* Mandelson Addresses Biotech
* Africa's Safety Trap
* Annan to boost agriculture in Africa
* Green light for GM wheat trials
* Demand to drop GM moratoriums
* GM debate needs balance
* GMO meeting a fizzer
* Biotech patent law gets green light
* TRIPS: Members Still Divided
* RR Alfalfa No Threat
* Organic farm cruelty
Speech by Peter Mandelson, at the European Biotechnology Info Day
- European Commission (press release), June 14, 2007
In this speech to the European Biotechnology Open day in Brussels EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson strongly defends an open European approach to biotechnology and GM food; one that prioritises strict science-based health and safety testing but which recognises that safe biotechnology has a crucial role to play in agriculture and agricultural trade both in Europe and the developing world. Calling biotechnology "The coal face of applied science in the twenty first century" he concludes: "we must be under no illusion that Europe's interests are served by being outside a global market that is steadily working its way through the issues raised by GM food. They are not".
Mandelson argues that Europe has the appropriate risk-management systems for ensuring that biotechnology is rigorously tested, but that these systems can be badly undermined if politicians and risk-managers do not defend the science that underpins them. He says: "A rigorous system means approving GM imports when the science is on their side just as we take a firm line when precaution is justified... if politicians and risk managers undermine their own system... we devalue objective science as our most important benchmark - and that is a dangerous step to take." Mandelson warns that as a global market for GM products grows, EU application of its rules will come under greater international scrutiny. He warns: "If we fail to implement our own rules, or implement them inconsistently, we can - and probably will - be challenged.
Mandelson argues that any blanket rejection of GMOs ignores the fact that genetically modified foods have played a key part in past revolutions in agricultural productivity and will be central to providing sufficient food and feed stocks for a growing population in the developing world. They are also likely to have a central role in shaping agricultures response to climate change through adapted bio-fuel crops.
Mandelson argues that there is an economic risk in Europe if we fall behind the global economy in approving safe biotechnology. He cites recent European Commission research that suggests that Europe may find it increasingly hard to source animal feed that is approved under EU rules - putting a heavy strain on the EU livestock sector. He says: "Isolation from international trade in agricultural biotech products that have passed credible safety standards simply may not be a viable option for the EU".
Mandelson argues that the EU should take the lead in shaping "a global system of clear rules that allow exporters and importers to trade GM crops and feed in confidence". He identifies negotiations on the Codex Alimentarius, bringing the Biosafety Clearing House of the Cartagena Protocol to full operational status and the reinforcement of the WTO SPS Agreement as key priorities.
Mandelson concludes: "One extreme of the biotech debate in agriculture often wrongly portrays it as a conflict between consumer sovereignty and corporate power - between caution and recklessness. The other extreme of the debate - especially in the United States - thinks it is a tussle between free trade and protectionism. It is none of these. Strong safety standards are legitimate principles of international law. The best defence of consumer and corporate interests is a regime that is open to new technologies but ensures they are tested in a way that keeps public safety and health paramount. And so long as we apply the same rules and standards across the board the protectionist label doesn't stick. From its side, the biotech industry needs to keep in mind that while technology determines what is possible, consumer demand determines what is economically viable. Public fears may be misplaced, but they cannot and should not be dismissed. We - and by that I mean you the industry and we, public authorities and governments - need to doo a better job of setting out the issues."
Africa must be aware of the safety trap
- Tawanda Zidenga, AgBioView, June 14, 2007
I read with interest the article about managing GMOs in Zimbabwe (Agbioworld 12 June 2007, The Herald (Harare), June 11, 2007). The developments in improving capacity for managing GMOs are refreshingly welcome. Yet I still fear that Africa may drown itself in a GMO safety trap and delay the benefits this technology may offer. I will explain.
In many small nations, biotech capacity has always meant the capacity to detect GMOs from food imports, not capacity to carry out research. No national strategy to work on strategic crops and projects - just diagnostic labs springing up at the borders.
If biotech is to be used as an additional tool in ensuring food security in Sub-Saharan Africa, leaders and policy makers will need to be foresighted enough to go beyond diagnostic capacity.
An additional complication that African governments and institutes face is one of resources. After all the prioritization is done, there is little left for research. While there are many high-profile projects currently running, mainly in western labs, focusing on Africa's food security needs, a political will within Africa is required for their success.
Oftentimes, synchronization between donor-funded projects and local national strategy is lacking. These projects end up being convenient employment opportunities for those involved - nothing more. It takes more committed and unwavering dialogue between donors, scientists, governments as well as the media to achieve these goals.
Our dreams of public participation in biotech decision-making are meaningless unless we synchronize our goals, politics and policies for the betterment of people. Frustratingly, progress on this front is often slow in Africa. When there is so much good will around - so many people and projects directed to helping Africa - the least we can do is position ourselves to better benefit from that help.
I think biosafety issues will remain an important part of the entire process. But we will need to go beyond 'protecting' ourselves against the supposed effects of GMOs and start exploring the benefits. This will not come from 'diagnostic' labs - it will come from research labs. Interestingly, improving research on generating GMOs will inevitably increase our capacity to detect them.
Kofi Annan named as head of new body to boost agriculture in Africa
- Associated Press via PR Inside, June 14, 2007
CAPE TOWN, South Africa - Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan aims to lead a «green revolution» in Africa by boosting food production on the only continent in the world blighted by falling yields and rising hunger.
Africa should rely on African solutions _ local labor, seeds and markets _ without seeking imported biotech «magic bullets» or the promise of more open foreign markets, he said in announcing his appointment as chairman of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. «We are not embarking on a major genetically modified exercise,» he said. «At this stage we won't focus on genetically modified foods,» he told journalists at the World Economic Forum's annual African conference.
Annan, U.N. chief from 1997 to the end of last year, said he would devote one third of his time to the alliance, set up last year with a grant of US$150 million (euros113 million) from the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller Foundations. The conference highlighted the anomalies of a situation where Kenyan farmers sell flowers and green beans to Europe while their country battles constant hunger; where billions of tons of rainwater wash into the sea on a drought-ravaged continent for lack of money to build reservoirs and irrigation facilities. Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade said that his country had increased its our production of maize from 80,000 tons to 500,000 tons in the space of two years by using basic irrigation techniques it learned from neighboring Burkina Faso.
He said that Senegal had built dozens of reservoirs, allowing villagers to grow vegetables in the dry season - but that the country needed foreign aid to build more. He said that Senegal hoped to follow the example of Burkina Faso, which had boosted its yield of cassava from 700,000 to 5 million tons also by «artificial rain.
«With cooperation we can do a lot,» he said.
African leaders frequently complain that whilst wealthy donor countries are willing to send food aid to avert mass starvation, they are less generous when it comes to paying for basic inputs like fertilizers, seeds and better equipment which would help farmers become more self sufficient. The Green Revolution alliance aims to curb mounting hunger, soil erosion and water shortages by improving seed varieties, helping women, who form the backbone of the continent's farmers; and improving water management.
«Sub-Saharan Africa is the only area of the world where food production is worsening each year,» said Annan. He said that three quarters of the land is without fertilizer and the soils are the most depleted in the world. The number of underweight children has increased by 10 percent in the past three years, he said. The situation is likely to worsen with climate change, expected to wreak havoc with crop yields that already are well below the global average, Annan said.
Aid agencies are sounding the alarm that drought is expected to devastate this year's maize harvest in southern Africa, leaving millions of people in countries like Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Lesotho dependent on foreign handouts. The Horn of Africa suffers perennial rain shortages.
«Africa is not responsible for emissions» of greenhouse gases, said Annan. «But we are paying the highest price. We are paying for the crimes of others. Annan said that Africa would be able to double or even triple its food production if it learnt from the experiences of Latin America and Asia, which have seen dramatic boosts in yields because of improved management techniques, better training and more access to microcredit.
Only four percent of land is irrigated in sub-Saharan Africa compared to 38 percent in Asia, according to Jacques Diouf, head of the Food and Agriculture Organization. «Unless we solve this problem we will continue to have an agriculture which is dependent on the vagiaries of the climate,» he said. He said that although some countries were increasing food production by the 6 percent target set by African leaders, this was «very fragile and dependent on rain.
Green light for first field trials of GM wheat
- North Queensland Register (Australia) via CheckBiotech, June 14, 2007
An application to conduct the first Australian field trial of genetically modified (GM) wheat has been given the green light by the federal gene technology regulator.
The trial of the new GM wheat lines, which have been modified for drought tolerance, will take place at two sites in the shires of Horsham and Mildura in Victoria.
The trials, to be funded by the Molecular Plant Breeding Co-operative Research Centre and due to be planted this month, will cover a maximum total area of 0.225 hectares.
Professor German Spangenberg from the Victorian Department of Primary Industries, who will head up the trials, said researchers would evaluate the agronomic performance, including yield, of the GM wheat lines under rain-fed, drought prone conditions.
Seed would also be collected and retained for seed increase or further experimentation (subject to additional approvals).
Up to 30 GM wheat lines will be trialled with each containing one of six different genes for drought tolerance derived from maize, thale cress, moss and yeast.
The GM wheat will also be compared with non-GM wheat for the ability to secure greater yield under moderate to severe drought conditions.
Feds demand states drop GM moratoriums
- Kalgoorlie News (Australia), June 14, 2007
State bans on genetically modified crops are putting the future of Australia's agriculture sector at risk, federal Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran says.
Victoria and Tasmania are reviewing their GM policies but NSW has a moratorium on GM cultivation until at least March 3, 2008.
NSW does grow some GM cotton along with Queensland.
The other major grain growing states of South Australia and Western Australia have had limited trials of GM organisms including canola varieties, blue carnations and field peas.
Mr McGauran said the effects of biotechnology were immense.
"As the world's population increases, there is demand for more, and healthier, types of food," Mr McGauran said.
"There will also be demand to use crops for energy production and for new industrial and pharmaceutical uses.
"Biotechnology is helping to provide answers to these challenges.
"The states and territories must remove their moratoriums on GM crops to allow farmers to choose which crops they want to grow, and provide researchers and investors with a clear pathway to the marketplace."
Australia's Office of the Gene Technology Regulator has federal command over genetic modification trials.
"If Australian farmers are to remain internationally competitive they must be able to obtain the full benefits of biotechnology," Mr McGauran said.
GM debate needs balance
- Wimmera Mail Times (Australia), June 13, 2007, p. 12
MOST of us understand that the concept of growing genetically modified crops has to go through an in-depth lengthy process of debate.
But the experiences of Melbourne University lecturer Dr David Tribe provide us with an example of the type of process we should all avoid. Dr Tribe was invited to be part of a Stawell workshop about the impact of genetically modified crops. But he claimed he had little opportunity to present an alternative view in a contrived and overwhelming debate he feared was inciting fear in Winnmera farmers.
"I believe people are being led by the nose by urban activists who do not understand that much about agronomy and agriculture," he said. Dr Tribe said the Friends of the Earth workshop was weighted heavily against the pursuit of gene modifications and gave little opportunity for an alternative argument.
Dr Tribe said he would gladly return for a `real' debate if given the opportunity.
In a world of climate change and a growing need for food and fuel, gene technology is emerging as one of the more serious issues of the planet. And as a broadacre fanning region, we're going to be in the thick of the issue.
But as with any worthwhile debate, serious analysis where proponents and opponents get opportunities to air their arguments without the complications of rhetoric and emotion is crucial. Let's be honest. The vast majority of people aren't quite sure of what this all means. Let's find a clear understanding where all arguments get a chance to find their way onto the table.
Tribe: GMO meeting a fizzer
- Wimmera Mail Times (Australia), June 13, 2007, p. 23
A Melbourne University lecturer believes a Stawell workshop about genetically modified crops was not the open debate organisers claimed.
Lecturer Dr David Tribe said organisers invited him to take part in a panel discussion, but failed to tell him he would speak for three minute s.
Dr Tribe said he was not unhappy with the message he had gotten across, but feared the meeting was inciting fear in Winunera farmers.
"I believe that people are being led by the nose by urban activists who do not understand that much about agronomy and agriculture," he said.
"A 21/2 hour film was shown, which depicted fertiliser being discovered in a bomb factory in World War I.
"Farmers are not all stupid. There was a man at the meeting with Parkinson's disease, which he blamed on pesticide exposure. He made a passionate plea against GM. I admire his passion but I ask myself what that had to do with GM crops."
Dr Tribe said he would promote an open debate where key proponents and opponents of gene modification could openly discuss their views with farmers. He said he would be happy to address further Friends of the Earth meetings in Stawell.
"I drove five hours that night there and back but I'd happily do it again for another session," he said.
"I was billed as a pro-GM speaker, but I only spoke for three minutes. Unfortunately my invitation by Genethics to participate did not provide me details about my speaking obligations and I assumed I was just to be a member of a panel.
"All the other contributors were decidedly anti-GM. What the audience got that evening were two organic farmers, a Greens party politician, a Network of Concerned Farmers speaker, two hours of a Future of Food propaganda film, Genethics' Bob Phelps, and five minutes from me.
"I will happily return to Stawell for a real debate and speak much longer on this crucial issue in any forum where a wide range of views are presented. That was not the case at the Genethics Friends of the Earth meeting last week."
New biotech patent law gets green light
- Swissinfo via Checkbiotech, June 13, 2007
Biotechnology discoveries, such as genetic sequences, will enjoy more protection in Switzerland after parliament voted in favour of a revised patent law.
Monday's decision in the Senate was in line with that taken by the House of Representatives last year, leading critics to say that the new legislation was a victory for the pharmaceutical industry.
The revised law was approved by 27 votes in favour and none against, with seven abstentions.
Discussions in the Senate focused on how far biotech discoveries should be protected.
The government had proposed that a patent of a genetic sequence should not be restricted to one particular purpose.
This was accepted despite arguments that this would lead to a monopolistic research situation created by patent-holders.
Senator Simonetta Sommaruga, a national consumer champion, had pointed to the case of a United States firm, Myriad, to illustrate this.
Myriad had mapped the breast-cancer gene and consequently held a worldwide monopoly on breast-cancer tests.
This had led to the price of these tests increasing by up to tenfold.
Another problem, Sommaruga added, was that another researcher had since discovered that the same gene could be a marker for bowel cancer.
It was therefore uncertain whether the latter could apply for a patent as Myriad already held one.
Justice Minister Christoph Blocher dismissed Sommaruga's arguments, saying that the Myriad case was a one-off and that the new Swiss law would prevent monopolies from taking root.
Responding to criticism that the revised legislation weighed too heavily in the pharmaceutical industry's favour, Blocher said that a patent law, which had the opposite effect, was unworkable.
A minority of senators had tried to press the issue of biopiracy or the patenting of natural resources found in developing countries.
However, Blocher put short shrift to their concerns, saying that the revised law would introduce "an obligation to be transparent" about the origins of an organism for which a patent application is made.
The legislation states a series of exceptions, where organisms may not be patented. These include cloning human beings and using human embryos for non-medical purposes.
Patenting plant varieties and animal species is also not permitted.
TRIPS: Members Still Divided on Biodiversity, GIs, and Enforcement
- International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD), Bridges Vol. 11, No. 21, June 13, 2007
WTO Members continue to broadly disagree on how best to achieve the objectives of biodiversity conservation and intellectual property protection. The issue, along with the enforcement of intellectual property rights (IPRs), featured prominently in discussions during a 5 June meeting of the TRIPS Council.
Separate informal consultations on another contentious intellectual property issue -- the protection of geographical indications (GIs) -- took place the following day.
Disclosure Group expands
The misappropriation of genetic resources and traditional knowledge (TK) through patents ("bio-piracy") has been a source of major concern to a large number of Members, particularly several developing countries. For this reason, a group of developing countries (Brazil, China, Colombia, Cuba, India, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand, Tanzania, Ecuador, and South Africa) last summer proposed amending the TRIPS Agreement to require patent applications to include disclosure of the origin of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge as well as evidence of prior informed consent and benefit sharing (IP/C/W/474; see BRIDGES Trade BioRes, 16 June 2006, http://www.ictsd.org/biores/06-06-16/story3.htm). They argue that such requirements are necessary to support patent-related obligations that arise from the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).
These countries have since repeated their call for making mandatory disclosure requirements part of WTO rules, calling for text-based negotiations to develop a specific amendment. They have been opposed by Members such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, which argue that such negotiations would be premature and that even disclosure requirements might not prevent 'bad patents' from being granted.
Notably, the so-called "Disclosure Group" expanded considerably at the recent meeting, with Venezuela, the members of the African Group and the members of the Group of Least-Developed Countries (LDCs) announcing their support for the proposal.
Apart from that, the discussion followed a familiar pattern. Australia, Canada, and New Zealand said that more facts-based discussions on concrete cases of misappropriation were necessary. Japan and the US underlined their opposition to any TRIPS amendment on disclosure, saying that there is no contradiction between the WTO agreement and the CBD.
Norway supported the Disclosure Group's call for text-based negotiations, pointing to its own similar proposal for an amendment (IP/W/473). Instead of patent revocation, the Norwegians would sanction patent applicants that fail to meet disclosure requirements outside the outside the patent system. Several countries in the Disclosure Group welcomed the Norwegian approach as a step in the right direction.
Finally, the EU reiterated its call for disclosure requirements to be negotiated outside the WTO, at the World Intellectual Property Organization.
Brazil said that Members' political will to engage in negotiations on disclosure as part of the Doha Round negotiations was growing. According to the Brazilian delegate, technical discussions would be pursued in informal consultations rather than at the meetings of the TRIPS Council.
The new chair of the TRIPS Council, Ambassador Yonov Frederick Agah (Nigeria) will consult with Members on whether to grant the CBD Secretariat observer status at the WTO, after Brazil expressed support for doing so but the US indicated its opposition.
Disagreement persists over enforcement
A number of mainly industrialised nations such as Switzerland, Japan, the EU, and the US, (but also El Salvador) have been seeking to make the enforcement of intellectual property rights a permanent item on the TRIPS Council's agenda, pointing to increasing piracy and counterfeiting around the world. Most major developing countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, China, Cuba, India, and South Africa, oppose a requirement to discuss intellectual property rights at every meeting, arguing that giving the issue such prominence could ultimately impinge upon Members' freedom to determine the appropriate means of IP enforcement. They argue that other fora, such as WIPO and the World Customs Organization, deal adequately with enforcement.
Against this background, Switzerland tabled a submission describing its own enforcement system and border measures (IP/C/W/492). It highlights the importance of cooperation between national agencies, and points to the Swiss patent office's campaigns to promote public awareness that IP piracy and counterfeiting is more than a minor "peccadillo." Several developing countries emphasised that there was consensus among Members to make enforcement a permanent fixture on the Council's agenda.
GIs at a standstill
Like the TRIPS and biodiversity issues, Members remain deadlocked on whether to extend the higher level of geographical indication (GI) protection currently accorded to wines and spirits to other products (such as 'Parma ham'). Informal consultations on 6 June indicated no changes. Opponents of 'GI extension' such as Argentina, Canada, Chile, and the US have expressed concern about the costs of implementation - their farmers would lose the ability to use at least some names for their products, such as 'gruyère cheese.' The EU and India counter that increased protection would offer developing country producers opportunities to gain price premiums in export markets.
Switzerland and the EU believe that commercial opportunities arising from expanded GI protection could help compensate their agricultural producers for subsidy and tariff cuts under the Doha Round. GI extension is likely to become more prominent as WTO Members, particularly the G-4 of Brazil, the EU, India, and the US, try to reach an accord on farm trade.
RR Alfalfa No Threat to Organic, Export Markets
- Mike Waters, Growers for Biotechnology, June 12, 2007
Organic activists and environmental extremist groups would have the public believe that Roundup Ready (glyphosate tolerant) alfalfa is a "threat to organic alfalfa and alfalfa export markets." Reality says otherwise.
Of the 22 million acres of alfalfa grown in the U.S. last year, USDA estimates that only about 200,000 acres were Roundup Ready - about 0.01% of the total. And the risk of cross pollination in forage production is extremely remote. According to the Univ. California Davis (http://alfalfa.ucdavis.edu - click on 'Biotech Alfalfa') for gene flow to occur from one hay field to another, the following must occur: 1) Fields must flower simultaneously, 2) pollinators must move between fields; 3) pollen must fertilize plant; 4) embryos must turn into seeds: 5) seed must fall to ground and germinate; 6) germinating plants must compete with existing alfalfa. Agronomic experts point out that there are severe environmental limits to each of these steps happening, and further, most hay is harvested pre-bloom; the few surviving seeds that may germinate do not contribute significantly to hay biomass (estimates at <0.001%).
RR alfalfa a threat to export hay markets? Hardly. About 90% of alfalfa produced in the U.S. is consumed domestically, much of it consumed on the farm where it is produced. Japan - the largest recipient of U.S. hay, representing over 75% of all U.S. alfalfa hay and hay product exports - approved RR alfalfa for import last year. Over 98% of U.S. alfalfa hay/hay products exported is concentrated in five countries: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Canada and Mexico. All five countries have a process for approving import of biotech crops and currently import products derived from U.S. produced biotech soybean, corn, canola and/or cotton.
The U.S. court has already accepted the fact that Roundup Ready alfalfa poses no harm to humans and livestock, and other regulatory agencies around the world, including Canada and Japan, have confirmed the environmental safety of RR alfalfa. Further, farmer stewardship agreements provide an expected level of responsibility, following proper production practices just as conventional and organic producers adhere to required production practices.
Montana is a leading alfalfa producing state in the nation, and while RR alfalfa isn't a fit for all producers, it offers distinct advantages for some, including a better chance of stand establishment in the spring, and for selling into segments of the hay and forage market that demands a high quality, weed-free product, such as horses and purebred livestock breeders.
What really happened here is that a bunch of environmental groups bent on an all organic, no biotech crop agenda went shopping for a judge friendly to their cause. It's important to note, however, that the San Francisco judge's ruling halting the production of RR alfalfa isn't permanent. It's only until USDA completes an Environmental Impact Statement.
Longtime ag writer Harry Cline, editor of the Western Farm Press, was sharply critical about the ruling. "All this to appease a bunch of radicals bent on destroying the American economy," he wrote. "(The ag community) must appeal this ridiculous decision to protect American agriculture from a threat far more insidious than any transgenic gene or weed."
Mike Waters, Froid, MT, serves on the board of Growers for Biotechnology, a group of crop producers who volunteer their time to promote and facilitate the research, development and acceptance of biotechnology in agriculture.
Organic farm cruelty claims
- Katie Cooper, Norwich Evening News, June 13, 2007
Concerns have been raised about the alleged cramped and dirty conditions on an organic free range poultry farm in Norfolk.
Activists at the Hillside Animal Sanctuary claim to have shot footage of chickens at the Traditional Norfolk Poultry (TNP) farm, in Stow Bedon, living in cramped and rat-infested sheds.
They claim to have even filmed footage of dead baby chick left laying on the ground and being eaten by the vermin.
The film raises concerns about the whole ethos of organic farming, in which customers pay above the normal rates for poultry in the belief they have led a healthier life.
Wendy Valentine, who runs the sanctuary, claimed it was not out of the ordinary for organic, free-range chickens to be treated in such a way.
She said: "We see this all the time at these organic poultry farms. Because there is such a growing organic market farms want to maximise their profits.
"The only way for farmers to make money out of this is to take on more birds with less staff and that is where the problem lies. For some reason the organisations who should be policing this are reluctant to do so.
"In the footage we can see rats eating baby chickens and feed bins which are infested with rats."
Customers pay up to £7 for an organic chicken believing it will be healthier for them and that the chicken has had a happier, less stressful life.
But fears have been raised that many organic birds live in worse conditions than those that are factory farmed and are often fattier and potentially carriers of a variety of bugs which cause sickness in humans.
Research this week showed that out of 46 supermarket organic chickens checked, 89pc had campylobacter, a food poisoning more widespread in Britain than salmonella or listeria.
Of the factory birds, just 70pc were shown to carry the virus.
When challenged over the images, TNP declined to comment other than to deny there was a rat problem and insist that its birds were regularly monitored by vets.
It is not the first time bosses at the sanctuary have complaint about the treatment of animals in Norfolk. Earlier this year secretly obtained footage showed a worker at a duck farm punching one of the birds in the face.
*by Andrew Apel, guest editor, andrewapel+at+wildblue.net