Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org: August 23, 2005
* Top of the crops
* Pro-GM scientist to give TV lectures
* Forum touts benefits of genetically modified crops
* Britain's organic food scam exposed
* If you buy 'organic produce', can you trust what you get?
* Bird flu and outdoor chickens
Top of the crops
The world's population is expanding by 86 million a year - but GM rice can save us from famine
- The Guardian, by Johnjoe McFadden, August 23, 2005
While we in the west are preoccupied with cloning sheep, pigs, dogs and, of course, ourselves, scientists in the developing world are focused on an organism of far greater importance: rice. According to a Chinese saying, "the most precious things are not jade and pearls but the five grains". Earlier this month the genome of one of those five grains was laid bare when the complete genome sequence of rice was published in the journal Nature.
Rice is the staple food crop for 3 billion people, mostly in Asia. But most of those dependent on the crop still go hungry. About 800 million people don't have enough to eat, many of them children, and about 5 million will die of diseases related to malnutrition. And with the world's population increasing at a rate of about 86 million people a year, things could get a lot worse. It is estimated that rice production will have to increase by about 30% in the next 20 years to keep pace with population growth and economic development. Where is all the food going to come from?
There are two principal ways to boost food production: increasing the amount of land under cultivation or increasing yields. Until the 60s the favoured strategy was putting more land under the plough, resulting in the loss of much of the world's wilderness and native forest.
But in the 60s plant breeders such as Norman Borlaug pioneered a new strategy, increasing crop yields through a mixture of seed improvement and technological inputs: the green revolution. As crops of the new varieties were planted, first in Mexico and then throughout the world, particularly in Asia, harvests soared and have continued to rise at a rate of about 2% a year.
But the green revolution is grinding to a halt. There have been only small yield increases in recent years, and it is thought that rice grown on the most productive irrigated land has now achieved maximum production levels. The challenge for the future is to increase yields in more marginal lands, where much of the crop ends up in the bellies of insects or is devastated by drought or disease. Many scientists (including Borlaug) believe that the only way to provide food security for the world's poorest people is to genetically engineer crops that are more resistant to nature's ravages.
The potential value of GM crops was highlighted earlier this year with the publication of the results of a Chinese study that demonstrated a 10% increase in yield for farms that planted an insect-resistant GM variety of rice.
In a typically Chinese understatement, Professor Jikun Huang, the director of the Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said: "The performance of insect-resistant GM rice in trials has been impressive." Not only were yields up, but the use of pesticides dropped by 80% and farmers reported a dramatic reduction in pesticide-related health problems.
But inserting a single gene is just tinkering. What the rice genome project provides is a blueprint of the entire genome and the capability to engineer the crop to meet the needs of farmers throughout the world.
The rice genome was sequenced by the International Rice Genome Sequencing Project, a unique collaboration of researchers in Japan, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Korea, the US, Canada, France, India, Brazil, the Philippines and the UK. The project, with its insistence on making its data immediately available to scientists anywhere in the world at no cost, is a glowing example of one of the positive benefits of globalisation: internationally collaborative science that can benefit the entire world. Even before publication, researchers had already mined the rice genome data to identify novel genes.
Of course, many aid organisations - often heavily influenced by western green campaigns - have attacked the emphasis on GM technology, calling it a "technical fix" that does little to address the real social and economic causes of world poverty and hunger.
They said the same several decades ago when widespread famine was predicted to follow a population explosion. The population explosion materialised but the famine didn't. The reason was that while others argued for social reform, pioneering plant breeders launched the green revolution and saved millions from starvation. The Human Development Report 2001, commissioned by the United Nations development programme, concluded that "many developing countries might reap great benefits from genetically modified food crops and other organisms".
Some 1.2 million people live on less than one dollar a day, and that dollar usually buys rice. But the crop is prone to many diseases, pests and unpredictable climate change. Genetic engineering of crops to generate new varieties resistant to disease, pests, drought and salinity could revolutionise third-world farming. The release of the rice genome sequence places a powerful toolkit in the hands of researchers eager to improve crop yields.
· Johnjoe McFadden is professor of molecular genetics at the University of Surrey and author of Quantum Evolution
Pro-GM scientist to give TV lectures
- The Guardian, by John Vidal, August 23, 2005
One of Britain's most provocative scientists, who has been accused of protecting the biotech food industry and has dismissed organic produce as "an image-led fad", will give the televised BBC Christmas science lectures, which are aimed at children and young adults.
Professor Sir John Krebs, who was appointed by the government in 2000 to be the first head of the independent Food Standards Agency, will devote the Royal Institution lectures to the subject of food. On past record, say his critics, he can be expected to argue strongly for biotechnology and advanced technologies to feed growing populations.
According to the Royal Institution, the now-retired Sir John "will ask whether new farming methods such as genetically modified crops will be the solution, or whether we will all have to become vegetarians". He will also consider the question: "Will the future bring us the chocolate bar that treats heart disease or the mood-enhancing potato crisp?"
Sir John, a distinguished ecologist who specialises in bird behaviour, made some enemies while at the FSA, endorsing GM foods at the start of his term and later claiming that there was no evidence that organic food was better than conventional food. He has accused GM sceptics of being "shrill, often ill-informed and dogma-driven".
His critics now fear he will use the influential Christmas lecture platform to promote his own beliefs. "Sir John has always gone out of his way to promote GM and attack organic foods. Children deserve to get a balanced message. We are sick and tired of being told by government and some scientists that GM food is necessary and the only way to avoid starvation", said Pete Riley, head of GM Freeze, which represents more than 120 British consumer and environment groups.
The Royal Institution, one of the pillars of the British scientific research establishment, specialises in the communication of scientific ideas and regards the prime-time televised lectures as some of its most important events of the year. In the past they have been strictly above politics.
"There is no intention to be political or controversial," said a spokeswoman yesterday. "He was chosen from a number of other scientists. It just happened that he wanted to talk about the future of food. The lectures have not been written yet. When they are, they will be looked at and considered. We would not allow anyone to say just anything," she said.
Lord Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association, which certifies organic food and has a record of opposing GM, said: "My impression is that most kids are pretty repulsed about messing about with nature and that he will have a harder time persuading them that GM food is good than he had with Mr Blair. We live in hope that he's learned from the drubbing he got from the review of the FSA done by Baroness Dean".
Baroness Dean's review concluded that the FSA under Sir John had not fulfilled its criteria for being scientifically impartial when considering both organic and GM goods. "The vast majority of people consulted felt that the FSA had deviated from its normal stance of making statements based solely on scientific evidence. This view was expressed not only by stakeholders representing organic and GM interest groups, but by those who would be regarded as supporters and natural allies of the agency", it said.
Sir John was unavailable for comment yesterday.
Forum touts benefits of genetically modified crops
- The Associated Press, 08/22/2005
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- Genetically modified crops don't hurt humans. In fact, they can help.
That was the message from five University of Nebraska researchers and professors who spoke at a citizen's forum on Saturday.
Stephen Baenziger, UNL agronomy and horticulture professor, said misleading information in the public domain about risks often drowns out the positives of genetically modified crops, such as reducing the need for pesticides and adding vitamins and minerals.
"They don't talk about the benefits," he said.
Michael Fromm, director for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Center for Biotechnology, said there are no known cases of anyone becoming ill from eating products made with genetically modified crops.
"It's one thing to worry about it, but it helps to put it against that fact," Fromm said. "The record is actually perfect."
The citizen forum was sponsored by Leadership Lincoln and the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center. Some 50 randomly selected Lincoln and Lancaster County residents participated.
About 60 percent of the total acres of corn and 92 percent of soybeans planted last year in Nebraska were genetically modified, according to the policy center. In 2003, genetically modified crops accounted for 25 percent of the cultivated acreage worldwide.
Jerry Minchow, a producer who participated in the forum, said he already knew the crops were safe. He said raising crops genetically modified to be resistant to insects means he doesn't have to use pesticides that contaminate water or pose dangers to people.
"This helps me and helps the environment," he said.
Genetically modified plants have gone through more rigorous testing than nonmodified foods, said Professor Anne Vidaver, who heads the UNL Department of Plant Pathology.
Because a person's body breaks down foods, any problems would happen quickly, not long-term, Fromm said.
The panelists said labeling genetically modified food would be costly to manufacturers and consumers, and it also would be unnecessary.
"Is it worth it to label something that's inherently safe?" Baenziger said.
Britain's organic food scam exposed
The Observer, by Jamie Doward, Mark Townsend and Andrew Wander, Sunday August 21, 2005
Britain's organic food revolution was facing its first serious test last night after an Observer investigation revealed disturbing levels of fraud within the industry.
Farmers, retailers and food inspectors have disclosed a catalogue of malpractice, including producers falsely passing off food as organic and retailers failing to gain accreditation from independent inspectors. The findings raise concerns that consumers paying high premiums for organic food are being ripped off.
The revelations follow what is believed to have been the UK's first concerted investigation into organic food fraud by trading standards officers. An inquiry for Richmond council, in south-west London, exposed a number of retailers wrongly selling food as organic. Two traders were prosecuted earlier this month as a result of the investigation.
Stephen Sains, a butcher in Richmond, was fined more than £6,000 for falsely labelling food. Andrew Portch, a Somerset farmer, was fined more than £3,000 for food labelling offences and using organic certification without the right accreditation. Portch's firm declined to comment. Sains said he was changing his labelling.
Trading standards teams across the UK told The Observer they were aware consumers' concerns about fraud were increasing. 'As organic food increases in popularity, more people are going to take advantage,' said David Pickering of the Trading Standards Institute.
Norfolk council's trading standards department said it had investigated a number of people over the production and marketing of organic food in recent years. 'It's certainly an area open to exploitation. People see organic food as a way to make a few quick bob,' a spokesman said.
Earlier this year, Dorset council launched a clampdown on fraud within the organic food industry which has grown chiefly thanks to a rise in the number of farmers' markets and home delivery 'box schemes'.
But, despite the concerns, trading standards officers said few resources were being devoted to tackling the growing problem.
'The term organic is clearly being abused, by both producers and sellers. Not many local authorities have the resources to test the integrity of organic food,' said Dr Yunes Teinaz, principal environmental health officer at Hackney Borough Council.
Figures from market research agency Mintel suggest three out of four households now buy some organic food and environmental groups said fraudulent activity within the industry must be stamped out for the sake of customers and legitimate farmers.
'It is not right consumers are paying over the odds because of fraudsters,' said Vicki Hird, Friends of the Earth's food campaigner.
'These people are causing economic damage to other businesses who are playing by the rules,' said Jenny Morris of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.
There are fears an increasing amount of 'organic' food is coming in from overseas making it difficult to establish its provenance.
'There are no tests for proving food is organic,' Morris said. 'So it comes down to traceability, you have to follow a paper trail.'
If you buy 'organic produce', can you trust what you get?
Grocers falsely labelling food, farmers secretly spraying crops with pesticides by night - the food industry's new boom sector can leave a nasty taste in the mouth
- The Observer, by Jamie Doward and Andrew Wander, August 21, 2005
The countryside had come to the city. There were juicy marrows, sun-kissed tomatoes and succulent plums; there were sumptuous home-made quiches and bulging pasties; there were gallons of olive oil and balsamic vinegar waiting to be decanted. As customers wandered around a farmers' market in Hackney, east London, yesterday, some of the busiest stalls were those selling organic cheeses and meats, behind which stood backdrops displaying pictures of contented-looking sheep and cattle grazing on lush grass.
Demand for meat and vegetables produced in healthy, humane conditions, which are free of pesticides, additives and other chemical nasties, is soaring, with the result that the organic food industry is a multi-million-pound business. Latest figures show it is worth £1.12 billion a year in the UK, a tenfold increase on eight years ago. Sales are currently growing by £2 million a week.
Despite this growth it is still a fledgling industry accounting for just over 1 per cent of all food sales in the UK. But it represents a 'win-win' situation for all involved. Consumers feel better about what they are eating, while organic farmers are able to command hefty premiums at a time when many selling conventional produce are going out of business, their margins squeezed to extinction by the supermarket chains.
As a nation, our love of farmers' markets is ever-growing. Across the country, every weekend people have been travelling in their thousands, from Hackney to Hampshire to north of Hadrian's Wall, to buy produce fresh from the farmers themselves.
And then came the worrying case of the honey roast ham. And the lamb and mint sausages. And the dry-cured streaky bacon. And the English lambs' liver, calves' liver, free range chicken breasts and fillet steaks. In fact, large quantities of the meat Stephen Sains was selling in his shop, Organic World, in the affluent borough of Richmond in south-west London, was not organic at all.
Earlier this month, in what is believed to have been the first case of its kind in the UK, Sains pleaded guilty to breaching the European Union's hitherto obscure Organic Products Regulations, which threaten steep fines for those mislabelling food to suggest it is organic. The prosecution is thought to be only the first step in a long journey: trading standards officers across the country are now expressing concern that traders are passing off non-organic products at a healthy mark-up.
The EU's increasingly byzantine legislation governing the sale of organic food - a small army of technocrats is now employed to oversee the industry - is a sign Brussels is starting to take the threat of fraud within the industry seriously. But, until Sains, no retailer had been prosecuted for wrongly labelling conventional food 'organic' under the regulations.
'I had no intention to mislead the public. I'm now changing my labelling so there'll be no confusion,' Sains said on Friday. He was fined £6,020 and ordered to find a new name for his shop which is fronted by a glass window proclaiming an engraved motto: 'Purity, quality, welfare'.
Sains, who plans to rename his shop The Real Butcher, was rumbled only because environmental health officers conducted a spot hygiene check on his shop, part of the burgeoning organic food scene in Richmond, which boasts three farmers' markets, two more in the pipeline and scores of home delivery 'box' schemes.
The officers traced Sains's meat suppliers and established it had not come from organic producers as the public would have believed from the Organic World labelling.
It is a story that might have merited a few paragraphs in the local paper had it just stopped there. But Michael Eade, one of Richmond's senior environmental health officers, had a thought. 'If this guy's getting away with it, who else is?' Eade told The Observer
FULL ARTICLE AT:
From: "Alex Avery"
Subject: RE: Bird flu and outdoor chickens
Date: Mon, 22 Aug 2005 16:08:23 -0400
Last November, the European Food Safety Authority's Animal welfare and health committee deemed that the yet-to-be-enacted ban on caged egg layers would result in increased disease, cannibalism, and animal welfare problems, not to mention a cost to European producers in excess of $300 Euros.
Report available here: http://www.efsa.eu.int/science/ahaw/ahaw_opinions/831/lh_opinion1.pdf
Combined with the WHO desperately trying to get Asian governments to ban backyard poultry flocks (and pig herds, too) for animal and human health protection -- the risks from free-range poultry should be known far and wide. We all need to remind people of this now well-established reality.
Director of Research Center for Global Food Issues, Hudson Institute
PO Box 202,
Churchville, VA 24421
(540) 337-6354, or -6387
From: Dr. Tom DeGregori [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: Monday, August 22, 2005 12:04 PM
Subject: Bird flu and outdoor chickens
News Item on the BBC: Dutch to shield poultry from flu: The Netherlands is banning farmers from keeping fowl outdoors to try to prevent the spread of bird flu.
Comment: On previous postings on AgBioView including several by me, it has been noted that chickens raised out doors ("free range" and/or "organic") have a higher incidence of salmonella infestation and dioxin contamination which extends to their eggs. Poultry specialists have long argued that chickens raised outdoors are in contact with a number of disease vectors and more likely to contact a variety of contagious maladies. And the media have long noted that our annual influenza epidemics arise in Asia where bird flu of various types jumps from poultry (or other livestock) to humans triggering an epidemic. Yet all one reads in the media is about in the popular press concerns the alleged disease dangers of caged chickens.
Question: Will the media other than the BBC pick-up on this story? And will any of them, including the BBC note the implications for the safety of "free-range" chickens?
Question: Would the media response be different if the banning to protect against bird flu had been caged chickens? Most of us on this list believe that the answer is yes in that the NGOs and other anti- everything groups would agitate to deem it a scandal of modern agriculture. We have too long observed the heated media feeding frenzy over non-existent harm from GM foods.
Suggestion: If your food writers are like the ones in my local newspaper that often tout "organic" and "free-range" as the healthy, environmentally benign alternative to "industrial" agriculture, you might wish to send them the BBC article and some of the above comments. Feel free to use any of the above as you see fit.
Dutch to shield poultry from flu
- BBC News, 22 August 2005
The Netherlands is banning farmers from keeping fowl outdoors to try to prevent the spread of bird flu.
Authorities fear the poultry could be infected through contact with birds migrating from Russia, where a strain of the virus has been found.
The strain is currently not believed to spread between humans - but there are fears that the virus could mutate to a more dangerous form.
EU veterinary experts are to meet this week to discuss the emergency move.
Germany has said it may adopt similar precautions.
Commercial and health fears
From Monday in the Netherlands, five million free range chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys and other birds will have to be kept indoors - along with 80 million battery birds that are already under a roof.
The country is one of the world's biggest meat exporters.
The country had to cull about a quarter of its poultry after an outbreak of bird flu two years ago.
Correspondents say the government fears that a fresh outbreak of bird flu could hurt the commercial poultry badly.
The Dutch decision follows recent reports from the Russian government that a strain of bird flu is moving westward - and is likely to reach Europe.
The strain found in the Altai, Novosibirsk and Omsk regions has been identified as H5N1 - the type that has killed at least 57 people in South-East Asia since 2003.
There are fears of a global pandemic stemming from the H5N1 type, if it mutates into a form which could spread easily from human to human.
Story from BBC NEWS:
eparation which can make it assuredly safe. However, it is still valid to mention the difference because various groups keep raising the alleged greater disease potential of caged chickens.
Had the actual findings of various studies been the reverse and caged chickens found to have a much higher potential for Salomonella contamination, we would never hear the end of it. And to the extent that there should be concern about dioxin, the difference in dioxin levels between the "free-range" chickens and their eggs, becomes important as preparation would not eliminate the differance.