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Date:

November 10, 2005

Subject:

WSJ's Flawed Corn Story; Defeating Biotech Bans; Case for Crop Biotech; Do GM Crops Perform Worse in Drought?

 

Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : November 10, 2005

* Letters to the Editor of Wall Street Journal
*... Donald Danforth, Nina Fedoroff, Rick Roush
* Family Farmers Welcome Defeat of Biotech Ban
* MacAdam Against Banning GMOs
* The Case for Crop Biotechnology
* Do GM Crops Perform Worse in Drought?

----

Letters Sent to the Editor of The Wall Street Journal In response to

> Out of the Lab: Biotech-Crop Battle Heats Up As Strains Mix With Others
> - Scott Miller and Scott Kilman, Wall Street Journal, November 8, 2005

From: William H. Danforth, M.D.

Dear Editor:
We can all sympathize with Mr. Ballarin who spent fifteen years
altering the genetics of corn so
that the kernels are red and then finds that some are yellow because
pollen from a neighboring
farm had affected his kernels. However, if one wants to understand
how this happens, it helps to
consider biology.

Cross pollination has been going on since time immemorial. I wonder
if any of Mr. Ballarin's
neighbors have complained of finding red kernels in their otherwise
solid color ears. Would it
have been better if yellow kernels had come from a neighbor's
"organic"corn? Biologically
there would have been no difference. The only difference is the
artificial, and now political, idea
that modifying crops with new scientific techniques is fundamentally
different than modifying
crops by other breeding techniques including techniques that totally
disrupt a plant's genetic
information. Just from the information in the article I would wager
that Mr. Ballarin's "organic"
corn is genetically further from the average European corn and,
hence, more artificial, than is the
"genetically modified" corn that has caused him concern.

Crops have been modified and have modified neighboring crops for at
least ten thousand years.
Fear of what is probably the safest technique ever discovered, is
perhaps natural because it is
new, but makes little sense.

Sincerely, William H. Danforth, M.D.
Chairman, Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

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

From: Nina Fedoroff

I write to protest the total inaccuracy of the material presented in
Kilman and Miller's front page article about "contamination" of
organic corn by pollen from GM crops. Not only are the authors
completely wrong in asserting that corn "contaminated" by DNA from GM
crops is no longer organic (the authors would be well advised to bone
up on the USDA's Organic Rule), but the sheer naivete of the genetics
is laughable. To put it in the simplest terms, stray pollen won't
make red kernels yellow. The red pigment (phlobaphene) is made in a
surface layer -- called the pericarp -- that is produced by the plant
on which the ear is made and is not influenced by the genetic
constitution of the pollen. Only if the plant that's producing the
ear is carrying the yellow gene will yellow kernels show up -- and
that just means the guy who was breeding the stuff doesn't know what
he's doing.

Artistic license is not what I expect on the front page of the Wall
Street Journal. The authors simply made up a story whose purpose was
to create the impression that GM crops are ruining organic farmers.
Factual misrepresentation on this scale and on such an important
issue is simply outrageous! I now know that I cannot rely on what I
read in the WSJ.

- Dr. Nina V. Fedoroff, Willaman Professor of Life Sciences and Evan
Pugh Professor Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences
(http://www.lsc.psu.edu/) 201 Life Sciences Building, Pennsylvania
State University

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

From: Rick Roush

Dear News Editors:

We have come to expect greater care with accuracy, depth of
understanding, critical analysis, and balance from the Wall Street
Journal than most news media. Unfortunately, the story on
Biotech-Crops by SCOTT MILLER and SCOTT KILMAN on November 8 (Page
A1) was simply not even close to your usual standard. I offer
specifics below of which you should be aware and discuss with your
writers.

I have not the time to write a complete dissection of the story, but
let's start with the first example. Could Miller have asked why Felix
Ballarin didn't take very basic steps to avoid cross pollination?
Ballarin's first clue that he had a problem was that he had yellow
corn in his cherished red variety, demonstrating that Ballarin had
not taken even the simplest steps to protect his corn from
cross-pollination with conventional corn. Especially given that it
is well known that Spain is growing GM corn, Ballarin could have
applied some effort to avoid cross-pollination. The most obvious
steps include isolation by a few hundred meters, or planting his corn
so that it flowered asynchronously from the GM corn (the latter has
been understood by Mr. Paretas as discussed at the end of the
article). This problem is not a lot different than growers with
contracts for blue corn must deal with every year in North America,
long before GM crops. It has always been the burden if those seeking
to produce and market for some price advantage to take steps to
protect that advantage. What happened to Miller's and Kilman's
powers of critical reasoning about the validity of Ballarin's
complaints?

Even having brought this tragedy onto himself, Ballarin could rescue
his cherished variety by simply testing a stand of his plants and
discarding all of those that test positive for GM before they flower.
The tests are simple and inexpensive.

"U.S. farmers say they are losing out on exports because overseas
customers are afraid of contamination by genetically modified, or
GM, varieties." Miller and Kilman write. How many farmers losing
what and who are they? You have quoted only a few organic farmers
with combined losses of what appear to be no more than several
thousand dollars. Compare that to the millions in benefits, not to
mention reduced and safer pesticide use. There are activist organic
farmers who want to stop this technology; they can hardly be seen as
objective or mainstream. I met some of those farmers as a
scientific adviser to the Sonoma county farm bureau in the election
that the anti-GM activists lost yesterday. (Let me add that I
started as a critic of the technology, but have been won over by the
data.)

It also happens that I am an Australian citizen, so I am all too
aware of the claims by Western Australian Ag Minister Kim Chance,
whom I once spent 90 minutes briefing about GM canola. After having
been found free of any significant risk to the environment or health
(or markets), GM canola was federally approved for release across all
of Australia. It is state governments (Chance himself in Western
Australia) who have blocked the commercialization of canola, based on
the polite political fiction that there is some marketing advantage
to being GM free, but in fact the bans are to placate their Green
Party partners in government.

If you were going to repeat Chance's claims as an elected politician,
you really should have investigated further than his website.
Chance's statement that "Regretfully, the GM companies appear unable
to contain their product," has been widely challenged in Australia.
It seems likely that the GM companies are not directly responsible,
since GM canola seed is regularly imported to Australia from Canada,
where no attempt is made to segregate GM and non GM canola because
there is no market advantage in doing so.

It was not contamination of wheat per se that stopped Monsanto's
plans, but that the wheat industry was concerned about a consumer
backlash against any GM wheat, even segregated.

The claims of GM critics that biotech food can cause allergies or
that the world's biodiversity will be put at risk have been adamantly
rejected not just by he GM industry, but the vast majority of
independent public sector scientists.

Kilman and Miller completely misrepresent the current status of the
so-called GM corn in Mexico. The UC Berkeley study was disowned by
the journal Nature. That is, Nature concluded that there were so
many flaws in the work that it should never have been published.
There have been no publicly accessible data or methods published by
the Mexican government. In short, there are no scientifically
accepted reports documenting GM corn in Mexico. To the contrary,
however, a paper was published in August (by a team that is usually
critical of GM) that could find no GM corn in Mexico. This story was
widely covered in the media (example shown below), so I am very
surprised that Kilman and Miller seemed unaware of it.

For me, the acid test for the accuracy of any news source is how they
stack up on things that I actually know something about. In this
case, Miller and Kilman have shaken my confidence in the Journal.
Fixing the confusion sown by this story will take more than a short
letter to the editor or a correction.

Sincerely, Rick Roush

For identification purposes only; the University has no position for
or against GM crops.
Richard T. Roush, Director, UC Statewide IPM Program
Interim Director, Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program
(SAREP), University of California, Davis, CA 95616-8621

===

Biotech Corn Hasn't Mixed With Maize In Mexico, Study Says

- Eric Hand, August 8, 2005 The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
http://www.stltoday.com/

Genetically modified corn hasn't mixed with native maize in southern
Mexico, according to a study posted online this week by the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study
contradicts results from four years ago, when scientists said
modified corn genes had moved into the traditional crops, called
maize in Mexico.

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

Family Farmers Welcome Defeat of Biotech Ban

- Dave Kranz, California Farm Bureau Federation, November 10, 2005 (Via Agnet)

The defeat of an anti-biotechnology initiative in this week's
election shows that voters recognize that their food is safe and
understand the need for innovation and flexibilit y on California
farms, according to the state's largest farm organization.

The California Farm Bureau Federation welcomed the defeat of Measure
M, an initiative that would have banned biotech crops in Sonoma
County. "Voters have again shown their trust in California's family
farmers to grow the safest, most affordable food in the world,"
California Farm Bureau President Bill Pauli said. "By defeating
Measure M, the voters showed their understanding that farmers need
access to the most advanced tools and the latest research so that
Californians can continue to consume California-grown products. We
thank Sonoma County voters for that trust."

Pauli congratulated Sonoma County family farmers for their work to
defeat the initiative. A coalition of farm groups known as the Family
Farmers Alliance, led by the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, was the main
organization working to defeat Measure M. He noted that Farm Bureaus
in Butte and San Luis Obispo counties put forth similar efforts to
defeat equivalent measures a year ago.
]
To succeed today, family farmers must commit themselves to their land
and their communities. Increasingly, they must also commit themselves
to be politically active," Sonoma County Farm Bureau President Mike
Strunk said. "We're encouraged to see again that voters respect the
opinions of family farmers on these important questions, and we thank
family farmers from around the state who helped us succeed."

Pauli said Farm Bureau will continue work to educate Californians
about agricultural biotechno logy. Farm Bureau has helped to organize
the California Healthy Foods Coalition, which provides public
information about biotech crops. The coalition maintains a Web site
at www.feedingthefuture.org. The California Farm Bureau Federation
works to protect family farms and ranches on behalf of nearly 87,000
members statewide.

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

MacAdam Against Banning GMOs

- CBC News, November 10, 2005

Prince Edward Island's agriculture minister, Kevin MacAdam, was cited
as telling the last day of hearings before a legislative committee
looking at the issue of GMOs on P.E.I. that he can't support banning
genetically modified crops, adding, "There is no evidence that
becoming a GMO-free zone would provide any competitive advantage and,
pursuing such a route would be difficult and very costly."

Lobby groups in the province have been trying to make the Island gov
ernment ban growing GM crops, making the province the only one in
Canada with such a ban. MacAdam was further cited as saying there is
room for all sorts of farming operations in the province. Adding that
the government might consider instituting buffer zones to prevent
cross contamination between fields planted with genetically modified
seed and conventional crops.

He also reminded the committee about arguments for using genetically
modified seed, including requiring fewer pesticides. He also said
there is no evidence to suggest the GM foods are dangerous for
consumers. Paul Mayers of Health Canada also appeared on the final
day of submissions. He supported MacAdam's argument. "We are not
aware of any published scientific evidence demonstrating that novel
foods assessed and approved for market entry are less safe than
traditional foods."

Michael McBain, a member of the Canadian Health Coalition, said
there's not enough scientific evidence to prove GM food is safe.
"There's never been any scientific r esearch to establish whether
it's safe to eat of not so we don't know."

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

The Case for Crop Biotechnology

http://www.cropgen.org/caseforcrops.html

The headlines and rhetoric about genetically modified (GM) crops and
foods have been alarming, and it would not be surprising if you had
reservations about both of them. There may be risks attached to GM
technology, but we believe there are also enormous potential benefits
- and that these benefits far outweigh the risks. Where we see real
benefits we will say so loudly and if we have concerns we will be
just as vocal.

The barrage of criticism levelled at GM crops could well deny us many
very real benefits - benefits to the environment in terms of reduced
use of chemicals, to the consumer in the form of more nutritious
foods and lower prices, and to the developing world through a more
secure supply of food.

At a time when people increasingly demand to know how technology
affects them, any new development will have to work hard to gain
public acceptance. That is not necessarily a bad thing provided the
issues are addressed seriously. Several recent scare stories - not
just about GM crops - have shown how scientific information is
misused in pursuit of other agendas. More understanding and open
debate about science and technology is long overdue. If crop
biotechnology is sacrificed along the way in the UK, or in Europe
more widely, it could be one of the great missed opportunities of our
time. Most of the world is forging ahead, not waiting for the
doubters to make up their minds.

CropGen makes the case for GM crops (crop biotechnology) on the basis
of publicly available information. We have no access to confidential
material and would not use it if we had: it is a cornerstone of our
approach that our sources must be available to everyone who wants to
know.

Whenever we can, we prefer to use data from peer-reviewed
publications but that is often not possible. But wherever the
information comes from, it has to be information equally accessible
to anyone who takes the trouble to get it.

There are many issues to be considered besides the purely scientific
and technical, including economic, social, political and moral
factors. But if the basic facts are wrong or misused, all that is
built upon them will similarly be at fault. It is our objective to do
what we can to ensure that in the public debate the "facts" are the
real ones, not what some people would like them to be or pretend that
they are.

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

Australia: Network of Concerned Farmers Ask Why GM Crops Perform
Worse in Drought

- Christopher Preston ,
Senior Lecturer, Weed Management, University of Adelaide

In my recent search for material on yields of GM canola following the
comments of Julie Newman of the Network of Concerned Farmers that GM
canola yields were 20% less than those of conventional canola, I came
across a press release dating from 30th June 2005
(http://www.non-gm-farmers.com/news_details.asp?ID=2254). In this
press release, the Network of Concerned Farmers are asking why GM
crops perform worse in drought. This looks on the surface like a
reasonable question. The problem with the question, and perhaps the
intention, is that it makes the assumption that GM crops do perform
worse in drought. However, is there any evidence to support such an
assumption?

Julie Newman thinks so and claims in the press release: "Farmers
worldwide have complained that GM crops perform worse than non-GM
crops during drought including GM cotton in India and Indonesia, GM
soy in the United States and Brazil and GM canola in CanadaŠ."
Supporting information is provided along with the press release
mostly pointing to other articles on the Network of Concerned Farmers
website.

The main evidence provided by the Network of Concerned Farmers for
their claims, both in the press release and in the supporting
information is a claim that the 2004/2005 drought in Brazil had
greatly reduced GM soy yields. The quote presented comes from a
press release from the Polaris Institute of 29th June 2005. The
Polaris Institute describes its mission as "retooling citizen
movements for democratic social change in an age of corporate-driven
globalization". This press release quotes an unnamed "president of
the Rio Grande do Sul seed association" as saying crop losses were
25% higher for GM soy crops as compared to conventional ones.

The press release takes as its basis a news report, originally on
Tierramerica, written by Mario Osava in March 2005. In this report
we find that the unnamed president is in fact Narciso Barison,
president of APASSUL, a state association of seed producers. In
addition, the quote about yield losses was "because transgenic seeds
are smuggled into Brazil from Argentina and are not intended for the
local climate, so have proved less resistant to the water shortage.
The conventional varieties, developed by national Brazilian agencies,
certified and adapted to the region, had better results. The
differences in crop loss varied according to the conditions of each
field, reaching "a maximum of 25 percent" for non-GM soy, he said."
Therefore, rather than a 25% yield reduction on account of the
soybeans being GM we have a problem with less well adapted varieties
being smuggled into Brazil and the yield loss is mostly less than
25%. As all farmers would realise, less well-adapted varieties are
likely to have lower yields. The farmers growing these varieties
would have decided to grow GM soy for the other advantages they
provide.

The second example provided by the Network of Concerned Farmers comes
from an article in NewFarm
(www.newfarm.org/features/0904/soybeans/index_print.shtml) published
by the Rodale Institute following a presentation by Ron Eliason at
the 2004 Midwest Soybean Conference. The Rodale Institute promotes
organic agriculture. The author of the article, Dan Sullivan, has a
sidebar that repeats a number of the usual dubious claims of the
anti-GM movement.

I have previously looked into this claim, as Charles Benbrook has
used this presentation as evidence for lower yields of GM soybeans,
and repeat here what I have previously written: A second line of
evidence cited by Benbrook is that yield improvement in soybeans has
been essentially nil since 1995 and that this is due to the high
adoption of Roundup Ready soybeans. In evidence, Benbrook cites a
presentation by Eliason and Jones at the Midwest Soybean Conference
in 2004 (go to http://wwwiasoybeans.com/whatnew/msc04/proceed.html
and click on the link). In this presentation, Eliason and Jones
contend that per acre soybean yields peaked in 1994 and have been
effectively flat ever since. In 1994 there was the highest ever per
acre soybean yield, whereas 2003 was the lowest yielding year for a
decade.

A second presentation at the same conference (J.E. Sprecht. Is
soybean yield improvement stagnating? Perception and perspectives.
http://wwwiasoybeans.com/whatnew/msc04/proceed.html and click on the
link) examined the same problem. Sprecht showed that plateaus in
soybean yields could be seen at various times since the 1970s and
suggested what has happened in the last decade is not new. Soybean
yields in Nebraska have mirrored soybean yields over the whole US,
with no apparent yield improvement since 1995. However, a number of
droughts have occurred in Nebraska over the past decade. Sprecht
showed that while yields in dryland soybeans had not increased since
1995, yield improvements, with no significant reduction in rate of
improvement, had occurred in irrigated soybeans. Benbrook has simply
ignored Sprecht. It is clear from Sprecht's analysis and other data
presented at the same conference that weather conditions rather than
Roundup Ready are responsible for the apparent lack of yield
improvement in the US.

In this case, there is no evidence that GM soybeans are performing
any worse in dry conditions than conventional crops. Indeed Sprecht
was able to show similar effects for maize, much of which was not GM
until more recently.

The third example is Argentina where the claim is made "RR soya crops
also yield 5% to 10% less compared with the non-GM varieties grown
under similar soil conditions, confirming findings in the United
States." This quote comes from an article written by Dr. Lilian
Joensen and Mae-Wan Ho and published by the Institute of Science in
Society. The article is called Argentina's GM Woes
(http://www.i-sis.org.uk/AGMW.php). As a source, Joensen and Ho used
an article written in 2001 by Walter Pengue for Seedling, the
newsletter of GRAIN (www.grain.org/publications/seed-01-9-3-en.cfm).
In this article, Pengue writes: "Evidence shows that RR soybean crops
produce 5% to 10% less yield per acre as against other identical
varieties grown under similar soil conditionsŠ." He cites "Troubled
Times Amid Commercial Success for Roundup Ready Soybeans: Glyphosate
Efficacy is Slipping and Unstable Transgene Expression Erodes Plant
Defenses and Yields" by Charles Benbrook as the source of this
information. Benbrook was citing his analysis of US soybean trials.
Therefore, not only does the quoted 5 to 10% yield loss have nothing
to do with drought, it also has nothing to do with Argentina.
Joensen and Ho added the comment "confirming findings in the United
States".

The fourth example given is Indonesia. In this case, the quote is
"In the first year of planting, there were reported failures of Bt
cotton - the crop succumbed to drought and hundreds of hectares were
attacked by pests. The drought had led to a pest population explosion
on Bt cotton, but not on other cotton varieties". This quote is
tracked backed to an Institute of Science in Society Press release of
May 2004 written by Lim Li Ching
(http://www.i-sis.org.uk/BrokenPromises.php). Ching used a Friends
of the Earth publication "Genetically-Modified Crops: A Decade of
Disaster" and an article from The Jakarta Post "Pest attack
genetically-modified cotton" 29 June, 2001. The quote used by the
Friends of the Earth is not acknowledged in their publication, but
comes from a summary produced by Sarah Hindmarsh of the Pesticide
Action Network of Asia Pacific as a source of most of the quotes
(there are a number of sites with this summary including
www.poptel.org.uk/panap/ge/indoblurb.htm.). In the summary,
Hindmarsh states: "The Bt cotton has succumbed to drought and pest
infestations" and cites three Jakarta Post news articles as the
source of this information. These are: Pests attack genetically
modified cotton, The Jakarta Post, June 29, 2001; Pros and cons of
transgenic cotton continue in S. Sulawesi, The Jakarta Post Features,
July 17, 2001; Transgenic cotton irks farmers, The Jakarta Post:
National News, September 15, 2001. A search of these three articles
failed to find any mention of drought. It seems that Hindmarsh has
added the comment about drought to the story. The story is further
embellished as it goes along.

The next example is India. Here the Network of Concerned Farmers
relies on a Press Release from the International Institute for
Environment and Development (IIED). This Press Release touted the
publication of a document "BT cotton in Andhra Pradesh: A three year
assessment" published by the Deccan Development Society, Andhra
Pradesh Coalition in Defense of Diversity and the Permaculture
Association of India, co-written by the Project Coordinator of the
Permaculture Association of India. These three organizations are
implacably opposed to GM crops and are leading the opposition to Bt
cotton in southern India. Within this document is a table of yields
that indicate Bt cotton performed worse in Andhra Pradesh in its
first year of production, the drought year of 2002/2003, than
conventional hybrids. In 2003/2004 and 2004/2005 yields of Bt cotton
were higher than yields of conventional hybrids. However, drought
conditions were also evident in 2004/2005. Yields of conventional
cotton hybrids were actually worse in 2004/2005 than in 2002/2003.
Yet in this drought year, Bt cotton outperformed non-Bt cotton by 5%.

In an article "Bt Cotton Controversy: Some Paradoxes Explained",
written by Gopal Naik, Matin Qaim, Arjunan Subramanian and David
Zilberman and published in the Economic and Political Weekly April 9
2005, the authors report the results of a survey of 341 cotton
farmers in four states of India. In their report, yields of Bt and
conventional cotton were analyzed across several states of India. In
three out of 4 states in 2002, yields of Bt cotton were significantly
higher than non-Bt cotton. In Andhra Pradesh, Bt cotton yields were
lower than conventional by 3%, but this difference was not
statistically significant. In Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu,
yields were significantly higher by 32%, 73%, and 43% respectively.
Andhra Pradesh had the second highest conventional cotton yield of
the three states indicating that drought was probably not of
significantly greater intensity in Andhra Pradesh than elsewhere. As
Naik et al. state: "If the germplasm is more susceptible to drought
than a locally adapted cultivar, the Bt hybrid will underperform in a
dry spell, especially when bollworm pressure is low."

Next we come to South Africa, where the Network of Concerned Farmers
rely on a report from Biowatch, South Africa. Biowatch is the lead
anti-GM organization in South Africa. This article "Bt cotton in
South Africa: the case of the Makhathini farmers" by Elfrieda
Pschorn-Strauss was published in Seedling, the Newsletter of GRAIN,
in 2005. This article, while highly critical of Bt cotton, does not
once contain a claim that Bt cotton does less well under drought
conditions than conventional cotton. Instead it indicates that
drought and low cotton prices have inhibited small farmers from being
as successful as larger farmers with Bt cotton. The problem being the
high cost of seed is harder to justify in drought seasons.

Lastly, we come to GM canola in Canada. The Network of Concerned
Farmers provides no additional evidence to support their claims about
reduced yields in droughts of GM canola in Canada.

I also conducted a brief search of the scientific literature and was
unable to find any articles that reported lower yields of GM crops
under drought conditions. This does not mean that there may not be
some information in articles are not out there, simply that the
information is not prominent.

In conclusion, the examples given by the Network of Concerned Farmers
do not stack up. They can all be sourced to groups that are
implacably opposed to GM crops. Has Julie Newman and the Network of
Concerned Farmers ever wondered why only anti-GM groups are able to
find evidence for GM crops performing worse under drought? Of the
seven examples given, only two indicate the possibility that drought
might preferentially lower yields of GM crops. In both cases, it was
the growing of less well-adapted cultivars that was the root of the
problem. At this stage, there is simply no evidence to support a
conclusion that GM causes crops to perform worse in drought.

One of the other points of note from this survey was that on two
occasions anti-GM activists simply added material to the story to
make up for the lack of evidence and on a third occasion change the
wording significantly to make a quote look more damaging. This should
be adequate warning to Julie Newman, and others, that they should
look for the original sources of the stories instead of simply
believing and parroting what is written by these groups.
##