Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : Sept 29, 2005
* GMO Ban and Junk Science
* What a Stale Argument!
* Fear the Reapers
* Building a Healthier Bean
* Biotech Debate Must Remain Science-Based, says Verheugen
* National Academy of Science Honors Sac Bee"Seeds of Doubt"
* Little Difference in Gene-Altered Potatoes
* EU's Anti-GM Stance is Unsustainable, Says Study
* Ten Facts about the GM Crops In India
* Copper Sulfate and Antibiotic Resistance
* The UN's Biotech for Food Scandal
GMO Ban and Junk Science
- Editorial, Sonoma Index Tribune, Sept 27, 2005
We know that they're generally on the opposite ends of the political
spectrum, but the advocates for banning genetically modified crops,
seeds, etc., seem to have a lot in common with the promoters of
teaching creationism as a science. They both attempt to blur the
lines between belief and scientific research in order to promote a
strongly held point of view.
Applied study at major research universities by very smart,
well-educated, well-trained, experienced scientists has high value in
our society. Americans respect the hard-earned credentials of
top-level scientists. They trust, use and benefit from the
contributions researchers have made to the quality of their lives.
For the majority, religious beliefs do not conflict with science to
the point of holding back progress toward cures for disease, new
surgical techniques to save lives, or agricultural advances to grow
more crops to feed the hungry.
Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, we see New Age
philosophies and old-fashioned evangelical religion seeking to gain
equal status with scientific research, with the potential to hold
back the advances that have extended life expectancy and raised our
standard of living.
Fortunately, the creationists haven't yet forced their beliefs into
local science classrooms. Unfortunately, that is not true of those
who want to ban "transgenic" (genetically engineered) crops and other
organisms. They have managed to get a GMO ban proposition on Sonoma
County's November ballot by planting seeds of doubt and fear about
the current process by which the government now tests and regulates
transgenic organisms. Ban advocates claim that government regulations
are nowhere near enough protection against what could happen. Their
major concern is that the "organic" farmers will have their crops
contaminated by runaway GMOs that escape the fields in which they are
used. From this fear flow other predictions of dire consequences.
There are a lot of things wrong with the proposed county GMO ban, not
the least of which is the cost of enforcement and the potential
damage to the local economy.
The ordinance's advocates want to ban the application of modern
science in Sonoma County agriculture for 10 years. A laundry list of
fears and worst-case predictions, without solid data behind them, is
not nearly enough to justify such radical action.
Neither side in this dispute is free from self-interest. The anti-GMO
movement has strong backing from the organic food industry and its
special lobbying groups, while most local farmers, major agricultural
corporations and the general food industry all have an interest in
using science to increase productivity and profits.
Yes, this is about money, and it is about what local farms and
vineyards produce. When the vast majority of farmers in the county
say this ban will harm their businesses, we need to pay attention.
For this vote, please don't check your brains at the door. Read more.
Be skeptical of fear-mongering. Look at the credentials of advocates
closely. Who has credibility? What does the preponderance of
scientific research say? And don't forget that the local economy
depends a great deal on viable agriculture.
We are not finished with our reading and study on this topic, but, so
far, we see little difference between the anti-scientific GMO ban,
and other faith-based, flat-earth movements of the early 21st century.
- Bill Lynch, Editor
What a Stale Argument!
- James Wachai, GMO Africa, September 23, 2005
Does politics has a place in genetically modified (GM) food debate?
"No", is the obvious answer. Politics and science are such sworn
adversaries that they cannot eat from the same plate. Politics mainly
thrive on propaganda, vilification, name-calling and personal
gratification at the expense of the general good. Science is anchored
on verifiable facts, it is objective, gentle, and seeks to make the
world a better place for all of us to live. You cannot politicize
science unless you fancy mediocrity.
One Jeffrey Smith, the author of "Seeds of Deception," this week
advised South Africans to avoid genetically modified food like
plague. Why? South Africans stand to lose European beef and poultry
markets if they feed their livestock on genetically modified food. To
be on the safe side, South Africans should use conventional feeds.
"There is a massive rejection of genetically modified ingredients in
human food in Europe, and growing demand that animals are fed on
conventional crops," Smith told his audience. What a misleading
Deliberately misleading the public on any issue is both morally
reprehensible and abominable. Those who exploit the vulnerability of
the poor for self gains risk isolation by the world. Why misinform to
confuse? United States of America is a traditional grower of
genetically modified food. The U.S.'s European beef markets have not
shrunk as a result of cultivating GMOs. Latest statistics at the
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) show beef and veal
exports ballooned from 461 million pounds in 2004 to 615 billion
pounds in 2005. The bulk of the exports went to European markets.
Smith lives in the U.S. and ought to have made this clear to his
audience. If he did so, I would not be here penning this article.
Europe, itself, is fast embracing genetically modified food. Last
month, the European Union endorsed importation of genetically
modified animal feed. Does Smith want to tell South Africa that
Europe is shooting itself in the foot?
Already, farmers in five European Union countries, including France
and Germany are growing genetically modified food. They have not lost
their beef and poultry markets. In Spain, GMO Maize's harvest this
year will top 50,000 hectares, all of which will be used as cattle
feed. Spain's beef markets in Europe remain intact. They are not in
limbo. These are hard facts and no amount of propaganda and
grandstanding will change them. Let's be pragmatic when debating the
issue of genetically modified food.This is the only way to help
consumers to make informed decisions.
Debate on pros and cons of genetically modified food is a luxury to
Africa. Somebody should not make Africa believe that it would lose
oversees markets for growing genetically modified food. Africa cannot
feed itself as of now. Women and kids are dying in Niger, Ethiopia,
and Eritrea of hunger. Priority, now, should not be to grow food for
exports but to feed the hungry and the malnourished. To scare Africa
that it will lose oversees markets is putting the cart before the
James Wachai is a graduate student at Witchita State University in Kansas.
Fear the Reapers
- Xavier Mera, TCS, Sept. 27, 2005 www.techcentralstation.com
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have a notoriously bad
reputation in France. In such a hostile environment, some people have
not hesitated to destroy the few authorized fields of genetically
modified plants in the name of the precautionary principle.
This summer, three attacks occurred in the Puy-de-Dôme department,
and responsibility for some of them claimed by the Collectif des
faucheurs volontaires (or, "the volunteer reapers"). The company
Meristem, French leader in the development of medicines made from
genetically modified plants, was the target of this last wave of
anti-GMO violence, without much media coverage.
But one group that did object to the anti-GMO vandalism was the
organization Defeating Cystic Fibrosis. It turns out that the plants
destroyed were meant to be used to develop drugs to relieve secondary
effects of cystic fibrosis and to produce anti-cancer antibodies.
First of all, this is an obvious illustration of the dangers of the
precautionary principle. By focusing only on the possible risks of
GMO production, this principle also forces us to ignore the costs of
abandoning it. Every choice has a cost, even if it is guided by this
principle. In this case it is the availability of such medicines and
the income they would represent for their producers -- which have to
be abandoned if the naysayers have their way. This is what
"precaution" means for patients and pharmaceutical manufacturers.
Obviously, GMO opponents refuse to be seen as neglecting the
interests of patients. They claim that such interests do not require
the production of genetically modified plants. They claim that
alternative techniques exist and that the only reason why GMOs are
chosen is for greater profit. They are probably right: most of the
time there are various technologies available for reaching a same
result, and the choice of one or the other is generally not based on
humanitarian reasons. So what? What is so sinister about financial
When a cheaper technique is found for using the soil more
productively, as is typically the case with GMOs, it is good news for
consumers because competition, if we let it do its job, will bring
the prices down. Producing more by spending less means a more
profitable investment. When investors come to understand such an
opportunity for making money, they tend to turn towards the sector
concerned by choosing this technique, thus increasing the production
and lowering the price of the product. The choice of technique is
thus not unconnected to the well being of patients. As long as free
competition works, it is such financial considerations that guarantee
patients wider access to treatments.
What about risks linked to GMOs? Perhaps we might agree with a
statement made by the "voluntary reapers" claiming that "no
scientific or therapeutic reason can justify the use of farmers'
fields as laboratory fodder". Then the group referred to the risk of
genetically modified cornfields "contaminating" the neighboring
crops. According to Meristem, their plants are sterile and do not
expose the neighboring properties to a change in the nature of their
production. Even if we imagine that such deterioration is possible,
this does not lead directly to the conclusion that GMOs should be
banned, contrary to critics' claims.
In reality this argument has nothing to do with GMOs, but rather with
trespassing on other people's property. Owners of genetically
modified plants "contaminated" by neighboring fields could just as
well use it. And it would have to be proved that such trespassing had
occurred, unlike self-appointed "reapers" who do not wait before
In fact, it is not necessary to ban GMOs to prevent farmers' fields
being turned into laboratory fodder. Instead of resorting to
vandalism, these reapers could fight for the government to take more
seriously article 2 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of
the Citizen, enshrining the right to own property.
If acts of pollution like "contamination" of fields were considered
by lawyers as what they really are, trespassing on private property,
GMO producers would tend to settle far away from possible plaintiffs
or would invest in means of protection, such as greenhouses. In any
case, the possibility of legal proceedings would push investors to
better estimate the real risk of GMOs. Defending farmers does not
call for banning GMOs, and destroying plants can only put a halt to
the process of discovery about the risks linked to them.
Xavier Méra is an associate researcher at the Molinari Economic Institute.
Building a Healthier Bean
- Anne Fitzgerald, DesMoines Register, Sept. 25, 2005
'Pioneer Hi-Bred International develops seeds to produce more crops
that benefit consumers' well-being
Researchers tackle today's health issues. A decade ago, crop seeds
developed with the use of biotechnology were just beginning to hit
the market. Now, a new wave of crops, many of them engineered, is
emerging that promises benefits to consumers.
Among those cited by industry experts, the next wave includes:
* Sugar beets that produce fructans, a sweet-tasting type of sugar
that is indigestible - a plus in weight management.
* Soybeans containing low levels of linolenic acid, thereby
eliminating the need for hydrogenation, a chemical process that
increases soy oil's shelf-life but produces harmful trans-fatty acids.
* Soybeans and other oilseed crops with increased levels of
beneficial fatty acids, such as canola, which contains high levels of
* Sunflowers with oil low in saturated fat but higher in oleic acid content.
** Vegetables that ripen more slowly, allowing more time to travel
from field to market.
To give Americans more convenient, nutritious and tasty foods,
businesses are building better soybeans and other food crops. Food
companies seek better-tasting soy ingredients, healthier whole grains
and food additives that fight diabetes and other diseases. To do so,
they're forming partnerships with companies like Pioneer Hi-Bred
International Inc., based in Des Moines, to develop seeds that
produce crops for specific uses.
One of Pioneer's partners is General Mills Inc., the sixth-largest
food company in the world. The Minneapolis-based company -- whose
brands include Pillsbury, Betty Crocker and Cheerios -- has placed
increased importance on producing foods that benefit consumers'
health, says Marc Belton, senior vice president for worldwide health,
brand and new business development. "We increasingly see opportunity
in this area, whether it's around weight management or heart health,"
Widespread obesity and runaway health-care costs are contributing to
the trend. At the same time, demographics are forcing food companies
to increase their focus on the marketplace and on consumer demand for
differentiated products. Minorities, especially Hispanics, for
instance, are becoming a major market. Already, well over 10 percent
of the U.S. population is Hispanic, and as that portion grows, so
does demand for healthier and tastier corn chips and tortillas.
"They are going to be one of the largest driving forces in this
country," said Belton. Double-digit growth rates in sales of natural
and organic food have also fueled interest in healthier foods. While
retailers such as New Pioneer Cooperative in Iowa City eschew foods
made from genetically engineered crops, some mainstream food
manufacturers do not, at least not in the United States, where the
public generally has not opposed genetic engineering.
Biotechnology Debate Must Remain Science-Based, says Verheugen
- Cordis News, September 29, 2005 via http://www.checkbiotech.org/
The EU Commissioner for Enterprise and Industry, Günter Verheugen,
has reiterated the need for an open debate on the benefits of
biotechnology and the ethical questions surrounding it, but insisted
that such a dialogue must remain science-based.
Mr Verheugen was outlining the Commission's biotech policy at a high
level roundtable organised by the European association for
bioindustries, EuropaBio. He said that if Europe is to compete with
the US and other emerging challengers, then knowledge-based sectors,
including biotechnology, would have to be at the forefront of the
'It is my objective to ensure that we create the conditions so that
Europe becomes the natural home for biotechnological innovation,'
said Mr Verheugen. He went on to outline the areas where the
Commission would concentrate its efforts in order to achieve this
Support for innovation and the general science base are 'critical
issues' for the Commission, but equally important is making sure that
innovations result in applications that generate revenues. The new
Competitiveness and Innovation Programme (CIP) is designed to do
precisely that, said Mr Verheugen, by developing the innovative
capacity of enterprise and industry.
The worrying trend of pharmaceuticals actors relocating their
research and development (R&D) activities outside Europe was also
highlighted by Mr Verheugen as an area for action. 'We must not
underestimate this widening gap. Losing R&D in life sciences is going
to have major social and economic consequences for Europe,' he said.
What is needed is an overall strategy for biotechnology, said the
Commissioner, and fortunately for the EU it already exists. The
Commission's Biotechnology Strategy, published in 2002, lays the
groundwork for Europe's catch-up efforts and covers all fields of
biotech - green, white and red. Mr Verheugen acknowledged the need to
address societal concerns concerning biotechnology, however, and said
that the Commission would launch a debate as part of the mid-term
review of the strategy in 2006.
'The debate must, however, remain science based, and we must take a
balanced view on matters of concern, such as GMOs, and avoid taking
extreme positions. Clarity and knowledge will help to lower emotional
prejudices,' he said, before highlighting the potential of
genetically modified organisms to provide better crop yields,
increased sustainability and better food and feed quality.
'However, we all know that public attitudes as well as Member States'
positions hamper the development in this area. [...] Europe has to
make its mind up whether it wants to use the full potential of green
biotech to become competitive vis-à-vis countries like the USA,
Canada, Australia, China and India,' the Commissioner argued.
'By keeping Europe at the cutting edge of biotechnology research, we
will [...] contribute to the more general goals of creating more
highly-qualified and well-paid jobs, boost economic growth and
improve our terms of trade. Let's be clear: it will not be an easy
task to achieve this [but] I am convinced we are able to face the
challenge and come out successful,' Mr Verheugen concluded.
To download the full text of Mr Verheugen's speech (in PDF format),
please: click here
NAS honors "Seeds of Doubt" Article Series in Sac Bee
- Alex Avery View Contact Details Add Mobile Alert
Having nominated Nina Fedoroff's Mendel in the Kitchen for the
National Academy of Science's Communication Award, I was disappointed
that she didn't at least make it as a finalist. Instead, the NAS
chose as one of their finalists "Seeds of Doubt," a series of
skeptical articles on ag biotech in the Sacramento Bee. see
Are any of us surprised, given the stance of Science and Nature journals?
- Alex Avery, Director of Research, Center for Global Food Issues,
Little Difference in Gene-Altered Potatoes
- UPI, Monster and Critics, Sep 27, 2005,
POTSDAM, Germany -- Scientists in Potsdam, Germany, and Cardiff,
England, say there`s little difference between genetically produced
potatoes and conventional varieties. Researchers say the two types of
potatoes only differ in substances intentionally incorporated with
gene technology. The conclusion was reached by scientists at the Max
Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Potsdam, Germany,
and colleagues from the University of Wales in England.
The scientists compared genetically modified Desiree potatoes with
five conventional varieties.
The main results of the study showed substances in the Agria,
Desiree, Granola, Linda and Solara varieties exhibit a surprising
range of variation. The genetically modified lines from the Desiree
variety lie within the same of range of variation except for a higher
content of inulin polysaccharides. There was no evidence of any new,
Two different genes for the formation of insulin sugars were
introduced into the GM potatoes since polysaccharides have a
beneficial effect on human intestinal flora. The analyses of nearly
2,800 potato specimens was financed by British Food Standards Agency.
The study is detailed in the Sept. 19 online early edition of the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
EU's Anti-GM Stance is Unsustainable, Says Study
- Chris Mercer, 29/09/2005 http://www.foodnavigator.com/
Europe's opposition to genetically modified ingredients will
significantly increase producers' costs over the next three years as
it becomes ever harder to secure GM-free supplies, says a new report.
Margarine producers will be some of the worst affected, with sourcing
of non-GM ingredients likely to add more than 16 per cent to raw
materials costs in the next one to three years, says a new report
commissioned by Agricultural Biotechnology Europe (ABE).
This increase, the report says, means margarine producers could be
paying an extra ¤85m in raw materials costs to sustain non-GM
policies - currently thought to cover about 70 per cent of EU
Such a price rise could put intense pressure on producers' profit
margins as they also battle against soaring oil (plastics) and energy
costs, as well as the supply chain squeeze from retailers.
A major problem is the declining global supply of non-GM ingredients
in the key soybean and derivative sector, notably now Brazil has
begun planting GM soybeans. GM soybeans accounted for 23 per cent of
total production in Brazil in 2004.
This situation is forecast to significantly raise costs for going
non-GM, particularly in animal feed. The report says sourcing non-GM
soymeal and soy oil for animal feed is already about 10 and 13 per
cent more expensive respectively than sourcing GM. The gap for both
may widen to as much as 25 per cent in the next three years.
More problems are likely to emerge in enzyme production, the
researchers say, as the European Commission looks to create a new
Enzyme Directive. This means more enzymes would be defined as
additives, forcing producers to include them on ingredients labels.
Products containing a number of the GM-derived enzymes currently used
in bakery, dairy and other sectors may therefore fall foul of
consumers' anti-GM attitudes.
The anti-GM climate within the EU as a whole was also highlighted as
a major obstacle to future enzyme development within the bloc,
according to a recent report on the European enzymes market by Frost
The European Commission has so far given its approval to several GM
products, including sweetcorn, oilseed and one soybean type. Yet, the
European Council of Ministers has consistently failed to reach a
decision over GM ingredients. The body last week failed again to
agree on the Commission's latest approval, for GM maize 1507, after
several countries blocked the move.
The indecision means the Commission can now authorise the maize if it
chooses. Yet the anti-GM feeling among European consumers still
presents a serious dilemma for the food industry. Earlier this year,
a survey polled by the UK's consumer magazine Which? found that
Britons feel even more strongly about GM foods than they did two
More than six out of 10 people (61 per cent) were concerned about the
use of GM material in food production - up from 56 per cent in 2002.
Around 68 per cent wanted manufacturers to go one step further and
source non-GM animal feed. Some major food producers operating in
Europe, such as Heinz, and nearly all major UK supermarkets, have
begun to use non-GM status as a marketing tool in itself.
But, the ABE-commissioned report points out that "to date, consumers
have rarely been given the option of a choice between GM and non-GM
alternatives of the same product or faced price differentials between
India: ICMR calls for mandatory labelling of GM foods
- Ashok B Sharma, Financial Express, September 27, 2005
The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has called for
mandatory labelling of genetically modified (GM) foods. It said that
imported foods containing traces of genetically modified organisms
(GMOs) should be tested for their safety in the labs in the country.
The report prepared under the leadership of ICMR director-general NK
Ganguly has been submitted to the government. The recommendations of
the report are being reviewed by the Central Committee on Food Safety
(CCFS) for incorporation under the Prevention of Food Adulteration
(PFA) Act and Rules.
The ICMR report focuses on issues of labelling, nutrition value, food
safety and ethical values.
At present PFA Act and Rules does not have any provisions to deal
with GM foods. The new Food Safety and Standards Bill, 2005 tabled in
Parliament has mentioned the need for regulating GM foods. But as
this legislation is yet to be passed by the Parliament, the
recommendations of the NK Ganguly panel are likely to be incoprated
under PFA Act and Rules.
The existing regulatory authority for transgenic products, the
Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has the power to
regulate only transgenic crops and animals and recombinant pharma
products and not GM foods. The Ganguly panel, therefore, suggested
that GM foods will be regulated by GEAC.
The permissible limit of the presence of traces of GMOs in food as
proposed by ICMR is higher than that proposed by the European Union.
EU has fixed the permissible limit at 0.9% while ICMR has fixed it at
1%. ICMR has said that labelling of GM foods should disclose the
necessary information relating to the orgin of the transgene and the
processes invloved. The norms for labelling will be revised in
accordance with more advanced techniques of detection becoming
According to ICMR, the producers and importers should submit detailed
supporting documents. Only accredited labs should conduct tests to
determine GMO traces in foods. Since currently, there are few labs in
the country like the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, the
Central Food Technology Research Institute, Mysore, and Lucknow's
Industrial Toxicology Research Centre, capable of conducting tests on
GMOs, the Ganguly panel called for upgradation of other labs.
Ten Facts about the GM Crops In India
- Ramanjini Gowda
Ten facts about the GM crops and research on GM crops in India:
1. Most people are highly ignorant about the GM technology
2. Widespread fear of monopoly of private industries
3. Lack of coordination between public institutions and corporations
4. Patent issues
5. Biosafety regulations are stringent, burdensome and cumbersome;
and full of red tape
6. Lack of infrastructure and capital to produce GM crops by the
7.The technology pilferage (illegal seeds) and lack of facilities to
deal the issues
8. Ethical questions regarding the genes
9. Active NGO groups opposing the technology
10. Fear of escape of genes to the environment.
- P.H.Ramanjini Gowda, Assoc. Prof, Dept Biotechnology, Univ.
Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, India
Copper Sulfate and Antibiotic Resistance
- Alex Avery
The article noting that soil contamination with copper sulfate
correlated with increased broad-spectrum antibiotic resistance among
gram-negative bacteria raises some extremely interesting ethical
questions for organic farmers and the organic farming activist
community. After all, one of their biggest accusations against
non-organic farmers is the threat to human health from antibiotic
resistant bacteria and antibiotics are strictly forbidden in most
organic farming (although they are allowed for "occasional" use in
some tree-fruit crops to prevent loss of trees to bacterial disease).
Will the organic community in Europe (where copper sulfate has been
slated for a ban since 1999) and the U.S. rise up to their rhetoric
and immediately ban copper sulfate in organic production to safeguard
consumer health? After all, this research demonstrates a far more
concrete risk than has been shown for livestock antibiotic use.
Scientifically, much work needs to be done to follow up these recent
findings. But it is incredibly interesting that the action of copper
sulfate is on a fundamental enough level as to confer resistance to
multiple antibiotics of very different modes of action.
The UN's Biotech for Food Scandal
- Henry Miller, Tech Central Station, September 28, 2005
CHIBA, Japan -- John Bolton, the blunt and controversial U.S.
ambassador to the UN, has promised "to advance American interests and
ideals at the United Nations." During his first two months on the
job, Bolton has denounced the United Nations Development Program for
its "unacceptable" funding of Palestinian propaganda and publicly
identified "countries who are in a state of denial" about the need
for UN reform. He told a reporter that he feels "a little like Rod
Serling has suddenly appeared and we're writing episodes from 'The
I'm having a similar experience in Japan as a member of the US
delegation to a UN task force on biotechnology-derived foods. The
group is a creature of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which sets
food standards on behalf of the UN's Food and Agriculture
Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO).
The very scope of this exercise -- which has gone on for five years
and shows no signs of abating -- makes no sense. It is concerned with
regulatory requirements only for foods made with the newest, most
precise and predictable techniques of biotechnology -- while
exempting others made with far more crude and less predictable
technologies, including irradiation mutagenesis and hybridization.
For example, the task force has selected as one of its new projects,
"Food Safety Assessment of Food Derived from [Gene-Spliced] Plants
Modified for Nutritional and Health Benefits." This scope of work
completely ignores that past problems with unexpected food toxicity
in new plant varieties -- in two varieties each of squash and potato,
and one of celery -- have resulted from the imprecision of
conventional plant breeding. There is a broad scientific consensus
that the precision of gene-splicing makes the accidental introduction
of toxins or anti-nutrients into new foods far less likely. (Note
that no food modified by traditional techniques -- that is to say,
virtually the entire diet of Europeans and Americans -- could (or
should) meet the existing Codex standards for biotech foods.) It is
rather like circumscribing for extra regulation only automobiles
outfitted with disk brakes, radial tires and air bags t-- and then
limiting only those to a lower speed.
I've participated in these kinds of negotiations and meetings for
more than a quarter-century, but never before have I had the same
feeling that the inmates were running the asylum. This Codex travesty
is rife with irony and hypocrisy.
First, the conference was opened by Japan's Vice-Minister for Health,
Labor and Welfare, who extolled at length the virtues of
biotechnology applied to agriculture and food production. However,
his government has approved not a single food plant, fruit or
vegetable for sale in Japan. In San Francisco, a gene-spliced,
virus-resistant Hawaiian papaya costs about $1.25 per pound. Japan
won't accept the gene-spliced variety, so they import only
conventional Hawaiian papayas (mostly from trees that have been
ratvaged by the papaya ringspot virus, which diminishes their yield)
-- and the cost in Tokyo is about $15 dollars a pound! (This vignette
was less like "The Twilight Zone" and more like the British comedy,
Second, during the plenary the European Community's delegation
sanctimoniously lectured the other nations on how to regulate
biotechnology. Considering that biotech applied to agriculture is
virtually nonexistent in Europe thanks to ill-conceived, unscientific
over-regulation and intractable disagreements among European
countries, this is rather like the government of Columbia instructing
others on how to stop drug trafficking.
Third, at the same time that medical experts around the world are
fearful of a pandemic of influenza that could kill tens of millions
and disrupt the world's economy, the senior WHO representative kept
lobbying the task force to work on "ethical considerations" of
gene-spliced organisms. This bizarre concern about the "ethics" of a
sweeter melon or pest-resistant potato is rather like worrying about
flossing your teeth when you're in the path of a Category 5 hurricane.
Fourth, during five years of negotiations by this task force, the
participants -- including the U.S. delegation, now headed by a senior
USDA official -- have willfully ignored scientific principles and the
basic axiom that the degree of regulatory scrutiny should be
proportionate to risk. They have also disregarded the scientific
consensus that gene-splicing is an extension, or refinement, of
older, traditional techniques of genetic modification, and that it
does not warrant discriminatory, excessive regultation. They have
overlooked the fact that during almost two decades of widespread use,
the performance of gene-spliced crops has been spectacular, with
farmers enjoying increased yields, decreased costs of agricultural
chemicals, and lower occupational exposures to pesticides. The
environmental benefits likewise have been stunning, with less
chemical runoff into waterways and greater availability of no-till
farming techniques that reduce soil erosion.
Fifth, many who attended this meeting appear to be completely
ignorant of the appropriate context of new and conventional
biotechnology, unaware that with the exception of fish and wild game,
berries and mushrooms, virtually all of the foods in our diet are
derived from organisms that have been genetically improved in some
fashion. It is pathetic -- and a cruel misuse of resources -- to see
representatives here from countries like Sudan, Papua New Guinea,
Uganda, Lesotho, Nepal and Laos clamoring for "capacity building" to
regulate gene-splicing. Shouldn't the priorities of poor countries be
nutritional deficiencies, infectious diseases, occupational safety,
and the lack of childhood vaccines and clean water, rather than the
discriminatory, gratuitous regulation of a superior agricultural
technology that UN-based regulation already has made too expensive to
be applied widely to developing countries' crops?
Sixth, this project of Codex (which operates on behalf of the UN's
FAO and WHO, remember) makes a mockery of the UN's Millennium
Development Goals -- especially the first, and most ambitious: "to
eradicate extreme poverty and hunger" by 2015. That can't be
accomplished without innovative technology, and there won't be
innovative technology if it is regulated excessively and stupidly.
FAO calls on one hand for greater allocation of resources to
agriculture, and then makes those resources less cost-effective by
gratuitous over-regulation of the new biotechnology. (Another UN
initiative that has vitiated agricultural biotechnology is the
"biosafety protocol" of the UN-based Convention on Biological
Diversity, but that's another story.)
Other Millennium Goals inevitably will be compromised, directly or
indirectly, by this Codex project (and by the "biosafety protocol" of
the CBD). An important way, for example, to "reduce child mortality,"
the fourth goal, would be to produce childhood vaccines cheaply in
edible fruits and vegetables, but there is near-hysteria at Codex
over conjectural food-safety problems with this approach. Moreover,
when the impoverished of the world are forced to spend more than
necessary to grow or obtain food, fewer resources are available for
other public health and environmental needs. As Wellesley College
political scientist Robert Paarlberg has noted, the continued
globalization of this sort of "highly precautionary regulatory
approach" to gene-spliced crops will cause the "the biggest losers of
all [to be the] poor farmers in the developing world," and "if this
new technology is killed in the cradle, these farmers could miss a
chance to escape the low farm productivity that is helping to keep
them in poverty."
How about this for an additional Millennium Goal: Stop
genocide-by-regulation by UN bureaucrats.
Finally, this sort of charade is exceedingly destructive to public
sector research and development: Unscientific, overly burdensome
regulation has raised costs to levels that "exclude the public
sector, the academic community, from using their skills to improve
crops," according to Dr. Roger Beachy, the director of the Danforth
Plant Science Center in St. Louis. In effect, Codex and other UN
regulatory initiatives have created a level playing field that is
hip-deep in muck, a disadvantage to the best, brightest and richest
in the field -- namely, American academics and companies.
The Codex deliberations are also disastrous politically.
Unscientific, unduly burdensome Codex standards for biotech foods
compromise hopes of World Trade Organization relief from
protectionist policies in Europe and elsewhere. Codex standards
provide cover for unfair trade practices, because with them in place,
a country that wishes to block trade in gene-spliced foods for any
reason can defend against charges of unfair trade practices simply by
remonstrating that it's deferring to Codex.
So why is the United States going along with this travesty? At a
meeting of our delegation, the representatives of USDA, EPA and FDA
offered the following rationales: Because virtually every other
country has in place irrational, unscientific regulation, we must,
too; and anyway, we're really addressing trade, not scientific,
issues. Most important, they said, American industry demands that we
It is true that U.S. industry (dozens of whose lobbyists attended the
Codex task force meeting, either as part of the U.S. delegation or as
independent NGOs) reluctantly endorses the Codex process. Paul Green,
from the Washington-based North American Grain Export Grain
Association, seemed to represent the consensus of American industry,
"We're trying to make the best of a lose-lose situation." But
encouraging bad regulation is like eating your seed corn: a
short-term expedient, a long-term catastrophe.
As a scientist, policy wonk, former federal regulator and taxpayer, I
find the United States's complicity in this corrupt UN-based activity
profoundly disturbing. American officials now regularly participate
in and encourage these anti-scientific debacles, and the United
States provides 22 percent of the base budget of the UN. Moreover, at
this Codex task force meeting, U.S. officials tried (with little
success, fortunately) to cozy up to their counterparts in the
European Community delegation; on regulatotry issues, that is
tantamount to the Department of Justice collaborating with the Mafia
on the implementation of the Federal Witness Protection Program.
John Bolton and Condi Rice take note: Thanks in large part to flawed
public policy, agbiotech already is moribund in the U.S. (and
international) public sector, little better in industry, and dead and
buried in the developing world. It's time to stop the hemorrhaging.
The United States should cut off funding and all other assistance to
foreign governments, United Nations agencies, and other international
bodies that implement, collude, or cooperate in any way with
unscientific policies. Flagrantly unscienttific regulation should
become the "third rail" of American foreign policy.
U.S. government delegates to international bodies such as Codex, Food
and Agriculture Organization, World Health Organization, United
Nations Environment Program and UNESCO should be directed to defend
rational, science-based policies, and to work to dismantle
politically motivated, unscientific restrictions.
Uncompromising? Aggressive? Likely to ruffle feathers? Yes -- but
justified in the face of the virtual annihilation of entire areas of
research and development, disuse of a critical technology, further
disenfranchisement of poor countries, and disruption of free trade.
Let's get public policy out of The Twilight Zone before it's too
late. (Cue Twilight Zone theme music.)
Henry I. Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, was the founding
director of the Office of Biotechnology at the FDA, 1989-1993. He is
an advisor to the U.S. delegation to the Codex task force on biotech
foods. Barron's selected his most recent book, "The Frankenfood
Myth," as one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.