Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org : April 8, 2006
* Corn, Cloning, and Clinton
* Biotech Conference May Bring Protesters to Chicago
* Counting Up! A Billion Acres…and Growing
* People Like Biotech, Even If They Don't Know What It Is
* Farmer Suicide Claim Ridiculous
* Economics of Biotech Crops in Developing Countries
* GM Plants Could Become Sentinels for the Military
* Africa Faces Barren Future: 'To Feed People...Feed the Soil'
* Pro: Science can Help World
* Con: Let nature work
* Thailand: The Future of Farming
* IFPRI Launches E-Learning Programs
* Issues in Ag Biotech: Animation and Audio
Corn, Cloning, and Clinton
- Arlene Weintraub, Business Week, April 7, 2006; Full story at
'Some aspects of this year's BIO conference are sure to draw protests, but the biotech industry has plenty to celebrate'
The upcoming conference of the Biotechnology Industry Organization [BIO] in Chicago will feature two firsts for the 14-year-old show: a 1,000 square-foot cornfield growing on the convention floor, and a presentation by former U.S. President William Jefferson Clinton. The milestones are more closely related than they may at first appear.
The cornfield, which will crop up in McCormick Place Convention Center in time for the Apr. 9 start of the convention, will be stocked with biotech-enhanced corn that's grown from seeds engineered to resist a common pest [the European corn borer]. The stalks will be tended by farmers from India, the Philippines, South Africa, France, and Germany -- all of whom have embraced biotech as a method for improving crop production.
The former President played a major role in evangelizing agricultural biotech, says BIO president James C. Greenwood. "It was his Environmental Protection Agency and his Department of Agriculture that approved the original genetically engineered crops and began the worldwide explosion of these products," Greenwood says. "He's taken a great interest in feeding the hungry."
HORSES AND SEEDS. Agricultural biotech is one of the industry's most controversial issues, and the presence of both corn and Clinton will surely attract protests from environmental groups that believe that messing with a plant's genetic makeup is unnatural and unhealthy. But the potential for picketing hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of organizers who are planning the largest-ever program of panel discussions about agricultural biotech.
Aside from biotech crops, topics will include current advances in animal agriculture. In recent weeks there have been some notable cases. Biotech has yielded pigs with a healthier balance of fats than normal pork, and the successful cloning of foals from champion quarter horses. Agriculture accounts for a tiny fraction of the biotech industry's $48 billion in annual sales, but it's growing fast, thanks to increasing worldwide acceptance.
In March, for example, Brazil approved the importation of 400,000 tons of biotech corn. By the end of the year, the country could import as much as 5 million tons of the altered seeds, estimates Ernst & Young's 2006 global biotechnology report, which was released Apr. 4.
FRANKENFOOLS? With topics such as cloning and agricultural biotech high on BIO's agenda, the organization is bracing for protests from animal-rights groups and environmentalists. More than 300 protesters showed up at last year's convention, some of whom were arrested by Philadelphia police. BIO's Greenwood says it's all part of the routine.
"It wouldn't be BIO without some people dressed as carrots and killer tomatoes," he jokes. Despite the contentious environment that has accompanied the biotech industry throughout its history, BIO anticipates the event will attract at least 18,000 attendees eager to celebrate the big 3-0.
Biotech Conference May Bring Protesters to Chicago
Conference Has Drawn Massive Opposition In Past Cities
- Mike Parker, CBS2 News, April 7, 2006
A biotech conference is coming to Chicago this weekend, and the city is bracing for trouble. It's held in different cities every year and seems to always draw massive opposition. CBS 2's Mike Parker explains why protesters are all fired up.
"They've been violent in the past. They will be here" said Jim Greenwood, CEO of Bio 2006. The CEO of a big scientific convention coming Sunday to McCormick Place is concerned about a repeat of trouble.
It happened during last year's convention in Philadelphia. A police officer died of a heart attack after scuffling with demonstrators who protested the new branch of science known as biotechnology. They'd been railing against so-called genetically-altered farm products nicknamed "Frankenfoods" and against the animal testing often used in biotechnology.
"And I suspect some of them will be in town banging on drums and dressing up as carrots and tomatoes" said Greenwood.
Mayor Daley, who formally welcomed the convention to Chicago, hopes that's the worst that will happen.
"People have the right to demonstrate. They have no right to break the law, no right to injure anyone, no right to damage property, and they have a right to their opinion. But we‚re cognizant of that and we are well prepared" Daley said.
Maggie Daley, who recently battled breast cancer, seemed puzzled by the opponents of biotechnology. "I think some of you can imagine my profound respect and gratitude to our scientists because I stand here as a result of their work" she said.
One of the new developments in biotechnology is something called BC-12. It's a technique that causes cancer cells to turn on themselves and die. About 18,000 scientists, investors and teachers are expected at the convention.
Counting Up! A Billion Acres…and Growing
- Dean Kleckner, AgWeb, April 7, 2006 http://www.agweb.com
Thomas Jefferson once offered a good piece of advice: When angry, count to ten before you speak--and when very angry, count to a hundred.
If the Sage of Monticello were alive today, he might suggest to those anti-biotech activists that are still out there – before they hold another rally, perhaps they should do a bit of counting - all the way up to 1.2 billion.
That's the number of acres of biotech crops that farmers have planted (rounded up, slightly)--and each one of these acres is helping to make the world healthier, better fed and more prosperous.
To celebrate this fact, we at Truth About Trade and Technology (TATT) are providing a visual reality-check regarding the global acceptance of agricultural biotechnology at BIO 2006 Chicago, the annual international meeting of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. It's being held in Chicago from April 9 to 12. We've been counting all the way up to 1.2 billion (and still going like the energizer bunny!) You'll see a real-time display that ticks off biotech acres as they are planted and harvested all over the world. The Biotech Acre Counters will greet conference attendees at the entrance to the Food & Agriculture Pavilion - dedicated to the proposition that modern science improves our food.
Inside the pavilion, the conference's attendees will get a firsthand look at how biotechnology is utilized on farms around the globe. One of the main attractions will be the world's largest indoor cornfield. In addition, farmers from around the world will be there, ready to talk about their own experiences with GM crops – telling each of us how they work and benefit everybody. They will hail from France, Portugal, India, the Philippines, South Africa, Romania, Brazil, Australia and Mexico. Some 18,000 people are expected to attend the conference, and if they stop by our pavilion they'll see and hear firsthand that it's possible to grow more food on less land and do so in a way that's environmentally friendly.
If the TATT counter had existed a little more than ten years ago, it would have been set at zero: There were no acres of commercially available biotech plants anywhere. In the course of a decade, however, farmers have embraced this technology. Biotechnology has been proven to increase yields, lower costs, and reduce reliance on herbicides and pesticides. Last year we were able to celebrate a pair of important milestones: the tenth year of genetically improved crops as well as the planting and harvesting of the one-billionth acre. In 2005, 8.5 million farmers from 21 countries participated in the biotech revolution, and they planted approximately 222 million acres of GM crops.
The number of acres on which biotech crops are grown has been 'double-digit up' each year—from 2004 to 2005 the rate of growth was 11 percent. The number of farmers who take advantage of biotechnology also increases, especially because small-time farmers in the developing world want the benefits that biotechnology can give them. Some 90 percent of biotech farmers live in resource-poor areas. Over the next few years, we expect to see explosive growth as China and India become significant producers. If you think our counter is moving fast today, just wait and see what it looks like a few years from now!
By 2010, farmers are expected to grow 375 million acres of biotech crops each year. That will feed a lot of people--about 300 million, if we subscribe to the estimate that it takes 1.25 acres to feed a single person for an entire year. That's roughly the population of the United States.
In recognition of how crucial biotechnology is becoming to the global food chain, we launched the TATT counter last year. Our methodology involves taking up-to-the-minute information on planting and harvesting as reported by government agencies as well as private market analysis. We adjust our estimates based on a variety of factors, including weather and consultations with USDA and industry officials. The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a non-profit group that tracks biotech farming in the developing world, also provides crucial world-wide data.
"When angry, count four; when very angry, swear," joked Mark Twain, building off Jefferson's comment, more than a century ago. Here at Truth About Trade and Technology, we're going to continue the "Count Up" well past 1.2 billion--and keep on cheering.
Dean Kleckner is an Iowa farmer and past president of the American Farm Bureau. He currently chairs Truth About Trade and Technology.
People Like Biotech, Even If They Don't Know What It Is
- Jon Van, Chicago Tribune, April 6, 2006
Chicago-area residents might not know exactly what biotechnology is, but they like it anyway, according to a survey commissioned by Abbott Laboratories.
On the eve of the world's largest biotech gathering, BIO2006, which comes to McCormick Place Sunday, the Abbott survey of 500 respondents found that about 60 percent said they were unfamiliar with the term "biotechnology."
Even people who had heard the term were a bit vague about its meaning. Just 13 percent said that biotechnology is "the use of biology and technology," which is correct, if general, and one-third of respondents declined to attempt any definition at all. But 70 percent said they believe "biotechnology brings better medicine to their lives."
"I was somewhat surprised by the results," said Dr. John Leonard, vice president for global medical and scientific affairs for North Chicago-based Abbott. "Even the simplest definition, biology and technology used to create beneficial products, is something I'd have expected a higher percentage of people to know."
Biotechnology, which uses knowledge about genetic materials and proteins to produce medical therapies and diagnostics, is an extremely broad term, Leonard said. Biotech tools also are applied to improve agricultural crops and create plastics, fuels and other products from plants like corn and soybeans.
While the modern biotech industry is just 30 years old, in the broadest sense biotechnology goes back centuries, to the earliest days of using yeast to brew beer, bake bread and make cheese, Leonard said.
Bringing BIO2006 to the Midwest for the first time is intended to raise the worldwide profile of life-science products that are developed and made here, Leonard said. And it could help raise local awareness as well.
"It's in everyone's best interest that people in the region know more about biotechnology," said Leonard, "and we hope this will help make that happen."
Farmer Suicide Claim Ridiculous
- Standard-Freeholder (Cornwall) April 7, 2006; Via Agnet
Derek Roberts of Fergus, Ont. writes regarding, Terminator seed threatens farmers (K. Jean Cottam) to say that the anti-biotech movement has hit a new low. Farmers committing suicide because they were "forced to buy terminator seeds"? Come on, can we try to not be so ridiculous?
First of all, "terminator" technology has not been commercialized, so farmers don't even have the voluntary option to buy terminator seeds, let alone be "forced" to buy them.
Secondly, please give farmers some credit. We are not helpless pawns being force-fed technology against our will. We are individual business people.
We make individual choices on how to operate our farms every day. No company can "force" us to buy their product.
Over half the corn and soybean acreage, and over 90 per cent of the canola acreage in Ontario are derived from biotech varieties. Is this because some corporation has "forced" us to buy their seeds? No, it's because we find it advantageous for both our farm business and the environmental stewardship on our farms. For example, biotech soybeans allow farmers to control weeds using less tillage (e.g. less or no plowing), which protects the soil from erosion.
There is no evidence that organic food is more nutritious than non-organic. All food must meet the same inspection and food safety standards. We've been eating foods derived from genetic engineering for over 10 years with not a single person becoming sick as a result.
What we need is an intelligent debate on these issues, not irrational allegations and misinformation. I wish more people would talk to real farmers about these issues rather than making all this crazy stuff up. It benefits no one, except maybe the interest groups who use fear mongering to raise money.
The Economics of Biotech Crops in Developing Countries
- Ross Korves, Trade Policy Analyst, Truth About Trade and Technology http://www.truthabouttrade.org
Developing countries accounted for 38 percent of the worldwide acreage of biotech crops in 2005 according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). A recent review of peer-reviewed research of on-farm experiences with commercial cultivation of biotech crops in developing countries provides comparisons across countries and identifies factors that influence the economic value of biotech crops.
The study titled "Economic Impact of Transgenic Crops in Developing Countries" by Dr. Terri Raney, Senior Economist in the Agricultural and Development Economics Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome, Italy was published in Current Opinions in Biotechnology.
Peer-reviewed analyses of commercial cultivation of insect-resistant (IR) cotton have been completed for Argentina, China, India, Mexico and South Africa. Average yield increases ranged from 11 percent to 65 percent. Yield increases were smallest in Mexico where Bt cotton provided resistance to a narrow range of pests. The greatest benefits were in South Africa.
Pesticide cost reductions ranged from 41 percent to 77 percent, with Mexico having the largest decline in pesticide costs. Pesticide costs declined by 67 percent in China, 58 percent in South Africa, 47 percent in Argentina and 41 percent in India. Seed costs had a wide range of increases from 530 percent in Argentina, 165 percent in Mexico, 95 percent in China, 89 percent in South Africa and 17 percent in India.
Profits in China for IR cotton were 340 percent of the levels for non-IR cotton as the 23 percent revenue increase and 67 percent reduction in pesticide costs far offset the almost doubling of seed costs. South Africa showed similar results with profits for IR cotton at 299 percent of the level for non-IR cotton as the 65 percent increase in revenue and 58 percent decline in pesticide costs offset the 89 percent higher seed costs. Profits in India were 69 percent higher for IR cotton as the 33 percent increase in revenue and 41 percent decline in pesticide costs offset the modest 17 percent increase in seed costs. Profits were 31 percent higher in Argentina as the sharply higher seed costs were offset by a 34 percent increase in revenue and a 47 percent decline in pesticide costs. In Mexico the reduction in pesticide costs offset the higher seed costs and resulted in a 12 percent increase in profits.
The study for India had data for four major cotton growing states. Andhra Pradesh had a 3 percent decline in revenue and 13 percent higher total costs for a 40 percent decline in profits. Tamil Nadu had a 44 percent increase in revenue and a 5 percent increase in total costs resulting in profits that were 229 percent of the profits for non-IR cotton, while Karnataka had a 67 percent increase in revenue combined with 19 percent higher costs resulting in profits that were 172 percent of the level for non-IR cotton.
The review noted that biotech crop benefits are influenced by public policies, agronomic conditions and private markets in a country. The lack of locally adapted cultivars may have played a role in the low cotton yields in Andhra Pradesh state in India. In 2003 when the analysis was done only four IR cotton varieties were available for the entire country. In 2005 the number of approved IR cotton varieties had increased to 20 and acreage was 13 times larger than in 2003 at 3.2 million acres according to the ISAAA.
China is the leader among developing countries in national research capacity for biotech crops with two biotech systems for insect resistance. These have been incorporated into local cotton varieties and provide competition for Monsanto cotton varieties. The researchers attribute this competition with helping to keep biotech seed costs lower than in some other developing countries. In Argentina intellectual property rights have been strictly enforced and IR cotton seed price increases have been higher.
The experiences of IR cotton production in the Makhathini Flats of KwaZulu Natal province of South Africa show the importance of functioning input and product markets. A local cooperative provided seed on credit along with technical advice and had the only cotton gin in the area. When another gin opened into the area the cooperative stopped providing seed on credit. Cotton production in the area has declined sharply.
Some of the reviewed research provided analysis by size of farm. In China about 7.5 million small farmers grew biotech cotton. Farms with less than 1.2 acres of cotton had the largest yield increases, and mid-size farmers, 1.2-2.5 acres of cotton, had the largest reductions in total costs. The percent gain in net income of these two groups was more than twice as large as that for farms with more than 2.5 acres of cotton. The South African research showed that low income farmers had economic gains and health and environmental benefits from less pesticide use.
Peer-reviewed research in developing countries for other crops is much more limited. Argentina has peer-reviewed studies on herbicide tolerant soybeans, and Argentina and South Africa have peer-reviewed studies on IR corn. The South African research reported that small corn farmers had higher yields, while larger farmers benefited from higher yields, lower pesticide costs and increased incomes. The researchers noted that providing seed at affordable prices is critical to increased biotech production among small producers.
The author of the review concluded that national institutional capacity in research and regulations are prerequisites for access to innovations at competitive terms. Seed supply markets and effective intellectual property rights management are also important. Without these conditions, access for low income producers will remain a formidable challenge.
Original paper at
Genetically Modified Plants Could Become Sentinels for the Military
- Thomas Clouser http://EzineArticles.com/?expert=Thomas_Clouser
As concerns grow over the threat of bioterrorism and weapons of mass destruction, Penn State University genetic researchers are working on an early warning system -- the figurative canary in the mineshaft -- that could be as unobtrusive and ubiquitous as plants in a landscape. This "canary" is a specially engineered plant or group of plants designed to detect and signal the presence of many harmful chemical or biological agents.
In theory, soldiers could be equipped with a hand-held electronic device. When pointed at a native plant, the readings on the device would indicate the plant was exposed to nerve gas some time in the last several hours or several days. At present such a device does not exist.
To develop such technology, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has awarded Penn State University a 3 year, $3.5 million grant to lay groundwork for genetically engineered plants that can detect the presence of harmful nerve agents. Plants are a suitable candidate because they are rooted to their environment, and cannot move out of a given area like an insect or other animal. They can therefore become a short-term history book of their environment over the last several days. Just as a plant will wilt without water, or become lighter green with less nitrogen, a plant that is genetically altered to become sensitive to a nerve agent or other chemical compounds poisonous to humans would retain certain effects of its exposure.
Plants and animals detect and respond to a range of things -- including microbes, insects, chemicals and hormones -- via cellular proteins. These proteins, called receptor-like kinases (RLKs), have a sensing domain outside the cell membrane that binds molecules in the environment. This binding sends a signal inside the cell to the response domain, known as the kinase, which then turns on genes that trigger a response. One of the plants being studied at Penn State is Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant from the mustard family that grows around the world and is widely used as a model organism in plant biology.
Even detection of something such as explosives in the soil is under research. A military commander, with the proper electronic device, could receive a readout from a plant in his locale that could indicate the presence of explosives nearby. Of course, such genetically modified plants would have to be planted into the environment ahead of time, which may pose its own set of problems.
Jack Schultz, a chemical ecologist and professor of entomology in the College of Agricultural Sciences, indicates in the Penn State extension website that their experiments may eventually aid the agricultural community as well. One example given was that a sensor could be mounted on the front of a farm tractor traveling across a field when operating a pesticide sprayer. The sensor could detect the presence of a certain weed or insect pest and turn the sprayer on or off or add different chemical components for a given section of the field, and thus reduce the total volume of pesticides used.
Tom Clouser is a 38 year old farmer in Pennsylvania. In addition to farming, he and his father publish a monthly 16-page newspaper called "Trees 'n' Turf", which targets subjects of interest to those in land use industries and activities. View their website at http://www.clouserfarm.net
Africa Faces Barren Future: 'To Feed People We Must Feed the Soil'
- Karen Palmer , The Toronto Star, March 31, 2006
Kampala, Uganda Africa is in danger of losing its ability to feed an already hungry population because its farmland is rapidly becoming barren, a major new study warns. More than 80 per cent of farmland in sub-Saharan Africa, where one in three people is undernourished, is so depleted of nutrients it has been rendered infertile, the report notes.
"This is severely eroding Africa's ability to feed itself," Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo said yesterday. "To feed people, we must also feed the soil."
Researchers from the International Centre for Soil Fertility and Agricultural Development, who tracked soil conditions across Africa for more than two decades, say population growth is leading to an over-cultivation of farmland.
Farmers who once rotated crop production, moving from plot to plot to allow soil to regain its fertility, are now forced to grow crop after crop on the same land, "depleting the soil of nutrients while giving nothing back," says the report.
An estimated 70 per cent of Africans rely directly on farming for their food supply or livelihood. But the "soil health crisis" means crop productivity has remained stagnant, while cereal yields in Asia have tripled over the past four decades.
"The news is not good," said Amit Roy, president of the U.S.-based non-profit soil centre, during a telephone conference in Washington yesterday. "The soil health of the African continent is in decline and there is significant mining of nutrients." Roy said at least 170 million hectares - nearly 80 per cent of all African farmland - is so barren it cannot produce even one tonne of cereal per hectare a year - a third of what soil in Asia or South America produces.
The findings have major implications for the continent's ability to feed itself. Already, some 43 million tonnes of cereals are imported to sub-Saharan Africa each year at a cost of $7.5 billion (all figures U.S.). But despite that, an estimated 200 million people go hungry each year. Without radical change in agricultural practices, the report predicts that by 2020, Africa will have to import 60 million tonnes of cereals, which would cost $14 billion.
"African aid is never, never going to end food insecurity," said Firmino Mucavele, chief executive of the New Partnership For Africa's Development secretariat. Nigeria's Obasanjo is chair of the implementing committee of the African Union-sponsored secretariat. He said too many nutrients are being removed from the African soil, and not being replenished with suitable fertilizers. "The environment is being damaged by the quality and quantity of fertilizers used," he said.
Africa's rate of fertilizer use is one-tenth the world average, although commercial farmers grow peanut, cotton and sugar cane crops that are notoriously high consumers of soil nutrients. A cruel irony is that fertilizers cost up to six times as much in Africa as the rest of the world. A June summit will look at ways of lowering that cost, including the possibility of producing fertilizer in Africa, and promoting mineral and organic fertilizers. The ultimate objective is to reduce or eliminate hunger.
There also needs to be more investment in irrigation, Roy said. Only 4 per cent of arable land in Africa is watered artificially, while nearly 40 per cent of land in Asia is irrigated. And the problem needs to be managed immediately, Roy said, since farmers are encroaching on even more fragile ecosystems, like forests and savannahs, in search of new land to till. Researchers found 50,000 hectares of forest and 60,000 hectares of grassland are cleared for farming each year in Africa.
"Without the green revolution, we'll never be able to create our own resources and decrease poverty," Mucavele said. "Without a green revolution, we'll never really control our own environment."
Pro: Science can Help World
- Rockford Register Star, April 8th, 2006 http://www.rrstar.com/
Selecting and breeding improved varieties of crops have been going on in agriculture for thousands of years. Biotechnology, the modification of genes to produce plants with specific traits, is simply the next step. Farmers and consumers in the U.S. and the world benefit from access to biotechnology for the production of safe and abundant food.
Last year marked the harvest of more than 1 billion acres of biotech crops with a 10-year history of safety. Meanwhile, environmental benefits such as reduced use of pesticides, reduced water pollution, reduced carbon dioxide emissions from no-till farming and reduced levels of mycotoxins because of healthier plants, continue.
Three federal agencies share the responsibility for approving biotech crops: the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. They must review all biotech crops before granting approval for commercial development. Interestingly, there is no oversight for crops developed using conventional breeding.
The European Union, where opposition to biotech seems greatest, does not have these regulatory agencies to deal with biotech. Some of the EU sentiment toward biotech is the result of backlash for the mismanagement of BSE, dioxin and hoof-and-mouth disease by European governments. Many EU science organizations have endorsed the health and safety of biotech crops.
As our knowledge of genetics increase, more promising developments will surface. The possibilities include golden rice to provide vitamin A and iron to malnourished people, eliminating millions of cases of blindness; crops that can withstand droughts and soil conditions such as salinity that reduce yield; potatoes that do not absorb oil during cooking; soybeans that have reduced levels of trans fats after processing; and food that can treat specific illnesses.
Earl Williams is a farmer and president of the Winnebago County Farm Bureau.
Con: Let nature work
- Rockford Register Star April 8th, 2006 http://www.rrstar.com/
Unlike hybrids or cross-breeding, which have been in agriculture for centuries, genetic engineering is a cell-invasion technology that uses viruses and bacteria to manipulate DNA to fuse genes from one species, such as a fruit, with another, such as a fish. This creates a so-called "superfood" with specifically engineered traits such as size, color and resistance to temperature extremes. These life-forms would never crossbreed naturally.
Between 70 percent and 90 percent of all commercially available food in the U.S. has genetically engineered crops in it. And yet, under U.S. law, labeling is not required for genetically modified food, so consumers have no idea what they are eating.
The FDA does not safety-test genetically engineered foods. It only reviews the safety testing done by the corporations marketing the food, and that safety testing is voluntary. There is no way to prove biotech that companies are telling the truth about their products, and it is not in their best interest to reveal negative information.
Farmers throughout the Midwest report that when fed genetically modified organisms, their animals have problems conceiving. Independent studies reveal that lab rats fed this way had less-developed brains, livers and testicles. Significant structural changes and a proliferation of cells in the stomach and intestines may have signaled an increased potential for cancer. With an increase in allergies, obesity, attention deficit disorder, depression, diabetes and cancer, the question remains - do these experimepntal foods play a role in the deterioration of the health in the U.S.?
Nearly 40 nations restrict the importation of genetically modified foods based on health, safety and environmental issues. America has the lowest standards of biotech safety in the developed world. Even developing nations such as Zaire have tighter standards.
Sources: "Seeds of Deception;" www.Bioethics2006.org; www.thecampaign.org
Karen King is owner of Choices Natural Market in Rockford.
Thailand: The Future of Farming
- Vasana Chinvarakorn, Bangkok Post, April 8, 2006. Full story at
Thailand is at a crossroads. Given its progress in agricultural know-how, the agricultural sector will have to decide what direction it wants to take. 'Outlook' explores two possibilities here - organic farming and the path of biotechnology
A name change ... switching to promotion of non-food crops ... approaching farmers' groups - these are some of the strategies that Sutat Sriwatanapongse, current president of the Biotechnology Alliance Association (BAA), has adopted in pushing for public acceptance of genetically modified (GM) crops.
"From now on, we'll refer to them as 'phuet cheewaphap' or biotech crops instead," said the senior scientist. "The term 'GM' has apparently scared off many people. The new coinage will make it sound a little like 'pui cheewaphap' [usually applied to non-chemical fertilisers]. It may cause some confusion initially, but after a while, it will likely become part of the daily usage."
As the founding head of BAA, Sutat conceded he originally accepted the post as an "interim president". But there has been "pressure" for him to renew his term, he noted in a casual tone. "So before quitting for good, I'd like to see the BAA in a secure position, including financially."
Established in 2004, the BAA has been perceived differently depending on which side of the GM debate one is on. The opposition questions the ties between the organisation and some multinationals and special interest groups that sell GM technology/ products (including Monsanto, Novartis, Syngenta, Bayer and so on), in particular a US-based agency called the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (Isaaa). Some leading biotech industry executives also sit on Isaaa's board of directors.
Sutat insisted, though, that the BAA's mandate is to serve as a "knowledge centre" to create better understanding based on scientific grounds. There has been a lot of irrational "fear" spread around about negative health and environmental effects of the GM products, he lamented.
"Yes, Isaaa has been supporting us after it closed its branch office in Bangkok and transferred its work to us," Sutat said. "Our association has been, however, trying to strike a balance between public and private sources of funding. The state agencies tend to act hesitant toward us and private companies have to be careful about their image; they can't come out to give explicit support that much."
Indeed, Sutat's designated task - of promoting controversial GM products among Thai farmers and consumers - has never been easy. Thailand continues to ban all field tests of GM crops, following a Cabinet resolution issued on April 3, 2001. In August 2004, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had to quickly drop his proposal to revoke the moratorium after facing heavy protests by a coalition of farmers, consumers, campaigners and food exporters.
In Sutat's views, Thailand has lost many "opportunities" over the past decade, a poignant point considering that Thailand was one of the very first countries in Asia to pioneer the drafting of bio-safety guidelines and the subsequent field testing of transgenic tomato and cotton crops (until the scandal over the leak of GM cotton seeds in 1999). Sutat noted that the guidelines were published in 1993, a year after he returned to Thailand to work as deputy director of the National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, or Biotec.
Now we are "behind" even Vietnam, he said. In a socialist regime, say Vietnam or China, things tend to move much faster, the scientist observed. "It is more complicated in a 'very democratic' country like ours," Sutat said. "We do have the National Biotechnology Policy with clearly stipulated timeframes, but what's stated therein never transpires according to the schedule."
It's not too late to catch up, though, Sutat swiftly added. We have plenty of laboratories and personnel with doctorate degrees in the field. The BAA has been focusing on creating an "informal network" with tertiary educational institutes, especially the newly established ones. Sutat mentioned in passing how the staff at Biotec and the Department of Agriculture occasionally came to give lectures at the BAA's meetings and workshops.
Importantly, the BAA has developed a closer rapport with some farmers' groups. "We have been working with academics for 10 years, but the voice is still not loud enough." Recently, they have been sponsoring "study trips" for rural people (and some media) to visit biotech labs and fields - at Kasetsart University (Kamphaengsaen campus), the Philippines, India and as far away as Hawaii.
The change of tactics seems to have yielded better fruit. Sutat mentioned a certain "Assembly of Northeastern Farmers" (of which the secretary-general has been on one of the study trips to Hawaii, he said) that has started making calls for the government to allow field tests of GM papayas - incidentally, the same line pushed forward by BAA and its allies. A similar move was repeated in January this year by another group allegedly representing farmers in the Central region. "But our job is to educate the people, not to stage rallies," Sutat affirmed.
To make these "biotech crops" more palatable to the Thai public, Sutat said we might have to begin with non-food items like flowers and decorative plants and cotton. Himself a veteran plant breeder, Sutat listed potential research topics: GM glow-in-the-dark orchids and aquarium fish. He hoped they would attract less opposition and thus not risk being abandoned as their predecessors had been.
Personally, the scientist still sees high potential in GM papayas - and other food crops (tomatoes, yard-long beans and chillis) that "perfectly make up the somtam dish". He cited an anecdote that once after a meeting at Parliament, some politicians came up to ask him in person for samples of GM papaya seeds. "I had to tell them that that was not possible yet - I would be breaking the law!" he said.
"On the other hand, there has not been any [recent] development of GM rice, even though we know that it will be safe," he noted. "[This is because] Thailand is one of the world's major exporters, but biotechnology has not yet been approved worldwide, so the policy has been to postpone [introduction of biotech rice in order to avoid potential contamination] up until now."
Such concerns about losing the country's coveted status for the staple commodity are exactly what Surawit Wannakrairoj, biotechnologist from Kasetsart University (where Sutat also graduated), said should be applied to non-food transgenic crops. "True, plants like orchids may not be for human consumption, but any premature introduction of transgenic versions [before implementation of proper bio-safety measures] could be raised by our rivals to erode our market access" - because other countries might be afraid of GM contamination.
"Even Singapore has not tried to introduce commercial cultivation of GM orchids, despite having done research in the area. It must have already calculated that such a scheme could become a sore point used by other trading competitors as a form of trade barrier."
One of the few Thai scientists to express concern about the potential risks of transgenic crops, Surawit said he was not against them per se. "What I'm saying is that the present safety assessment as it exists now is still inadequate," he said. "And I mean not only human, but also bio-safety aspects. Those proponents operate on a different paradigm - they assume that GM products have been safe to begin with so they only look for 'substantial equivalence' between ordinary and transgenic crops. They accept a margin of error by one to five per cent.
"In contrast, the more critical camp adopts precautionary principles. When it comes to human safety, we cannot bear to take any risk. Think about pharmaceutical research, even after rigorous tests and evaluation by relevant agencies, up to 10 per cent of the drugs have been regularly found to exert serious side effects and three to five per cent have to be recalled by the companies. But we can never 'recall' those transgenic living organisms once they are leaked into fields, can we?"
Considering the rather dismal track records of the past "tests" of GM crops in Thailand, notably the leaks of transgenic cotton and papaya seeds, Sutat appeared very optimistic. "Without the field trials, we can't answer the question of whether or not the [GM] crops will pose a hazard to the environment. How to prevent leaks? It all depends on how we regulate it. We should weigh the pros and cons. It's like intellectual property - we can't ensure a 100 per cent safeguard. "Will it affect the food chain? It's unlikely. After the harvest, all the [modified] genes will be gone. If one thinks too much, one can't do anything."
For the former director of the Thailand Biodiversity Centre, the promise of GM crops exceeded the possible risks. Sutat claimed studies had found that the switch to GM seeds had led to a reduction in the use of toxic chemicals by 50 to 80 per cent. This could be a reason why some parties have orchestrated opposition to GM produce, he suggested.
Asked whether he had ever considered that the very companies that are promoting GM seeds are also the ones that have been selling the agri-chemicals, Sutat said "every company has been competing to develop the [GM] technology, but those that are lagging behind are trying to stem the tide."
In fact, Sutat believes GM and organic crops could peacefully co-exist. "I'd like to see GM crops as another option for farmers. I want to tell the organic farmers that using GM seeds might be beneficial for them, since they wouldn't have to use bio-insecticides like sadao [neem]. But I know organic farmers in the US and the UK wouldn't accept this [proposal]."
The Biotechnology Alliance Association (BAA) has a web site at http://thaibaa.org with links to other related organisations and foundations.
IFPRI Launches E-Learning Programs
The International Food Policy Research Institute’s (IFPRI) Virtual Learning Room is launching a Global e-Learning Program designed to provide free e-learning opportunities for professionals around the world. The Program will initially comprise two separate e-learning courses on 'How to Write a Convincing Proposal' (April 15-August 15, 2006) and 'How to Communicate Scientific Research' (October 1, 2006-Junary 31, 2007).
The methods and materials for both courses were developed by experienced international specialists and were tested extensively in two successful pilot e-learning programs carried out in 2005. Participants can choose to take either or both of the courses.
For further information and registration for the courses, please visit IFPRI Virtual Learning Room at http://learning.ifpri.org/
Issues in Ag Biotech: Animation and Audio
Welcome to the Issues in Agricultural Biotechnology module. This module will be useful for those interested in more fully understanding generalities of biotechnology as well as learning how transgenic plants are produced. The module includes a nine-minute animation that demonstrates the process of developing a transgenic plant and viewpoints of five scientists with biotechnology expertise in food safety, ethics, plant science and animal science.
Animation on How to Make a GM Plant
Ask the Experts
What does transgenics mean to you? You may have heard of the term 'transgenic' but not understood what it means. Listen to different experts describe transgenics.
Are there benefits and promises associated with biotechnology? The benefits and risks of biotechnology are regularly discussed by the media. What do experts on biotechnology think are the associated benefits and promises?
Are there risks and ethical concerns? Listen to what the experts have to say about the risks and ethics of biotechnology.
Listen to the experts at http://ag.udel.edu/agbiotech/byissue.php