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August 16, 2007


First all-African GM crop; Maddening Media Misinformation; Artistic Mutant Vegetables


* First all-African GM crop
* Monsanto Appeals Alfalfa Ruling
* Farmers' union wants GM labels on food
* Retailers' lobby slams GM labelling
* Maddening Media Misinformation
* Can Organic Really Feed The World?
* German Artist with Mutant Vegetables


First all-African GM crop is resistant to maize streak virus

- HULIQ, August 16, 2007


The first all-African genetically modified crop plant with resistance to the severe maize streak virus (MSV), which seriously reduces the continent's maize yield, has been developed by scientists from the University of Cape Town and PANNAR PTY Ltd, a South African seed company.

The research, published in Plant Biotechnology Journal represents a significant advance in African agricultural biotechnology, and will play an important role in alleviating Africa's food shortages and famine.

Dr Dionne Shepherd, lead researcher explains, "MSV is transmitted to maize by small insects called leafhoppers. The disease is therefore a result of a complex interplay between the plant, the virus and insect. Factors that can influence the severity of the disease include the age at which the plant is infected (the younger the plant, the more severe the infection), the maize variety (some are more susceptible than others), and environmental conditions.

"We have created an MSV-resistant maize variety by genetic engineering, using an approach known as pathogen-derived resistance. This means that a gene from the viral pathogen is used to protect the plant from that pathogen. We mutated a viral gene that under normal circumstances produces a protein that is essential for the virus to replicate itself and inserted it into the maize plant's genome, creating genetically modified maize. When the virus infects one of these transgenic maize plants, it displays a significant delay in symptom development, a decrease in symptom severity and higher survival rates than non-transgenic plants."

The next stage of the research involves field trials to ensure that the transformed crop is digestible, that the protein is not an allergen and that it will be ecologically friendly to other organisms within the environment. Following the results of these trials, the crop will be monitored over a number of growing seasons before it is made accessible to local farmers. -


Monsanto Appeals Biotech Alfalfa Ruling

- Wisconsin Ag Connection, August 15, 2007


Monsanto has filed a notice of appeal in U.S. District Court seeking to overturn the permanent injunction on Roundup Ready alfalfa. The injunction was issued on May 3 by the court following a lawsuit brought by the Center for Food Safety and others against the USDA as Geertson Seed Farms, Inc. et. al v. Mike Johanns, et. al.

It prohibits the ongoing sale and planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa while the USDA completes a court-ordered Environmental Impact Statement, reports Feedstuff.com

The appeal seeks to correct the legal standards applied as the basis for the injunction, resulting in unnecessary restrictions on growers, seed dealers, Forage Genetics, Inc. and Monsanto while the EIS is completed. The appeal also asserts that irreparable financial harm will unnecessarily fall on alfalfa growers, seed dealers, FGI and Monsanto as a result of the injunction, despite previous acknowledgement that Roundup Ready alfalfa poses no harm to humans and livestock.

The appeal will be heard in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. We cannot predict when a decision on the appeal will be rendered.


Farmers' union wants labels on food indicating use of GM products

Prime Minister also calls for labelling

- Helsingin Sanomat, August 15, 2007


The Central Union of Agricultural Producers and Forest Owners (MTK) said on Tuesday that wants voluntary labelling of food products to indicate any phases of the production chain in which genetically modified products have been used.

The MTK has been pushed to make a statement on the use of GM animal feed ever since food producers LSO Foods and Lounais-farmi said earlier in the summer that they would start to import GM soybeans for use in pig feed.

MTK Chairman Michael Hornborg said that the organisation feels that consumers should be told about what their food contains.

However, Hornborg noted that it is not possible to require labels on Finnish products alone.

"In such a case, Finnish products would be in an unequal position compared with imported goods. Unfortunately, it is difficult to get a label like this onto imported meat, as EU regulations do not require it.

Hornborg says that the solution is in the hands of the consumer.

"Stores say that they sell what the consumers want... if consumers want a label, the shops are certainly able to provide one."

MTK is not taking a stand on the safety of genetically modified feed, or on whether or not GM soybeans should be imported into Finland at all. According to the organisation, officials are responsible for ascertaining the safety of Finnish food production processes.

"Producers and consumers must be able to trust that all production methods permitted by the law are safe for consumers, and that they do not pose a danger to the environment", the MTK statement reads.

Hornborg says that the GM feed debate is not a divisive one for MTK members, even though there are differing opinions on the matter within the organisation.

Pig farmers tend to take a positive view of GM feed, while organic farmers and dairy farmers are against it.

"There is plenty of emotion in the debate. I feel that farmers who want to use traditional methods have every possibility to do so, if consumers want it.

Hornborg, who runs an organic farm himself, does not necessarily reject the use of genetically modified soybean.

"If we want to be involved in competition, we must also dare to take new technology into use. Genetic modification has its positive size, for instance, fewer pesticides are needed. Now we must keep in mind that we are talking about genetically modified soybean, which has been studied very thoroughly. Each plant has to be considered separately."

Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen (Centre) also took a stand on the GM debate on Tuesday.

Vanhanen said that he wants Finnish foods to have special labels if their production has not involved products of a GM origin.

"This is a very difficult issue", Vanhanen said at a press conference in Helsinki on Tuesday.

"I hope that a procedure can be found so that at least that part of the food industry that can guarantee that there are no GM products in the chain, could say it."

Vanhanen said that he believes that Finnish consumers want to know what they put in their mouths.

On the practical level, meat raised on genetically modified feed already is sold in Finland. Foreign meat imported into Finland is very likely to have been raised on GM feed.

The farmers' newspaper Maaseudun Tulevaisuus wrote on Monday that Feedex, a feed company operating in Central Ostrobothnia, has been selling GM soybeans to about 20 Finnish pig farms for about a year and a half.

The first genetically-modified seeds for commercial use were planted in the United States ten years ago. Now GM crops are being raised on 102 million hectares worldwide.


Finnish retailers' lobby slams voluntary GMO labelling

- NewsRoom Finland, August 16, 2007


Finland's Grocery Trade Association (FGTA) on Wednesday rejected the initiative by the Central Union of Agricultural Producers and Forest Owners (MTK) to introduce a voluntary system of labels on food derived from animals fed genetically modified organisms.

The food retailers' lobby added that if consumers wanted a wider GMO labelling system on grounds other than food safety, the initiative to that end must come from the legislator.

"The retailers trust the European Food Safety Authority's view saying that modified genes in feed are not transferred to the animal," the FGTA said in a statement.

Martti Korhonen, the chairman of the opposition Left Alliance, had said earlier on Wednesday that the MTK position on the use of GM feed was commendable and that the consumer had a right to know the origin of foods when making purchase decisions.

The latest round in the Finnish GMO debate erupted earlier this month when two major meat companies announced they would start importing genetically modified soy pig feed.


Maddening Media Misinformation on Biotech (Part 2 of 5)

- Thomas R. DeGregori, American Council on Science and Health, August 14, 2007


The media mania for "both sides" of an argument means that one has to balance informed opinion with misinformed opinion. This frequently allows the public to believe that there is a controversy among scientists on an issue when there is not. And if scientists appear (at least in the media) not to agree on the safety of genetically-modified (GM) food, why should I as a consumer "take a chance"? In fact, though, there is no more controversy among knowledgeable scientists on the basic issues of transgenics in agriculture and medicine than there is among biologists and physical anthropologists about the basic fact of evolution. Nor is there controversy as to whether HIV is responsible for AIDS.

Of course, in these instances, there are differences among scientists on various issues within a larger framework and often differences about some of the components of the framework. There is a critical difference, though, between debate on various aspects of evolution or biotechnology and opposition to the basic ideas. Given the number of scientists in the world, it is always possible for an anti-evolution or anti-transgenic movement to find a few scientists who will take up their cause. Most of these are very minor or marginal figures in the field or are in another field altogether, as in the case of a mathematician or physicist who opposes evolution. Unfortunately, the cultural bias on things "organic" allows food and gardening writers to put forth an activist line without any requisite balancing opinion.

There are many other advantages that the activists have that allow them to get their point of view into the media, often to the exclusion of any contrary perspective. To put it bluntly, even in countries with high levels of education, there is too often a high degree of scientific illiteracy. Given various trends in academia such as postmodernism (which may now be ebbing), being highly educated can still entail a condition of extreme scientific illiteracy or what Thorstein Veblen called "trained incapacity." All these give the skillful activist speaker the opportunity to appear to score points against a scientist in a debate.

Rhetorical Masterstrokes, Scientific Absurdities

There are few questions where scientific illiteracy by the public is more crucial than the issue of food safety. A standard rhetorical ploy in a debate on transgenic food production is to ask whether the persons defending the technology can guarantee that no harm will ever come from the production and consumption of genetically-modified food. To many, this sounds like a straightforward honest question from someone seeking to protect the public from harm. However, the fact is that there is no human endeavor, food production or otherwise, for which there is zero risk. The real question is what are the comparative risks and benefits to the farmer or the environment from growing a transgenic crop, compared to other varieties, and what is the risk to the public from the consumption of transgenic food compared to the same crop from conventional seeds. On these grounds, genetic modification is more than defensible, but to the scientifically uniformed listener it sounds like one is waffling, trying to avoid answering the question.

One can say that transgenic food production is "safe" if one understands the only possible meaning of safe. I explain to my students that I cannot say that there is a zero probability that the building in which the class is held will collapse on them during the course of the semester. Given adequate construction, one can simply say that the probability of harm is so minuscule that one need not consider it among one's daily risk assessments. It is a safe but not zero probability. The students can understand that for the classroom, but try using that to explain the safety of biotechnology and some will think that you are trying to pull a fast one on them.

Scientific Illiteracy Suits the Media Just Fine

For the public to be scientifically illiterate is deplorable; for the media it goes beyond deplorable to being irresponsible. One does not expect the media to negate the natural advantages of the activists, but the least they could do is be responsible and not repeat unscientific propaganda or leave it unchallenged. They can challenge it by contacting scientists and giving them the opportunity to offer a scientific perspective on an issue. While most scientists use their time to do science and not to propagandize the public, it is not that difficult to find scientists who will respond to media inquiries and share their expertise with the public.

With few exceptions, reporters do not understand the use of statistics in scientific inquiry. The oft-quoted expression (attributed to Mark Twain among others) is that "There are three types of lies -- lies, damn lies, and statistics." Unfortunately, scientists have inadvertently contributed to this belief through incorrect use of statistics. However, for many in the public, all statistics are mistrusted -- don't give me any of your statistics, just give me the facts. The anti-GMO activists have played on these sentiments to frighten the public about the use of transgenics in food production. In any animal feeding study with a large number of variables, one can expect that randomly there would be what appear to be adverse outcomes. Indeed, with a large number of variables, it would be strange if there were not a number of what appeared to be statistically significant adverse outcomes. To the activists, statistics are meaningless except for those statistically significant adverse outcomes.

In one infamous study with thirty variables, there was, as would be expected, one variable with an adverse outcome that at the 95% confidence level had a one in twenty chance of being random. It was a thickening of an organ, with no identifiable pathology associated with it. There was an organ-thickening in the control group, too, but that was left unmentioned. The primary article about the study was an outgrowth of a press release roughly eighteen months previously in which there was a sizable list of alleged pathologies. In the litany on the Internet, the original claims of harm from the press release have somehow migrated to the journal article in the activists' retelling and retelling of the horrors of GMOs.

Fear Feels More Real Than Numbers

To the public, the harm is real; the statistical explanation, however basic it may be, is someone's attempt to "massage" the data. If there is, say, liver or kidney damage, there has to be a cause. Well, that's true, and how convenient it is that the activists accept a belief in cause and effect when it suits them. What is not understood and rarely if ever explained to the public, is that the "cause" may be a trait of the test animals rather than what is being tested.

A misunderstanding of statistics by the public has long been used by activists to create fear where there should not be any. There seems to be a general belief that random means uniform. Thus, if in the distribution of some phenomenon, such as a particular form of cancer, there is what appears to be a cluster -- a larger number than would be expected by an even distribution -- then many leap to the conclusion that there has to be a local cause. From there, the assumption inevitably becomes that the cause is some product of modern life such as a synthetic chemical. An inordinate amount of medical resources has been wasted seeking a cause for clusters that are not statistically significant. The cluster itself may have been what is called a Texas Bull's eye, where one shoots a number of rounds at the side of a barn and then draws a target over the tightest grouping, if there is one.

Prolapsed Rectums as Political Theatre

It does happen in animal studies that an anomaly in the test animals necessitates its being removed from the research and the data derived from it censored. It may be censored, that is, but it is still part of the research record. In one case of which I am aware (it had absolutely nothing to do with transgenics), a small number of mice in the control group developed prolapsed rectums and had to be removed from the study. Nevertheless, the censored data itself remains as part of the record of the research for all to examine. The number was small enough that even with the censored data removed, the study could continue. The study was completed, published in a prestigious peer-reviewed journal, and widely accepted. Let us imagine that this had been a GMO feeding study for regulatory approval and at least some of the mice with prolapsed rectums had been fed the GMO under investigation -- and that the data for them was appropriately censored, with the resultant study results sent off for statistical and biological analysis, leading to product approval.

Can one imagine what would follow when Greenpeace or a similar organization discovered the prolapsed rectum in the data? (I hesitate to even use this example as a counterfactual as I fear that as with other activist mythology it might soon be repeated as a real incident.) There would be charges of a cover-up, creating a scandal of monumental proportions. The public would be warned that they too would be victims of prolapsed rectums if they ate GMOs. For years to come, the prolapsed rectums would be brought up in most every discussion of GMOs. There is now an urban legend sparked by a photograph of a weightlifter who allegedly suffered a prolapsed rectum at a most inconvenient moment. I have no doubt that in the case of the scandal I've imagined, there would soon be "photographs" of the prolapsed rectums of the innocent victims of GMOs.

Much of what the activists do is defined by them as theater. A butterfly costume makes a great visual and has a lasting effect, illustrating the alleged danger to the monarch butterfly from GM corn. The fact that the monarch butterfly was recorded in the United States in record numbers or that there were at least six research articles showing no harm to the monarch from GM corn was no match for the visual imagery of the costume. In spite of a couple of bad years for the monarch as a result of cold, wet weather in the forests in Mexico where they reside for the winter, the species is once again at record levels -- as is the planting of GM corn, a dozen years after it was first planted.

This does not mean that there is not a real long-term threat to the monarch butterfly. The forest in Mexico where they reside in winter is being slowly cut down by farmers needing land to grow crops. If our activists had the slightest scintilla of concern about the monarch or poor farmers, they would put on their butterfly costumes in support of the scientists in Mexico who want to use the latest and best in plant breeding (including transgenics) to increase crop yields, reducing the pressure on the forests lands.

Thomas R. DeGregori is a Professor of Economics at the University of Houston and a member of the Founders Circle of the American Council on Science and Health. His homepage is: http://www.uh.edu/~trdegreg


Can Organic Really Feed The World?

Activism Disguised As Science

- Center for Global Food Issues, Tuesday August 14, 2007


A new study published in an alternative agriculture journal has gained widespread attention by claiming that organic farming not only could adequately feed the world, it might even yield more food and require less farmland. It is a truly sensational claim.

In science, the more sensational the claim, the more robust the evidence needed to support it. This time, the evidence doesn't stack up. In fact, the evidence fell so far short that the journal that published the paper also published not one, but two scathing and dismissive "editorial responses" in the same issue. This is anything but a ringing endorsement.

A simple comparison of the authors of the paper and critiques is revealing. The "organic can too feed the world" authors are a collection of urban academics without any agricultural experience. The lead author studies fossil squirrel's teeth at the University of Michigan's Museum of Paleontology. The others are with Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment. In contrast, the authors of the two critiques are an agronomist at the University of Nebraska, Kenneth Cassman, and Colorado organic farmer Jim Hendrix.

As Cassman put it, "their analyses do not meet the minimum scientific requirements for comparing food production capacity in different crop production systems."

First, many of the studies they relied upon to support their claim simply aren't reliable. One large data set (comprising over half of the "yield ratios" they used to estimate food production in the developing world) are merely guestimates of increased productivity from a questionnaire sent to activists running organic "demonstration" farms. That doesn't even remotely approach "science," especially when the returned questionnaires include implausible organic yield increase claims of more than 500 percent. Another large dataset used by the Michigan researchers is so questionable that a paper critical of it published in the journal Field Crop Research was titled "Fantastic yields in the system of rice intensification: fact or fallacy?"

Central to this entire debate is the shortage of organic nitrogen fertilizer, a.k.a. manure. Currently, there is only enough animal manure to support one fifth of current global crop production. They only way to get more organically is to devote more land to legume crops or animal pastures that fix more nitrogen - which would require billions of acres of additional farmland the world doesn't currently have.

The Michigan researchers dismiss this sobering reality by calculating that, theoretically, enough nitrogen can be fixed by growing cover crops during fall/winter and between crops to make up the shortfall. As Dwight Eisenhower once stated, "Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you're a thousand miles from a corn field."

The final, sadly amusing testimony to the fantasy world occupied by these researchers comes from the conclusion of their policy forum article, where they point to the shining example of Cuba as "one of the most progressive food systems in the world" where organic farming is successfully feeding a country. Ah, yes, the famed Cuban "agricultural enlightenment" brought about by the ending of Soviet industrial fertilizer and pesticide donations.

How has Cuba fared after "going organic?" According to unofficial statistics, Cuba suffers massive food shortages and rations basic food staples. But don't take my word for it. Listen to these Cuban immigrants interviewed in a December 27, 2006 story on National Public Radio's Morning Edition:

Joel Lopez, a skinny 19-year-old who arrived on Dec. 14, 2006 in Miami through the [immigration lottery], or Bomba as it is called in Cuba. Through a translator: "Everything is so surprising here, the cleanliness of the streets, the food, the shops. Well, there is no comparison. . . . I have been telling [my friends] about a Chinese buffet I went to. I told them about how you can serve yourself again and again!"

Sitting next to him is Louisa Martinez. Her husband was a baker in Cuba. But still for her, it's the food that is the most dazzling. Through a translator: "Oh the food! Here there is a surfeit of food. Over there, there is a LOT of hunger. It's terrible."

So who are you going to believe: The urban pencil pushing elites, or the real farmers and real victims of the so-called "progressive food" movement?


German Artist Rocks Design Blogs with Mutant Vegetables

- Jefferson Chase, Deutsche Welle, August 15, 2007


Four-headed eggplants, spiky avocados, Siamese-twin mushrooms -- Uli Westphal's "Mutatoes," a collection of strangely aesthetic fruit and vegetables has given the international design scene food for thought.

The mutatoes got their public premier this July at an outdoor market in a trendy section of East Berlin. There, amidst the usual farmers catering to lifestyle-conscious yuppies, shoppers were shocked to find 27-year-old Uli Westphal with a display of peppers and potatoes, cucumbers and carrots that looked like they had just landed from outer space.

"The idea for the mutatoes came one day when I was shopping," Westphal told DW-WORLD.DE. "A little more than a year ago, I found a five-headed eggplant at a farmers' market and then, a few stalls further on, some bell peppers that resembled props from a science-fiction film. Since then, I've kept my eyes opens for such finds."

The idea behind the 500-plus collection of organic curiosities, which Westphal photographs and archives on his Web site, is to point out the artificial standardization of the products we buy in mass supermarkets. The mutations are all natural -- not the result of radiation or genetic manipulation.

And they're surprisingly aesthetic, as visitors to the Berlin market found out.

"There were people who wanted to buy my vegetables, businessmen who compared them with Henry Moore sculptures and vendors who brought me some examples of their own," Westphal said.

Art or food?

The mutatoes' fame quickly began to spread via the Internet, starting with the New-York-based blog swissmiss.

"His unusual market stand made me look," said Tina Roth Eisenberg, who was in Berlin for Westphal's "opening." "When I approached it and saw the sign 'Not for Sale,' I was scratching my head. I think his collection was particularly surprising as he was showcasing it in the context of 'real,' normal food stands."

In particular, fashion and graphic designers have taken to the freaky fruit and veg. Westphal's photos have been featured on the Web site of the Diesel clothing label, and the Discovery Channel has been interested in using the images as well.

"Designers find inspiration in all kinds of things," said Darius A. Monsef IV, who runs the blog Colour Lovers. "While most people might not see it, one of these mutatoes might end up inspiring the next piece of furniture or fashion trend."

Westphal has been somewhat caught off guard by all the interest.

"In the past few weeks, several hundred blogs and Web sites have reported on the project," he said. "It's really fascinating to see the different contexts in which my project has appeared -- everything from industrial designers, chemical firms, recipe pages, shoe manufacturers and environmental activists to pornographic sites and forums for pregnant women."

Easy on the eye, yummy in the tummy

The phallic quality of a handful of Westphal's specimens does indeed give rise to some prurient giggles. But Westphal isn't too terribly bothered, if some people see his mutatoes as just the latest on-line joke.

"Of course, there are a lot of people who treat the project as a gag," Westphal said. "But I've been pleased that there have also been serious discussions. I don't think humorous perspectives are necessarily negative, as long as people don't stop thinking."

Indeed, while they may be fun to look at, Westphal's photos offer a subtle criticism of today's culture of cosmetic surgery, the insistence on trying to make the food we consume -- to say nothing of the way we look physically -- conform to artificial standards of normality and beauty.

The mutatoes remind viewers that deviating from the norm is healthy. Though Westphal's mutants may look bizarre, they're arguably better for you than the standardized products that occupy most supermarkets' shelves. The proof is the artist himself.

"After I'm done with the photographs, I usually eat the mutatoes," Westphal said. "And I'm not dead yet."


The mutatoes and similar items can be found at http://www.uliwestphal.110mb.com/mutatoes.html

*by Andrew Apel, guest editor, andrewapel+at+wildblue.net