Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - March 20, 2006
* Biosafety Protocol Alive, but Restricted
* Governments Adopt International Rules on Trade in GMOs
* Mexico and Paraguay Block Agreement on Biosafety
* GM Food: African Must Walk the Talk
* Biotechnologists are Sleeping on their Job
* First Bt Cotton Grown in Pakistan
* Gene Crops Merit Cost-Benefit Analysis
* No Rhyme to This Kind of Slime
* Reaping Biotechnology's Benefits
* Agri-Food Innovation Forum
* Sierra Club Opposes Organic Farming Method - For Good Reasons
* .... Red Flag for Green Spray
* Are Organic Bt Sprays Safe?
* Is an Organic Future Really Sustainable?
Biosafety Protocol Alive, but Restricted
- Mario Osava, Inter Press Service News Agency, March 18, 2006
CURITIBA, Brazil - The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety "is alive," celebrated the delegates to the Third Meeting of the Parties to the Protocol (MOP3), although there were complaints about and criticism of modifications to the final agreement reached Friday night.
"We made important concessions to accommodate legitimate concerns," Brazilian Environment Minister Marina Silva said in her closing speech. However, she lamented that the Brazilian proposal which served as the basis for the negotiations and was widely accepted failed to achieve the necessary consensus and underwent a few changes.
The proposal referred to the main point under negotiation: article 18 of the Protocol, which refers to the handling, transport, packaging and identification of transgenic products. The delegates of the 132 parties to the Protocol who met Monday through Friday in the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba approved a requirement for clear labeling of cross-border shipments containing living modified organisms (LMOs) in products for direct use as food or feed, or for processing. Under the new agreement, products that have been clearly identified and separated as transgenics will have to carry the label "contains LMOs".
But the delegates admitted the wording "may contain LMOs" in cases in which the presence of transgenics has not been documented and identified from origin. The Brazilian proposal recommended a four-year transitional period to allow countries to gradually adopt mandatory labeling. But the negotiators expanded that period to six years, and inserted an element of uncertainty.
In four years, MOP5 will evaluate how well the labeling clause has been implemented, to help orient the final decision to be reached in 2012, at the MOP6. In addition, as a result of insistence by Mexico, which delayed the conclusion of MOP3 by four hours, the clause will now state that the rules on labeling will not apply to transboundary transport between parties to the Protocol and non-parties.
Approval of this exception, which would appear to be obvious, since no country can impose the rules of an international treaty on a country that has not adhered to it, made it possible for a consensus to finally be reached.
For Mexico, the exception represents "the possibility of maintaining a series of trade agreements with other countries, and our commitments to the United States and Canada," Marco Antonio Meraz, the head of the Mexican delegation, told IPS. The aim of the compromise that Mexico successfully pressed for is to not hinder the country's free trade agreements with other countries, he explained.
Read on http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=32550
Governments Adopt International Rules on Trade in GMOs
- EU Press Release, March 20, 2006 http://europa.eu.int/
The Third meeting of the 132 Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (MOP3) was concluded on 17 March in Curitiba, Brazil. It adopted a landmark decision on detailed documentation requirements for genetically modified organisms in the international trade of agricultural commodities.
In the final hours of negotiations, trade implications of documentation requirements were the main focus of major players such as Mexico and Brazil. The final compromise would have not been possible without the political commitment of the Brazilian government to make MOP3 a success.The European Commission negotiated on behalf of the EU and played an important role in brokering the final compromise.
Environment Commissioner Dimas stated: "This decision sets out documentation requirements that are clear, meaningful and practical for both exporters and importers of agricultural products, while being consistent with EU law. It provides for legal certainty for the international trade in agricultural commodities. As such, it is a landmark decision that bolsters the role of the Cartagena Protocol.I would like to express my deep appreciation to the Brazilian government that has been instrumental to achieve this outcome."
In addition to the documentation requirements, MOP3 took decisions on a range of other issues that will enhance the effective implementation of the Protocol, including: biosafety capacity-building activities in developing countries, risk assessment for GMOs, and the operation of the web-based information exchange portal established by the Protocol, the so called Biosafety Clearing House.
Background: The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is the only international treaty governing the cross-border transport of genetically modified organisms. The Protocol is a supplementary agreement to the 1992 Convention on Biological Biodiversity. The rules set out in the Protocol are intended to promote the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and protect the public from the potentially harmful effects of GMOs. The Protocol entered into force on 11 September 2003 and currently has 132 Parties, including all Member States and the European Community.
The Cartagena Protocol is incorporated into EU legislation through a wide range of laws. The cornerstone of this legal framework is Directive 2001/18/EC on the deliberate release into the environment of genetically modified organisms. It is supplemented by a Regulation on the transboundary movements of GMOs, which was adopted in 2003.
Summary of the Curitiba meeting at http://www.iisd.ca/vol09/enb09351e.html
Mexico And Paraguay Block Agreement on Biosafety
- Roberto Villar Belmonte, Inter Press Service News Agency, March 17. 2006 http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=32548
Curitiba, Brazil - Mexico and Paraguay waited until Friday, the last day of the Third Meeting of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (MOP3), to present new proposals to modify the text that has been under negotiation since Monday, thus prolonging the five-day gathering.
During the MOP3, which ran through Friday in the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba, Mexico put up the strongest resistance, with its delegates stating that the country does not want mandatory labeling for cross-border shipments containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
The negotiators had discussed a proposal set forth by Brazil late Thursday night, and renewed the process of informal contacts at around 10:00 AM local time.
Shortly after noon, Norwegian delegate Birthe Ivars, chairwoman of the working group in charge of the talks on labeling, the most controversial issue in the negotiations, presented the proposal that the working group had reached agreement on.
But Mexican delegate Marco Antonio Meraz Ríos unexpectedly suggested placing brackets around the clause making it compulsory for signatories of the Cartagena Protocol to clearly label shipments containing GMOs, thus leaving the issue open to future negotiations.
"Is this a serious way to deal with matters, reinserting brackets that had already been removed?" protested Brazilian Ambassador Luiz Alberto Figueiredo Machado, co-chair of a contact group involved in the negotiations on labeling.
"We are dismayed. We thought Mexico was negotiating in good faith this week, but it decided not to express its position until the very last day," complained the Ethiopian delegate, to applause from the majority of the participating diplomats.
There are no conclusive studies showing that transgenic products are harmless to the environment and human health. The Protocol, in effect since September 2003, is aimed at protecting biodiversity from the risks that may be posed by living organisms modified by means of biotechnology.
Venezuela, the European Union (EU) and Japan expressed themselves in favour of the proposal that would give countries six years to adjust to the rule on mandatory labeling of GMOs in international transport, two years longer than Brazil had originally suggested.
Peru initially opposed the wording "contains GMOs" during the negotiations, and the Peruvian delegate was also applauded when he finally announced his government's support for the agreed-on text.
The clause that was still being discussed Friday night states that national labeling of transgenic products will be assessed at the MOP5, to be held in four years, since from now on, the conference will take place every two years.
The goal is to consider a decision during the sixth meeting, to ensure that the documentation that accompanies GMOs destined for direct use as food for human beings or animals, or for processing, clearly indicates that the shipment contains transgenics and includes the necessary detailed information.
The chairwoman of the working group called on the Mexican delegates to re-evaluate their stance and passed them the floor. The ensuing silence further raised expectations. This prompted Ivars to urge, "Mexico, please press the button," which elicited widespread laughter, amplified by the faulty sound system.
Once he finally got the microphone to work properly, the Mexican ambassador said that there should be no surprise regarding his country's proposal, since Mexico has consistently questioned the obligation to identify cross-border shipments.
The Paraguayan delegation then voiced its support for Mexico and called for the resumption of negotiations.
An hour and a half later, once a new version of the document - free of square brackets û had been presented by Ivars, Mexico once again conditioned its approval on changes to another part of the text, which calls on governments to adopt measures to guarantee the documentation accompanying products containing GMOs.
The EU protested the changes, describing them as a step backwards. For his part, Rubens Nodari from the Brazilian Environment Ministry remarked, "In practice, the Mexican proposals are aimed at eliminating the obligatory nature of labeling."
As of late Friday evening, the negotiations resumed behind closed doors had not resulted in an agreement. The executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Algerian Ahmed Djoghlaf, attributed the difficulties in reaching a consensus to the wide range of interests at stake, but said he was confident that an agreement would ultimately be reached.
Greenpeace, however, blamed the lack of agreement on pressures exerted by agribusiness corporations and the countries that export the largest quantities of transgenics, like the United States and Argentina, which are not parties to the Cartagena Protocol.
Given the fact that an "absolute consensus" is needed to adopt a decision, it is easy to co-opt one or a few countries and prevent the will of the large majority from prevailing, argued Sergio Leitao, Greenpeace director of public policy.
His fear is that the meeting will fail to produce any advances, or will end with a timid text that does not establish a secure system for identifying transgenics. "Only a telephone call from Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to Mexican President Vicente Fox could save COP-MOP 3 from total failure," he remarked.
According to Djoghlaf, Brazil's proposal contributed significantly to the attempt to overcome the obstacles faced by the Cartagena Protocol, and he praised Lula's decision to endorse the adoption of a clearly worded "contains GMOs" labeling system, with a four-year deadline for implementation.
The 22 decisions adopted this week will make it possible to begin implementing the Protocol, said Djoghlaf, who stressed that over the next two weeks, in Curitiba itself, the world's largest meeting ever on biological diversity will take place.
A total of 2,669 participants have registered for the Eighth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP8), including 96 government ministers. COP7 was attended by 2,300 delegates and 16 ministers.
So far, 2,086 official meetings have been held on the Convention, and the 192 decisions adopted are gathered in a volume that is 1,039 pages long. Now it is time for implementation, stressed Djoghlaf.
GM Food: African Must Walk the Talk
- James Wachai, March 20, 2006
Hundreds of scientists, last week, converged in Curtiba, Mexico, to discuss biosafety issues. Under the aegis of Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, the scientists were expected to draft an agreement on transshipment of genetically modified (GM) food.
This gathering, specifically, centered on who’s liable for GM "contamination" during cross border movement of GM food. No agreement was reached and the issue is expected to be top on the agenda of this week’s United Nations (UN) Convention on Biological Diversity meeting.
Actually, what disappointed me was not the inability of delegates to agree on how to handle cross border movement of genetically modified food but reports that Africa was poorly represented in this otherwise significant meeting.
African governments could not afford to send their scientists "for lack of funds." I find it ridiculous that African governments couldn't dispatch their scientists to Curtiba, Mexico. To me this was just an excuse. What, really, are African governments’ priorities if they can’t expend resources on meetings to discuss the future of genetically modified foods?
It’s in such meetings misplaced fears about genetically modified foods are allayed. These meetings are learning opportunities for African scientists. If African scientists can’t attend such meetings, how, then do they expect to play a leading role in the debate about genetically modified food?
GM food is, now, a way of life of many countries of the world. From North America to Europe to Asia to Latin America, GM foods are readily available. Africa’s continued procrastination about GM food will only serve to impoverish the continent even further.
I have always argued that Africa's agriculture stands to gain, immensely, from close cooperation with developed nations. Africa can’t afford to isolate itself from the rest of the world especially in a sector as important as agriculture.
Closer interaction between African scientists and their counterparts from developed world is necessary. Such interactions eliminate suspicions and foster scientific cooperation.
There are those who argue that genetically modified food is a ploy by the U.S. and other rich countries to colonize Africa’s agriculture. This is baseless. Proponents of such an argument would do Africa proud by articulating their positions in meetings such as the one that was held in Mexico last week.
Biotechnologists are Sleeping on their Job
- James Wachai, March 5, 2006
One of the main reasons why genetically modified crops are least understood in developing countries is due to lack of factual and accurate information. Ten years since the commercialization of the first genetically modified crop, most developing countries seem not to appreciate their potential. This, at a time when other countries are minting billions of dollars from these high yielding and pests resistant crops.
And who’s to blame? Many would rush to castigate the "well-heeled" anti-biotech activists who have perfected the practice of misinformation to an art. I beg to disagree!
How has a group that can’t conduct a simple laboratory experiment succeeded in distorting the truth about genetically modified foods?
Propaganda, empty rhetoric and fear-mongering have been the hallmark of anti-biotech activists. These people have wrought unmitigated havoc, notably, in developing countries, where literacy levels among farmers and policy makers, is relatively low.
Scientists in most developing countries have not been forthcoming to counter the many lies being peddled about genetically modified foods. The vacuum such has left has been filled by people out to advance selfish interests.
Scientists must come out and defend genetically modified foods. It’s their baby, and they, alone, have what it takes to render anti-biotech rhetoric obsolete.
The lives of millions of people dying everyday of hunger in, mainly, poor countries are too precious to be left in the hands of scaremongers.
If GM food can revolutionize the economies of India, China, Brazil and South Africa, just to mention a few, why not the rest of the world?
Scientists in developing countries have their job cut. They must shed off their white lab coats, move to farms and educate farmers on potential benefits of genetically modified crops.
James Wachai, a native of Kenya, recently graduated from Wichita State University, Kansas
First Bt Cotton Grown in Pakistan
- Ijaz Ahmad Rao, Pak Kissan, March 17, 2006. Full article at
Cotton is an important cash crop for Pakistan known as "white gold". It accounts for 8.2 percent of the value added in agriculture and about 3.2 percent to GDP; around two thirds of the country’s export earnings are from the cotton made-up and textiles which adds over $2.5 billion to the national economy; while hundreds of ginning factories and textile mills in the country heavily depends upon cotton.
Life of millions of farmers is dependent on this crop, in addition to millions of people employed along the entire cotton value chain, from weaving to textile and garment exports The area under the cultivation of cotton crops has been increased significantly in the last 30 years - around 7.85 million acres in 2005-06 as compared to 7.2 million acres in 2002-03. Beside being the world’s fourth-largest cotton producer and the third largest exporter of raw cotton and a leading exporter of yarn in the world our yield per acres ranks 13th in the world; as a result Pakistan annually imports around 1.5-2.00 million bales of cotton to meet growing demand from local textile mills; therefore it has become vital for Pakistan to increase its yield per acre.
Pakistan has already surpassed the major obstacle on its way to adapting to biotechnology by enacting the Biosafety Rules in April 2005. These rules setup legal requirements for import, export, transport, and handling of biological agents, genetic engineering organisms or vectors, seeds, crops and foods, besides setting conditions for the researchers; seeds developers and companies. Usually it takes two to three years to do proper assessment for any Biotech crops before its commercialization. Whereas, Pakistan Atomic energy Commission (PAEC) had sought special permission in 1997 from the Ministry of Environment under "Voluntary Code of Conduct for release of GMO into the environment" prepared by NIBGE; and it conducted, checked and analyzed many safety tests on various cotton varieties which contain gene of genetically modified organism called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a bacterium that is deadly to the "Sundies".
In May 2005 PAEC provided 40,000.00 Kg basic seed of Bt cotton (insect resistant) varieties IR-FH-901, IR-NIBGE-2, IR-CIM-448 and IR-CIM-443 which have been grown over 8,000 acres of land in season 2005-06. Its encouraging outcomes have surprised every one from seed companies to the farmers who cultivated these varieties. These early users of Bt cotton have been tightly screened and evaluated by PAEC on the bases of their capacity to follow Bio-safety rules.
Bt cotton varieties yielded significantly more per acre as compare to non Bt cotton varieties - an average 23-28 maund (1 Maund = 40 Kg) per acres versus 17-20 maund to traditional cotton varieties.
This translates into more than 30 percent increase in yield. It is noteworthy that in Bt cotton crops average number of cotton Bolls per plant are 120 while average Boll weight is app. 1.75 grams including seeds and number of plants per acre are as recommended by the department of agriculture. The economical gain by using Bt cotton per acre is more than Pak Rs. 3,000 at the market sale price of Rs. 1100/ Maund. In Pakistan average cotton grower has 10 acres of land; increase in such small income per acre would improve his quality of life. It is expected that cotton growers should have Bt seeds of the above varieties for at least 75,000 acres of land in year 2006-07.
Today, all major cotton producing countries are benefiting from the cultivation of Bt Cotton. In the last season 54 percent of cotton crops grown in USA, 76 percent in China and 80 percent in Australia were with single or double Bt gene technology. India, the world’s third-largest cotton-grower has cultivated 1.36 million acres of Bt cotton crops. It is expected that within two years more than half the world’s cotton may be grown from genetically modified crops.
Pakistan also realizes the significance of Bt Cotton, and the top political leadership including the Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz himself has said to a delegation of farmers that government would allow farmers to grow Bt cotton soon, which confirms government’s policy of being open to genetically modified crops in the near future. Other ministers have also spoken in favor of adopting the Bt Cotton.
Crop reviews carried out by various independent sources illustrate that unrecorded sowing of new Bt cotton varieties also played its role in increasing cotton productivity, with unofficial estimates suggesting 3 to 5 percent of the area in Punjab and 10 to 15 percent of the area in Sindh may have been planted in transgenic cotton.
Biotechnology offers tremendous benefits to the agriculture in Pakistan. But in order to benefit from its true potential, government and all key stakeholders including farmers, seed companies, R & D institutes, seed dealers and traders involved in commercial activity related to seed will have to act responsibly and ethically. If we choose to ignore regulatory frameworks that govern the chain of activity, and international agreements on biosafety that Pakistan is signatory to, to make quick bucks or in an attempt to provide a speedy access of technology to the farmers, we shall end up losing the benefits from the technology in the long run by undermining it.
We have to ensure effective, stringent, and transparent enforcement of Biosafety Rules 2005, Seed Act 1976, and Punjab Cotton Control Ordinance, to encourage the introduction of technology through legal means with its complete package of benefits.
Gene Crops Merit Cost-Benefit Analysis - Report
- Reuters, March 17, 2006
London - Regulators should assess possible environmental benefits of genetically modified crops (GMO) as well as their potential to cause damage, scientists who advise the government say. "The current regulatory system is flawed because it doesn't weigh (the) damage against the potential benefits for the environment," the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) said.
In a report released on Friday, the committee recommended tests of all agricultural innovations and cited recent four-year-long field trials of GMO crops in the UK as a suitable basis for the development of new, more balanced tests.
In a statement published in conjunction with the report British Environment Minister Elliot Morley said: "The GM trials gave a real insight into how weed control regimes, in both conventional and GM crops, can affect biodiversity." "This raises a general question about the environmental impact of changes in arable farming."
GMOs have become a thorny issue for the European Union after the World Trade Organisation ruled last month that the bloc and specifically six member states had broken rules by barring entry of GMO crops and food. But the ACRE report has found that the environmental impact of innovations in conventional crops can be at least as great as the effects of GMOs.
For example, the switch from spring to winter cereals has been associated with reductions in biodiversity, particularly farmland birds, according to the report. "There is, however, currently no equivalent regulatory requirement for assessment of the positive and negative effects of such changes...on the environment prior to their widespread adoption," the report said.
Inversely, the introduction of GMO Bt cotton in the United States led to reduced use of insecticides as well as yield gains resulting in environmental benefits, according to the report. Only a new kind of risk-benefit analysis will enable policy makers to make a balanced decision on novel technologies, ACRE said.
"We know that agriculture is going to change... If you are playing a different game, you should change the off-site rule," ACRE's chairman Chris Pollock told reporters ahead of the report.
No Rhyme to This Kind of Slime
- Andrew Bolt, Herald Sun (Australia), March 17, 2006
Jim Peacock, now scrubbing the slime from his lab coat, has just learned that facts won't save him in his new job. The Howard Government's new chief scientist has been reminded that when he now talks science, his opponents talk religion.
To disagree with them is to be called not wrong, but evil.
Peacock has been the CSIRO's top plant researcher and president of the Australian Academy of Science. He's triumphed in a game where the rule is that you prove a man wrong by showing the facts he overlooked or the reasoning he got wrong. But last month he joined a game with different rules, when made the Prime Minister's science adviser.
Peacock in his first interviews said two things which seemed to him clear, given the facts. First, ''I think it's really time to reassess and discuss the possibility of using nuclear-based power.'' And why not, given how safe, clean and steady it is?
Second, we must plant genetically modified food crops. ''The integration of these technologies into our agribusiness will be essential for the future.''
Peacock said nothing wild there. The Office of the Gene Technology Regulator has said GM canola, for instance, is safe. GM crops have been grown for years in perfect safety in Canada, Brazil and the United States. These crops grow better, but use less land and less chemicals.
Yet Peacock was blaspheming in a land where green-monstered state governments have banned such crops. And so Greens Senator Christine Milne called him ''highly divisive'' and ''quite antagonistic towards ecosystem approaches to soil and to agriculture''.
She even claimed he was just a toady of the Prime Minister: ''It's clear that they have a long-standing relationship and Dr Peacock will no doubt toe the government line.'' Of the science of GM crops and nuclear power, she said nothing. But this was not really about facts, but faith.
Ian Lowe, head of the Australian Conservation Foundation, was little better. ''(Peacock) has been a long-standing advocate of gene technology, so he's not going to be seen as neutral in the discussions about that issue,'' he said.
But in science, how can anyone be neutral about truth? If Peacock concludes GM crops are safe, those who disagree shouldn't say he's biased, but prove him wrong. Except he's not, is he?
How many scientific debates are corrupted like this? Well, the one on man-made global warming for a start.
Science must be saved from brawls in which dissenters are damned, not disproved. We must say no to the green slime.
Reaping Biotechnology's Benefits
- Calestous Juma, Comments is Free (Guardian, UK Blog), March 18, 2006. Article with links at http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/calestous_juma/2006/03/harnessing_the_benefits_of_bio.html
Diplomats discussing how to manage the safety agricultural biotechnology might learn a few lessons from their counterparts in health genomics. If they fail to do so, popular pressure to use biotechnology to improve human welfare will render their efforts irrelevant to global aspirations.
Government representatives have been meeting in the Brazilian city of Curitiba to determine how to document internationally-traded genetically-modified products. They sought to give effect to the provisions of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety Biosafety Protocol under the Convention on Biological Diversity.
The negotiations are guided by the view among many countries that the products of agricultural biotechnology are potentially harmful to the environment and human health and should therefore be handled with care following what they call the "precautionary principle".
But as diplomats continue to express concern over the safety of agricultural biotechnology, advances in health genomics are reshaping the world in unprecedented ways, according to research by the Canadian Program in Genomics and Global Health of Toronto reported in the latest issue of the International Journal of Biotechnology. The unfolding interactions between the life science and society herald the emergence of a new 'biosociety' that is changing relations between individuals, communities and nations.
The global health scenario is a paradoxical one. Life expectancy continue to rise in industrialized countries while is falling in a number of developing countries, especially in Africa. Although a wide range of factors influence these differences, the application of modern science in health affects significantly the differences in health outcomes among nations.
Also see: The end of famine relief in Africa?
Africa urgently needs to make the transition from dependence of famine relief to long-term agricultural renewal. This will require increased use of scientific and technological knowledge in agricultural production.
Agri-Food Innovation Forum
July 11-12, Toronto, Canada http://www.agrifoodforum.com/
The second annual Agri-Food Innovation Forum is an elite gathering of researchers, academics and executives involved in bioproduct innovation in Canada and beyond. Held in conjunction with the BIO World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocessing, the event will present distinguished experts and their vision, experience and success stories in this globally significant new market.
The Agri-Food Innovation Forum will take place at the Toronto Westin Harbour Castle Hotel, starting with a joint BIO-Forum Welcoming Reception the evening of July 11, followed by a half day Forum on the morning of July 12, with Canadian plenary speakers focusing on the 2006 theme: Celebrating Excellence in Canadian Industrial Bioproducts. At noon on July 12, the Forum wraps up and the BIO World Congress begins.
Topics include: Bioproducts Opportunities in the Auto Sector; Industrial Chemicals from Bio-Sources; Bio-Fuels and Energy; Valuable Industrial Bio-Fibres
Sierra Club Opposes Organic Farming Method - For Good Reasons
Andrew Apel, AgBioView, March 18, 2006 http://www.agbioworld.org
The Sierra Club has issued a letter denouncing a method of pest control popular among organic farmers and demanding that public officials take immediate action. Neil Carman, Ph.D., director of the Clean Air Program for the Lone Star Chapter of the environmental group, cited a journal study which found that sprayable Bt, used to kill insects living in organic fields, posed significant health and environmental risks.
Organic farmers spray mixtures containing Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacteria on their crops, a practice they consider to be more "natural" than what is preferred by most farmers. As Carman notes, the sprayed bacteria are closely related to B. cereus, which cause food poisoning, and to B. anthracis, the agent of the disease anthrax recently used in a bioterror campaign.
Many different species of bacteria produce toxins as part of their life cycle, and some of these are more toxic than others. Concerns arise when toxins meant to control crop-damaging insects have adverse effects on species not meant to be affected. According to Carman, the Bt sprays employed by organic farmers hurt harmless, or even beneficial insects--and humans as well.
"People exposed to Bt have complained of respiratory, eye, and skin irritation, and one corneal ulcer has occurred after direct contact with a Bt formulation," Carman said as part of his letter to county commissioners. "People with compromised immune systems may be particularly susceptible to Bt," he added.
The leading sprayable Bt pesticide is produced by Valent USA Corporation, a subsidiary of Japanese multinational Sumitomo Chemical. The label on the product lists a number of warnings: "Do not apply this product in a way that will contact workers or other persons, either directly or through drift." "Only protected handlers may be in the area during application." "Do not contaminate water, food or feed by storage or disposal."
Worker Protection Information for the product includes this: "Repeated exposure to high concentrations of microbial proteins can cause allergic sensitization."
If warning labels on an "organic" product can be granted credibility, so, too, should Carman's concerns--which led him to roundly criticize federal officials for allegedly ignoring the threat to the public posed by organic farming. "It's highly disconcerting that USDA has grossly failed to inform the public, inside and outside the spray zone, that a number of exposed children, pregnant women, persons with pre-existing illnesses, senior citizens, chemically sensitive persons, and healthy adults may suffer adverse health effects such as skin sensitization and immune reactions from the large number of Bacteria in the Btk pesticide spray," he said.
The Sierra Club director also found that this aspect of organic farming posed unacceptable risks to the environment. He pointed out that viable spores of the bacteria can persist for up to one year and cause insect resistance to develop. Infestations of immune crop-destroying insects would result. Indeed, this has has occurred with the diamondback moth, the insect responsible for more damage to vegetable crops in North America than any other.
Genetically modified Bt crops act on insects which attack the crop directly, thus minimizing their impact on the environment. By contrast, Bt sprays can impact anything unfortunate enough to be visiting the organic farmer's field. "Bt can reduce dramatically the number and variety of moth and butterfly species," Carman said, adding that adverse impacts can fall as well on birds and other wildlife which depend on insects for their survival.
Carman called on the US Agriculture Department to pay for medical expenses and health care costs if Bt sprays injure people but considered compensation unlikely, saying that the government agency "will deny health effects just like they have at other locations in Oregon, Washington state and other places."
However, compensatory schemes would not address the human and environmental health issues. With engineered Bt crops, Bt spraying is unnecessary and, in line with Carman's concerns, unnecessarily risky when a better alternative is available.
In addition, insect resistance to engineered Bt crops is proving to be little more than a theoretical concern. Nearly a decade ago, engineers warned that insects might quickly become resistant to Bt crops. Now, after millions of acres planted worldwide, resistance has not become an issue and many are questioning whether "insect refuges" to prevent resistance are worth the trouble.
There is a growing consensus in the scientific community that the widespread, largely unregulated use of sprayable Bt by organic farmers is irresponsible and hazardous. The fact that the Sierra Club is willing to acknowledge this is welcome news.
Sierra Club's Misleading 'Link' between organic Bt sprays and Bt crops
Dear AgBioView Readers:
The above piece by Andy Apel is an excellent illustration of how activists are up to their old trick of creating 'guilt by association' as you can see in the 'real' letter excerpted below.
While they cannot invoke any scientific flaws in Bt crops, the Sierra Club is now dusting off an old Bt-spray-study to indict biotech crops to create unnecessary allergen worries. If anything, this just shows the hazard of Bt sprays on organic farm workers (and thus use the precautionary principle to ban such a practice?), and how biotechnology has fixed it by delivering the value of this protein in an elegant manner to far more farmers. Allerginicity from inhaling Bt spores from sprays is a real concern while there is no problem with Bt genes or proteins produced within the plant. See more additional notes below at end.
Immune Responses and Skin Sensitization to Bt in Farm Workers and Presence of Bt in Many Genetically Engineered foods
Letter from NEIL J. CARMAN, PH.D.
Clean Air Program Director. Lone Star Chapter Sierra Club
March 14, 2006
Dear Travis County Judge Biscoe and County Commissioners Davis, Daughterty, Sonleitner and Gomez:
Exposure to Bt sprays may lead to allergic skin sensitization and induction of IgE and IgG antibodies, or both based on recent scientific studies. Although health risks to pesticides containing Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) have been minimal, the potential allergenicity of these organisms has not been evaluated. Today large acreage of US crops like soy, corn, canola and others are genetically engineered (GE) to contain Bt in every plant cell and USDA has failed to evaluate the adverse health effects of large]-scale Btk [Bt kurstaki, a strain of Bt toxin] spraying on a population where people are likely consuming GE food crops and may be developing skin sensitization and immune reactions to Bt. To date, USDA has egregiously failed to mention the likelihood of skin sensitization and immune reactions to the Btk pesticide spray in GE food consumers.
A health survey was conducted in farm workers before and after exposure to Bt pesticides. The investigation included questionnaires, nasal/mouth lavages, ventilatory function assessment, and skin tests to indigenous aeroallergens and to a variety of Bt spore and vegetative preparations. To authenticate exposure to the organism present in the commercial preparation, isolates from lavage specimens were tested for Bt genes by DNA-DNA hybridization.
Please read more on the adverse health effects of widespread Bt use in food crops in the following excerpt from a 1999 study in the Journal of Environmental Health Perspectives.
Environmental Health Perspectives Volume 107, Number 7, July 1999
Immune Responses in Farm Workers after Exposure to Bacillus Thuringiensis Pesticides
USDA has egregiously failed to mention the likelihood of skin sensitization and immune reactions to the Btk pesticide spray in GE food consumers.
It's highly disconcerting that USDA has grossly failed to inform the public, inside and outside the spray zone, that a number of exposed children, pregnant women, persons with pre-existing illnesses, senior citizens, chemically sensitive persons, and healthy adults may suffer adverse health effects such as skin sensitization and immune reactions from the large number of Bacteria in the Btk pesticide spray.
Will the USDA pay for medical expenses and health care costs if people are injured? No. The USDA will deny health effects just like they have at other locations in Oregon, Washington state and other places.
NEIL J. CARMAN, PH.D.; Neil_Carman@greenbuilder.com
from the Past...
Red Flag for Green Spray
- Debora Mackenzie, New Scientist, May 29, 1999
BACTERIAL SPORES sprayed on organic crops as a pesticide may damage the health of people who inadvertently breathe them in. French researchers have found that inhaling the spores can cause lung inflammation, internal bleeding and death in laboratory mice.
Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, produces a toxin that kills insects. The dried spores of the bacteria have been used as a pesticide for more than 30 years and are one of the very few insecticides sanctioned for use on organic crops in Europe. Bt is also widely used to combat pest such as the spruce budworm, a caterpillar that attacks trees.
Last year, French scientists isolated a strain of Bt that destroyed tissue in the wounds of a French soldier in Bosnia. The strain, known as H34, also infected wounds in immunosuppressed mice (This Week, 30 May 1998, p 7). Now the same team has found that H34 can kill mice with intact immune systems if they inhale the spores.
Francoise Ramisse of le Bouchet army research laboratories near Paris and her colleagues found that healthy mice inhaling 108 spores of Bt H34 died within eight hours from internal bleeding and tissue damage. Spores from mutants of the same strain which did not produce the insecticide were equally lethal to mice, suggesting that it was not to blame. Ramisse and her colleagues presented their results at a conference in Paris last month.
The researchers think that the symptoms are caused by other toxins. The bacterium's close cousin, Bacillus cereus, produces a toxin that ruptures cell membranes. And in 1991, Japanese researchers showed that B. thuringiensis produces the same toxin. In fact, when the French researchers ran samples from the soldier from Bosnia through an automated medical analyser, it seemed to show that the bacterium was B. cereus. Ramisse suggest that companies producing Bt spores might make them safer by deleting the promoter sequence that activates the gene for the membrane-rupturing toxin.
Although H34 is not used as a pesticide, commercial strains of Bt tested by the researchers also killed some mice or caused lung inflammation when inhaled. The team obtained these strains from Abbott Laboratories, a major supplier of Bt based in Chicago. Ramisse points out that the strains are sprayed on forest pests at concentrations of 1011 spores per square metre--and so might pose a danger to people in the immediate vicinity. But Abbott maintains that Bt is safe. "We stand by our products," says Lind a Gretton, a company spokeswoman. The French researchers have not yet tested strains made by other companies.
"I suspect Bt infection is more widespread than we realise," says Ramisse. Recorded infections by Bacillus pathogens are comparatively rare. Known pathogenic species can have very distinctive symptoms. Anthrax, for instance, is caused by B. anthracis. But where such tell-tale signs are absent, Ramisse suspects that doctors often fail to recognise that the bacteria are responsible, dismissing any Bacillus in patients' cultures
as contamination. Consequently, the cultures are often discarded. "I wish they would start keeping them so we could check for Bt," she says.
When Bt was sprayed in towns in Oregon in 1991 to combat gypsy moths, the bacterium was found in clinical samples from 55 patients who had beenadmitted to hospital for a variety of other reasons.
Robert Haward of the Soil Association, which represents Britain's organic farmers, says that they may have to use masks and take more care when spraying the spores on crops.
Are Organic Bt Sprays Safe?
The microbial formulation used by organic farmers is a "biological" containing all sorts of bacillus proteins and small molecules, some of which are unknown. As a microbe, Bacillus is living organism that can, such as H34, become a human pathogen. GM crops utilize only one or two genes taken from the microbe, which are specifically tested for safety, and which are well understood biochemically and functionally.
Microbial Bts have no specific hazard warning labels today because of their overwhelming record of safety relative to carbamates, pyrethroids, organophosphates, and other chemical pesticides.
Microbial Bt formulations have what is called an "Exemption from the requirement of a tolerance" granted from the US EPA, which means, basically, that "any level of the pesticide is safe." Most pesticides have a tolerance level, meaning you can not exceed a certain level in a food (called a residue). Another aspect of a tolerance exemption is that it means that after application of the pesticide to the crop, there is no stipulated "re-entry" time for farm workers. For most pesticides, you have to wait hours or days before you can physically go back into the field.
Are Bt sprays unsafe due to direct mammalian toxic effects and toxic effects due to inert ingredients like acids and bases?
* This is truly an important issue for the organic farmer. Several Bt strains are known to cause toxicity (e.g. B.t. israelensis or B.t. aizawai). This is due to NON-Bt-Protein constituents of the microbial spores, especially things like beta-exotoxins. Beta-exotoxins are not proteins. The issues appear to be related to Bacillus (the microbe) safety rather than to Bt proteins, per se. Today, these strains have been modified to avoid mammalian toxins and must be shown to be devoid of beta-exotoxins (as required by Federal Regulations - 40 CFR 180.1011) prior to their use.
* It is true that highly acidic or basic formulations of B. israelensis can have mildly toxic effects, but manufacturers avoid these formulations today. These effects have been known since 1987.
* Although one would anticipate that aeroallergy (air-borne particle induced allergies from "breathing in" the spores) could be an occupational or incidental exposure hazard for Bt microbial formulations, we find that none of the major formulations have been reported to create this type of adverse effect.
* A nice review covering these issues was published in 1995 by McCintock et al., "A comparative review of the mammalian toxicity of Bacillus-thuringiensis-based pesticides. Pest. Sci. 45:95-105.
Is an Organic Future Really Sustainable?
- Prof. Sjoerd W. Duiker, Center Daily Times (Pennsylvania), March 20, 2006 http://www.centredaily.com/mld/centredaily/news/opinion/14134039.htm
Many people think organic farming will produce food that is healthier and better for the environment than that produced with nonorganic methods.
Organic sales are increasing at 20 percent per year, and policymakers are directing taxpayer money toward organic. For example, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., recently announced a program to help dairy farmers in her state transition to organic, and Norway set a goal to get 10 percent of the managed area be organic by 2009.
With this interest in organic food production, it is important to realize that some claims of organic food remain elusive whereas serious challenges are often ignored.
First, there is no consensus about health claims of organic food.
According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, studies have shown no clear, consistent results. According to the USDA, the organic label does not mean that organic food is superior, safer or healthier than conventional food.
We are blessed with a very safe food supply, although, admittedly, many of us eat unhealthily. The latter is not because of nonorganic food, but because we eat too much fat, sugar and carbohydrates, and too few vegetables and fruits.
Second, organic farming has some serious environmental challenges.
Organic producers use intensive tillage for soil preparation and weed control. Plowing favors runoff and erosion. It oxidizes soil organic matter and destroys soil aggregates.
Tillage is also harmful to many soil organisms such as earthworms. No-till systems have been developed where soil is protected by a mulch, reducing erosion and runoff. This increasingly popular practice is now used on 23 percent of U.S. cropland.
Living vegetation is killed with an herbicide and crops are planted directly into a mulch with a no-till planter. Soil organic matter is preserved, surface aggregation is improved, and soil organisms such as earthworms are favored. Without herbicides, continuous no-till farming is virtually impossible.
Organic farmers rely primarily on compost, animal manure or green manure crops to supply soil fertility. The nutrients in these organic sources typically do not match crop demands. So it is easy to overapply nutrients such as phosphorus, while nitrogen needs are just barely met.
When cover crops or manure are plowed down, nitrogen can be released rapidly. Unfortunately, no crop is present to take these nutrients up immediately.
Hence the potential for significant nutrient losses in organic farming. Commercial fertilizer could help complement organic sources of fertility, reducing the opportunity for losses to the environment, but these products are not allowed in organic production.
The third and greatest challenge for organic farming is, however, how to produce enough affordable food without sacrificing natural ecosystems.
The world population has doubled since 1960, now exceeding 6 billion, and is expected to reach 9 billion in 2050. Despite fears in the 1970s of widespread famines, the average world citizen (even in developing countries) eats more now than in the 1960s.
According to the FAO, food production outpaced population growth and the price of food decreased 40 percent in real terms between 1960 and 1999. Seventy-eight percent of the increase in food production was due to increased production per acre of land made possible by the use of improved crop varieties, chemical fertilizers, crop protectants and improved machinery.
Although competitive yields are possible with organic production, a major proportion of the world's lands would have to be devoted to green manure crops to fix nitrogen. Expansion of cropland comes at the expense of natural habitat and is sometimes impossible.
Recently, members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences expressed their concern about an organic food strategy for China.
They pointed out that China produces enough food for 21 percent of the world population on 9 percent of the world's cultivated land. This has only been possible because 75 percent of crop nutrients are now supplied by chemical fertilizer, compared with only 22 percent in 1965.
If China were to adopt organic practices on a large scale, cropland would have to be expanded, which is no option in land-scarce China.
Health promises of organic food remain elusive, whereas it has significant environmental challenges, including its reliance on intensive tillage and organic nutrient sources. The need to expand cropland means less natural habitat, and rising food costs present a problem for the world's urban poor.
These issues need to be seriously considered before we become too enamored with organic.
Sjoerd W. Duiker is an assistant professor of soil management at Penn State. The opinion of the columnist does not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of the university