Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - August 8, 2006
* BBC Debates Biotech
* Iron Transporter Research May Deliver Higher-Nutrient Crops
* Bt Eggplant in India: New Target of Anti-Tech Activists
* Biotech Crops Are Safe for Livestock & Poultry Feed
* Plan to Grow AIDS Cream in Tobacco Plants
* Precautionary Principle and the WTO
* Science, Ag and the Politics of Policy: Case of Biotech in India
* Zimbabwe: Biotechnology - Debate Rages On
* Poet No. 7, Theatre 503, London
BBC Debates Biotech
- Business Daily BBC World Service Radio, August 4, 2006
Presenter: Pesticides are powerful chemicals, but many farmers use them on a daily basis. They come in containers with big safety warnings about the risk they pose to human health. In case of contact with skin wash off immediately. If irritation continues, seek medical advice. So the idea that genetically modified crops wouldn't need to be sprayed with pesticides is a big selling point, not least because it should save farmers money. But in spite of initial high hopes, some farmers growing genetically modified cotton haven't been able to cut their pesticide bills. The BBC's science correspondent Matt McGrath reports.
Reporter (Matt McGrath): This is the amplified sound of a boll worm, recorded by scientists as it attacks a cotton plant. This little insect strikes fear into the hearts of cotton farmers around the world, because of all the pests that can attack cotton the boll worm is the most destructive.
Just over ten years ago scientists in the United States believed they had a solution to the problem, a genetically engineered solution called Bt cotton. A team from Monsanto, one of the world's biggest biotechnology companies, had spliced a gene from a bacterium into the cotton plant. It produced a poisonous substance that killed the boll worm when it ate the leaves.
In their corporate videos Monsanto say that Bt cotton has been a major step forward for the developing world, because of the ability of the plant to kill the boll worm by itself, without the need for pest killers to be sprayed over the crop. Dr. Yusuf Ishmael from Reading University's Department of Geography says that because of the huge amounts of pesticide involved in cotton farming, it makes good business sense to develop a crop that requires less spraying.
Dr. Yusuf Ishmael (Reading University): Companies like Monsanto go for these Bt genes, because if you look at the amounts of insecticide used in the world, it's 24 % of all these toxic insecticides used in the world is on cotton. So if any company wants to make money is to go into these commercial crops where they use a lot of insecticide, if you can reduce that by having a gene, then you have a big market.
Reporter (Matt McGrath): And the take-up of genetically modified cotton has been widespread. Farmers in the world's biggest cotton producers, the United States, China, India and Argentina have all adopted it with enthusiasm. But this new research from China, carried out by a respected team from Cornell University, raises some serious questions about the longer-term benefits of Bt.
The study found that in the first three years of planting farmers sprayed less and made more money. But after seven years other pests, such as myriad beetles and aphids like these, had increased so much that farmers are now spraying just as often as with non-Bt cotton, and their incomes are now less than those of conventional farmers. Clare Oxborough, from Friends of the Earth in the UK, says that this is a consequence of using genetically modified cotton in the first place.
Clare Oxborough (Friends of the Earth): The pesticide itself produced in the Bt cotton is killing off one particular pest, and that boll worm pest naturally feeds on other pests, like myriad beetles and so on. So if you then remove the boll worm that then opens up space for other pests to come in.
Reporter (Matt McGrath): Monsanto say they disagree with the conclusions of the study, and that it's the result of just one year's data. Dr. Ishmael from Reading University says that even though farmers may have to spray more to control these secondary pests, the damage they do is nothing compared to the boll worm.
Dr. Yusuf Ishmael (Reading University): The Bt is designed to control the boll worm, which causes the most economic damage. Whereas the other insects and aphids don't cause so much economic damage, it's only like between 1% and 5% damage.
Reporter (Matt McGrath): Anti-GM campaigners say that biotechnology companies like Monsanto have marketed the Bt cotton unfairly in countries like India. They say that farmers are often swayed by slick marketing campaigns featuring Bollywood celebrities. According to Clare Oxborough the benefits from genetically modified cotton can be overstated. The report from China, she says, confirms that the technology is failing
Clare Oxborough (Friends of the Earth): They're failing to deliver for farmers economically, failing to deliver for the environment, there were supposed benefits of reduced chemical use which simply aren't emerging as a reality. The only beneficiaries to GM technology are the biotech companies, who are making money out of the patents and seeds they sell and the chemicals and some big farmers, who can grow these crops on a vast scale. So the vast majority of farmers in developing countries, small scale farmers and so on, simply see no benefit.
Reporter (Matt McGrath): Even though Bt cotton has been planted commercially for ten years now, the jury is still out in terms of its long-term impacts, on the environment and on the incomes of farmers in developing countries. Dr. Ishmael says that despite the drawbacks with other pests, there is one basic fact that ensures that Bt cotton will continue to be grown in the developing world. It is, for now at least, reliable, and a crop you can count on is a major step forward for many.
Dr. Yusuf Ishmael (Reading University): The reason why farmers like to use Bt cotton are not purely because of economics, as I've mentioned to you before, there's different reasons for that as well. And one of the prime reasons I think is about risk management. The thing about European farmers, we tend to have our objective as profit maximisation. But if you look at poor countries, their aim is about reducing the risk, and one way to do that is to have that crop in the field, because you're guaranteed that if there is no infestation of boll worm it's an insurance policy.
Presenter: Dr Yusuf Ishmael from Reading University in Britain ending that report by the BBC's Matt McGrath. So if you still need pesticides, have the economic arguments in favour of GM cotton collapsed? Juan Lopez thinks so, he's from the environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth and he joined me on the line from Florence in Italy. I put the question first to Professor Vivian Moses, from the pro-GM Cropgen Information Service.
Prof. Vivian Moses (Cropgen Information Service): I think there are many things we don't actually know about this report. For one thing you must recognise that there is no failure of the original plant to control boll worm. The claim is that it's now being infested by other organisms which it moved into the space left because the boll worm could no longer get in. however the Chinese scientist Dr Wang who actually provided the information is very sceptical of the way these results have been treated by Cornell and has said so, and moreover it's quite clear that there was, in the summer of 2004 when the results were collected, a cool, wet summer which caused the myriads in particular to multiply very greatly, and many other crops besides cotton were also affected.
Presenter: Juan Lopez, if I could turn to you, if it's the farmer's fault in China, or at least it could be the farmer's fault, if they've not been using the GM cotton seed properly, then it's no wonder that they have to use pesticides still?
Juan Lopez (Friends of the Earth): What has been reported in China is nothing new, it has been reported with other crops. What is clear is that since the beginning of the nineties, the biotech industry has been saying that GM crops are going to reduce pesticide use, they are going to provide higher yields, they are going to provide cheaper foods, more nutritious food, so the reports in China basically show what has been reported in many other places in the world, that the promises are not being fulfilled.
Presenter: Can I just jump in and ask, why do we need GM crops when we're already, the United States and Europe, making much more food than they need and dumping it in the developing world anyway?
Prof. Vivian Moses (Cropgen Information Service): We have an ongoing process of plant breeding, it's not as if plant breeding has suddenly started with GM crops, every year the plant breeders produce new strains and this results in an ever-increasing yield advantage to farmers.
Presenter: Do we need that, when we're already making too much food?
Prof. Vivian Moses (Cropgen Information Service): We're making too much food only in a restricted sense, in many places we're making obviously too little food. But moreover farmers of course are businessmen, and they are in it to get the most they can out of the time and money they put in, and so the more efficient the produce they have the better for them. But in a wider sense, we as human beings face enormous problems in the future. Our population in the world might grow 50 % larger, to nine or ten billion, the amount of arable land is decreasing constantly, as people build houses on it. The amount of water available is becoming limited, and we have to meet all of these problems together with trying to bring up the nutrition of the people who are already malnourished, the billion or so.
Presenter: OK, so GM crops can produce much more food per acre than conventional crops. Juan Lopez, in a world where a quarter of the population is hungry, how can you possibly argue against that?
Juan Lopez (Friends of the Earth): Well, first of all the GM crops don't produce higher yields, I mean there are a lot of studies which assert that, that is not true. Before you touch the very critical question, you say, if there are no benefits, why people, why consumers need to take any risk, doesn't matter how much more it is, there's no clear benefit. If in Europe the consumers have rejected GM crops, it's clearly because they have not seen any benefit on this crop. They are not cheaper, they are not better quality, they are not more nutritious, it's clearly the fault of the biotech companies which have not been able to give to the public a product that shows benefits, and on the other side they have got a problem, new problems, on the table.
Presenter: So to finish off, how would you feel if the GM food companies were to make an unconditional offer to compensate anyone who could prove they truly suffered as a result of this technology being in use?
Juan Lopez (Friends of the Earth): That's a great question. The biotech industry, organisations that support the work of Professor Moses, are always opposed to a liability mechanism, and their latter refrain was in Europe and all over the world, if GM food is so safe, why then the biotech companies are opposing liability conditions?
Presenter: Professor Moses, is such an offer ever likely to be forthcoming?
Prof. Vivian Moses (Cropgen Information Service): I couldn't tell you, you'd have to ask the companies, but I would like to say that Juan made a series of statements, almost every one of which, as far as I can remember, is wrong and unsupported. It is not true that European consumers have rejected GM foods, they haven't had the opportunity to buy them, if you put them on the shelves they do in fact buy them. Food safety is not what the biotech companies do, they produce seeds, and their compensation arrangements, if they are to exist at all, would refer to farmers not to consumers.
Presenter: If the technology is so safe, why don't the biotech companies back it with an offer like that?
Prof. Vivian Moses (Cropgen Information Service): What exactly is the offer that you want them to make?
Presenter: If biotech companies truly believe that their food is safe, that their products are safe, why don't they make an unconditional offer, they're big enough companies, to compensate anyone who can prove that they have been harmed by one of their seeds?
Prof. Vivian Moses (Cropgen Information Service): I think that they would be covered by all the usual liability legislation, that if they sell unsafe products then they are liable in law. That covers one thing. The other point that you make, that is also not exactly true, you talk about the size of the biotech companies, I happen to know for a fact that Monsanto is seven times smaller than the largest UK supermarket chain. It's not quite a big as people think it is, people think it is somehow the behemoth that strides the world. It may be a large seed producing company, it is not exactly General Motors.
Iron Transporter Research May Deliver Higher-Nutrient Crops
- Food Navigator August 7, 2006, http://www.foodnavigator.com
Research into the ways in which crops derive micronutrients from the soil could make it possibly to engineer higher-yield, nutrient-rich crops in poor quality soils and increase biomass in soils currently under cultivations, claim US scientists.
Deficiencies of the micronutrients iron and zinc can limit plant growth and affect yield volumes - and also have an effect on the health of consumers who rely on them for nourishment.
At a meeting of the American Society of Plant Biologists in Boston, Professor Mary Lou Guerinot of Dartmouth University will today present her solution to the problem: the engineering of plants to be better sources of essential nutrients such as iron.
Professor Guerinot and colleagues had previously identified the transporter IRT1 as being responsible for the uptake of iron from the soil, but it seems some plants may have lost this function in modern environments. The problem is, however, that IRT1 also transports other metals such as manganese, zinc, cobalt and cadmium - and cadmium is an undesirable metal in foodstuffs since it is extremely toxic and can accumulate in and cause damage to the internal organs.
This problem is compounded, says Guerinot, by the use of phosphate fertilizers, which has led to high levels of cadmium contamination in many locations around the world. In her presentation, Guerinot explains how she and her team used DNA shuffling and herterologous expression in yeast to isolate alleles (DNA sequences) of IRT1, which allow the iron to be transported but not the cadmium.
She tested the efficacy of the method by comparing the cadmium levels in the transgenic seedlings with those of plants that have lost their IRT1 function, and found them to be the same. Moreover, the tests showed up another benefit: the transgenic plants were seen to have twice as much iron as the wild type plants, when grown in the presence of cadmium.
In particular, increasing levels of iron in rice - a staple in many poor countries - could help tackle deficiencies, which can lead to anaemia and impairment of mental development. According to the United Nations World Food Programme, iron deficiency is the most common form of malnutrition, affecting 4.5 billion people worldwide. It is estimated to impair the mental development of 40-60 percent children in developing countries.
More than the health impact, the WFP also says that widespread iron deficiency damages productivity and can cut GDP by as much as two percent in some countries. The next phase of Prof Guerinot's team's work is expected to "aid the development of nutrient-rich seed, beneficially affecting human nutrition and health," she said.
The researchers have already begun looking at the distribution of the metals within the plant organs and seed, using X-ray fluorescent microtomography. So far they have looked at Arabidopsis (rockcress) seed in vivo, to see which transporters affect the distribution of misrocnutrients within it. "This research should also lead to agronomic benefits such as increased seedling vigour, higher crop yields and resistance to disease."
Bt Brinjal (Egg Plant) in India: The New Target Board of Anti-Tech Activists
- C Kameswara Rao, Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, Bangalore, India krao.at.vsnl.com
Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco) sought the permission of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of India, for large-scale open field trials of eight Bt brinjal hybrids. This threw the anti-tech activists in India into a tizzy. 'Position papers on Bt brinjal', spiced with a lot of misinformation and disinformation, have been widely circulated, demanding a ban of not just Bt brinjal, but all transgenics in India. To be fair, the GEAC placed the biosecurity data provided by Mahyco on their website for public comment. Not being very sure of the effectiveness of its own campaign, the propaganda vehicle now drew on board experts and scientists, one each from the US, UK and New Zealand.
The science behind some of the issues raised by the activists is considered here, to show that scientific evidence does not indicate the possibility of Bt brinjals posing any serious or unmanageable risks to the farmers, consumers or the environment.
Brinjal, botanically Solanum melongena, consumed as a vegetable in Asia and Europe, is aubergine in the United Kingdom and eggplant in the United States. The Persian/Arabic name al-bAdhinjAn, seems to have transformed in two ways: a) with the al, it was the source for the French name 'aubergine' derived from Catalan albergínia, and b) without the al, it was the source of the Portuguese berinjela, and the Spanish berenjena, which became brinjal in Indian and Sri Lankan English. The samskrith name vatinganah, produced baingan in Hindi, van(g)kayi in Telugu (-kayi is raw fruit) and similar names in south Indian languages (in several Indian languages va and ba are interchangeable). Only educated people use the name brinjal. The names egg plant and aubergine are almost unknown in India, except to people who were exposed to the western influence.
Centres of Origin of cultivated plants are determined on a variety of circumstantial evidence, especially on the number and diversity of related wild species. In most cases there is hardly any sound scientific proof for the conclusions drawn. On the overall evidence, South America is considered as the Centre of Origin of the species of the genus Solanum, to which potato (Solanum tuberosum) and brinjal (Solanum melongena) belong.
The exact origin of Solanum melongena is uncertain. It probably originated from the African wild species Solanum incanum. Solanum melongena was first domesticated in Southeast China, from where it spread to the Mediterranean region during the Arab conquests in the 7th century. If brinjal was mentioned in ancient Indian literature (by its samskrith name vatinganah), it only indicates that it was naturalized, having been introduced into India, a long time ago and this in itself is not an evidence of its origin in India.
Centres of Diversity are determined on the basis of the number and diversity of related species or varieties in the wild. The fundamental criterion of relationship is that two or more species or varieties freely interbreed producing fertile offspring. The number and diversity of cultivated varieties of a crop species in a country is not a basis to determine origin and diversity, as developing such varieties is an essentially human activity.
A decade or so ago, considerations of origin and diversity were of some significance in crop plant breeding, in the choice of species/varieties with favourable genes and to produce fertile hybrids with the cultivated varieties of the related crops. With several techniques of molecular biology and genetic engineering available now, the relevance of theoretical and academic inferences on the Centres of Origin and Diversity has diminished very considerably.
Solanums are among the most well studied plant groups. Several species of Solanum occur in the wild in India. Cytogeneticists have artificially produced interspecific hybrids of species of Solanum. It was not so difficult to produce first generation hybrids but they generally suffered from chromosomal instability and pollen sterility, and hardly resulted in any fertile hybrids.
DNA marker studies show that Solanum incanum and then Solanum viarum are closer to Solanum melongena than the other species of Solanum. Solanum incanum and Solanum viarum, are infrequent in India, but hardly sympatric and panmictic with the cultivated varieties. Even if artificial hybrids were produced, the progeny were sterile, leaving no chances for gene flow among these related species.
In nature, species of Solanum do not normally hybridize, as they are predominantly (over 90 per cent) self-pollinated. Anthers that open by small apical pores are the characteristic feature of the genus Solanum, unlike in many other crop plant species where the anthers open dehiscing longitudinally to fully expose the pollen to the air and pollinators. Solanum pollen are sticky and occur in lumps and do not travel long distances, even if they become airborne. Insects visit Solanum flowers but their role in pollination is insignificant.
There are many cultivated varieties of brinjal in India; some of them are restricted to specific to narrow regions, as for example the 'Udupi gulla' variety of Mangalore. Wild species of Solanum and several cultivated varieties of brinjals co-exist. However, the farmers are not conscious of any hybrids between the two groups and they do not make any effort to protect varieties of cultivated brinjals from hybridizing among themselves or with the wild Solanums.
The floral structure and the reproductive biology of brinjals and experience in cultivating them for several centuries in India, do not suggest any possibility of gene flow from transgenic brinjals to normal brinjals.
The biosecurity of Bt insecticidal proteins in transgenic crops is thoroughly assured by evidence on the use of Bt pesticides for over 60 years and the cultivation and consumption of Bt transgenics for about a decade. None of the extensive studies on the safety of Bt proteins conducted in various countries has indicated any possibility of their being harmful to animals and humans or the environment in any way.
Cry 1 Ac is toxic only under specific conditions. It is non-toxic to all organisms with an acidic stomach and with no binding sites for the crystaal protein, which includes all mammals and non-target organisms.
Brinjal fruits are not toxic to mammals. But, all parts of the brinjal palnt, except the fruit, are toxic, due to several alkaloids. No one deliberately feeds the cattle with brinjal plants, also because serveral varieties have spines on even the fruit crown. Grown under water scarcity, even the fruit accumulates alkaloids and phenolic compounds, which give a bitter taste and make the fruit inedible.
Biotech Crops Are Safe for Livestock & Poultry Feed
- Ross Korves, Truth about Trade, August 4, 006 http://www.truthabouttrade.org
As biotech crops have become widely grown around the world the safety of eating products from livestock and poultry fed biotech crops has been an issue. While supporters of biotech crops may think the issue is settled, it remains unsettled in the minds of many people and is a critical issue in international trade. The Council for Agricultural Research and Technology (CAST) recently released a report "Safety of Meat, Milk, and Eggs from Animals Fed Crops Derived from Modern Biotechnology" that provides a good overview of recent research. The report is based on work supported by the United States Department of Agriculture and Iowa State University.
CAST acknowledged the trade policy implications by creating a seven member task force, with five members from outside the U.S. Richard Phipps of the School of Agriculture, Development and Policy, University of Reading, in the United Kingdom served as the Chair. Ralf Einspanier of the Free University in Berlin, Germany and Marjorie Faust, ABS Global, Inc., DeForest, Wisconsin were the authors. The report had four reviews: Andrew Chesson of the University of Aberdeen, United Kingdom; Gerhard Flachowsky of the Federal Agricultural Research Center, Braunschweig, Germany; Marilia Regini Nutti of Embrapa Food Technology, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and William Price, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Rockville, Maryland.
The authors begin by citing research that people get one-sixth of their energy and one-third of their protein from animal sources. As per capita incomes continue to rise those percentages will increase. According to the International Society for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) the land area used for biotech crops has increased rapidly from 4 million acres in the first year of commercialization in 1996 to 222 million acres in 2005, 6 percent of the world's 3.7 billion acres of cultivable land. Biotech varieties now account for 60 percent of the global acres of soybeans, 24 percent for corn, 11 percent for cotton and 5 percent for canola.
The regulatory framework for biotech crops is based on two factors: are the biotech crops different from traditional crops and are animals that eat biotech crops and the products from them the same as those who do not. The authors note, "Because risk factors are unique for given crops and for introduced traits, the specific analyses and comparisons are determined on a case-by-case basis." Government regulators and consumers assume that conventional crops are safe because of their history of safe use. This has given rise to the concept of substantial equivalence (or "not materially different" in the U.S.) to determine whether the biotech crops are as safe as traditionally bred crops. This has been accepted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the 173 country group created by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to develop food standards, codes of practice, guidelines and other recommendations to protect the health of consumers and ensure fair practices in trade.
The authors state, "For most conventional feed crops, the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) has identified the key nutrients, antinutritive factors, and natural plant toxicants that are important for human and animal nutrition and safety." Recent studies have shown that biotech crops are compositionally equivalent to the conventionally bred controls. This addresses one of the arguments against biotech crops that they are nutritionally deficient compared to conventionally bred crops.
Feeding trials have shown that compositional equivalence is a good indicator of nutritional equivalence. Measurements in these studies included feed intake, nutrient digestion, animal performance, and animal health. The authors explain that multi-generational studies have been done on quail and laying hens with no influence on health and performance or on meat and eggs. The authors concluded "these results indicate that for compositionally equivalent biotechnology-derived crops, routine-feeding studies with target species generally add little to safety and nutritional assessments."
The report provides details about "DNA and protein digestion by livestock, because these represent the novel constituents in biotechnology-derived crops." Research shows that, "Under normal conditions in both ruminants and monogastrics, digestible proteins are broken down in the digestive tract and absorbed as free amino acids (mostly) and di- and tripeptides." Some researchers have reported "minute amounts of intact ingested proteins and DNA in blood samples from humans and animals." Studies with livestock and poultry have not found the presence of transgenic genes in products and tissues from farm animals. A just published 2006 study reported detecting very small fragments of transgenes in milk, but they were too small to have any integrity or functionality. The authors concluded, "There is still no scientific evidence to suggest that meat, milk, and eggs derived from animals receiving biotechnology-derived crops are anything other than as safe as those derived from !
animals fed conventional crops."
The report has four recommendations: 1) continue using the case-by-case assessment approach for addressing identified risks, 2) assess risks, as opposed to hazards, using science-based approaches to maintain a balance between making reasonable risk assessments and imposing excessive regulatory burdens, 3) provide adequate funding to regulatory agencies, and 4) increase significantly public outreach and dialogue about biotechnology-derived crops and their benefits and risks.
As food safety become more important in trade policy, groups like CAST will need to continue to translate scientific research about biotech crops into useable information for policy decision makers. Trade policy cannot go where politicians and their constituents are not comfortable with the science.
Plan to Grow AIDS Cream in Tobacco Plants
- Anjali Nayar, East African, August 7, 2006 via checkbiotech.org
Tobacco, long associated with health complications, could soon help save lives instead of ending them, according to new research from the UK. A team of scientists led by Dr Julian Ma of the University of London is using transgenic tobacco plants to make affordable microbicidal vaginal creams that prevent HIV transmission.
Although condoms are the best defence against sexually transmitted HIV/Aids, women cannot always ensure their partners use protection. An internal application of the new HIV-prevention cream two to three times a week could help women take control of their sexual health.
The product could also renew the prospects of a cash crop now apparently being driven towards extinction in Kenya by anti-tobacco lobbies. The HIV-fighting ingredient in the cream is Cyanovarin-N, a protein naturally produced by certain waterborne bacteria. To make a global impact, thousands of kilogrammes of the protein would be needed per year. This greatly exceeds any current laboratory capacity and would require significant infrastructure investments to keep up with demand.
Plants are some of the most efficient producers of proteins on the planet. Furthermore, tobacco farming has low production costs and is well-established in many of the areas hardest hit by Aids. This cheap and high-output combination means that Dr Ma's cream may be both affordable and accessible to those who need it most.
In Kenya, roughly 35,000 acres of agricultural land produce an estimated 15 million kg of tobacco leaf each year, according to David Mwambire, chief executive of the Tobacco Farmer's Association. And although Kenya's tobacco industry has burgeoned in the past 20 years, increases in cigarette taxes and the recent moves to ban smoking in public have left tobacco giants British American Tobacco and Mastermind uncertain of the future.
Alternative uses for the well-established cash crop would be welcome, according to researchers and Kenya's estimated 200,000 tobacco farmers. "This is a very logical area for Africa to move into," said Dr Calestous Juma, a professor of international development at Harvard University, who chaired an African Union panel on biotechnology in Nairobi last week. "Africa has to think strategically and build on its existing expertise and infrastructure."
Cyanovarin-N is made by immersing tobacco leaf cuttings into a solution that contains genetically modified (GM) bacteria. The bacteria invade the plant cells and insert their genetic information into the plant's DNA. As the cuttings grow into adult plants, the plants' cellular machinery produces some of the bacteria's proteins, including Cyanovarin-N. When the adult tobacco plants are harvested, the protein is extracted and made into a cream.
When exposed to HIV-infected semen, the vaginally-applied Cyanovarin latches on to the virus, preventing it from attacking the woman's immune cells. Cyanovarin-N cream trials with monkeys decreased disease transmission by up to 80 per cent. Only three of the 18 animals using the cream contracted HIV, whereas the eight control animals were infected.
This is good news for women all over the world, but Dr Ma's cream is still years away from being commercially available. He hopes to grow enough of the drug in the UK to conduct human trials within the next three years. African governments may be wary of transgenic tobacco because there are several risks associated with growing GM crops, including the contamination of surrounding non-GM crops.
Dr Ma avoids this problem in the United Kingdom by working in a high-security, airtight greenhouse normally used for research on plant viruses. If the GM tobacco was grown in East Africa, the plants would have to be further genetically modified for sterility to prevent their cross-pollinating natural crops.
Even if the drug is approved, mass production is still a long way off. Dr Ma estimates 5,000 kg of Cyanovarin-N would be needed to provide 10 million women with the necessary biweekly dose. At current rates of drug extraction, Kenya's entire tobacco industry would only produce enough cream for about 3.9 million women.
The Precautionary Principle and the WTO
- United Nations University, August 4, 2006
A new report from the United Nations University's Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS) examines the evolution of the debate over the "precautionary principle" in the context of the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The report, entitled "Trading precaution: The Precautionary Principle and the WTO," is part of a series of studies being undertaken at UNU-IAS to explore the differing standards for regulating biotechnology in different regimes.
The 17-page report is available online at:
http://www.ias.unu.edu/binaries2/PrecautionaryPrinciple and WTO.pdf
New Book on India Biotech Released
"Science, Agriculture and the Politics of Policy: The Case of Biotechnology in India,"
by Prof. Ian Scoones of the University of Sussex (UK) has just been released.
The book examines the intersections of globalization, technology, and politics through a detailed, empirically-based examination of agricultural biotechnology in India, with a focus on the biotech hubs of Bangalore and Karnataka.
For more information, email Ian Scoones at I.Scoones@ids.ac.uk; or visit
http://www.ntd.co.uk/idsbookshop/details.asp?id=882 for international sales, or http://www.orientlongman.com/display.asp?isbn=81-250-2944-3 for India sales.
Institute of Development Studies
at the University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9RE
Zimbabwe: Biotechnology - Debate Rages On
- Sifelani Tsiko, The Herald (Harare), August 8, 2006 http://allafrica.com/stories/200608071408.html
The rapid progress of modern biotechnology and the scares over mad cow disease and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have generated highly charged debate on biotechnology in many parts of the world including Africa leading to public showdowns, regulatory and trade disputes.
Following an article I wrote which appeared in The Herald on July 24 titled: "Africa must resist pressure over GMOs" the scientific community has reacted sharply to some of the sentiments contained in the article.
Their concerns are best captured by Donald Johnston in a paper titled: "A defence of modern biotechnology" he wrote in April 1999.
Wrote Johnston: "Public opinion appears divided, with all sides making sense and at the same time adding to the confusion. The trouble is that amid all the noise, virtually anything to do with 'genetic engineering' whatever the benefits is in danger of becoming -- taboo."
The scientists felt that even though biotechnology is not the panacea to hunger in Africa, it must be accepted as one of many initiatives that provide solutions to the continent's greatest headache to ensure food security.
They argue that modern biotechnology is a new and vast field full of opportunities that can partly answer some of the challenges facing the continent pertaining to food security, health and the environment.
They also feel that biotechnology was becoming a victim of a well orchestrated worldwide campaign against GMOs, particularly food products that is not prepared to hear their side on the potential benefits that may be realised through using new technologies.
"It is an emotive debate with science caught in the middle of it," said Johnston. "The trouble is that short-term political pressures do not always influence policies for the better.
"They can lead to ad-hoc regulatory interventions which focus on and stigmatise new technologies, duplicate existing systems and lead to needless bureaucracy and the occasional trade disputes. How can all this be avoided?"
There are communication barriers with consumers bemoaning the absence of transparency by scientists over information pertaining to GMO-related products and conversely scientists raising concerns over the politicisation of new technologies with no "scientific basis or evidence" over consumer worries.
Here are some of the reactions:
The article in The Herald of July 24 contained numerous inaccuracies and unsubstantiated allegations of adverse effects of GM crops. To put the record straight I kindly appeal to you to publish the included article. Numerous statements you published on the adverse effects of GMOs following the conference on food security and the challenge to GMOs held at Silveira House are unfounded and scientifically unsubstantiated.
To put the record straight I wish to respond to only a few of the unfounded, allegations which could easily create unsubstantiated fear.
Raymond Bokor: "It is imperative that an immediate freeze on genetic engineering on food and farming is declared throughout Africa."
Roussel and Mushita: "Genetic engineering cannot form part of the solution to the food crisis in Africa."
This is in direct conflict with how African leaders consider GMOs can help solve Africa's agricultural stagnation. This is what some of them have to say: Four West-African presidents -- Amadou Toumani Toure of Mali, Mamadou Tandja of Niger, John Kufuor of Ghana and Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso -- have given their unequivocal support to the use of biotechnology to improve food security on the continent.
Speaking at the Ministerial Conference on Harnessing Science and Technology to Increase Agricultural Productivity in Africa, held in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, president Compaore said: "The continent must increase food production 12-fold in order to satisfy the needs of the population. To meet this challenge Africa must acquire and adapt biotechnology to the agricultural sectors."
President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya added his voice. He said increased incidents of drought and diseases demanded the use of modern methods of farming to increase yields. He noted that Kenya lost US$75 million in maize crops annually to stalkborer.
"My government is committed to improving agricultural performances through the adoption of modern technologies. Agricultural biotechnology is one of the modern innovative approaches ensuring that losses are minimised," he added.
The Ethiopian Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Belay Ejigu, says his government is committed to supporting and promoting biotechnology to enable Ethiopia to "break out of the vicious circle of poverty".
Uganda's former Minister of Agriculture, Willbeforce Mugerwa, now head of the International Service for National Agricultural Research, says: "Africa must adopt new agricultural technologies to produce more food. African countries should move fast to embrace biotechnology to benefit their people."
Tanzania's Minister of Water Affairs and Livestock, Edward Lowassa, has requested the Egyptian agricultural authorities to help train Tanzanian farmers to produce GM crops.
Already 32 African countries have acceded to or ratified the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.
Kevin Roussel of the South African Catholic Bishops' Conference raised fears over "suicide", "terminator" seeds that are sterile, forcing poor farmers to purchase seed each year from the multinationals.
The truth is that there is no terminator seed available commercially anywhere in the world. It has never been tested in the field.
It is unlikely that it will ever be produced. Various seed companies have indicated that they have no intention of producing it. The director-general of the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation), the president of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, are among the many institutions that have publicly condemned the technology. Even so, should terminator seed ever come to fruition (the world is a free market) farmers can either buy it or reject it. Farmers are always offered a choice. They have the opportunity to choose between products as well as companies.
It is surprising that the South African Catholic Bishops' Conference should raise an anti-GMO voice. Clearly Roussel is not completely in touch with the Vatican's views on GMOs.
At a Catholic Bishops GM conference in Rome, Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice-president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said: "There are no impediments to animal and vegetable biotechnologies. They are for the good of man."
Bishop Jesus Y la Vare, of the Diocese of Sorsgon, emphasised the importance of the role of biotechnologies in developing countries. He said: "There is no human activity that does not present risks, and GMOs are certainly not more risky than the foods we already consume."
Mushita: There are great scientific uncertainties regarding the safety of GMOs and their potential risks to the environment, health, food and animal safety.
This is unfounded. The Royal Society of London, one of the world's most respected and leading scientific institutions, researched GMOs and reported as follows: "There is no consensus as to the seriousness, or even existence, of any potential harm from GM technology. It should be used to increase the production of main staple foods and reduce the environmental impact of agriculture. Biotech crops may even be safer than regular food."
This report was endorsed by eight academies of science: Brazil, China, India, Mexico, the Third World Academy, the National Academy of Science of the USA, Germany and France.
The British Medical Association (BMA) also came out in full support of GMOs stating: "There is very little potential for GM foods to cause harmful health effects. Many of the concerns expressed apply with equal vigour to conventionally derived foods."
In South Africa, 40 million people have been eating GM food for the past seven years in one way or another without developing as much as a tummy ache. There have been no adverse effects on animals or the environment. No super bugs or super weeds have appeared. Not here, or anywhere else in the world.
There are huge risks to the smallholder rural African farmers if they adopt GM crops. In South Africa thousands of smallholder farmers are producing GM crops and enjoying higher yields. None have experienced any risk or hardships.
In the Eastern Cape near East London, Chief Advocate Mdutshane, the local chief in the area, said 120 smallholder farmers in his area planted 142 ha of GM maize for the first time in 2004. Their yields in previous seasons averaged 1,5t/ha. With the new Bt maize, eliminating the stalkborer, yields increased by an average of between 3,5 t/ha and 4 t/ha. An average increase of 133 percent. With no need to spray for stalkborer, they saved R176/ha on insecticide cost.
"This maize has changed our lives. We have named it Iyasihluthisa -- it fills our stomachs. We are no longer going to sleep hungry," he said.
A project to determine the role of biotechnology in smallholder farming during the 2004/05 maize season was carried out on six demonstration sites in six of South Africa's provinces. AfricaBio, in collaboration with the National African Farmers' Union (NAFU), Buhle Farmers Training Academy, Cedara Agricultural College and the Provincial Departments of Agriculture, carried out the experiments.
Bt and conventional maize were planted on one ha plots side by side and harvested at the same time. The average yield for the Bt maize was 42,5 percent higher than the conventional crop. The highest increase was 55,1 percent.
If this can be achieved in Africa it will make a big difference to solving food shortages. Africa's crop production is the lowest in the world. Yields average 1,7t/ha compared to 4t/ha in the developed world and in many areas up to 10t/ha.
In 2005, some 8,5 million farmers planted 90 million ha of GM crops in 21 countries on all six continents, of which 7,7 million were poor subsistence farmers. This is the challenge for Africa. - Hans Lombard, Cresta International agricultural analyst and consultant to the agricultural biotech industry.
"I am writing from Clemson University in South Carolina. I would like to comment on your recent article entitled "Africa must resist pressure over GMO's".
Firstly, I do appreciate that you are a prolific writer on environmental issues and I understand you recently won an award for your reports on the environment. Congratulations! Although I am far away from home, I always keep in touch with events back home and I certainly read The Herald. Over the past few months, I have noted a number of articles on GMO's with notable ones being one by Wisdom Mdzungairi entitled "Zim, Zambia stance on GMO's hailed", and a recent one by Tonderai Matonho entitled "GMO crops threaten farmers' livelihoods" and now the most recent article was yours.
I follow articles on GMO's because in my research I also deal with GM crops and hence my interest in them. Concerning your article, I would like to respectfully say that the bulk of the adverse effects that you mentioned, have not been proven through any research. I do agree that GM technologies and food aid are not the panacea to hunger in Africa, but some of the alternatives being put forward by the so-called progressive NGO's, such as organic farming etc are also not going to take us anywhere. I think the problem of hunger in Africa cuts across many facets including politics. As far as I am concerned, the terminator or suicide technology has not been approved anywhere. You mentioned what you term the growing influence of transnational corporations. I am not sure if that is the correct term to use because in my opinion, some of the GM technologies like Bt cotton, Bt maize, Roundup ready cotton and Roundup ready soyabean have proved to be quite convenient for the farmers, an d so farmers adopt them because they see certain advantages in them compared to conventional varieties. I do not think there is any influence or coercion that is involved.
Still on the multinational companies, it seems to me from your article as if GM technologies are being produced only by the private sector companies. In fact, in Zimbabwe's biggest trading partner, China; it is the Chinese government itself through its research institutions and universities that is leading the research and application of GM technologies. A paper by Idah Sithole, Cohen and Zambrano (African Journal of Biotechnology Vol. 3(11) pages 564-571, November 2004 reveals that genetic transformation on various crops is taking place in Zimbabwe. If this work is being done at SIRDC, then it means that it is the Zimbabwean taxpayers funding part of such work.
I am saying this so as to dispel the impression that it is only the multinationals involved in GM technologies. You quoted one Raymond Bokor as having said that "Food aid comes as a result of the myth of hunger". I am not sure if hunger in Africa is a myth. In my opinion, it is a reality that many people are facing. You mentioned that in Zimbabwe the Biosafety Board screens food aid before it comes in to safeguard the health of the people as well as to protect the environment. I am just curious as to what they will be screening for? Is GM food poisonous? How is the screening conducted? and does the Biosafety Board have scientists on the ground to do the said screening?
I was also wondering as to whether milling GM grain food aid outside the country will remove the said poisonous materials? I do not agree with Mushita's comment that most developing countries " were under pressure from GMO exporting countries to implement weak biosafety regulations and to accept GMO's through food aid".
We must remember that Mushita's NGO is dedicated to what they call the preservation of plant genetic resources and hence they also have to fight for their mission. Every country has its sovereign rights to enact laws and regulations that they deem to be protective of their people. On the question of food aid, if a country produces enough grain for its people, then there is no need for food aid and a country can reject such food aid.
After all, GM foods are consumed in the countries where they are produced and so those countries will not be sending out poisonous food aid. Bokor's call for an immediate freeze on genetic engineering on Africa is in my opinion simply a grandstanding posture. I personally see some of the GM technologies such as Bt maize and Cotton helping to reduce the tonnes and tonnes of pesticides that even the smallholder farms in Africa are using on a daily basis. Remember the stories of pesticide poisoning in the cotton producing area of Gokwe. I should make it clear, however that any technology has its own risks and farmers should be made aware of such risks. In my most recent publication (African Journal of Biotechnology, Vol. 5 (10), pages 781-785), I actually pointed out some of the weaknesses of a new Bt technology called gene pyramiding.
In the final analysis, African nations should open up the debate on the benefits and drawbacks of GM crops so that local populations understand these technologies better. African governments can also have their scientists link up with others who are already working on such technologies so that they get the valuable exposure and experience in dealing with such materials. When people are well informed about a technology, they are bound to use it in a way that maximises the benefits and minimises the risks.
Basically, the key to using any technology is knowledge. Unfortunately for Zimbabwe, there does not seem to be a clear state policy on GM crops and it seems to me that the GM debate in Zimbabwe is closed from the public domain. -- Writer requested not to be named.
There were numerous reactions from other scientists and we captured a few because of space limitations. Despite the differences in opinions and standpoints, Africa's own research interest and agenda must be respected.
Greater transparency is needed to assure African consumers of the safety of the food they consume the dangers and possible opportunities that are brought about by using genetic engineering technologies. Whose research agenda is being put forward? Who is financing the global biotechnology industry? Whose biological resources are being exploited and who pays and benefits?
All these questions must be answered including issues related privacy, data protection, intellectual property rights and Africa's own public interest to guard against exploitation by multinationals and other powerful nations.
Poet No. 7, Theatre 503, London
There is something of the movie Twelve Monkeys about this brand new production from award-winning Australian writer Ben Ellis. Premiering at the terrific Theatre 503 in Battersea, it's a story of a world gone mad, as a result, directly and indirectly, of GM crops.
Poet No. 7 manages to combine the intimate with the environmental, the local with the global and the past with the future to startling effect, much like the film that apparently inspired it. Regrettably, it also has, in common with the movie, a depressingly apocalyptic vision which bears witness to the pessimistic, anti-progressive times that we now live in.
The story is difficult to summarise without giving too much away. Throughout the seventy minutes, four very different characters occupy segments of the stage, barely crossing into each others' worlds. There is the businessman, whose moral dilemmas are personal rather than professional, particularly when it comes to striking a deal to grow genetically modified crops for the Americans on Australian soil; the council worker whose job it is to clean up the mess of dead bodies left by the bombs that are dropping on the country; the librarian who is besotted by a man she stalks using binoculars from her apartment; and the madman, locked up, he claims, for telling the truth about what is going on.
One of the crew said to me afterwards that she wished she could see the production again for the first time in order to better understand what was going on. And she has a point, there is definitely a sense in which the play deliberately makes you work to follow its plot. In fact, 'plot' is probably too strong a word. It is really a series of interwoven monologues, taking a perspective on different events that reveal themselves by the end to be connected. That is about as much as I can tell you without spoiling your potential enjoyment.
Although the play may refuse to give up all its secrets without a struggle, the message the writer wishes to convey could not be plainer. In fact, its meaning fairly bludgeons you over the head with statements about "kilometres of food grown for guns" and "GM field corn grown for weapons".
This makes the choice of such an eccentric, disorientatingly cryptic form to carry such a simple opinion an odd one. There are, perhaps, more subtle and less opaque ways of exploring the individual's relationship with big business and other modern folk-devils than this.
Its polemical stance notwithstanding, the creation of the universe in which these characters live is startlingly vivid and well-handled. The performances are, to a man, assured and convincing. The design and the direction combine to great effect to create a claustrophobic universe within the theatre that is alienating, frightening and uncomfortable. Whether or not your idea of a good evening out is to be made uncomfortable, however, is a choice you will need to make for yourself.
- Richard Ings