Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - December 13, 2006
* Biotech Cotton Won't Ease Hunger But May Ease Poverty
* Quest for 'GM-Free' in Europe Leading to Amazon Deforestation?
* GM Policy Map of African Countries
* Doubling the Corn Yield No Longer 'A Pie-In-Sky' Goal
* International Politics of GM Food Diplomacy, Trade and Law - New Book
* An Icon of Agricultural Biotechnology is Honored
* Pew's New Biotech Report Misses the Mark
* UN-Appetizing Food Regulations?
* Preventing Paranoia
Biotech Cotton Won't Ease Hunger But May Ease Poverty
- Eric Hand, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dec. 12, 2006 http://www.stltoday.com
Mwea, Kenya - The fenced-in field is a checkerboard of cotton. Healthy and scraggly patches alternate in the red volcanic soil of the field-test site here, 50 miles northeast of Nairobi near the base of Mount Kenya. This pleases Monsanto Africa spokesman Kinyua Mbijjewe very much. That's because the scraggly patches, infested with bollworms, grew from conventional seeds; the tall, healthy plants were genetically modified.
Mbijjewe says farmers, a shrewd bunch, will be concerned less with the biotech controversy and more with the bottom line. "They don't see any horns or tails on the crops. They see normal plants like they're used to - except they don't have damage," he said. "These trials are the best advertisement there is."
While the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur is trying to give biotech cassava away, Monsanto wants to make as much money as it can from biotech cotton. Kenya is likely to become the third African nation to commercialize a biotech crop.
Biotech cotton won't solve hunger. But Mbijjewe contends that it will raise millions of African farmers out of poverty - especially if U.S. and European cotton subsidies decline and world prices rise. Mbijjewe, a tall, confident man, has driven to Mwea in his sleek, leather-seated Toyota Land Cruiser, whizzing past carts led by donkeys. For seven years, he has been Monsanto's point person in Africa - a lobbyist to a handful of governments and a lightning rod for anti-biotech criticism.
On the way to the field-test site, Mbijjewe picks up Charles Waturu, an entomologist with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, which is applying for regulatory approval on behalf of Monsanto. The field test, which began at the end of 2005, is surrounded by a 6-foot fence topped with barbed wire. A full-time guard stands at the gate - a deterrent more for monkeys than saboteurs, said Waturu.
Waturu steps on a sponge, soaked in disinfectant to destroy pollen, and crosses a buffer zone to reach the cotton patches. The conventional, untreated cotton plants are covered with bollworms, cotton's primary pest. These plants average fewer than 10 bolls, the nuggets of cotton harvested and sent to gins. The genetically modified cotton plants average three times as many bolls, Waturu said.
Biotech cotton relies on a gene that triggers the plant to make a protein that kills insects when they eat any part of the plant. The protein is nontoxic to humans and is the same as one produced by a soil microbe, Bacillus thuringiensis - a natural pesticide used for decades. The cotton is thus called Bt cotton, after the microbe. Farmers recoup the extra costs of the Bt seeds by using less pesticide.
Opposition to Bt cotton is still high among many activist groups. But worldwide, biotech cotton accounts for almost a third of all cotton planted. Some of the fastest growth in adoption of Bt cotton has come in the developing world, where 97 percent of the world's 20 million cotton growers live.
For example, several years ago, biotech was planted on just a few test sites in India but has since exploded. Last year, it covered more than 3 million acres, or one-seventh of the cotton planted by India, the world's third-biggest producer (after China and the U.S.).
Mbijjewe has high hopes for Africa, where more than 10 million farmers rely on cotton for their livelihoods. Bt cotton is bought and grown commercially only in South Africa. After three years of field trials, Burkina Faso, in the heart of the West African cotton belt, is probably next. Waturu says more widespread field tests in Kenya probably will be approved this month.
Quest for 'GM-Free' in Europe Leading to Amazon Deforestation?
An AgBioView reader from UK writes:
I can remember seeing an article a few months ago which indicated that much of the amazon deforestation for soya is to meet the irrational demand for 'GM-free' produce in Europe. Do you have reference to any data which supports this claim? Keep up the good work; Agbioview is brilliant
Andy Apel responds:
I have never seen a connection established in a conclusive way between the European demand for non-GM soy and deforestation in Brazil. Likely, that is because drawing such a conclusion would widely be regarded as politically incorrect.
Nonetheless, it is reasonable to conclude that there is, indeed, such a connection. Or at least, was. During a time when production of GM soy in Brazil was both rampant and illegal, European importers of soy switched to purchasing Brazilian soy on the pretext that GM soy was illegal, and therefore, Brazilian soy was GM-free.
Brazil has since made production of GM soy legal, voiding Brazil's putative status as a non-GM supplier. Accordingly, deforestation related to soy production since legalization is better regarded as purely a function of world demand for soy/the price of soy on world markets.
A recent tumble in the price of soy has led Brazil to provide subsidies to soy producers for the first time in years; and has led as well to a decrease in the amount of forest being converted to soy production.
Accordingly, any impact of Europe's appetite for non-GM soy on deforestation will have been during the years when GM soy was illegal in Brazil, and that impact must be somehow separated from the overall impact of world soy prices.
An important signal is that food activists have switched from opposing GM soy in Brazil to opposing "rainforest soybeans."
What most likely happened is that European demand for Brazilian soybeans artificially spurred demand in Brazil, creating a brief "bubble." The bubble was not created by price premiums for non-GM beans; the Brazilians often complained that the Europeans wanted non-GM, but refused to pay extra.
But the result was increased acreage to supply demand. When GM soy was legalized, Europeans went back to sourcing soy the usual way--leaving Brazil with more soy acres than the market could justify. This contributed to the drop in soy prices, which in turn led the government to issue subsidies to keep the sector afloat.
As much as many may dislike ag subsidies, the cruel fact of the matter is that farmers purchase at retail, sell at wholesale, and plant with no notion of what the crop will be worth. In a purely free market, the ag sector would largely be governed as much by the market as by bankruptcy laws. The deleterious consequences of such an ag sector, on food security, the balance of payments, and the stability of credit--to name a few factors--makes ag subsidies nearly mandatory until someone comes up with a more intelligent structure for ag markets.
Be that as it may, it's reasonable to say that the activities of food activists led directly to what they endlessly complain about: ag subsidies.
If perception is reality, the reality "on the ground" in Brazil is likely far different than what we read about in English-language newspapers. The last time Greenpeace mounted an assault on ships exporting soy from Brazil, farmers responded with Fourth-of-July fireworks directed at Greenpeace boats. A Greenpeace parachutists was attacked and beaten by Brazilian farmers. So the farmers have an obvious grudge against Greenpeace--but we don't know what they consider the grudge to be. Most newspaper editors would squash anything with a headline like, "Greenpeace Oppresses Brazilian Farmers - Markets Distorted and Prices Dive."
Information channels are awash with claims that farmers growing non-GM crops receive attractive premiums for their crops, but these claims are often false, or completely omit to mention that these premiums are eclipsed by lower yields and higher costs.
Unfortunately, what is perennially missed is the fact that GMO politics distorts international markets tremendously. I have no doubt that commodities traders could render a complete story on the $billions (not exaggerating) lost and made in international trade because of activist intrusions on the movement of the food supply.
It would not be entirely far-fetched to say that Greenpeace exerts more control over the world's food supply than Monsanto ever will.
Here is some information and links:
--See generally, "Brazil as a Major International Agricultural Player of Soybeans,"
"Since the widespread adoption of GM soy and the initiation of consumer campaigns by Greenpeace in Europe, Argentina and the US have lost European market share to Brazil." --"GM free soy for Europe: Quick scan on demand and arguments,"
"Soybeans represent a recent and powerful threat to tropical biodiversity in Brazil. Developing effective strategies to contain and minimize the environmental impact of soybean cultivation requires understanding of both the forces that drive the soybean advance and the many ways that soybeans and their associated infrastructure catalyse destructive processes." --"Soybean cultivation as a threat to the environment in Brazil,"
"Amazon beef and soybean industries, the primary drivers of Amazon deforestation, are increasingly responsive to economic signals emanating from around the world..." --"Globalization of the Amazon Soy and Beef Industries: Opportunities for Conservation," http://www.whrc.org/policy/COP/Brazil/Nepstad_et_al_2006_Cons%20Biol.pdf
"Brazilian soy crushers and exporters will stop buying soybeans grown in the Amazon basin for the time being, industry groups said on Monday, bowing to pressure from activist groups trying to preserve the rain forest." --"Brazil Soy Industry Boycotts Beans From the Amazon," http://www.planetark.com/dailynewsstory.cfm/newsid/37386/story.htm
Africa: Policy on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) and Genetically Engineered (GE) Foods
The Cartagena protocol on biosafety, a supplement to the convention on biological diversity, has strong support in Africa, with a majority of the countries as signatories. In addition, several countries have, in the past, rejected aid (especially unmilled grains) in food imports with concerns for national biosafety. South Africa is so far the only country that is seeing wide-spread use of genetically modified crops.
See the Graphic (Map of Africa showing various countries with their positions on GM policy) at http://maps.grida.no/go/graphic/africa_policy_on_genetically_modified_organisms_gmo_and_genetically_engineered_ge_foods
300 Bushels Per Acre Corn Yield No Longer A Pie-In-Sky Goal
- Anne Fitzgerald, Des Moines Register, Dec. 10, 2006 http://www.desmoinesregister.com
'It could be possible thanks to germplasm and biotechnology'
A generation ago, Iowa farmers would not have imagined harvesting 200 bushels of corn per acre. Now it is commonplace, and crop experts see 300 bushel-per-acre yields on the horizon.
How soon corn growers will cross that threshold is a subject of contention, but the jump in yields cannot happen soon enough. Demand for Iowa's leading crop is soaring, and new ethanol production is driving much of the demand. Pressure is growing for U.S. farmers to raise more grain.
Adding acreage by shifting soybean acres to corn production - widely anticipated in 2007 - will help farmers meet the demand, but boosting corn yields also will be key. Plant breeders, seed corn suppliers, agronomists, farmers and others must collaborate to hit the 300-bushel-per-acre goal, industry experts say.
"Is it pie in the sky? No. Will it happen next year? No. But yields are going up every year, and the rate of yield increase is going up," said Rodney Williamson, director of research and development at the Iowa Corn Growers Association in Johnston.
Since 2002, U.S. corn yields on average have topped 140 bushels per acre - nearly double 1965's average and up one-third from 1995. This year, national yields are expected to average 151.2 bushels per acre. In Iowa, the largest corn-producing state, corn yields are expected to average 163 bushels per acre this year, with total production topping 2 billion bushels.
Farmers increasingly report corn yielding more than 200 bushels per acre in Iowa and surrounding states. Many producers and other crop experts credit improved corn genetics, as well as agronomic practices. Farmers, for instance, have narrowed corn row width and increased the number of seeds planted per acre. Fifty years ago, a plant population of 15,000 per acre was common; today, most farmers plant more than twice as much corn per acre.
Major seed companies cite both germplasm - the genetic material contained in crop seeds - and biotechnology for yield increases. "In our company, it's really about our genetic research. It's about understanding our germplasm at the DNA and the gene level," said Ian Grant, a Ph.D. plant breeder and geneticist who is vice president for maize product development at Des Moines' Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc.
DuPont-owned Pioneer, the No. 1 seed corn supplier in North America, has invested heavily in increasing yield potential of the corn hybrids the company sells. This year, DuPont's agriculture and nutrition division, which is based in Johnston and includes Pioneer, will spend $588 million on product research and development, said Courtney Chabot Dreyer, a Pioneer spokeswoman. The company does not disclose how that money is allocated, but the majority goes to Pioneer, she said. "In some ways, you could say almost everything we are doing is to increase yield," she said.
Monsanto Co. of St. Louis, Mo., a top Pioneer competitor, also is pushing to increase corn's yield potential. In the past decade, since biotechnology swept the crop seed industry, Monsanto has invested more than $5 billion in crop seed research and development. The company has led the industry in commercializing so-called stacked trait hybrids, which combine two or three genetically engineered traits in a single seed.
Robb Fraley, Monsanto's chief technology officer, told European investors last month that conventional plant breeding on average results in 1.5 percent genetic improvement per year, while molecular breeding - enabled by biotechnology - doubles that rate of improvement. Together, the two approaches promise "to lift the ceiling on yield," Fraley said in his presentation.
Weather and growing conditions also are crucial to corn yields. Monsanto, Pioneer and other seed companies have tackled those barriers by developing corn hybrids capable of thwarting pests, such as the European corn borer and corn rootworms, for instance. In addition, the companies are working to increase corn's tolerance of environmental stresses such as drought - globally, the single largest source of lost yield potential.
In Arizona, Colorado and other arid places where corn is commonly irrigated, yields routinely top 300 bushels per acre, said Kendall Lamkey, a professor of agronomy and Pioneer distinguished chair in maize breeding at Iowa State University. If researchers can make corn hybrids more tolerant of drought, that would help boost production, he and others said. "I think anything we do to increase drought tolerance will increase yields," Lamkey said.
During the past decade, the national yield average has fluctuated, increasing some years but decreasing in others. Generally, though, the trend has been up, and corn industry experts predict that yield increases will occur faster, in large part because of technological advances.
Traditionally, it has taken 10 to 12 years to develop and commercialize a new seed corn hybrid. Now, that time has been cut in half through the use of biotechnology and off-season production in such places as Hawaii and South America.
Lamkey expects corn yield increases to quicken in the next decade. "I think there is still a lot of opportunity to increase corn yields," he said.
It hasn't hurt that corn breeders, both on campus and off, far outnumber those working on genetic improvements in other crops, he said. Reducing the time it takes to move a new hybrid from the laboratory to market also has helped. "I don't think they can squeeze much more out of that, but that alone has really enabled them to speed improvements," Lamkey said.
The International Politics of Genetically Modified Food Diplomacy, Trade and Law
- New Book by Robert Falkner, Hardback, Nov. 2006, ISBN 0230001254, 280 Pages, £55.00
Genetically modified food is at the heart of a new global conflict over how to govern risky technologies in an era of globalization. A transatlantic trade dispute and North-South tensions have complicated the task of creating a global regime for genetic engineering in agriculture. This timely, comprehensive and provocative collection brings together experts from the fields of international relations, environmental studies, trade and international law to examine the sources of international friction and to explore the prospects for international co-operation.
'This is an outstanding collection of essays that makes a major contribution to both scholarship and to understanding public policy. I can think of no other volume that presents such as comprehensive, integrated analysis of the complex scientific, political , economic and legal dimensions of GMO policies. It is essential reading.' - David Vogel, George Quist Professor of Business Ethics and Professor of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, US
'This masterful collection explores every angle of this quintessentially global controversy... It is essential reading for teachers and students of global politics along with anyone wishing to improve their understanding of the complex global politics surrounding GM food.' - Robyn Eckersley, University of Melbourne, Australia
Robert Falkner is Lecturer in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
An Icon of Agricultural Biotechnology is Honored
- James Wachai, Dec. 10, 2006, http://www.gmoafrica.org
The U.S. Congress has honored agriculturalist Dr. Norman Borlaug for his work in plant genetics. The Congressional Gold Medal Award awarded last week to Dr. Borlaug, now a professor of international agriculture at the Texas A&M University, is considered to be the highest and most coveted civilian award in the U.S.
Past recipients of the award include Martin Luther King Jr., John Paul II, and President Reagan. Congress specifically cited Dr. Borlaug for his tireless efforts to improve agriculture in poor countries.
The U.S. Congress’ recognition of Dr. Borlaug is a well-deserved gesture to a man credited with using agriculture to alleviate the suffering of millions of hunger-stricken people all over the world.
Through modern agricultural technologies such as biotechnology, Dr. Borlaug has changed the face of agriculture in many developing countries.
Dr. Borlaug is a courageous and determined scientist. His occasional run-ins with opponents of genetically modified foods attest to his determination to ensure that new agricultural technologies benefit the most vulnerable in the society. In his steel-like spirit, Dr. Borlaug has, and continues to battle anti-technology activists, most of whom have pitched tents in the developing world to mislead farmers and policy makers about genetically modified foods. He is on record having challenged anti-biotechnology activists to tell the world how many tones of food they have produced for the dying and poor in developing countries.
Dr. Borlaug has been a staunch advocate of genetically modified foods in the face of a well-orchestrated campaign by anti-technology activists to cast them as unsafe for human consumption and the environment. Dr. Borlaug continues to encourage developing countries to embrace modern agricultural biotechnology, as a way of enhancing food security.
Dr. Borlaug has always been a practical man. Nobody can underestimate his achievements. In the 1960s, he pioneered the Green Revolution, a transformation of agriculture in developing countries that led to significant increase in agricultural production in countries such as India and Pakistan. These countries, thanks to Dr. Borlaug, can feed their people, and afford surplus for export.
Lately, Dr. Borlaug has been involved in the Global 2000 Africa Project, an initiative to help Africa feed itself, through innovative technologies such as biotechnology. This is a noble project aimed at extricating Africa from the yokes of poverty. Dr. Borlaug wishes Africa well. Africa has no other alternative but to listen to him. For example, when Dr. Borlaug says genetically modified crops hold the key to Africa’s food problems, he means it. As a seasoned scientist, Dr. Borlaug can’t prescribe a technology that would do more harm than good to the poor.
Long live Dr. Borlaug. You’re the mirror through which the whole world sees its future.
Pew's New Biotech Report Misses the Mark
- Henry I. Miller, Dec. 11, 2006 http://www.american.com
The nonprofit asked questions its own research shows the public is unprepared to answer.
There exists a constant tension between the development of innovative, valuable new technologies and activists opposed to them. Following the partial meltdown of the core at the Three Mile Island nuclear power station in 1979, nuclear power in the United States has fared badly. So has the "new biotechnology," or gene-splicing, applied to agriculture and food production in Europe, where activists' proselytizing and government over-regulation have made it virtually nonexistent.
But food biotech in the United States is here to stay. More than 80 percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves – soft drinks, preserves, mayonnaise, salad dressings – contain ingredients from gene-spliced plants, and Americans have safely consumed more than a trillion servings of these foods. But opposition to the genetic improvement of plants using these highly precise and predictable techniques remains, largely because it is fanned continually by the misleading claims of anti-biotechnology activists.
Radicals like Greenpeace flaunt their intention to eliminate gene-splicing entirely from agriculture, while other groups, such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, claim not to oppose gene-splicing but only to want it "properly" regulated.
Reports published by the lavishly funded Pew Initiative, for example, receive extensive media and government attention, largely because Pew touts itself as occupying the thoughtful, disinterested middle ground in the biotechnology debates. But contrary to their claims that they are non-partisan and agnostic about biotechnology, Pew's workshops, conferences, and publications show a pervasive pro-regulation bias, ignore essential context, and promote the impression of genuine controversy where none exists.
The latest Pew survey of consumer attitudes, just released, is a prime example. It finds that about three in five persons surveyed have not "seen, read or heard recently about [gene-spliced] food that is sold in grocery stores," and it concludes that"public knowledge and understanding of biotechnology remains [sic] relatively low." It also reveals that "just 26% believe that they have eaten [gene-spliced] foods, while 60% believe they have not."
Little do consumers know. . . Almost 100 percent of residents of North Americans consume gene-spliced foods daily, inasmuch as they're contained in practically every product made with corn oil, high-fructose corn syrup or other corn products, soybean oil, or soy protein. And even that fails to take into account that with the exception of wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the grains, fruits and vegetables in our diets have been genetically improved by one technology or another.
After establishing that those polled lacked even the most basic understanding of the science of genetic modification of foods, the surveyors went on to ask detailed questions like, "Do you think there is too much, too little, or the right amount of regulation of genetically modified foods?" And "Do you think genetically modified foods are basically safe or basically unsafe?" That's tantamount to asking average consumers which nuclear reactor design they prefer.
At least they didn't reprise the 2003 survey item, "Companies should be required to submit safety data to the FDA for review, and no genetically modified food product should be allowed on the market until the FDA determines that it is safe," with which 89 percent of those surveyed agreed. Please. That's like asking whether repeat child molesters should be banned from teaching kindergarten.
Because the public's understanding of science is so meager, hoodwinking consumers on surveys isn't difficult. A study by the U.S. National Science Foundation found that fewer than one in four know what a molecule is, and only about half understand that the earth circles the sun once a year.
The Pew surveys take advantage of respondents' ignorance about the status quo. With the exception of wild berries and mushrooms, game, and fish and shellfish, virtually all the organisms?plants, animals, microorganisms?in our food supply have been modified by one genetic technique or another. Because the techniques of the new biotech are more precise and predictable than their predecessors, biotech foods are actually likely to be even more safe than other foods. Food producers are already legally responsible for assuring the safety of their products, and the FDA does not normally perform safety determinations, but primarily conducts surveillance of marketed foods and takes action if any are found to be adulterated or mislabeled. Unwarranted, excessive regulation, including unnecessary labeling requirements, discourages innovation, imposes costs that are passed along to the consumer and are a disproportionate burden on the poor.
Even if the Pew surveys were crafted to elicit more honest responses, they would still suffer from the fact that there is often a huge disparity between the public's responses to hypothetical questions about their buying habits and their actual behavior in the supermarket. According to former European Commission official Mark Cantley, "that's one pragmatic reason for the NGOs' trying so vigorously to keep these products off the market: They might be rather embarrassed by the actual choices made by consumers when the goods were on the shelf."
In both flagrant and subtle ways, Pew and others continue to perpetuate the patently false impression that gene-splicing in agriculture and food production is untested, unproven, unwanted and unregulated. They ignore our vast experience and the scientific consensus that gene-splicing is an extension, or refinement, of less precise, less predictable techniques. They are both scientifically and ethically challenged and if technological innovation is to thrive in the United States, their mischief must be exposed at every opportunity.
Henry I. Miller is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former FDA official. His most recent book, "The Frankenfood Myth: How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution," was selected by Barron's as one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.
UN-Appetizing Food Regulations?
- Henry I. Miller, December 10, 2006 http://legalnews.tv
Barely a week after my Hoover Institution colleague economist Milton Friedman passed away last month, I had a stark first-hand reminder of the wisdom of his limited-government, libertarian views.These epiphanies came in Chiba, Japan, during the deliberations of the UN task force on regulation of foods obtained with recombinant DNA (or gene-splicing) technology. As the proceedings became progressively more bizarre and unconstructive, I kept thinking of the old aphorism, the government that governs best governs least. The regulator-wannabes of the UN and the individual nations in attendance obviously believe otherwise.
The scope of this exercise, under the auspices of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which sets food standards on behalf of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization, makes absolutely no sense. Now in its seventh year, the mission of the task force is to create new regulatory requirements only for foods made with the newest, most precise and predictable techniques of biotechnology – gene-splicing, or genetic modification – while exempting others made with far less precise and predictable conventional technologies. Having already stifled innovative research on food plants and microorganisms, it is now metastasizing to other areas, such as animals and even animals immunized with high-tech vaccines.
It is one thing to regulate novel foods with traits that are of potential concern, but quite another to regulate merely because a certain technique has been used, especially when that technique is state-of-the-art. It is rather like circumscribing for extra regulation only cars outfitted with disk brakes, radial tires and air bags – and then limiting only those vehicles to a lower speed.
The members of this task force – including the representatives of the U.S. government – systematically ignore scientific principles and the basic axiom that the degree of regulatory scrutiny should be proportionate to risk. They disregard the scientific consensus that gene-splicing is an extension, or refinement, of older, traditional techniques of genetic modification, and that it does not warrant discriminatory, excessive regulation. They overlook the fact that during two decades of widespread use, the performance of gene-spliced crops has been spectacular, with farmers enjoying increased yields, decreased use of agricultural chemicals, and lower occupational exposures to pesticides.
This regulatory charade is The Big Lie, writ large. Moreover, this Codex task force makes a mockery of the UN's own Millennium Development Goals – especially the first and most ambitious: "to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger" by 2015. That won't be accomplished without innovative technology, and there won't be innovative technology if it is regulated excessively and stupidly.
The task force's approach is incompatible with the published policies of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which boasts the most scientifically defensible, risk-based approach to biotech regulation anywhere in the world. However, the head of the U.S. delegation, Dr. Eric Flamm, a senior FDA bureaucrat, is unfazed by the inconsistency; he maintains that at Codex the members of the delegation represent not their own agencies or departments, but the United States Government. One wonders whether FDA's leaders – who proclaim during every speech that the agency is committed to science as the basis for policy – share this view. After all, Federal courts take a dim view of bureaucratic actions that conflict with duly established regulatory policy.
Why does the United States collude on this travesty? The representatives of U.S. regulatory agencies offer several rationales: Because virtually every other country has in place irrational, unscientific regulation, we must follow suit; the task force is really addressing issues of trade, not science; and most important, American industry demands that we play along.
Unpersuasive on all counts.
The Codex deliberations are disastrous not only scientifically and economically but also put the United States at a disadvantage with respect to trade issues. Unduly burdensome Codex standards for biotech foods compromise the ability of the World Trade Organization to provide relief from arbitrary or protectionist policies. Codex standards provide cover for unfair trade practices because with them in place, a country that wishes to block trade in gene-spliced foods for any reason can defend against charges of unfair trade practices simply by remonstrating that it's deferring to Codex.
It is true that a narrow segment of U.S. industry – big agribusiness, whose lobbyists flock to the Codex task force meetings – endorses the Codex process, but food companies regard it as a lose-lose situation created by government at the urging of the big agribusiness companies during the 1980s. The latter fail to realize that encouraging excessive, unscientific regulation is like eating your seed corn: a short-term expedient but a long-term catastrophe, especially for smaller farmers, plant breeders and academic researchers (who are not represented at Codex).
The dynamics of the discussions in Chiba were instructive – and irritating. American regulators assumed their usual role as shills for big agribusiness, which created its own Frankenstein's monster during the 1980s by demanding sui generis, excessive regulation of agricultural and food biotechnology. The industry's plan was to roll back regulation after competition from agbiotech start-ups and seed companies had been eliminated by high barriers to entry, but that "regulatory rescue" strategy has failed. As at other venues sponsored by UN agencies, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the like, attempts to rationalize or liberalize regulation have been handily neutralized by the EU, its members and surrogates. This was very evident in China.
Even as the EU vitiated any possible value of the various agenda items during its interventions, its delegate continually reminded the group that nothing emanating from Codex would in the least affect EU policies, procedures or approvals. As the interventions from the EU and United States ping-ponged back and forth, agribusiness lobbyists literally were whispering in the ear of the U.S. government representatives, trying to eke out small concessions for their own narrow interests (and their end-of-the-year bonuses). At the end of the conference, Michael Phillips, vice-president of the Biotechnology Industry Association (BIO), admitted to me that the outcome in Chiba "is as stupid as you think it is, but we got what we needed." Eighteenth Century economist Adam Smith could have had BIO in mind when he observed, "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices."
This bad-faith and inept performance by American regulators flies in the face of science-based public policy and detracts from the robustness of academic research and the well-being of other sectors of the U.S. economy. American officials now regularly collude in these anti-scientific debacles, the outcomes of which consistently sacrifice U.S. interests to those of the European Union and anti-technology NGOs (which, inexplicably, are permitted full participation in Codex task forces). What makes this particularly absurd is that the United States provides about a quarter of the base budget of the UN.
Thanks in large part to excessive and ill-conceived regulation, agbiotech R&D already is moribund worldwide in the public sector, little better in industry, and dead and buried in the developing world. Given the flawed scope of the work of the Codex task forces (plural) involved in the oversight of biotechnology, every individual biotech-regulation project is another nail in the coffin of wider diffusion of the technology. The representatives of agribusiness at Codex are unapologetic about the burden that these regulations place on academia, and they freely admit that it will be virtually impossible ever to revisit the inaccurate assumptions that drives the work of the Codex task force. In other words, the hole gets deeper and deeper, with no prospect of filling it in.
How can we begin to fix this? I'm reminded of a classic fable, "The Peterkin Papers," by Lucretia Hale, which tells the tale of a well-meaning but rather dimwitted family. One day, Mrs. Peterkin discovered that she had mistakenly put salt instead of sugar in her cup of morning coffee, making it taste awful. She called her family around to help her decide what to do. First, they took the coffee to the local pharmacist who tried adding ammonia and various other chemicals, including a dash of arsenic, but that only made the coffee taste worse. They proceeded then to the neighborhood herbalist, who added more ingredients to the coffee, but that made it even more distasteful. In desperation, the Peterkins turned to the famed Lady from Philadelphia, who was reputed to be very wise. "Why don't you dump it out and make a fresh cup of coffee?" the lady suggested.
Instead of that drastic but necessary remedy, under the auspices of the UN, bureaucrats from scores of countries continue to add more and more noxious nostrums and force the brew down the throats of researchers and consumers everywhere.
As the economic engine behind all UN projects, it falls to the United States to take the lead. The United States should cut off funding and all other assistance to foreign governments, United Nations agencies and other international bodies that implement, collude, or cooperate in any way with unscientific regulatory policies. Flagrantly unscientific regulation should become the "third rail" of American foreign policy. In addition, the United States must direct its representatives at international conferences to hew to scientific principles and to the old axiom that no agreement is better than one that moves us backwards.
Uncompromising? Aggressive? Yes – but justified in the face of the virtual annihilation of entire areas of research and development, under-use of a critical technology, further disenfranchisement of poor countries, and disruption of free trade.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and fellow at the Hoover Institution, headed the FDA's Office of Biotechnology from 1989 to 1993. Barron's selected his most recent book, "The Frankenfood Myth..." one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.
Bird Flu: Preventing Paranoia
- Letters, The Scientist, Dec. 2006 http://www.the-scientist.com
Jack Woodall's column raises a fundamental question of our time and [one that is] far more relevant to science - as a societal endeavor - than just the current bird flu issue. To wit: How do innovators and direct beneficiaries of science and new technologies, especially in food and medicine, accurately convey the benefits and inevitable downsides (however small) of their products/technology/science without becoming victims of the Internet-aided professional activists who have set out to appoint themselves as arbiters of what is acceptable or not?
There are countless examples of useful and beneficial new technologies that are simply too easily mischaracterized and demonized as tools of some corporate or financial interest. This is even said still about milk pasteurization, and is certainly true for agricultural biotechnology. Such groups have blamed bird flu, too, on "industrial farming," even though the flu comes out of areas with high densities of small, mixed farms and old-style wet markets.
Can we as a society continue to move forward when the media/activist synergy so continually and consistently opts for alarmism, suspicion, and paranoia, over common sense and sound science? It's too easy to yell fire in a techno-theater these days.
- Alex Avery , Hudson Institute, aavery.at.rica.net
1. J. Woodall, "Bird flu madness," The Scientist, 20(10):63, October 2006.