Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - April 13, 2006
* Do We Still Need the Cartagena Protocol?
* Clinton's GM Recipe to Feed Armies of the Hungry
* Clinton says World Needs Biofuels, GM Crops, and More Answers
* Genetically Modified Healthful Bacon? When Pigs Fly
* EU Food Safety Agency Says Banned GMOs Pose No Risk
* Genetically Altered Foods May Get Tougher Reviews
* EU Proposes Stricter GMO Seed Approval Rules
* Scientists Become Trading Card Heroes
* Biotech - Crops debate 'Not Over,' expert says
* ILSI Crop Composition Database
* Transporting Environmental Arsenic to Plant Leaves
* Organic Food Too Expensive for Third World
* We Don't Need No Stinkin' Biotech
Do We Still Need the Cartagena Protocol?
- Arnoldo Ventura, SciDev.Net (London), April 13, 2006
I was at last month's meeting in Brazil of nations that are party to the Cartagena Protocol, and left with the distinct impression that there is something radically wrong with its approach.
As a concerned scientist, I have decided to express my misgivings in the hope that they will provoke a response, and initiate change.
My feeling is that the resources spent on negotiating the protocol and how to implement it would be better spent on more pressing global problems, such as boosting the developing world's capacity to use science for development.
The Cartagena Protocol was created in 2000 to protect biodiversity from any potential harm posed by genetically modified (GM) organisms. It was considered a judicious addition to the UN biodiversity convention to help ensure the safe transfer, handling and use of GM organisms.
Caution at that point was quite understandable. But GM technology has progressed and is now so widely used -- in different countries and under different conditions -- that many people are indifferent to it, and are mainly interested in its benefits.
There has been no evidence that GM organisms cause any serious ill effects on humans or nature.
Indeed, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications reports that 8.5 million farmers in 21 countries grow GM crops, with poor farmers in developing countries making up 90 per cent of these growers.
This would surely not be the case, especially for the poor, if farmers were not benefiting from GM technology.
In addition, 300 million people in Canada and the United States have been eating GM foods for ten years with no apparent problems.
Essentially, the Cartagena Protocol is rapidly losing its relevance. It was based on a false premise that GM products could be as dangerous as radioactive materials or toxic chemicals. People assumed that GM organisms were inherently more harmful than earlier genetic manipulations through conventional crop or livestock breeding, or by the march of nature.
After ten years of close scrutiny, testing and experimentation, this notion has largely been proven wrong. This is not to say that biotechnologies may not in some instances have unexpected consequences. Indeed, nothing is risk-free in agriculture, and decisions must therefore be based on the best knowledge available.
But experience suggests that GM organisms are less harmful than many invasive species that can dominate and upset ecosystems but do not attract the same attention.
No GM plant has been shown to overtly disrupt nearby ecosystems. However, some GM animals such as salmon might, because of their sheer size, feasibly threaten smaller non-GM varieties after escaping from sea farms.
To avoid panic concerning GM technology, caution must be tempered with experience and objective reality on a case-by-case basis. But politics and emotion, rather than science, seem to rule the protocol discussions.
We must remember that people have been altering the genes of plants and animals to improve their agricultural and food traits for thousands of years. Everything we eat is the result of such genetic modification.
Genetic engineering is faster than traditional selective breeding, and can give more precise outcomes because it allows individual genes or small groups of genes to be manipulated.
Instead of spending large sums of money on endless meetings to ensure biosafety under the Cartagena Protocol, we should build the capacity of poor countries to both identify their genetic resources and use them to meet development needs.
Building poor nations' capacity to implement the Cartagena Protocol could, as a side effect, give such countries a degree of 'bio-independence', making them less dependent on rich nations for agricultural innovations.
But for this to happen the emphasis must be shifted from the fear of GM organisms to a better understanding and effective use of the technology to boost food supplies and deliver resources for value-added processes.
Remember the science
The Cartagena Protocol served its purpose at a time when there was overwhelming uncertainty about gene manipulation technologies. Today, this uncertainty has been drastically reduced. There is no longer a need for extended debates and regular meetings about the threat posed by GM organisms.
Emphasis should be shifted towards considering the possible negative effects of GM organisms on a case-by-case basis. This must be done in laboratories and research institutions, and not in debating forums. Diplomatic discussion is no substitute for scientific evidence.
This would have been obvious if science had not been forgotten. If the process is to continue, it must be infused with more concrete information to form the basis of decisions. We need to adjust people's perceptions of risk so that fear, politics and emotions do not lead to ill-conceived and irrational laws and regulations.
It is reasonable to ask what would be lost if the protocol debates were terminated, or indeed if they were successfully concluded? Furthermore, what comes next? And what have the majority of the world's people gained? A bigger question is whether the meetings can be revamped to make them more constructive?
A detailed cost benefit analysis is urgently needed to answer these burning questions.
Arnoldo Ventura is a former scientist and current special advisor to the prime minister of Jamaica. These comments are made in a personal capacity and are not intended to reflect the views of the Jamaican government.
Clinton's GM Recipe to Feed Armies of the Hungry
- Martin Daly, Sydney Morning Herald, April 13, 2006 http://smh.com.au/
The former US president, Bill Clinton, painted a bleak picture of a world where fertile land became dust bowls, the Maldives ceased to exist and millions of "food refugees" roamed the planet.
Mr Clinton said the solution to feeding the poor lay in genetically engineered food. He told the Biotechnology 2006 conference in Chicago on Tuesday that the industry had a crucial role to play in saving the world from the effects of global warming and in helping remedy the inequality that left billions of people destitute and without basic food, health and education.
Those involved in the debate on GM food should be driven by science, engineering and reason, not by assertion and fear, he said.
Mr Clinton also spoke of the "calamitous" results of global warning. "In the last six months, we have seen an avalanche of evidence that the icebergs all over the world are melting quicker than we thought," he said. "We will have to evacuate the Maldives. We won't have to worry about it any more. What you do in agriculture is important because if the climate continues to change, we will see a continual erosion of the topsoil and dust storms."
Clinton says World Needs Biofuels, GM Crops, and More Answers
- Jason Stitt , Wisconsin Technology Network, April 12, 2006 http://wistechnology.com/
Chicago — The biotechnology industry has a job to do, former president Bill Clinton said on Tuesday at a luncheon attended by thousands at the BIO Chicago conference.
He called on the industry to reduce the spread of infectious diseases, guard against pandemics, create crops that can feed more of the world's hungry, tap sources of renewable energy such as ethanol, and confront global warming head on.
Clinton's vision of a future without the solutions that biotechnology could bring was bleak. He painted a picture of fertile land turning to dust bowls, islands sinking in a rising ocean, more people left hungry, and children living shorter lives than their parents.
Two primary themes of his talk were the interdependence of the world today and unsolved problems that biotechnology is uniquely suited to face. But he drew the most applause for his repeated assertions that scientific evidence should rule debates over issues such as genetically modified crops and global warming. "We have to take the facts as we find them," he said, going on to affirm his support of genetic engineering and say that it's consistent with support of organic, healthy foods.
Without looking at notes, Clinton rolled out statistics on world hunger and the industrialized world's problems with obesity and type-II diabetes – formerly known as adult-onset diabetes, he emphasized, but now affecting more and more children.
Clinton said we need a replacement for fructose corn syrup, an alternative to beet or cane sugar and an ingredient in many processed foods and soda. Though its production is beneficial to farmers, he said it bears responsibility for increasing obesity rates in children because it metabolizes into fat more easily than other sugars. But a creative application of biotechnology could find a way to make a healthier replacement out of corn.
And the need for biofuels, he said, is clear. Take the gulf coast. With all the wood waste left over from hurricane Katrina, Clinton said, enough biofuel could have been produced to power all the shrimp boats in the gulf, if only the infrastructure were in place.
Clinton now works in the non-profit sector through the William J. Clinton Foundation.
Genetically Modified Healthful Bacon? When Pigs Fly
- Contra Costa Times (California), April 12, 2006 Wednesday
News that scientists spliced earthworm genes into a pig's genome raises a serious question. What are we going to wash these chops down with?
The genetically modified pigs have been re-engineered to produce omega-3 fatty acids, considered vital for good health. The idea being that since some people are so squeamish about eating fish (where omega-3s occur naturally), let's just build a better bacon-body out of the fundamental building blocks of life? I mean, duh!
Frankly, these Franken-foods don't really scare me. If the piggy doesn't know my hot dog is now a health dog, why should I care? We're already raising these critters just so we can eat them -- what could possible be worse than that? (OK, cramped factory farms with manure lagoons are what's worse.)
No, what concerns me is that we're being too conservative. After we tack on some wings to these swine (happy pork is tasty pork!), I'd like to see those geneticists start tinkering with grapes. Taken to its logical conclusion, we should all be subsisting on bacon and wine and looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger (I realize I was advocating an all-corn-syrup diet not that long ago, but science marches on! Moving forward together, folks.)
OK, maybe that wouldn't be a good thing (everyone looking like the governor, I mean). But I don't see why scientists can't splice and dice enough nutrients into a bottle of wine to turn those empty calories into a well-rounded meal. Especially in light of the other recent big food news. I'm talking about the study where they found that a severely calorie-restricted diet increases life expectancy. This means every calorie counts, people! Only science can make sure we ring in our 100th birthday with lard cake, Champagne and a tray of caramelized pork belly hors d'oeuvres (no crudite though, really, thanks, I'm stuffed).
I am a little worried about one thing, though. If we unhitch grease from guilt, we'll lose some of the gratification. Why do you think they call it a guilty pleasure? If you take away the chance of getting caught, shoplifting loses its thrill. If you remove the risk of a heart attack, will you take the bang out of bacon?
These are the questions we should be debating. Not whether pigs with worm genes are an affront to nature, but whether in ridding bacon of its baggage, we're throwing out Babe with the bath water.
The science is too seductive to ignore. Genetically modified foods have already proven practical in maximizing yields and helping to feed the world. It's inevitable that the know-how will be turned to more superficial (and more profitable) ends. So, before we head into the unsolvable morass of ethical dilemmas -- Should we be playing God? Are we going to trigger a genetic meltdown? -- let's let the scientists cook up some wunderpigs and see what we find. Maybe chasing after those flying pigs will keep us in shape. Just make sure you're not underneath them while they're on their way to the lagoon.
I'm telling you, with the world's demands rising and resources shrinking, we had all better embrace genetically modified foods or we might be reduced to eating earthworms.
Wait a minute.
EU Food Safety Agency Says Banned GMOs Pose No Risk
- Jeremy Smith, Reuters, April 12, 2006
Brussels - Europe's leading food safety agency gave the green light on Wednesday for five genetically modified (GMO) crops and foods that are banned in certain EU countries, saying they posed no risk to human or animal health.
Between 1997 and 2000, five EU countries banned specific GMOs on their territory, focusing on three maize and two rapeseed types that were approved shortly before the start of the EU's six-year moratorium on new biotech authorisations.
In a report requested by the European Commission, the Italy-based European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said there would be no risk for all five GMOs to be placed on EU markets.
"The European Commission asked EFSA to provide a scientific reply to questions relating to five ... GMOs subject to safeguard clauses invoked by certain member states to restrict or prohibit their use at national level," EFSA said. "EFSA's ... GMO Panel concluded that ... there is no reason to believe that the continued placing on the market of the five GMOs is likely to cause any adverse effects for human and animal health or the environment," the agency said in a statement.
Last June, the Commission, the EU's executive arm, tried to get all the bans scrapped. The World Trade Organization (WTO) has also attacked these "national safeguards", as they are called in EU jargon, for breaking international trade rules.
But EU environment ministers rejected proposals for the five states -- Austria, France, Germany, Greece and Luxembourg -- to lift their restrictions. EFSA's opinion comes on the same day that the 25 members of the Commission are holding a debate on GMO policy where EFSA will come in for criticism by some commissioners -- notably those representing environment and food safety -- for not being transparent and relying too much on data given by biotech firms.
The GMO products that are the subject of the national bans are made by international biotech giants Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer.
Genetically Altered Foods May Get Tougher Reviews
- Scott Miller And Juliane Von Reppert-Bismarck, Wall Street Journal, April 13, 2006; Page A10
BRUSSELS -- Biotech companies could face a harder time selling genetically modified food and crops in the European Union, after regulators pushed the EU's food-safety agency to make its evaluation process tougher.
The European Commission called for the agency to rely more on the views of national governments that have often opposed genetically modified crops and foods. EU governments have attacked the European Food Safety Authority for relying too much on data from companies applying for approvals. The agency says it often has no choice because of limited data available on new genetically modified products.
While genetically modified foods have gained favor around the world, Europe has resisted. The 25-nation EU refused to approve new types between 1998 and 2004, and only in Spain are such crops grown on a commercial scale. Many grocery stores won't even stock genetically modified food.
The commission's move comes two months after a World Trade Organization decision that said the EU had violated trade agreements by its slow approvals of genetically modified foods and crops; the EU had refused to approve new genetically modified strains until 2004. The WTO also said national bans that five EU nations maintain against genetically modified foods violate trade rules.
In a separate report Wednesday, the food agency said it had reviewed genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, targeted by those bans and that it considered the ingredients safe. The commission says it will reflect on how to work with national governments to comply with the WTO ruling.
The food-safety agency, established in 2002, is independent. But a spokeswoman said the agency would discuss the commission's proposals and should be able to implement at least some. The agency has been one bright spot for biotech companies amid opposition to their products in many countries. Often after the agency has ruled favorably on a product, the 25 EU governments have deadlocked on final approval, throwing the decision to the commission, which has been reluctant to overrule the agency's safety finding.
Biotech-industry groups criticized the commission's plan, saying the food agency has been objective while opposition to their products isn't grounded in science.
"If this is used irresponsibly to politicize science, then industry would have a concern about it, a real concern," said Simon Barber, director of the plant-biotechnology unit of EuropaBio, a European bio-industry lobbying group that represents farmers and companies such as Monsanto Co. and Bayer AG. To demonstrate its safety, the industry points to U.S. consumers who have long been eating food made from genetically modified crops.
Wednesday's proposal doesn't conflict with the recent WTO decision, but it could irritate the U.S., which has held out the possibility of a fresh WTO complaint if Europe doesn't speed up its approvals procedures. The Office of the United States Trade Representative didn't have immediate comment.
The commission said it wants the food-safety agency to provide detailed justification for not accepting scientific objections raised by national authorities. It suggested the agency should be prepared to reconsider decisions when individual governments object. Opinion polls show Europeans are concerned that genetically modified food can make them sick and that farming of genetically modified crops could pose a risk to biodiversity.
Friends of the Earth Europe, an environmental group that opposes the use of genetically modified crops, said the commission's move was needed to fight a pro-industry bias at the food agency.
EU Proposes Stricter GMO Seed Approval Rules
- Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck, Dow Jones, April 12, 2006
Brussels -The European Union Wednesday called for tougher rules on approving the use of genetically modified organisms, saying this was a crucial way to satisfy critics of the food technology.
The E.U.'s executive Commission wants Europe's central food safety watchdog, the European Food Safety Authority, to work more closely with national laboratories to resolve diverging scientific opinions on biotech grains.
If national governments and the watchdog agree, the Food Safety Authority will, among other things, have to justify its dismissal of safety concerns voiced by national governments. It will also have to pay closer attention in its approval decisions to the long-term effects of biotech crops and possible impact on bio-diversity.
Greater "scientific consistency and transparency" in the way GMO seeds are approved for sale and use in the E.U. should serve to "reassure" governments gravely concerned about the technology, E.U. spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde told journalists.
Public distrust of biotech foods has turned into sharp criticism of a Brussels-based bureaucracy seen as welcoming untested technology into Europe to please big business, and debate has raged for years in Europe about what the English-language popular press has labeled "Frankenstein foods".
Austrian and Italian political leaders have been the most vocal in their criticism of the way the EFSA hands out approvals, despite national governments' health and environmental safety concerns. Austria, France, Germany, Greece and Luxembourg still refuse the use of some biotech grains approved by the E.U..
Big biotech companies such as Monsanto Co. (MON) and Dow Chemical Co. (DOW) say political opposition to GMO crops is populist and panders to uninformed public opinion.
A spokeswoman at EFSA said the watchdog would have "no problem" with the measures, though she added tha strict laws leave little room for meaningful change in the way the body operates. She rejected claims the Commission's plan discredits EFSA.
"The Commission isn't doubting the science behind what we do. It is an issue of transparency. We will enhance the way we present our scientific opinions," Lucia de Luca told Dow Jones Newswires.
Scientists at Parma-based EFSA assess the risk posed to health and environment by GMO seeds based on information provided by industry and, where possible, additional data, de Luca said. Thursday, the body rejected the safety concerns of five European countries, saying that five GMO crops and foods banned in several European states pose no risk to health or nature.
EuropaBio, a European bio-industry lobby group in Brussels that represents farmers and companies such as Monsanto and Bayer AG (BAY), welcomed the Brussels call for greater transparency, which it said could quell fears about the technology. But the group's director, Simon Barber, said he was worried the plan may allow politicians to hold up approvals for political gain. According to Thursday's official statement, part of the Commission's plan would allow Brussels to suspend approval decisions if a member sntate "raises important new scientific questions not properly or completely addressed by the EFSA opinion."
"If this is used irresponsibly to politicize science then industry would have a concern about it, a real concern," Barber told Dow Jones Newswires.
The Commission's Ahrenkilde said the proposal won't result in the withdrawal from the European market of any crops or foods that have already been authorized. The EFSA will continue to play a "key role" in GMO risk assessments, she added.
Friends of the Earth Europe, an environment group that opposes the use or farming of biotech crops, said Brussels' decision to toughen up on GMOs was a welcome acknowledgment of the EFSA's industry bias.
"We welcome the Commission acknowledging there is a problem. Europe's food safety net is clearly not working and so the approvals of new genetically modified foods should be halted until the public is fully protected," said spokesman Adrian Bebb.
Scientists Become Trading Card Heroes
- Jon Van, Chicago Tribune, April 11, 2006 http://www.chicagotribune.com/
In an unusual twist, trading cards that feature scientists instead of athletes were launched Monday at the BIO2006 trade show at McCormick Place. "Collect 'em now and get an autograph," said Jack Lavin, director of the Illinois Department of Commerce. "They'll be worth thousands once they win a Nobel!"
The cards are just one clue to the true nature of biotechnology: It's the intersection of serious science and unbridled marketing. In a meeting at which up to 20,000 people from around the world are gathering, it seems that everyone has a gimmick to call attention to their message.
Lavin said the Illinois biotech trade association developed the trading cards to call attention to the plentiful supply of smart researchers working at universities in Illinois and other Midwestern states.
Illinois' promotion of its biotech capabilities has two goals, said Lavin: The state would like foreign companies to consider Illinois as a good base for their U.S. operations, and state officials want to attract more investors who will put money into local start-up companies. He cited the Japanese pharmaceutical firm Takeda, which located its North American facility in Lincolnshire.
"They benefit the state by employing hundreds of people in high-tech jobs that pay well above average," Lavin said. "They also use services of lawyers, accountants and others located here. By bringing thousands of people from other countries to Chicago, BIO gives us the opportunity to convince other companies like Takeda that this is a great base for their operations."
Lavin said about 60,000 Illinois jobs are related to biotechnology. That's a substantial number, but the general perception is that the East Coast and West Coast are where most of the action is. "For a lot of people the Midwest is just a flyover between the coasts," said Robert Rosenberg, University of Chicago research assistant vice president. "This meeting attracted 30 percent more visitors from other countries than any previous BIO meeting, and we wanted to call attention to all the great researchers working here."
One of the featured scientists is Peter Sutovsky of the University of Missouri, who was surprised to see his photo on a trading card. "It's a little overwhelming," said Sutovsky. "I wonder if I could find these in a card store. The question is how do you calculate a scientist's batting average?"
The promotions didn't stop with trading cards. The University of Chicago created a deck of playing cards decorated with protein images produced at Argonne National Laboratory, which it operates. Such images provide invaluable information used to create new diagnostic and therapy tools for fighting diseases. "We're using the playing cards to bring Argonne out of the closet," said Rosenberg. "Few people know that virtually every pharmaceutical company uses Argonne's Advanced Photon Source in their research."
Illinois and its card tricks were not lonely in the BIO2006 marketers' playground. Early in the day chief executives from several biotech companies described how their firms use enzymes to turn corn and other plant products into plastics, fuel and fiber.
To illustrate their handiwork, after the executives stopped talking, music cranked up and models strutted back and forth on a runway wearing garments made from corn-based fiber. The models and their clothing were as attractive as anything staged at an upscale fashion show.
But perhaps the most ambitious marketing ploy at McCormick Place is the live corn field that has been transplanted into the convention hall. Along with the corn, companies promoting biotech seed brought farmers from around the world who grow biotech crops.
Advocate Mdutshane, a farmer from South Africa, plants about 25 acres of biotech sweet corn that he and his family eat themselves as well as sell. "We want to tell people that this corn is safe for human consumption, and as a farmer I like the increase in yield," Mdutshane said. A month ago he visited a large meeting in Brazil to promote biotech crops.
Another South African at McCormick Place was Khosi Rebe, who grows biotech sweet corn as a farmer and who is also assistant director of a regional department of agriculture. Sitting next to a corn field in a vast convention hall with thousands of people milling about, Rebe expressed some surprise at his situation.
He noted that delegates to the BIO trade show probably already appreciate the value of biotechnology. Ordinary consumers aren't part of the event. "There are a lot of people who don't know much about this technology," Rebe said. "They could learn a lot if they were here."
Biotech - Crops debate 'Not Over,' expert says
New products open the way for additional speculation, a Harvard scholar suggests
- Anne Fitzgerald Des Moines Register April 8, 2006
Grinnell, Ia. - Despite claims that opposition has faded, the global debate over biotech crops will grow with the introduction of more genetically engineered products, a leading scholar on the topic said Friday.
Since engineered crop seed hit the market a decade ago, global acreage planted with it has grown from 4.2 million acres in 1996 to 222 million acres in 2005. But opposition to the biotech-based crops persists, particularly in Europe, Africa and parts of Asia, Calestous Juma said.
Juma is a professor of the practice of international development at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "You need to think about the entire food chain," said Juma, a native of Kenya who has led projects exploring the interchange of technology and social values. "You have to think about farmers. Then you have to think about grocers. And then you have consumers.
"The debate is not over at all. In fact, for every new product you have to think about new implications because each one has a new value chain," referring to a growing list of biotech-based products, including fish, trees and livestock. "It is unfortunate the debate is framed in terms of who is pro and who is against it," he said.
Juma made his remarks after speaking at Grinnell College as part of the John Pesek Colloquium on Sustainable Agriculture. Thursday at Iowa State University in Ames, Juma delivered the keynote address for the sixth-annual event. The colloquium is named for an ISU agronomist and pioneer in the field of alternative agriculture.
Friday, Juma said he views biotechnology as "a set of tools for resolving specific problems." For Africa, for instance, biotech could help boost food production and reforestation, he told a standing-room-only crowd at the college in Grinnell.
Biotechnology's use in agriculture doesn't mark the first time society has debated the safety of new technology, Juma said. For centuries, people have argued about coffee's impact on human health and society - an ongoing debate even at Harvard, he said. "I tell my friends, 'You should prepare your grandchildren for debate,' " Juma said.
ILSI Crop Composition Database, Version 3.0, Available Online
- Lucyna Kurtyka, E-mail: lkurtyka#ilsi.org
International Life Sciences Institute released Version 3.0 of its crop composition database, which provides up-to-date information on the natural variability in composition of conventional crops and provides a reference for comparing the composition of new crop varieties, including those developed through biotechnology.
Crop, food, and feed composition studies are considered an essential part of the safety assessment of new crop varieties, including those developed through biotechnology. Information obtained from such studies is used to assess similarities and differences in important nutrients and anti-nutrients. This database was generated from crop composition data obtained from studies conducted by members of the agricultural biotechnology industry over a number of years at multiple worldwide locations. Information collected in the database includes data on numerous biochemical parameters, such as proximates, amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates, key vitamins, and anti-nutrients.
Version 3.0 of the database is an extension of previous versions and contains approximately 118,000 data points that may be searched and accessed based upon user-selected queries. The analyses of the samples were conducted using validated analytical methods, many of them being AOAC Official Methods of Analysis. The database complements existing food and nutrient databases, such as the USDA Nutrient Database and FAO’s INFOODS database, and should be of interest to research and regulatory scientists in many areas such as plant biology, food science, and animal nutrition. It should also be of interest to companies who provide other services to the food, feed, and agricultural biotechnology-related industries.
The development and application of the database has been described in a June 2004 article in the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis. The database was referenced by the European Food Standards Authority (EFSA) in its Guidance Document of the Scientific Panel on Genetically Modified Organisms for the Risk Assessment of Genetically Modified Plants and Derived Food and Feed (the EFSA Journal  99, 1-93).
Researchers Discover Way to Transport Environmental Arsenic to Plant Leaves
- EurekAlert, AAAS, April 12, 2006, via Agnet
Environmental arsenic pollution is a serious and growing environmental problem, especially on the Indian subcontinent. Researchers at the University of Georgia had, several years ago, used genetic techniques to create "arsenic-eating" plants that could be planted on polluted sites.
here was a problem, however. The arsenic sequestered from soil remained largely in the roots of the plant, making it difficult to harvest for safe disposal. Now, the research team, led by genetici st Richard Meagher, has discovered a way to move the arsenic from roots to shoots. The payoff could be a new and effective tool in cleaning up thousands of sites where arsenic presents serious dangers to human health.
The research was just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Other authors of the paper include Om Parkash Dhankher and Elizabeth McKinney from the department of genetics at UGA and Barry Rosen of Wayne State University.
"High levels of arsenic in soil and drinking water have been reported around the world," said Meagher, "but the situation is worst in India and Bangladesh, where around 400 million people are at risk of arsenic poisoning. Unfortunately, the high cost of using excavation and reburial at these sites makes these technologies unacceptable for cleaning up the vast areas of the planet that need arsenic remediation. As a result, the overwhelming majority of arsenic-contaminated sites are not being cleaned up."
The problem is vast. The World Health Org anization (WHO) predicts that long-term exposure to arsenic could reach epidemic proportions, the PNAS paper reports. The WHO says a staggering 1 in 10 people in northern India and Bangladesh may ultimately die of diseases resulting from arsenic-related poisoning.
The new strategy is part of what researchers call phytoremediation--the cleaning of polluted soils through the use of plants that sequester poisons, make them less harmful, and which can then be harvested--and has the potential to be of use on millio ns of acres of arsenic-polluted lands worldwide.
In research reported in 2002 in Nature Biotechnology, Meagher's team inserted two unrelated genes from the bacterium E. coli called arsC and ECS into Arabidopsis, a model lab plant and small member of the mustard family. This allowed the plants to resist the toxic effects of arsenic and sequester three-fold more arsenic in their shoots than normal plants. Still this was too ineffective to allow planting of the transgenic plants on arsenic-polluted sites, since f ar more arsenic needed to be moved into the plant leaves for safe harvesting and disposal.
In the just-reported research, the team identified a single gene, ACR2, in the Arabidopsis genome as one that allows the plants to move sequestered arsenic in roots. By engineering plant lines with a silenced ACR2 gene, they discovered they could get 16-fold more arsenic in shoots than in natural wild-type Arabidopsis. This experiment identified the active mechanism for sequestering arsenic in roots.
"We want a 35 - to 50-fold increase in these plants' ability to sequester arsenic," said Meagher, "and now that we understand the mechanism, we believe that is possible." Indeed, it appears possible to create arsenic-eaters among tree, shrub and even grass species, using the new knowledge.
The problem of arsenic pollution is especially severe all over the Ganges River basin in India. During the so-called "Green Revolution" of the '60s and '70s, the cultivation of rice in flooded fields became pervasive, and workers dug open wells all over India through soil and rocks with naturally occurring arsenic. The result was widespread arsenic pollution from contaminated water. The problem is thus extremely widespread and not the result of industrial accidents or practices.
Organic Food Too Expensive for Third World
- Mary Anne Pankhurst, Cornwall Standard Freeholder (Ontario) April 12, 2006
Fully aware that even the mere suggestion of support for agricultural pesticides, man-made fertilizers or genetically modified crops is akin to blasphemy to some, it may nonetheless be useful to offer up other views.
Take the case of late blight, the disease that caused the 19th century Irish potato famine. Many countries, including Asia have become more dependent on potatoes. The problem is late blight is once again becoming a big problem.
Now the good news: it turns out that a wild Mexican potato holds the key. It is blight resistant. And not too long ago, researchers inserted its resistance gene into the domestic potato. This means potato growers - including organic growers who use massive amounts of copper sulfate to combat blight - don't have to use chemicals.
But in Ireland last month, an anti-biotech storm erupted over the GM potato. Protesters said it would ruin Ireland's export market and put farmers at the mercy of big corporations.
The problem is the arguments seem flawed. Ireland doesn't depend on potato exports, and the GM potato would not put farmers at the mercy of big corporations. First, the blight-resistant potato was not developed or marketed by a corporation but by the Wageningen University in the Netherlands. And second, the farmers would not be dependent on the corporations from which they presently buy late blight pesticides.
On other fronts, there's a Denmark-based biotech firm that has genetically modified a plant called thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) so that the leaves turn from green to red when its roots come into contact with nitrogen dioxide, the gas that leaks out of landmines, which kill and maim thousands of people every year. But to ensure the plants won't spread beyond sites under investigation, the firm has developed a safety feature: seeds that will not grow unless sprayed with a specific growth hormone also developed by the company.
Wouldn't it be sad if the technology never made it to market as a side effect of anti-biotech activism? We should keep in mind too, that in the U.S. today (I didn't look up figures for Canada) most of the corn, much of the cotton and almost 90 per cent of soybeans grown are transgenic.
And depending on which crop one is talking about, the benefits can include reducing the amount of pesticide used, preventing soil erosion, keeping food affordable and ensuring land and forest preservation (because of higher yields).
In the meantime, anti-biotech scare tactics and chemo-phobia create fertile soil for "ban everything" activism, which could shut down research on some of most promising technological breakthroughs of the century - edible vaccines for example, which could greatly benefit Third World children.
Finally, and concerning less developed nations, here's a quote from Nobel Laureate and architect of the Green Revolution, Dr. Norman Borlaug. It was part of the message delivered in his lecture entitled "Feeding a World of 10 Billion People: the Miracle Ahead".
"I am particularly alarmed by those who seek to deny small-scale farmers of the Third World, and especially those in sub-Saharan Africa, access to the improved seeds, fertilizers, and crop protection chemicals that have allowed affluent nations the luxury of plentiful and inexpensive foodstuffs which in turn has accelerated their economic development.
While the affluent nations can certainly afford to pay more for food produced by the so-called organic methods the one billion chronically undernourished people of the low-income food-deficit nations cannot."
We Don't Need No Stinkin' Biotech
- Julie Deardorff, The Chicago Tribune, April 12, 2006 http://www.chicagotribune.com/
Former President Bill Clinton hyped genetically engineered food in a speech at yesterday's global Biotechnology Industry Conference in Chicago, telling a standing-room crowd that biotech was a key to a sustainable future.
Unfortunately, there is nothing inherently "sustainable" about biotech.
Biotech is designing seeds that die each year, so there is no reason to sow them. Farmers who use biotech seeds must buy them each year from Monsanto, along with Monsanto's Round Up Ready weedkiller, which destroys everything but their patented seeds.
Biotech is creating transgenic salmon that grow larger in a shorter amount of time, rendering them sterile, so when they escape from fish farms, they can't alter the gene pool of the natural population. It's creating pigs that produce Omega-3s, because our oceans are so polluted that fish contain high levels of mercury and toxins. Never mind taking steps to limit pollution. We've got biotech to help clean it up.
As for the millions of "food refugees" that Clinton referred to in his speech, it's not clear that we need biotech to feed the world. The greatest environmental challenge is overpopulation; genetically modified crops are not going to stem the rate of birth.
Meanwhile, at the rival BioETHICS 2006 conference held in Chicago in the shadow of the industry convention, Craig Winters of The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods told a crowd that there's enough food on the planet to feed everyone 3,500 calories a day.
Why aren't they fed? "Poverty," he said during a panel discussion at Columbia College. "Food is also used as a tool of civil war. Don't be fooled (by the biotech industry's assertion that we need genetic engineering to feed the world). If everyone in the U.S. cut back beef consumption by 10 percent, there would be so much grain released it wouldn't be funny."
And if U.S. agriculture policies stopped subsidizing beef, people would eat less, and the price would go up, he said. People would also get healthier.
Winters' vision of the future includes a society where everyone plows up their front yard and plants fruits and vegetables. Instead of using fossil fuels to cut the grass, people work in their gardens.
"Human history is a race between education and catastrophe," Winters said, quoting H.G. Wells. "Educate yourself and get political."