Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - May 6, 2006
* My Friend Norman Borlaug ... Greatest Men Alive
* Details of Biotech Crop Development in the U.S.
* Irish Move Ahead
* Plant Stress - How Do They Cope with the Environment?
* Modern Biotechnology in Africa Economies - Juma speaking at IFPRI
* Michigan Governor Granholm Signs a Sensible Bill on GM Seeds
* Vermont Governor to Veto Genetic Seed Liability Bill
* Australian GM Crops – The Path Forward
* Are Genetically Modified Crops Safe? - Listen to NPR Talking Heads
* Beware the Big Green Political Monster
My Friend Norman Borlaug, One of the Greatest Men Alive
- Leon Hesser, AgBioView, May 6, 2006 http://www.agbioworld.org
It was a breath of fresh air when Norman Borlaug introduced himself to me in Pakistan in early 1966. I was director of U.S. programs to help increase food production in that hungry nation. He briefed me on the high-yielding wheat varieties that he had developed as a Rockefeller Foundation scientist in Mexico, seeds that quickly took India and Pakistan from near-starvation to self-sufficiency.
Since those heady days, Norm and I have maintained a life-long friendship. When he turned 90, in 2004, he asked me to write his biography. What a remarkable story! Norman Borlaug has saved hundreds of millions of lives from starvation and is regarded as one of the 100 most influential persons of the 20th century.
Norm remains concerned by what he calls the "Population Monster." He says, "During my lifetime the world's population has gone from 1.6 billion to 6.4 billion. It is projected to continue to increase before hopefully stabilizing at about 10 billion before the end of the 21st century. Where will the food come from?"
In answering his own question, he says, "Fortunately, there are many improved agricultural technologies already available and not being fully used that can be employed to raise crop yields. "The only way for agriculture to produce sufficient food to keep pace with population and to alleviate hunger is to increase the intensity of agricultural production in those ecological areas which lend themselves to intensification. That calls for a continuing stream of research. Without aggressive agricultural research the world will soon be overwhelmed by the Population Monster."
Norm hesitated before responding to my question, "Dr. Borlaug, what has been your greatest satisfaction in life?" Following a bit of reflection, he said, "Let me mention just two of the many gratifying events. One was to see the results of research that produced the technology that initially sparked the 'quiet' wheat revolution in Mexico being spread with dramatic impact to many wheat-producing countries, including India and Pakistan.
"The other comes from my visiting in various countries around the world and seeing the good agricultural research and production being carried out by former visiting technicians, including several from India, whom we trained in Mexico."
On a recent visit with Norm and his family in Dallas, Texas, I asked, "Dr. Borlaug, of all the people who have touched your life, who has had the greatest influence?" Norm thought for a while and finally said, "You know, that is really difficult for me to say. So many people have done or said things that have made a difference in my life. My wife Margaret, of course, has encouraged me at every step of the way. Without question, she is at the top of the list. She managed the home and kept things together while I was away for months at a time. But, to give you an indication why I hesitated for a moment, let me name just a few of those who have had a major influence on my life:
"Among the first was my Grandfather Nels Borlaug--and of course Dad and Mother--who throughout my childhood encouraged me to 'get a good education.'
"Another influential person was Professor E.C. Stakman at the University of Minnesota, who set me on a path of science and convinced me to join the Rockefeller Foundation team in Mexico in 1944. Aside from Margaret and her unending support and encouragement, I guess I would have to say that 'Stak' had a greater influence on my life than any other single individual. He made me reach for the stars.
"Finally, while I can't pinpoint any one person, the Nobel Selection Committee as a whole, which chose me over all the other worthy competitors in 1970, ultimately made the most drastic change in my life. The Nobel Peace Prize and all that went with it hit me like a typhoon. It threw me into the spotlight so much it made me uncomfortable."
Whatever became of that Iowa farm boy who attended a one-room country school, who initially flunked the entrance exam at the University of Minnesota? By the spring of 2006, that same young man, now 92, had been awarded more than 50 honorary doctorates from institutions in 18 countries.
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
Details of Biotech Crop Development in the U.S.
- Ross Korves, Truth About Trade & Technology, May 5, 2006 http://www.truthabouttrade.org
People in U.S. production agriculture often take for granted the benefits of biotech crops. A report titled "The First Decade of Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States" by Jorge Fernandez-Cornejo and Margriet Caswell of the Economic Research Service of USDA fills in details on factors that created those benefits.
The authors divided the industry into three segments: seed suppliers and technology providers, farmers and consumers. The industry developed in part due to strengthening of intellectual property rights in the 1970s and 1980s through plant variety production (PVP) certificates issued by the Plant Variety Protection Office of USDA and patents issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that provide exclusive rights to newly developed varieties. Of the over 4,200 agricultural biotech patents awarded from 1996-2000, 75 percent were for private companies.
From 1987 through early April 2005 USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) received 11,600 applications for field release of plant biotech varieties for testing purposes and approved 10,700 (92 percent). Corn had the largest number of approved applications at 4,968 followed by soybeans at 843, potatoes at 747 and cotton at 724. Approved applications by trait were led by herbicide tolerance (HT) at 3,587, insect resistance (Bt) at 3,141, product quality at 2,314, virus resistance at 1,239 and agronomic properties at 1,043.
Once field testing is completed, an applicant can apply for nonregulated status. Deregulation petitions had been received by APHIS for 103 varieties as of April 2005. APHIS has granted deregulation of 63 varieties with 17 for corn, 11 for tomatoes, 9 for cotton, 7 for rapeseed and 5 each for soybeans and potatoes. Deregulations by trait included 28 for HT, 21 of Bt, 13 for product quality, 9 for virus resistance and 6 for agronomic properties.
Over 90 percent of U.S. corn, soybeans and cotton acres are treated with herbicides so there is little surprise that 87 percent of the soybeans, 61 percent of the cotton and 26 percent of the corn acres were HT in 2005. Insect damage is less pervasive in many years, and in 2005 52 percent of the cotton and 35 percent of the corn acres had Bt varieties. Results from USDA's Agricultural and Resource Management Surveys for 2001-03 show 60-65 percent of farmers (79 percent for Bt corn farmers) use biotech crops to increase yields, 10-15 percent to reduce pesticide costs, and 15-25 percent to save management time.
The authors reviewed studies on net returns, household income and pesticide use and found generally positive benefits for biotech crop adopters. Bt cotton and corn were particularly profitable when insect pressures were high. In low pest years the returns to Bt corn were negative, but farmers use the technology as insurance for years with high pest pressures. Data from 2001 show that adopters of Bt corn use 8 percent less insecticide per planted acre.
HT soybeans do not increase farm incomes, but are associated with higher household incomes which may indicate farmers use the time saved and management flexibility to produce off-farm income. HT soybeans can also make harvest easier. They are twice as likely to be used in conservation tillage programs which reduce soil erosion and chemical runoff. ERS analysis of data from 1997/98 showed that overall pesticide use was 2.5 million pounds lower because of biotech crops. Also, glyphosate herbicide is less persistent in the environment and is less than one-third as toxic to humans.
Many of the studies cited by the authors used data that are over five years old. With improvements in biotech crops and increased understanding of how to effectively use them, newer studies may show greater benefits.
These research efforts and producer benefits are of no value unless U.S. consumers and export markets accept biotech foods. The report explains that food manufacturers in the U.S., the EU and Japan have taken different approaches to marketing biotech foods. In the EU and Japan foods that contain biotech ingredients must be labeled, and manufacturers have generally avoided biotech ingredients so they do not have to label foods. In the U.S. foods that contain biotech ingredients do not have to be labeled and some manufacturers appeal to concerns about biotech foods by labeling products as non GE (genetically engineered). From 2000-2004 U.S. manufacturers introduced over 3,500 products as non GE. These are separate from products labeled organic.
Estimates of distribution of benefits among stakeholders by crop and technology vary widely due to the economic benefits to farmers for using the crops, payments to technology providers and the impact of the technology on world prices. Based on data from the late 1990s consumers benefit most from HT cotton (57 percent of the total benefits), while U.S. farmers and biotech companies benefited 4 percent and 5 percent respectively. For Bt cotton, U.S. farmers and biotech firms each received 29 percent of the benefits, while consumers received 14 percent. Seed firms received 40 percent of the benefits of HT soybeans, followed by 28 percent for biotech firms, 20 percent for U.S. farmers and 5 percent for consumers.
The future of biotech crops will be determined by the same three sets of stakeholders as outlined in the report; each will weigh the benefits and costs. Updating the research outlined in the study is critical for stakeholders and for public officials who regulate the industry so that informed, timely decisions can be made as the biotech crop industry develops over the next 10 years.
Irish Move Ahead
The Environmental Protection Agency of Ireland has approved controversial plans to grow genetically modified potatoes in Co Meath. The five-year trials by the German chemical firm BASF are due to take place in Arodstown, near the Teagasc research centre in Summerhill.
The potatoes will not be allowed on the market as this would require further consent and approval at EU level. The Irish EPA says the company will have to adhere to 10 conditions and the trials will be monitored by the agency on a continuing basis. see...www.epa.ie The EPA received dozens of submissions opposing the plan when BASF first applied for permission earlier this year.
Shane Morris, on this blog ( http://www.gmoireland.blogspot.com ), has welcomed the approval as vote of confidence in plant research and development in Ireland.
Plant Stress - How Do They Cope with the Environment?
Plant environmental (abiotic) stress constitutes a major limitation to agricultural production and the farmer's livelihood. Crop production is hardly ever free of environmental stress. The major plant environmental stresses of contemporary economical importance worldwide are drought, cold (chilling and freezing), heat, salinity, soil mineral deficiency and soil mineral toxicity.
The purpose of this web site is to serve as a brokerage of information, a meeting place, a consultation facility and a source for professional update on the most important issues of plant environmental stress.
See also Biotech research on plant stress - http://www.plantstress.com/biotech/index.asp?Flag=1
Modern Biotechnology in Africa Economies: Promoting Regional Economic Integration and Trade
- May 11, 2006, 3:30PM. IFPRI Policy Seminar by Calestous Juma, Harvard University
Technological innovation has often been viewed as a negative force in Africa's development narratives. This image is starting to change as awareness on the role of innovation in economic growth continues to rise. The writing of a new African narrative is reflected in the decision of the African Union and the New Economic Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) to establish a High-Level Expert Panel on Modern Biotechnology.
More specifically, the panel: (a) stresses the role of technology in general and modern biotechnology in particular in regional economic integration and trade; (b) identifies priority areas in modern biotechnology of
relevance to African development; (c) outlines critical capabilities needed for the development and safe use of modern biotechnology; (d) proposes measures for the harmonization of regulations needed to provide a supportive environment for the safe application of modern biotechnology; and (e) offers options for promoting international technology cooperation.
Calestous Juma (Kenya) is Professor of the Practice of International Development and Director of the Science, Technology and Globalisation Project at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
Michigan Governor Granholm Signs Bill on Genetically Modified Seeds
- The Associated Press, May 5, 2006
Gov. Jennifer Granholm on Friday signed legislation that aims to block local regulation of genetically modified crops. The legislation could stop governments in Michigan from adopting ordinances that regulate or ban the planting of seeds. That includes genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
The law includes an exception allowing for local regulation if the bipartisan state Commission of Agriculture agrees the seeds will hurt the environment or public health. If a local government tries to ban the planting of seeds, the state Agriculture Department also will have to hold a public hearing and issue an opinion on whether environmental or public health effects will occur.
Vermont Governor to Veto Genetic Seed Liability Bill
- The Associated Press, May 6, 2006
Gov. James Douglas said he will veto a bill that would allow farmers to sue manufacturers of genetically modified seeds if the seeds drift into their fields. Douglas said Thursday if the bill became law it would discourage manufacturers from selling seeds in Vermont.
He is expected to veto the bill at a Franklin County farm. "I am prepared to act as soon as I have received it," Douglas said of the bill.
Supporters said the bill would for the first time make manufacturers liable for damages to farmers who didn't want the product in their fields. "We are surprised by his lack of understanding about what this bill is really about and his clear commitment to the biotechnology industry," Amy Shollenberger of Rural Vermont said of the governor. Rural Vermont, which decribes itself as a nonprofit farm advocacy group that represents those opposed to corporate industrial agriculture, has pushed to make the bill law.
Australian GM Crops – The Path Forward
- Ian Edwards, Chairman, Ag-Bio Advisory Group – AusBiotech; edstar.at.iinet.net.au
Last year was the tenth year of GM field crop production globally, and biotech crops were grown on over 90 million hectares by 8.5 million farmers in 21 countries. Here in Australia GM cotton was grown on over 300,000 hectares and the combination of insect resistance and herbicide tolerance constituted over 80% of the country's total cotton production. As such, we are already a GM country with the products of the cotton plant used for fibre, animal feed and cooking oil. However, while progress continues in some areas, we remain at an impasse with GM canola.
State based moratoria have led to companies (notably Bayer and Monsanto) withdrawing from the market. With no defined path to commercialisation they are unwilling to invest in further R & D and incur the costs of producing GM seed for large scale coexistence trials, and further performance testing. By best estimates, if a clearly defined path to market were established it would take a further three years before GM seed products are widely available here in Australia. Our bulk handler has indicated that, in the interim, about 25,000 tons of GM canola would be needed to properly test the segregation system and establish costs. For over 10 years Canadian canola growers have been offered a technology choice with their seed, and in 2005 they opted for 48% Roundup Ready (GM); 34% InVigor (GM plus hybrids); 14% Clearfield (non-GM herbicide tolerant); and 4% conventional seed.
What then is the path forward? There is broad agreement that the issues of coexistence, segregation costs and thresholds for unintended or adventitious presence (AP) have to be addressed. Coexistence is about choice, not prejudice. Effective coexistence means that growers can opt to grow conventional, GM or organic crops. It should not be treated as being pro-GM or anti-GM – its aim is to produce freedom of choice.
Coexistence is an economic issue – it is not about safety. All GM crops must undergo rigorous, science-based safety assessments on a case-by-case basis through Food Standards Australia - New Zealand (FSANZ) and the OGTR (Office of the Gene Technology Regulator) before they can be marketed. There are, however, implications for growers meeting market requirements in the context of a statutory 0.9% threshold for grain; while seedsmen for the next two years have and 0.5% threshold for GM content in non-GM seed.
The presence of low levels of unintended ingredients in manufactured products is a fact of life occurring in any production process, and farming is no different. A zero tolerance is totally unrealistic, and this is recognized in international trade. For example, Japan requires a GM label if the GM content is above 5% (for approved events) and there labeling laws allow a "GM-free" label if the GM content is less than 5%. Australia and the European Union are the most stringent, and we have a 0.9% threshold.
Coexistence is also not a new concept in farming. The agricultural supply chain is already able to service a range of market channels with different labeling or quality requirements, for example: our different market classes of wheat; feed versus malting barley; certified seed versus commercial grain crops; sweetcorn versus forage maize; industrial oil versus food-grade canola. In each case well established practices are in place to deliver coexistence, including neighbor to neighbor communication, separation distances between crops, and careful segregation during harvest, storage and transport. It involves mutual cooperation between growers who share a vested interest in delivering products to meet their customers' requirements.
GM growers and seed companies cannot be expected to bear responsibility for the self imposed marketing standards set by others. However, seed companies have a responsibility to deliver seed to specification, and growers bear the initial responsibility of putting the appropriate coexistence measures in place.
Finally, GM crops introduce no new liability issues. The key to effective coexistence is a sensible, agreed definition of good practice to define the boundaries of negligence and due diligence in respect of GM and non-GM crop production. With ten years of global GM production experience, there is no evidence of farmers routinely suing each other or claiming compensation. In the EU Spanish farmers are currently growing 100,000 hectares of GM maize without any provision for liability or compensation, nor any evidence over the last six years to suggest that this is necessary. Gene flow (or pollen drift) data from multiple studies offers a high degree of confidence that a breach of the AP threshold of 0.9% would be highly unlikely if normal coexistence measures are in place.
Canada initially lost its EU market with the advent of GM canola, but increased its sales globally by 30%, with a 5% increase in Japanese market penetration. In addition, it now sells 200,000 tons of GM canola for industrial oil to Europe each year. Australia derives occasional sales of non-GM canola to Europe in years of shortfall (about once every 3-4 years).
It is time to acknowledge the realities that: 1) the approved canola products have been determined to be safe by the OGTR; 2) there is no price premium for mainstream commodity non-GM canola; 3) our growers are at a production disadvantage relative to their Canadian counterparts; 4) we need a defined path to market with lifting of state moratoria to remove the current impasse; and 5) we need to do the necessary work on coexistence and segregation costs in the supply chain if we are to position ourselves for the future, and give our growers the right to choose the technology that best meets their needs.
Our leading farm groups in WA have clearly stated the need to move forward. What is most needed is some political courage.
Are Genetically Modified Crops Safe?
- Talk of the Nation, National Public Radio; May 5, 2006
Listen to the program at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5386438
It's been 10 years since genetically modified crops became commercially available in the United States. Advocates say 10 years of planting show the technology is safe. Critics say the technology is poorly regulated.
Michael Fernandez, Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology
Doug Gurian-Sherman, International Center for Technology Assessment; Center for Food Safety
Martina Newell-McGloughlin, University of California, Davis
Edited Transcript below...
JOE PALCA, host: And now, we turn to the scheduled topic for this hour, which is the genetically modified crops that have shown up in this country. You know, the Flavor Savor tomato was the first genetically engineered plant sold in the United States, and it was a dud. The tomato was created to last longer after harvest, but consumers decided it wasn't worth the extra money, and the project died on the vine, as it were. Was the industry deterred? Not a bit.
A couple of years later, genetically modified plants sprouted again, this time, with less fanfare and less direct dependence on pleasing the consumer. Seed companies started selling corn and cotton with a built-in insecticide. They sold soybeans that could hold up against herbicides. And, in the United States, farmers were buying it.
Today, GM seeds account for half the corn and 85 percent of the soybeans grown in this country. If you live here in the United States, it's nearly certain you've eaten something made from GM plants. So, for the rest of this hour, we'll take a look at the 10-year history of GM plants. We'll explore how these products became so widespread and why people in this country, at least, don't seem to mind. We'll also look ahead to the GM plants of the future, and we're not talking about the General Motors plants, whe're talking about these crop plants.
Later in the hour, we'll talk about cloned cows. The Food and Drug Administration is trying to decide whether meat and milk from cloned animals can come to your market shelves.
So, give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255; that's 800-989-TALK. And, if you want more information about what we'll be talking about this hour, go to our website at www.sciencefriday.com where you'll find links to our topic.
Now, let me introduce my guests. Michael Fernandez is the executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. He joins me here in Studio 3A today. Thanks for coming by.
PALCA: Good. So, we've had a little bit of a change in the start of the program as you've heard, so we may be just a few minutes getting on track here, but Michael Fernandez, why don't I start with you. I mentioned that business about the American public, sort of, not minding, somehow. You've been testing people and polling people on that question. Do people even know that GM foods are here?
Mr. FERNANDEZ: That's right, Joe. We have done a series of public opinion surveys over the past four or five years. And, as you say, consumers are really largely unaware of the fact that this technology is so ubiquitous in agriculture. So, in our most recent survey, we asked people how much they'd heard or read about the issue of genetically modified foods and something on the order of almost 60 percent of the people said, nothing.
PALCA: Mmm. And when you ask people who have heard, what do they say about it? Do they say, we're happy, or what, you know, do they have objections?
Mr. FERNANDEZ: Consumers, generally speaking, in our polling are, I would say, cautious. They have some reservations. There are some questions about safety and also just some questions about whether they think this is a good idea.
PALCA: Okay. Doug Gurian-Sherman, should people--are they misinformed by not being more concerned about the safety of these crops?
Mr. GURIAN-SHERMAN: Well, I think there's a lot to know about these crops that people are really not aware of, and I think if they were aware of some of the issues around these crops, they would be more concerned--as people are all over Europe and other parts of the world.
And, especially, one of those issues that I've looked at, and we've looked at a lot, is the state of the U.S. regulatory system and how protective it is. How adequate it is to detect harm, which, really, all of the major scientific bodies have acknowledged can occur with these crops, both in terms of human health and the environment. So, then, the question becomes, in part--there's many other issues as well, but in part--is the regulatory system here adequate to protect the public, and we don't think it ish.
PALCA: Right. But in one sense, it seems to me, you know, detecting harm from these products is kind of difficult, because if almost everybody's eating them and they're not dropping in the streets, obviously they're not immediately dangerous. So how do you detect this dangerous if it is, in fact, there?
Mr. GURIAN-SHERMAN: Well that's a very good point. There's no monitoring of any potential harm in the public. And clearly, as you say, which unless the effects were extremely dramatic and short term... I mean one of the big concerns is there's been really no long-term testing of any of these crops. So, short of something very dramatic and short term, it would not be detected.
For example, it's often remarked by strong proponents of the technology, that nobody's gotten sick. But that may well be, but we don't really no that. Because, again, there's nobody looking. Just as one example: soybeans, for example, are one of the eight most common allergenic foods in the country. If the new protein in Round Up Ready, the herbicide tolerance soybean, which are the biggest GE crop, did cause an allergic reaction, it is very unlikely it would be detected, because it's already a common allehrgen.
If a person went in complaining to an allergist, they would identify it as a soy allergy. There's no way that they really have--now it could be. There are tests that can be done, and that's part of the problem. There are things that could be done to monitor and there could be a better job pre-marketing to do better testing to make sure they're safe.
PALCA: Okay. Martina Newell-McGloughlin, let me ask you. I mean, is the oversight of genetically modified crops adequate in your opinion?
Mr. MARTINA NEWELL-MCGLOUGHLIN (Director, UC System-Wide Biotechnology Research and Energy Program): Yes. In fact, I think biotech crops are the most thoroughly regulated crops ever. It takes 7-10 years before any of them even appear on the market. And there's at least nine different stages of review. And the soybean that was just referred to, in fact, went through 1,800 separate analyses, and I was involved in some of those.
In fact, most of the other crops that we've been producing over the last 10,000 years are not subject to any regulatory oversight. So, for example, all the asparagus you eat, all those are made from anthers. They're all super-males. They'd never had a female part, component, involved in their production and the chromosomes are doubled with a chemical called Cochasine(sp). So all your asparagus are super-males. Maybe some feminists may want to rethink that.
All of the spaghetti you eat has been mutigenized with Cobalt-60, way back in 1957. This was basically to improve the starch so you got better quality pasta. And this was done randomly--you don't know what happened at the molecular level--yet that's not subject to any regulation.
All of your Asian pears, likewise, are mutigenized to make them resistant to black spot disease way, way back. Again, never regulated or reviewed. These are introduced with very minimum oversight. Where, as I said, biotech is thoroughly regulated.
And I'll give you an example from Davis. We took approaches to improve the soluble solids in tomatoes. You know the soluble solids you have, the more pasta sauce you can make--the better spaghetti sauce. Well one approach, we clustered(ph) with a wild variety of tomato that was in our large germplasm selection here. And the one positive component was, it had large soluble solids, but it also was not very fertile, didn't taste good and was seriously toxic. We took another approach and just turned off the gehne, got the same results, but it's the one that's crossed with the toxic plant that can be commercialized cause that's the older way of doing it. Whereas the biotech crop has held such a high standard...
Ms. NEWELL-MCGLOUGHLIN: I have just one more point. Actually that for long-term studies, actually the one long-term study was done in the E.U., because that is often brought up as an area that's quite skeptical about biotech. And they actually had 400 teams looking at 82 projects in all 15 countries of the original E.U.--there's now 25. And they looked at this over 15 years and determined in that very long report. But their bottom line was that, because it's a more precise technology, and because of the dehgree of regulatory scrutiny, GMOs are probably safer than any conventional plants and foods.
PALCA: Well I'd like to invite our callers to join... Edward in Newark, Delaware. Edward, welcome to the program.
EDWARD: My question is how do they know, like, what genetically-modified crops- -what with insects, the environment, birds that eat the insects, deers that eat the insects, rabbits--how do they know what effects that these crops are going to have on the environment? Since, I mean, we're not talking about something that's only been in the short--you know, it's so short of a time. And we're talking about maybe 20, 30, 40 years from now. How do they...
PALCA: Right. In other words, the consequences might be long term and we just don't see them in the time we've had these around. Is that what you're saying?
PALCA: Okay. Well let me asking Martine Newell-McGlouglin her point of view on that.
Dr. NEWELL-MCGLOUGHLIN: Well my take on that would be we know a lot less of some of the older systems we've used to make crops, the ones that I've just been describing there. And, as I said, we've been doing those especially over the last 100--well, over the last 50 years. So that experiment has been done where we've been doing radical modifications without reading on what we were doing at the molecular level. So far we haven't seen any negative impact from that.
Every so often, you are going to find something that shows up that you don't want. So, for example, a company was looking at improving the proteins in soybeans and the source they used was Brazil nut. And it turned the particular protein they looked at was the one that many people are allergic to. But it was caught. The checks and balances are in place to catch that. Whereas with many of the older systems, there weren't any checks and balances in place to catch them.
PALCA: Let me get Doug Gurian-Sherman's take on this. I mean we're talking about environmental effects, not necessarily effects directly on people.
Mr. GURIAN-SHERMAN: Well, first of all, most of the testing that is done, most of the crops go through field trials through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the aphis division. There are really no tests, no particular tests required for those field trials to test the kinds of things the caller brought up.
There's no tests for, for instance, non-target organisms, desirable insects, like ladybugs and butterflies. What is done is there's--almost all these field trials go through a simple notification process that was criticized by the Inspector General recently, of the U.S.D.A. And there's a requirement to report anything that's noticed in these field trials that may be untoward.
But as many ecologists have reported and published, this kind of testing is completely inadequate to detect any of these things that may occur after commercialization, or even on a larger scale, before commercialization. So there's really a minimal amount of environmental testing that is done for these crops.
E.P.A. does a little bit more, but they only look at a subset of the genetically engineered crops.
PALCA: Edward thanks for the call.
EDWARD: I think it's very scary, to go with things like this.
PALCA: Okay. Thanks very much for the call. Mike Fitzgerald, can I turn to you now and just say, what is the regulatory picture? I mean we've heard several different agencies mentioned. Is that maybe an issue here, that there's so many people involved in the regulatory process?
Mr. FERNANDEZ: Yeah. You really have to sort of step back to, how did we get to where we are? How did this all start? And if you go back into the mid-1980s, a decision was made when figuring out how we were going to deal with these genetically engineered products, to use the existing laws and statutory authorities that we already have in place.
So that meant that if a product looked like a pesticide, we're going to regulate it like a pesticide. If it looks like a food, we're going to regulate like a food. If it looks like a drug, we'll regulate it like a drug. So you have then, yes, three principal agencies: the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency--that all have regulatory authority and jurisdiction over some or all of different parts of this universe.
So you have issues, then, of coordination between the agencies. Some products are regulated by all three, some are regulated by only two, some by only one. And they all have slightly different standards and slightly different authorities that they apply. And so there are some questions. This technology does pose some unique challenges to the regulatory structure.
PALCA: Okay. Let's take another call now. How about Judith in Chico, California. Judith, welcome to Science Friday.
JUDITH (Caller): Yes. One of the most frightening things to me--nevermind what the fear of what they do to the body--it's the fact that these are patented products, that they regularly escape from the fields, like the corn, et cetera, contaminating other farmers' fields. Like the issue with Monsanto, in that the corn into organic fields. And then legal action is taken against the farmer who is trying to grow organically or not grow patented products.
PALCA: I see what you're saying.
JUDITH: So the double fear is, first of all, that once they are in the environment, there's no recapturing them. And then legal action against people who are not trying to steal anybody's patented life form.
PALCA: Interesting question. Thanks for the call, Judith. Martina Newell- McGloughlin, you know, one thing about Judith's call that strikes me, she talks about a fear factor here. You don't think that people should be worried about these issues?
Ms. NEWELL-MCGLOUGHLIN: Oh no. And in fact, the comment she made regarding impact on organic production. No U.S. organic producer can actually have his product legally downgraded, nor can the grower by decertified, by unintentional presence of biotech products in their crops. So they are legally protected.
So this notion, and it's widespread out there, is that organic production can be negatively impacted by a biotech. This isn't true. And in fact, the only cases that have been brought to date(ph), have been infringement cases. And in each case, the farmer has said, that in fact, they have deliberately saved the seeds. And there was only one case upheld by the court.
But getting back to your notion of fear. Fear does, unfortunately, sell quite easily. It's rather unfortunate that it's easier to talk about concerns than it is to talk about how these concerns are addressed, or to talk about the positive aspects of biotech. Because when people talk about a technology that's a little unfamiliar to them, they are more inclined to focus on the negative components rather than any of the potential benefits. And I really think that's one of the real issues that we deal with herhe.
You know, that we're not aware of how other products are being produced over the last, as I said, hundreds and even thousands of years. But we are very focused on how biotech is being produced. It causes a (unintelligible) in the media.
PALCA: But the generalization - I mean, people are not of iPods and they're very different from tube radios.
Dr. NEWELL-MCGLOUGHLIN: With iPods, though, you're personally in control of that. I think part of the concern is this feeling that these decisions are being made outside of their sphere of control. That they would like to be, individuals would like to be more involved in the decision process. And that they also think, you know, when you look at scientific on (unintelligible) cause science is inherently noisy.
When normal scientific debate occurs, you know, in written publications, etc., and people respond to concerns in that media, it's rather unusual to have it discussed within a public media forum where opinions of any scientist could circumvent any other scientist as far as the public is concerned.
PALCA: Let me ask Gurian-Sherman. You were shaking your head during some of what we just heard. What's your take on this?
Mr. GURIAN-SHERMAN: Well we have to get back to, again, the way this is regulated and what the scientific community has said about these crops. And Dr. McGloughlin represented an example where she said the genetically engineered crops seem to be less risky. Well, we can all cite examples. A delayed ripening tomato different than Flavor Savor went through FDA in the early 90s. It had an ACCH gene.
Now it's important to understand, FDA does not approve the safety of these crops. It regulates them under the generally recognized safe provisions of the Food Act that are the same essentially as any type of other crop. It's a voluntary process the manufacturers have decided to comply with and do some very cursory testing for the most part. I've looked at those and there's many problems with the tests that are done.
But in the case of this ACCH gene, later completely independently, similar genes were cloned from bacteria and put into tomatoes and it turned out that these crops could accumulate five times or more heavy metals in the crop plant unbeknownst to FDA. So part of the problem is, is when you're putting genes from foreign organisms and mixing them, you really don't know how the genetic interactions are going to play out. And so to suggest that this technology is similar to previous technologies, and therefore hthe safety profile is the same or that it's safer, really begs the question, again, you know, the national academies and others have all said that this technology should be regulated and they've all criticized in various ways the current regulatory process in the U.S.
PALCA: But the interesting thing, despite all this, Michael Fernandez, is, you know, I've been to Europe and, you know, anti-GM sentiment there still runs very high. Has the Pew center looked at all on why this issue hasn't, I mean, obviously there are people concerned. We have people on the phone who are saying, why are we doing this? But it hasn't stopped.
Mr. FERNANDEZ: Yeah, we have looked, we have had some questions about consumer's attitudes, sort of what motivates their attitudes. One of the things that I think is a big difference between what we've seen in Europe and what we're seeing in the United States is the degree of confidence that American consumers have in our regulatory agencies. To underscore something that Doug said earlier, that is why it's so important to make sure that we have a regulatory system in place that's able to, that has the toolhs that it needs to ask the questions, and you know, get the right answers. But consumers, you know, by far find FDA, for example, as the most trusted source of information about food and agricultural biotechnology.
PALCA: But trusted, but as we've heard, they are advisory more than regulatory in this case, and I suppose if a big bad thing slipped through we'd be hearing about how they hadn't been watching closely enough.
Mr. FERNANDEZ: Well, that, I think, our, what the Pew Initiative has seen in terms of consumer opinion sort of bears that out a little bit in that there are a relatively small number of people who are adamantly opposed. There's also a relatively small number of people who are very in favor of new technology and support the technology. And the vast majority of people are somewhere in the middle. And those people have opinions that are not very, very strongly felt, held, and I think are somewhat malleable. Ahnd so I think one of the issues is, if we had a situation where there were a problem, as you suggested, or even if there was something that caused them to question the safety of food in general, we could definitely see those opinions change.
PALCA: We're talking about genetically modified organisms and we're taking your calls, and I'm Joe Palca, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's take another one of those calls now, and let's go to Ann in--is it Reston, Virginia, Ann?
ANN (Caller): Yes it is.
PALCA: Welcome to the program.
ANN (Caller): Thank you. I guess I'm one of those that's somewhat in favor of new technology, although I'm not in favor of rushing headlong. I don't trust blindly but I do think that it's a very bad idea to listen to fear. And if everyone is talking about all the bad things that can happen and completely ignores the wonderful possibilities, I mean the thing that appeals to me about some of the genetically modified foods is they can be resistant to pesticides. I don't like the idea of eating pesticides. I dhon't like the idea of huge amounts of pesticides being grown and put into the environment. They have the possibility of reducing pesticide use. That's organic. That's wonderful. That's a great advantage. And to just dump that possibility because of fear seems bad to me.
PALCA: Okay, Ann, let me ask Doug Gurian-Sherman. I mean, is there anything here that we should be grateful for and taking, and embracing?
Mr. GURIAN-SHERMAN: Well, I think if you look at the picture in totality, not really. The main crop that's been produced is herbicide tolerant crops, especially herbicide tolerant soybeans. And recent data by a well known agricultural economist shows that in fact herbicide use has gone up on those soybeans. And part of that is because this is not a sustainable technology. It's being overused, resistant weeds are growing. So now growers, more and more instead of having to use a single herbicide when the crohp was first developed, are now being recommended to what's called tank mix with other herbicides that can also be dangerous.
And USDA just came out with a report, and if you notice from 2001 to 2002, they also show an uptick in herbicide use. Now, insecticide use is probably gone down somewhat on the BT insect resistant cotton and corn. But it's more than over balanced by the increase in herbicide on soybean. So, no, and also, you know, I think we have to look at this in another bigger context which is this is just a furthering of an unsustainable kind of agricultural, industrial agriculture, that looks for silver bullets and does not work with agro ecology that we know needs to be done to produce a sustainable agriculture and one that is favorable to the environment.
PALCA: Well, Martina Newell-McGloughlin, I mean, is there anything to that? Have insecticide and herbicide use gone down with these plants?
Ms. NEWELL-MCGLOUGHLIN: Yes, in fact a report came out from Brooks and Barfoot last November indicating that this technology has reduced pesticide spraying by 379 million pounds. And the use of herbicide tolerance has allowed switch-to no-till agriculture. And the normal highly cultivated agriculture which we need for some other methods of production can lead to severe erosion. And in addition you're using a lot of complex cocktails of herbicides to control crops in the past. You had to use heavy machinery. So you were driving back and over a lot using fossil fuels and compacting the soil.
They're finding a great improvement, actually, in the flora, and the integrity of the soil itself and massive reduction in the loss due to erosion. And in fact the equivalent from the actual footprint of, for individuals who are growing herbicide tolerant crops, was the equivalent of taking five million cars off the road in 2004.
Ms. NEWELL-MCGLOUGHLIN: That is a reduction in carbon dioxide...
PALCA: Interesting. Well, we're going take a short break, but we'll be coming back to talk about that and other things. And actually, right after this break, we'll talking about an entirely new technology that people I'm sure have heard of but may not realize that it, too, could be part of the food chain in this country. So stay with us and we'll tell you all about that.
PALCA: We're talking this hour about biotechnology and our food. And I want to let Doug Gurian-Sherman make one quick point. We were talking about the notion of whether GM crops, plants would reduce tillage and he had something he wanted to say, and I had to cut him off.
Mr. GURIAN-SHERMAN: Well, this is a very debatable point. USDA's own data, published in 2002, in fact shows that in the main herbicide tolerant crop, soybeans, no till and conservation tillage use was going up dramatically. And that rate actually tapered off after the introduction of these crops. USDA said itself that there's no evidence that these crops have caused any actual increase in no-till acreage. So you have to look at the data before, and it was already happening, and already happening dramatically. So this is a real misnomer.
Beware the Big Green Political Monster
- Michael Duffy, Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), May 6, 2006. Full story at
LAST week saw the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster. Environmental groups continue to use this as part of their irrational campaign against nuclear energy.
In truth, Chernobyl was caused by communist managerial incompetence, not nuclear technology. France went nuclear in 1974, has had no significant accidents and today has 78 per cent of its power coming from nuclear plants. Its energy is almost the cheapest and its air probably the cleanest in Europe. Greenpeace claims 100,000 will die. It's a huge difference in prediction. Who do you believe: a United Nations body that depends on its reputation for accuracy, or the green fear factory?
Recently I interviewed Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace, on radio and asked why he quit the organisation. He said: "I left in the mid-'80s when the policy started to drift away from science and logic into these kind of zero-tolerance positions that I believe are based more on sensation and fund-raising around scare tactics. Look at the campaign against genetically modified crops and the whole 'Frankenstein food' … these are scare words that are attached to what is actually one of the most important advances to genetic science in history … for example, taking a gene from corn and creating the 'golden rice' which could eliminate blindness in half a million kids every year in Asia and Africa, and could eliminate chronic vitamin A deficiency in over 200 million people in the rice-eating countries."
Moore, who has an honours degree in forest biology and a PhD in ecology, says he left Greenpeace when "I was an international director, one of five. My fellow international directors had no science education. Most of them were political activists or entrepreneur environmentalists, for want of a better word, and they decided we should start a campaign to ban chlorine worldwide. I said, 'Chlorine is one of the elements in the periodic table. I don't think that's in our jurisdiction.' And they said, 'No, this is a good campaign. Chlorine is the devil's element, and it works really well for fund-raising and media and everything.'
"I said, 'Just a minute, 75 per cent of our medicines are based on chlorine chemistry, and adding chlorine to drinking water was the single biggest advance in the history of public health, and the best way to deliver that slightly chlorinated drinking water to the general public is in a PVC pipe. So give me a break. I cannot go along with this. You guys make a list of the chlorine compounds that you don't like and we'll look at them one by one like any regulatory agency would do, but you can't just condemn chlorine. We put it in swimming pools so that people don't get cholera and tetanus.' "
The others weren't persuaded. Moore says: "That was the beginning of my having to leave the organisation that I helped found."
It's strange that so many of the positions now advocated by green activists actually pose serious threats to the environment.