Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org April 7, 2006
* Seeds of Discontent
* Defending GMO Against the Culture of Precaution
* Norman Borlaug: India's Hero Against Hunger
* Science-Based Approach to the Issue of Coexistence Crops
* Biosafety of GM Organisms - Symposium
* Are Europeans Really Antagonistic to Biotech?
* Ag Biotech Research: Roles of University-Industry Relationships
* Attack on Farmers Part of Fear Campaign
* UN vs. Technology
* Growers for Biotechnology
Seeds of Discontent
- Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2006
If you can't beat 'em, handcuff 'em with legalities. That appears to be the new strategy of the anti-biotech lobby in Europe's long-running debate over genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
GM crops have been slowly growing in popularity among European farmers, if not consumers, in recent years. More importantly, the World Trade Organization issued a preliminary ruling earlier this year ordering the EU to evaluate new GM products on the basis of sound science rather than fear mongering. So the question is no longer whether Europe will allow GMOs, but how they will be handled.
At least, that was the idea behind an EU conference in Vienna this week on the "coexistence" of GM and non-GM crops. Predictably, the anti-GMO crowd -- chiefly a mixture of enviro-radicals and organic farmers afraid they'll lose market share if biotech food products ever catch on with European consumers -- is still fighting quixotically for a ban on GMOs. But the next best thing in their mind would be an EU regulation that would make it prohibitively difficult and expensive for farmers to grow GM crops.
Their approach has two prongs: guidelines for physically segregating biotech and conventional seed and crops to prevent cross-pollination or any other mixing of the two, and a civil liability law dealing specifically with GM "contamination" of non-GM crops. Neither is appropriate for EU-wide legislation. Segregation requirements -- such as minimum distances between GM and non-GM fields and guidelines for cleaning farming and transportation equipment -- are better left to the member states, given the large differences in geography, climate and agricultural techniques across the Continent. But governments at any level would be well advised to reject the tort proposal.
We'll first stipulate that organic and traditional farmers have legitimate concerns about GM seed or plants finding their way into non-GM fields and harvests. Not because the altered varieties are dangerous, mind you. The GMOs in question are necessarily ones that have been cleared by European authorities, following some of the world's strictest standards. So safety isn't an issue. But if a conventional farmer finds that even 0.9% of his harvest contains GMOs, under current EU law he has to label it as genetically modified.
Thanks to the intense misinformation campaign carried out by anti-GMO partisans, the European public is still wary of biotech products. So the market for them is limited, and the farmer's crops in theory could lose value.
There's no reason, however, that existing civil law can't suffice. For example, if one farmer grows corn and his neighbor raises hogs, and one of the hogs gets loose and destroys some of the corn, no special law is needed to determine whether the hog farmer is liable for the damage.
When asked why the GMO situation should be any different, anti-biotech campaigners in Vienna told us that it's difficult to identify where genetically modified seed or pollen comes from -- and that they want a tort that allows conventional farmers to sue everyonefrom whom an impurity might have come: all nearby GM farmers, the company that sold the GM seed, the firm that developed the technology, and so on. That an innocent party might be punished was of no concern; the biotech industry and farmers can work that out among themselves, we were told.
In other words, having failed to stop the advance of GMOs through normal recourse, activists now want to sue them out of existence in Europe. Out with the junk science and in with the junk litigation. The only winners, as usual, would be the trial lawyers.
Opinions in Brussels are mixed. EU Agriculture Commissioner Marianne Fischer Boel urged caution on both segregation and civil liability measures, noting that the EU has hardly any authority over tort law and that trying to trump centuries' worth of national statutes and case law could have "enormous legal implications." Considering how often the European Commission elbows its way into issues best left to the member states, a little restraint is a breath of fresh air.
Unfortunately, not everyone sees it that way. Friedrich-Wilhelm Graefe zu Baringdof, vice chairman of the European Parliament's agriculture committee, described Ms. Fischer Boel's prudence as "a great concern" during a hysterical diatribe against GMOs. Such posturing drew him great applause from enviros in his native Austria, one of Europe's least GMO-friendly countries. It's worrying to anyone who actually believes in the motto for this week's conference: "freedom of choice."
Defending GMO Against the Culture of Precaution
- Molinari Economic Institute (Belgium), April 6, 2006
French senators, under pressure from the European Commission, started on Wednesday 21 March to examine the bill on genetically modified organisms (GMO). The bill proposes to severely frame the culture cultivation of GMO and opts for restrictive measures obliging, among other things, farmers to declare parcels of transgenic plants, to obtain an authorisation before any marketing of them and to label their products.
The latest Molinari Economic Institute report published today, http://www.institutmolinari.org/pubs/note20063.pdf Defending GMO against the culture of precaution, invites serious reconsideration of the position of the French government in the area of GMOs. The report defends the idea that far from ensuring the protection and safety of consumers, the culture of precaution deprives individuals of the many benefits of GMOs.
As the author underlines first of all, the risks concerning GMOs are exaggerated. "One of the principal lines of attack against GMOs is the risk of reduction of biodiversity which they would run. The deposit of pollen would involve among other things a process of hybridization which would lead to the disappearance of non GMO species. Actually, the danger, in so much as it exists, could be over-estimated. According to an INRA study published in 2002, if it is impossible to confine GMO pollens on the parcels where it is cultivated, the risk of contamination of other organisms is minimal."
The benefits then of transgenic organisms are underestimated. The author thus indicates that according to many studies, "[the] introduction of new varieties resistant to insect attacks allows the quantity of insecticide treatments to be considerably reduced". He adds: "economists no longer doubt that the development of poor countries can be fostered by the growth of agricultural productivity. Their refusal to use GMO with superior productivity than traditional species, for the reason of very hypothetical dangers, would again deprive them of real and fast help."
For the IEM, the precautionary principle does not constitute an effective decision tool. The danger is inherent with the principle, insofar as calling upon an uncertainty which in any case can never be removed the principle allows any organised group to impose the most unfounded demands. It is because of these requirements that we are deprived from acquiring more knowledge on the environmental safety of transgenic plants.
The report concludes that "finally, with regard to the current elements of the debate, the opposition to GMO amounts to ignoring the facts so as to hold on to the most doubtful assumptions."
The economic note is available on the IEM website :
French version : http://www.institutmolinari.org/pubs/note20063fr.pdf
English version : http://www.institutmolinari.org/pubs/note20063.pdf
Norman Borlaug: India's Hero Against Hunger
- Leon Hesser, AgBioView, April 7, 2006 http://www.agbioworld.org
From the day he was born on an American farm in 1914, Norman Borlaug has been an enigma. How could a child of the Iowa prairie, who attended a one-teacher, one-room school, ultimately achieve the distinction as one of the one hundred most influential persons of the twentieth century? And eventually be hailed as the man who saved hundreds of millions of lives from starvation--more than any other person in history.
I first met Dr. Borlaug 40 years ago. At the time, I was director of USAID's program to help increase food production in Pakistan. Thanks to Borlaug's "miracle" seeds, Pakistan became self-sufficient in foodgrains in 1968. For his crucial role in taking India, Pakistan and several other countries from hunger and starvation to self-sufficiency in foodgrains, Norman Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
When Norman Borlaug first traveled to India, in the mid-1960s, millions of people were hungry. Northeastern India--especially Bihar and West Bengal--suffered famine even though America had been providing millions of tons of food aid. Two widely read books by American authors contended, in effect, let's give up on India; it's hopeless; let's provide our food aid to other countries that have a chance.
Those authors had not comprehended the power of the high-yielding varieties of wheat that Dr. Borlaug had developed in Mexico as a Rockefeller Foundation scientist. Beginning in 1944, after earning a Ph.D. in plant science at the University of Minnesota, Borlaug was hired by the Rockefeller Foundation to help alleviate hunger in Mexico. His innovative research soon led to remarkable increases in wheat yields and production. Even with rapid increases in population, Mexico became self-sufficient in foodgrains by the late 1950s.
At least as important was his philosophy of training. The United Nations and the Rockefeller Foundation collaborated to support Dr. Borlaug to train scientists from other countries at the research station in Mexico. Among them were young trainees from India who took samples of the high-yielding wheat seeds with them when they returned home. Based on his observations of field tests of those seeds when he visited India, Borlaug concluded that the varieties were well adapted to the country's soil and climate.
C. Subramaniam, India's Minister of Food and Agriculture at the time, together with agriculture scientist Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, concluded that Borlaug's "Mexican" wheat varieties were worth a gamble. Minister Subramaniam made an historic decision; he imported 18,000 tons of Borlaug's "miracle" seeds from Mexico.
For the seeds to achieve their potential, Dr. Borlaug was convinced that policy changes were needed. At a luncheon meeting at India's Escort Tractor Factory on March 29, 1967, he was asked to say a few words. In concluding his talk, he said, "I wish I were now a member of India's Congress; I would stand up out-of-order every few minutes and shout: 'What India needs now is fertilizer, fertilizer, fertilizer, credit, credit, credit, and fair prices, fair prices, fair prices!'" Everyone chuckled and the press played it up.
Two days later, Borlaug met with Deputy Prime Minister Ashoka Mehta and made the case for changes in policy that would encourage India's farmers to plant and fertilize the high-yielding seeds. The result is history. In a few years, India became self-sufficient in foodgrains and has essentially remained so, even with increases in population.
In 1987, to encourage young people to become agricultural scientists, Borlaug inaugurated and obtained financial support for an annual World Food Prize worth $250,000, the equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize at the time. Indian scientist Dr. M.S. Swaminathan received the first such prize. Since then, five additional citizens of India have become World Food Prize laureates.
In 2005, at age 91, Dr. Borlaug made three trips to Africa and one each to India and Argentina in his continuing quest to relieve hunger.
In addition to an earned Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, Borlaug has been awarded more than fifty honorary doctorates from universities in eighteen countries. He has received many other awards from institutions all over the world. Earlier this year, the Government of India conferred the prestigious Padma Vibhushan, the country's second highest civilian award, on Dr. Borlaug—a well deserved and fitting tribute.
In the autumn of 2004, Dr. Borlaug authorized me to write his biography. Accomplishing that has been one of the most inspirational and satisfying experiences of my entire career. What a remarkable man!
Leon Hesser's authorized biography, 'The Man Who Fed the World: Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug and His Battle to End World Hunger' (ISBN: 1-930754-90-6) is available on order from Durban House Press, Inc., Dallas, Texas, USA. firstname.lastname@example.org
It's Time to Take a Science-Based Approach to the Issue of Coexistence Crops
- Robert Wager, Vancouver Sun, April 5, 2006
Last year Canada stirred up a hornets nest when its representatives at the meeting of the UN Convention on Biodiversity in Bangkok called for the end to a de facto moratorium on the research and development of genetic use restriction technologies for genetically engineered (GE) crops. Recently, at meetings in Brazil, several other countries joined Canada in calling for an end to the ban.
Genetic use restriction technologies or GURTs are systems designed to prevent the unwanted transfer of transgenes (the DNA engineered into GE plants) to other plants or the unauthorized propagation of transgenic crops. There are several different ways they work, but these systems have one thing in common. They all block the possibility of the engineered genes and traits from ending up where they are not wanted.
Some GURT-containing GE seeds will not germinate, for example, while other GURT engineered plants will produce only sterile pollen. Either way, no genetically engineered genes will spread to other plants. This is why critics of GE crops call these terminator technologies.
However, a more appropriate and descriptive term would be coexistence crops, since they would eliminate the possibility of two neighbouring fields crossing with each other. Perhaps more than any other aspects of genetically engineered crops, these technologies have been the target of massive fear-generating campaigns by critics.
Critics say coexistence crops threaten farmers in the developing world by preventing the saving of seed from this year's crop for next year's planting. But coexistence crops are not designed for developing world farmers. They are designed, in part, for farmers who already buy new seed each year.
Most farmers in the Western world already buy hybrid, certified or transgenic seed each year. These types of seed cost more, but produce far better yields, protect the environment or cost far less to grow, so the farmer gains in the end.
It has been suggested that coexistence crops will threaten biodiversity. Critics claim the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, of which Canada is a signatory, prohibits the development of coexistence crops. However, Article 2 of the protocol states: "Parties shall ensure that the development, handling, transport, use and release of any living modified organism [international term for GE crops] are undertaken in a manner that prevents or reduces the risks to biodiversity."
Since coexistence crops would block gene flow from transgenic crops to other plants, their incorporation into biotechnology crops is actually very much in keeping with the International Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety agreement. There are approximately 60,000 seed varieties sold in North America each year including about 100 varieties of transgenic crops. Logic argues against the suggestion 100 transgenic varieties with sterile GURT engineering are going to threaten nearly 60,000 fertile non-transgenic varhieties.
Blocking gene flow is important in another area of agricultural biotechnology. Up to now the production of most pharmaceuticals has required very expensive laboratories and production facilities. This is all about to change. Scientists have developed ways to make pharmaceuticals in plants. This has tremendous health and economic benefits. Where once a particular pharmaceutical might cost $100 per dose to produce, it can now be made in a plant for pennies.
Canada should be applauded for its call for a return of a science-based approach to continued research and development of coexistence crops.
Robert Wager teaches at Malaspina University College in Nanaimo.
Biosafety of Genetically Modified Organisms - International Symposium
- Jeju Island, South Korea, September 24-29, 2006; http://www.isbr.info
'Biosafety Research and Environmental Risk Assessment'
The 9th International Symposium on Biosafety of Genetically Modified Organisms (ISBGMO), organized by the International Society for Biosafety Research (ISBR), will explore the relationship between biosafety research and environmental risk assessment.
Scientific research is the foundation for expanding the knowledge base used in risk assessments and, as such, is essential for performing robust and credible assessments necessary for making sound decisions. Biosafety research is largely funded and performed to provide concepts, models, and data that allow biosafety issues to be defined and analyzed and uncertainty to be understood. Understanding the potential for adverse environmental effects from GMOs and the characterization of associated risks depends not only on quality of biosafety research but also on ongoing interaction between risk assessors, regulators and researchers.
The objectives of the 9th ISBGMO are to: 1. Promote discussion and broader understanding of current theory and practice of risk assessment among biosafety researchers, risk assessors and regulators in order to enable each to understand the contribution of the other in the risk assessment process. 2. Facilitate risk assessments by emphasizing the types of information needed. 3. Present the latest research on topical issues and new developments in the field of environmental biosafety.
Highlights of the Symposium include: Biosafety Research and Risk Assessment; Identifying and Defining Hazards and Potential Consequences ; Estimating Likelihood and Exposure; Risk Management/Monitoring; Future Developments: New Traits and Technologies; Risk Assessment Workshop
Are Europeans Really Antagonistic to Biotech?
- Rafael Pardo & Felix Calvo, Nature Biotechnology, v.24, p393; April 2006). www.nature.com/nbt ; Reproduced with the permission of the editor. Excerpt below...
Surveys of public attitudes to biotech in advanced societies rely on analyses of representative population samples and of media coverage. A common conclusion from these analyses is that the public is strongly opposed to biotech applications in food and agriculture ('green biotech') but less opposed (or more ambivalent) to applications in biomedicine ('red biotech'). In no region is this truer than in Europe, where the prevailing assumption of scientists and policymakers is that the public is generally antagonistic to biotech.
Building on recent lines of research we present here a re-evaluation of data from the latest Eurobarometer survey of European public attitudes to biotech. Our analysis suggests that the goal of improving acceptance of biotech should be addressed not only by dialogue and participation, but also by informing the public more about each new specific application, explaining the associated benefits and providing some basic notions of the science involved.
Given the general view that European citizens are rather poorly informed about biotech from a scientific and practical perspective, it is surprising to find that a high percentage of respondents were able to give a rating to all six applications, whereas only a low mean percentage provided 'Don't Know' responses. This is surprising not only because of the European public's scant prior knowledge or even awareness of biotech-related subject matter, but also because in each case people are challenged to provide each biotech application with a rating for complex criteria such as moral acceptability, usefulness and risk.
If the European public is poorly informed about biotech, we think that the strong covariance of the three positive criteria (usefulness, moral acceptability and encouragement) and the decisive influence on scores of the purpose of each application reveal how decisions about public acceptability of biotech are formed. The results suggest that judgments are not fine-grained, but rely not only on cues about practical benefits provided by the illustrative examples accompanying the questions but also on what the literature calls worldviews or 'orienting dispositions'.
In the case of biotech, a particularly relevant worldview is 'expectations about science and technology'. An index of people's general predispositions toward scientific and technological advances has a significant differentiating power for the observed variability in how respondents rated each of the six biotech applications. For the three positive criteria (usefulness, moral acceptability and encouragement), for example, there was a significant 0.4–0.5 point difference (at times as high as 0.6 points) in the mean rating assigned to each biotech application between those with high expectations of science (7–8 points) and those with low expectations (0–3 points). It is clear, then, that positive judgments of biotech are part of a broader-ranging optimism about the effects of applying science, denoting the importance of a cultural framework sympathetic to science.
Another worldview with a strong differentiating effect is 'views of nature'. This is characterized at one extreme by a firmly environmentalist stance and at the other by a wholly materialistic one (Supplementary Data 5 and Supplementary Fig. 2 online). If we compare the mean values of the group scoring 4 (high environmentalism) on a range from 0 to 4 (37.4% of the total sample) with those of the group scoring 0–1 points (7.2%), we find a significant global difference in evaluations of biotech (which nonetheless varies from one application to the next): this difference is no more than 0.2 points for biotech applications such as 'genetic testing' or 'xenotransplantation', but exceeds 0.4 points and even reaches 0.8 points for applications such as 'therapies based on human cells that have undergone somatic cell nuclear transfer', 'engineering food quality or attributes' or 'insect-resistant transgenic crops'. This worldview also discriminates responses for risk perception (except in genetic testing), with intergroup differences sometimes as high as 0.4 points. We thus find that a pessimistic stance on how humankind and technology are acting on the environment is associated with a critical judgment of most biotech applications; conversely, when individuals have high expectations about science and a materialistic view of nature, their perceptions of biotech applications tend to be more favorable.
Evaluations of biotech applications are also influenced by some cognitive variables (such as years of education), but these have a weaker effect than the above worldviews. This suggests that Europeans are separated in their perceptions of biotech more by global evaluations of the goals and benefits of each application and worldviews than by personal sociodemographic traits.
In contrast to the various reports that stress Europeans' perceptions of biotech risk, our analysis uncovers some surprising facts. First, perception of risk, as measured by the Eurobarometer survey, varies little for each application when correlated with such diverse variables as years of education, level of scientific knowledge and even general expectations about science. Neither do any differences come to light based on variations in individual confidence in the individuals and institutions responsible for monitoring the possible side-effects of biotech (Eurobarometer Q15). Second, risk seems not to significantly influence perceptions of the usefulness or moral acceptability of a biotech application, and even less the belief that a given application should or should not be encouraged.
We conclude that the European population's perception of biotech risk is, for the moment, a kind of 'in the air' apprehension, which is by no means deep rooted and motivated by recent, ill-understood applications involving human intervention in genetics. Risk perception seems to have no influence on decisions, particularly if the hoped-for benefits are considerable; indeed, risk concerns can be expected to disappear gradually from the collective mindset provided there is no intermediate news of major mishaps.
On the whole, the European population is largely inattentive to biotech advances but is globally positive about biotech. This positive judgment is mainly informed both by a holistic and poorly differentiated evaluation of the practical finality of each application (hence the difference in scores from one application to another) and by more general predispositions or worldviews regarding other kinds of scientific and technological advances and views or images of nature. The European public employs a sort of 'risk rhetoric' that stays largely on the declarative or ritual plane and exerts little real influence on the perceived 'usefulness' of applications or people's readiness to 'encourage' them.
(Social Science Studies, BBVA Foundation, Madrid, Spain; Department of Sociology, University of Deusto, Bilbao, Spain. email@example.com)
Agricultural Biotechnology Research for Public Goods and Private Goods: The Roles of University-Industry Relationships
- Washington, D.C., May 1, 2006 http://www.farmfoundation.org
This conference addresses the increasingly intertwined roles of universities and industry in science and technology development, with a focus on agricultural biotechnology. Leading academic scientists, research administrators, and industry representatives will present the latest findings and experiences regarding university-industry relationships.
Featured speakers include Roger Beachy, President of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, and Lawrence Busch, University Distinguished Professor, Michigan State University. The program, which can be found at www.farmfoundation.org, addresses salient issues in the public and private sectors.
The conference is sponsored by Portland State University, Farm Foundation, Cooperative States Research, Education and Extension Service, USDA, and Economic Research Service, USDA.
A central purpose of the conference is to identify policy options for university-industry collaborations to foster both public science and commercial technology development in agricultural biotechnologies. A facilitated exercise will draw from contributions by speakers and the audience to discover innovative public policy alternatives and industry strategies to improve the relationships.
Registration for the conference is $95 and due April 21, 2006, and can be done on-line at www.farmfoundation.org
Attack on Farmers Part of Fear Campaign
- The Kennebec Journal, April 7, 2006 http://kennebecjournal.mainetoday.com
The letter from John O'Donnell (Genetically engineered plants, animals dangerous, April 3) is a new low point for Maine agriculture. O'Donnell accuses farmers of using methods that are harmful to our health. What he conveniently omits is that he, too, is a farmer. His letter is part of a marketing campaign based on fear.
O'Donnell makes two outrageous and totally unfounded claims: That farmers who feed their livestock grains enhanced through biotechnology are endangering the health of consumers and (on his Web site) "grass-fed (sic) beef offers significant health benefits over most beef sold in the USA today."
The conclusion O'Donnell wants you to reach is that you will enjoy better health if you eat his beef. And if you eat beef from his competitors you're risking your life. There is no scientific evidence to back up these claims, yet there are many studies attesting to the safety of food crops enhanced through modern biotechnology.
Sadly, O'Donnell is part of a small but vocal group of farmers who believe the best way to promote their products is to frighten consumers away from the competition. In January, the Maine Food Policy Working Group proposed the state adopt a goal of having 80 percent of our calories come from locally grown food by the year 2020. For that to happen, Maine farmers will need to cooperate, not throw mud at each other.
- Douglas R. Johnson, Maine Biotechnology Information Bureau, Stonington
The UN vs. Technology
- Dr. Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko, TCS, April 7, 2006. Full commentary at http://www.tcsdaily.com/article.aspx?id=040706E
With diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS ravaging the world's poor -- and perhaps a flu pandemic in the offing -- the United Nations' celebration today of World Health Day might seem grimly appropriate. But the UN's record on health during its six decades has been a profound disappointment. Among its most egregious failures are some relatively obscure policy disasters of its own making. Much like its attempts to attain (and maintain) international peace and comity, the UN's forays into public health and environmental protection have frequently been wrong-headed and self-serving. While occasional rays of rationality shine through, these are too often eclipsed by countless other UN programs that work at cross purposes.
Among the UN's regulatory transgressions, few initiatives have inflicted worse damage on human health, the environment and technological innovation than the UN's regulation of biotechnology-enhanced, "gene-spliced," or "genetically modified," crops and foods.
At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, delegates made commitments to foster the introduction of gene-spliced products into less developed nations, and to promote the transfer of advanced biotechnology capacity from industrialized countries to developing ones. For the past 14 years, however, signatory nations have only erected barriers to biotech development. For example, the UN's Convention on Biological Diversity, which acknowledged that biotechnology could be used to improve food security, health care, and environmental protection in developing countries, has itself been perverted with the addition of an unscientific (in fact, anti-scientific) "Biosafety Protocol" that expressly limits such technology transfer.
A long-standing scientific consensus and thirty years of experiments confirm that gene-splicing techniques are essentially a refinement, or extension, of often-used but less precise and predictable conventional breeding techniques -- not unlike improving automobile performance and safety with radial tires and anti-lock brakes. But the Biosafety Protocol creates a senseless and scientifically unjustified global oversight apparatus that restricts and imposes onerous regulatory burdens on the products of this newest, most precise technology.
Worse still, the UN has distributed largess to the tune of tens-of-millions-of-dollars in order to "encourage" developing governments to ignore more pressing health problems and to sign on to the regulations mandated by the Biosafety Protocol. As former Convention on Biological Diversity head Calestous Juma has said, introducing regulation without promoting the development of technology is "like offering swimming lessons to inhabitants of the Sahara Desert." The program squanders scarce resources on the regulation of gene-spliced products that pose negligible risk, despite the fact that most of these countries lack virtually any regulation of acknowledged high-risk activities, such as public transport or dangerous occupations – and, of course, their expenditures on public health are woefully inadequate.
Fortunately, the World Trade Organization (WTO) -- a decidedly non-UN body -- has made some efforts to eliminate the worst biotech regulatory abuses. But the UN apparatchiks and anti-technology NGOs have devised a strategy to circumvent the WTO. Another UN program, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which establishes food standards and is operated jointly by the WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization, has created a biotech task force to extend to food regulation the anti-technology regulatory approach of the Biosafety Protocol. Under international trade law, national regulation that is in accord with a Codex standard is permissible under WTO rules. That neutralizes the potential impact of the WTO, the only international force that acts on behalf of rational, science-based policies.
The perverse efforts of both the Biosafety Protocol and the Codex task force, which prevent the wider diffusion of a superior technology for agriculture and food production, are directly detrimental to farmers, consumers, academic researchers, and industry worldwide. The Protocol imposes counterproductive regulation of field trials and cross-boundary movements onto compliant nations; and Codex standards, in effect, extend into international trade law similar restrictions on food products.
Biotechnology regulation is a growth industry at the UN. Throughout the organization, in program after program and project after project, the UN's approach continues to defy scientific consensus by devising burdensome new regulatory requirements and procedures that apply only to the pseudo-category of gene-spliced organisms and products derived from them. This turns the logic of regulation on its head: In the UN's distorted world of regulatory oversight, there is an inverse relationship between regulation and the degree of risk. This policy contradicts the first, and most ambitious, UN Millennium Development Goal -- to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger by 2015. That goal will not be accomplished without innovative technology -- which, in turn, cannot be developed in the face of excessive regulatory barriers and bureaucracies.
Ironically, the techniques of the new biotechnology could be widely applicable and beneficial -- and supportive of so many of the UN's supposed aspirations. For example, one important way to "reduce child mortality," the fourth Millennium Development Goal, would be to produce childhood vaccines cheaply in gene-spliced edible fruits and vegetables. But there is near-hysteria at Codex over conjectural food-safety problems with this approach. And the Secretary-General of the UN's World Meteorological Organization announced that "integrated water-resources management is the key to achieving the Millennium Development Goal of securing access to safe water, sanitation and environmental protection," while other UN agencies are making virtually impossible the development of gene-spliced plants that can grow with low-quality water or under drought conditions.
As Wellesley College political scientist Robert Paarlberg has observed, the continued globalization of this sort of "highly precautionary regulatory approach" to gene-spliced crops will cause the "the biggest losers of all [to be the] poor farmers in the developing world." "If this new technology is killed in the cradle," he adds, "these farmers could miss a chance to escape the low farm productivity that is helping to keep them in poverty."
To be sure, there are many individuals within the various UN bodies who understand the need for science and technology but who fear to speak out, or are overruled. Their marginalization within their agencies and programs illustrates just how perverse and corrupt the UN's policymaking has become. Senior UN officials regularly pay lip service to science and technology, to be sure, but they seem entranced by the notion of creating regulatory bureaucracies for virtually everything that happens on the planet -- witness the recent attempt to gain control over the Internet, for example.
The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined the catchy alliterative phrase "defining deviancy down," by which he meant that we can become so jaded, so used to intolerable behavior that we begin to tolerate it. That phenomenon seems to have colored the prevailing view of the UN: Because we have come to expect incompetence, self-interest, and political correctness, we no longer resent the flow of taxpayer dollars to fund it, or think to demand more. We need change, both in the UN's performance and in our own attitudes toward this organization that began with such great promise but has failed so utterly.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and fellow at the Hoover Institution, headed the FDA's Office of Biotechnology from 1989 to 1993. Gregory Conko is director of food safety policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Barron's selected their book, "The Frankenfood Myth...," as one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.
Growers for Biotechnology
The purpose of the Growers for Biotechnology, Inc, is to promote and facilitate the research, development and acceptance of biotechnology in wheat. The stated objectives of the Growers for Biotechnology, Inc., (GFB) are as follows:
* To provide factual public information knowledge about the adoption of biotechnology in agriculture and its contribution to a safe, abundant and environmentally sound food production system.
* To advocate the advancement of research and development of biotechnology applications in agriculture to the benefit of growers, processors or consumers.
* To insure that the important decisions regarding the adoption of biotechnology applications are based on sound science and realistic business principles.
Question: What prompted the formation of the Growers for Biotechnology?
Answer: A group of wheat growers were concerned that the facts surrounding the benefits that biotechnology can and potentially could, deliver to the wheat industry, were not being brought to light.
Question: What is the group's purpose or objectives?
Answer: The Growers for Wheat Biotechnology, Inc., is dedicated to advocate the research, development and acceptance of biotechnology in wheat.
Question: Aren't you in effect, really a mouthpiece for big pro-biotech corporations?
Answer: While there’s no mistaking the fact the GFB supports further research and eventual adoption of biotechnology in wheat, we do not speak for those companies and organizations that are involved in developing and commercializing wheat biotech products. We are wheat producers who firmly believe that U.S. farmers should have the access to the best tools and technology and should be allowed to make their own decisions about how best to use them, or not use them.
Question: If there's no support for biotech wheat, what will happen to research and development?
Answer: These companies have a business to run just like we do. If bans or moratoriums were placed on biotech research, their options would then be fairly simple; take their technologies elsewhere to recoup their investments or, shift their resources to other crops. In either scenario, the U.S. wheat industry loses and endangers its market leader position and would be left to play catch up to the rest of the world. We want those in the global wheat value chain to understand biotechnology is a critical tool that we must adopt in order stay cost competitive and meet changing consumer demands for wheat-based products.
Question: I've read where foreign and domestic customers say they don’t want biotech wheat, how do you respond to that?
Answer: We want to encourage our customers to take a second look at the benefits of biotechnology in wheat. First, we don't think anybody has said they will introduce these products until competent regulatory authorities determine their safety and issue a full regulatory approval for the technology to be used in wheat production. Once regulatory approvals are in place, we believe customers will continue to have a choice between biotech and non-biotech wheat. We firmly believe the U.S. has the capacity to grow both biotech wheat and non-biotech wheat and deliver it to customers around the world based on their preferences. Customers throughout the world currently purchase billions of dollars worth of biotech-derived commodities. In some parts of the world where consumers are concerned about biotechnology, we believe more education needs to take place and we want to play a constructive role in the educational process. Back to questions
Question: Wouldn't support of biotech wheat be a high-risk stand for the downstream wheat industry to take without clear support from consumers or producers?
Answer: If we demonstrate that the value is there, and that biotech wheat has passed the rigorous, science-based review of our regulatory system, food processors and retailers can help the U.S. wheat industry gain acceptance for biotech products. If that happens then we will have addressed the biggest hurdle the opposition has used against acceptance. In addition, we believe most wheat-based food products sold today utilize biotech ingredients. For instance, in a loaf of bread there is usually biotech soy flour or oil plus biotech yeast. In fact, biotech yeast has been used in making bread in Europe, Japan, U.S. and many other countries for well over a decade. These products have been approved by regulatory authorities as being safe for human consumption, the same standard that biotech wheat will eventually achieve. Given biotechnology is already thoroughly incorporated into the food products we have been safely consuming for several years, we see no reason to discriminate against wheat producers who need the benefits that biotechnology can offer.
Question: You mentioned the need to "catch up." Are other countries developing biotech wheat?
Answer: Absolutely. While the debate has raged on here in the U.S. other countries are developing biotech wheat programs of their own, including some of our export customers. Australia, China, Germany and Egypt are just a few of the countries that have research programs underway in wheat. Global acceptance of biotech crops and the value they bring to their economies is no secret. Developing countries are adopting biotech crops at a rapid pace – over 200 percent growth in planted acreage in just the last 4 years – and growth in these markets isn't expected to slow down anytime soon.
Question: What is wrong in having states initiate their own regulatory control over the development of biotech technologies?
Answer: Problems exist with this action on several levels. First of all, if states were to impose restrictions that supercede existing FDA, EPA and USDA regulatory oversight, producers and their customers would be asked to conduct business differently for that state vs. the rest of the country. Without the consistent standards set by Federal authorities, the competitive landscape would be radically affected. On another level, arbitrarily imposing restrictions on specific products and their manufacturers would constitute a violation of the Interstate Commerce Act, and open a Pandora’s Box of senseless litigation and loss of access to beneficial production tools.
Question: How do you respond to Monsanto’s decision to defer biotech efforts in wheat?
Answer: We see this as a serious setback to the advancement in wheat biotechnology. However, we understand why they made this business decision. Some have said they support research, but did not support the release of any biotech wheat. Unfortunately, the promise of economic value is what drives research, especially in the private sector, and research needs private investment. Monsanto has already made a significant investment in technologies that have delivered billions of dollars of value to U.S. agriculture.