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Date:

September 20, 2005

Subject:

French Farmer Sees the Light; Guardian's Katrina Vitriol; Ending Global Poverty; Copper Sulfate; GM Ban Affects Exports; Wambugu

 

Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : September 20, 2005

* French Maize Farmer Sees More GMO Converts
* Standing Up
* Can We End Global Poverty?
* Despite Resistance, Genetically Altered Crops Are Growing Fast
* GMOs Can Benefit the Farmer, Society and the Environment
* Copper Sulfate - A Persistent Metallic Pollutant
* Ban On GM Crops to Eat Into Export Markets
* Benefits are Clear, But Risks Unproven

---
French Maize Farmer Sees More GMO Converts

- Muriel Boselli, Planet Ark, September 20, 2005
http://www.planetark.com/dailynewsstory.cfm/newsid/32573/story.htm

Paris - When Pierre, a 50-year-old French maize farmer, was offered
the chance to grow his first genetically-modified (GMO) crops, he
jumped at the chance and predicts many others will soon follow suit.

Such is the sensitivity surrounding GMOs in a country where test
fields of GMO maize and rapeseed are regularly ripped up, Pierre told
only his family and the local mayor of his plans. "Before I decided
to grow GMO maize there was a lot of debate in my family," the farmer
in southwest France told Reuters by telephone, declining to give his
full name.

With around 50 hectares sown to conventional maize, Pierre decided to
take part in a programme organised by France's maize growers
association (AGPM) to study the effects of growing traditional and
GMO varieties side-by-side. "When I heard that the AGPM was looking
for volunteers to carry out the experiments, I jumped straight for
it," he said.

He agreed to grow one hectare of GMO maize, which although part of an
experiment, will be sold commercially to the animal feed industry in
Spain, where GMOs are widely grown and used by feed compounders. He
said he expected more French farmers to start taking on new maize
types soon. "Each time farmers try out GM crops, they really see the
benefits," he said.

Legal Vacuum
Pierre is one of around 40 to 50 maize growers in the region, who
declared commercial GMO plantings of some 500 hectares. The maize was
one of the varieties approved by the European Commission before its
unofficial moratorium on new authorisations came into effect in 1998.

Although the moratorium was lifted last year, no new strains have yet
been approved for commercial growing. In or before 1998, approval was
given for 18 biotech plants, including maize, rapeseed, chicory and
soybeans.

Some, like Pierre, are part of the AGPM programme, others are just
growing it commercially. But the precise number of farmers who have
opted for gene-spliced crops is difficult to pin down because of a
legal vaccum in France, which means farmers are not yet legally
obliged to declare the new strains.

The government is planning legislation soon that will force farmers
to declare such sowings in the future. Pierre admits he did not
divulge his plant to his neighbour, who grows conventional maize 100
metres from his GMO plants.

News that France had begun growing small amounts of GMO maize
commercially came as a shock to many in the country and made
front-page news in national newspapers. Most people thought plantings
were restricted to government-sponsored test fields.

Less Insecticides, Lower Costs
Pierre said that one of his main motivations was to prove that
traditional and GMO varieties of maize could co-exist without
cross-pollination or contamination. "The test results show there is
less than 0.9 percent of GMO contamination in the conventional maize
plants which are growing 25 metres away from the GMO crops" he said.

Lower costs were also a reason, he added. "I decided to sow one
hectare of GM maize of the bt variety to save money on spraying
insecticides," he said, adding that the lower chemical usage also
helped protect the environment. "This time I was given the seeds by
the AGPM but if they are not too expensive I am prepared to sow up to
35 hectares of GMO maize on my 50 hectares," he added.

"However, public opinion needs to change before we can really start
using genetically modified maize because it's one thing to grow them
but it's another to find commercial outlets for it," he added. He
said that while many farmers were eagerly awaiting new strains of
maize to be approved by the European Commission, he accepted why
authorities and the public had to be cautious. "I understand the
European Commission's slowness and it's completely normal that
consumers hold so much power," he said.

**********************************************

Standing Up

- Dean Kleckner, Truth About Trade & Technology
http://www.truthabouttrade.org/

Just when you thought the enemies of biotechnology couldn't sink any
lower, they somehow manage to explore new depths of depravity.

Consider the case of John Vidal, the environmental editor of The
Guardian, an influential British newspaper. In a column earlier this
month, he described what he called Hurricane Katrina's "silver
lining."

Not that you need a refresher, but let's keep in mind a few grim
facts as we turn to Mr. Vidal's fond remembrance of the most
devastating natural disaster in American history: hundreds and maybe
thousands of people are dead; hundreds of thousands are destitute;
one of America's great cities may never recover; government at all
levels responded poorly to a crisis that was not wholly unforeseen;
people who have never set foot on Bourbon Street are feeling the
economic pinch, from motorists pumping gas to farmers trying to sell
their crops.

Maybe it's true, as the saying goes, that every cloud has a silver
lining. Certainly the individual acts of heroism and kindness offer a
ray of hope. But if there's a silver lining to Hurricane Katrina,
right now it's a dim and tarnished silver that's barely visible
against the awesome blackness of incomprehensible devastation.

So what good news does Mr. Vidal perceive amid the wreckage? Does he
hope that maybe Americans in another coastal city will pay more heed
when they're advised to evacuate? Or does he think that perhaps
local, state, and federal officials will learn some hard lessons and
be better prepared in the aftermath of another catastrophe?

Nope. Instead, he's encouraged by the prospect that Americans will
suffer even more than they already have.

In an item headlined "Silver lining,"and published on September 7,
here's what the environmental editor of The Guardian wrote: "Whatever
Hurricane Katrina's long-term effect on the way America thinks about
global warming and oil dependency, it is probably going to make GM
animal feed more expensive in Europe. Almost all U.S. maize and soya
goes through New Orleans and the port of Destrehan, and nothing is
expected out for some time because of silting in the Mississippi.
This should cheer up anti-GM activists in Britain who have been
trying to persuade supermarkets to stick with non-GM supplies and not
to accept produce that has been given GM feed."

I'm astonished that the effects of Hurricane Katrina could "cheer up" anybody.

Or maybe I shouldn't be so surprised. There are many America-haters
in the world, and we've seen how depressingly far their loathing can
take them. I just didn't expect to see this sentiment expressed on
the pages of one of Britain's leading newspapers.

Mr. Vidal's words are a full-frontal attack on American agriculture.
Although we're still calculating the damage, conservative estimates
say that the hurricane will cost farmers $1 billion in direct costs
(crop and livestock losses) and another $1 billion in other costs
(the spike in gas prices, increased shipping rates).

Our thoughts and prayers remain with Gulf Coast farmers who bore the
brunt of the storm. Those of us who live upriver from them along the
Mississippi and its tributaries are feeling the effects of falling
commodity prices. Traditionally, more than 60 percent of the corn and
soybeans slated for export have traveled through New Orleans. About
half of our corn and virtually all of our soybeans are genetically
enhanced--and these are the crops that Mr. Vidal and his friends
can't abide.

In the past, I've made clear my disagreements with anti-biotech
activists, especially those who are having such an unhealthy effect
on public attitudes in Europe. I've spoken sharply about the economic
and moral consequences of their rhetoric and actions, and I will
continue to do so.

But never have I wished them personal ill will. And if a hurricane
were to destroy Mr. Vidal's home tomorrow, you wouldn't find me
writing a column about any "silver lining."

Perhaps there's nothing we can do about the vitriol of certain
anti-biotech activists. They're zealots, impervious to rational
debate and scientific evidence.

But we also shouldn't remain silent when they give voice to cruel
wishes. I therefore encourage my readers to contact The Guardian
themselves and tell the newspaper exactly what you think about its
environmental editor's "silver lining." The appropriate email address
is [reader@guardian.co.uk].

---
Dean Kleckner is an Iowa farmer and past president of the American
Farm Bureau. He chairs Truth About Trade and Technology
(www.truthabouttrade.org) a national non-profit based in Des Moines,
IA, formed and led by farmers in support of freer trade and
advancements in biotechnology.

**********************************************

Can We End Global Poverty?

- Speaker: Jeffrey D. Sachs, Director, Earth Institute, Columbia
University; author, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for
Our Time Presider: John Cassidy staff writer, The New Yorker June 14,
2005 (Council on Foreign Relations, New York, NY)

Excerpt below. Full article at
http://www.cfr.org/publication/8224/can_we_end_global_poverty.html?jsessionid=ef5814161e16d6ad4a896a8014fdf213

JOHN CASSIDY: Hi. I'm John Cassidy from the New Yorker. This is
Professor Jeffrey Sachs from Columbia and many other
places......Jeffrey, as TIME magazine said many years ago, is
probably the best-known economist in the world. I first came across
him when I was an undergraduate. One of the great things about
Jeffrey is he's always been interested in the big sort of
political-economic issues.

QUESTIONER: Jeffrey, Peter Ackerman. Your take on the debate between
the United States and Europe over genetically modified crops and its
impact?

SACHS: Yeah. This GMO [genetically modified organisms] issue is the
easiest of all, which is the GMOs are an important technology. And
they need to be used with appropriate environmental scrutiny, for
sure, but they're very important for development because they have
this huge benefit that all the technology comes packaged in the seed.
And you can do a lot of wonderful things. You can upgrade the
nutrients of rice with Vitamin A.

You can increase the amino acid content, add the critical amino acid
to maize. You can put in, of course, a pest-resistant to avoid the
use of herbicides. And what seems to be very promising right now is
that you can probably modify crucial food crops to be
drought-resistant. And that could be one of the greatest scientific
breakthroughs of the next couple of decades.

There are two main issues. One is environmental safety, which I think
is greatly exaggerated. But it is an important issue. And the other
issue is property rights and ownership. And there is a matter of
truth to the fact that if you develop high technologies under patent
without provision for the poorest of the poor, the technologies won't
reach the poorest of the poor. And that's what happened with
anti-retroviral medicines. You have to go into this with an escape
valve that companies that are making these products are going to make
money in the high income markets, but they're going to somehow make
the science available for the poorest people in the world, not under
patent protection. And that kind of market segmentation is feasible
and important. It's what we've done with anti-retrovirals, finally.
And it should be done with the GMOs.

And what's happened is, of course, a firestorm for all sorts of
reasons--partly protectionism, partly European opposition, partly
some environmentalists exaggerating the risks--in my opinion--and
partly the firestorm over intellectual property rights.

And what I caution on this whenever I speak about this is, "Keep the
technology issue separate from the environment issue, separate from
the IPR [intellectual property rights] issue."There are three
different issues. And be systematic in your thinking.

The technology is very powerful; never dismiss a powerful technology.
But think systematically about its regulatory needs and its equity
needs. And then I think you can have a very powerful result from this.

**********************************************

Despite Resistance, Genetically Altered Crops Are Growing Fast

- William Pack, San Antonio Express-News, Sept. 19, 2005
http://www.mysanantonio.com/

Gonzales-area farmer Brian Fink puts little stock in the complaints
of those who view genetically altered crops as frightful
"Frankenfoods" that could devastate the environment and even threaten
human health.

Corn that was genetically modified to withstand spraying by the
commercial weed killer Roundup is actually easier and less costly to
grow, Fink said. It may even help the environment, he said, because
fewer weed killer applications are needed. "We've gotten good
results," said Fink, who has converted all 1,400 acres of his corn to
the Roundup Ready variety.

He believes the vast majority of his neighbors have planted the same
variety of corn, which would place Gonzales-area farmers in the
middle of a debate over a young, expanding and controversial industry.

Proponents believe that through the bioengineering of plants, farmers
can become more efficient, more nutritional foods can be produced,
and cheaper pharmaceutical ingredients can be developed.

To critics, however, the now-$5 billion industry has grown too
rapidly without a full understanding of the problems bioengineered
plants pose to human health and the environment. The dangers will
only grow, they say, if crops are widely used as incubators of
miracle drugs. "People instinctively understand that's a bad idea,"
said Craig Culp, spokesman for the Center for Food Safety, a
nonprofit organization that advocates "sustainable" food production
techniques.

Farmers have vigorously embraced the new products. The amount of
worldwide acreage devoted to biotech crops has grown from 7 million
in 1996, when such crops were introduced, to about 200 million last
year. U.S. farmers have been on the cutting edge. An International
Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications study said
American farmers planted more than 117 million acres of biotech crops
in 2004, or 59 percent of the global total.

"We've seen super-rapid adoption of this technology," said Andy
Vestal, an associate professor with the Texas Cooperative Extension
Service at Texas A&M University. "It's unprecedented, even compared
to the adoption of hybrid corn" in the 1930s.

Corn, cotton, soybeans and to a lesser extent canola have been
affected most, officials say. Estimates from the U.S. Department of
Agriculture demonstrate how far the wave has reached since 2000:
* The nation's genetically altered soybean crop has grown from 54
percent of the total to 87 percent today.
* Altered corn seeds have expanded from 25 percent to 52 percent of the crop.
* Upland cotton plantings have gone from 61 percent to 79 percent. In
Texas, the share has swelled from 46 percent to 63 percent.

Biotech crops have not produced substantially higher yields, but they
have reduced production costs, said Travis Miller, extension program
leader for soil and crop sciences at Texas A&M University. The
average South Texas grower saves $30 to $35 an acre, he said, because
the modified plants do not require as much weed or pest control as
the original plants.

So far, about a dozen plants have been cleared for gene implants that
are intended largely to improve farming and crop yields. Officials
said the current generation of bioengineered plants consists almost
entirely of crops that were given genes that made them resistant to
pests or herbicides.

Though much of the genetically altered crop total is grown as feed
for animals, a portion also enters the human food chain, particularly
in processed foods. Surveys estimate that 60 percent to 70 percent of
the food on grocery shelves contains at least a portion of a crop
that has been genetically modified.

As a result, the biotech crop industry is concerned that consumers
accept their products. In Europe, Japan and some other countries,
public opposition to genetically engineered crops has restricted
markets to U.S. exports. Foreign populations generally are
better-informed about the reach of the modified food products and
probably trust their regulatory agencies less, officials said.

U.S. food manufacturers, in most instances, are not required to list
on ingredient labels that a portion of the product came from a
genetically altered crop. That's because those ingredients are
considered substantially similar to the unaltered products.

The biggest threat is the possibility of serious allergic reactions
to the new gene implants. Numerous observers are calling for greater
public inquiry and debate as corporations move toward developing
pharmaceutical products and other nonfood items through bioengineered
crops.

Reggie James, director of the Consumers Union Southwest office, said
his organization contends that those types of chemicals should not be
produced in crops used for food. Nonfood crops could be used for such
purposes, he said, but only if they are grown indoors where
cross-pollination of other crops is not possible. "We know there will
be an accident," James said.

A&M's Miller said he agrees the new generation of bioengineered crops
must be closely monitored and well-isolated from other crops. But
given the lessons learned from contamination incidents in the past,
he expects regulatory agencies will proceed cautiously.

**********************************************

GMOs Can Benefit the Farmer, Society and the Environment

- Eddy Dykerman The Guardian (Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island;
Canada), Sept. 19, 2005

Re: 'Farmers divided on planting GM crops' (The Guardian, Sept. 15, 2005).

The Standing Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Environment
started hearing from presenters in February of this year on the issue
of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) and their production on P.E.I.

We have listened with interest from many environmentalists who warn
about the dangers of GMOs and urge farmers to reject this technology
and go back to a simpler way of farming. While it may be nostalgic to
consider going back to the small mixed farms of days past - this is
unrealistic. Fewer farmers today are feeding a nation that is
increasingly urban oriented. The technological advances that farmers
are adopting are making our food supply safer and more abundant.

Environmental groups like Greenpeace have warned the legislative
standing committee that GMO technology has yet to be proven safe for
humans and the environment and that co-existence between organic,
non-GMO and GMO crops is impossible. The fact of the matter is that
despite the advent and growth of biotech crops in the last 10 years,
organic acreage has also grown by leaps and bounds in Canada. All the
facts point to co-existence working. GMOs undergo rigorous testing
before being approved by the CanadianU Food Inspection Agency and
Health Canada. Independent scientific organizations, like the World
Health Organization, have conducted extensive studies over the last
15 years into GMOs and have found no negative health impacts while
noting that GMOs provide significant health and environmental
benefits.

In terms of the environment, the benefits of GMO technology are
clear. The growing of GMO crops generally result in a reduction of
chemical inputs and allow the adoption of low and zero tillage
systems. Most importantly, GMO technology allows more yield from less
and less land. This allows for increased land-use efficiency and
offers added benefits for biodiversity. The less land that is
required to grow our food, the more that can be retained as forest
and wilderness where biodiversity can flourish.

Environmentalists continue to invoke the so-called 'precautionary
principle' as an argument for banning GMO technology. Does this mean
that we stop learning and applying new technologies in society? No
technology is infallible; however, we work to manage risks with the
tools available to us at the time. Life is not without risks; if we
only moved forward with 100 per cent certainty our society would be
at a standstill.

The real question is whether the risks of pursuing genetic
modification are greater or less than the risks of not pursuing it.
To us the choice is clear - GMOs can be a benefit for farmers,
society and the environment.

As stewards of the land, Island farmers have decades of experience
working with our neighbours and living in harmony. With the proper
management practices - buffer zones, segregating harvested crops,
co-ordinating planting dates with neighbours - there is no issue in
biotech, conventional and organic production methods being practised
side by side.
--
Eddy Dykerman is president of the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture.

**********************************************

Copper Sulfate - A Persistent Metallic Pollutant

- Thomas R. DeGregori, Professor of Economics, University of Houston

For the past decade anti-biotechnology NGOs have been propagating
fears that some transgenic plants might lead to the emergence of
bacterial resistance to critical antibiotics which would render them
medically useless and leave humans more vulnerable to serious harm if
not death from bacterial infection.. Thus far, there has been no
evidence to warrant such fears. In addition, biotechnologists have
responded to the concerns in producing new varieties of transgenic
plants.

Needless to say, old fears never die nor do they even fade away as
the drumbeat of fears of antibiotic resistance in bacteria resulting
from transgenic plants continues. Recent studies have found the
emergence of antibiotic resistance in bacteria resulting from the use
of pesticides. However, in this case, it is the all natural pesticide
copper sulphate approved for use in organic agriculture. The studies
and or reports have been out for a couple of months now but to the
best of my knowledge our intrepid defenders of modern antibiotics do
not seem to have noticed.

One study found that "Copper amendment of agricultural soil selects
for bacterial antibiotic resistance in the field." (Berg, J.; A. Tom
Petersen, and O. Nybroe. 2005. Copper amendment of agricultural soil
selects for bacterial antibiotic resistance in the field, Letters in
Applied Microbiology 40(2):146-151)

"Aims: The objective of this study was to determine whether Cu
amendment of field plots affects the frequency of Cu resistance, and
antibiotic resistance patterns in indigenous soil bacteria. Methods
and Results: Soil bacteria were isolated from untreated and Cu
amended field plots. Cu amendment significantly increased the
frequency of Cu resistant isolates. ... Furthermore, Cu resistant
Gram negative isolates from Cu contaminated plots had significantly
higher incidence of resistance to chloramphenicol and multiple
antibiotics than corresponding isolates from control plots."

"The results of this field experiment show that introduction of Cu to
agricultural soil selects for Cu resistance, but also indirectly
selects for antibiotic resistance in the Cu resistant bacteria.
Hence, the widespread accumulation of Cu in agricultural soils
worldwide could have a significant effect on the environmental
selection of antibiotic resistance."

In another report, Bernard Dixon writes that "while curbs on
antibiotic usage (in some countries) are lowering the burden of
bacterial drug resistance, a surprising diversity of environmental
pressures may be worsening the situation." (Dixon, Bernard. 2005.
Selective Agencies, AMERICAN SOCIETY OF MICROBIOLOGY NEWS 71(
7):310-311, July.) Referring to research by Ole Nybroe, Dixon notes
"studies suggest that copper, a metal that is introduced both
consciously and accidentally into farm land throughout the world, can
have significant effect on the selection of antibiotic resistance
among bacteria in the soil."

"Copper is used in several forms as an agricultural fungicide and
bactericide, but it also occurs in the sewage sludge and animal
manure that farmers in many places spread on their fields as
fertilizer. The metal persists in topsoil with an estimated half life
of hundreds or thousands of years. Inevitably, this persistence is
accompanied by the emergence of copper-tolerant strains of soil
bacteria. ... The real trigger was the accumulation in recent years
of signs that terrain contaminated with copper contains, in addition
to copper-tolerant bacteria, a higher-than-average proportion of
organisms insensitive to antimicrobials. These observations raised
the possibility that metal pollution exerts some form of indirect
selection favoring the proliferation of drug resistant bacteria (A.
Alonso, et. al., Environ. Microbiol. 3:1, 2001). Unlike many other
pollutants, copper isn't to degraded, so the phenomenon would be long
lasting."

Dixon notes a "rather quirky sidebar to this story." He goes on:
"One of the oddities of the British craze for organic food at the
moment is that organic farmers, while rejecting modern, safe ,
thoroughly tested pesticides, are permitted to spray their crops with
copper sulfate. Indeed, they lobbied the European Union so
effectively that they have been allowed to continue using it despite
a ban that was scheduled to come into effect over a year ago. Though
long employed as a constituent of Bordeaux Mixture to combat
Phytophora infestans (the agent of the Irish potato famine in the
mid-19th century), copper sulfate was due to be prohibited on safety
grounds. It has for example, caused well-documented cases of liver
damage among vineyard workers. Nevertheless, this potent hepatotoxin,
which is persistent in soils, continues to be sprayed widely in the
ostensible interests of naturalness."

Bernard Dixon closes his report with a question that maybe all of us
ought to be asking:

"Could it be that well-intentioned but mis-guided organic farmers are
not only deploying a rather nasty metallic poison in the ostensible
pursuit of pristine purity, but also adding to environmental
pressures favoring the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant
bacteria?"

Note - I had held off making this posting expecting others more
knowledgeable on this subject than I am to comment on these studies.
I do believe that further analysis will be forthcoming and I hope
that it is. Comments from others would also be welcomed. TRD

**********************************************

Ban On GM Crops to Eat Into Export Markets

- Asa Wahlquist, The Australian, Sept. 20, 2005

The ban on genetically modified crops could cost Australian grain
growers $3billion in lost income over the next decade.

An Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics report
found that restricting farmers to growing non-GM crops would result
in reduced market share, and reduced profitability "compared with the
outcome if Australian producers were permitted to grow transgenic
crops commercially".

"GM crops can be grown with lower levels of input costs on things
like herbicides and pesticides, and you may also get increased yields
because your herbicide and pesticide protection is better," ABARE
economist Stephen Apted said.

He added that Australian canola growers were at a competitive
disadvantage against their Canadian counterparts, who sold GM canola
into Australia's main canola markets of Japan -- which took more than
40per cent of Australia's canola -- China, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The state governments, which imposed the bans, claim a marketing
advantage by being able to say Australian canola is GM-free, but Mr
Apted said ABARE could find no evidence of premiums being paid in
Japan and China for non-GM canola.

Eric Sharkey, a farmer with his son Chris at Balliang, west of
Melbourne, wanted the industry to be able to research and assess the
value of GM canola. "We are seeing our competition -- the Canadians,
etc -- who are going out there and increasing their plantings of GM
canola by a huge percentage every year, and not having any problems
with markets," he said.

A quarter of the Sharkeys' farm is planted with conventional canola
that is tolerant to the herbicide atrazine, so that spraying with
atrazine kills the weeds but the canola survives. Mr Sharkey said the
GM canola grown in Canada was tolerant to the herbicide glyphosate, a
more environmentally benign herbicide. "It is quite bizarre, because
atrazine has been banned in some parts of America. Yet we are not
able to use the varieties that we can control the weeds with
glyphosate, which is a much, much safer chemical," he said.

Chris Sharkey said he was interested to see how international markets
responded to GM crops. "You have to try to maximise the money you get
for your commodity, and if you can maximise it by having a different
grain, either a GM or non-GM, that is the way to go."

The only commercial GM crop in Australia is cotton. Farmers use 60per
cent less insecticide on GM cotton. Indications are that they will be
able to use 85per cent less insecticide on the latest version of GM
cotton. Mr Apted said global crop production was "moving more and
more into GM crops", which are widely grown in the US, Canada,
Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and, increasingly, in China and India.

**********************************************

Benefits are Clear, But Risks Unproven

- Dann Okoth, The Standard (Kenya), Sept. 20, 2005 http://www.eastandard.net/

The issue of agricultural biotechnology is currently at the centre of
major controversy with opponents and proponents engaging each other
in heated debate. Our writer Dann Okoth sought to find out more from
Dr Florence Wambugu, a lead researcher at Africa Harvest Biotech
Foundation International.

Q. What is the biotechnology situation in Kenya?

A. In Kenya, like many other African countries, bio technology is
nothing new and has been going on for a long time. The brewing and
fermentation process - especially with regard to traditional brews -
is a form of biotechnology. Equally, the tissue culture (TC)
technology is a form of biotechnology. Tissue culture is the backbone
of Kenya's position as the global leader in pyrethrum production. It
has also been used extensively in replicating the best varieties of
sugarcane. The TC banana technology has helped over half a million
farmers in Kenya.

When it comes to the more controversial side of biotechnology,
otherwise known as genetic manipulation (GM) or engineering, the
moving of genes across (and within) species - Kenya is considered a
good potential on the continent.

The country is a regional leader in science and technology, having
produced some of the continent's best scientists. We are also home to
international science organisations such as International Livestock
Research Institute (ILRI), the International Centre for Insect
Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), International Centre for Research in
Agroforestry (Icraf) and the United Nations Environmental Programme
(Unep).

Although we have not commercialised any GM crops, research is going
on with regard to the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari)
and Syngenta Bt maize for control of the stem-borer. The Kari GM
sweet potato is also another attempt through research to the sweet
potato virus diseases.

Q. What is the relevance of agricultural biotechnology to smallholder
Kenyan farmers especially on their nutritional needs and food
security?

A. When it comes to introduction of new technologies, small-scale
farmers know their decision is critical because they (usually) do not
have a Plan B. Their small pieces of land are all they have and they
will only adopt the new technology if they are convinced it has
proven benefits.

If the TC banana is any indication, the Kenyan small-scale farmers
are willing to take calculated risks. Within 10 years, the TC banana
technology has taken off with over 500,000 farmers having benefited.
Now Nepad has adopted the project for up-scaling across Africa.

We believe that the first-level technology has already demonstrated
its positive impact on hunger and nutrition. We are told in
communities that we work in that the technology has even had spin-off
benefits for HIV-Aids patients because people cannot take medicine on
an empty stomach. We also know that our farmers (those who have
adopted TC bananas) never received food assistance during the recent
famine; instead, they were providing food for their neighbours. We
believe that once Kenyan farmers have access to Bt maize or cotton,
the same benefits proven elsewhere will be recorded.

Q. What role does agricultural biotechnology play in food security in
the country?

A. We believe that the full benefits of this technology will be
realised when we begin to use the technology to improve our own
foods, for example what Kari is doing with Bt maize and sweet
potatoes.

However, I must underline that no technology on its own will solve
the food security challenge that Kenya faces. We need to view the GM
technology as catalytic. If Kenya can identify how best to use the
technology and support it with human and infrastructural capacity,
better agricultural policies, access to water and micro-credit and
local, regional and international markets, then the future is indeed
bright.

Q. What are some of the potential benefits and risks of agricultural
biotechnology?

A. We must emphasise that biotechnology has demonstrated benefits.
These are real benefits that have been quantified scientifically.
However, when it comes to risk - which I would rather call concerns -
then these are 'potential risks' (because they have not been proven).

Globally, there are now 81 million hectares of GM crops. Proven
benefits include increased yields and productivity, reduced use of
pesticides and better health for millions of farmers. Africa is yet
to benefit from herbicide tolerance technology, which would free
millions of farmers who spend long days bent over to pull out weeds.
Africa also stands to improve its nutrition and health through bio
fortification.

Potential risks - or concerns - include allergies, toxins, use of
limited genetic diversity, high technology costs and
environment-related problems. However, these are potential risks and
have not been documented anywhere in any study that I have seen.

Q. Concerns have been raised about health risks and a threat to the
environment through GMOs, what are your thoughts?

A. There has not been one proven, documented evidence of hazard to
the environment, human or animals. Those opposed to the technology
have been proven wrong once and again.

For example, in the case of the Monarch butterfly in USA (a 1999
butterfly survival study by Cornell University that concluded Monarch
butterflies may be threatened by pollen from genetically modified
maize), evidence showed that there were more butterflies because
crops were no longer being sprayed with chemicals, which would also
have killed the insects (so the Bt maize was no worse than chemical
spraying).

Going by the US and South Africa's situation, the regulatory systems
there seem to be working. Generally, GM crops are tested by
regulatory agencies to ensure removal of allergies and toxins and
they have been proved are safe before being released for food and or
to the environment. Although there have been several claims of this
risk or that, none has been proven.

In Kenya, the concerns raised about health risks and a threat to the
environment cannot be dismissed, although we must emphasis that we
are only at the research phase. However, Kenya is in the process of
establishing an effective regulatory system compliant to global
Cartagena Protocol. There are plans for a GMO Act, which will better
define how Kenya plans to be engaged with this important technology.
Meanwhile, only field-testing of GM crops has been taking place.

Q. Do we already have genetically modified products in our markets?

A. There are no commercial GM crops in Kenya, to the best of my knowledge.

Q. Europe has largely rejected agricultural biotechnology for varying
reasons. Could Kenya, perhaps, borrow a leaf from their book?

A. It is not true that all European countries have rejected
biotechnology. Also, the EU has lifted the GM moratorium and set a
regulatory system to check trading in GM products.

Again, European countries are not necessarily opposed to GM crops
because they are bad or have a risk. Kenyans, and Africans in
general, must understand that at the root of the EU dithering over GM
crops is a complex trade war with the US, with the US being on the
lead to export to EU and EU trying to protect their market.

Kenyans should appreciate that our engagement with the technology
must be based on a risk and benefit analysis rooted in our unique
needs. We must remember that the EU has problem of food surplus, so
technologies that increase production are not desirable. Kenya should
not borrow blindly or listen uncritically to anti-GM activists'
campaign.

Q. Are there laws to regulate the biotechnology sector?

Kenya has an extensive institutional infrastructure to regulate the
biotech sector. However, this framework is only adequate for the
level of research currently going on. Obviously, with the
commercialisation of GM crops, different and more robust regulatory
frameworks are required.

The Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (Kephis), National
Science and Technology Council and the Bio safety Committee of Kenya
(which currently issues permits for field trials) are aware of the
regulatory needs now and in future and are putting relevant
frameworks in place for the legislation. The planned GMO Act is part
of this important process and will, of course, be preceded by a Bill
in Parliament that will allow Kenyans to thoroughly debate the issue
before deciding what is the best system for the country.