Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - October 4, 2006
* Australia: Lift Ban on GM crops, States Told
* Uncomfortable Genes
* United Nations Food Summit Discusses Genetically Modified Crops
* Brazil's 2006-07 Soy Crop to be 50% GMO, Researcher Says
* Global Database of Women Scientists and Professionals
* Tainted Spinach Raises Big Question of Manure on Food Crops
* Researchers Uncertain How to Tame Peanut Allergy
Australia: Lift Ban on GM crops, States Told
- Joseph Kerr, The Australian, October 4, 2006 http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/
THE states have been told to lift their moratorium on genetically modified crops as Australia grapples with the harshest drought in a century.
If Victoria and NSW moved to allow GM crops - touted by some as providing environmental and health benefits as well as cutting costs for farmers - it could persuade more dogmatic states to drop their opposition, Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran said yesterday.
Releasing the Government's response to a key report on agriculture and food in Australia for the next generation, Mr McGauran said there was only a 5 to 10 per cent chance of rain breaking the drought, and GM technology could be a boon.
He rejected key recommendations from the agriculture review, led by former National Farmers Federation president Peter Corish, that the Government open up unskilled migration, allowing in "guest workers" to help on farms. The Government also rejected a call for further "zonal" tax offsets for people living in rural areas.
But the Government adopted 35 of the 55 recommendations and took a further 17 on notice.
Mr McGauran signalled there would be a review of food regulation, as well as a look at reducing red tape for agricultural and food businesses.
But his most enthusiastic endorsement came for the report's call for the lifting of the GM moratorium.
"I strongly believe that the moratorium on GM commercial crops should be lifted by the states," said Mr McGauran, with the states due to make a decision by early 2008.
He acknowledged that given the coming elections in Victoria and NSW, those governments would be unlikely to want a debate about genetically modified crops. "However, I believe that for much of 2007 the states would be shirking their responsibilities if they did not begin a debate so that people knew of the advantages and potential disadvantages of GMOs," he said.
Overseas experience showed GM crops could offer cost efficiencies for producers as well as environmental benefits. Mr McGauran said there were signs of a shift among individual state agriculture, industry and science ministers, and 'that 'even premiers" in some states were leaning towards a debate on the issue.
Victoria had shown itself more willing to consider the environmental cost and advantages of GM than states such as Tasmania, and Western Australia that had "an outright ideological objection to GMO". "If Victoria or NSW, or especially the two combined, were to lift the moratorium, then I believe the other states, whatever their prejudices and ideological opposition, would be forced to follow suit," he said.
Mr Corish said the commonwealth had set up the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator to look at human health issues related to genetic modification.
Uncomfortable Genes: The WSJ caved in to irrational opponents of biotechnology.
- Henry I. Miller, National Review Online, October 2, 2006
Political-science researchers at UCLA recently quantified political bias in a spectrum of media outlets. Not unexpectedly, almost all major outlets were found to tilt to the left. But there were some surprises. Public television and radio are more conservative than the rest of the mainstream media. And although the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal is conservative, the newspaper's news pages are liberal – even more liberal than those of the New York Times.
This latter revelation was brought home to me in a news article this summer by Journal reporter Debbie Carlson. The piece, "Drought-resistant Crops Face Hurdles," managed to portray in a positive way virtually every aspect of activists' Big Lie about gene-spliced, drought-resistant plants – namely, that they are untested, unsafe, unnecessary, and under-regulated. Carlson's inclusion of comments primarily from intransigent, ideological, long-time opponents of agricultural biotechnology–instead of from bona fide experts on the technology and its regulation–represents either blatant bias or inexcusable reportorial carelessness.
The statements of the anti-biotech activists are predictably disingenuous. The claim of long-time anti-biotech campaigner Jane Rissler that the USDA is "not required to do an ecological/biological implications review" is simply wrong. And the touting of "marker-assisted selection" for genetic improvement of plants – an old technique of limited usefulness – is another attempt by activists to disparage the superior technique of gene-splicing, which is more precise, predictable, and safe, as well as far more versatile than older methods.
Carlson's assertion that "laws regulating biotechnology will need to keep up with the work of scientists" is baseless. Regulation is already far ahead of the science, in the sense that it is excessive and performed on every gene-spliced plant variety that is to be field-tested – in defiance of the broad and long-standing scientific consensus that gene-splicing is essentially an extension, or refinement, of less precise and predictable genetic techniques. (Conventional genetic modification, discussed below, is essentially exempt from regulation.) Speculations by activists about the need for more regulation are merely a ploy to obstruct progress.
Carlson lacks perspective on the recent history of the genetic improvement of plants. If she had bothered to consult some experts, she would have discovered that a long-standing scientific consensus holds that gene-splicing is an extension, or refinement, of less precise, less predictable genetic techniques. One such older technique, in use since the 1950s, is induced-mutation breeding, which involves exposing seeds or cells to ionizing radiation or toxic chemicals to induce random, desirable genetic mutations. Thousands of mutation-bred crop varieties have been commercialized in North America and Europe, and since the 1930s plant breeders have performed "wide cross" hybridizations in which large numbers of "alien" genes are moved from one species or one genus to another to create plant varieties that cannot and do not exist in nature. Common commercial varieties derived from wide crosses include tomato, potato, oat, rice, wheat, and corn, among others.
Using these pre-gene-splicing technologies, plant breeders and food producers lack knowledge of the exact genetic changes that produce the desirable traits; and more important, they have no idea what other changes have occurred concomitantly in the plant, including those that could raise levels of toxins or alter the ability to cause allergic reactions. Greater precision is what makes gene-splicing superior.
Finally, Carlson is incorrect in stating that the commercialization of drought-resistant crops is "far away," or that "it is too early to predict what regulatory trials will be required." Their development is advanced, many are already in field testing, and their evaluation is, in fact, quite straightforward and not very different from the thousands of gene-spliced plant varieties with myriad new traits that have been reviewed and approved by regulators.
Whatever the motivation for activists' opposition to gene-spliced plants – abetted by Carlson's journalistic transgressions – it is cynical and destructive. Commercialized gene-spliced plants have been of monumental importance – not only to farmers' bottom line, but also to occupational health and the natural environment. Enhanced pest resistance in plants has obviated the need for hundreds of millions of pounds of chemical pesticides (and thereby reduced environmental and occupational exposures), and herbicide tolerance has made possible a shift to more benign herbicides and to environment-friendly, no-till farming.
Enhanced drought-resistance in commercial crops will be an extraordinary advance. Fresh water is in increasingly short supply in much of the world. Irrigation for agriculture accounts for roughly 70 percent of the world's fresh-water consumption – even more in areas of intensive farming and arid or semi-arid conditions – so the introduction of plants that grow with less water would allow much of that essential resource to be freed up for other uses. Especially during drought conditions – which currently plague much of Europe, Africa, Australia, and the United States – even a small percentage reduction in the use of water for irrigation could result in huge benefits, both economic and humanitarian.
Note to Ms. Carlson: You couldn't have salvaged this article even with a few quotes from bona fide experts on biotechnology and agriculture; the activists' outright lies make it irredeemable. All points of view on scientific and technological issues are not created equal. Good journalism is not served by creating a kind of moral equivalence between those who hold ideological, anti-technology views and those with supportable, legitimate viewpoints–not unlike equating creation theory with Darwinian theory.
The errors in Carlson's piece aren't subtle. Whatever the reasons for these shortcomings, is it too much to expect a reporter to learn a little about her subject and to find reputable and knowledgeable sources before writing a story?
Henry I. Miller, a physician, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. He headed the FDA's Office of Biotechnology from 1989-1993. Barron's selected his most recent book, "The Frankenfood Myth," one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.
United Nations Food Summit Discusses Genetically Modified Crops
- The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, October 03, 2006 via checkbiotech.org
Against the backdrop of possible famine in southern Africa and debate over genetically modified foods, delegates at the U.N. World Food Summit called Monday for governments to make good on pledges to end world hunger, reports the Associated Press.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan opened the summit by urging greater access for the world's farmers to land, credit, markets and technology - including technology to help them grow more resistant crops.
"There is no shortage of food on the planet," Annan told delegates at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. "But while some countries produce more than they need to feed their people, others do not, and many of these cannot afford to import enough to make up the gap." The summit is expected to conclude Thursday with a declaration recommitting governments to promises to cut hunger they made in 1996 at the first food summit.
During that meeting, delegates pledged to reduce the number of hungry people in the world from 800 million to 400 million by 2015. Today, the number of people without enough to eat, however, remains at 800 million, according to AP.
"So there is no point in making further promises today," Annan said. "This summit must give renewed hope to those 800 million people by agreeing on concrete action."
Pope John Paul II, in a message read to the summit on his behalf, said the reasons that the 1996 goals hadn't been met were due to inertia, selfishness "and to international relations often shaped by pragmaticism devoid of ethical and moral grounds."
Annan cited the growing food crisis in southern Africa as an area for urgent action - an issue that is expected to figure prominently in speeches as well as in side events tackling issues such as the role of women in fighting rural hunger.
An estimated 12.8 million people in six southern African countries are at risk of starvation because of drought, floods, government mismanagement and economic instability.
Other issues are likely to crop up at the summit and on the sidelines as well - among them international trade policies, calls for delegates acknowledge the "right to food" for all, and the use of genetically altered seeds.
The United States has been a major advocate of genetically modified foods, arguing that the creation of drought - and-insect resistant crops ensures greater food security - a goal of the FAO, writes AP.
Opponents say engineered crops pose environmental and health hazards and are designed to benefit the multinational corporations that develop them, not farmers or consumers.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said Sunday such opposition was due to ignorance about the benefits of biotechnology, which she said she would highlight in her speech later Monday.
"We are already seeing new products being developed that could help some of the more food-deficit regions of the world," she said in an interview, citing drought-resistant corn and Vitamin A-enriched rice.
The United States has clashed with other delegations on another major issue on the agenda, that of having the summit agree to a code of conduct recognizing the "right to food" of the world's 6 billion people.
Late Sunday, a watered-down compromise appeared to have been reached on the final wording of the document, in which there would be no explicit recognition of the "right to food," the Italian group Other Agriculture said.
Delegates would instead call for a code of conduct that would "create the conditions necessary" to recognize the right to food, the group said.
The United States opposes the concept because it doesn't address practical ways of ending hunger but rather turns it into a philosophical debate, said Alan Larson, the undersecretary of state for economic affairs at the U.S. State Department and a delegation member.
Non-governmental organizations are also pressing summit delegates to open markets to farmers in the developing world, arguing that subsidized imports from the European Union and United States were putting them out of business.
Brazil's 2006-07 Soy Crop to be 50% GMO, Researcher Says
- MarketWatch by Dow Jones, Oct 4, 2006 http://www.marketwatch.com/
SAO PAULO -- Brazil's 2006-07 soy crop will be at least 50% transgenic, said Amelio Dall Agnol, a researcher at Brazil's top crop science institute, Embrapa.
In the 2005-06 crop, some 9 million hectares of genetically modified soybeans were planted out of a total 22 million. This season should see an additional 2 million hectares of genetically modified soy added, Agnol said, following last years ruling by the government that permitted GMO soy to be planted. Brazil soy growers are expected to plant under 21 million hectares of soy in the 2006-07 crop.
"From what we hear in talks with farmers and cooperatives, all signs are pointing to a big increase in transgenic soy," Agnol said.
Farmers use genetically modified soybeans to control the spread of weeds in soy fields, thus reducing herbicide costs. Monsanto Co. (MON), makers of the only transgenic soy seeds permitted in Brazil, said the company couldn't comment on sales volume at this time. Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybean is used by a handful of crop science companies in Brazil to produce varieties of transgenic soybeans. Farmers have to pay a fee for using the genetically modified seeds, but fee costs still come out lower than extra investments in herbicides, Agnol said.
Farmers are currently facing one of their worst financial crises in decades and will spend less on the 2006-07 crop, according to consensus estimates. Brazil is the world's No. 2 soy producer and exporter.
Global Database of Women Scientists and Professionals
- from: Amelia Goh, ICRAF -A.GOH.at.CGIAR.ORG-
We are the Gender & Diversity Program (G&D) of the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and would like to share information about our work and resources with your members.
G&D runs a Global Database of Women Scientists and Professionals. The purpose of our database is twofold:
(1) to inform women around the world, in a timely manner, about job vacancies in the CGIAR and other international organizations
(2) to ensure that women everywhere receive timely information on fellowships, scholarships and grants
Our overall goal is to increase the pool of qualified women who apply for research and managerial positions and to help enhance the careers of women in science, especially in developing countries by providing them with access to information, resources and networks for professional and personal development.
We would like to invite the women members of your organization and all your partner institutions and affiliated research centers who have MSc. or PhD. degrees to sign up in this database at no cost. Over 4659 women worldwide have signed up and are enjoying the benefits of the information received through the database. We hope to share these benefits with the members of your organization and we hope for your cooperation to disseminate the attached invitation to them.
We would also be grateful if you could help circulate news about our database and invitation through your extensive regional and international networks, events and newsletters to reach more qualified women scientists and professionals worldwide, especially those working in agricultural sciences.
Online registrations are preferred and may be accessed at http://www.genderdiversity.cgiar.org/cast_the_net.
This database is for information distribution only. We will not give your contacts to any other organization. Please note that G&D does not accept CVs and plays no role in recruitment or selection decisions. Each vacancy announcement indicates how to apply and who to direct queries to.
G&D works to help CGIAR centers leverage their rich staff diversity to increase research and management excellence. We promote activities such as diversity-positive recruitment, international teamwork, cross-cultural communications and advancement for women. For more information see www.genderdiversity.cgiar.org
The CGIAR is a strategic alliance of countries, international and regional organizations, and private foundations supporting 15 international agricultural Centers that work with national agricultural research systems and civil society organizations including the private sector. The Centers work in more than 100 countries to mobilize cutting-edge science to reduce hunger and poverty, improve nutrition and health, and protect the environment. For more information, see www.cgiar.org
Amelia Goh, for Vicki Wilde (Leader, CGIAR Gender & Diversity Program), CGIAR Gender and Diversity Program, World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF), Nairobi, Kenya
Tainted Spinach Raises Big Question of Manure on Food Crops
- Dennis T. Avery And Alex A. Avery, Center For Global Food Issues, October 3, 2006
Ten years after one of the country's top food safety experts warned of danger from putting manure on food crops, Americans are still being devastated by manure-born pathogens. It doesn’t have to be.
Contaminated raw spinach has just killed at least one person, brought devastating kidney failure to 23, hospitalized more than 75, and sickened more than 150 people across America. The deadly spinach has been traced back to Natural Selections Foods, the largest grower of organic lettuce and spinach in the United States.
Organic rules bar the use of manufactured fertilizer on their crops, so organics use composted manure and other animal wastes on their fields. Animal manure is the ultimate source of the virulent E. coli O157:H7, which contaminated the spinach.
In 1995, the Journal of the American Medical Association quoted Dr. Robert Tauxe, head of foodborne illnesses for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, telling a medical conference that "'Organic' means a food is grown in animal manure. . . . We got rid of human waste in our food and water, and I think we’re going to have better control in the future of manure in our food and water."
The Organic Trade Association responded that organic food was safe because farmers compost their manure. Dr. Tauxe responded that "Unfortunately, knowledge of the critical times and temperatures needed to make composted animal manures microbiologically safe is incomplete."
Today, USDA organic rules allow manure to be applied after just 3 days of composting--right up to harvest time! Raw manure can be applied until 90 to120 days prior to harvest, under most state-level rules for all farms. But a recent University of Minnesota study found that produce grown with manure aged 6 to 12 months was still 19 times more likely to be contaminated with E. coli than foods grown with manure aged more than a year.
Virtually no farmers age their manure for a year as too much of the vital nitrogen gasses off into the air during that time. Instead, most conventional farmers put their manure only on feed crops such as corn or on pasture. That may be why the Minnesota researchers found organic produce three times more likely to be contaminated with E. coli (7% of samples) than conventional (2%).
Organic activists love to claim that the deadly O157:H7 strain of E. coli is caused by "factory farming." Not so. The USDA says it has found O157:H7 in every cattle herd it’s tested for it. A Swiss study last year found "no significant differences" in O157:H7 prevalence between organic and conventional dairy farms. Claims that "grain feeding" of cattle causes O157:H7 to flourish are also unsupported; various studies have found the opposite.
Washing the food can't fully protect consumers either. Rutgers University has shown that lettuce (and likely spinach) can take up O157:H7 via its roots and harbor the pathogens inside the leaves! In short, there is no practical way to ensure full safety in the food crops fertilized with manure, composted or not.
Is it time to get the manure out of human food crops?
States could require that manure either be used on non-food crops or composted for at least a year. Annual questionnaires could identify the relatively few farms that compost with regular government inspections made.
This will raise howls of protest from the organic movement, which also protested the current weak manure rules. However, it’s now clear that using manure on food crops involves a serious public risk--especially with leafy produce like lettuce and spinach. The organic movement should want to ensure its customers health as urgently as do public health officials.
Eating no longer needs to be a deadly game of Russian roulette.
Dennis Avery is Director of Hudson’s Center for Global Food Issues, where Alex Avery is director of research and education. Alex’s new book, The Truth About Organic Foods, is due in October from Henderson Communications. Readers may write them at Center for Global Food Issues (www.cgfi.org), PO Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421
Researchers Uncertain How to Tame Peanut Allergy
- Jame Zhang, The Wall Street Journal via http://www.naplesnews.com October 3, 2006
In a world of wheat-free cookies and dairy-free ice cream, the peanut industry is helping fund the quest for a "nut-free" peanut.
Peanuts aren't nuts at all, of course, but legumes, or seeds, as are beans and lentils. An estimated 1.5 million Americans, including some 600,000 children, experience allergic reactions to peanuts, ranging from hives to nausea to sometimes-fatal anaphylactic shock. With most of the annual 150 food-allergy deaths blamed on peanuts, many schools have created peanut-free zones or gone totally "peanut free."
The number of children with peanut allergies has skyrocketed, doubling from 1997 to 2002, according to a study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. And it's a mystery why peanut allergies are causing more problems. One explanation is that physicians are more adept at detecting them.
Another is that the modern environment may be, in a sense, too clean: If the human immune system were exposed to more allergens, a peanut might not send it into overdrive. An approved asthma drug, Xolair, may be useful in treating peanut and other food allergies; injected into patients, it would reduce certain antibodies that are thought to cause anaphylactic food allergy. Last year, though, clinical trials came to a halt after two children, who had been given peanut protein in a screening to gauge the severity of their allergy, experienced anaphylactic reactions.
The drug's makers -- Genentech, Novartis and Tanox -- are working with the Food and Drug Administration to design a new trial, Genentech says.
Determined scientists, in some cases with peanut-industry funding, are trying to develop other therapies, or a vaccine, to prevent or reduce the severity of peanut reactions. A nut-free peanut would be genetically altered so that it is less likely to set off an immune response.
Peanut farmers and food processors have given $5.6 million over the past decade to eight scientists, mainly for peanut-allergy work, says Howard Valentine, of the American Peanut Council.
Two researchers -- Wesley Burks, chief of pediatric allergy and immunology at Duke University Medical Center, and Hugh Sampson, his counterpart at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine -- are trying to create a vaccine. They have slightly modified the three peanut proteins responsible for most reactions so they don't trigger such strong reactions from human mast cells.
By administering the modified proteins to subjects in slowly increasing doses, they hope to condition their immune systems to tolerate more. They have tested the therapy on mice and plan to start on humans in a year or so.
Another experimental therapy aims to reduce the severity of reactions. Burks's team administers powdered or liquid peanut proteins to patients in incrementally increasing doses, starting with 0.001 peanut the first day, to one whole peanut six months later. They hope one day to develop a drug or a physician-administered therapy.
In a trial completed on eight patients, Burks says the subjects tolerated 13 peanuts before experiencing a reaction -- enough, in theory, to save an allergic child's life in case of accidental ingestion.
Peanut interests have helped to fund the work of Peggy Ozias-Akins, a horticulture professor at the University of Georgia, Tifton. She wants to develop a plant whose peanuts are free of the three major protein allergens.
Screening the genetic structure of peanuts harvested on an experimental farm, Ozias-Akins is searching for ones with a defunct Ara h 2 gene, which is responsible for a protein that causes reactions in about 90 percent of patients with peanut allergy. When she finds plants with the defunct gene, she'll use them in a traditional breeding program to produce less-allergenic plants. She expects it will take at least three years to breed the plants and test them in animals.
Ozias-Akins's team also is trying to disable the Ara h 2 gene by modifying the peanut plant's genetic structure. She shoots cloned copies of the gene into a peanut, which can create a disabled gene that suppresses the function of the original one. Her team is growing plants with a disabled Ara h 2 gene in the greenhouse and testing whether the peanuts contain the allergy-causing protein.
Success is a long way off. Without the protein, other genes may compensate for its loss, making the new plants more, not less, allergenic than regular peanuts. As a result, any new genetically modified food product would have to go through animal testing and human clinical trials.
And even if Ozias-Akins gets there, it isn't clear that the world will embrace the results of her work. Says Duke's Burks, "If you take out all those proteins that cause allergic reactions to the peanut, then you no longer have a peanut."
Consumers may reject a genetically modified nut-free peanut. Ozias-Akins is aware of the skeptics but hopes the benefits will outweigh concerns. "Nothing -- or very little -- we eat today is natural or hasn't been exposed to artificial selection," she says.
"It's the best solution on the horizon right now," says Don Koehler, executive director of Georgia Peanut Commission. "We may never have an allergen-free peanut, but you've got to try. You've got to dream a little."