments to enact national laws on crop separation. But the Commission has been increasingly lukewarm in recent months on whether such a law will be drafted at all.
There's a gene in my soup
- technicianonline.com, by Elsa Youngsteadt
When did you last eat something fried in Crisco? When did you take a bite of meat, or shake a little soy sauce on your food? That moment is likely the last time you consumed a genetically modified organism.
The United States is the world's leading grower of genetically modified crops. In 2004, 85 percent of all soy and 45 percent of all corn acreage in the United States were planted with GM crops destined for direct consumption by Americans or the animals they eat, according to the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. The introduction of GM crops to world agriculture has fueled controversy over the benefits, safety and regulation of GM crops.
Why add a gene?
A GM organism is one that has been subjected to transformation, a process by which a gene from a different species is inserted into its genome. The inserted gene causes the species to build a protein it was previously unable to produce. The new protein may confer insecticidal properties, disease resistance, greater nutritional value, or ability to produce pharmaceuticals, to name a few.
According to Arthur Weissinger, a professor of Crop Science, there are three main motives for adding a gene to a crop.
One reason is to improve the agronomic performance of a crop. Roundup-Ready corn and soybeans are prime examples of GM crops with improved agronomic convenience, and account for the greatest percentage of GM crops grown in America today, Weissinger said. A genetic insert enables these plants to produce a protein that makes them resistant to the broad-spectrum herbicide Roundup (glyphosate), greatly simplifying the removal of weeds from crop fields.
A second motive for inserting a foreign gene into a plant variety is to modify its commodity quality, such as nutritional value or flavor. Although such strains have been developed, such as rice that produces extra vitamin A, they are not yet available commercially.
Finally, GM plants may be designed to produce proteins and chemicals for industry and pharmaceuticals, a process known as "pharming."
Pharming in North Carolina
Production of pharmaceuticals in GM plants is a focal area of Weissinger's research.
Weissinger and his colleagues have spent the past seven years working on a strain of tobacco that will produce a vaccine against Canine Oral Papillomavirus. COPV is a problem in beagles bred for medical research and is closely related to Human Papillomavirus, a cause of cervical cancer among women in developing countries, Weissinger said.
Papillomavirus vaccines are currently produced in insect cell culture, but this method is costly and limits production and distribution of the vaccine. If the vaccines could be produced on a larger scale in tobacco, they might be more available in poor countries where they are needed most, Weissinger said.
Weissinger's vaccine is currently being extracted from the experimental tobacco plants and is slated for clinical trials in dogs within a year.
The University also oversees a provocative pharming enterprise headed by the California-based biotech company Ventria.
Ventria designed a strain of rice that contains human genes for the proteins lactoferrin and lysozyme, which occur in mothers' milk and aid infants' digestion.
According to Ronnie Heiniger, extension specialist in crop science, the proteins are already ingredients in some baby formulas, but like the COPV vaccines, are produced in cell culture at a high cost that limits their availability. Ventria would harvest the proteins from GM rice and include them in more affordable nutritional supplements and baby formulas.
Before planting a 70 acre test plot near Plymouth, N.C., this spring, Ventria was turned away from California and Missouri because of concerns that food-grade rice might become contaminated with GM pharmaceutical rice.
According to Tom Hoban, professor of sociology and food science, public concern over GM crops escalated in response to two high-profile mixups.
In the late 1990s, StarLink corn, which contained an insecticidal protein and was approved only for animal consumption, turned up in Taco Bell taco shells. Then, in 2001, Prodigene corn containing a pig vaccine contaminated a crop of soybeans. In this case, the contaminated crop never reached the market, but the news did.
The University is trying to make sure this won't happen with Ventria rice.
Scientists from the University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Ventria have collaborated to establish protocols to prevent GM rice escape and to monitor their success.
"The clear thing is that we need to be cognizant of the potential dangers," Heiniger said. "But what better way to test it? It's hard to figure out where the downside is. The GM rice produces human milk proteins. No one is allergic to them. If there were contamination, the worst case scenario is that whoever ate it would be a little healthier."
Heiniger is optimistic about the prospects of Ventria rice, but maintains a sense of caution.
"If there is a problem with containment, now is the time to find out about it, before any more GM crops are released," Heiniger said. "North Carolina has stepped out in a leadership position here. We are willing to learn and develop systems for containment. In the future, when someone needs to contain a GM crop, we'll be the ones to come to because we've done it."
The government is keeping us safe, right?
GM crops are regulated differently at various stages of development and are regulated depending on their intended use, according to the U.S. Regulatory Agencies Unified Biotechnology Web site.
The USDA oversees the release of all GM plants, regardless of intended use, to minimize threats to agriculture or the environment. The USDA evaluation considers factors such as whether the crop could hybridize with a wild relative or whether its transgene came from a plant pathogen, but does not consider its safety for the end user.
If the GM crop produces a pesticide, the Environmental Protection Agency reviews the toxicology of the pesticide itself and sets limits for its concentration in foods, but does not test the safety of the pesticide-producing plant.
The Food and Drug Administration sets food safety standards that must be met by all new crop varieties, GM or conventional. However, additional testing for the safety of transgene products in the context of food plants is not required unless the FDA determines that the transgene product constitutes a food additive.
This mandatory review occurred only once, for the first commercial GM crop, the FlavrSavr tomato. No subsequent GM crop has been subjected to mandatory safety review by the FDA.
"Everyone is 'whistling in the dark' assuming that someone else is keeping the public safe," Hoban said. "Today the FDA has way too little authority."
However, increased regulation of GM foods could mean decreased attention to other health issues.
"The FDA believes there are more important risks than GM foods," Fred Gould, a professor of entomology, said. "The taxpayer always wants more safety, more regulation -- until it costs more. People don't take a look at the equation. If the FDA spends more on regulating GM crops, it will have to get more tax money, or it will have to cut back on something else that may be more important, like bacterial contamination of meat."
Gould also pointed out that crops produced by conventional breeding are not
necessarily safer than those containing genetic inserts.
"There are issues with conventional breeding too," Gould said. "A strain of potatoes had been bred for resistance to potato beetles, but the higher levels of toxic alkaloids in those potatoes made some people sick and they had to be pulled from the market. With conventional breeding, you may be bringing in a bunch of genes you know nothing about. It's a total black box. Issues with transgenics may actually be more predictable and more testable."
Gould has served on two committees formed by the National Academy of Sciences Research Council to evaluate the safety and containment of GM crops. The committee reports are targeted at congressional aids and other decision makers who need complete and unbiased information about GM crops.
"We stressed that we need to ask how [a GM crop] will impact the environment directly," Gould said. "But if we're going to have an answer 100 years from now about whether growing GM crops was really a good idea or not, it won't be based on direct effects. I don't think anybody's going to get poisoned. GM crops produce proteins, not carcinogens, not things that build up in the soil. It will be based on indirect effects."
For example, the availability of Roundup-Ready soy has made it more profitable to grow soy in the Amazon, Gould said. GM crops could change land-use decisions and accelerate the degradation of rain forest ecosystems, he added.
Hoban also pointed out that resistance to GM crops also comes from sociological rather than scientific problems.
"Food is about emotions and values," Hoban said.
Furthermore, consumers and food companies see little direct benefit from GM crops, because most commercial GM crops express traits for resistance to herbicides, disease or insects that benefit the farmers.
"It's unfortunate that Roundup-Ready was the first GM trait to be commercialized," Tom Isleib, a professor of crop science, said. "It's convenient for farmers, but it's not interesting to the consumer, like golden rice or lysine-enriched corn. If they had come out with something that made life better for the general public, there would have been better public relations."
Weissinger said he believes that the potential for humanitarian benefit of GM plants outweighs public relations problems and potential risks. He described GM crops simply as another part of agricultural technology.
"A lot of the issues are of ideological viewpoints, not science," Weissinger said. "In the last 10,000 years, we have not been consuming foods that are free of technical intervention. If we choose to eat only food produced without human intervention, we also get to choose which half of us dies."