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Date:

June 5, 2006

Subject:

`Event-based' clearance for GM crops likely; Bt brinjal trials; The Cartagena Protocol: a waste of time and money?; Biotech appropriate for poverty alleviation

 

Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org: June 5, 2006

* `Event-based' clearance for GM crops likely
* Changes to novel foods law aim to simplify application process
* India may take lead in Bt brinjal trials
* The Cartagena Protocol: a waste of time and money?
* Biotech appropriate for poverty alleviation
* ISAAA CropBiotech Update
* Debate on 'Genetically Modified Organisms' rages on in Kenya
* Eating vegan and organic won't do a thing to save the planet

http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/2006/06/02/stories/2006060202340800.htm

`Event-based' clearance for GM crops likely

A specific gene construct incorporated in hybrids/varieties

- Hindu Business Line, By Harish Damodaran, June 1, 2006

In what could expedite release of new genetically modified (GM) crops into the market, the Union Government is considering `event-based' clearance against the existing system of approving each individual hybrid or variety.

An `event', in biotech parlance, basically refers to a specific gene construct that can be incorporated in a number of existing hybrids or varieties. For instance, Monsanto's `Bollgard' is an event involving a series of steps developed by it for inserting cry1Ac (a foreign gene isolated from a soil bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis) into a parental cotton line. This `event' — representing a stable genetic transformation of the parent cotton host — can be replicated across other hybrids/varieties by backcrossing them with `Bollgard'.

Current system

In the current system of commercial release approvals, every GM hybrid/variety has to undergo a minimum three years of official trials, irrespective of whether it incorporates an existing or new `event'.

This includes one year of multi-locational trials for generating bio-safety data monitored by the Department of Biotechnology's Review Committee for Genetic Manipulation (RCGM), followed by two years of large-scale field trials under the aegis of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). Along with this, the company owning the hybrid has to supply seeds to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), which conducts independent tests for assessing its agronomic performance over a two-year period. In the third year, the GEAC also allows the company to carry out seed multiplication to enable commercial release in the subsequent year.

In case of an `event' introduced for the first time in the country, the genetically transformed crop has to additionally go through one year of lab-level data generation and greenhouse trials, and another year of contained open field tests under RCGM supervision. That makes it a total of five years.

Multi-stage clearance

The proposal under consideration now is to do away with the multi-stage clearance mechanism for GM crops incorporating existing events, whose bio-safety, environmental and agronomic suitability has already been demonstrated before. "In such cases, we would only ascertain whether the said event is present in the particular hybrid, there is adequate expression of protein produced by the gene and the crop is morphologically the same even after transformation. All this can be done through simple DNA fingerprinting and a one-year confirmatory field experiment in any State Agricultural University. Once this basic data is known, the GEAC will register the hybrid for commercial release," officials told Business Line.

"It is a welcome proposal because there are so many pending applications and the ICAR does not have the capacity to carry out agronomic trials for each and every hybrid. In fact, they have now even stipulated that a company can offer only one hybrid per zone every year for trial. This inhibits competition," said Mr R.K. Sinha, Executive Director, All India Crop Biotechnology Association.

The proposed `event-based' regulatory system was discussed at GEAC's last meeting on May 22. "There was general consensus among all members, except ICAR, which has sought clarifications," the officials said.

59 GM hybrids approved

Till date, the Government has approved a total of 59 GM hybrids — all Bt cotton — for commercial release.

According to information compiled by Mr Bhagirath Choudhary of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), the 59 hybrids cover four different `events'.

These include the original `Bollgard' (technically called Mon-531) event developed by Monsanto, which has been incorporated in 44 out of the 59 hybrids. In addition, eight hybrids incorporate `Bollgard-II' (Mon-15985 event), which contains a stacked combination of cry1Ac and cry1Ab Bt genes.

Of the remaining seven, there are four hybrids expressing the cry1Ac gene construct developed by JK Agri Genetics Ltd (`Event-1') and three having the fused cry1Ac/cry1Ab construct (`GFM event') of Nath Seeds Ltd.

Out of the total 59 Bt hybrids, Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco) and Rasi Seeds Ltd account for 14 each. The rest belong to Nuziveedu Seeds (four), JK Agri-Genetics (four), Ankur Seeds (three), Nath Seeds (three), Ajeet Seeds (three), Ganga Kaveri Seeds (three), Emergent Genetics (two), Pravardhan Seeds (two), Vikram Seeds (two), Krishi Dhan Seeds (two) and Vikki's Agrotech, Prabhat Agri Biotech and Tulsi Seeds (one each).
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http://www.nutraingredients.com/news/ng.asp?n=68158-novel-foods-additives-phytosterols

Changes to novel foods law aim to simplify application process

- NutraIngredients.com, 05/06/2006

Proposed changes to the EU's regulation on novel foods would boost product innovation in the industry, and make cross-border trading easier, the European Commission says in a consultative document.

The online public consultation was launched on revising the Novel Food Regulation by the Commission's health and consumer protection section as a means of gauging the impact the changes would have on the industry and consumers.

Revisions to the directive are necessary to reflect an EU decision to exclude genetically modified (GM) foods from the scope of the legislation, the Commission stated.

"Novel foods" are defined as those products that were not consumed to significant degree in the EU before 15 May 1997, the date the original legislation came into force. Such foods thus go under a pre-market safety assessment and authorisation process before being allowed to go on sale in the 25-member bloc.

Novel foods are divided in three main groups. One group coverse traditional foods, such as noni juice, sourced from outside the bloc. A second group covers newly developed innovative foods such as phytosterols. A third group covers food produced by new technologies with impact on food, such as fruit juice produced using high pressure processing.

"The consumer would also benefit from a wider choice of safe novel foods," the consultative document stated. The Commission wants to create a more streamlined authorisation procedure.

The changes would take into account issues such as the particular needs of traditional exotic food from third countries and applications that cover several food uses.

Under the currently legislation traditional foods, which were not on the EU market before 1997, goes through the same rigorous safety assessment
as any newly developed innovative food. This is perceived by third countries as unjustified barriers to trade for their traditional foods, the Commission noted.

"The data on safe food use outside the EU should be taken better into account," the Commission stated.

The changes would also make it easier to trade in the EU's internal market by streamlining the authorisation procedure, by developing a more adjusted safety
assessment system and by clarifying the definition of 'novel'. The use of new technologies that have an impact on food would also be covered by the proposals.

One proposal would require product makers to disclose to consumers specific information about novel foods.

"The product authorisation procedure takes too long," the Commission stated. "It is also in some cases difficult to predict for the applicants due to the lengthy decentralised system."

The authorisation decision is presently only addressed to the applicant, so that others do not have the right to market the product. Therefore, an additional separate but simplified procedure is needed for others to market the same food.

Another proposal would allow an applicant to make one submission when applying for approval of a novel food and at the same time for uses covered by other sectoral legislation, such as additives, flavourings, and extractions solvents.

"The advantage would be one application and risk assessment submitted in conformity with the future common authorisation procedure in the food area to be laid down in a horizontal legal act," the Commission stated. "The requirements and criteria of the specific sectoral legal frameworks would be respected."

The changes would fit into the current Commission policy, contained in proposals to the European Parliament and Council calling for the bloc to establish a common authorisation procedure for food additives, food enzymes and food flavourings.

A common authorisation procedure for these food categories would be the first building block of a cross-industry legal act. Such an act would harmonise the authorisation procedures for all the approvals in the food sector.

The original Novel Foods regulation came into force in 1997. A consultation with industry and regulators along with an independent review by a consultation company were carried out between 2002 to 2003.

A previous consultation and an independent review of the legislation set out different policy options for the issues involved in bringing novel foods to the market.

Since implementation in 1997 the European Commission has received about 65 applications for approval under the legislation. About seven to 10 applications are submitted for a decision per year.

The consultation will run for eight weeks, until 1 August 2006.
*********************************

http://www.teluguportal.net/modules/news/article.php?storyid=5274

India may take lead in Bt brinjal trials

- Telegu Portal, June 5, 2006

India could lead the region in field trials of genetically modified brinjal this year if the genetic engineering approval committee (GEAC) of the environment and forests ministry gives its nod.

Some genetically modified (GM) versions of crops like mustard, potato, tomato are approaching the stage of large-scale field trials to test their suitability for commercial cultivation, according to M.K. Bhan, secretary department of biotechnology (DBT).

"Work on transgenic food crops is going on well. Brinjal, mustard and potato, are among transgenic crops awaiting permission for large-scale field trials," Bhan told IANS.

"Nothing is going like brinjal, in which the work has advanced considerably. The bio-safety package has been completed and it may enter large-scale field trial soon," the official added.

"Permission has been sought for large-scale trials and it may be taken up by GEAC at the next meeting in mid-June," the official said.

"The large scale field trials may take one to two years. If approved for commercial cultivation after that, India will be the first country in the region to be producing Bt brinjal," the official added.

Widely cultivated and consumed in the region, brinjal or eggplant requires extensive use of pesticides next only to cotton.

With the Bt gene to provide protection against pests like shoot and fruit borer and helicoverpa, there are eight hybrid varieties of brinjal of different shapes and colours grown in different parts of the country that are to be taken up for field trials.

While the Bt gene used in brinjal is the same as that used in Bt cotton, more extensive tests are being carried out as this time it involves a food crop.

"Bt brinjal was tested for toxicity study with goats, cattle, fish, poultry, rat, mice and rabbit. The reports show adverse impact on health. All the data has been generated in public funded institutions," a DBT official informed.

"The varieties being developed are for domestic consumption. Under the Indo-US collaboration programme the Cornell University is piloting a project - Agriculture Biotechnology Supportive Programme phase II - under which this technology will be transferred to Bangladesh and the Philippines," the official said.

On the apprehensions of the environmentalists, Bhan assured: "We want to go to the market with transgenics but will never compromise with bio-safety."

While issues of efficacy of transgenic gene against pests and bio-safety will be addressed during large-scale field trial, for the consumers the proposed legislation on food labelling is expected to provide a safeguard, the official stated.

Transgenic mustard and potato may take another four to five years before reaching commercial production stage.

The effort in the case of these two food crops is to raise the quality of crop to yield more oil in case of mustard and for better nutrition quality in potato.

The GM mustard developed by the National Research Centre for Rapeseed and Mustard has barnase-barstar genes incorporated for increasing oil content.

Delhi University experts are conducting the trials of the GM mustard, which faced resistance some years back on question of bio-safety and health issues.

The question now being examined is whether transgenic mustard would indeed yield more oil and whether it would be in tandem with human and environmental health.

Asish Dutta of National Centre for Plant Genome Research has developed the transgenic potato by inserting genes from the amaranthus plant to improve the protein and lycine content.

Having completed contained field trials at Shimla, the Potato Research Institute is now awaiting the nod to conduct large-scale field trial on its higher protein and lycine (one of the essential amino acids) potato variety.
********************************

http://www.scidev.net/Opinions/index.cfm?fuseaction=readopinions&itemid=494&language=1

The Cartagena Protocol: a waste of time and money?

- SCIDEV.net, 28 April 2006

Arnoldo Ventura, science advisor to the prime minister of Jamaica, recently argued that a UN agreement intended to protect biodiversity from the potential threats posed by genetically modified (GM) organisms is wasteful and unnecessary (see Do we still need the Cartagena Protocol?).

Here, SciDev.Net readers from around the world respond to Ventura's criticism of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the individuals' institutions.

Hubert Zandstra, emeritus director general, International Potato Center (CIP), Peru

Too often, the environmental benefits of GM crops are ignored. Farmers growing them can substantially reduce their use of farm chemicals, whose threats to human health and the environment are increasingly well documented. Using conventional breeding approaches instead of GM technology to develop pest-resistant crops is not easy.

One area of continued concern is the impact of gene flow from GM crops to traditional varieties and wild relatives in regions where our major food crops originated. These dangers can be managed with practical protocols and constant vigilance.

Martin Livermore, consultant, Cambridge, United Kingdom

We have to get our priorities right: why continue to spend more time and effort on an issue when earlier concerns about GM have been shown to be unjustified, and when developing countries could be concentrating on using their genetic resources for the benefit of their citizens? International agreements such as the Cartagena Protocol foster bureaucracy and processes that are hard to stop. There are better ways to use our energies and resources than waste them pursuing the sterile path of the biosafety protocol.

Kavitha Kuruganti, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Secunderabad, India

While it is true that farmers and consumers in developing countries are yet to get involved in an informed debate on this matter, it is wrong to conclude that people are indifferent to it given that most countries have rejected GM technology.

Any new agricultural technology applied on a large scale in a developing country could have massive implications for poor farmers. Case-by-case assessments of GM technologies should therefore be broad, independent and scientifically robust, so that any negative effects are detected before it is too late. Research should include post-release monitoring when GM crops are first grown commercially. Such monitoring is almost non-existent and where it exists, it is extremely unscientific.

This is why there is a need to talk about strengthening biosafety regimes and why, more than ever, an international convention that regulates the movement of GM products across international borders is so relevant.

Merete Albrechtsen, Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences, Denmark

Far too many resources are spent on fruitless discussions and meaningless experiments regarding GM safety. These resources should be used to implement biotechnology for the benefit of everyone.

Josias Corrêa de Faria, National Rice and Beans Research Center, Brazil

GM technology has been treated with the same kind of suspicion as nuclear weapons. While safety is important, there is no need for panic. After ten years of intensive research and growing GM crops, there is now strong evidence that genetic engineering is as safe as any genetic manipulation achieved through traditional crop breeding in the past. In Brazil, a lack of public understanding of GM technology is the main barrier to its acceptance.

Maria Scurrah, president, Grupo Yanapai, Peru

Saying that 8.5 million farmers in 21 countries grow GM crops hides the fact that most of these farmers are in Argentina, Canada and the United States. The really interesting country to watch is China, whose GM varieties are better suited to local conditions than are those of multinational corporations in other poor nations.

GM crops may make farming easier by reducing the impacts of weeds and insect pests, but this does not necessarily make farming better or more sustainable. Herbicides used with GM crops are poisonous to animals such as frogs that play a key role in agricultural ecosystems, so it is still important to monitor the technology's ecological impacts.

Gabriel Melchias, head of the Department of Biotechnology, St Joseph's College, Tiruchirappalli, India

Argentina and the United States, both leading exporters of GM products, deny the Cartagena Protocol legitimacy by refusing to ratify it. But this does not undermine the agreement's validity or relevance. The lack of evidence of harm caused by GM crops does not imply that they are totally safe. If multinational companies are so sure there is no safety issue, why are they reluctant to label GM products as such?

Symon Mandala, senior science and technology officer, Ministry of Industry, Science and Technology, Malawi

The Cartagena Protocol is both irrelevant and obsolete. Instead, resources must be channelled into building scientific capacity in developing countries. This would help them to make informed decisions on GM technology and to harness and safely manage modern biotechnology to meet the challenges of development.

We need a better, more harmonised approach with a clear direction and timeframe to resolve concerns about modern biotechnology. Policymakers should base their decisions based on scientific data. Unfortunately, the debate seems to be dominated by politicians and other groups who choose to ignore scientific evidence.

Jaroslav Drobník, Faculty of Science, Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic

The 'biodiversity' rhetoric surrounding the Cartagena Protocol is just a populist cover for efforts to protect agricultural markets. Many non-GM crops developed using other methods pose even greater risks to biodiversity but we tolerate them because their benefits outweigh these risks. Salt tolerant rice varieties have been introduced in Asia, the centre of rice diversity. Mutant genes could spread to other varieties or wild relatives, potentially creating invasive, salt-tolerant weeds. There are clear risks to biodiversity but nobody is concerned because politicians take no interest in it.

David Garrido, biologist, Mexico

If the Cartagena Protocol is the only tool we have to stop multinational companies from controlling the world's crops, it is still useful, even if it is dominated by politics and emotion.

There are alternatives to using GM crops to make poor nations less dependent on rich nations. Here in Mexico we grow many organic crops that need no chemical inputs and can be sold for good profits.
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http://www.agbios.com/static/news/NEWSID_7565.php

Biotech appropriate for poverty alleviation

- Agbios.com, By JIANG ALIPO, May 29, 2006

BIOTECHNOLOGY experts have urged the government to develop appropriate policy frameworks that will facilitate effective use of biotechnology in poverty alleviation.

The call was made during a three-day scientific and technological conference on Science and Technology for Growth and Poverty Reduction in Tanzania that ended over the weekend. The conference was organised by the Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH).

The scientists said if properly and effectively applied, biotechnology has a potential to alleviate poverty and improve food security.

"In order to achieve that appropriate policy frameworks for technology transfer, its application and products and services delivery need to be developed," said Dr Nicholas Nyange, a Principal Scientific Officer at COSTECH.

In their recommendations the scientists said that adequate funding, capacity building and infrastructure should be given priority in order to harness biotechnology for economic growth and poverty eradication.

Dr (Mrs) Roshan Abdallah from the Tropical Pesticides Research Institute (TPRI) said that Tanzania is in a very advanced stage in knowledge on genetically modified technology compared to other developing nations.

"We are left behind in implementation side of the technology, where we are in the process of making regulations for enforcement of the guiding law," she said.

She urged lawmakers to speed up the process so as research on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can begin. She said that the research process is a long process.

"When we begin the research it will take up to six years for GMO's products to be produced for commercialisation," said Dr Abdallah.

Earlier, presenting a paper titled 'Confined Field Trials (CFT's): The Pathway Towards Production Development', she highlighted the importance of adopting genetically modified technologies safely.
********************************

http://www.isaaa.org/kc/CBTNews/2006_Issues/June/CBT_June_2.htm

ISAAA CropBiotech Update

- IPR Biotechnology and Agricultural Development in Developing Countries - India Approves GM Soybean Oil, Product Exempt from New Import Rules

- IPR for Sustainable Development: Issues and Strategies - ICAR, ICRISAT Partner for Better Agriculture

- WB Studies Suggest Adoption of GM Cotton - India PM Calls for Revitalization of Agri Research System

- PRRI Report Urges Parties to Refocus Biosafety Debate - IRRI, ASEAN Cooperate to Up Rice Production

- Ambassador Urges Kenyan Government to Give More Research Funds - DuPont Introduces Herbicide-Tolerant Sunflower Hybrids

- Test by ARS Project Puts Scab Down

- Tobacco Makes Better Antibodies

- Soybean QTL Found To Back up Bt

http://www.isaaa.org/kc/CBTNews/2006_Issues/June/CBT_June_2.htm
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http://health.andnetwork.com/index?service=direct/1/Home/recent.fullStory&sp=l37597

Debate on 'Genetically Modified Organisms' rages on in Kenya

- African News Dimension, June 5, 2006, By HENRY NEONDO

Participants at a biotechnology workshop in Nairobi witnessed a heated discussion where both opponents and proponents of Genetic Modification exchanged heated words.

Are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) safe for humans and the environment? Is there a consensus among scientists on the issue of GMOs and transgenic crops? Will genetic engineering technology help the country’s farmers improve productivity, and take them out of the cycle of poverty? These and many other questions have kept dogging GMO since the technology first came public slightly over 10 years ago.

At a recent workshop held at the University of Nairobi and addressed by a visiting American biotechnology expert, Prof Bruce M. Chassy, one question that dominated the discussion is 'who is driving the GM debate. '

Audience-participants witnessed a heated discussion where both sides of the issue were presented by partisans who argued, exchanged tirades, refuted each other’s claims and offered counterclaims, and hurled challenges at each other, while insisting on the correctness of their respective stands.

While a section of the Kenyan scientists have viewed the lack of regulations that would guide research, development and application of biotechnology as a result of slowness on the part of successive governments, Prof Chassy, however, said the delay was due to the never ending cycles of unnecessary questions being raised by policy makers out of information they are fed by uninformed non-governmental organisations.

But statements from many government officials including ministers and their assistants is that the government’s view is that genetic engineering (GE) is an “option” that a developing country such as Kenya should “look into.”

Through genetic engineering, a gene from a specie is inserted into the genetic make-up of another specie to produce a desired trait. Bt-maize, for example, is a genetically modified corn where the gene of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), a bacterium naturally found in soil, has been inserted to make maize resistant to the maize stem borer disease, responsible for yield losses that could be as high as 60 percent.

According to Sammy Weya, Member of Parliament for Alego Usonga and Koigi Wamwere, an Assistant Minister for Information, the government’s stand should be to use this technology, adapt it to “come up with products Kenya actually need like Bt cotton, Bt Maize and Bt potato among others that local scientists can identify” and eventually help farmers increase their resources.

Dr Margaret Karembu, Executive Director for International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) and a lecturer at the Kenyatta University said: “Genetic Engineering today is only one of the methods for improving crops and food production.”

An increase in yields improves the income of farmers, and could reduce poverty, she added at a recent workshop for Eastern Africa media bringing together journalists from Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Kenya .

“There’s a lot that can be done to overcome increasing poverty in the rural areas if we improve productivity of the ever reducing lands due to increased population.

However, according to the anti-GMO voices present at the workshop, Genetic Engineering and GMOs, run against the natural evolution of crops, have not yet been proven as safe to humans and the environment.

Dr Gideon Nyamasyo of the University of Nairobi and an environmental specialist for example, says that Kenyans should not throw caution to the wind no matter the positive promises GMOs may hold.

He maintained that GMO adoption in Kenya should be based on the “precautionary principle” and not the “principle of substantial equivalence,” which is being pursued by companies and GMO proponents.

The former assumes that GMOs are not safe unless proven otherwise, while the latter assumes that GMOs are safe unless proven otherwise.

The precautionary principle, Dr Nyamasyo said, means not needing to wait for “definitive scientific proof” to take preventive measures if this may have the potential to cause harm to health and environment. In other words, he said, the burden of proof should be on the proponents’ (companies) side, and not on the people.

He added that scientists have yet to reach a consensus on the GMO issue. Besides, he expressed fears that once GMOs are released to the environment, their possible harmful effects would be irreversible.

“Once GMOs are released into the field, the contamination is practically irreversible. There is less market for GMOs.

The actual experience of farmers in Canada and the US is very bad,” he argued particularly with Prof Chassy’s suggestion that Kenya should disregard some of the issues NGOs raise that include labelling GM products to warn consumers.

“The safety of GMOs is not scientifically settled at this time. The scientists are still debating the issue”, says Dr Nyamasyo. But Dr Karembu disputes this.

According to a report released after a thorough study by the ISAAA on the adoption of GM crops, now in its tenth year, areas under GM crops shot up to 9 million hectares between 2004 and 2005 representing an 11 percent increase with an income increase to farmers reaching US$ 27 billion at a cost-effective productivity.

The report, released in January 2006, states that farmer demand has driven annual double-digit increases in biotech crop adoption since the crops were commercialised a decade ago. In 2005, four new countries and a quarter million more farmers planted biotech crops.

She says that the interesting thing is that although the increase was global, it was mostly felt in the developing countries. In the same period, she adds, pesticide application dropped by 172.5 million kg.

Dr Karembu hinted that it may not be surprising if the chemical industry, who are obvious losers with the global adoption of GM crops, that could be behind the anti-GM debates world-wide.

According to agricultural and food economists in the UK, “biotech crops have reduced the volume of pesticide spraying globally by 6 percent since 1996. The agri-economists says that this is equivalent to eliminating 1,514 rail cars of pesticide’s active ingredients.

The largest environmental gains from changes in pesticide spraying have been from biotech soybeans and cotton, which have reduced the associated environmental footprint by 19 percent and 17 percent, respectively.

Allaying fears about safety of GM crops and products, Prof Chassy said that unlike Europeans whose governments largely sponsor anti-GM debates around the world out of a historical context of skeptism with the way governments do things, the US citizens on the other hand tends to believe their government and its agencies and have never raised an issue on food safety once products have been ascertained so by the Food and Drugs Administration.

He however added that while governments in public avoid getting into GM debates with their vocal civil societies to safeguard votes, behind the scenes, however, the European Union is pushing member countries to “finance life sciences, including agricultural biotechnology.”

Prof Chassy told his Nairobi audience that scientific evidence from across the US has shown that GM foods are safer than any foods grown conventionally.
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http://www.charlotte.com/mld/observer/news/opinion/14742441.htm

Eating vegan and organic won't do a thing to save the planet

- Knight Ridder/Tribune, By KENNETH P. GREEN, June 5, 2006

Breeding fears of a changing climate and food raised "unnaturally," promoters of vegetarianism and organic foods argue that we should go vegan or eat "organic" to save the planet.

Now there might be reasons to go vegan or organic, but saving the earth isn't among them.

First, let's look at whether going vegan would stabilize the climate. Two vegetarian researchers recently published an article estimating that the typical American with a mixed diet puts out 1.5 tons more carbon dioxide each year than do people who consume only plants, which adds up to about 6 percent of U.S. emissions, but only 1.6 percent of worldwide emissions. Whatever benefit might come of Americans going vegan would barely be noticeable, and quickly erased by emissions of developing countries.

Organic food sellers claim that organic farming is better for the climate than traditional farming because it uses less energy and chemicals to grow food. Some even claim that research published in Science showed organic farming was 50 percent more efficient than traditional farming. But the same study showed crop yields were 20 percent lower. When you factor that into the equation, organic farming was only about 19 percent more energy efficient per unit produced than traditional farming. Or is it?

As science writer Ron Bailey points out, the comparison wasn't really apples to apples. State-of-the-art organic farms were compared to older methods of traditional farming, not modern systems. Traditional farming has become much more energy efficient than it was 20 years ago.

The same Science study found that after 21 years of organic farming, nutrients in the soil were being depleted badly: They were 34 percent to 51 percent lower than the nutrient levels found in traditionally farmed soils. As chemist John Emsley observes in Nature, "Humans have a stark choice to make: do we farm four hectares of land `organically' to feed 40 souls, or do we farm one hectare `artificially' -- thereby leaving the other three to natural woodland and wildlife?"

Is organic food healthier? While the purveyors of organics claim that organic foods are more nutrient rich, or lower in pesticide contamination, the facts don't back them up.

The Institute of Food Technologists, an international, not-for-profit scientific society, points out, "Organic foods are not superior in nutritional quality or safety when compared against conventional foods, yet organics do have the potential for greater pathogen contamination, and therefore greater risk of food poisoning."

Another analysis looked at 100 studies claiming organic foods were healthier, but found they were mostly bogus.

So, are vegetarianism and organic foods going to save the planet? I don't think so. They'll do virtually nothing for the climate, they'll deplete the soil, they'll require us to use more land area to grow the same amount of food, and we'll be exposed to equal or greater amounts of pathogenic bacteria, viruses and so forth.

Waiter? I'll have the steak, please.

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