Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org: July 27, 2006
* French court orders Greenpeace to withdraw GMO map
* Organic Food and Humvees Are Both Eco-Wasteful
* Has the tide turned on the acceptance of GM crops in UK farming?
* Commercialisation of ICAR transgenics likely by 2008
* Designer Jeans From Designer Genes
French court orders Greenpeace to withdraw GMO map
- Reuters, July 26, 2006
A French court on Wednesday ordered Greenpeace to withdraw from its Web site information pinpointing fields of genetically modified (GMO) maize, a move the environmental group called censorship.
Ruling on a complaint filed by two farmers who feared their commercial GMO maize fields may be attacked after details were published on Greenpeace France's Web site, the Paris court said the group had violated the farmers' privacy and ordered the map to be removed.
Greenpeace said it would likely appeal the ruling. In the meantime, the maps may be moved to another Web site managed by Greenpeace International.
"We are considering other means to inform the public on where GMO fields are located," Arnaud Apoteker, head of Greenpeace France's GMO unit, told Reuters.
"So it's almost certain that we will put the map on another Greenpeace Web site," he said.
France is home to a large and vocal anti-GMO lobby and around half of all GMO test fields are destroyed each year. Greenpeace published the fields' location in June, the day after a French court sentenced an anti-GMO activist to two months jail for destroying GMO fields in 2004 and 2005.
GMO maize (corn) seeds were sown on around 5,000 hectares of French land for commercial sale this season, 10 times the area sown in 2005. Several biotech companies, including U.S. giant Monsanto, also carry out GMO experiments in open fields.
Under French law only the location of open-field experiments must be made public.
Greenpeace pointed to an EU law dating from 2001, not yet adopted into French legislation, requiring the location of all GMO fields, including commercial growing, to be made public.
Organic Food and Humvees Are Both Eco-Wasteful
- CGFI, By Dennis Avery, July 26, 2006
Organic food consumers are as careless of the environment as the drivers piloting those massive Humvees around our city streets. Both are wasting money and natural resources to gain snob appeal—with no other benefits.
Almost everyone realizes that the $100,000 Humvees that get 9 miles per gallon are in the cities to impress the waitresses at the local sports bar. Few of those vehicles ever take to the rough off-road environment for which the Army designed them. If the Humvees did get driven over rocks and stumps in the wilderness, the resulting dents and scratches would offend the parking valets at the fancy restaurants.
Organic food is also a snob-appeal ploy. Organic food is a politically acceptable way to brag to your neighbors that you can afford to pay double for your food, and smile about it. You can claim to care more deeply about your children and the environment.
Unfortunately for the organic customers, no consistent, significant nutritional advantages have ever been documented in organic food, during the more than 75 years since a German racial purist named Rudoph Steiner first dreamed up the organic concept in the 1920s. Instead, plant researchers tell us the variety of carrot you plant makes more nutritional difference than whether or not it is grown organically. So long as the carrots and broccoli have nitrogen, phosphorus, potash, and 26 trace minerals in their soil, they will produce the nutrition dictated by their DNA.
The environmental impact of organic food is actually dreadful. It takes organic farmers roughly twice as much land to produce a ton of food, primarily because they refuse to use nitrogen fertilizer to replace the nitrogen taken from the soil by their growing crops. That means huge tracts of land must be used to “grow nitrogen,” either as cattle pasture or planted to non-food legumes such as clover and hairy vetch.
Humans are already using 37 percent of the Earth’s land area for farming, and we’ll need at least double today’s farm output to feed a peak human population of 8 or 9 billion in 2050. Thus, an all-organic farming mandate for the planet would mean clearing all 16 million square miles of remaining forest to plant more low-yield crops.
Most of that newly cleared forest is rough land that would erode swiftly once there were no tree roots to hold the steep soils. Farming steeper slopes to get half the yield per acre would at least triple the world’s soil erosion. The latest low-till farming, which uses herbicides to control weeds instead of plowing, has one-tenth the soil erosion of an organic farm. Thus, all-organic farming would be more environmentally destructive than replacing the planet’s whole current fleet of 500 million cars with Humvees.
What about the CO2 from producing nitrogen fertilizer with natural gas? Virtually all of our recent warming occurred before 1940, and thus before much human-emitted CO2 Meanwhile, ice and seabed cores have shown us a moderate, natural 1500-year climate cycle which has pervaded the last 1 million years of Earth’s history. The CO2 theorists must not only document that our planet is warming—but demonstrate that it’s something other than part of the natural cycle. The Medieval Warming ended in 1300, and the Little Ice Age ended in 1850.
Even Cornell University, which tends toward supporting the trendy and politically correct, says organic farming is somewhat worse for the environment than conventional farming because of the fertilizer problem, and because it relies more heavily on pest-killing compounds that permanently poison soils, such as copper and sulfur.
We doubt that many organic consumers will ever trade their high-mileage cars for bulky and expensive Humvees. So, why in the world are they buying the organic foods?
Has the tide turned on the acceptance of GM crops in UK farming?
- The Scotsman, By Fordyce Maxwell, 24th July, 2006
Two rural topics have polarised opinions more than any others in the past few years - pesticides and genetically modified crops.
No mean feat, then, for the UK government to deal with both on the same day at the end of last week.
A sneaky trick, as one or two of the hard-line opponents of both suggested, to slip out statements on pesticides and GM along with about 40 other ministerial announcements at the end of a Parliamentary session?
Perish the thought, not least because there is every sign that opposition to genetic engineering and modified crops has eased from white heat to dull glow.
There are still pockets of resistance, such as the organically evangelistic Soil Association, although there is no reason why GM crops cannot be organically grown.
But most of the population never got excited about GM even when the "Frankenstein foods" - copyright the Daily Mail, never knowingly undersold on creating public panic - debate was at its fiercest.
Even less so now, as familiarity, science and the fact that most of the rest of the world has accepted genetic engineering without a quaver as among the least of its worries.
What the government actually did last week was to propose a consultation process aimed at ensuring acceptable "coexistence" of GM and non-GM crop production at some future date.
At present GM crop production is banned in the European Union because no risk assessment of its impact on human health and the environment has been made and no commercial GM crops are likely to be grown in the UK before 2009 at the earliest. Largely driven by the green lobby, British consumers have apparently rejected GM foods in spite of a panic-free welcome for a GM tomato paste almost a decade ago.
That disappeared from the shelves under an avalanche of anti-GM outbursts. Supermarkets, as alert to threats as opportunities, have since shied away from GM in any form.
But there are increasing signs that GM now faces less opposition, especially as medical uses for it have been developed and crops sell more readily on the global market.
Last week's news suggests an acceptance that GM is a technology whose time has come as government says it wants a practical framework for GM and non-GM crops to coexist.
That would include specified separation distances between GM crops, probably maize or oilseed to start with, and non-GM crops. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has also asked for views on coexistence rules, options for compensating financial losses that non-GM farmers might face if GM material was found in their crops, if there should be a public register of GM crops and guidance to farmers on voluntary GM-free zones.
Environment minister Ian Pearson said it was not a green light for GM crops. The Soil Association said, in a nutshell, that it most certainly was and a disgrace and abomination into the bargain. They intend to keep on saying so, but fewer people seem to be listening.
As they announced a consultation on GM crops, the government rejected calls from campaigners, including Georgina Downs, for more stringent pesticide spray rules to safeguard human health.
Pearson, having a busy day, said the scientific advice the government had received was clear that there was "insufficient evidence" to support recommendations from the Royal Commission for more safety regulations for pesticides.
He said: "Introducing regulations for other reasons such as perceived nuisance from spraying would be incompatible with the government's Better Regulation policy. We have therefore decided against introducing any new regulations at this time."
The Soil Association condemned the government for failing to protect the public from pesticides when it should be encouraging a wholesale move to organic, spray-free (except in a wide range of exceptional circumstances) farming.
Downs, who has led a vigorous and determined campaign against pesticide use anywhere near rural homes unless there are much more effective safeguards, said the government's response was "an absolute disgrace" because it did not change anything.
Defra said it had accepted or already implemented 25 of the Royal Society's 35 recommendations, but Downs said: "The government has refused to acknowledge the health risks inherent in the spraying of agricultural chemicals and has decided not to introduce any legal measures to protect rural residents and communities.
"This shows absolute contempt for people who live, work, go to school or just spend considerable time in the countryside.
"Voluntary and self regulatory measures have existed for decades and have not worked."
Much of last Thursday's activity was anglo-centric. But pesticides and GM crops also affect Scotland.
A spokeswoman said: "The Scottish Executive will consult on managing the co-existence of GM, conventional and organic crops in due course."
Commercialisation of ICAR transgenics likely by 2008
Field trials completed for seven GM varieties
- HINDU BUSINESS LINE, By Harish Damodaran, July 24, 2006
The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), increasingly under scrutiny for "not doing enough" in the field of genetically modified (GM) crops, claims that it is well on course towards commercialising its first set of transgenic varieties in the next couple of years.
Speaking to Business Line, the Director-General of ICAR, Dr Mangala Rai, said: "There are seven GM varieties on which field trials have been completed under the supervision of the Department of Biotechnology's Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM)."
He added: "This season we will be seeking the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee's (GEAC) permission to undertake large-scale trials and seed production. If all goes well, our first transgenics will reach the farmers' fields by 2008 or 2009."
The seven transgenics, which have crossed the RCGM-stage of approvals, include Helicoverpa armigera or American bollworm-resistant cotton, yellow stem borer-resistant rice, fruit and shoot borer-resistant brinjal, leaf curl virus-resistant tomato, protein-enriched potato, and salinity-cum-drought tolerant tomato and mustard.
For cotton and rice, the ICAR and its public sector affiliates have used the cry1Ac gene - a variant of Monsanto's Bollgard, also derived from the soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) - while the GM brinjal incorporates the cry1Ab gene.
In potato, the gene deployed is AmAl, which is cloned from the protein-rich Amaranth seed (ramdana).
For imparting salinity and drought tolerance in tomato and mustard, the osmotin protein gene has been employed.
For leaf curl virus-resistant tomato, a "replicase gene in antisense construct" has been mobilised.
According to Dr Rai, one advantage of the ICAR system's GM products would be the "excellent backgrounds" in which the alien genes are being incorporated.
"One reason for Bt cotton not performing up to expectations everywhere is the poor background of the underlying hybrids. In our case, we have chosen in-bred varieties that are certified and very popular among farmers."
For cotton, the varieties that have been genetically transformed are Bikaneri Narma, LRA-5166, Sahana, and RG-8; Kufri Chipsona-1, Chipsona-2 and Badshah for potato; Pusa Jaikisan for mustard; Pusa Purple Long for brinjal; and Pusa Early Dwarf and Pusa Ruby for tomato.
TO INDUCE COMPETITION
Expeditious commercialisation of GM crops in the public sector is expected to benefit farmers in the long run, as it would induce competition.
So far, the Government has approved 59 GM hybrids (all cotton) for commercial release.
Of these, 52 are based on the Bollgard gene technology of Monsanto, while the others express the gene constructs developed either by JK Agri-Genetics Ltd or Nath Seeds.
"These hybrids are expensive mainly due to the high trait value or technology fee component. Things will change once publicly bred GM varieties and hybrids enter the market," industry sources said.
Designer Jeans From Designer Genes
- Tech Central Station, By Dr. Henry I. Miller, 27 Jul 2006
As the "new biotechnology" -- gene-splicing, or "genetic modification" (GM) -- enjoys ever more varied and impressive successes, the intractable opposition from environmental and other activists has become reminiscent of the old cartoon cliché about the person who year after year inaccurately predicts the end of the world.
Activists' antagonism belies the fact that gene-splicing offers enhanced efficiency for a vast array of processes, and proven benefits to both human health and the environment. For example, a single issue of a prominent monthly biotech journal contained three unrelated articles that illustrate a good part of the spectrum of benefits of the technology: agronomic improvement in an important crop plant, improved nutrition in another, and decreased animal waste deposited in the environment.
The first of these involved moving two barley genes into rice, which increases more than four-fold the yield in alkaline soil (a problem in thirty per cent of arable land worldwide). The second showed that moving a single gene from the petunia into tomato markedly increases the concentration of antioxidant compounds called flavonols, the consumption of which in food appears to be correlated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. The third was a proof-of-principle experiment that demonstrated that the addition of a single bacterial gene to a mammal (in this case a mouse, used as a model system) enables the animal to more efficiently metabolize phosphates from feed, thereby reducing the phosphate content of their excreta. Adapted to large animals like cows and pigs, this approach could lower the phosphate content of manure from intensively farmed livestock and reduce the phosphate runoff into waterways and aquifers.
Another promising application is the more efficient production of ethanol (ethyl alcohol), which can be used as a clean-burning fuel, from various sources of cellulose -- wheat and rice straw, switchgrass, paper pulp, and agricultural waste products like corn cobs and leaves. Such an approach can produce twice as much ethanol per acre as growing corn, because of the large amounts of available biomass, and it uses material that is otherwise virtually without value. Conceptually, the conversion of cellulose to ethanol involves two basic steps: cleaving the long chains of cellulose molecules into glucose and other sugars, and fermenting those sugars into ethanol. Ordinarily, these processes are performed by different microorganisms: fungi and bacteria that use enzymes to "free" the sugars in cellulose, and other microbes, primarily yeasts, to ferment the sugars into alcohol, but molecular biologists are making progress at getting single organisms to perform more of the necessary conversions, and to carry them out more efficiently.
These examples of biotech's benefits are still in various stages of R&D, but others are already in the marketplace. Consider, for example, the two-part example of the use of designer genes to make designer jeans. The two principal components of blue jeans are, of course, cotton fabric and the indigo die that confers the characteristic color, and both can now be produced with environment-sparing biotechnology.
Gene-spliced, pest-resistant cotton differs from other commercial varieties by the presence of a protein from a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). The protein, made by a gene transferred to the cotton plant by gene-splicing techniques, is toxic to certain insects but not to humans or other mammals. (Preparations of live Bt bacteria have for decades been sprayed onto plants by home gardeners and commercial farmers, with an admirable record of both safety and effectiveness.) The Bt-cotton is used to control several major pests, the cotton and pink bollworm and the tobacco budworm, which account for a quarter of all losses due to pest infestations and cost farmers more than $150 million annually. The states with a high rate of adoption of Bt-cotton have shown a significant reduction in the need to treat fields with chemical pesticides. Treatments were cut from an average of three treatments per acre to about one and a half. Bt-cotton has eliminated the need for millions of pounds of chemical pesticides since it was introduced a decade ago.
In purely economic terms, Bt-cotton produces benefits to farmers both by reducing the need to apply chemical pesticides and by increasing the yield of cotton. Bt-cotton provides the highest per acre monetary benefits to farmers of all the Bt-containing crops, which include corn and soybeans. The aggregate advantage to cotton farmers nationally -- the net value of crops not lost to pests, savings in pesticides and so on -- is hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
But the economic benefits pale beside the environmental advantages.
Aquatic wildlife are threatened by three of the chemicals that must be used in much greater amounts on conventional, non-Bt-cotton -- endosulfan, methyl parathion and profenos. Environmental regulators have expressed concerns about the effects of such chemicals on birds, fish and other aquatic organisms.
The adoption of Bt-cotton and the resulting lessened need for chemical pesticides also reduces occupational exposures to the toxic chemicals by workers who mix, load and apply the pesticides, and who perform other activities that require their presence in the field. Moreover, the less pesticides that are applied, the less runoff into waterways, a significant problem in many of the nation's agricultural regions.
Cotton is only half the story when we're talking about blue jeans, however. To coin a phrase, without the right dye, you'll die in the marketplace. And the standard process for producing the indigo dye is an ecological and occupational monstrosity. Indigo production via chemical synthesis involves eight discrete operations and uses and produces highly toxic chemicals. The process requires special precautions and physical facilities to protect workers and the environment.
By contrast, the process of making indigo with a gene-spliced bacterium involves only three operations, uses water instead of toxic organic solvents, employs corn syrup (which is safe and cheap) as the primary starting material, and yields byproducts (biomass and carbon dioxide) instead of waste products.
Biotechnology's green approach and the other kinds of benefits it offers are being jeopardized by excessive government regulation and the relentless, mindless opposition of activists. If they were acting in good faith, activists (and government regulators) would be demanding -- not obstructing -- biotech used in agricultural and industrial applications.
Henry Miller, a physician, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He was an FDA official from 1979 to 1994 and is the co-author of "The Frankenfood Myth..." which was selected by Barron's as one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.