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June 19, 2009


Nobel Laureate for GM Food; Opponents Must Pay; Creative Destruction; Elephant in the Room?; Layered Approach; Black Harvest


* Nobel Laureate Bats for GM Food
* Will the “Green Revolution” Ever Hit Africa?
* Wheat Field Trial Destruction: GM Opponents Must Pay
* GM Crops – The Elephant in the Room?
* This is Not a Joke
* A Layered Approach to Biosafety in Southern Africa
* Future of Ag Biotech: Creative Destruction, Adoption, or Irrelevance
* Black Harvest: The Battle Against Wheat Rust
* Genetically Modified Noms
* Parade of the Unscrupulous

Nobel Laureate Bats for GM Food

_ Press Trust of India, June 19,2009

Bangalore: Nobel laureate Dr Richard J Roberts today said genetically modified (GM) food was safe and those opposing it were doing so out of vested interest.

Delivering the" Highlight Lecture"during the ongoing event, Bangalore Bio, showcasing biotechnology sector, he flayed the European Green Party for whipping up opposition against GM food." They are pursuing it to meet their own political ends,"he claimed.

Stressing that GM food was safe, he said," This technology is not new. It existed 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. "I think it is absolutely crucial for the developing world to recognise that GM food not only offers great advantages but is also absolutely safe,"he said.

He lamented that politicisation of GM food had led to commercial exploitation in Europe." Many countries which could have benefited from it had denied entry to it (GM Food). Even Africa, which had millions of hungry people, refuses to accept huge quantity of donated food which is genetically modified,"he said.


Will the “Green Revolution” Ever Hit Africa?

- Dwyer Gunn, NY Times Blog, June 19, 2009
To most people in the developed world, agricultural science is a bit of an afterthought. We go to the grocery store and decide between small, vibrantly red cherry tomatoes and charmingly misshapen heirloom tomatoes. We buy big, juicy oranges and know that when we peel them the juice will run over our fingers and the sticky scent will linger. We can choose between 10 different kinds of apples, no matter the season. At no point during our shopping do most of us stop to think about the technology used to produce this bounty.

Despite the nostalgia many Americans feel for the image of a farm in the country with a red barn, only 2% of Americans are still classified as farmers by the government’s fairly lenient standards. Large industrial farms (producing more than $250,000 in annual sales), though representing only 6% of farms, are responsible for 58% of America’s agricultural sales.

The picture in Africa could not be more different. Approximately two-thirds of Africa’s population labors on small, dusty farms, frequently failing to produce enough food to feed their families. Europe, North America, and Asia got their “Green Revolutions” and the ensuing productivity growth allowed small farmers to send their kids off to school in the big cities. Africa completely missed the boat.

After India began planting higher-quality seeds in 1964, production nearly doubled in the following six years. In contrast, per-capita production in Africa actually decreased between 1980 and 2000 and the continent’s small farmers remain mired in poverty, a particular tragedy given the dependence of most Africans on agriculture. A recent World Bank Development Report concluded, “For the poorest people, GDP growth originating in agriculture is about four times more effective in raising incomes of extremely poor people than GDP growth originating outside the sector.”

Robert Paarlberg, author of Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out Of Africa, traces the history of agricultural investment by African governments and international aid groups and the drop in agricultural aid beginning in the 1980’s. Strong agricultural productivity in the rest of the world, increasing opposition towards science-based farming, and a new focus on fiscal responsibility in developing countries all conspired to drive down agricultural development aid. Official agricultural aid to developing countries fell by 64% between 1980 and 2003.

Paarlberg believes the trend away from science-based farming is due simply to the decreasing need for it in developed countries. He writes:

“This postmodern resistance to agricultural science felt now in both North America and Europe makes considerable sense in rich countries, where science has already brought so much productivity to farming that little more seems needed. It becomes dangerous, however, when exported to countries in Africa where farmers remain trapped in poverty because they are starved for science.”

Agriculture, however, is finally back on the agenda. In 2006, The Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced the Alliance for a Green Revolution Africa (AGRA), and Kofi Annan signed on as its chairman in 2007. In early May of this year, the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General called for a doubling of food yields in Africa through a sustainable green revolution. In the United States, Senators Lugar and Casey introduced the Global Food Security Act of 2009, which would refocus U.S. aid on agricultural investment and development.

Market-Based Reforms
Agriculture in Africa has been stubbornly resistant to the demands of the markets and the Gates Foundation has targeted this in its programming. The Foundation has programs aimed at establishing networks of seed dealers and distributing market and weather information on the radio.

Most significantly, the Gates Foundation has launched the Purchase for Progress program, a joint initiative with the World Food Program. The program allows African farmers to enter into forward contracts with the WFP to provide food for the organization’s aid efforts. The hope is that a predictable market will encourage governments and farmers to invest more heavily in inputs like irrigation and fertilizer. In an interview with The New York Times last year Rajiv Shah, the director of Agricultural Development at the Foundation said, “What has been one of the main missing pieces of development has been a supply of cash to help farmers with incentives to produce. If they know the W.F.P. is going to buy from them dependably, and in effect with forward contracts, then that incentive is there.”

Improving Yields
The Gates Foundation’s other agricultural efforts, which are focused on improving crop yields through higher-quality seeds, irrigation, fertilizer and training, have provoked some controversy. Opponents of these efforts point to the environmental damage that nitrogen fertilizers do and to the Gates Foundation’s connections with big business agricultural companies like Monsanto and DuPont. They argue for sustainable, organic farming methods and worry about genetic seed biodiversity and dependence on foreign companies for seeds and other inputs.

While organic farming is all the rage in the developed world, the primitive conditions most small, African farmers labor under are far from romantic. With no mechanized machinery and few oxen, farmers clear and work the land by hand. Overworked soil, lack of fertilizer, and low-quality seeds results in painfully low yields.

Perhaps most crucially, a complete lack of irrigation systems in most African countries means that farmers are highly vulnerable to weather conditions. On a recent trip to northern Uganda, I talked with a group of men and women who had planted their first harvest since the region’s destructive civil war. They told me they had recently been forced to abandon their crops - and primary method of income generation - because of lack of rain this year.

The Debate over Genetically Modified Seeds
The debate over genetically modified seeds is particularly fierce. Many people of developed countries, with comfortably full stomachs, see no reason to support scientific tampering with the food supply. In fact, several European countries have refused to approve GMO seed varieties despite the prodding of the World Trade Organization, a policy which inhibits the use of GMO seeds in African countries hoping to export crops to Europe. In Africa, where drought and insect-resistant seeds could radically change lives, only South Africa has approved the seeds for planting.

During a major drought in 2002, countries like Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi agreed to accept only milled GMO maize, eliminating the possibility that the seeds could be replanted and contaminate nearby crops intended for European export. Zambia, where 30% of the population was at risk of starvation, actually refused to accept any food aid in the form of genetically modified seeds.

To Paarlberg, a longtime advocate of GMO seeds, the opposition is nonsensical. He believes that GMO seeds can both be better for the environment, due to a lower necessity for pesticides and higher yields, and can preserve the independence of farmers. “GMO seeds give farmers technology inside the seed itself that makes them less dependent on other purchased inputs such as chemicals,” he told me. “And the seeds reproduce themselves.”

At this point, it’s unclear if AGRA will fund genetically modified seeds as part of its agricultural initiatives although the organization certainly hasn’t ruled it out. The Foundation has already invested in plants genetically engineered for increased nutritional value as part of its public health programs, signifying an openness to the concept.

Regardless of the methods chosen, something will have to be done about increasing food production among small farmers in Africa or the environment will suffer. Joseph DeVries, a plant geneticist who oversees AGRA’s seed research, told a New York Times reporter that the world has two choices: “Either we will increase agricultural yields on the lands now under cultivation, or the combination of low yields and population increase will force smallholders to cut down virgin forest lands and cultivate them. There are no other realistic possibilities.”


Wheat Field Trial Destruction: GM Opponents Must Pay


(19.06.2009) In Magdeburg, capital city of the German province of Saxony-Anhalt, the regional court last week sentenced six opponents of gene technology to compensation of damage caused. In April 2008, the defendants had destroyed a field trial of genetically modified (GM) wheat in the nearby village of Gatersleben. The magnitude of the compensation has not yet been set.

The court determined that the four women and two men acted against the law on the April 21, 2008 as they entered the field trial area and destroyed wheat plants. The gene-technology opponents must pay the cost of this harm. In a civil suit, the plaintiff Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK Gatersleben) claimed the equivalent of 245,000 euros in damage. However, the court recognised only a value of 104,000 euros as legitimate.

The anti-gene-technology activists now have four weeks in which to assume a position. Subsequently, the court will decide upon the sum to be paid. According to a speaker for the court, an application by two defendants for aid with legal costs has been rejected due to "malicious behaviour".

Two genes from barley and broad beans had been introduced into the GM wheat developed by the IPK. The transport of specific building blocks of protein into the wheat kernels is expected to be improved thereby and consequently to enhance the quality of the resulting animal feed. The aim of the field trial was to test the manner in which this concept functions, as well as the behaviour of the GM wheat under open field conditions.

Gene-technology opponents had objected to the field trial primarily due to its proximity to the Gatersleben gene bank, in which 150,000 seed samples from 3,000 types of plants including wheat are kept. Each year, a portion of these samples are planted on small lots and propagated. Fears exist that the GM wheat could out-cross into such samples and thereby endanger the seed stores. The activists had cited the German legal concept of "übergesetzlicher Notstand" ("extra-statutory necessity") in claiming the destruction as a legitimate instrument towards avoiding damage to the gene bank.

The IPK Gatersleben as well as the agencies responsible for approval had ruled out the possibility that the field trial could pose a threat to the gene bank. The trial lots were separated from the propagation lots of the gene bank by a distance of 500 metres. Furthermore, wheat is self-pollinating, which allows the reliable elimination of out-crossing. The gene bank in Gatersleben has propagated numerous wheat types from a variety of provenances for fifty years without a case of intermixing to date.

After the destruction, IPK discontinued field trials with the developed GM wheat in Germany.


GM Crops – The Elephant in the Room?

- EuropaBio, Brussels, 19 June 2009

'Sustainable agriculture still low down on EU climate change agenda'

GM crops can and already do play an important role in reducing the negative environmental impacts of agriculture and feeding a growing population in a worsening climate, reveals a report published today by EuropaBio. Furthermore, this contribution will only increase as their cultivation becomes even more widely adopted around the world. Nevertheless, this fact continues to be ignored by many EU regulators, as is evidenced by its repeated non-appearance on DG Environment’s Green Week agenda.

‘It’s both worrying and perplexing that the impact of agriculture, in general, gets such a low billing on next week’s agenda and that the benefits of green biotech will likely not even be mentioned” said Nathalie Moll, Director of Agricultural Biotech at EuropaBio, “Even more so when you consider that whilst we scramble to discover and apply new technologies to reduce emissions in the fossil fuel-based economy, we reject tried and tested solutions in agriculture - the second most impactful sector.”

Today’s report highlights the significant potential of Agricultural biotech to reduce GHG emissions, help crops adapt to a changing climate and produce more food from less available land. In this way, green biotech contributes to the range of options to help farmers adopt sustainable agricultural practices that can tackle tomorrow’s challenges. As a result, for over ten years now, millions of farmers around the world have chosen to cultivate GM crops on 125 Million hectares[ii] of land to increase their yields whilst using fewer precious natural resources.

“It’s high time we got our messages straight” added Willy de Greef, Secretary General of EuropaBio “Climate change poses a huge threat to the survival of millions around the world through famine and disease. It’s our responsibility to stop talking shop and start leading by acknowledging, endorsing and applying the full range of tools available, including safe agricultural biotech solutions.” he concluded.

i http://www.europabio.org/positions/GBE/PP_090619_Climate_Change.pdf

ii ISAAA Press release February 11 2009 http://www.isaaa.org/Resources/publications/briefs/39/pressrelease/default.html


This is Not a Joke

- Andy Apel, GMOBelus, June 18, 2009 http://www.gmobelus.com/news.php?viewStory=388

In the European Union, what do you call a food ingredient that's been harvested from a GMO developed and patented by a giant multinational corporation with historic ties to the chemical industry, denounced by activists, and submitted for approval in 2006? Approved, and no label required. This is not a joke.

The product actually exists, and was just approved, after only three years.

Here's another hint. The product, derived from a GMO, has been filtered so that no "live cells" from the GMO remain. No, it's not oil from GM soybeans, maize, or canola.

Still don't get it? Here's another hint. It's a protein. No, it's not lecithin from GM soy.

If those were your guesses, they're all good guesses. Except for the fact that all these food ingredients are subject to EU tolerance limits, labeling, and traceability, even when the most sophisticated tests available cannot detect any signs of their having come from a GMO.

Give up? It's Ice Structuring Protein (ISP), originally isolated from an Arctic fish and and produced by genetically modified yeast. According to Unilever, the corporation that developed and patented the product, ISP can help reduce the fat and calorie content of products by up to 50 percent. Its ability to improve the stability of ice cream also allows for a higher fruit content, an improved taste, better structure and slower melting.

Why does this product get European approval, and so quickly, when other food ingredients meeting the same criteria do not? The European Commission explains why:

Pursuant to recital 16 of Regulation (EC) No 1829/2003 of the European Parliament and of the Council ( 2 ), food and feed which are manufactured with the help of a genetically modified processing aid are not included in the scope of that Regulation. The Report from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament on the implementation of that Regulation ( 3 ) has clarified that the authorisation and labelling requirements set out in the Regulation are not applicable to food or feed produced by fermentation using genetically modified micro-organisms.

Does calling it a 'processing aid' explain things? Not really.

Lecithin is an emulsifier often added to chocolate during the manufacturing process to help give it a smooth, fluid consistency. Lecithin stabilizes fat drops and keeps them from congealing and separating. That is to say, it's a processing aid--but if the lecithin comes from GM soy, it's subject to all the regulatory punishments the EU has been able to devise.

Does it make any difference to say that it's 'produced by fermentation'? Such as, perhaps, like soy sauce? It's a product of fermentation--fermented soy beans. No, it doesn't. Soy sauce made from GM soy must be labeled.

However, soy beans are not microbes. Do you suppose there's a relevant difference between GM microbes and GM plants? Scientifically speaking, no. And historically, technophobes in Europe and elsewhere collapse in hallucinatory fits at the otherwise whimsical suggestion that foods from GM crops might result in GM microbes in their intestines. So, the notion of Europe just giving a pass to all GM microbes is a bad guess, too.

Give up? Here's the real reason why a food ingredient, harvested from a GMO, that's been developed and patented by a giant multinational corporation with historic ties to the chemical industry, and denounced by activists, can get unfettered approval from European officials in three years: it doesn't compete against an existing domestic product.


A Layered Approach to Biosafety in Southern Africa

- Julius T. Mugwagwa, http://www.scidev.net/ June 17, 2009

A layered and cooperative approach would help Southern African countries harmonise their biosafety laws, says Julius Mugwagwa.

African countries have debated the pros and cons of modern biotechnologies for the best part of two decades. For Southern Africa, the debate changed fundamentally with the 2002–2003 food emergency. The region had faced food emergencies before, but this crisis posed an additional concern. Thousands of tonnes of food aid were thought to contain genetically modified (GM) maize.

The dilemma — use GM maize or face famine — revealed how unprepared individual countries (and the whole region) were for dealing with biosafety issues. It stimulated new efforts to develop national, and cross-national, regulatory regimes.

Some countries put interim measures in place. Malawi and Zimbabwe, for example, decided to distribute only milled grain. Zambia refused the grain outright. Agriculture ministers from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) recommended creating an advisory committee to develop guidelines on GM organisms and broader biotechnology issues at a regional level.

Biosafety in numbers
A harmonised, or collective, regulatory biosafety system in Southern Africa is important for many reasons. In particular, geographical proximity and the inevitable spill-over effects of some biotechnologies mean countries must work together to solve problems. Shared policies could, for example, help national institutions prepare for the reality of GM products spreading across porous borders.

Cooperation would also help build economies of scale large enough to attract favourable technologies and products to the region, while creating a strong force to resist unwanted technology (for example where GM seed could threaten existing seed systems).

But a number of difficulties still loom large for the harmonisation agenda. International cooperation is difficult in any policy arena. The many actors are continually changing and 'policy' may mean different things to different people.

The fast-paced field of biotechnology is especially difficult. Even agreed policies can quickly stagnate as newer biotechnologies emerge.In Southern Africa, some policy actors remain skeptical, suggesting a regional biosafety agenda is a fad that will soon disappear.

Biosafety issues are also enmeshed within wide-ranging GM food issues, often with conflicting goals for trade and environmental management. And industrial giants, albeit a diminishing number, still dominate biotechnology and wield significant corporate power, while pressure groups can polarise debates.

A regional agenda would have to balance these conflicting pressures, as well as national interests (including sovereignty, institutional arrangements, relationships with external trading partners and economic groups, and interpretation of international law), against regional aspirations.

One size doesn't fit all
The region's varying capacity for regulation further complicates things. For example, countries with advanced regulatory systems are unwilling to 'step down' to a regional framework, while others are reluctant to commit to seemingly unrealistic objectives.

The region also apparently lacks political will for a harmonised biotechnology agenda. Previous efforts, for example the 1990s' Regional Biosafety Focal Point funded by the Dutch, and lately the AU Model Law on Safety in Biotechnology, have had limited success, leaving stakeholders reluctant to embark on new initiatives.

Some policymakers say pressures from international regulatory and technological targets, such as the AU Model Law, are rushing member states towards harmonisation when they would be better off developing incremental national or sub-national policies. A last concern is that individual countries may lose out on funding if a regional technology management structure is established. Donors may prefer to support regional efforts rather than national programmes.

Cooperation from contribution
Given all this, establishing a harmonised cross-national biosafety framework for the SADC, where all countries face the same obligations, would be difficult and could spawn divisive tensions.

Far better, I believe, would be a multi-layered harmonisation or 'convergence' framework.

The layers would group countries by their development and use of biotechnologies. Layered regulatory systems would then impose appropriate obligations, guided by the regional position.

Problems could still arise — for example, if some countries prefer to only collaborate with more advanced nations than them. But the approach would allay fears of domination, promote ownership of regulatory processes and make 'cooperation from contribution' more feasible. The layers could also provide useful benchmarks for measuring individual countries' progress in developing and implementing biosafety systems.

Layering could also be issue-specific. The European Union, for example, issues regulations and directives on specific aspects related of GMOs, such as labelling, product release or risk assessment. A similar approach in Southern Africa could prioritise urgent matters, easing the pressures governments face from other policy arenas.

But whether biosafety regulation is regional or layered, supranational organisations such as the SADC, the African Union or the New Partnership for Africa's Development, should clearly play a role in regional harmonisation — particularly by encouraging countries to learn from each other through sector-specific programmes and by helping individual countries implement new policies. A coordinated approach that shares experience could strengthen weaker national and sub-national capacities and help develop and manage biotechnology.

Julius T. Mugwagwa is a researcher in the Development Policy and Practice/ESRC Innogen Centre at the Open University in the United Kingdom.


The Future of Agricultural Biotechnology: Creative Destruction, Adoption, or Irrelevance

- AgBioForum Volume 12, Number 1

The latest issue of AgBioForum is now available online at http://www.agbioforum.org/. This special issue, "The Future of Agricultural Biotechnology: Creative Destruction, Adoption, or Irrelevance? In Honor of Prof. Vittorio Santaniello," is guest edited by Justus Wesseler (Wageningen University, The Netherlands) and Sara Scatasta (Centre for European Economic Research, Germany).

Lauren Jackson, Technical Editor of AgBioForum

Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes, Editor of AgBioForum


Black Harvest: The Battle Against Wheat Rust

- Elizabeth Finkel, Cosmos, June 2009

Full story at http://www.cosmosmagazine.com/features/print/2819/black-harvest

A global scourge is spreading that could devastate food supplies. To fix the crisis comes Norman Borlaug, the man who saved the world before -- and needs to again.

Norman Borlaug is a hero. Like the warrior Beowulf, subject of the Old English epic poem, Borlaug slew a monster, saved his world and lived to a ripe old age. Like Beowulf, this old warrior of science has had to climb back into armour to battle the rise of a new monster. And once again, the world is looking to him for salvation.

In 1970, Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize for saving hundreds of millions of people from starvation. The monster he slew was stem rust: a devastating fungus that has plagued the world's wheat fields since Roman times. He did it by breeding a slew of powerful new varieties of wheat that could defend themselves against the scourge.

Yields doubled and tripled, ushering the Green Revolution across Asia and Latin America and averting the impending starvation of millions. Suddenly, food was bountiful. That victory was achieved 50 years ago in Mexico. The wheats he bred protected much of the world from the rust monster.

But now stem rust has awoken from a long sleep and is again threatening the world's food supplies: a virulent new strain appeared in Uganda in 1999, and it is on the march across the planet. While humanity rested on its laurels, the fungus spread to Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan, then jumped the Red Sea to Yemen. In 2007 it reached Iran. Now, like a cobra, it is poised to strike the major breadbasket of Asia – the Punjabi plains of Pakistan and India.

If it strikes, crop yields will crash and millions will go hungry. It could not come at a worse time: the world's food reserves are running low. Granary stocks worldwide once held enough to last 100 days; due to a combination of climate change hammering yields and the growing competition from biofuels, the global granary is now down to 30 days. It's part of the reason why grain prices spiked in early 2008, triggering food riots from Haiti to Bangladesh.

"It's a train wreck," says Thomas Lumpkin, the director-general of CIMMYT, or Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre) in Mexico. Now add stem rust to this picture and it's not a slow-motion train wreck, but a nuclear bomb ticking in the background. A major outbreak in Asia could empty global granaries overnight.

FRAIL AND ONLY DAYS before his 95th birthday, Borlaug's focus is unshakable. At the press conference, he hammered the need for better surveillance of stem rust.

Another journalist said to me, "I have never met anyone so 'on message'." It's very much part of the Borlaug style, his marriage of science and humanism. And it's a message that continues to inspire those around him. "A lot of us who go into agriculture want to do something to help humanity. Borlaug is the giant that we hope to emulate," Steffenson told me as we bussed along the road lined by granaries and criss-crossed by massive semi-trailers carrying grain.

It's not just academics Borlaug has inspired. At the opening session of the conference, Theodore Crosbie, vice-president of Global Plant Breeding at Monsanto, the American multinational agricultural biotechnology giant, told delegates about meeting Borlaug 35 years ago. He was a student at Iowa State University, and Borlaug challenged him, "Why don't you work on something that matters?"

"One conversation with Borlaug and you're a changed man," says Crosbie. Decades later, Crosbie was clearly chuffed to announce at Obregón that Monsanto was awarding US$10 million over five years to researchers in developing countries to improve wheat and rice yields.

Borlaug's parting message to delegates was a refrain of his opening one: a plea for reviving the internationalism of agriculture. In his opening address, he recalled how years back, the farmers and scientists of the Yaqui Valley welcomed people of all languages, races and colours, as they came there to learn the ways of wheat. Faltering with emotion, he emphasised "that was the lesson they learned here".

One of those was Abdul Mujeeb Kazi, who became one of CIMMYT's most famous wheat breeders and is now a project director at the National Wheat Program in Islamabad, Pakistan.

At his parting speech Borlaug asked, "Why did it take so long [this time] to get good international co-operation?" Perhaps, as Kazi put it, "Ug99 may be a blessing in disguise – it has brought the international community together." "Our tasks are enormous, but do-able," Borlaug said later. "So let's get on with the job. There is no room for complacency."

Elizabeth Finkel, a former biochemist, is a celebrated Melbourne-based science writer and a contributing editor of Cosmos. She has spent the past two years researching her new book, Gene World, to be published in 2010 by Melbourne University Publishing.


Genetically Modified Noms

- Luke Weston, June 17, 2009 Full blog at http://www.youngausskeptics.com/2009/06/genetically-modified-noms/

Recently, upon listening to episode twelve of The Pseudo Scientists, I was so astonished by what I heard from the crazy lady interviewed in our On The Street segment that I just had to make a post about GM food.

It’s often said that GM food is “manmade”, “artificial” or “not natural”.

To get an idea about the significance of these concepts of “natural” versus “artificial” varieties of organisms in the context of agriculture and food, let’s consider… a well made banana.

The point here is that essentially all plants and animals that are cultivated and farmed, everywhere, have always been very “unnatural”. These plants and animals are quite different from similar organisms found in nature, and have been engineered - “intelligently designed”, if you wish - by people (not any invisible friend) over many generations in order to create better varieties of plants and animals for us to use as food (or as fibre, or whatever.)
Why is there so much darned controversy about genetic engineering of crops, anyway? What are the arguments presented by the opponents of such technology?

Well, the first argument is usually the “it’s not natural” argument; and given what I’ve posted above, I really think that’s a non-argument.

Oh noes, it’s the Big Farmer! Next, we come to the Monsanto, or “Big Farma”, gambit.

That is, you know, Monsanto is a big corporation, and they are guilty of unethical corporate practices, and they’re a big mean capitalist corporation, and they can’t be trusted, and blah blah blah.

Well, maybe that’s true. But the thing is, none of this has anything to do with a discussion of whether or not genetically modified crops are safe and useful and beneficial on a scientific level. It’s kind of like bringing up that Microsoft is a big mean corporation in a discussion of whether quicksort is better performing than merge sort.

It’s just like the whole “Big Pharma” nonsense - it’s just an attempt to divert attention away from a discussion of the actual science and the actual safety of the products on the biological level. It’s sort of kind of analogous to an ad hominem argument; but that’s not a very good way to describe it and I can’t think of a better way.

It’s very important to separate out the big-unethical-corporation argument from an actual discussion of the science, and look at actual scientific arguments for or against the actual use of genetically modified organisms themselves. I’m not saying there isn’t a legitimate issue there, worthy of serious discussion, but it is separate from the science issue.

Really, genetically modified crops don’t seem to be a big deal at all. Where is the serious evidence that they’re actually, somehow, dangerous?

Genetically modified canola, mostly glyphosate-resistant “Roundup Ready” canola, was first introduced to Canada in 1995. Today 80% of acres sown to canola in Canada are sown with genetically modified canola.

These genetically modified varieties are already in widespread use. So, where’s the harm?

In 2003, the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator in Australia approved the release of GE herbicide resistant canola. It has been used in Australia ever since.

I have heard pseudoscientific and poorly backed up claims from GM opponents, for example, that there are “GM crops which only survive if you put another of the same company’s products on them or feed animals grain containing the “right” protein, also sold by the company.”

But does that make sense, scientifically? You’d have to genetically “knock out” some kind of biosynthesis pathway for an essential compound, making a particular compound an essential nutrient in the organism’s diet where it normally is not. Ostensibly, that sounds like it could be plausible.

It’s like the (fictional) plot device in Jurassic Park where they’ve rendered the dinosaurs deficient in lysine, so they need to be fed lysine in their diets or else they die. Of course, that’s complete nonsense because lysine is an essential amino acid, it can’t be synthesised in the organism, and you have to have it in the diet anyway. But suppose you knock out a non-essential amino acid, say, aspartic acid, in an organism such as a pig. Then you would have to include the aspartic acid in the pig’s diet, or it would die. But aspartic acid, and any other biochemical that could fill this role, are simple, well-known compounds that could be easily synthesised, and manufactured cheaply and generically by anybody; and not patented or expensively marketed by some corporation. That’s just not plausible, and anyway, this is bringing us back to the derailment of the argument into the big-corporations issue.

Another key anti-GM argument is the safety argument - something like this: “There is no way we can know what the long turn affects will be. I think scientists are being way overconfident if they can claim it is totally safe.”

Of course, we already have thorough testing and regulation of genetically modified organisms before they’re allowed to be released into the environment, to make sure there’s no way they could be dangerous. That’s why we have government agencies such as the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator. There is already plenty of testing and safety assessment.

Opponents of gene technologies, and so-called “environmentalists”, often say there isn’t enough testing, we need more testing, more testing and more testing to be really, really, really sure that there’s no risk.

This is the not uncommon abuse of the precautionary principle: “you can’t prove that it has absolutely zero risk, therefore we shouldn’t do it, no matter what the advantages are”.

However, personally, I think that’s kind of a little bit like saying we should spend millions of dollars running sets of repeated scientific, double-blind, randomized placebo-controlled clinical trials to investigate if homeopathy works or not.

No, I don’t think we need to bother. The reason for this is quite simple. There is absolutely no possible mechanism that exists, that is even remotely plausible, by which homeopathy could possibly work at all. With that in mind, it’s obvious that there’s no point wasting money on the trial. How could it possibly work!?

A well-known and controversial example of an agricultural gene technology was developed in 1991, when researchers developed an experimental genetically engineered variety of tomato that expressed a gene identified in an Arctic flounder. The flounder gene encoded a protein which acts like an antifreeze, preventing the crystallisation of ice within cells, which confers cold resistance to the fish.

The goal was to develop tomato plants that express the “antifreeze” protein in their tissues, and could withstand frost in the field and resist cold damage in storage. This particular experiment, however, was a failure and did not produce frost resistant plants. The half-fish-half-strawberry on the supermarket shelves lives on, however, as a persistent urban legend amongst anti-GM activists.

But if such a tomato or a strawberry containing this fish gene was released on the market, would we need to spend huge amounts of money and many years testing it to make sure that it wouldn’t be dangerous?

How could it possibly be dangerous? What possible mechanism of harm, no matter how remotely plausible, could there be? If you eat a fish, you’re eating the fish’s antifreeze protein, and it doesn’t cause any harm. The fish isn’t poisonous, or anything. It’s just an ordinary edible fish.

So, when you eat a strawberry containing the gene that expresses the fish’s antifreeze protein, clearly it won’t cause any harm either. Because there is absolutely no possibly plausible mechanism for harm, why should huge amounts of testing be needed, just so that it can be used as a regulatory impediment by opponents of the technology.

There’s only one small exception to the above argument, however.
Suppose that a person has a very severe allergy to fish, resulting in anaphylaxis if they consume that particular fish. It’s just barely possible that that particular “antifreeze” protein will be the antigen responsible for introducing that allergic response, and therefore, that person could very likely be allergic to these GM fruits, as well. There should be definitely be testing to detect that possibility, to see if a protein like that, if it is present, can introduce an allergic response in people who are allergic to fish, or whatever it is, and if that protein can cause a problem, then the fruit should absolutely be labeled accordingly.

But if you have a very severe allergic reaction to any common food product, then you’ve always got to be careful with any kind of food you eat, and you need to be aware about exactly what is in it, and read the label. It’s just like, for example, wine. It is possible that wine can contain traces of a fish protein in it, in the form of isinglass finings, and it is a legal requirement that that be specified on the label if it is used. It’s the same with a hypothetical GM “anti-frost” fruit of this type - it should absolutely be labelled, but not banned.

Another common argument from anti-GM activists is that it’s all some kind of big sinister conspiracy by the corporations (again, back to the same thing) to somehow make users of their crop varieties dependent on buying more expensive agrochemicals which that particular company has monopolised control over.
Responses to “Genetically modified noms.” 1. Dan Says: June 17th, 2009 at 3:26 pm

Hi Luke, I wish our mainstream media had writers like you. This is a very interesting and amusing article that sums up the idiocy of the ‘environmentalist’ argument against GM crops.

The only area where I think you got it slightly wrong is that GM canola wasn’t grown in 2003 despite receiving regulatory approval - the hysteria associated with “Australia’s first GM food crop” (shhh don’t tell people they eat cottonseed oil) led to all the state governments in canola growing regions banning production. In 2008 NSW and Victoria planted GM canola commercially for the first time, 12 years after their competitors in Canada accessed the technology. WA is taking tentative steps towards the same outcome this year and South Australia has ignored its own independent report and continued to ban GM canola.

When global war caused by famine is tearing apart the environment and human lives across the planet, I hope the ‘environmentalists’ feel proud.


Parade of the Unscrupulous

- Andy Apel, GMOBelus, June 15, 2009

Embedded Links and the original piece at http://www.gmobelus.com/news.php?viewStory=372

Opponents of engineered crops will say or do anything to get their points across. They feign philanthropy, and glorify dishonesty. Their lack of embarrassment over these moral failures is so complete that they actually seek publicity! For many of them, the simple lure of profit is sufficient to overcome their scruples--if they have any.

"Try to stay away from peas and carrots as they are genetically modified." - Cleo & Patra Canine Cuisine, in "Is it healthy to feed my dog homemade food?", June 19, 2009

"Also, doctors have already pointed out that bandages and gauze made out of Bt Cotton for use in hospitals may pose a health hazard for patients.” - Debjeet Sarangi and Jagannath Chatterjee, in Fight against legalisation of GM cotton strand, orissaindia.com, June 8, 2009

“GM canola contamination from their farms poses unacceptable hazards to public health, our environments and markets." - Gene Ethics director Bob Phelps, in Register for GM-free shoppers, The Advertiser (Bendigo, Australia), June 9, 2009

"The FRA [Zambian Food Reserve Agency] last February detected GMO maize which was imported into the country by GIA International and was subsequently sent back to South Africa under military escort." From FRA completes maize imports, The Lusaka Times (Zambia), June 6, 2009

"Dresden is GM-free. That's the way it should be, since nobody needs genetically manipulated apple trees." - Claim of responsibility for the destruction of a German field trial of GM apple trees by a group calling itself 'Obelix', quoted in "Öko-Anschlag in Pillnitz", Bild (Germany), June 3, 2009

"We might even burn [Mexico's GM maize field trial] plots". - Miguel Colunga, leader of the EU-sponsored Democratic Campesino Front of Chihuahua, in "Cradle of Maize Rocked by Transgenics", Inter Press Service, March 16, 2009