Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - May 15, 2006
* Biotech Upsets Just About Everybody with its Diarrhea Treatment
* Greenpeace's Vacuous Attempt to Destroy Bt Maize
* Confusing Definitions
* Irish Trial License: GMO Potatoes in Meath
* Bt Cotton and Sheep Death In India? - Monsanto Responds
* Indian Regulator Tells Monsanto to Cut GM Seeds Prices
* Problem of Illegal Bt Cotton Seeds in India
* FAO Official Resigns, Blames the Chief; Guardian Blames GM Crops
* Philippines: More Farmers Happy With Bt Corn Due to Higher Yield
* A Future with No Bananas?
* Musings of a Sensible 'Organic-Wannabe' Blogger
* Genetically Modified Crops: Looking Back
* American Generosity
* Food for Thought in a Hungry Region
* Hungry and HIV-Ridden Zambia Destroys GM Corn and Condoms
* Who Said that Greenpeacers are Dull and Boring ....?
Biotech Upsets Just About Everybody with its Diarrhea Treatment
- Paul Elias, Associated Press, May 14, 2006
In its quest to genetically engineer rice with human genes to produce a treatment for childhood diarrhea, tiny Ventria Bioscience has made an astonishing number of powerful enemies spanning the political spectrum.
Environmental groups, corporate food interests and thousands of farmers across the country have succeeded in chasing the company's rice farms out of two states. And critics continue to complain that Ventria is recklessly plowing ahead with a mostly untested technology that threatens the safety of conventional crops grown for the food supply.
"We just want them to go away," said Bob Papanos of the U.S. Rice Producers Association. "This little company could cause major problems."
Ventria, with 16 employees, practices "biopharming," the most contentious segment of agricultural biotechnology because its adherents essentially operate open-air drug factories by splicing human genes into crops to produce proteins that can be turned into medicines.
Ventria's rice produces two human proteins found in mother's milk, saliva and tears, which help people hydrate and lessen the severity and duration of diarrhea attacks, a top killer of children in developing countries.
But farmers, environmentalists and others fear that such medicinal crops will mix with conventional crops, making them unsafe to eat.
The company says the chance of its genetically engineered rice ending up in the food supply is remote because the company grinds the rice and extracts the protein before shipping. What's more, rice is "self-pollinating," and it's virtually impossible for genetically engineered rice to accidentally cross breed with conventional crops. "We use a contained system," Ventria Chief Executive Scott Deeter said.
Regardless, U.S. rice farmers in particular fear that important overseas customers in lucrative, biotechnology-averse countries like Japan will shun U.S. crops if biopharming is allowed to proliferate. Exports account for 50% of the rice industry's $1.18 billion in annual sales.
Japanese consumers, like those in Western Europe, are still alarmed by past mad cow disease outbreaks mishandled by their governments, making them deeply skeptical of any changes to their food supply, including genetically engineered crops.
Rice interests in California drove Ventria's experimental work out of the state in 2004, after Japanese customers said they wouldn't buy the rice if Ventria were allowed to set up shop. Anheuser-Busch and Riceland Foods, the world's largest rice miller, were among the corporate interests that pressured the company to abandon plans to set up a commercial-scale farm in Missouri's rice belt last year.
But Ventria was undeterred. The company, which has its headquarters in Sacramento, finally landed near Greenville, N.C. In March it received U.S. Department of Agriculture clearance to expand its operation there from 70 acres to 335 acres. Ventria is hoping to get regulatory clearance this year to market its diarrhea-fighting protein powder.
There has been little resistance from corporate and farming interest in eastern North Carolina. But the company's work has raised the hackles of environmentalists there.
"The issue is the growing of pharmaceutical products in food crops grown outdoors," said Hope Shand of the environmental non-profit ETC Group in Carrboro, N.C. "The chance this will contaminate traditionally grown crops is great. This is a very risky business."
Deeter points out that there aren't any commercial rice growers in North Carolina, although the USDA did allow Ventria to grow its controversial crop about a half-mile from a government "rice station," where new strains are tested. The USDA has since moved that station to Beltsville, Md., though an agency spokeswoman said the relocation had nothing to do with Ventria.
The company, meanwhile, has applied to the Food and Drug Administration to approve the protein powder as a "medical food" rather than a drug. That means Ventria wouldn't have to conduct long and costly human tests. Instead, it submitted data from scientific experts attesting to the company's powder is "generally regarded as safe."
Earlier this month, a Peruvian scientist sponsored by Ventria presented data at the Pediatric Academics Societies meeting in San Francisco. It showed children hospitalized in Peru with serious diarrhea attacks recovered quicker - 3.67 days vs. 5.21 days - if the dehydration solution they were fed contained the powder.
Ventria's chief executive said he hopes to have an approval this year and envisions a $100 million annual market in the United States. Deeter forecasts a $500 million market overseas, especially in developing countries where diarrhea is a top killer of children under the age of 5. The World Health Organization reports that nearly 2 million children succumb to diarrhea each year.
But overcoming consumer skepticism and regulatory concerns about feeding babies with products derived from genetic engineering is a tall order. This is especially true in the face of continued opposition to biopharming from the Grocery Manufacturers Association of America, which represents food, beverage and consumer products companies with combined U.S. sales of $460 billion.
Ventria hopes to add its protein powder to existing infant products. There is no requirement to label any food products in the United States as containing genetically engineered ingredients.
The company also has ambitious plans to add its product to infant formula, a $10 billion-a-year market, even though the major food manufacturers have so far shown little interest in using genetically engineered ingredients. But Deeter says Ventria can win over the manufacturers and consumers by showing the company's products are beneficial.
"For children who are weaning, for instance, these two proteins have enormous potential to help their development," Deeter said. "Breast-fed babies are healthier and these two proteins are a big reason why."
Re: Greenpeace's Vacuous Attempt to Destroy Bt Maize
- Robert Wager, wagerr.at.MALA.BC.CA, Malaspina University College, Nanaimo BC, Canada
After reading the story about Greenpeace attempting to destroy an Bt Maize field trial in the Netherlands I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. I settled for looking at this quote. "Greenpeace is not impressed with Lotz' good intentions. Spokesman André van der Vlugt: "We are against the presence of all genetically modified crops in the open. It's going wrong all over the world. We only know ten percent of what we need to know to be able to make safe us use of the technology. These tests could just as easily be done with non-modified maize."
My questions are as follows
1) If we only know ten percent does that mean there is now some magic number of research projects determined by Greenpeace that must be done before a GE crop can be considered safe? Is it 42?
2) If we still need ninety percent of the information, then isn't attempting to destroy a research trial in direct conflict with getting the information Greenpeace says we need? Something about the right hand and left hand here.
3) Greenpeace can correct me if I am wrong, but don't they consider GE Maize completely different from non-modified maize, therefore how would using non-modified maize (whatever that is, see teosinte) answer any questions Greenpeace might have?
Please feel free to pass these questions on to the spokesperson for Greenpeace.
- New Scientist, May 13, 2006 http://www.newscientist.com
Following your article on the promise of synthetic wheats produced without genetic engineering (11 February, p 8), I made the point that strictly speaking, the wheats should qualify as genetically modified organisms if the EU's definition of a GMO is strictly applied (11 March, p 22). The aim of my letter was to expose stark inconsistencies in the way that the EU legally distinguishes GM plants - which are subject to strict regulation - from "conventionally bred" plants, which escape similar scrutiny.
In your 1 April issue (p 24), Edo Lin countered that the wheats don't fall under the GMO definition because EU legislation explicitly exempts plants bred in the same way as the synthetic wheats. The method relies on a chemical that tricks wheat plants into doubling their chromosomes, enabling them to breed in a way that would not be possible naturally.
Lin is correct that plants bred in this way are exempt from the GMO definition, as are plants produced through other "conventional" methods such as deliberate mutation of chromosomal DNA to produce plant variants not found in nature. Yet these and other methods exempted by the EU legislation on GMOs can introduce changes in plant DNA and plant structure vastly eclipsing those introduced by genetic engineering itself, as defined by the EU.
Ironically, the definition as it stands may discourage newer, safer ways of altering plants by silencing unwanted genes with tiny gene-specific fragments of RNA. My point is that the EU's legal definitions of GMOs are way out of step with what actually happens biologically and genetically in plants, and need radical reappraisal.
If anything, Lin's response reinforces my argument, that definitions from Brussels rely more on semantics than scientific precision, a situation which may be politically expedient but which is scientifically dishonest and confusing for European consumers.
David James, Maidstone, Kent, UK
Irish Trial License: GMO Potatoes in Meath
- Editorial, Irish Farmers Journal, May 13, 2006
We presumably have to accept that those objecting to granting of a GM license to test the modified potatoes in Meath are well meaning. We also have to insist that the facts are faced up to. The Environmental Protection Agency EPA is right to grant a trial license in this instance.
Potatoes propagate through the muliplication of the tubers. Airborne transfer of pollen which is an issue with oilseed rape is not a factor in potatoes. Coupled with that these particular potato plants are in fact using transferred genetic material from other types of potatoes so it is not valid to argue that genetic material from a different species completely is being transferred. In addition potatoes under Irish conditions are particularly vulnerable to blight and require frequent spraying.
The basic core of the case from the objectors seems to be that GMOs should not, as a principle, be used in Ireland - at all. This is a tall order. They are already widely used in medicine and chesse manufacturers. To deliberately close off an avenue of science that has clear and obvious potential benefits seems to be a negation of our rationality.
But there is also the practical consideration that most of the major food producers of the world - who are our competitors - are using this technology to reduce their costs of production and enhance their yields. Europe has sent a clear signal to its farmers that we are not going to be sheltered from outside competition. We cannot have it both ways.
Monsanto Statement Regarding Bt Cotton Leaves and Sheep Death In India
- Monsanto Press Release, May 12, 2006
Our attention has been drawn to some press statements issued by various groups alleging that sheep have died after consuming Bt cotton leaves.
We would like to inform you that safety studies on goats, cows, buffaloes, chicken and fish have been conducted as part of the regulatory process for the approval of Bollgard. Mahyco had conducted hundreds of field trials in India and had done extensive nutritional and bio safety studies with Bt cotton in co-operation with many national institutions.
All the data generated from the trials and studies had been submitted to the Indian Regulatory authorities prior to approval in 2002. We would also like to inform that a 90-day goat feeding study was conducted by Industrial Toxicology Research Center, Lucknow in 1998.
The treatment groups included goats fed Bt cottonseed and control groups that were fed non-Bt cottonseed. According to Dr. Vishwanathan, Scientist involved in this study, "The feed analyses showed the similarity in nutrient and toxicant compositions between Bt & non-Bt cotton seeds, feed intake, weight gain, hematologyand serum enzymes were measured for each animal during the feeding period of the study.
At the end of this study, the animals were assessed for gross pathology and histopathology. It was concluded from the result by the above analyses that Bt cottonseed is as wholesome and safe for animal feed as non-Bt cottonseed. The differences observed across 48 goats in gross pathology and histo-pathology was attributed to any cottonseed feeding treatments, and was typical for goat feeding on cottonseed."
India has a well-developed regulatory regime for genetically improved plants and Bollgard is undoubtedly the most extensively studied cotton seed in India and abroad today. The rigorous scientific studies conducted in India and abroad demonstrate that Bollgard and its products are safe for the environment, human beings, animals and agriculture. It has been conclusively established that Bt cotton is equivalent to conventional cotton in composition and agronomic performance and has no adverse effects on non-target organisms and the environment in general.
It would be appropriate for those who have genuine concerns about crop biotechnology to bolster their case with the weight of scientific evidence and debate, rather than seek to divert attention from a failed cause by making unfounded and unsubstantiated allegations.
Regulator Tells Monsanto to Cut GM Seeds Prices
- Economic Times (India) , May 12, 2006 http://economictimes.indiatimes.com
US biotech giant Monsanto has been told on Friday to cut the cost of its genetically-modified seeds to farmers after monopoly investigators ruled it was manipulating prices, according to a report. The Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission said the Indian joint venture, Mahyco Monsanto, imposed "unjustified" costs on farmers and demanded prices come down in a month, the media said.
Activists and farmers' groups claim failed crops, falling prices and surging production costs have contributed to an Indian farming crisis that saw 4,100 farmers commit suicide in the western state of Maharashtra alone in 2004.
"We find that prima facie it has been established that the respondent is indulged in trade practices, which... have the effect of preventing, distorting and restricting competition," said Justice B K Rathi, of the commission in the ruling on Thursday.
Mahyco Monsanto immediately announced it would appeal against the decision in the Supreme Court, the country's highest court, saying the ruling was "beyond the commission's jurisdiction and inconsistent with the laws of India." The company cut its royalty fee by 30 per cent to 900 rupees ($20) per 450 grams bag of GM cotton seeds in March amid growing controversy over its tight grip on the Indian cotton GM seed market. It said the cut was in order "to best meet current market conditions."
The commission rejected the company's claims it was not involved in fixing prices and backed a report by investigators in March that it was charging "exorbitant" prices, the media reported.
Farmers in Maharashtra told media last month that they used to pay Rs 450 for a bag of traditional seed, but about 1,600 for GM seed. Mahyco Monsanto's cotton was launched in 2002 in India and planted by more than a million farmers in 2005, the company said.
It said a survey showed that yields from their seed were 64 per cent higher compared with conventional cotton and farmers used less pesticide.
M.K. Sharma, managing director of Mahyco Monsanto, said the ruling "could have an adverse effect on the flow of many investments in India if companies are afraid that the government may come in and set prices for them".
The Problem of Illegal Bt Cotton Seeds in India
- All India Crop Biotech Association, New Delhi; aicba1.at.yahoo.co.in
Since its approval in India in March 2002, Bollgard cotton technology has been providing excellent control of destructive bollworm infestations, with far-reaching benefits.
* On average, reduction of an average 2.4 pesticide sprays against bollworm that translates to a 25 percent reduction in total pesticides spend. (Reduction in 2005 is approximately 300 tons of pesticides)
* Cotton yields on those acres have averaged an increase of about 64 percent.
* In 2005, cotton farmers who grew Bollgard cotton have realized the estimated economic benefit of Rs 2100 crores in additional profit. (* Source: IMRB 2005 study)
To ensure that these benefits reach maximum farmers, Bollgard cotton technology has been licensed to twenty different Indian cottonseed companies who have incorporated the trait into their best hybrid seeds. Thanks to these arrangements, twenty Bollgard hybrids are being grown on approximately 3.1 million acres across India's nine cotton-growing states in 2005.
Unfortunately, over the last five years, the illegal distribution of cottonseeds incorporating Bt technology in India has also steadily increased. According to various media reports, estimated sales of Bt Cotton, which has been illegally obtained and marketed has reportedly been equivalent to or greater that the sales volumes of approved Bollgard Cotton, with a number of negative implications for India.
Illegal seeds have been a major concern for the seed industry as well as for government regulators. The government has initiated various penalty clauses for the people involved in buying, selling or trading illegal seeds. State governments have also conducted many raids and taken penal action against people involved in such activities.
Market surveys conducted by independent agencies, suggest that farmers have incurred huge losses and that they feel cheated using illegal seeds as these seeds are of very inconsistent quality.
Illegal seeds impact the seed industry in the following ways:
* The distribution of inferior products may not provide full benefits to farmers
* It circumvents the Government of India's regulatory system for biotechnology products, and jeopardizes proper stewardship needed to protect its long-term value for farmers and the environment
* Tax revenue is lost at the federal and state levels in India
* It results in loss of confidence for public and private sector developers of biotechnology products for India, who delay or even decline to introduce new products
In order to secure the future benefits of cotton biotechnology for farmers in India, AICBA recommends the following:
1. Enforcement of the Environment Protection Act
2. Clear and Effective Intellectual Property (IP) Laws
AICBA is confident that proper implementation and enforcement of laws governing the production and sale of biotechnology products will:
* Help ensure the integrity and quality of the seeds that farmers purchase
* Return tax revenues to the government for further progress in agriculture and rural development
* Provide appropriate environmental regulatory oversight and meaningful enforcement of IP protection
* Encourage both private and public sector biotechnology innovators to continue to bring their products to Indian farmers
FAO's ADG Resigns Blaming the Chief but The Guardian Twists It to Blame GM Crops Anyway
Philippines: Survey Shows More Farmers Happy With Bt Corn Due to Higher Yield
- Melody M. Aguiba, Manila Bulletin, May 14, 2006 http://www.mb.com.ph/
Farmers in Isabela, Pangasinan, and Cagayan, three of the largest users of the genetically modified (GM) borer-resistant corn have enjoyed an average yield advantage of 15.23 percent, less spray, and higher income from GM corn in the past three years, a survey said.
A Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines (BCP) survey indicated that 74 percent of a survey group or 687 out of the total 895 surveyed users of the GM Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn claimed to be satisfied with the technology.
This shows that an average of 15.23 percent increase in harvest over nonBt corn was observed in yield in the dry season and an average of 13.39 percent yield advantage in the wet season. Aside from increased yield, top considerations of Bt corn users in using the technology are protection from the pest corn borer, absence of need for pesticides and chemicals, and savings from cost-efficiency of the product, according to Godfrey B. Ramon of BCP.
Savings on time as labor is reduced for pest management, higher selling price for the cleaner corn (without pest marks), and longer storage life for corn are other reasons for farmers’ use of Bt corn.
A Future with No Bananas?
- New Scientist, May 13, 2006
Go bananas while you still can. The world's most popular fruit and the fourth most important food crop of any sort is in deep trouble. Its genetic base, the wild bananas and traditional varieties cultivated in India, has collapsed.
Virtually all bananas traded internationally are of a single variety, the Cavendish, the genetic roots of which lie in India. Three years ago, New Scientist revealed that the world Cavendish crop was threatened by pandemics of diseases such as that caused by the black sigatoka fungus. The main hope for survival of the Cavendish lies in developing new hybrids resistant to the fungus, but this is a difficult and time-consuming task because the seedless modern fruit does not reproduce sexually and has to be bred from cuttings.
Now the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has warned that wild banana species are rapidly going extinct as Indian forests are destroyed, while many traditional farmers' varieties are also disappearing. It could take a global effort to save the bananas' gene pool.
In fact many of the genes that could save the Cavendish may already have been lost, says NeBambi Lutaladio, a plant scientist at the FAO's headquarters in Rome, Italy. One variety that contains genes that resist black sigatoka survives as a single plant in the botanical gardens of Calcutta, he says.
Musings of a Sensible 'Organic-Vegan-Wannabe' Blogger
- Lily White - missxmacabre; May 13, 2006 (via Apel) http://missxmacabre.livejournal.com/63958.html
Last night I started reading the book I won from SAFE: "The GE Sellout". I thought it'd be an interesting, if not amusing read. And I was right. They act as though if GE gets out there (and it's been "out there" for a long time - Milo is GE, bet most people don't know that), it's going to create some kind of frankenstein like monster! Lol.
I'll admit, I don't know all that much about GE, I don't think we need it, but I'm not adamantly against it like so many moronic "hippies" who have no idea what it really involves. My sister is a scientist - so I know a little of what it's really about.
The first page in the book had me ranting, it said: When representatives of the government or biotech industry tell us that GE is "old" technology, that nature itself does it, remember this: It's a lie. Nature doesn't send genes from one species into another. GE is something that has never been done before in nature.
Ok, that right there is a load of crap. Actually nature DOES do it's own GE. The most healthy plants and animals survive and go on to "breed" more healthy/healthier plants and animals, the weaker, lesser ones die off, creating a better end result. A better product. THAT is a type of GE right there.
Most anti-GE people think it's all about injecting frog genes into a tomato. Or injecting some kind of animal gene into another type of plant or fruit that we are going to eat. The book keeps making references to rats and lettuce. WTF?! It is NOT all about sticking animal parts into vegetables. It is about making a better, more resistant product, that will be easier to grow and provide better crops, provide more food for the people who need it. Even if an animal gene is was placed into a vegetable that does not mean that the vegetable is going to have some characteristics of that animal, it does not mean there is going to be a part of an animal in your food!
The book raves on about how terribly "dangerous" it is and how "bad" it is, but I haven't actually gotten to the part where they state exactly why it's so dangerous.
Like I said, I don't think GE is really necessary, but if it's going to make it easier for people to grow crops, if it's going to feed people, make food more accessible for people then it's got to be a good thing. Sometimes sticking to the "old ways" just isn't practical. As much as some of us would like it to be. (Eventually my goal is to become an organic vegan), but times are a changin'. And you can't stop change, you can only delay it.
And all you will get out of that is ignorance. We need to be more open minded about changes in society and try to look at them from all angles. People need to hear BOTH sides of the story, not just what they want to hear. Once the truth has been uncovered, then people can make an informed decision about their stance on the subject.
Genetically Modified Crops: Looking Back
- Why Files, University of Wisconsin, May 4, 2006 (Thanks - Andy Apel) http://whyfiles.org/240GM_1
Once upon a time, technology was a good thing. Trains knit continents together. Water pipes and washing machines relieved drudgery. Vaccines prevented disease, and crop production rose year after year. Then, in the early 1970s, along came genetic engineering, technology for deliberately moving genes between species.
The specter of changing the very basis of animals and plants caused such a wave of concern that in 1975, biologists temporarily halted experiments to work out some safety guidelines at the famous Asilomar Conference. The questions raised were basic, and chilling. Could genetically engineered bacteria cause havoc if they got loose?
Would we engineer human beings to be better, smarter, and good looking? Were we smart enough to replace nature?
Fear was afoot: "Man, at last, is about to begin playing God... human societies are now facing huge, unpredictable new challenges and, most likely, this world will never be the same," wrote science writer Robert Cooke in 1977. "Scientists are even now picking the locks guarding some of life's most sacred inner secrets, and they're gambling that the information found may pay off someday in new products, processes and lifestyles that we can't now even imagine" (see "Improving ..." in the bibliography).
A string of technological disasters fueled the concern: Nuclear meltdowns at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986. The Bhopal industrial cataclysm in 1985. The explosion of space shuttle Challenger in 1986.
Much of the early concern about genetic engineering focused on the human-health impact. Then, around 1990, scientists and seed companies began engineering crops, causing a second wave of worries about the ability to change genetics.
This article is the first of two on the historic concerns about genetic engineering in agriculture.
1: Genetically engineered crops: How safe for the environment?
As Northern Hemisphere farmers stick their seeds in the soil, we're wondering about genetically modified (GM) seeds. In 2005, biotech plantings grew 11 percent over 2004, to an estimated 222 million acres. That's more than twice the total area of California. And the seeds were only first made available to farmers in 1996.
In 2005, GM crops were grown commercially by 8.25 million farmers on more than 200 million acres in 17 countries. The top five producers -- the United States, Argentina, Canada, Brazil, and China -- account for 96 percent of global GM cultivation. Of this, more than half was in the United States.
Portugal, France and the Czech Republic all started growing biotech crops, raising the count of nations that permit biotech plantings to 21, and surging growth of genetically modified cotton in Brazil and China has fed the increase.
Proponents claimed that GM crops would boost production, allow cropping on salty or drought-stricken land, reduce use of pesticides, and allow a shift to less-toxic herbicides.
After years of bragging about the ability to move genes among organisms, they retreated under criticism to a slightly different position. Moving genes, they argued, isn't really that new: farmers and plant breeders have been doing it ever since the birth of agriculture about 10,000 years ago.
But we also heard from doomsayers. It's one thing, critics argued, to swap genes among closely related species, which is how plant breeding gets done, but something else to move them, from, say, bacteria to plants. Critics worried that transferred genes would pollute wild crop relatives, ruining them as a source of new traits for plant breeders. They fretted that pesticides in the crops would kill beneficial insects, and that ownership of genes and seeds would give giant corporations an ever bigger slice of the agricultural pie and help drive smaller farmers out of business. They also warned that making crops resist common herbicides raised the danger that wild plants and weeds would gain that same resistance -- with unpredictable results.
After 10 years, and the planting of GM crops on a billion acres, what do you say we look over our shoulders and ask: Were the dangers real or hyped? Where is the scientific evidence of harm, what we'll call the dead bodies? And if there are no bodies, is that evidence of safety, or of poor oversight?
We'll save a related issue, the safety of GM food for those of us who eat it, for later. Here, the Why Files is seeking signs of environmental hazards caused by genetic engineering in agriculture.
Pray for (less) spray
Perhaps the biggest category of biotech crops is those that include bacterial genes so the crop can defend itself against insects. The primary source of genes is Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a bacterium commonly used as an insecticide by organic farmers. Bt makes crystals that are deadly to Lepidoptera, moths that are major plant pests. The biggest Bt crops are corn and cotton.
Big-time biotech seedmaker Monsanto crows that herbicide-resistant corn will be planted on a record 40 percent of American corn acreage in 2006. And millions of small farmers in China have adopted Bt cotton, a crop that is typically doused in insecticide. By itself, that usage refutes one common criticism: that GM crops would benefit large farmers at the expense of smaller ones.
Indeed, notes Martina Newell McGloughlin, director of the Biotechnology Research and Education Program at the University of California at Davis," If you look at the actual numbers, 90 percent of farmers [adopting GM seeds] are resource-poor farmers." Of the estimated 8.5 million farmers now using biotech crops in 21 countries, she says, almost all are small-holders in developing countries. But in terms of acreage, the bulk of GM crops go to developed countries.
Studies in China by Carl Pray, of the department of agricultural, food and resource economics at Rutgers University, found that Bt crops required less pesticide. His surveys, conducted with Chinese colleagues, found roughly a 50 percent reduction in per-hectare pesticide use .
Economics comes first
Pesticide exposure can harm a farmer's health, and Bt crops can reduce this exposure, but Pray says health does not seem a major motivation for the Chinese farmers. "They are concerned about pesticides, and aware that they are getting sick when they use too much pesticide, but farmers seem to be willing to spray every other day, even if it will give them headaches."
Rather, Bt cotton is planted because it is more profitable, Pray says. Bt yields are an estimated 5 to 8 percent higher than normal, and farmers "are seeing an increase in income through a reduction in pesticide use and labor." In 1995, farmers paid an average of $101 per hectare for pesticide, so lower cost for bug juice "more than offset the higher seed prices".
Pray added that Bt has increased cotton production in China. That cut the crop's price, harming non-users of Bt seeds. The other losers, he says "are the chemical companies that used to sell a lot more pesticides."
However, cotton research published this week in Arizona shows that Bt seeds only increased yields when the GM crop can actually control insects. In many fields, conventional insecticides turned out to give better insect control and higher yields -- although that, in turn, killed more of the non-target insects.
The pesticide reductions seen in China appear to be widespread. A recent report found that globally, biotech crops use 14 percent less pesticide than comparable crops. In that study, pesticide use was measured by a technique called "environmental footprint" that factors both the quantity of toxicity of the various pesticides used.
One benefit of Bt crops is a reduction in the use of broad-spectrum pesticides, which kill non-target insects, including beneficial insects that eat pests. Pray cited anecdotal evidence that in the Chinese cotton, "you do get more species of bugs in the field in general, and do get more beneficial insects. There is a shift in the pest spectrum." Concerning biotech crops generally, Bruce Tabashnik, professor and head of the department of entomology at the University of Arizona, wrote us to say, "Extensive studies show little or no negative impact of Bt crops on non-target insects. In some cases, Bt crops reduce insecticide sprays, which benefits some non-target insects."
One key concern about Bt crops was the fear that insects would quickly evolve resistance to the bacterial toxins, rendering them useless. This has been particularly worrisome to organic farmers, who often rely on Bt insecticides.
When chemical insecticides were introduced, some farmers and farm experts dared to dream of a bug-free agriculture, but insecticides fail over time, says Richard Roush, of the statewide integrated pest management program in California. Just as bacteria evolve ways to defeat antibiotics, insects evolve ways to defeat bug-killing chemicals. After all, when vast acreages are treated with insecticide, billions of insects are exposed. Any individuals with a mutation that somehow outfoxes the bug spray will multiply and dominate the field.
That's called "insecticide failure," and it happens especially quickly in cotton. "New insecticides for cotton insects will fail within 7 years of use," Roush says, but this does not seem to be happening with bollworms.
The pink cotton bollworm is the major insect in Arizona's cotton fields, and it has not become resistant to Bt cotton, says Tabashnik. To slow the evolution of resistance, farmers are required to sow "refuges" containing non-engineered cotton. When a bug does evolve resistance to Bt, it is likely to mate with a normal bug from the refuge, diluting the genes for Bt resistance.
In China, Pray admits that he's noticed that after an initial drop-off in use of conventional insecticide when farmers started planting Bt cotton, they have begun increasing their sprays. While that could be evidence of bollworm resistance, he thinks it's more likely due to a change in the overall balance of bugs. Other pests have come in to fill the ecological niche left by the vanished bollworms.
Overall, says Tabashnik, the global picture is positive -- so far. "We are now a decade into Bt crops -- and a cumulative global total of over 100 million hectares -- with no documented cases of field-evolved resistance in pests. Scientists have been looking hard for pest resistance and other problems associated with transgenic crops. Although it is wise to continue close monitoring of GM crops on a case-by-case basis, the track record so far is excellent."
But you don't have to read beyond the title of his article to see that he eventually expects resistance to Bt.
- Editorial, Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2006
When the U.N.'s Jan Egeland called the U.S. "stingy" with foreign aid a couple of years back, he was playing to a stereotype promoted by those who want governments to redistribute global incomes. He was also wrong, and now we have the data to prove it.
The Hudson Institute recently released the 2006 Index of Global Philanthropy, the first comprehensive report on international aid by private institutions and individuals in the U.S. http://www.hudson.org/pc_gpr/projects/GprMediaKit.pdf
The index shows that millions of Americans give to the world's poor at a rate that is anything but "stingy." Voluntary giving by Americans dwarfs government aid the world over.
The assaults on U.S. generosity derive from a view that government assistance is the only aid that matters. Even on that count, the U.S. is far from miserly. In 2004 Washington provided official development aid of $19.7 billion, more than runners-up Japan and France put together. Add the benefits of American innovation and military sacrifice and other First World nations are even further behind.
Then there is the charity from the U.S. private sector. In 2004, the latest year for which many numbers are available, Americans -- through schools, religious institutions, companies, foundations and families -- gave at least $71 billion to the developing world, more than three times what the government gave. The index authors say it is impossible to capture all giving, so if they've erred it's on the low side.
Almost $10 billion came from private groups, $4.5 billion from religious organizations and nearly $5 billion from corporations. But perhaps the most impressive private giving, and arguably the most efficient, is in the category of individual remittances, which the index puts at $47 billion in 2004. According to the authors, "The massive amounts of money sent home by immigrants and temporary workers -- involving little or no overhead and filling people's basic needs directly -- is changing the landscape of development and donor agencies."
These dollars bypass bureaucrats to serve development. Which makes it odd that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development doesn't count it in its annual Development Assistance Committee Report, which lists financial flows to the developing world.
Official aid promoters will respond to this good news about private giving with their standard complaint that American foreign aid is still too low as a fraction of GDP. If development depended on government transfer payments, no number would ever be high enough. That's why we are heartened to hear that next year the index hopes to expand by measuring the effectiveness of private aid.
Hudson's Carol Adelman says the index has been well received. "Many of the private organizations are stunned because they have heard for so long that America is stingy. They knew that American giving was large and important but they had no idea it was so big." That's OK, neither did the U.N.
Food for Thought in a Hungry Region
- Nkululeko Khumalo and George Naphambo, Business Day (South Africa), May 12, 2006
Food security has consistently eluded Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries over the past five years. Millions of people still suffer from chronic starvation and malnutrition. The future is not promising either - climate-change specialists predict continuing droughts and attendant famines. Clearly, these challenges urgently require robust and sustainable corrective measures.
Part of the solution lies in adopting modern farming techniques, particularly biotechnology, and creating a friendly trade and regulatory environment. African countries have generally failed to take advantage of technological advances in industry and agriculture. Genetic modification, for example, can be used to promote a desirable crop character or suppress an undesirable one. Potentially positive effects include higher yields, reduced pesticide use, and enhanced product attributes.
However, concerns over its largely unknown and often exaggerated potential risks to human health and the environment have led to strong opposition to genetic modification. In the process, objective, science-based approaches to regulation have been neglected in favour of fear-inspired measures. In the SADC, this problem is compounded by fear of losing markets in the European Union (EU), where stringent genetic modification regulations are promoted to satisfy consumer concerns. This raises the need for Afric2an countries to strengthen their scientific and technological capacities and to be able to carry out objective assessments that minimise risks and maximise benefits. There is also a need for policy stances to be informed by domestic realities more than undue external influences.
SADC countries should emulate the regulatory approaches pursued by developing-country leading lights such as China, Argentina, Brazil, India, and their regional leader, SA. These countries have realised the importance of being part of the biotechnology revolution and have invested in research and development, commercialised geneticmodification crop production, and have established regulations that seek to promote the technology while minimising risks to the environment.
Considering the pressing humanitarian needs, Africa cannot afford to be embroiled in politicised debates over genetic modification. Its position in international negotiation forums such as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety should be informed by domestic imperatives and aspirations to achieve food security. This is, lamentably, not the case.
The main aim of the Cartagena Protocol is to establish legally binding international procedures for the safe handling, transfer and use of genetically modified organisms. The primary motivation is to protect the environment, not to stop trade in such organisms.
But the regulatory overkill being pushed by most poor developing countries and the EU under the protocol is inimical to Africa's prospects as an exporter and importer of genetically modified products and may conflict with World Trade Organisation (WTO) provisions.
Though the protocol came into force in 2003, certain issues remain unresolved and negotiations continue. The most recent meeting, held in March in Curitiba, Brazil, focused mainly on labelling issues, to alert importers that a shipment contains or may contain genetically modified organisms. Negotiators from 132 countries reached a compromise. They agreed that if an exporter of genetically modified crops knows a shipment contains genetically modified organisms, the shipment has to be labelled "contains" genetically modified organisms. Where this cannot be ascertained, the shipment has to be labelled "may contain" genetically modified organisms.
Of particular note is the disturbing fact that African countries supported stringent requirements for regulating and labelling genetically modified organisms, despite their capacity constraints to carry out requisite testing. Further, most of the positions they have taken contrast with their stances in WTO negotiations. For example, they have been in the forefront of rejecting the inclusion of environmental-protection measures in the WTO as they feel these could be used as barriers to trade. Yet in the Car2tagena Protocol negotiations, they support stringent environmental regulations.
It is not clear whether labelling requirements are in line with WTO rules, especially the agreement on technical barriers to trade. This agreement prohibits countries from discriminating between "like" products. The question now is whether genetically modified organisms and non-genetically modified crops are "like" products? If they are, then imposing labelling requirements on genetically modified organisms but not on conventional non-genetically modified organisms violates the agreement.
In the meantime, countries are left to decide whether to impose labelling requirements and risk being dragged into a WTO dispute settlement or wait until there is certainty.
Genetically modified organisms are increasingly being used in food relief efforts. Contributions are reportedly dwindling as relief organisations have been overstretched by the recent string of natural disasters. It is clear that countries hit by famines will be forced to accept genetically modified organisms. So imposing strict rules for the importation of genetically modified organisms will mean this food is not delivered on time to those in desperate need.
It is therefore evident that if African states are going to negotiate an international regime for regulation of genetically modified organisms under the Cartagena Protocol, they have to take positions which do not restrict trade in grains and which ensure that in cases where a country has a food deficit, it can easily import food from surplus countries and vice versa. More importantly, Africa must strive to use new technologies to meet its own food needs rather than to continue being an object of humanitar2ian food aid relief.
Khumalo and Naphambo are, respectively, senior researcher: South African Institute of International Affairs, and trade analyst: Malawi.
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(Warning: picture may not be kosher at work or with family)
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