Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - January 21, 2006
* Don't Reinvent the Wheel
* South Africa Rejects Calls for More Stringent Biotech Crop Laws
* In Praise of GM Foods
* Biotech Marches On!
* Europe is Missing Out on the Biotech Revolution..
* Greenpeace Founder.....Radical Environmentalist to Scientist
* USDA Meet - Agricultural Outlook Forum 'Prospering in Rural America'
* Consumer Benefits and Acceptance of GM Food
* Norman Borlaug is the Greatest Living American
* Organic Food: The Hidden Agenda
Don't Reinvent the Wheel
News24 (South Africa), January 19, 2006 http://www.news24.com/
Cape Town - Biotechnology research and development in South Africa should not be hampered by onerous and unnecessary safety checks, members of parliament's agriculture and land affairs committee heard on Tuesday.
Speaking at a public hearing on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), University of Pretoria honorary Professor Jocelyn Webster said it was only very large companies or public institutions in wealthy, developed countries that could afford all the bio-safety assessments required. Webster said after her presentation she was certainly not suggesting South Africa took safety shortcuts on GMOs.
"What I am asking the government to do is look at the risk-benefit process, and to understand... there is quite an extensive amount of data that has already been collected globally."
The importance of biotechnology for Africa. This should be examined in a much more comprehensive manner so that "we do not waste our resources trying to re-invent the wheel by doing it all over again ourselves".
The committee is conducting public hearings over the next two days on the Genetically Modified Organisms Amendment Bill, which seeks to promote greater care in the development, production and use of GMOs than is required under existing legislation.
Webster sketched the importance of biotechnology for Africa, where up to three-quarters of the workforce was involved in agriculture, and 70% of the population depended on farming as their only source of income.
She said the continent's crop production was the lowest in the world at 1.7 tons a hectare, compared to the global figure of four tons. Estimates showed the demand for maize alone was set to rise 80% by 2020 (off a 1997 base) in sub-Saharan Africa.
Agricultural biotechnology offered the prospect of more insect, virus and fungal-resistant maize crops, as well as the opportunity to make them more drought tolerant.
Unnecessary information. However, scientific research could not go forward if there was slow decision-making and onerous legislation. South Africa should "develop science-based data of what it is necessary to know, not what it would be nice to know. In many cases I believe the decision-making council (on GMOs) asks for additional data from organisations that is not absolutely necessary for the risks involved". This was causing delay after delay.
"We need to tighten our focus, we need to streamline our process," Webster warned. Regulations and legislation needed to provide safety checks and balances, but remain easy to use by all, including scientists and farmers. The cost of biosafety assessment also needed to be minimised to ensure maximum benefits from the technology, she said.
South Africa Rejects Calls for More Stringent Biotech Crop Laws
- Mike Cohen, Bloomberg, Jan 19, 2006
South Africa wants to encourage the development of genetically modified crops, and does not share environmentalists' concerns that proposed laws to regulate the industry are inadequate, a government official said.
South African lawmakers are considering amendments to the Genetically Modified Organisms Bill to bring it into line with an international agreement known the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which South Africa joined in 2003. The proposed changes aim to ensure greater oversight over companies that plant biotech crops, make them do more risk assessments and improve their disclosure.
Environmental groups, including Biowatch South Africa, say the new laws are flawed because they don't ensure adequate regulatory control or compulsory labeling and fail to hold producers liable for any damages their products may cause.
"There are risks to genetic modification, but we do have very good, internationally respected and internationally used legislation," Ben Durham, the science and technology department's director of biotechnology, told lawmakers today. "That should provide a measure of confidence in our bio-safety regime. We should not be over-regulating."
The market for genetically modified corn seeds in South Africa, the continent's biggest grower of the grain, is worth about 700 million rand ($116 million) a year and dominated by Monsanto Co. and Syngenta AG. The government is wary of a few international companies dominating South Africa's biotech industry and wants to develop local expertise, Durham said.
"South African cannot afford not to have its own home-growth biotechnology academic environment that can produce traits and products that are suited to our environment," he said. "It is recognized that biotechnology holds enormous potential. We are of the opinion that the benefits outweigh the risks."
Monsanto, the world's biggest developer of genetically modified crops, yesterday said it is concerned South Africa's adherence to the Cartagena protocol may obstruct research, push up costs and create uncertainty over who regulates biotech crops. Parliament's agriculture committee will debate the new laws next week.
In Praise of GM Foods
- Irish Times, January 21, 2006, http://www.ireland.com Excerpt... (Thanks to Vivian Moses)
It comes as a surprise to hear a passionate advocate of environmental conservation and biodiversity unequivocally defend the use of biotechnology and genetically modified (GM) food. Peter Raven insists, however, that opposition to the development of GM crops is "emotional, personal, and political".
He argues that there is no scientific evidence that either GM crops or the transmission of their genetic modifications to wild species threatens human health or ecosystems.
Starvation, he says, is the real threat to human health. The scale of this threat creates a moral imperative to increase agricultural productivity. He claims that the resultant rise in yields per acre will mean we can reduce the amount of land dedicated to agriculture. Biodiversity could then flourish in land restored to wild habitat.
He attributes his dual commitment to the environment and to feeding the world to values inculcated "by my Irish Catholic mother". In 2004, he told a conference at the Vatican: "The efforts of organisations such as Greenpeace to block efforts to feed people adequately, by battling biotechnology, are outrageous, scientifically unfounded and should be rejected out of hand by any moral person."
The Irish environmental writer Fr Sean McDonagh SSC, who also attended the conference, argues equally robustly that "our knowledge of the natural world is so poor that we have to be extremely cautious where biotechnology is concerned. And patenting living organisms is immoral. It could be a recipe for famine and disaster". Fr McDonagh points out that assurances from scientists about safety in this field have been repeatedly undermined by new evidence. And he points to major sponsorship of Missouri Botanical Garden by the local biotechnology giant Monsanto as an indication of corporate influence on these questions.
Raven takes the Monsanto reference in his stride: "Every cultural institution in St Louis gets gifts from Monsanto," he says. "There are no strings attached . . . I am against anything which would lead to increasing dependence by the poor on corporations, but many things from GM research can benefit the poor."
Confused? As Fr McDonagh says, even the Vatican is undecided on this issue.
Biotech Marches On!
- Terry Wanzek, Truth About Trade and Technology, www.truthabouttrade.org
If there's an art to being wrong, then the enemies of biotechnology are like Michelangelo.
When GM crops were commercialized a decade ago, the voices of negativism complained that poor farmers would never benefit. The developing world, they declared, couldn't possibly afford to take advantage of agriculture‚s next great innovation.
Fortunately, their predictions were totally wrong. There were 8.5 million biotech growers in 2005, and 90 percent of them were resource-poor farmers in developing countries. That group accounted for more than one-third of the world‚s gene-altered crop acreage. They‚re the foot soldiers of the biotech revolution.
The most reliable facts and figures on the rapidly expanding use of biotech crops may be found in a new report from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a nonprofit research group. The data revealed that farmers planted 222 million acres of GM crops in 2005. That's an increase of 11 percent from the previous year, and a fifty-fold increase from just ten years ago.
Anybody who cares about food should celebrate this remarkable triumph. Because of biotechnology, we‚re able to feed more people with less farmland than ever before. Biotechnology enhances production efficiency and creates a more plentiful supply of safe, reliable and affordable food for a hungry world. In the years ahead, our capabilities will do nothing but improve.
At the same time, biotechnology has not helped every kind of farmer. I grow wheat in North Dakota, and so far the biotech revolution has passed wheat farmers by. It doesn't matter that I happen to live in the wealthiest and most privileged nation in human history. I can't grow biotech wheat because it isn't available. In this respect, I envy those poor farmers who have access to the best that science can give them.
The fundamental challenge for wheat isn't with the science. It's with our willpower. We know how to develop new varieties of wheat. I'm particularly interested in a strain that would address the huge problem of fusarium head blight or scab as it is commonly known. But biotech companies can‚t invest their research and development dollars into wheat if they don't believe it will result in a product they can sell. And so far, regrettably, wheat farmers have provided mixed signals about their desire to grow biotech enhanced wheat.
Oddly, one of the worlds's most repressed and backwards nations has shown no such reluctance. Last year, Iran became the first country to commercialize GM rice. Several hundred farmers planted about 10,000 acres of biotech-enhanced rice, according to ISAAA. This year, Iran is expected to grow as many as 50,000 acres of it.
Iran has been in the news lately for its aggressive efforts to build nuclear weapons. It is ruled by a president who denies the reality of the Holocaust and says that he wants Israel wiped from the map.
It astonishes me that a charter member of the 'axis of evil' has beaten American wheat farmers to biotechnology. What's next? North Koreans listening to podcasts in Pyongyang?
Don't get me wrong: I welcome gene-enhanced rice. China's adoption can't be far behind, and soon rice farmers all over the world--tens of millions of them--will embrace biotechnology. They already provide humanity with nearly half of its caloric intake. Increasing yields and reducing costs for these farmers will strike a major blow against hunger.
I'd like to be able to do the same thing with wheat on my farm. Even before I heard about Iran, it felt like wheat farmers were a decade behind corn and soybean growers, who have adopted biotechnology at a rapid pace. Unless we send a clear signal to the companies that have the capacity to create and commercialize biotech wheat traits, we‚re going to fall even further behind.
Tha's because wheat farmers threaten to earn a reputation as a group of people who don‚t want what modern science can give them. This is bound to have a chilling effect, as young researchers looking for careers and experienced investors looking for opportunities conclude that wheat won‚t ever change. (And believe me, the last thing we need here in North Dakota is another chilling effect.)
Nothing less than the future of wheat farming is at stake. The question is: Will we move ahead, or will we turn our backs on it?
Terry Wanzek grows corn, soybeans, and wheat on his family farm in North Dakota. A former ND state legislator, Mr. Wanzek serves as a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org)
Europe is Missing Out
....on the agricultural biotech revolution, says pioneering agbiotech scientist
- SeedQuest, January 19, 2006
Brussels, Belgium - Prof. Dr. Marc Van Montagu, Chairman, International Plant Biotechnology Organisation (IPBO), Gent University and president of the European Federation of Biotechnology, told journalists at a press conference in Brussels, today, that Europe is missing out on the biotech revolution in agriculture. Europe is lagging behind its worldwide competitors and European farmers are deprived of access to one of the fastest growing technologies in agriculture.
Marc Van Montagu is the inventor of the technology to create genetically modified (GM) plants and produced the first GM plant in Europe. He is convinced that technology transfer and plant biotechnology research oriented to the needs of the developing countries is important: "Fighting the vicious circle of hunger and poverty is the most urgent task that faces our society, and will require a reformulation of current models of agriculture," he said.
The European Union is far behind its competitors in terms of number of hectares under GM cultivation. The new figures published last week by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), show that in 2005 the number of hectares globally cultivated with GM crops increased by 9.0 million hectares. Among the growing number of countries cultivating GM crops, five of them are EU Member States, which is encouraging for Europe but still remains low in global terms.
Two of Europe's leading Agro biotech companies - CropDesign and Devgen - are in the frontline in developing and working on agricultural biotechnologies. Both companies are strong advocates for these technologies. Their R&D activities are important for Europe in its quest towards a strong, knowledge based economy. "The fact that Europe is lagging behind in the commercialization of GM-crops doesn't make things easier for young R&D driven companies", says Johan Vanhemelrijck, EuropaBio Secretary General."The question is how many companies decided not to start up in this area in Europe, and how many opportunities have we lost to maintain our leadership?"
Dr Van Montagu praised the European Commission supported European stakeholder forum on plant genomics and biotechnology, "Plants for the Future", which sets out a 20 year vision and a Strategic Research Agenda for European agricultural development for the next two decades as being a good example of supporting the plant science research and industry community who want to reap the benefits of agricultural biotechnologies. All speakers hope that the implementation of the EU regulation concerning GM-crops is encouraging at the national level, which will open the way towards a sustainable use of a very useful technology.
Greenpeace Founder Reviews Personal Odyssey from Radical Environmentalist to Scientist
- Michael R. Fox Ph.D., Hawaii Reporter, Jan 19,2006. Full story at http://www.hawaiireporter.com/story.aspx?34766741-8773-43cc-ba18-34581fd0afb7
The Pacific Rim Summit conference held last week in Waikiki was a major scientific event, which addressed a wide range of technologies that fall under the scientific aegis of biotechnology.
However, the major event was the extraordinary luncheon speaker Dr. Patrick Moore, one of the original founders of Greenpeace. As many have done before, Moore has gone through a personal odyssey from the radical environmental movement to a very strong spokesman for science and common sense.
His insider's views of that movement makes his views especially powerful, and reaffirming to those of us who have long since left this movement, for many of the same reasons. They are dishonest as a movement and today are extremely radical and harmful.
Too few Americans and far too few media people know anything about the environmental movement and it's transformation over the past 35 years into something vastly different. In Moore's words they have become far more extreme and whose politics is little more than neo-Marxism in green garb. Moore was quite specific
* Tend strongly to be anti-human
* Invariably misleading
In addition, environmental extremists can be inconsistent. Moore pointed out a placard carried recently by a protestor. It said "Join the global movement to help stamp out globalism". In spite of these characteristics the media and too many political leaders, wink at this movement, defer to their agendas, and presume they are harmless and well-meaning. They are neither.
Just one example is the DDT ban in 1972 which withheld one of best weapons against malaria, yellow fever, and other mosquito-borne diseases largely in the 3rd world. This has led to the malaria deaths of 1-2 million people annually since 1972 and the non-fatal debilitation of hundreds of millions of others. Yes, they are very harmful to humans.
Moore also pointed out other areas of harm by the greens. One of these was their opposition to genetically modified (GM) food, another large topic under the umbrella term "biotechnology". Such GM technology permits scientists to genetically introduce or modify disease resistance, water dependence, growth rates, shelf lives, color retention, etc. into many types of foods such as rice, wheat, and other vegetables.
These in turn permit greater yields on the same land areas. They also can help make such crop disease resistant. Both of these help make farmland more productive by not only increasing food production but reducing the pressures to expand agricultural lands. This in turn permits the retention of wildlife and wildlife habitat, and endangered plants species, something the greens claim to defend. They can't have it both ways. Some types of rice, for example, have deficiencies in vitamin A, iron, and vitamin E. The deficiency in vitamin A causes blindness in a nominal 1 million children each year, according to Moore. With genetic engineering the vitamin A precursors can be inserted into the genetic material of golden rice to avert this blindness.
Moore also pointed out correctly that there has never been demonstrable harm shown from the genetically modified foods, only great benefits from increased food supplies. Thus, not only can GM technology increase yields but also create healthier food at the same time.
We need to know who these people are and the horrific agendas they push. An understanding of the menace of the greens described by Dr. Moore is needed by all who care about people and our future. The world needs a lot more Dr. Patrick Moores.
The characteristics of the environmental movement as described above by Moore are as profound as they are instructive. In light of the words of this environmentalist insider, the entire green movement must be re-examined by all of us. That Moore provides personal testimony of these characteristics should force every one to rethink more carefully the agendas of the environmental movement and more carefully as to what the environmental movement has become.
Moore is not alone in his assessments of the environmentalists. George Will's assessment of the environmentalists is well described in his December 16th article entitled "Environmentalism as a Cover for Collectivism" Many former members of this movement, including this author, have discovered this and walked away also. The reasons are simple, and they are largely the same as those pointed out by Moore.
They are advocates much more than scientists, and skilled in propaganda techniques and as such are quite willing to ignore and suppress scientific data which do not support radical political agendas. For them evidence which is not considered, is evidence which doesn't exist. That's not science.
This non-scientific approach pops up in many debates over the environment, such as DDT, dioxin, Alar, nuclear energy, health effects of radiation and global warming. So policy makers, take note. These groups continue to be a menace to American society. When considering the realities of today‚s environmental movement, one simply has to get beyond the slogans and catchy words and examine their sordid history. As Moore warns, their words do not match their destructive deeds.
Michael R. Fox, Ph.D., is the energy and science writer for Hawaii Reporter.
USDA's Agricultural Outlook Forum 'Prospering in Rural America'
- February 16-17, 2006, Arlington, Virginia 22202
USDA's Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns and other top officials, industry analysts, business leaders, farmers and ranchers, and agricultural experts are among the speakers at the 82nd annual Forum.
In 2006, Program topics include: Rural Development, bio-fuel & alternative energy, broadband commerce, demand for skilled workers, next generation of farmers, community-supported agriculture, and regional innovation, Farm Policy, Conservation, Economic Outlook for Commodities. Globalization & U.S. Trade . Animal Health and Bio-tech Development.
For more information: Stacey Harley (202) 720-2831; firstname.lastname@example.org
Consumer Benefits and Acceptance of Genetically Modified Food
- John G. Knight, Damien W. Mather, David K. Holdsworth, Journal of Public Affairs, Vol. 5 (3-4), 226 - 235; Oct 27, 2005 (via Vivian Moses)
Abstract - Much of the resistance towards genetically modified foods appears to stem from public perceptions that they offer no consumer benefits. In order to test whether clearly defined consumer benefits would change behaviour, a purchasing experiment has been conducted in New Zealand, where the genetically modified issue has been highly politicized.
Cherries labelled as spray free-genetically modified, organic or conventional were offered for sale in a roadside stall, with price levels manipulated to test price se2nsitivity of the different options. Approximately 27% of consumers proved willing to purchase genetically modified labelled cherries when all three types were priced at the prevailing market price, and this market share increased to 60% when the price was discounted by 15% and organic was priced at a 15% premium.
Norman Borlaug is the Greatest Living American
- Dennis Avery, The Steward (Hawaii); "Subscribe" in the subject line to email@example.com
'Saving People and Nature with the Green Revolution'
As newspaper readers around the nation brace of the usual avalanche of profiles about various persons of the year, let me toss out an intriguing question: "Is Norman E. Borlaug the greatest living American?"
Borlaug has never received anywhere near the public applause he deserves for his contributions to saving both people and wildlife with the Green Revolution. So it's nice to note that the still vigorous 91-year-old Iowa plant breeder has just been awarded the U.S. National Science Medal.
Borlaug had already been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1970, for launching the Green Revolution that saved 1 billion people from starvation in the 1960s. He led the development of the higher-yielding wheat and rice varieties that tripled food yields per acre across most of the world after 1960.
After Borlaug's Nobel Peace Prize was awarded, however, pessimists warned that Borlaug's high-yielding seeds would simply mean a massively overpopulated planet. Chief among them was Stanford's Paul Ehrlich, who predicted in his international best seller, The Population Bomb, that the race to feed humanity had already been lost. That, alas, became the reigning conventional wisdom.
Borlaug's logic and optimism prevailed, however, and four developments since then have made him an even more towering figure today than he was in 1970.
First, improved seeds and farming systems have continued to make food more abundant and less expensive in the decades since 1970. The proportion of humanity that goes to bed hungry has continued to decline. The Malthusians--those who believe the world could never produce the food needed to feed increasing populations—have continued to be wrong, as they have been for centuries.
Second, and far more surprising, the Green Revolution has helped to radically lower human birth rates--voluntarily. Poor farmers always had large families, often 10 or 12 children because kids were immediately useful in the fields. They were also the only retirement system in poor countries.
Since the Green Revolution, however, Third World births per woman have dropped three-fourths of the way to stability--from about 6.2 births per woman to less than 2.8. Population stability is 2.1. Human numbers are expected to peak about 8 billion, in 2035, and then enter a long, slow decline.
Births per woman have dropped fastest in the countries which have raised their crop yields the most. The Green Revolution launched a virtuous circle, releasing more workers to take city jobs, where they have produced the cars and computers we wanted--and smaller families. Affluent urban couples today average 1.7 children.
Third, Borlaug points out that 21st century farmers are feeding 6.3 billion people on the same farmland area which was inadequate to feed 1 billion in 1900. He says feeding more people from less land is high-yield conservation. He warns that getting today's food supply with the seeds and farming systems of 1950 would already have forced the world to plow down its remaining 16 million square miles of wild lands.
Borlaug also warns that organic farmers could feed only half as many people on today's farmlands. That's primarily because organic farmers refuse to use nitrogen fertilizer, taken from the air, to replace the soil nitrogen used up by growing crops. Instead, organic farmers must use large tracts of land for cattle pasture, or for such nitrogen-fixing crops as clover, to replenish the vital soil nitrogen.
Fourth, Borlaug has spent the last three decades working vigorously to bring the Green Revolution to Africa. Recently, his International Maize and Wheat Center produced genetically researched corn seeds that naturally tolerate the herbicide imazopyr. These corn seeds can thus be soaked in the herbicide, which kills the endemic, parasitic witchweed when it tries to invade the corn plants through their roots. The new corn seeds quadruple African corn yields, and increase African farmers' food security even more than that.
Norman Borlaug's total achievements to date: 1 billion people saved from starvation; 16 million square miles of global wildlife habitat saved from plow-down; the population gorilla tamed; and a major increase in the food security of famine-threatened Africans.
The nominations are still open, but Norman Borlaug ranks head and shoulders above all others for the title of Greatest Living American.
Dennis T. Avery is a senior fellow for Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. and is the Director for Center for Global Food Issues (www.cgfi.org) and a former senior analyst for the Department of State. Readers may write him at Post Office Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421.
Organic Food: The Hidden Agenda
- Trewavas AJ Association of Applied Biologists Letters issue 56. (2005)
In a recent news letter, David Atkinson1 concluded that promotion of a food culture in which the consumption of organic foods was significant element would seem likely to enhance health. I disagree. The information provided below enables a different perspective.
Diets, health and taste. Organic associations seek to justify their claim that organic food is healthier by pointing to changes in certain constituents2. Thus there are claims that some minerals, vitamin C (fruit and vegetables), lycopene3 (tomatoes) are slightly higher than conventional produce. No individual food provides every human nutritional requirement. Consequently it is only diets that can be healthy and those varied and balanced between cereals, conventional meat and plant produce, together with regular exercise, provide all the necessary constituents for excellent health. Organic associations claim to think holistically; in this respect they are remarkably reductionist. It is well known that different fruit and vegetable varieties vary enormously in vitamin and mineral content (the vitamin C content of apples differs by three fold-tomato, lycopene 2 fold) much greater than the trivial variations induced by organic cultivation. Growth conditions make huge differences in mineral content4. If the concern is vitamins, a multivitamin/ mineral pill, cost about 5p, is a more reliable investment.
However intake is one thing, uptake another. Organic tomatoes with a higher vitamin C, b carotene and lycopene content than conventional tomatoes, have been fed to volunteers. No increase in the blood plasma content of any of the constituents was detected3. If the recommended two fruit and three vegetables a day are consumed, the vitamin C intake is 250mg/day. However the body will excrete 150mg of this by renal plasma clearance because the transporter that enables cells to take up vitamin C is saturated at 100mg/day5. Lycopene and b carotene uptake are dependent on concomitant fat consumption and compete for chylomicron sites with each other. Uptake is thus dependent on what else is in the diet.
To determine the “health” of organic food, comparison must be made of the health and mortality statistics between matched human populations consuming only organic or conventional produce over many years. Organic claims are the reversal of normal scientific procedure since they were originally made without any evidence at all. Although there is rightly great concern about obesity this is as much the result of lack of exercise as unbalanced diet. Exercise reduces the risk of cancer and heart disease, potentiates the immune system and beneficially increases endorphin release in the brain, improving mental health. There are recurring reports that processed organic food is higher in fat and salt6.
The taste of organic produce compared to conventional produce has been examined numerous times2. It is necessary to use the same varieties and similar growth conditions. In double blind taste tests no consistent pattern then emerges. Fresh produce can more easily be distinguished from stale. UK supermarkets can store produce for up to a year before sales. In my own experience in France, supermarket conventional produce, freshly purchased by law from local sources, contains all the taste required.
Synthetic chemicals and food price. The main reason the public give for buying organic food is because they suppose it free of dangerous, carcinogenic chemicals4,7. Farmers, millers and foresters, occupationally exposed to much higher synthetic pesticide levels, actually have cancer rates substantially lower than the rest of the population8. Diets high in conventional fruit and vegetables (containing synthetic pesticide traces) reduce cancer rates by half9. These two facts provide a very different perspective on supposed dangerous pesticide traces in conventional produce. Once lung cancer rates due to smoking are removed from the statistics, overall UK cancer rates exhibit persistent declines over the last 50 years10. The deduction from that is that the origin of many cancers has nothing to do with present day lifestyle. Increased rates of breast cancer are thought due to increasing obesity and consequent increase in oestrogen producing tissues. Regulatory agencies issue guidelines on allowable pesticide trace levels that would not increase cancer rates by more than one cancer in 100,000. However so many worst-case assumptions are included in this assessment, that the safety level provides effectively zero risk8. The Food Standards Agency recently indicated that synthetic pesticide traces were the highest in a number of organic baby foods11.
In both the UK and the USA, only some 20% of the population actually eat sufficient fruit and vegetables for cancer protection4. Price is a strong determinant of consumption4. Organic produce is more expensive, often greatly so. A nationwide programme to sell only organic produce would thus reduce fruit and vegetable consumption and serious future health consequences could be anticipated. An increased price would not persuade those that eat insufficient at present, to change eating patterns; particularly in the poorest sections of the community where basic food costs 30% of the weekly salary. Heavy fat consumption accompanied by smoking are both high risk factors for cancer and are strongly associated with poor education and low salary. Vigorously reducing the price of fruit and vegetables is more likely to increase consumption.
World food prices have dropped by half in the last 50 years the result of efficient conventional farming; the poorest have benefited most12. Organic is notably inefficient in its use of land particularly for wheat and attempts to drive the world in an organic direction would necessitate ploughing up vast tracts of tropical forest, the only useable soil in the world left uncultivated. Global warming consequences would be severe as would effects on world health from an elevated food price.
The real chemicals in food. The major chemical exposures of every human being are natural chemicals. For every chemical some amount is toxic. Fruit and vegetables contain an estimated 100,000 natural pesticides synthesized by plants that efficiently kill insects (and many other herbivores) on consumption13-15. Pest damage and attack can increase accumulation by up to100 fold. Aeons of evolution have honed their toxicity. Every day we consume several thousand in number and in gram quantities; synthetic pesticides are consumed in conventional diets in micrograms8.
An average daily diet consumes the following:
Carcinogens. 60% of natural pesticides tested are rodent carcinogens, the same proportion as synthetic chemicals. Examples: quercetin in apples, limonene in citrus, caffeic acid in carrots, coffee, lettuce, potato, celery, etc. Although much is sometimes made of quercetin as a soluble antioxidant, the primary soluble antioxidants in the diet are vitamin C and glutathione. It sufficient vitamin C is present in the diet other soluble antioxidants are superfluous.
Teratogens. (chemicals that damage the growing foetus). Examples: chaconine and solanidine in potato. Solanidine accumulates in the liver and kidneys, has a body half-life of several months and is thought released during pregnancy where it acts teratogenically.
Oestrogen mimics. Flavanoids and isoflavones in most fruit and vegetables and genestein in soy, increase the circulating oestrogen mimic content of the non-menopausal female by 4%. What they do in men is under investigation. Current dibutylphthalate exposure, a synthetic chemical in plastic about which considerable environmental agitation has been made for its supposed “gender bending” activities, would increase female oestrogen mimic content by 0.0006% and dioxin by 0.000001%16.
Sterility inducers. Theobromine (2% dry weight of chocolate) and gossypol (human exposure from animals fed cotton seed cake or oil) induce sterility and testicular atrophy in test animals. Gossypol has been tried with some success to reversibly control human male fertility.
Chromosome breakers (clastogens). 40% of natural pesticides will induce breakage of chromosomes in cultured cells and at concentrations similar to or well below normal consumption. Allyl isothiocyanate will break chromosomes at concentrations about 1/50,000th the concentration of of sinigrin, its precursor, in onions of various kinds. Chlorogenic acid will do so at 1/100th its concentration in coffee.
Nerve toxins. Examples: Tomatine,(tomato), solanine, (potato), curcurbitacin, (courgettes, cucumber), carototoxin, (carrots).
Blood disorders. Examples: Coumarins, (anticoagulants in many leafy vegetables), oxalate (iron sequestering in many Brassicas). 40gm spinach will induce symptoms in susceptible human individuals.
Goitrogens. Glucosinilates in cabbage and related plants.
Skin damage. Psoralen, a photoactivated blistering agent, in, for example, celery, figs and parsnip. Known to cause skin blistering during hand harvesting of fruit and vegetables.
Table 1 includes more specific and known effects of natural pesticides on humans15.
We are not adapted to these chemicals despite daily consumption. Most food is of very recent origin and new ones continue to become available8.
Natural pesticides and crop breeding. There is trade off between herbivore defense and yield. Defense chemicals are usually 1-5% dry weight. In breeding for yield in at least 14 crops (and probably all), natural pesticide content has been reduced by 2-10 fold making them much safer for human consumption but changing flavour14,17. Conventional high-yielding varieties therefore need a supplement of synthetic pesticides to protect them from herbivores and disease. But in breeding pest resistant lines, this desirable situation has been reversed. Only three cases have been examined and in each the natural pesticide level had been returned to wild type levels14,15. Pest-resistant cultivars are the primary choice of organic farmers because organic regulations forbid synthetic pesticides. But untested natural pesticides like rotenone (recently associated with Parkinsons disease7) and cucurbitacin, (which accumulated in organic courgettes sufficient to cause an outbreak of sickness in New Zealand18), can be used.
The human population varies substantially in its sensitivity to natural pesticides and limited consumption can reduce the effects of the high level in wild crops. But individuals allergically sensitive to natural chemicals in fruits, such as tomatoes or kiwifruit, are well-documented. Anaphylactic shock resulting from inadvertent consumption continues to produce fatalities. Pest resistant cultivars increase the risk to such people. Wild yams are notoriously toxic, killing some of those forced to eat by lack of food, pest-resistant Lathyrus (chickpea) causes neurolathyrism and inappropriate treatment of cassava to eliminate cyanide-producing enzymes kills an estimated 100 Africans a year. TAN is a disease caused by over-consumption of cyanogenic glucosides. A 4-5 fold unanticipated accumulation of solanine in conventional potatoes has caused at least 30 published fatalities and 2000 cases of poisoning19. Many crop natural pesticide contents hover only just below toxic levels. Organic associations are full of people who assume that because it is natural, it is naturally good for you!
The hidden chemical agenda. Organic crops act as though they are short of soil N. The C/N ratio is increased20, a condition known to shorten the life cycle of fruit and vegetables. Metabolism responds by channeling the excess carbon into carbon rich compounds like cell wall, starch (increasing dry weight) and secondary products such as many natural pesticides. Protein content is reduced and since soluble proteins are heavily hydrated, there is a reduction in cellular water content. Use of pest resistant crops and alterations in C/N conspire to increase the natural pesticide content of organic food. Sections of the population are therefore at higher risk and since most tinned baby food is now organic it is this section of the population that will bear the major brunt of any potential future problems.
There are no regulations concerning natural pesticide contents in produce except recommendations for solanine in potato cultivars. There is little or no human toxicology on natural pesticides despite their potential damage. The assumption that organic food is safe to eat derives solely from people’s experience with conventional food. We have no statistics on the effects on human health of long-term consumption of organic food, only conventional food. At the moment organic food is simply higher price for higher risk.
Environmental organic benefits? Although organic is commonly regarded as environmentally better, once poor management is removed from the comparison, integrated farm management and conventional stands as equally good4. Nitrate run off between matched organic and conventional farms is similar over a five-year period. Insect biodiversity measurements indicate the value is higher on conventional farms4. No-till or min-till is currently practiced by enterprising farmers throughout the UK using herbicides. On current published measurements no-till is superior to organic in all environmental criteria4. Thus no-till global warming carbon dioxide release is one quarter an organic farm. The quality of the soil and the creatures that live in it benefit enormously from the lack of the damaging plough.
Produce sold off-farm contains minerals which must be replaced or the soil is mined. Current sources for organic farms are either to purchase conventional manure, or use non- renewable mined sources (like conventional fertilisers) or to use the uncertain vagaries of rock weathering, much like depleted African soils. A sustainable agriculture?
Conclusion. Those who wish to eat or farm organically are entitled to do so. But organic acolytes need to recognize the limitations and problems of organic agriculture. Idealizing what can never be perfect will in due course only rebound. The supposed vitalistic qualities to organic food, included by Atkinson1, derives directly from Steiner’s mysticism. Like cows horns, stags bladders and fermenting rock, all part of the biodynamic agricultural mystique, it has no place in any scientific discussion.
Anthony Trewavas. FRS. ICMB, University of Edinburgh. Trewavas.at.ed.ac.uk
1. Atkinson D. (2004). Is organic food better for us? AAB newsletter, issue 55.
2. Bourn D, Prescott J. (2002). A comparison of the nutritional value, sensory quality and food safety of organically and conventionally produced foods. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutrition 42,1-34.
3. Caris-Veyrat C, Amito MJ, Tyssandier V, et al. (2004). Influence of organic versus conventional agricultural practice on the anti-oxidant microconstituent content of tomatoes and derived purees: consequences on anti-oxidant plasma status in humans. J Agric Food Chem 52, 6503-6509.
4. Trewavas AJ. (2004) A critical assessment of organic farming-and-food assertions with particular respect to the UK and the potential environmental benefits of no-till agriculture. Crop Protection 23, 757-781.
5. Levin M, Wang Y, Padayatty SJ. Morrow J. (2001) A New Recommended Dietary Allowance of Vitamin C for healthy young women. Proc Nat Acad Sci USA 98, 9842-9846.
6. Daily Telegraph. 27th October, 2004.
7. Trewavas AJ. (2001). Urban Myths of Organic Farming. Nature 410, 409-410.
8. Dich J, Zahm SH, Hanberg A, Adami H.(1997). Pesticides and Cancer. Cancer Causes Control 8, 420-443.
9. Ames BN, Gold LS. (1999). Pollution, Pesticides and Cancer Misconceptions. In, Morris J. Bate R. (eds). Fearing Food. Risk, Health and Environment. Butterworth, Oxford. pp19-38.
10. Coggon D, Inskip H. (1994). Is there an epidemic of cancer? British Med J 308, 705-708.
11. McLeod M (2004). Organic baby food-worst for toxins. The Scotsman Newspaper, 18th July.
12. Trewavas AJ. (2001). The Population/Biodiversity Paradox. Agricultural Efficiency to save Wilderness. Plant Physiol 125, 174-179.
13.Beier RC. (1990). Natural Pesticides and Bioactive Components in Food. Rev Environ Contam Toxicol113, 47-137.
14. Ames BN, Profet M, Gold LS. (1990). Natures Chemicals and Synthetic Chemicals: Comparative Toxicology-and Dietary Pesticides. Proc Nat Acad SciUSA 87, 7777-7786.
15. Ames BN. (1983). Dietary Carcinogens and Anti-Carcinogens. Science 221, 1256-1264.
16. Nilsson R. (2000). Endocrine Modulators in the Food Chain and Environment. Toxicol Pathol 28, 420-431.
17. Rhoades DF. (1979). Evolution of plant chemical defence against herbivores. In RosenthalGA, Janzen DH. (eds). Herbivores, their interaction with secondary plant metabolites. Academic Press, London. pp1-55.
18. Trewavas AJ, Stewart D. (2003). Paradoxical Effects of Chemicals in the Diet on Health. Curr Opin Plant Biol 6, 185-190.
19. Morris SC, Lee TH. (1984). The Toxicity and Teratogenicity of Solanacae Glycoalkaloids, particularly those of the Potato: a Review. Food Technol Australia 36, 118-124.
20. Brandt K, Mulgard JP. (2001). Organic Agriculture: does it enhance or reduce the Nutritional Value of Plant Foods? J Sci Food Agric 81, 924-931