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Date:

February 20, 2007

Subject:

Pakistan OKs GM Bill; No Stringent Biosafety Please; Crusader Lacks Credibility; Harm of Hysteria; Impact on Rural Economies

 

Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - Feb 20, 2007

* Pakistan Cabinet Okays Draft Bill for GM Crops
* Pak Ministry Sought Approval for Bio-Tech Cotton
* Too Stringent Biosafety Norms Harmful
* Anti-GMO Crusader Lacks Credibility
* GM Food and the Harm of Hysteria
* EU Wants Rest of the World to Adopt Its Rules
* French Reader Needs Information on Glyphosate Safety
* Billion dollar 'Specialty Crop Research Initiative' by USDA
* Obstacles to the Growth of Biotechnology
* Understanding the Risks and Benefits of GM Products
* Ag Biotech - Impact on Rural Economies Especially India
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Pakistan Cabinet Okays Draft Bill for GM Crops

http://www.thenews.com.pk/daily_detail.asp?id=43568

ISLAMABAD: The federal cabinet has approved in principle the draft bill of Plant Breeders Rights to meet the WTO obligation and protect genetically modified crops (GM crops). The draft bill is an obligation for Pakistan being member of World Trade Organisation (WTO) under article 27.3b of the WTO TRIPs Agreement, says a copy of the draft bill available with The News.

The draft bill, which was approved by the cabinet in its meeting on Feb 14 with Prime Minister in the chair, will now be submitted to the parliament after vetting by the Law, Justice and Human Rights division.

The introduction of the bill will bring substantial changes and improvement in the quality of seed and productivity in agriculture and also bring discipline to the seed industry. With the promulgation of the bill, it is envisaged that investment in plant breeding both in private and public sector will be enhanced along with the activation of domestic breeding and continuous introduction of new-bred varieties.

The bill also helps in collaboration in research with national and foreign institutions and commercialisation of foreign varieties. The farmers will have better access to the superior and high-yielding local and foreign varieties. Under this bill, Genetically Modified varieties would be protected and would also be subject to the clearance from the National Biosafety Committee that GM crops would not have adverse effect on the environment, human, animal or plat life and health.

The plant varieties already registered or commercialised by research institute, which do not confirm to criteria of novelty, transitional provision has been provided in the draft bill. Public sector research institutes will have ownership rights for their varieties and the royalty so collected on the sale of seed of such varieties will be given 20 per cent share to the scientist involved in the variety’s development programme.

The farmers will be entitled to save, use, sow, re-sow, exchange, share or sell his farm produce, but they shall not be entitled to sell seed of a variety protected under this bill on commercial basis.

Similarly, the scientists/breeders will be entitled to use the protected variety for plant breeding or other scientific research. The Act will provide an effective intellectual property right system, for granting intellectual property rights to Plant Breeders for the development of new plant varieties.

It would further lead to the establishment of a viable seed industry, which is critical to the development of agriculture in Pakistan ensuring availability of high quality seeds and planting material to the farmers.

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Pak Ministry Seeks Approval for Bio-Tech Cotton

Fida Hussain, Daily Times, Feb. 15, 2007 http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/

Islamabad: The Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock (MINFAL) has intensified its efforts to get approval for two varieties of the locally developed bio-tech (Bt) cotton from the Ministry of Environment as the country is expected to officially introduce Bt crops in the country this year, a senior government official told Daily Times.

Independent agricultural experts, however, said that the concerned government authorities were proceeding slowly in introducing the new technology in farming as the regional countries including China and India were going well ahead of Pakistan.

An official admitted that the implementation process is very slow. However, he said that introduction of biotech crops was not the responsibility on a single government entity. He said that that currently the MINFAL is endeavouring to approve the two varieties of cotton from the Ministry of Environment's National Biosafety Committee (NBC).

The official, however, refused to disclose the actual names of the cotton varieties of locally developed Bt cotton as the same sown in Pakistan through informal import by the private sector is yet to be officially approved by the concerned ministry.

According to Global Agriculture Information Network (GAIN) report Pakistan has funded more than Rs 1 billion on research & development in biotechnology through various ministries and Higher Education Commission (HEC). Out of 28 centres claiming to be involved in biotechnology, only a few (three to five) are capable of doing DNA recombination research of biotech or genetically modified crops. According to the report, Pakistan has signed the Biosafety Protocol but it has not yet been ratified.

It is expected that within one to two years, genetically modified crops will be authorized to be grown in Pakistan and respond to the strong demand in the farming community to use genetically modified technology.

Pakistan, at present, is producing small quantities of a variety of biotech crops, but none have been commercialised despite the issuance of National Biosafety Guidelines in April 2005. The National Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering (NIBGE) has submitted an application to the NBC for the approval of genetically modified cotton but approval is pending.

A directorate has been established in the Ministry of Environment with the necessary expertise to monitor and evaluate incoming proposals. A number of in-vitro strains of locally developed cotton Biotech research on indigenous crops used locally, like potato, chillies, peppers and melons, is also underway. Pakistan has addressed Intellectual Property Rights by forming an independent body, the Intellectual Property Organization Pakistan (IPOP). This agency has streamlined access to the organisation by having one point of entry. In the past the Ministry of Commerce managed "trademarks," the Ministry of Education managed "copyrights" and the Ministry of Industries was responsible for "patents."

According to GAIN's report, Pakistan is importing genetically modified soybeans, soybean oil and other processed food products from the United States and other countries. After the establishment of Plant Breeder Rights the GMO seeds coming from the U.S. through multinational seed companies like Pioneer, Dupont and Monsanto will find a market in Pakistan, said the report.

Pakistan's policy at the national level is envisioned to harness the potential of biotechnology as a key contributor to the development of the agricultural sector. The implementation and monitoring mechanisms of the proposed guidelines are built upon on a three-tier system composed of the National Biosafety Committee (NBC); a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC); and the Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBC) at the level of the distinct organizations, said the official.

The official said that cotton is the priority area for Biotech research, as its production does not fall with the food chain system. The official said that at the first stage, the government had delayed the promulgation of Biosafety Act, when this was done in 2005, then NBC had not held meeting for one year. That was why the MINFAL had sought the intervention of the Prime Minister. On the intervention of the Prime Minister, the meetings of the NBC were held later in 2006, the official said.

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Too Stringent Biosafety Norms Harmful

- Economic Times, 20th Feb 200 http://epaper.timesofindia.com/

Founder-Chairman of the International Society for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), Dr Clive James,says the time has come for governments to state decisively whether to say yes to key food crops linked to alleviation of hunger such as GM rice. He spoke to Prabha Jagannathanon genetically modified crops, related regulatory and biosafety issues. Excerpts:

* According to experts, adverse effects of genetically modified (GM) crop, if any, are likely to come to the fore only in this second decade.
- You must remember it was not critics but scientists in the field who decided biosafety would be a crucial aspect in the developing technology. Today, 11 years after commercialisation Bt cotton in 1996, there have been no major hiccups on this count, proving that the system on biosafety put in place has worked.

* Does this mean that the GM industry is satisfied with the biosafety rules currently in place?
- What will be significant in the second decade of GM technology is the need to simplify regulations as much as possible and to make them responsible and accessible in regions where the technology has benefited significantly. While it is imperative to have stringent biosafety standards, raising the bar too high on bio-safety standards could mean blocking out access to GM technology to some developing countries. A significant number of those benefiting from the new technology are the small and resource-poor farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

* The cost of the Bt cotton seed is prohibitive for resource-poor farmers. There have been several cotton farmer suicides over the last few years.
- Benefits to resource-poor farmers in all these regions are not equal. GM technology is a "contribution" to growth, not the solution. It is very premature to link the suicides with Bt cotton at this time. Low yields and lack of benefits after adoption of Bt cotton could also be on account of the use of spurious seeds. Also, the level of profit depends on the level of pest (bollworm) affectation. China, not India, was the first to introduce Bt cotton in 1997. Studies by the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy, Chinese Academy of Sciences, have shown that in 2006, some 6.8 million farmers with an average land holding of one-third of a hectare are the ones that most benefited from the technology. Although the price of the seed was 100% higher, the study said that pesticide sprays were reduced by 67%, cutting input costs. The Center has said that incomes of farmers have, on an average, gone up by $300.

* Things could be different for India.
- It is highly unlikely that the Indian experience will be different. Compared to China, the build-up is what is happening here. The pace of adoption of the technology has been remarkable, with the number of farmers adopting it going up from only one million in 2004 to 2.3 million in 2006. That makes GM the fastest adopted technology since it has shown a 60-fold increase. That’s even faster than hybrid corn in its heyday in the 1930s. That is proof that the biosafety track record for Bt cotton has been exemplary. Studies from here have shown that for farmers adopting the technology, income has gone up by $250 per ha.

* What do you perceive as the GM roadmap for India in the future?
- India has good opportunity for biotech approvals, but you will have to urgently simplify regulations on this count, even while striking a balance with responsibility. Making the cost of approval too high will mean that institutions such as the ICAR will find it difficult to get approvals. If you want equity (in discoveries such as Vitamin A enriched GM rice) you must make sure that costs are lower for the public sector to get speedy approval instead of delaying discovery. There are many products not in the market but just sitting on the shelves today because of slow approval processes. Some are of special products of significance to India such as the gene for drought tolerance, which will come up for commercial use in five years. The other is GM for energy crop and biofuel.

* ISAAA as an organisation with key objectives of alleviating poverty and hunger. Yet, most of the GM crops developed up to now are commercial crops and not key staples like rice and wheat.
- The GM industry may have focused on soyabean, corn, canola and cotton. But two-thirds of the area under these crops are in the developing world. Among the food crop, brinjal could be available within a year or two. Rice is, of course, the big one and presents an important opportunity if we are serious. Unless addressed, the issue of rice has no significance. China has conducted comprehensive pre-production trials which showed that the average yield went up by 6%. Trials were done on leaf blight resistant, stem borer resistant varieties and on Golden rice. Adoption of the technology can only increase food availability, even if one-third of the 250 million rice farmers in the world adopt the technology by 2015. Governments will have to decide on what contribution this technology can make: whether to say yes to it or to say no, the risk is too high. In China, even the biosafety panel has agreed that the approval process is too rigid.

The biggest risk on GM rice is not using it. Governments should make the approval process rigorous but should have good reasons to justify why they have not approved. After all, every day, some 29,000 people die of hunger and the Millennium Goal of reducing poverty by 15% by 2015 is the biggest challenge globally. Fruits and vegetables are another very important food crops group open to sustained GM application, primarily on account of the very high pesticide use.

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Anti-GMO Crusader Lacks Credibility

- Ontario Farmer, Feb 20, 207- via Agnet

Denise Dewar, Vice-President and Executive Director Plant Biotechnology CropLife Canada, writes that it's hard to find the news reporting of the February 6 edition of Ontario Farmer credible when you publish an article such as "Anti-GMO crusader warns of negative health effects." As a farm newspaper knowledgeable about the science of food production, you perform no service to repeat the false claims of an anti-GMO activist.

Specifically, the article quoted Jeffrey Smith as blaming many health problems prevalent in the population on GM foods. This is total nonsense. The review and registration of GM crops in Canada and around the world are well documented as to their safety for food, feed and the environment. Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency have thoroughly reviewed the GM crops grown in Canada. Indeed, global research indicates GM crops are as safe and potentially safer than their conventional counterparts.

In their 2001 research report, the European Commission makes the following statement, "Research on GM plants and derived products so far developed and marketed, following usual risk assessment procedures, has not shown any new risks to human health or the environment, beyond the usual uncertainties of conventional plant breeding. Indeed, the use of more precise technology and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably make them even safer than conventional plants and foods."

After 11 growing seasons, there are no health safety issues for corn, soybeans or canola in Canada.

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GM Food and the Harm of Hysteria

- Temba Nolutshungu, Business Day, Feb. 19, 2007 http://www.businessday.co.za

European consumer panic and European Union (EU) regulations about genetically modified (GM) foods threaten millions of starving Africans, who need cheap and reliable crops. Greenpeace has just garnered a million signatures around Europe for a petition to the EU demanding labels for traces of GM organisms in food.

This time last year, Zambia banned famine relief containing GM food. Uganda and Kenya are wavering and millions of people are starving in Africa right now. GM food may not solve malnutrition and starvation by itself, but it would make a huge difference.

Remember, we are talking about a product that has been eaten by Americans and Canadians for more than a decade without harming anybody: even the EU, while applying many restrictions, accepts that it is safer than conventional food.

Fifteen years of tests in 400 European laboratories led EU research commissioner Philippe Busquin to say in 2001 that they had not found "any new risks to human health or the environment, beyond the usual uncertainties of conventional plant breeding". "Indeed, the use of more precise technology and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably make them even safer than conventional plants and foods," Busquin said.

Even SA, with bumper harvests of GM crops, is threatened by irrational fears, with activists calling for restrictive laws, citing the "precautionary principle"--a legal concept that is promoted by the EU and the United Nations. At first sight, the precautionary principle looks reasonable. As children, we were warned that you should "look before you leap" or told that "if in doubt, don’t".

Following that advice will at times have avoided danger, loss and even injury. On the other hand, following precautionary advice to avoid all risk would keep away a lot of fine opportunities, and carrying out a risk assessment before avoiding an oncoming bus could prove fatal.

The precautionary principle requires action to avoid a risk even when there is no evidence of any risk: it demands that new inventions should not be used unless and until they have been shown to be absolutely safe, reversing the usual burden of proof: they are assumed to be harmful until proven safe to an impossible standard.

When the Zambian government turned away famine-relief GM maize in 2005 because of a theoretical health risk, it created a real risk and turned a disaster into a tragedy. But that same type of GM maize had been consumed by Americans and Canadians for more than a decade.

Applied to agriculture and food biotechnology, the precautionary principle ignores the real threats of hunger, starvation and malnutrition that can be reduced by new products. Applied to penicillin and aspirin or peanuts and potatoes, with rare fatal allergies, it would have demanded an outright ban.

Yet GM foods do not even have those rare side effects. It is worth repeating that no one has yet detected any allergy, harm or risk to humans, animals or the environment from commercialised GM crops.

Farmers use GM seeds because they are more efficient, giving higher yields and lower pesticide costs.

Consumers eat GM foods because they are just as good as any other crop, and cheaper too. Hundreds of millions of people, rich and poor, get income or food from them.

The "Frankenfood" myths about terminator genes, contamination and the destruction of species reflect only ignorance, pseudoscience or plain propaganda. If we applied the precautionary principle to itself, we would not apply the precautionary principle because of the harm it could cause.

In a continent that desperately needs growth, food, jobs and exports, innovation is exactly what we need. The US, Canada and Argentina had the muscle to bring their GM-export case to the World Trade Organisation and to win against the EU last year, but African countries are still vulnerable to EU restrictions on GM products and consumer fears of (unspecified) contamination.

Bizarrely, those barriers are supported by western activists in the aid industry, who are all opposed to free trade and GM products, ignoring the fact that these are just the tools that we need to boost exports and fight famine. For European consumers, GM is a whimsical lifestyle issue. But for the poor of the world, this really is a question of life and death.

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EU Wants Rest of the World to Adopt Its Rules

- Tobias Buck, Financial Times, Feb. 19, 2007

Brussels wants the rest of the world to adopt the European Union's regulations, the European Commission will say this week. A Commission policy paper that examines the future of the bloc's single market says European single market rules have inspired global standard-setting in areas such as product safety, the environment, securities and corporate governance.

"Increasingly the world is looking to Europe and adopts the standards set here," the paper, seen by the Financial Times, says. The paper calls on the EU to encourage other jurisdictions to follow suit - for example by "promoting European standards internationally through international organisation and bilateral agreements".

This strategy, it claims, will help European businesses beat their rivals abroad since it "works to the advantage of those already geared up to meet these standards".

The EU's drive to establish itself as the pacesetter for worldwide business regulation could well lead the bloc into conflict with the US and other trading partners. US officials have often voiced concern about the bloc's growing clout as a global standard-setter, and the two sides have clashed over issues such as rules for the chemicals industry and the EU's stance on genetically modified foods.

The two sides are set this week to discuss a road map to a transatlantic market, harmonising regulations, at a meeting between José Manuel Barroso, Commission president, and Senator Bob Bennet of the US. The two sides have very different regulatory philosophies. The EU puts heavy emphasis on consumer protection and environmental legislation while the US tends to promote a more market-based approach. Some critics of the European approach argue that the EU's stance on issues such as GM foods may also reflect a desire to protect commercial interests.

However, as the Commission paper points out, the sheer size and wealth of Europe's single market mean that few corporations can afford to ignore it. By harmonising the rules for a market boasting 500m consumers, the bloc has set standards "which partners then have to meet if they are to benefit from the single market", it says.

"[The single market] gives the EU the potential to shape global norms and to ensure that fair rules are applied to worldwide trade and investment. The single market of the future should be the launch pad of an ambitious global agenda." The Commission paper forms part of an ambitious review of the EU's single market - widely seen as one of the proudest achievements of European integration.

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Need Information on Glyphosate (Roundup) Safety

- Jacques Durand, France - jdurand-at-snv.jussieu.fr

Dear AgBioView Readers:

A matter is arising, at least in French newspapers, about leaking of glyphosate into ground waters. As usual about environmental issues, there may be much ado about nothing, raised by the too well known scaremongers, but if true, this would be in contradiction to the established view that glyphosate is biodegradable and decays rapidly in soils.

I would be pleased to receive reliable information on hard facts on these topics: degradability of glyphosate, its half-life in soils, its actual concentration in rivers and ground waters, it's toxicity to animals and humans.

Thanks to all!

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10-year one-billion-dollar 'Specialty Crop Research Initiative' proposed by USDA

As part of its 2007 Farm Bill Proposal, USDA proposes investing $1 billion over ten years to establish a Specialty Crop Research Initiative to provide science-based tools for the specialty crop industry. In a summary of this plant research proposal presented January 31, the Department explained that enhanced research, extension, and education programs are needed to help the specialty crop industry address a number of challenges.

The Administration proposes investing $100 million in annual mandatory spending to create a new Specialty Crop Research Initiative to address the critical needs of the specialty crop industry. The initiative will support both intramural and extramural programs across the nation and provide science-based tools to address needs of specific crops and regions. Focus areas will include:

1. Conducting fundamental work in plant breeding, genetics, and genomics to improve crop characteristics such as product appearance, environmental responses and tolerances, nutrient management, pest and disease management, enhanced phytonutrient content, as well as safety, quality, yield, taste, and shelf life.

2. Continuing efforts to identify threats from invasive species such as Citrus Greening and Glassy-Winged Sharpshooter.

3. Optimizing production by developing more technologically efficient and effective application of water, nutrients, and pesticides to reduce energy use and improve production efficiency.

4. Developing new innovations and technology to enhance mechanization thus reducing reliance on labor.

5. Improving production efficiency, productivity, and profitability over the long term.

The U.S. specialty crop industry is comprised of producers and handlers of fruits, tree nuts, vegetables, melons, potatoes, and nursery crops, including floriculture. It is a major contributor to the U.S. agricultural economy. Specialty crops accounted for 10 million harvested cropland acres in 2004. The value of total U.S. specialty crops ($49 billion in sales) now exceeds the combined value of the five major program crops ($45.8 billion in sales).

“One of the principle opportunities to enable the specialty crop industry to remain competitive in the global environment and to continue contributing to the U.S. economy is to support research programs that facilitate continued advancements in productivity and technology,” USDA noted in its Farm Bill Proposals summary.

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A Case Study on Obstacles to the Growth of Biotechnology

- Arantes-Oliveira, N. 2007 Technological Forecasting and Social Change. 74: 61-74.

Why has a biotechnology industry developed much faster in some countries than in others? Studies indicate that public funding for research is not sufficient for the establishment of a strong biotech industry. What should countries and regions do then, in order to become globally competitive in the area?

In this paper I concentrate on the upstream section of biotech growth – the creation of new biotechnology companies – and take a closer look at the case of Portugal, a country where the industry has long been at an embryonic stage. It becomes apparent from the analysis that generalist, top-down measures to stimulate general technological development may not be appropriate to foster a sector composed of many unique characteristics. Evidence from several countries suggests that there is a group of specific factors which all have to be in place simultaneously to allow the emergence of a biotech industry.

A careful analysis of the Portuguese example – when set against the background of European and Global biotech – may help regions such as southeast Asia and southern Europe define their paths to biocompetitiveness.

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Understanding the Risks and Benefits of Genetically Modified Agricultural Products

The 4th annual BIGMAP Symposium will be held at the Gateway Hotel and Conference Center in Ames, Iowa on Wednesday, April 18, 2007.

http://www.ucs.iastate.edu/mnet/bigmap/home.html

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Agricultural Biotechnology - The Impact on Rural Economies with Particular Emphasis on India

Dr. Chong Singsit, E-PAO, Feb. 19, 2007, via Vivian Moses.

Full article at http://www.e-pao.net/epPageExtractor.asp?src=education.Agriculture_Biotechnology_II.html..

A range of technologies is applied under the umbrella of agricultural biotechnology to improve many areas of food and agriculture (including animals, crops, fish, and forest trees). This conglomeration of technologies consists of scientific tools that are very diverse and sometimes highly controversial, often posing ethical challenges requiring substantial debate among policy makers, researchers, and the public at large. In agricultural biotechnology, an array of tools is utilized to introduce or delete a particular gene or genes with the objective to produce plants, animals, and microorganisms with value-added novel traits.

The process of genetic manipulation is called "genetic engineering" and the product with altered genetic trait(s) is known as a genetically modified organism or GMO. Such organisms with altered traits are generated by the direct intervention of human ingenuity and the application of both traditional breeding methods and modern biotechnology. Agricultural biotechnology includes a myriad of techniques and products and GMOs are but one of these products. For the purpose of simplicity, this discussion will consider only genetically engineered crops.

Agricultural biotechnology (AB) is an important subject for the developing world on three fronts: 1) consumers in developing countries spend a majority of their disposable income on food (The amount of money spent on food could be reduced if the benefits of modern AB were made available to them. This would double or triple their earnings and give people more purchasing power to enhance their quality of life.); 2) AB can bring economic prosperity, which in turn can bring political stability in some of the critical areas of the developing world; and 3) protecting the environment for future generations by reducing the amount of pesticide spray.

Background of transgenic technology
The creation and commercialization of transgenic crops exhibiting resistance to insects and herbicides was a landmark in agricultural biotechnology. Transgenic crops have changed the way we look at agriculture, food security, and food's impact on society. These changes also bring unprecedented economic potential and controversy on the subject. Some controversies are legitimate and have infused lively discussions on the subject, but, generally, most of the controversies lack scientific fervor and claim.

Many agricultural scientists agree and support AB research and the economic returns that AB brings to the world economy. Over 3400 scientists worldwide, including 24 Nobel Prize winners, affirmed their commitment to the use of biotechnology to improve agriculture through research and development of genetically engineered crops in the developing world, according to Agbioworld, a non-profit organization based in the US.

One main goal of implementing AB is to produce sufficient food in order to provide nutritional and food security to the growing world population. The available transgenic technology is efficient and can be carried out in a wide variety of organisms with great success. Many value-added traits such as Golden Rice, rich in vitamin A, and corn with low phytate, etc., are already incorporated and commercialized into varieties of rice and corn. Modern biotechnology is a tool that allows scientists to select a single gene for a desired trait and incorporate that desired trait into the plant cells.

In many ways, biotechnology is simply a "high-tech" version of traditional plant breeding. The process is more efficient as the use of biotechnology prevents millions of genes from being mixed and potentially producing undesirable traits. On the other hand, the application of biotechnology allows scientists to incorporate genes from unrelated species--something that cannot be done via conventional plant breeding, such as the introduction of Bt gene. The gene was cloned from Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria and inserted into corn, cotton, and other crop plants to provide resistance to certain insects. This makes biotechnology a very powerful tool to incorporate value-added traits in a wide variety of species.

The status of biotech crops and benefits
As early as 1980, the first genetically engineered crops were developed for resistance to herbicides and insects. These two traits, herbicide and insect resistance, account for the majority of biotech crops grown worldwide. Plant biotechnology and genetic engineering is now a significant part of plant breeding on all continents. The addition of genomic technologies (gene identification) allows for the identification of genes that have the potential for revolutionizing crop production and making agriculture a more exciting industry in the 21st century.

Biotech crops reached a 10-year milestone in 2005 with the cultivation of genetically enhanced crops in 400 million hectares worldwide. Some 10.3 million farmers in 22 countries (9.3 million of which were considered subsistence farmers) grew biotech crops in 2006, a 13 percent increase over 2005. Worldwide acreage for the main crops carrying the new biotech genes is soybean (56 percent), maize (14 percent), cotton (28 percent), and canola (19 percent). Together, these crops occupy nearly 30 percent of the global area devoted to agricultural production. Biotechnology has improved productivity and income with biotech crops reporting a yield increase of 5% to 40% in production.

The United States led the cultivation of biotech crops with 48 million hectares, followed by Argentina, 16 million hectares, Canada, 6 million hectares, Brazil, 4.8 million hectares, and China, 4 million hectares. In terms of dollars, biotech crops are a $5 billion business, accounting for 16% of the global seed market shares. In addition, growing biotech crops is more affordable by requiring fewer pesticides, conserving soil, and providing a sustainable environment. As per recent data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the annual income of poor farmers in the developing world has increased significantly from the use of biotech crops. An encouraging note-most of the value-added traits have benefited farmers in the developing world rather than the technology providers who invested huge amount of resources into developing the technologies.

Farmers make a difference around the world by adopting biotech crops, thus resulting in higher yields and reliable harvests to provide food security and global stability. Agricultural biotechnology plays an important role in the farm economy with increased yields, improved weed control, and reduced chemical application. Even in the developed world, such as the U.S., farmers realize the payback by planting biotech varieties as reported by the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy in Washington, D.C. A brief summary of direct income derived from planting transgenic varieties is enumerated:

* Roundup Ready soybeans: decrease herbicide use by 28.7 million lbs. (13,018.3 metric tons)/year; $1.1 billion/year savings in production costs.
* BT cotton: decrease insecticide use by 1.9 million lbs. (861.8 metric tons)/year, 185 million lbs. (83,916 metric tons)/year increase in cotton production.
* BT maize varieties: decrease insecticide use by over 16 million lbs. (7,257.6 metric tons)/year, 3.5 billion lbs. (1,587,600 metric tons)/year increase in production volume.
* Papaya: Virus-resistant biotech papaya saved the Hawaiian papaya industry $17 million/year in 1998, from the devastating effects of ringspot virus.

As one can see from above, there is an incredible spin-off in protecting the environment, a vast reduction in pesticide use. The increase in production and savings in production costs is equally dramatic. While biotech results vary from farm to farm, the economic payback obviously has been significant. These benefits are realized not only by farmers, but also by the environment and to consumers in general.

Approximately 8.5 million farmers in 21 countries grew biotech crops in 2005, up from 8.25 million farmers in 17 countries in 2004. About 90% of the farmers benefited were from the developing world. Viruses and insects impose economic havoc on tropical crops more so than to those in the temperate regions because they thrive better in the warmer tropics. A majority of developing countries are predominantly located in tropical regions. Protecting tropical crops from these organisms can be a costly endeavor for the people of a region with limited resources. The introduction of genetically modified crop varieties containing genes that confer resistance to insects and viruses has been an economic godsend for these regions.

From a nutritional security stand point; rice with enhanced nutritional content such as Golden Rice was developed to remedy one of the most devastating causes of malnutrition due to vitamin A deficiency. Golden Rice, rice genetically enhanced with added beta-carotene that converts into Vitamin A in the human body, is an excellent example of an agricultural biotechnology success. Another research break-through is the development of a rice variety that has elevated levels of digestible iron. Rice is the diet of more than 3 billion people worldwide, but includes inadequate levels of essential vitamins and minerals such as Vitamin A and iron. Deficiency in just these two micronutrients can result in severe anemia, impaired intellectual development, blindness, and even death. The development of transgenic rice varieties containing enhanced levels of Vitamin A and iron may remedy this deficiency and can transform economically backward rural poor in the developing world and provide nutritional security.

Another important application of biotechnology appearing on the research horizon is the development of abiotic (non biological factors stress-tolerant plants.). Meanwhile, promising research is underway covering a cross-section of crop species. With better molecular understanding of stress resistance mechanisms, the development of stress resistant plants are virtually becoming a reality by using AB. The number of experimental releases of stress-tolerant plants (especially for drought) is rapidly increasing. These crops offer significant advantages in the reliability of food production in large areas of the tropics where farming is regularly disrupted by unpredictable rainfall. It is also possible that these innovations will help to relieve pressure on scarce irrigation resources. As biotechnology advances, more innovative applications will become possible. Strategies for production of genetically modified (GM) vaccines for farm animals are well underway; and, in fact during the early nineties, a recombinant vaccine for the control of rabies was the first example of a commercial scale release of a GMO.

The controversy
Agricultural biotechnology has added significant economic impact to the world economy during the past decade. Unprecedented scientific and economic advancement experienced in agriculture during this period is due largely to AB. Nevertheless, the technology has met with strong public resistance in Europe while widely adopted in the United States with little public attention or controversy. The implementation of AB will continue to foster public debate for years to come.

The European Union will continue to see more than its share of controversy and overtones. As regulatory policies, AB remains in flux with political posturing and positioning among advocates and opponents. Activists on both sides of the issue will continue to push for their agenda regardless of scientific research findings. The adoption of a stable regulatory project report will not reduce or end the controversy. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was recently sued by a US environmental and religious coalition for allegedly violating religious freedom and endangering public health through its labeling policy. The controversy is far from resolved since there are extreme views on both sides that remain diametrically opposed to one another; such controversy exists due to the political persuasion of some activists who are out to discredit genuine research findings and products that are declared safe for human.

Universities and their scientists are at the center of this debate, both as developers of the technology and for engaging the public and policymakers regarding the ethical, social, and legal issues of the application of biotechnology. Universities are therefore confronted with a public communication dilemma. When dealing with an issue like GMOs that is heavy with political controversy and scientific uncertainty, what strategies of successful public engagement and communication can these institutions pursue? Can the public institutions such as the universities and government funded research foundations objectively referee the debate over the safety of GM products without bias? Will the critics of AB readily accept the safety argument set forth by publicly funded agencies such as the FDA? Alternatively, where can the critics take their debate and obtain a satisfactory answer to the controversy? Is there an institution or agency that is above reproach to referee the GM controversy?

A recent incident with Bayer CropScience Liberty Link Rice 601 (LLRICE601) is an excellent example of this controversy. LL601 is a transgenic rice variety genetically modified to contain the herbicide resistant Liberty Link gene. The variety was approved by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for limited field trial, and subsequently declared safe for consumption by the FDA. Bayer however chose to drop the LL601 from product launch but retained the variety in their possession. (It should be stated that the LL601 produces the same protein as other LL rice events approved by the FDA for commercial sale). Several months later, traces of LLRICE601 were detected in the commercial rice conveyor. This created heated debate over the safety of the food supply chain, even to the point that the European Union banned all US rice import without rigorous testing and with a zero tolerance for LL601.

Even though the FDA declared the product safe for human consumption, the controversy remains. It is important to sort out the facts from myths in the debate, not to politicize the issues or to emotionally charge the matter. While the debate continues without a winner, the greatest losers are the farmers and consumers in the developing world. Most of the controversies and debate about GM crops thrive well in the affluent Western society where there is abundance of food.

The people who are in the greatest need of biotech products don't care about the controversies concerning GMO's. It is also true that the government leadership of certain developing countries, such as Zimbabwe, is misinformed about GMOs and has refused to harness the benefits of GM crops. It is important that we know the extent of GMO contamination and identify the different traits present in the food supply chain in order to make informed decision concerning the risks associated with eating GMO food. However, the process to identify precise levels of GMO contamination involves a series of tests that requires professional and specialized training in the field.

Alternatively, commercial testing labs are available and can determine the precise level of GMO traits present. In this regard, I advocate the use of approved commercial testing labs to determine the extent of GMO contamination. Commercial testing labs can play a vital role in providing testing data and benchmarks that can be used to make important decisions whether to reject or accept a given shipment of grain. Information on the extent of GM contamination should serve as the basis of GMO debate and should help settle the GMO controversy.

...........to be continued tomorrow....

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