Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - June 28, 2006
* 2006 World Food Prize Winners Opened Brazil's "Closed Lands" * A Kinder, Gentler Jeremy Rifkin Endorses Biotech, or Does He? * A US perspective on EU GM regulations
* More Europeans Back Biotech
* Biotech Continues to Play Significant Role in Reshaping World Agriculture * Craving That Agro-bio Fix
* Re: Drugs in Crops
* Naive, Not Unethical
* Promising Crop Biotech for Smallholder Farmers in East Africa: Bananas and Maize * As We See It: Genetically Modified Crops Banned? Why? * Saying No to Gene-Spliced Crops Means Saying Yes to Pesticides * Int. Symposium on Biosafety of GMOs - Korea * Africa's Natural Wealth Key to Economic Prospects * Scary Food
* A Matter of Ethics: On the Use of GM Food in Emergencies - Action by Churches Together --
2006 World Food Prize Winners Opened Brazil's "Closed Lands"
Recipients recognized for fostering "one of the great achievements of agricultural science in the 20th century"
WASHINGTON, D.C., USA – The recipients of the 2006 World Food Prize were announced June 15 at a ceremony at the U.S. State Department featuring Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr. Norman E. Borlaug and hosted by the Hon. Josette Sheeran Shiner, Under Secretary of State for Economic, Business, and Agricultural Affairs.
World Food Prize Foundation President Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn announced that the three men who will share the 2006 World Food Prize are: former Brazil Minister of Agriculture H.E. Alysson Paolinelli and former Technical Director of EMBRAPA Cerrado Research Center Mr. Edson Lobato, both of Brazil; and Washington Representative of the IRI Research Institute, Dr. A. Colin McClung of the United States.
The $250,000 World Food Prize was established in 1986 by Dr. Borlaug. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, it was created to be the foremost international award for achievements that significantly increase the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world.
Ambassador Quinn noted that this year marks the first time in its twenty-year history that the World Food Prize will be awarded to three recipients. Lobato and Paolinelli are the first World Food Prize Laureates from Brazil, while McClung is the eleventh Laureate from the United States. Quinn added that the 2006 recipients each played a vital role in transforming the Cerrado – a region of vast, once infertile tropical high plains stretching across Brazil – into highly productive cropland. Though they worked independently of one another, in different decades and in different fields, their collective efforts over the past 50 years have unlocked Brazil’s tremendous potential for food production. Their advancements in soil science and policy leadership made agricultural development possible in the Cerrado, a region named from Portuguese words meaning "closed, inaccessible land."
"This increased agricultural production has helped improve economic and social conditions in Brazil, while their research continues to promote agricultural development and poverty alleviation in other tropical and sub-tropical countries throughout the world," said Quinn. Quinn noted that from 1970 to 2000 Brazil’s agricultural production more than tripled while its area of cultivated land grew less than 1.5 times.
Dr. Borlaug, who is credited with saving more than one billion lives as the Father of the Green Revolution, called the development of the Cerrado "one of the great achievements of agricultural science in the 20th century, which has transformed a wasteland into one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world."
The World Food Prize will be formally presented at a ceremony on October 19, 2006 at the Iowa State Capitol Building in Des Moines. The ceremony will be held as part of the World Food Prize International Symposium, entitled "The Green Revolution Redux: Can We Replicate the Single Greatest Period of Food Production in All Human History?"
Details at http://www.worldfoodprize.org/
A Kinder, Gentler Jeremy Rifkin Endorses Biotech, or Does He?
- Erik Stokstad, Science, June 16, 2006 Vol. 312. no. 5780, p. 1586 - 1587 http://www.sciencemag.org/
For years, activist Jeremy Rifkin was the bete noire of biotechnology. Beginning in 1983, he filed several lawsuits to block field trials of genetically modified (GM) organisms and grabbed headlines around the world. Rifkin, an economist who runs the nonprofit Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C., said such actions were necessary to force an insulated research world to confront pressing ethical questions.
To many in the scientific community, however, Rifkin was simply fanning irrational fears about biotechnology. A headline of a 1989 Time magazine profile called him "The Most Hated Man in Science" and captured the prevailing sentiment.
After a decade and a half of protests and campaigns to ban GM crops, Rifkin largely moved on to other topics, such as commerce, European politics, and hydrogen fuel. But now Rifkin, 61, is jumping back into agricultural biotech--this time, as a promoter. "This is an amazing twist for Jeremy Rifkin," says Susan McCouch, a rice geneticist at Cornell University. "I've never seen the man come out in favor of anything." But, like many others, she doubts his support will make much difference, as he is endorsing a biotech approach, known as marker-assisted selection (MAS), that is already well accepted.
In a white paper posted to his organization's Web site this week, Rifkin says MAS offers all the advantages of new genomic science without what he calls the great risks to human health and the environment posed by GM crops. Instead of transferring genes from one species to another, MAS simply speeds and improves traditional plant breeding. Researchers search through maps of a plant's genome for sequence markers that are consistently associated with desired traits such as improved yield or disease resistance. Those markers can then be used to screen breeding stock and the progeny of traditional crosses even before they are grown or planted in the field.
Rifkin touts MAS as a path toward cheaper organic food and more sustainable agriculture. And to ensure that all reap its benefits, he advocates that MAS be used in a patent-free, or "open source," system in which the genetic information and techniques used to assist breeding are freely exchanged. "It's not enough to know what you're against. … This paper is my effort to try to frame an opportunity to move into a new age for agriculture," says Rifkin, whose immediate goal is to "open a conversation" with scientists, industry, and policymakers about the future of MAS.
Greenpeace and other advocacy groups, which have already come out in favor of MAS, say they welcome the move. But many scientists suspect that Rifkin's newfound enthusiasm for MAS is just a subterfuge for another attack on transgenic modification of crops. "This tract is typical Rifkin material," says Alan McHughen of the University of California, Riverside. "He still twists information to fit his agenda." Rifkin does indeed argue that GM crops should be phased out. He claims that few crops have been improved by transgenic modification--"it's primitive science" he says--and, to make matters worse, contamination of wild relatives by transgenes may complicate the process of MAS, he warns.
As Rifkin describes it, his conversion was gradual. After following MAS for some time, he says he realized last year that it had eclipsed transgenic technology in its potential. MAS certainly has provided an enormous boost to breeders, and the pace has accelerated as ever more DNA is sequenced and as genetic screens have become cheaper and faster. Although scientists and companies share Rifkin's enthusiasm for MAS and predict it will become even more powerful, they disagree that transgenic technology has failed or that MAS has somehow rendered it obsolete.
"To say that marker-assisted breeding will replace biotech is simply wrong," says Roger Beachy, who directs the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri. That's because of the enormous task facing plant breeders, says Mike Gale, an emeritus cereal geneticist at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, U.K.: "If we are going to produce enough food to feed the world, we need every tool in the toolbox."
McCouch agrees that gene splicing remains a crude approach--like adjusting an intricate watch with a sledgehammer. Yet, she and others say, it is the only way forward in some cases--for instance, if a gene for a particular trait can't be found in a crop or its wild relatives. The classic example is Bt, a toxin from a soil bacterium that was added to corn to provide broad and powerful protection against lepidopteran insects. Now companies are working to add genes for omega-3 fatty acids into soybean, to make the oil more healthful. "Those genes don't exist in soybeans at all," says David Fischoff, head of technology strategy and development at the Monsanto Co. in St. Louis, Missouri.
Nor is transgenic technology inherently risky, scientists say. "It is the gene and the management of the crop that make the difference and not the technology used to develop them," says Les Firbank of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Lancaster, U.K.
Rifkin's concerns aren't just biological. He couples his endorsement of MAS with a few caveats about policy, as well. He wants to be sure the technology is used in a way that meets his broader goals of sustainable agriculture and open-source technology--in other words, no patents. "We've seen too much how the patent system restricts the cooperative nature in science," he says. Charles Benbrook, a scientist with the Organic Center in Enterprise, Oregon, agrees that tight constraints on intellectual property are a concern, as ever more technology and markers are locked up in company labs. "I worry that marker-assisted breeding is not going to be able to deliver on its potential."
Although Rifkin stops short of calling for an overhaul of patent law, he predicts that genetic technology and genomic information will eventually make it so easy and cheap to produce germ plasm that companies will have to make profits by selling agroecological consulting to farmers. Rifkin says he plans to start actively hawking his message on the lecture circuit and in his advice to business leaders and governments. "This is what I'm going to hammer away on: MAS should be phased in on the condition of an agroecological approach and open source."
Rifkin's pleas aside, Monsanto and other agribusiness companies contacted by Science don't plan to drop their GM research or stop seeking patents. And several in the scientific community say they don't need Rifkin's help promoting a field that's already flourishing.
"Having the endorsement of Jeremy Rifkin means nothing," says Martina Newell-McGloughlin, director of the University of California's Biotechnology Research and Education Program in Davis. She and others doubt that any conversation with Rifkin would be productive.
"Let's just ignore the man," says Gale. "Let's get on with the job we have, which is to feed the world." But whether or not Rifkin succeeds in opening the conversation he desires, he no doubt will keep talking.
IFT: A US perspective on EU GM regulations
- Anthony Fletcher, Food Navigator, June 27, 2006
The EU's approach to GM food regulation has little theoretical basis, and panders to the fears and prejudices of its citizens, according to a US scientist.
At an IFT conference on global acceptance and sustainability of genetically modified food yesterday, Francis Smith from the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington DC gave an interesting American perspective of EU regulations governing GM food.
"It is clear that consumers in the EU are concerned a lot about food, especially over topics that attract a lot of media coverage," she said. "The percentage of people who claimed to be 'worried' is between 53 to 63 per cent. GM comes in at about the middle, around 58 per cent."
Breaking these recent Eurobarometer figures down by country, Smith found that Austrians are the biggest worriers. About seven out of ten claim to be 'worried' about GM products. And a quarter of all EU consumers claim to be 'very worried'.
"When this data was analysed further, we also found that gender was a factor. Four out of ten European women said that they were 'very worried' about food, compared to 29 per cent of men. "Considering that women make most of the household purchasing decisions, this is a very important group." Fundamentally, Smith said that these figures showed there was an underlying fear of new technology, largely absent in the US . Americans, she said, tended to look at the benefits. In comparison to Europeans, US consumers tended to express less fear and less distrust.
The EU is therefore different. Its precautionary principle, which rules that regulators should err on the side of caution, assumes that a prevention strategy is always appropriate. A recent European Commission (EC) communique reads: 'decision-makers have to take into account fears generated by these perceptions and put in place preventative measures'.
"There is little theoretical basis for this approach," argued Smith. "We're talking about regulations addressing perceptions and fears. Also, this is an approach that can never be satisfied - there'll always be someone who can think of yet one more theoretical risk."
Smith also said that there have been some alarming developments within the EU, taking decision makers further into the realms of the hypothetical. "This all increases the perceptions of risk when there is little basis for this, and could lead to mass hysteria. Fears are common, and can be dangerous." Of course, there are reasons why the EU has more stringent regulations than the US . The outbreak of mad cow disease triggered Europe-wide concern about the safety of the food supply chain in the 1990s, and Europe is by nature a more regulated environment than the States.
But Smith's point is that overly stringent regulations, based on public perceptions of danger rather than scientific evidence, could result in the unnecessary rejection of significant new products. She argues that the EU is pandering to unsubstantiated fears.
"With the global population doubling in the next couple of decades, we need biotechnology," she said. "We need to make strong consumer value arguments, about the fact that GM technology can lead to reduced allergen food. People just don't know about the vast improvements that have been made."
Convincing both consumers and food makers operating in Europe that GM technology is both completely safe and profitable is likely to continue to prove tricky, however. Later this week, FoodNavigator will report on recent global regulatory initiatives to harmonise GM regulations.
More Europeans Back Biotech
- The Scientist, June 26, 2006 http://www.the-scientist.com/
'Survey shows EU citizens support stem cell research, but are still very negative about GM foods'
European citizens are becoming more optimistic about most forms of biotechnology, including embryonic stem cell research, but still can’t be swayed from their distrust of genetically modified food, the latest Eurobarometer survey showed last week.
The survey of 25,000 people revealed a surge in positive responses for medical and industrial biotech relative to 2002, but concluded that widespread opposition to agricultural biotechnology remained in all but a few countries.
“Overall, Europeans think GM food should not be encouraged,” George Gaskell from the London School of Economics and his colleagues wrote in the report to the European Commission. “GM food is widely seen as not being useful, as morally unacceptable, and as a risk for society.”
The survey showed that stem cell research was widely supported across Europe. Even embryonic stem cell research was supported by 59% of respondents.
As things stand, European Union law permits embryonic stem cell research, but leaves it up to each individual member country to make its own policy about whether it should be allowed.
Providing there is some level of regulation, an absolute majority of respondents in 15 of the EU’s 25 countries approved of embryonic stem cell use, the report showed. The main religious denomination of the country didn’t appear to be a decisive factor in shaping attitudes, Gaskell and colleagues note.
In Germany, where scientists are not allowed to create embryos to derive cells, or collaborate with anyone doing so, 54% of respondents said they approved of the technology, although some said it should be tightly controlled.
In Italy, a total of 66% of respondents were in favor of embryonic stem cell research. The country has long had one of Europe’s most stringent rules on embryo research, but in recent weeks the research minister Fabio Mussi suggested allowing such research might not be out of the question in the future.
Karim Nayernia, a German stem cell researcher who last week moved to the UK’s Newcastle University to conduct his research, said the findings reflect the views of many Germans that he has spoken to. "Most of them think that it’s OK -- with some regulation, of course," he told The Scientist.
Oliver Brustle from the University of Bonn said he hoped that politicians would heed these results. "Governments have to listen to the majority opinion in their countries, to make this field" less restrictive, he said. "At the least they should establish a framework within which collaboration between European laboratories is easier."
On other topics, the European Union survey shows that the general public is largely supportive of developments in nanotechnology. EU citizens were also widely supportive of pharmacogenetics and gene therapy.
Among those who have made their mind up on GM food, 58% were opposed and 17% thought the technology was risky but useful, while 25% thought it should be encouraged and was not risky.
Adeline Farrelly, spokeswoman for industry group EuropaBio, noted that overall, the survey was positive for the biotech industry. Agricultural biotech may be less popular, she suggested, because consumers could not see benefits for themselves. “In surveys like this there are a lot of nuances around the answers people give,” she told The Scientist. "People seem to identify less with the benefits of GM foods compared with the other technologies."
The report's authors point out that Europeans are generally as optimistic as their peers in the US when it comes to technology. "It is invalid to claim that European public opinion is a constraint to technological innovation," they argue. Farrelly agreed. “Europeans are not actually technophobes as some people have said in the past,” she noted.
Biotechnology Continues to Play Significant Role in Reshaping World Agriculture
- Farm Futures, June 20, 2006 http://www.farmfutures.com
New report states that despite some consumer concern, the biotechnology trend is likely to continue as it leads to productivity gains for farmers.
Biotechnology is among key forces reshaping world agriculture, enabling increased crop yields and productivity despite limited available land, and leading to better quality and lower priced food products for consumers.
That's according to a new report from North Dakota State University, "Forces Reshaping World Agriculture," authored by Jeremy Mattson and Won Koo of NDSU's Center for Agricultural Policy and Trade Studies.
The authors point out that growth of agriculture in the United States is dependent on productivity increases. Since there is little land available for expansion of agricultural production in the U.S., growth in production will require increased yields. Export competitiveness is also dependent on relative productivity growth against major competitors.
Future productivity growth will be influenced by current and future research, especially public research. "New developments that could lead to further productivity increases include improved technologies for nutrient, soil, water, and pest management; precision agriculture; and agricultural biotechnology," the report says. "The emergence of biotechnology could especially have a significant impact on productivity worldwide."
Farmers benefit from the use of GM crops through increased weed and insect control, which could lead to increased yields and decreased pesticide costs. Mattson and Koo report that despite some consumer concern, the biotechnology trend is likely to continue as it leads to productivity gains for farmers. "The introduction of GM wheat has been delayed, largely due to concern that consumers in export markets will not accept it, but it could eventually be adopted," they write.
While current biotech crops have been developed mainly to improve agricultural production, future biotech crops could be introduced that have qualities such as increased nutritional content or other characteristics that would benefit consumers. "Consumer response to the further adoption of biotech crops is uncertain, but it may become more favorable as these crops are developed with more obvious benefits for consumers." Developing countries could benefit the most from biotechnology through productivity gains and improved nutritional content of crops such as golden rice.
Mattson and Koo point out that while technological advances appear to initially benefit producers by leading to higher yields, lower costs, and increased productivity, consumers ultimately benefit from lower real food prices.
The entire NDSU report can be found as a PDF online at http://agecon.lib.umn.edu/cgi-bin/detailview.pl?paperid=21789.
Craving That Agro-bio Fix
- Andrew Leonard, June 19, 2006 http://www.salon.com/
Another day, another biotechnological solution to global malnutrition.
Some 2 to 3 billion people, mostly in developing countries, suffer from dietary mineral deficiency. But a note today in SciDev.Net suggests that help could be on the way. Researchers at the Danish Institute of Agricultural Science have created a genetically modified wheat in which a key nutritional enzyme survives the cooking process without losing its effectiveness.
The enzyme is phytase, which helps people absorb zinc and iron. According to SciDev.Net, in wheat, phytase potency peters out at 63 degrees Celsius. But by inserting a phytase gene from a species of fungus, the researchers came up with a new form of wheat in which the phytase can survive temperatures up to 80 degrees Celsius.
Similar reports of agricultural biotechnology innovations that aim to address problems in the developing world routinely emerge from laboratories and research institutions. Last December, German researchers announced a genetically modified corn that could increase iron consumption. In March, the director of the International Rice Research Institute called for new strains of rice that would thrive under conditions of climate change. In years to come, building on the extraodinary advances in genetic science of the past couple of decades, there will no doubt be a flood of new biotechnological possibilities.
The application of technology to conditions of povery and public health poses a doozy of an ethical question. In the absence of hard evidence that genetically modified organisms harm the environment or are themselves unhealthy for humans, are we ethically required to explore their potential to boost food production in poor nations or otherwise address chronic health problems, such as iron deficiency? I went looking for a nuanced take on this question today, one that would avoide the stark Monsanto + GM = Great Satan equation that is popular with the hard-line anti-GM faction.
I can't say I found that. But I did spend several hours today reading "The Use of Genetically Modified Crops in Developing Countries," a long report published in 2003 by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics as a follow-up to a much anticipated 1993 report on GM crops that was later excoriated by some environmentalists. And it too, has come under criticism for being too "complacent" about potential dangers of GM technology.
However, flawed as it may be, the Nuffield report makes a couple of useful points that. One is that current research in boosting food yields or coming up with other "improved" strains of crops is dominated by a very small group of corporations who enforce tight control over relevant intellectual property. Just as is true in a world where drug development is dominated by Big Pharma, that means that research into problems faced by farmers in developing nations does not receive priority. Thus, the Nuffield report called for a massive increase in public funding of agro-biotechnology research.
But more to the point: While trying to support its argument that we have an ethical obligation not to stop GM crops but to push their development, the Nuffield authors set forth the following mandate: "We therefore recommend that in considering whether GM crops should be used or not, it is essential to focus on the specific situation in a particular country, asking the question: 'How does the use of a GM crop compare to other alternatives?' All possible paths of action must be compared, including inaction, in respect of improving, in a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable way, human health, nutrition, and the ability to afford an adequate diet.
"Who could argue with that? Of course, the implicit answer that lies behind every sentence of the 144-page Nuffield report assumes that having made that comparison, GM crops come out ahead. That case has yet to be proved, much as I would like to believe in a new generation of supercrops that eliminate malnutrition from the globe.
I read that sentence fresh from a conversation with two people who work on recycling issues in the San Francisco Bay Area. I had been enthusing to them about new technology for converting landfill waste to diesel fuel. But instead of matching my enthusiasm, they scoffed. Better to design for reuse, to work on life-cycles that do not result in landfill waste in the first place, than to place one's hope on techno-fixes.
I don't know if we will be successful in finding sustainable, organic solutions to adequately feeding the 9 billion people expected to be on this planet by the middle of this century, without coming up with some dramatic technological innovations. But I'm definitely coming around to the point of view that more technology isn't always the best option.
Re: Drugs in Crops
- Bob MacGregor ; rdmacgregor.at.gov.pe.ca
This was part of a release by the "Stop Genetically Engineered Trees Campaign" asking readers to write to USDA and protest release of these virus-resistant plum trees.
1. Genetic contamination is a serious threat. Flowers and fruit in organic and conventional plum orchards will become contaminated with GE plum genes via pollen transported by bees and other insects that travel many miles in search of pollen. The result is that organic and conventional plum growers will lose their markets for non-GE plums as DNA testing confirms the contamination, as it has with GE papayas in Hawaii. An organic tree might remain organic itself, but the fruit and seeds will become contaminated.
My recollection is that the seeds of cross-pollinated fruit might be transgenic, but the flesh of the fruit would not; ie, the flesh is formed by the parent tree. Is this correct? If so, then protection of organic markets is not really a problem, since nearly all fruit trees (outside of breeding facilities) are grafted clones-- and most consumers don't eat the seeds of stone fruit! Even in breeding operations (and regardless of the answer to my question, above), because of the long lead time to production, there is plenty of time to test and "weed out" any seedlings that are transgenic (if so desired) long before any fruit reaches the market.
Naive, Not Unethical
- Times Higher Education Supplement (UK), June16, 2006
I am among the very few people to know both Arpad Pusztai and Andrew Wakefield personally. From my limited knowledge of them, I believe both to be men of integrity. But that does not excuse their appalling naivety and over-interpretation of very limited scientific data. The consequences for genetically modified food and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination have been awful.
All scientists make extravagant statements based on preliminary results and optimism, but we usually do it in the privacy of a laboratory to critical colleagues who demolish our enthusiasm and persuade us to go away and do more experiments until we can justify our hopes.
Who on earth allowed these two innocents to expose themselves (and their nascent hypotheses) to the spotlight of the media, and why? Once you have told a few million enthusiastic readers and listeners, it is very difficult to withdraw or even qualify.
Pusztai retired, but the perception that he was sacked remains, and the belief that he was martyred has (foolishly) strengthened the support for his irrational statements.
Although I reject Wakefield's views on MMR, I am not confident that if the General Medical Council does bring him to book it will advance the cause of raising confidence in vaccination.
- Alan Malcolm, London
Promising Crop Biotechnologies for Smallholder Farmers in East Africa: Bananas and Maize
- International Food Policy Research Institute
Both bananas and maize are devastated by pests and diseases in this region, particularly in the lowland tropical environments. Since chemical treatment of these crops is not economically viable for most smallholder farm families, varieties with genetic resistance could play a vital role in reducing their vulnerability to crop failure.
For that reason, national research programs in East Africa have targeted bananas and maize for genetic transformation. These eight briefs examine the potential impact of transgenic bananas and maize on smallholder farmers. Includes country specific information from Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.
Available at: http://www.ifpri.org/pubs/rag/br1004.asp
As We See It: Genetically Modified Crops Banned? Why?
- Editorial, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, June 23, 2006 http://www.santacruzsentinel.com
Here's the latest Santa Cruz solution in search of a problem: The county Board of Supervisors voted to place a moratorium on genetically modified crops. The board did so unanimously even though no one is growing genetically modified crops locally.
Time will tell whether this ordinance really means anything, because the status of the so-called GMO crops is unknown at this point. Whether the GMOs should be regulated or not is unclear although if they do require regulation, it should come from a higher level of government than in the county.
Three other counties have passed bans: Mendocino, Trinity and Marin. But more than a dozen others have not, according to the Web site, "Truth about Trade and Technology." In fact, while voters have turned down similar ordinances in some counties, some, mostly in the Central Valley, have actually passed measures supporting genetic engineering.
The issue of genetically modified crops is one that has not been discussed enough or studied enough. Some say, in fact, that these crops should not be summarily dismissed simply because the name sounds scary.
Truth About Trades and Technology quoted a spokesman for the California Healthy Foods Coalition as saying: "... voters in many counties oppose biotech crops bans. Family farmers should not be denied access to a science that improves the quality of life for their consumers."
At least the local ban isn't permanent. In fact, the ban could be eliminated once warning labels are placed on the food.
But we're skeptical that this ban is necessary on something that isn't even being done. We'd much prefer seeing more science on this and more study. It also seems to us that the appropriate level of government for a matter like this is at the state.
It makes little sense for a ban to apply to just one county when a farm just over the Pajaro River wouldn't have to pay attention.
Saying No to Gene-Spliced Crops Means Saying Yes to Pesticides
- Dr. Henry Miller, San Jose Mercury News, June 23, 2006
Nobel Laureate Anatole France said famously, "If 50 million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.'' That applies as well to the members of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, who Tuesday did a foolish thing by banning the cultivation of plants genetically improved with state-of-the-art techniques.
This action is representative democracy at its worst. To begin with, the proposal is unscientific and logically inconsistent, in that its restrictions are inversely related to risk -- in other words, they permit the use of microorganisms and plants that are crafted with less precise and predictable techniques, but would ban those made with more precise and predictable ones. This turns science-based regulation on its head.
California boasts a strong environmental movement, but by outlawing the cultivation of insect-resistant crops developed with the assistance of biotechnology, the supervisors would ensure the increased use of chemical pesticides and persistence of these chemicals in the area's ground and surface water. (It will also result in increased occupational exposures: Let's not forget that Homo sapiens are part of the environment.)
Most important of all, the county prohibitions will block sophisticated genetic approaches to the eradication of blights such as sudden oak death, phylloxera, powdery mildew and Pierce's disease, a bacterial infestation carried by a leaf-hopping insect, the glassy-winged sharpshooter.
Pierce's disease, which threatens California's multibillion-dollar wine and table grape industries, should be of concern to everyone involved in Santa Cruz County agriculture. (The glassy wing sharpshooter preys on a variety of crops.) Genetic improvement of plants may well prove to be the definitive solution -- one that should not be denied to local farmers merely because of the willful ignorance of political ``leaders.''
Biotechnology's potential is not just theoretical. By inserting a single gene into squash, sweet potatoes and other crops, scientists have made them virus-resistant. Gene-spliced papaya varieties have resurrected Hawaii's $64 million-a-year industry, which was moribund a decade ago because of the predations of papaya ringspot virus. In addition, because of the way that gene-splicing enhances the resistance of plants to pests and disease, the natural environment already has been spared the use of scores of millions of pounds of chemical pesticides.
The future holds out even greater hope. The technology makes it possible to remove dangerous allergens from wheat, peanuts, milk and other commonly allergenic foods. Gene-splicing will allow crop varieties to thrive in conditions of drought or near-drought. Imagine the boon to water-distressed countries -- and to California during its next drought: Irrigation for agriculture accounts for roughly 70 percent of the world's fresh-water consumption (and is even higher in agriculture-intensive regions).
Moreover, gene-splicing techniques increasingly are being used to program common crop plants such as rice, barley, corn and tobacco to synthesize high-value-added pharmaceuticals. The plants are harvested and the drug is then extracted and purified. Future research may well lead to important products, or even life-saving cures, but ag-biotech now is completely off-limits in Santa Cruz and three other California counties that have already adopted bans. Local ordinances could have a "chilling effect'' on the state's agricultural research, according to David C. Nunenkamp, deputy secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
Activists have been relentless in promoting the Big Lie about gene-splicing -- namely, that it is unproven, untested and unregulated. After more than 20 years, none of the hypothetical concerns about safety has been substantiated. Crops made with gene-splicing techniques are currently grown by 8.5 million farmers in 21 countries on more than 100 million acres annually. California farmers currently plant almost a million acres of gene-spliced crops annually, primarily corn and cotton.
Americans have consumed more than a trillion servings of foods that contain gene-spliced ingredients. Throughout all this experience, there is not a single documented case of injury to a person or disruption of an ecosystem. Scientists are virtually unanimous that gene-splicing techniques are essentially a refinement of earlier ones, and that gene transfer or modification by molecular techniques does not, per se, confer risk. Like robotics, fiber optics and supercomputers, gene-splicing is no more than a widely applicable tool -- a better, more precise and predictable tool than its predecessors.
Arbitrary and illogical ordinances raise other issues. All citizens should be concerned about the implications of subjecting safe, legitimate commercial products -- in this case, plants crafted with a proven, superior technology -- to surveillance, confiscation and destruction by local officials. This is the tyranny of the majority over the rights of minorities.
Flawed regulation -- especially when it is as nonsensical and counterproductive as Santa Cruz County's anti-biotech measure -- makes a mockery of government and diminishes us all. Letting ideology and misguided activism trample science and common sense is not the route to sound public policy. ----
DR. HENRY I. MILLER, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of "The Frankenfood Myth.'' He headed the FDA's office of biotechnology from 1989 to 1993. He wrote this article for the Mercury News.
International Symposium on Biosafety of Genetically Modified Organisms (ISBGMO)
- September 24-29, 2006, South Korea http://isbgmo.niab.go.kr
Contact Details: Andrew F Roberts, PhD. AAAS Risk Policy Fellow Office of Science Biotechnology Regulatory Services USDA, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (301) 734-0671 Fax: (301) 734-8669 andrew.f.roberts.at.usda.gov
Africa's Natural Wealth Key to Economic Prospects
- Africa Environment Outlook-2. Full story at <http://www.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/Default.asp?DocumentID=480&ArticleID=5307&l=en>http://www.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/Default.asp?DocumentID=480&ArticleID=5307&l=en
Nairobi, 27 June - Poverty in Africa can be made history if the region's wealth of natural resources is effectively, fairly and sustainably harnessed a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says.
Outstanding issues like rapid rates of deforestation, high levels of land degradation, wasteful water use in agriculture and climate change remain and need to be urgently addressed.
Other challenges are emerging. These range from genetically modified organisms and the costs of alien invasive species up to a switch of chemical manufacturing from the developed to the developing world, says the Africa Environment Outlook-2.
- Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko, Policy Review, June-July 2006; Full commentary at http://www.policyreview.org/137/miller.html
Like a scene from some Hollywood thriller, a team of U.S. Marshals stormed a warehouse in Irvington, New Jersey, last summer to intercept a shipment of evildoers from Pakistan. The reason you probably haven't heard about the raid is that the objective was not to seize Al Qaeda operatives or white slavers, but $80,000 worth of basmati rice contaminated with weevils, beetles, and insect larvae, making it unfit for human consumption. In regulation-speak, the food was "adulterated," because "it consists in whole or in part of any filthy, putrid, or decomposed substance, or if it is otherwise unfit for food."
Americans take food safety very seriously. Still, many consumers tend to ignore Mother Nature’s contaminants while they worry unduly about high technology, such as the advanced technologies that farmers, plant breeders, and food processors use to make our food supply the most affordable, nutritious, varied, and safe in history.
A Matter of Ethics: ACT International Adopts Policy on the Use of Genetically Modified Organisms in Emergencies
- Action by Churches Together International (ACT), June 28, 2006 http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/RWB.NSF/db900SID/ACIO-6R7GXW?OpenDocument
Geneva, June 28, 2006--The debate over genetically modified organisms, or GMOs as they are also known, is one of the most polarising and controversial flash points related to food supply and its impact on social, economic, cultural and environmental welfare, often triggering passionate responses.
Add the humanitarian imperative in disaster response to the discussion, and you end up with a double-edged sword: the non-acceptance of genetically modified food can lead to a deepening crisis, with more deaths as a result, but at the same time, accepting these foods can lead to changes in agricultural practices, pollute the environment and damage local food grain varieties.
In April this year, the global alliance Action by Churches Together (ACT) International took a stand on the issue, adopting a policy on genetically modified organisms to guide its members when responding to humanitarian disasters.
"As the debate continues on the harmful effects of GMOs, the ACT alliance could not just sit and watch from the sidelines without producing a policy to protect our food beneficiaries in emergencies," says John Nduna, director of ACT International.
Melton Luhanga of Churches Action in Relief and Development, a member of the global ACT alliance, believes that it's important to have such a policy. "It will help guide us when we carry out our relief interventions," he says.
Not enough conclusive information
"Most non-governmental organisations [working in Malawi] are discussing the issue," he says. What concerns Luhanga, however, is that there is simply not enough conclusive information on GMOs-plants and animals that have been manipulated at the genetic level though a special set of technologies that alter living organisms. But he also acknowledges that blanket recommendations force people to make difficult choices: "Could you see people dying if there was food?"
One of the eight guidelines that lie at the heart of ACT's new policy on food distributions and GMOs during emergency operations addresses this troubling concern specifically. It recommends that if the distribution of donated genetically modified food is unavoidable, in order to alleviate a serious hunger situation if there is no other alternative and timely solution, ACT members will make sure that everyone benefiting from the distribution knows where the food comes from and whether the food has been genetically modified or not.
And all beneficiaries will have the right to choose and decide if they want the food or not. Sibongile Baker, director of ACT member Lutheran Development Service (LDS) in Zimbabwe, says that education is crucial. "People need to know what this about," she says, explaining that in emergencies "we have to address people's immediate needs * hunger, in other words."
"Our experience is that when people are hungry they will eat whatever food they can get. And if they can preserve anything [such as seeds], they will. Without the knowledge of the long-term effects it may have," she says. "If the government says no to GMOs it's important for us to be able to explain why it's a 'no.' If we do this, then people will understand. It is our responsibility."
Donna Derr, the director of the emergency response program of U.S.-based ACT member Church World Service, emphasises that "the 'right to know' is a critical aspect of the food aid debate." "All those involved-food donors, organisations distributing food and recipients of food aid-must have full access to information that allows them to understand the implications of donating, distributing or accepting GMOs," she believes.
A matter of principle
Three principles underpin the implementation guidelines that all ACT members will follow in the future when distributing food in emergencies. The first is the precautionary principle. The essence of this principle is that the burden of proof of harmlessness of a new technology, process, activity or chemical lies with the proponent, and not with the consumer and general public. "Of course, this is not the task of the ACT members," says Rev. Cornelia Füllkrug-Weitzel, director of Diakonie Emergency Aid, the ACT member based in Germany. "But it obliges members of the ACT family to lobby their respective government concerning appropriate legislation," she explains.
The second principle is the right to food. Everyone has a fundamental right to be free from hunger and being undernourished. Realising this right requires not only equitable and sustainable food systems, but also clear entitlements such as the right to work, to land and to social security, with the understanding that the primary responsibility for this rest with the states.
"Again, it is imperative that ACT members advocate their governments: in the North to provide enough finances to feed the people in emergencies; in the South to pay enough attention to the agricultural sector in general, to sustainable farming, and building and keeping stocks in particular," Füllkrug-Weitzel says. The third principle is the right to know. All people have the right to know whether there are genetically modified ingredients in the food they buy or the seeds they sow. This also means that they have the right to have enough information to make responsible decisions.
Rev. Forbes Matonga, national director of the Zimbabwean NGO (and member of the ACT alliance) Christian Care, believes that GMOs pose "a threat to food security in developing countries, precisely because the seeds are controlled by a few multi-nationals-the principle of a few having it all." For him, as a member of the faith-based community, it is crucial that "as long as scientists are not telling us what the implications are for mother earth, then we should not simply accept it."
He explains that although the Zimbabwean government does not allow GMOs to enter the country in principle, it has allowed some consignments in during emergencies, but only milled grains.
ACT's director agrees that it is a "complex issue with some of the largest food companies in the world having an economic interest in promoting the production of genetically modified foods because of the huge profits they reap from selling these products."
The Lutheran World Federation's (LWF) director and country representative in Zambia, Enos Moyo, argues that the issue of GMOs is about ethics and biodiversity that leads to a nasty catch-22 situation. "Poor people cannot afford to buy new seeds each season and cannot recycle hybrid seeds, which means that every season, they are forced to buy new seeds. But it's a difficult issue."
Moyo, who contributed to the guidelines for the policy regulating the use of GMOs by LWF's Department for World Service (DWS) that formed the basis for the ACT policy on the issue, describes how between 2001 and 2003 LWF found people eating a certain kind of poisonous root that they had to boil for at least 24 hours before they could eat it [as a result of the drought that had the country in its grip]. Even then," he says, "they still got diarrhoea, although it was manageable."
"But if people had a choice - GMOs or poisonous roots?" he asks, shrugging. "There's no real answer. It's just a difficult issue."
This is exactly why the LWF/DWS program believed it was crucial to develop such guidelines. DWS's acting director, Rudelmar de Faria, says given that most of the LWF/DWS programs working in emergency situations are involved in food distribution, "we felt that it was urgent to provide guidance to our staff on the use of GM food in emergency and development operations, in order to ensure compliance to and coherence with our principles for sustainable development and social justice." Is it safe?
Sangster Nkhandwe, director of ACT member Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, Synod of Livingstonia, in Malawi, sums up the one thing that drives most people's fears. "We [just] don't know the long-term effects on humans."
LWF's Moyo agrees. "We understand that it's safe, but this is based on the fact that rich people in the north are eating it. But are they eating it in large quantities. What if 100 percent of all your meals are made of GMO-based food. What is the effect then?"
Sibongile Baker believes the scientific community should continue to research exactly this, saying that it's hard to say a "blanket no" to food, if the only other option is no food. "Has the medical field done enough thorough analysis? What quantities need to be consumed to have a long-term effect?" "We work with humans," says Melton Luhanga. "Are all the real facts known?"
"When dealing with commercialisation, it's sometimes difficult to find the truth," he notes, then adds, "And the concern is, of course, that the truth will only be known when the damage is already done."
In Malawi, he explains, whenever and wherever possible, his organisation has and continues to buy non-GMO commodities: maize, rice, biscuits. He stops for a moment before asking, "But do we really know whether the biscuits don't contain GMOs or not? We need to proactively go after the truth in this matter," he says. It is exactly for this reason that ACT International's director believes that the adoption of this policy was an important step. "It's been four years in the making-four years of discussions and deliberations, and even though there is no conclusive evidence related to the products' 'safety' either way," Nduna says, adding that there is a belief that GMOs can be harmful to human consumers in the long term."
A crucial point in the new ACT policy is that ACT members will in the future follow the guideline that they will not buy any genetically modified food with the resources administered by them, even if the food comes from local markets (given that in ACT's procurement policy, members of the alliance are encouraged to, wherever possible, buy as much food aid locally, nationally, and in the region.) There is also the understanding that ACT members will comply with the relevant national legislation on biosafety (if it is in place), especially regarding the use of GMOs in food aid. And in the future, all ACT members will, in the event of having to distribute GMO crops as food aid, with no other option, do so only if the crops are milled.
"Safety also applies to long-term food security. Genetic modification of food often includes the elimination of its potential to be used as seed. Because of this aspect, people remain dependent on foreign food aid in the upcoming seasons-to the benefit of the world-wide agricultural industry," says Füllkrug-Weitzel.
A question of ethics
"The issue of GMOs has important ethical implications. In order to take a stand on GMO-related issues, it is important to ask for whom and for what purpose and - not the least - what the driving forces behind the development are," says Karin Lexén, policy director for ACT member Church of Sweden. For her, several questions related to this controversial issue have not been fully answered. "Are marginalized and poor people and their perspective in the centre of the development and the investment? What will happen in the long-term perspective in terms of ecological, social and economic sustainability? It is of vital importance that poor people and countries are not pushed or forced to accept GMOs."
"While we know that in severe situations of food crises, people will accept any food they are given simply to survive. The policy calls for any GMO grain given in a food emergency to be milled. This is one way of reducing the risks that GMOs may have," says Nduna. "This policy was long overdue and I am happy that we have it now."