Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - August 23, 2006
* Fruitcakes Hope to Spoil Biotech Foods
* Puffed Rice
* Most Widely Adopted GM Crop As Percentage of Total Crop Area?
* Everyday Beliefs About Food Refuse to Give Way to Scientific Evidence
* Africa: Regionalising Biotech - Threat or Solution?
* Quick Fixes Not the Answer to Africa's Technology Woes Says Biotech Panel
* Engaging Science: Thoughts, Deeds, Analysis and Action
* Mr. Smith Feeds The World
* Borlaug Leadership Enhancement in Agriculture Program
* Crop of Questions
* Genetically Modified Food: Is It Safe? - ABC's Slanted Piece
Fruitcakes Hope to Spoil Biotech Foods
- Henry Miller, Investor's Business Daily, August 22, 2006
Activism can be a good thing. Libertarians and civil rights advocates lobby for constraints on undue government intrusion into our lives, and professional associations further the interests of members. We all benefit from getting to shop in the marketplace of ideas.
However, all is not good-faith, constructive activism.
A good example is the intractable hostility of radical groups toward biotechnology applied to agriculture, to the production of innovative new drugs and to gene therapy for life-threatening diseases.
A broad scientific consensus long has held that the newest techniques of biotechnology are no more than an extension, or refinement, of earlier ones applied for centuries -- and that gene transfer or modification by gene-splicing techniques does not, per se, confer risk.
Antagonism toward biotechnology ignores this seamless continuum between old and new biotechnology and the monumental contributions both have made to medicine, agriculture and innumerable scientific disciplines. Although some extremists, like Greenpeace, make no secret of their intention to eliminate gene splicing entirely from agriculture, not all anti-biotechnology activism comes from the bomb throwers.
Other groups, such as the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology and the Center for Science in the Public Interest claim not to oppose gene splicing, but want only that it be "properly" regulated and used. They use subtler stratagems to undermine biotech's advances.
In the current issue of the journal Nature Biotechnology is a letter to the editor from Greg Jaffe, an attorney at CSPI (which is notorious for its goofiness about food and nutrition) that is a remarkable amalgam of duplicity and hypocrisy. Jaffe compares the length of time taken by the USDA and FDA to review and approve genetically engineered crops and foods during 1994-2000 and 2001-2005.
He finds that "the time it took each agency to reach a regulatory decision more than doubled in the past five years for no explainable reason," and that this "trend should worry those who believe that genetic engineering can be used safely and can benefit farmers, consumers and the environment."
Both the data and the conclusions are dubious. For one thing, Jaffe doesn't look for "explainable reasons" for the longer review times.
Did the workload increase? (It did. According to USDA data, during 2001-2005 the number of field trial applications approved per year was, on average, 22% higher than during 1994-2000.) Did the workload/reviewer ratio at the agencies change?
Did overworked reviewers begin to put low priority "me too" applications on the back burner, allowing the average reviewing time to increase? Did the earlier applications represent "low lying fruit" -- easier applications to review -- while the later ones were more complex and took longer?
If you don't look for explanations, you don't find them. For another thing, a trend is only a trend if it's real. The FDA data are completely uninterpretable because FDA review is only voluntary, and during the two time periods in question it is impossible to know what percentage of genetically engineered foods underwent such reviews and how similar (or different) the products were.
Maybe in recent years, companies simply stopped consulting the FDA for "easy" cases, submitting only more difficult ones that require more intensive review. If so, it's possible Jaffe is comparing apples and oranges, literally and figuratively.
Out of the blue Jaffe concludes: "The U.S. government needs to explain to the public why its . . . regulatory system is taking longer to come to decisions about the safety of (genetically modified) crops. The public wants assurances that federal regulators are ensuring the safety of products."
The American public, which consumes about a billion servings of foods containing genetically modified ingredients a day (that is no misprint) has more important things to worry about. Jaffe spends too much time hanging around with his fellow food-faddist fruitcakes.
Finally, we come to the ultimate hypocrisy. Jaffe, the longtime antagonist of biotechnology and a proponent of ever more stultifying regulation, bemoans the alleged "regulatory delay," because it "hurts developers by increasing uncertainty about the regulatory decision-making process and by increasing the cost of getting a product to market."
That is exactly what, for years, Jaffe has worked to achieve! All of a sudden, he wants to be the firefighter as well as the arsonist. This is activism at its most sleazy and disingenuous.
Like cheap knock-offs of designer goods, some of the offerings in the marketplace of ideas do not stand up to scrutiny.
Only if we learn to distinguish the genuine from the fake will we be able to protect ourselves -- and our supply of new, improved foods, pharmaceuticals and other products -- from the tyranny and chicanery of the activist.
A physician and fellow at the Hoover Institution, Dr. Henry Miller was head of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology from 1989 to 1993.
- Consumer Freedom, August 21, 2006 http://www.consumerfreedom.com
Friday's announcement that some samples of U.S. long-grain rice contain a genetically modified ingredient was met with a collective yawn, even from groups typically eager to complain about scientists' so-called "contamination" of our food supply. Compared to the media-driven agricultural apocalypse following the 2000 discovery of biotech corn in U.S. taco shells, the public reaction to a few sticky grains of lab-enhanced rice has been downright measured. The U.S. Agriculture Secretary assured the press Friday that "there are no human health, food safety or environmental concerns associated with this [biotech] rice." Could it be that activists' repeated cries of "wolf" -- combined with no real evidence of harm -- have given us all some much-needed perspective?
While the Center for Science in the Public Interest complained to The Washington Post about the lack of government oversight of crop science the group conceded that "there is no safety risk." And the Union of Concerned Scientists called the finding "alarming," but offered the Post none of the expected bluster about food safety. Neither Friends of the Earth nor the Organic Consumers Association has (yet) insisted that General Tso's chicken should henceforth be served with a Geiger counter.
The only meaningful blip on the food-safety radar came from Japan, which has announced a trade embargo on U.S. long-grain rice -- which the Japanese Health Ministry said hasn't been imported this year anyway.
Greenpeace is the only major environmental group agitating for a global over-reaction to this biotech rice protein, calling for a ban on European rice imports from the U.S. The notoriously risk-averse European Union says it's treating the issue "as a matter of the utmost urgency." But The New York Times notes this morning that both Europe and Japan have already approved "the same genetically engineered protein" in other crops, including canola and cotton.
Most Widely Adopted GM Crop As Percentage of Total Crop Area?
- Jonathan Gressel, jonathan.gressel.at.weizmann.ac.il
I think that the statement below is inaccurate. If the criteria of "most widely adopted" is either speed of adoption, or the percentage transgenics of area of the particular crop cultivated -
I believe that the crown goes to papayas. And they are bought and consumed - despite the conventional wisdom heard even among proponents of transgenics "consumers won't eat transgenic crops".
> On 21 Aug, 2006, at 17:40, AgBioView wrote:
> Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S.
> - USDA Economic Research Service, August 18, 2006 http://www.ers.usda.gov/Data/BiotechCrops/
> U.S. farmers have adopted genetically engineered (GE) crops widely since their introduction in 1996, notwithstanding uncertainty about consumer acceptance and economic and environmental impacts.
> Soybeans and cotton genetically engineered with herbicide-tolerant traits have been the most widely and rapidly adopted GE crops in the U.S., followed by insect-resistant cotton and corn.
Everyday Beliefs About Food Refuse to Give Way to Scientific Evidence
- Medical News Today, August 22, 2006 http://www.medicalnewstoday.com
Marieke Saher's recent doctoral dissertation for the Department of Psychology at the University of Helsinki analyses everyday beliefs about food and health. By these beliefs she refers to people's ideas about whether certain foods are healthy, what might have caused a stomach upset, or whether a medicine really works. "People can sometimes be so convinced of their ideas that it is impossible to disprove them even if rational expert evidence exists to do so," says Saher.
According to Saher, in most cases people's everyday thinking and beliefs are in line with expert views, but sometimes they lead to an opposite conclusion from what scientific evidence would suggest. Such beliefs can seldom be shaken by rational arguments. It has been suggested that some of these beliefs come close to superstition. Saher's surveys focused on four everyday beliefs: the concept that "you are what you eat", attitudes towards genetically modified (GM) and organic food, and belief in alternative medicine.
The first survey revealed that people draw conclusions about each other solely based on dietary habits: those who ate healthily were considered to be more disciplined in general but were also presumed to be less likable. The survey did not, however, establish whether this phenomenon was based on a superstition whereby food is believed to somehow taint the personality, or on normal everyday ideas.
Saher detected a weak correlation between attitudes towards organic and GM food and superstition, in that those who were prone to superstition were more negative towards GM food and more positive towards organic food than respondents on average. Strong correlations were detected between superstition and belief in alternative medicine - the more a respondent believed in alternative medicine the more likely he or she was to also believe in paranormal phenomena such as astrology, telepathy or palm reading.
Belief in alternative medicine and paranormal phenomena was also linked to a willingness to disregard the boundaries between biology, physics and psychology, and to apply the concepts of one discipline to another. A person who thinks in this manner might, for example, describe the physical concept of energy as a living entity, as if it belonged to the sphere of biology, or through the concept of evil, a psychological attribute.
According to Saher, such thinking does not necessarily indicate that a person is poorly educated, because rational knowledge is not linked to these beliefs in any way. Some respondents simultaneously held conflicting superstitious and rational notions about certain phenomena, without the rational thoughts exercising any overriding effect on the superstitious elements. This might go some way towards explaining why certain everyday beliefs are so hard to overthrow with any rational argument.
Africa: Regionalising Biotech - Threat or Solution?
- Research Africa, August 16, 2006 http://www.research-africa.net
Nepad and Juma panel unite against critical stakeholders
Experts have proposed a key biotechnology mission for each of Africa's regions where they think investment has the largest potential to boost development and nurture excellence. Drug development in the north, crops in the west, HIV-related diseases in the south, forestry in central parts, and environment and livestock in the east are the regional technology missions likely to be presented to African science ministers later this year.
The missions were identified by the high-level panel on biotechnology set up by the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad). "If African governments do this and promote mobility of researchers, we will start to get clustering [of excellence]," said Calestous Juma, chairman of the panel.
The panel had published a draft report ahead of a stakeholder meeting in Nairobi last month. A chapter has since been drafted by officials at the Nepad secretariat in Pretoria and will be added to the report as a key proposal for science ministers to consider when they meet in November.
Should the ministers approve of the regional missions, they may draw up plans for boosting funding in these areas. Their recommendations would be passed on to the African heads of state summit in January.
But a few stakeholders at the meeting in Nairobi from 25 to 28 July were critical of the proposals. They were researchers and politicians who fear their institutes and countries will be starved of research funding if funding stops flowing into areas that fall outside the proposed regional agendas.
Aggrey Ambali, coordinator of the Nepad African Biosciences Initiative, said such concerns were unfounded, and that the recommendations were just an extension of common sense. "[The proposals are] not saying that we shouldn't put money into crops in Southern Africa. It's just saying that, from the way we look at it, HIV/Aids is a critical issue in this region, so it can be taken up as a key area of investment for biotech."
It would not make sense for, say, West Africa to focus on HIV-related diseases, as the prevalence there is relatively low, he said. "What we are saying is that these are core missions, and then there will be complementary missions."
Ahmed Shembesh, director general at the Libyan National Centre for Standardization and Metrology, who also sits on the panel, said there was a need to convince institutes and decision makers that the regional missions were the way forward. "It will take some time," he admitted.
However, many stakeholders were positive about the proposals. Walter Alhassan, West African coordinator of the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project, said he was not worried about the region being starved of funds in areas outside crop biotechnology. "We are looking at both crops and livestock. But the crops angle is much stronger here in West Africa," he said.
One South African researcher said the proposals were unlikely to upset scientists in the country as its relatively large national science budget gives it leeway to invest in many areas of biotechnology. Kenya, on the other hand, which is strong in many areas of biotechnology but for which much funding comes from external sources, may feel more threatened by the proposals for regional missions, he said.
He added that there would be a lot of researchers throughout Africa who would want to be kept informed on these discussions. No attempts to consult with him or his colleagues had been made as far as he could see.
Meanwhile, Juma told Research Africa he had been surprised to see stakeholder discussions at the Nairobi meeting dominated by issues dealing with health biotech. Traditionally, he said, the assumption had always been that the role of biotech in Africa was to find solutions to the continent's food production problems.
"It looks like when it comes to regional and collective efforts, health is the given topic. It makes sense, as health biotech needs more resources and more long-term processes. Agriculture biotech they feel they can do nationally," he said.
The panel's draft report at
Quick Fixes Not the Answer to Africa's Technology Woes Says Biotech Panel
- Research Africa, July 12, 2006 http://www.research-africa.net
Africa needs to stop looking for quick technology fixes and start investing long-term. This is the key thrust of a draft report on biotechnology published for consultation this month by a panel of senior African and international scientists and policymakers.
The high-level panel on biotechnology was set up by the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). The report is one of three key NEPAD/AU initiatives in science policy that will feed into the summit of African leaders in January 2007.
African countries "will place science, technology and innovation at the centre of their development strategies," reads the report. This should be done by fostering cross-border "regional innovation communities", involving families of neighbouring countries.
These regional innovation communities should be built onto Regional Economic Communities (RECs) that already exist within southern, western, northern and eastern Africa. They should be anchored in local innovation areas built around clusters of science capacity in areas like agriculture or health.
"To actually get anything done on technology in Africa, we have to accept that it's going to take fundamental effort," said Calestous Juma, former UN rapporteur on African science policy, who chaired the panel.
"This is what we've been evading in Africa. We think we can do it on the cheap, or with small-scale projects here and there, but I haven't seen any evidence of a significant technological transformation that didn't take long-term commitment and persistent effort," he said.
The seed corn for the local innovation areas already exists, he said. "For example, rudiments of clustering around Nairobi in the life sciences are there. You can make them more efficient, create stronger synergies, have a bit of specialisation so that they do not cover everything, and focus them on solving practical problems."
Africa also needs to learn from Europe, where technological integration successfully preceded economic or political integration, Juma added. "Their first agreements were in coal, steel and energy."
The report also urges African government to act to increase their capacity for evaluating the risks of new biotechnologies, engaging the business community, harmonising regulation and increasing their budgets for biotechnology R&D.
The draft report has been published by the NEPAD secretariat for consultation and comment. Copies can be downloaded from www.nepadst.org and comments should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org by 31 August. The final report is due in October.
Engaging Science: Thoughts, Deeds, Analysis and Action
Featuring essays from leading researchers, practitioners and commentators, this book examines what we have learned about the relationships between these groups and what the implications are for future practice.
Topics include public attitudes to science, the role of the media in public engagement, the scientists' perspective, implications for education, linking the public to policy making, and the role of campaigning groups.
'Engaging Science' also includes summaries of key Trust-funded projects and initiatives supported over the past decade.
Download the full PDF of [ http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/assets/wtx033010.pdf ] Engaging Science [1.8MB], access individual chapters below, or [ http://www.wyvernconnect.co.uk/wellcome_trust2/wt_mainmenu.asp ] order the book online (Free!).
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Mr. Smith Feeds The World
- Henry I. Miller, NY Post, August 20, 2006, http://www.nypost.com/
"The Man Who Fed The World: Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug And His Battle To End World Hunger, By Leon Hesser, Durban House, 297 Pages, $24.95"
Leon Hesser's straightforward yet gripping biography of Nor man Borlaug, the plant breeder known as the Father of the Green Revolution, offers the kind of nobility and idealism shown by Jimmy Stewart in the classic, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
Borlaug's life has been one of extraordinary paradoxes. A child of the Iowa prairie during the Great Depression, he attended a one-room school and aspired to become a high-school science teacher but flunked the university entrance exam. He went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for averting malnutrition, famine and the death of millions.
Borlaug, now 92, struggled against prodigious professional obstacles, including what he calls the "constant pessimism and scaremongering" of critics who predicted that, in spite of his efforts, mass starvation was inevitable and hundreds of millions would perish in Africa and Asia. His work resulted in high-yielding varieties of wheat that transformed the ability of Mexico, India, Pakistan, China and parts of South America to feed their populations.
How successful was he? From 1950 to 1992, the world's grain output rose from 692 million tons produced on 1.70 billion acres of cropland to 1.9 billion tons on 1.73 billion acres of cropland - an extraordinary increase in yield of more than 150 percent.
Without high-yield agriculture, either millions would have starved or increases in food output could have been realized only through drastic expansion of land under cultivation. But that would've meant losses of pristine wilderness far greater than all the losses to urban, suburban and commercial expansion.
Borlaug recalls without rancor the maddening obstacles to the development and introduction of high-yield plant varieties: the "bureaucratic chaos, resistance from local seed breeders and centuries of farmers' customs, habits and superstitions."
Both the need for additional agricultural production and obstacles to innovation remain, and in recent years, Borlaug has applied himself to ensuring the success of the application of gene splicing, or "genetic modification," to agriculture. This second wave promises to be as important as the first, offering the possibility of even higher yields, fewer inputs of agricultural chemicals and water, enhanced nutrition and even plant-derived, orally active vaccines.
Environmental extremists, though, are doing everything they can to stop scientific progress, and their allies in the United Nations and other regulatory agencies are eager to help. "If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years," says Borlaug,
The essence of Norman Borlaug? I'm reminded of a line by Matthew Arnold about Sophocles: a man "who saw life steadily, and saw it whole."
Henry I. Miller, a physician, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution.
The Borlaug Leadership Enhancement in Agriculture Program (LEAP)
The Borlaug LEAP is a fellowship program, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), to enhance the quality of thesis research of graduate students from developing countries who show strong promise as leaders in the field of agriculture and related disciplines as defined by Title XII. LEAP is part of the overall Borlaug International Agricultural Science and Technology Fellows Program sponsored by the USDA.
The LEAP program will support engaging a mentor at a Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) system center to support and enhance the thesis research and mentoring experience. Awards will be made on a competitive basis to students who show strong scientific and leadership potential, have a well coordinated proposal between their home university, a US university mentor, and the CGIAR mentor, and whose research is related to a strong research and support project within the host country.
Emphasis will be placed on work that has relevance to the national development of the studentís home country. Awards will be made three times a year but applications may be received at any time.
The focus region for the current Request for Applications (RFA) is sub-Saharan Africa.
See http://leap.ucdavis.edu/ for details
Crop of Questions
- Vibha Sharma, The Tribune (India), August 21,2006 http://www.tribuneindia.com
Genetically modified crops are viewed in contrary ways: As a nutritious food option, revolutionary scientific alternative for resource-constrained small and marginal farmers or a health hazard for consumers and death-knell for the farming community.
Environmentalists say GM technology is bad for the flora and fauna, and spells unknown health risks for human beings and animals. Promoters argue that GM food has stronger resistance to weeds, pests and disease; superior texture, shelf life, flavour and nutrition; and makes better economic sense.
There is also a perception that the issue has been "sensationalised" by NGOs and media.
In an effort to represent the various viewpoints of this complex issue, opinions of well-known environmentalists Sunita Narain and Vandana Shiva, Greenpeace campaigner Divya Raghunandan and representatives of farmers' community were taken. Usha Barwale Zehr, a scientist with Maharasthra Hybrid Seeds Company Limited (Mahyco), who is currently working on Bt brinjal, gave the corporate viewpoint. The government's version has been culled from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) website and views expressed by a couple of members.
Monsanto, along with Aventis, Syngenta, BASF and Du Pont are the five MNCs, which, Greenpeace says, control the GM market in the world. Monsanto has 80 per cent of the market share and holds the patent for Bt cotton along with the US Department of Agriculture. In India, according to Dr Zehr, close to 25 companies, including Monsanto, Monsanto-Mahyco Biotech and Mahyco, are working on transgenic field crops and vegetables.
The GM crop is synonymous with Bt cotton in India, as it is the first GM crop and till date the only one to be cultivated in the country. India's experience with GM crops began as recently as 2002 when the GEAC granted approval for the commercialisation of three varieties-Bt Mech-12, Bt Mech -162 and Bt Mech-184, developed by Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech in a 50:50 partnership between India's largest seed-producing company and the world's largest GM seed company.
At present, more than 55 varieties approved by the GEAC are in the market for commercial cultivation and several seed companies are marketing these varieties.
The introduction of GM seed has led to increased productivity in certain agro-climatic zones, promoters claim, adding that farmers, including those in Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra, are very happy with the output of Bt cotton. "If farmers were not happy, the acerage under Bt cotton would not have increased. Farmers are coming back to buy seeds, and the fact is that the company can only make money if farmers make money," asserts Dr Zehr.
Environmentalists do not buy this line and blame Bt cotton for large-scale farmers' suicide and the death of hundreds of cattle in Warangal. "Farmers are caught in a vicious cycle of debt and beholden to moneylenders. Surveys by Vidarbha Janandolan have shown that 90 per cent of the farmers who committed suicide in the past six months had sown Bt cotton," says Vandana Shiva, Director, Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology.
At the global level, the issue is still being debated but the US and the UN consider GM food to be safe. "But then America is truly the wild West as far as GE is concerned," adds Dr Shiva.
"Bt cotton is capable of protecting itself against bollworm and Bt brinjal fruit and shoot borer, thereby reducing the need for external dosage of chemical pesticides. Lesser number of sprays mean better health for farmers and minimal contamination of ground water and rivers through run-off pesticides during rains," Dr Zehr says.
In India, so far no GE food crop is available as Bt cotton is the sole GM crop to have been commercialised. However, several agricultural institutions are conducting research for developing GE food crops like rice, cabbage, chickpea, muskmelon, mustard, though the first GE subzi likely to reach our dining tables could be the very humble baingan ka bharta, provided environmental groups fail to have their way.
Mahyco has developed a transgenic hybrid brinjal and sought permissions for large-scale field trials from the GEAC . The GEAC has been flooded with representations against granting Bt brinjal permission and on the last meeting on June 30, a decision was taken to present the issue for discussion before a committee comprising toxicologists, economists, senior vegetable breeders.
"GMO," says Dr Shiva is a multi-billion dollar, thousands of people aggression. "The country needs a more active body to deal with it than the two-and-a-half person GEAC, which woke up to the issue as late as 1998 when we took it up. A GEAC member's opinion is "all Mahyco is asking for is field trials. Bio-safety data on the crop is available. Concerns that reuire merit can be substantiated with more studies." "The event-based approval system introduced by the GEAC goes against all science-based regulatory systems. Biosafety protocols require a step-by-step and case-by-case approach. Field trials undertaken so far in the Bt. brinjal case have not been cleared by GEAC. Before the clearance of large-scale, agronomic field trials and seed production, companies need to apply to the GEAC to repeat the biosafety trials, both for regulatory reasons, and for scientific reasons," says Dr Shiva
In India the bt transformation has been the only successful one. Which is why it is now being introduced in brinjal, potato, tomato, rice, etc, explains GE-Free campaigner Divya Raghunandan.
Bt is the short for bacillus thuringienis, a soil bacterium. "Bio-safety studies in Bt brinjal show benefits like reduction in pesticide usage, increased marketable yield due to less damaged fruits, safety in terms of pesticide exposure and pesticide residue on fruits for both farmers and consumers and increased income as a result of all these benefits. It is absolutely safe to eat and does not affect non-target insects or other animals. Though the GM seeds cost more money but they also save on extra sprays of pesticides and give a better yield. It is a win-win situation for farmers at a little extra cost. Public-private partnership is making available technology to all groups of farmers, particularly resource-constrained marginal farmers," she says.
According to environmentalists, GMO is an attempt to push agriculture into industrialised mode. "The GEAC should not approve commercial trials of Bt brinjal as Mahyco's biosafety assessment is unscientific, inadequate and biased," says Dr Shiva. "Look beyond the propaganda of corporates and scientists hired by them and you will see that the bt cotton experience has been expensive and unreliable. It is an excuse to establish monopolies in the market by making patent and getting profits at farmers' cost.
The greatest threat is lack of data to the public. Impacts of the GE crops are not known to the common man. None of the Mahyco studies on Bt brinjal have been carried out at in a scientific way at biochemical and cellular level. Thousands of sheep have died in Warangal after grazing on Bt cotton fields. Why has that happened if it is so safe? Clearly, corporate claims need scientific research and investigation," she adds.
Divya too asserts that the GE food is not safe. "Even Monsanto is not sure. Caterers at Monsanto's UK main offices banned GE food at the staff restaurant in response to concerns raised by staff itself," she asserts. Divya adds that GM food is neither more nutritious, nor safe. "One would have to eat about 10 kg of GM potato everyday to meet the daily minimum protein requirement."
Environmentalist also say that GM food doesn't work out to be cheaper for consumers as GE crops are thrice as expensive.
"With decreasing demand for pesticides in the developed world, the agro-chemical giants have re-oriented their focus on GE foods. Since companies patent all seeds, these come with a price in short term as well as long term. These seeds generally cost two to three times more than ordinary seeds. Moreover, they come with heavy royalty fees, meaning that farmers often fall in the vicious circle of shelling out money for every crop cycle year," says Divya.
No answer to hunger
Greenpeace also points that there is absolutely no connection between GE food and the problem of hunger in India or elsewhere. "This is just one of the ways MNCs, promoting GMOs, make people opposing the GE crop feel guilty. There is food rotting in our godowns across the country. The problem is ineffective distribution, lack of purchasing power among the poor and the government's outdated policies. GM food is not an answer to India's hunger and the solutions to these problems are in no way connected to the GE technology."
Dr Shiva says "Bt was permitted in the state just last year. Moreover, a large number of Punjab farmers are not using Bt varieties but those developed through cross-breeding from Gujarat."
CSE-speak on Punjab
The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has analysed the cost-benefit scenario of Bt cotton and according to CSE Director Sunita Narain, in terms of total costs - labour, machinery and transport - the farmer has been the loser, pre-as well as post-Bt. "The losses are greater post-Bt, simply because the outflow is more and the indebtedness is greater."
Regarding Punjab, CSE analysis "The fabric of cotton" says that productivity has increased in Punjab with the introduction of Bt (from 413 kg per ha in 2003-04 to 600-700 kg during 2005- 06). Punjab was the largest per hectare user of pesticides before Bt came in to the state first through unauthorised route from Gujarat in 2003. The per hectare expense was Rs 7,171, according to government data. After Bt was legally introduced in the state in 2005-06, the pesticide cost has declined to Rs 3,585 almost a 50 per cent decline. This reduced the cost of cultivation on account of pesticides.
Branded Bt seeds are priced at almost four times the normal hybrids. So the farmers are sourcing unauthorised seeds from Gujarat. These seeds are priced in the range of Rs 300 to Rs 700 compared to Rs 1800 to Rs 2000 of branded Bt. Independent surveys show almost 90 per cent of Punjab's Bt is unauthorised. But this has reduced the cost of cultivation and losses for farmers. "Farmer suicides, however, have been reported in the state. Small and marginal farmers sowing branded Bt are still as vulnerable to losses as they were when large amounts of pesticide use was on. Bt requires three times more water than normal hybrid hence farmers who cannot afford irrigation are in trouble," the CSE says.
Environmentalists say that while Bt cotton was initially effective against bollworm, numerous secondary pests have ruined the cotton harvest over the last few years. "This burst the bubble that Bt cotton reduces pest incidence and reduces pesticide usage." "Bt brinjal, unlike Bt cotton, is a vegetable which will be eaten on a regular basis. The government first needs to put its labelling laws in place before allowing large scale seed production and large-scale agronomic trials. The government plans to introduce mandatory labelling of GM foods. The health ministry is in the process of finalising its draft proposals for amending relevant provisions of the Prevention of Food Adulteration (PFA) Rules, 1955. Such a labelling system needs to be fully in place before any step towards commercialisation of Bt brinjal, including large scale trials and commercial seed production are allowed.
Further, it needs to ensure that the biotechnology industry is fully responsible for traceability and segregation. This should not be a cost transferred to small-scale retailers and consumers.
Moreover, since Bt can also contaminate non-Bt, government needs to ensure large areas are allowed to become GE-free if it wants to stand somewhere in the future," Divya also adds that companies that sell food with GE ingredients must label them as GE, so that consumers have a choice to reject or accept them. "A basic policy to eating healthy is to eat local produce (food that hasn't travelled thousands of miles) traditional (varieties that are region and climate specific) and seasonal food. Every time we eat a non-seasonal, non-local food, we make a trade off and contribute to an increase in demand for industrial farming and pesticides. Organic food is the best way to avoid dangerous pesticides and GMOs in food. Sustainable agricuture practices are those where a farmer has the right to choose."
The GEAC says that the government is treating the whole issue with utmost caution and care. A viewpoint also is that despite hullaballoo by environmentalists, there is no clear-cut scientific evidence to prove that GM food is not safe "I am not saying whether the NGOs are right or wrong, the GEAC has decided to go case by case. We know socio-economic factors and pricing are the issues but overall farmers have been happy with the performance of the Bt cotton in states where it has been introduced."
As environmentalists say, "Like in the case of pesticides, should we wait for two decades to say that GM food is bad for health?"
According to the Organising Secretary of Bhartiya Kisan Sangh, Janak Raj Mahajan, "Studies by our central body have shown that Bt cotton has not been successful in the cotton belt of Punjab. Farmers still have to use pesticides and there are additional problems like Bt fields affecting non-Bt-cotton fields. Overall farmers are preferring to use non-Bt varieties." National Coordinator of Indian Coordination Committee of Farmers Movement, Yudhvir Singh agrees: Despite the fact that Bt cotton has been a total failure, the government is now trying to push Bt brinjal. In the past three years, workers in Bt cotton fields have reported allergic reactions.
A Centre for Sustainable Agriculture study shows that a large number of sheep died after grazing in Bt cotton fields in Warangal district. The company's claim that Bt crop does not require pesticides has also fallen flat on its face".
Yudhvir Singh who is also a member of a coalition GE-Free India, says that the claim that Bt cotton yield has been good is because in the North and West India the climatic conditions have been favourable. "Not only the Bt but the non-Bt crop varieties have also flourished in these areas in past three years. In other parts of the country, like the Vidarbha where agro-climatic conditions were not favourable, both Bt and non-Bt crops failed. Our analysis is that the success of the crop is more dependent upon agro-climatic conditions."
Secrets in Your Food - Genetically Modified Food: Is It Safe?
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