* EU Policy Makers Can Not Uphold Zero Tolerance Policy Towards Non EU-approved GM-Crops
* Biotech Leader Monsanto Jumps Back Into Wheat
* UGA Researchers Could Help Restore Devastated American Chestnut
* Organic and Feeding the World
* EU Stalemate: Up in Arms
* Seed Magazine story on scientific flip flop: Comments from Dr. Dave Wood
* The Political Economy of Ag Biotech Policies (Strange Bedfellows Blocking GM?)
* Pursue Transgenic Crops With Care, Respect
* Organic Tastes Good, But Better For Us? No
* Hacker Cleans Out (Thai Anti-) BioTech's Database
Study Says EU Policy Makers Can Not Uphold Zero Tolerance Policy Towards Non EU-approved GM-Crops
- European Biotechnology News, July 14, 2009 http://www.eurobiotechnews.eu
Results of a brand-new study suggest that the EU will soon have to accept food and feed imports that carry tiny amounts of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) not yet approved by the EU authorities. Otherwise prices might rise soon, according to the analysis of the EU’s think tank, the Institute of Prospective Research (ISPRA) in Seville, Spain. The asynchronous approval of GM crops, which is caused by national differences in regulation and political approval of GMOs, is at the heart of the problem, say the researchers.
Even today, global seed traders face the economic risk of shipment rejections at the EU borders, because the EU currently does not accept any admixtures with GM crops that haven’t been approved by the EU authorities. And that problem could intensify because the number of GM crops approved outside the EU will quadruple to 120 by 2015, the study suggests (for GMO pipeline see http://ipts.jrc.ec.europa.eu/publications/pub.cfm . When complying with a zero tolerance policy for unapproved GMOs becomes impossible, exporters may only deal with "preferred buyers" who are known to create little problems, according to the ISPRA researchers.
The study backs claims of seed traders organised in the European Feed Manufacturers’ Federation (FEFAC) that is lobbying for a 0.9% tolerance threshold for all non EU-approved GMOs that have been safety-checked by authorities in line with the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Codex Alimentarius GM plant guideline.
Experts told EuroBiotechNews that an economic problem for the EU may arise, when it comes to asynchronous approvals of GM soy lines, because the EU is dependent on imports of Argentinia (42% of imports) and Brazil (45% of imports). According to the study, 9 new genetically engineered soy lines can enter the market by 2015, one of them an insect-resistant soybean filed for approval in China.
The Commission has already recognised the problem. Last summer, Health Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou announced that the Commission will be proposing a threshold that would allow food and feed to enter the EU even if it contains traces of unauthorised genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But up to now nothing has happened.
Biotech Leader Monsanto Jumps Back Into Wheat
- Carey Gillam, Reuters, July 14, 2009
Five years after shelving a controversial biotech wheat product, Monsanto Co (MON.N) said on Tuesday it is jumping back into the wheat business, paying $45 million to acquire WestBred LLC, a specialist in wheat germplasm.
Monsanto said in the near-term, the transaction will allow Montana-based WestBred to apply Monsanto breeding tools to develop higher-yielding varieties for U.S. wheat farmers. And in the future, WestBred's wheat germplasm will serve as the foundation for the development of biotech traits that make wheat plants more drought tolerant, more efficient in the use of nitrogen and higher yielding.
Monsanto, which is known for its market strength in development of genetically modified soybeans, corn, cotton and other crops, walked away from development of a "Roundup Ready" herbicide-tolerant spring wheat product in early 2004. The company's decision came amid complaints that export markets would shun U.S. wheat if biotechnology was introduced to the key food crop.
Public attitudes have changed since then and leading wheat industry players are now clamoring for help in making wheat production more efficient and profitable, the company said Tuesday. "Obviously you've seen dramatic changes in the landscape since Monsanto was involved in the space," said company spokesman Lee Quarles.
Still the company said it was not likely to revisit its herbicide-tolerant type of wheat. At the time, wheat farmers complained that herbicide tolerance for wheat was not a trait that was really needed, and would likely be more beneficial to Monsanto, which sells the Roundup herbicide, than it would be to wheat farmers.
WestBred, which has been owned indirectly by Barkley Seed, Inc, has germplasm assets in all classes of wheat. WestBred's existing breeding capabilities and commercial operations will become the centerpiece of Monsanto's wheat platform, officials said.
UGA Researchers Could Help Restore Devastated American Chestnut
New gene inserted into DNA may fight fungal disease that caused the chestnut blight
Athens, GA (Vocus/PRWEB ) July 11, 2009 -- In their prime, the American chestnut trees stood a hundred feet tall and six feet wide. Now, they're typically no bigger than shrubs, thanks to a fungal disease that spread down the East Coast decades ago, virtually wiping out the hardwood tree.
The gene transfer system described in the new paper has already been used to produce some trees with genes that may confer resistance to the fungal disease and ultimately could be used to help restore the tree to our eastern forests.
But researchers in the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, with support from ArborGen LLC, a leader in tree improvement and commercial production of trees, have developed a method for inserting anti-fungal genes into the tree's DNA. They hope the new genes will fight off the fungal disease and help restore the American chestnut to its former glory. The results of Scott Merkle's 20-year effort are detailed in a new paper published in the journal Plant Cell Reports, where he and associates Gisele Andrade and Joe Nairn describe the system they developed to insert new genes into the tree's DNA and to propagate trees that carry the genes.
"The gene transfer system described in the new paper has already been used to produce some trees with genes that may confer resistance to the fungal disease," said Merkle, "and ultimately could be used to help restore the tree to our eastern forests."
The American chestnut used to grow from New England down the East Coast, abundantly through the Appalachians. It was a valuable resource for the U.S., Merkle explained, as it was a fast-growing tree that was used in construction, leather-making and as a dependable nut crop. But in the 1880s, people began to import Asian chestnuts to plant in their yards and with these trees came the fungus that attacked the American trees. The first documented instance of what became a widespread blight was in what is now the Bronx Zoo. A forester noticed the American chestnuts planted along the streets were dying. By 1904, the fungus had been identified as Endothia parasitica (eventually renamed Cryphonectria parasitica), but it was too late: The fungal disease spread rapidly, infecting Georgian trees by the 1940s.
"It happened amazingly fast," Merkle explained. "They were actually stunned at how fast it spread."
Merkle began researching the American chestnut blight in 1989, and has published several papers on the subject. In the past 20 years, he and his team of research associates and graduate students have been studying ways to get the chestnut trees to fight off the fungus. The disease works by attacking the chestnut after the bark has been injured, fanning out and killing the inner bark layer, eventually girdling the tree so that food and water cannot move up or down the stem.
So while the American chestnut used to grow more than a hundred feet tall, now they are usually no more than six feet tall before they are killed by the fungus, Merkle said. Most are just shrubs before they die, although larger surviving chestnuts have been found in isolated areas.
Merkle hopes to change that. After years of research, he and Andrade devised a way to grow chestnut trees from single cells and then found an effective way to separate the genetically engineered cells from the cells that did not have the inserted genes. Now, they've used their system to insert an anti-fungal gene, obtained from collaborator William Powell at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, into chestnut trees that are being grown in a Warnell greenhouse in preparation for testing the ability of that inserted gene to fight off the fungus.
The way they'll do that, Merkle said, is by infecting the tree with the fungus and measuring how well it fights it off. It'll be at least two years before they can take that next step in the research, however, since the trees have to grow to a certain size before they can be screened.
"It's been a real challenge working with it," he said. "But the potential is there."
Organic and Feeding the World
- Rachel Laudan July 13, 2009 http://www.rachellaudan.com/2009/07/organic-and-feeding-the-world.html
For today, three items that add refreshing new perspectives to the often depressingly static battle lines about modern food with their proponents hunkered down in trenches that it seems so difficult to break out of.
When I was at the University of California at Davis in February, I had the chance to hear Pamela C. Ronald, as a plant geneticist the real McCoy, a hard nosed scientist, make a passionate appeal for genetically engineered crop varieties. She knows the subject inside out, having worked in the lab, in research plots, and in field in Nihe in China and Orissa in India developing a rice that can withstand fourteen days of flooding.
She’d just produced the book above with her husband Raoul Adamchak who manages the Organic Market Garden at the UC Davis student farm. If you are interested in organic and suspicious of GM, then you might enjoy this book.
Both authors see GM as a way to move organic forward and make it economically viable. There are lots of great examples (Hawaiian papaya, Amish tobacco growers, rennet) and very clear explanations of how genetic engineering works, and on its politics and the economics. Although I differ with the authors on a variety of points, I learned a huge amount. And I am an enthusiastic follower of Pamela Ronald’s blog.
And, of course, one of the things that the authors are very aware of is the importance of cereals in feeding the world. There they coincide with another piece I have found very useful, this time by K.W.T. Goulding of the Department of Soil Science at Rothamstead Research (the major British agricultural research station) and A.J. Trewavas of the Institute of Molecular Plant Science at the University of Edinburgh.
"If arguments are to be made about feeding the world from organic farming then the primary concern must be the yield ratios of organic/conventional for the major cereal crops. Whether organic cabbage, tomatoes or even oats or apples for example can match conventional yields and used by Badgley et al., (2007), is of relatively little importance, so we have not considered these at all. Wheat is grown on 220 million ha worldwide, a substantially greater area than that of corn (maize) or rice, is tolerant of arid climates and, containing more protein than corn or rice, is one of the primary food staples. Therefore, for brevity and simplicity, our critical assessment of the claims made by Badgley et al. (2007) is limited to wheat. However the criticisms and serious omissions that we describe are likely applicable to all the data provided by these authors."
You can find the full article hereand it is well worth reading through because it is carefully argued and well documented. Their main point is that many of the claims floating around for the high productivity of organic crops just don’t hold up, particularly where wheat is concerned.
They argue persuasively, to my view, (and this is a different tack from that taken by Ronald and Adamchak) that organic fertilizer needs to be supplemented with artificial soluble fertilizer that can give wheat a boost when it most needs it.
Their article was posted on a website called AgBioWorld run by Professor C.S. Prakash of the Tuskegee Insitute. This is also highly recommended, especially their mailings, which round up news about agricultural research. Even if you don’t share my view that farming benefits from scientific and agricultural research, you should not miss this an invaluable resource.
Anyway, back to the point made by Goulding and Trewaras, it’s all too easily forgotten in the US where we have plenty of calories and are concerned about getting more vegetables and fruits in our diet that cereals are the big, big news in farming. For the last 12,000 years, it is cereal crops that have delivered most of the world’s calories, an astounding range of delicious dishes, and all kinds of subsidiary products from various kinds of alcohol, to oil, to sweeteners. This is not likely to change.
Now compare their point with this terrific map from the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2009/05/03/business/03metrics.graf01.ready.html (thanks to Diana Buja for the tip) of where the organic farms are in the US. Definitely not cereal country.
Up in Arms
- Gunjan Sinha, Nature Biotechnology 27, 592 - 594 (2009)
'Several European countries continue to defy EU law and ban genetically modified maize. Will the stalemate ever be resolved?'
In the battle over genetically modified crops in Europe, the Greens have scored another point. On 5 May, a court in Braunschweig, Germany rejected St. Louis, Missouri–based Monsanto's attempt to suspend a government ban on its product MON810, a genetically modified maize resistant to the European corn borer. In upholding the ban, the court stated that although the evidence presented did not prove that MON810 posed any health or environmental risks, it did indicate a "possible" risk and this was sufficient to uphold the ban1.
Germany's decision to prohibit the planting and selling of MON810 seed a few weeks earlier was the latest chapter in what has become a never-ending soap opera of science versus politics—a drawn-out drama in which the characters attempt to trump one another for reasons that are not always what they seem.
Defying the EU
Although it's been ten years since the European Commission (EC) gave the green light to MON810, which expresses the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene cry1Ab (encoding an insecticidal protein), individual member countries have been able to override the approval by invoking a so-called "safeguard clause." The clause states that if a country has scientifically justifiable reasons to believe that an approved genetically modified organism (GMO) presents a risk to human health or the environment, it may restrict the sale and use of the organism within its borders.
Germany is one of six European Union (EU) countries that presently bar the cultivation of MON810 maize, the only genetically modified (GM) crop that is grown commercially in Europe. France, Hungary, Greece, Luxembourg and Austria also have bans in place. Over the years, countries with such bans have tried to support their stance by citing scientific studies that suggest harm from either ingesting or planting crops carrying Bt genes.
But there isn't a single study suggesting a serious health or environmental risk from GM crops that isn't flawed, according to Stefan Rauschen, a plant scientist at the Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Institute for Environmental Research in Aachen, Germany. Despite the flawed studies, bans remain in place, even though they defy EU law.
Meanwhile, in some countries anti-GM sentiment is on the rise. There have been public protests against GM maize in the German state of Bavaria, and activists have been threatening German plant scientists and in some cases attacking their fields. In certain countries, the situation has become so dire that experts don't expect resolution either at the EU level or in member countries anytime soon. "We are even further back than square one," says Rauschen.
The mouse study
A common complaint of anti-GM groups is a lack of long-term safety studies proving the absence of any harm to health from ingesting GM foods. Animal feeding studies to assess toxicity from GM foods typically extend over a period of 28 days to three months, as required by EU law. "We'd like to see more long-term analyses," says Marco Contiero, EU policy director in the Genetic Engineering and Sustainable Agriculture division at Greenpeace Europe, based in Brussels. Currently EU legislation requires toxicity studies of pesticides to extend over at least two years. "Why not require GM crops to be studied just as long?" he asks.
It was in this vein that Jürgen Zentek and colleagues at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna launched a feeding study in mice to assess health over generations. The aim of the study was to assess the health effects of a variety of GM corn carrying two transgenes—cry1Ab from Bt and the gene encoding 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase from Agrobacterium sp. CP4 (CP4 EPSPS), which confers tolerance to glyphosate herbicides. Although the authors stated that "no negative effects of GM corn varieties have been reported in peer-reviewed publications," they wanted to assess health effects over several generations—something that has rarely been studied.
The researchers used three different experimental designs: a multigeneration study in which they bred laboratory mice over generations; a continuous breeding study in which they bred the same pair of mice and assessed the health of each subsequent litter; and a lifetime feeding study in which the health of mice fed the GM corn variety was compared to that of mice fed an isogenic (genetically identical) variety.
The only statistically significant finding came from the continuous breeding study. After the first litter, mice fed GM maize gave birth to fewer pups in each subsequent litter, and the average litter weights of pups in the GM group also decreased over time.
Although the results from the first arm of the multigeneration study (in which mice from each generation were bred with each other) were not statistically significant, the authors did report that the number of pups weaned, the average litter size and the weight at weaning tended to be lower in the GM group than in the group fed the isogenic maize variety. They also found that more pups died in the GM group. They reported that these differences were consistent over generations, but were not significant because the intragroup variability was very high.
The study, funded by the Austrian Ministry for Health, Family and Youth, wasn't published, nor was it peer reviewed. Rather, the results were announced at a press conference last fall2. Greenpeace issued a press release touting the study: "Forget condoms—eat GM maize," read the headline. Other anti-GM groups also jumped on the news, and the internet was awash with stories touting the new study and its frightening findings. In its release, Greenpeace demanded a worldwide recall of all GM foods and crops, stating: "GM food appears to be acting as a birth control agent, potentially leading to infertility."
Monsanto, the producer of MON810 maize, almost immediately responded. Although they commended the study design, they criticized the data: "This report lacks sufficient experimental details to fully interpret the results and contains a number of errors that make it unsuitable for risk assessment and/or regulatory purposes," they announced in a press release3.
Their criticism focused specifically on two major flaws. First, the authors did not use historical controls or reference groups throughout the study when comparing groups of mice. Without a proper control group of mice to assess natural variability in fertility, it's difficult to say how much of the fertility decline was caused by diet alone. In addition, the authors used inconsistent calculation methods, did not use standard units in some calculations and also miscalculated some data. And even when the calculations were corrected, the lack of a control group made the results impossible to interpret, Monsanto argued.
Monsanto's criticisms have been confirmed and elaborated upon by several scientists. At Monsanto's request, James Lamb, executive vice president of the Weinberg Group, a multinational regulatory consulting firm, wrote a review in which he concluded: "When properly analyzed, these data do not appear to support an effect on fertility or reproduction from consumption of GM corn"4. Lamb was the researcher who had originally developed the continuous breeding study design, at the Research Triangle Park, North Carolina–based U.S. National Toxicology Program during the 1980s.
But the authors aren't to blame, says Klaus Ammann, emeritus professor at the University of Bern in Switzerland. They are merely the latest victims of what has become the political gerrymandering of science to bolster and support anti-GM sentiment in Europe.
"The Austrian government had exhausted all legal avenues to ban cultivation of GM crops," Ammann says. "The Ministry of Health decided to avoid the peer-review process and announce study results at a conference, hide the data from scientists, and let the activists run amok with the help of uncritical media."
Indeed, in the ensuing months the Austrian government has backpedaled. The Ministry of Health responded to a request to interview Zentek or other authors with the following: "We asked the scientists to reevaluate their statistical analysis. Additionally the external evaluation will soon be started. I kindly ask you to wait with your proposal until the reevaluation is completed."
Use or misuse of science?
The mouse study is a prime example of governments' "misuse of science" to support political ends, says Jörg Romeis, an ecologist at the Agroscope Reckenholz-Tänikon Research Station in Zurich, Switzerland. Austria has banned the cultivation of genetically modified crops since 2004, arguing that the environmental risks posed by planting such crops in Austria are too high. Although research conducted in other countries has turned up nothing to suggest that cultivating GM maize harms the environment any more than conventional farming, Austria has argued that because the country occupies a unique ecosystem, studies done elsewhere aren't meaningful there. During a 2008 meeting with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) during which they presented the mouse study, government representatives headed by the Austrian Ministry of Health, Family and Youth also explained that they advocate sustainable agriculture and aim to protect biodiversity and Austria's unique ecosystems from harm.
"I think this is an issue of coexistence," says Rauschen. "They don't think they'll be able to keep GM maize separate from non-GM maize and they don't want any contamination, however small, and so they search for a reason to ban MON810."
Indeed, the search for scientific justification to oppose GM foods is a common theme in the anti-GM movement. That's because to invoke the safeguard clause, countries must provide the EC with scientific evidence to support their stance. Greenpeace, in a scientific briefing on Bt maize, cites several studies that have looked at environmental effects of planting Bt maize as evidence of new and unpredictable risks. Listed, for example, is a 2007 study on the effects of Bt protein on the behavior of monarch butterfly larvae5. The study found that larvae exposed to Bt maize anthers fed and weighed less than larvae exposed to non-Bt anthers. The study also reported that monarch larvae tended to avoid Bt anthers. Another study cited suggests that agricultural waste from Bt maize enters streams, where it might become toxic to aquatic insects such as caddisflies6.
But the Greenpeace document either selectively highlights specific aspects of published research or cites studies that are flawed, according to Rauschen. The study on monarch butterfly larvae, for example, was conducted in the laboratory, and the authors explicitly state that "the behavioral changes seen are not likely to occur on milkweed plants in the field because the anther density tested is rare and natural feeding behaviors already reduce exposure to Bt anthers." Moreover, "when exposure to a density of five anthers per leaf was tested in field-cage studies," a density that is more likely to occur in the field, "no effects on growth, development, or survival were detected." Thus, "based on probability of exposure to toxic densities, Bt anthers alone are not likely to pose a significant risk to monarch butterflies in Iowa," the authors write.
The caddisfly study authors also used laboratory feeding studies to assess the effects of Bt maize. "It's quite ridiculous to say that laboratory feeding studies translate into the field," says Rauschen. "Scientists in quantitative ecotoxicology have been doing a lot of work in assessing how realistic exposure scenarios are in the lab. The results are unequivocal: you can't translate one to the other."
The study also used inappropriate controls, criticized Roger Beachy, of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri, and other scientists in a letter to the Proceedings of the National Academy published shortly after the study7. Instead of using leaves from an isogenic corn variety as a control, which would have been the most appropriate comparison, they used leaves from a different non-Bt corn variety. It is well known, however, that different maize varieties vary greatly in their chemical compositions, Beachy argued. It's possible that the reduced larval growth seen in the Bt-fed insects was caused by chemical components in leaf tissues and not by the Bt protein.
In a letter in response to the criticisms, lead author Emma Rosi-Marshall of the Institute of Ecology at Loyola University in Chicago wrote that the control non-Bt variety was chosen because it best matches the nutritional composition of the Bt corn8. And in an e-mail to Nature Biotechnology, she said, "Our research demonstrates that there are negative consequences of caddisflies consuming Bt corn byproducts and this should be considered when weighing the relative merits of adopting this technology."
Studies that look at nonobvious risks are a welcome addition to the literature, say critics, but poorly conducted studies do more harm than good. "It's just bad science," says Ammann. "There are a lot of scientists producing these studies in a very sloppy way. They bolster public fear yet do nothing to resolve conflicts or move the field forward."
Politicians and science
While experts argue over good and bad science, politicians don't seem to care. Since 2004, several countries have invoked the safeguard clause, including Austria, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Greece, Hungary and the UK (the latter's ban was later lifted). In every case, the EFSA—the agency charged with evaluating scientific evidence and making recommendations to the EC—concluded that there was no new evidence that would justify overturning the EU's decision to authorize cultivation of MON810.
But despite the EFSA's assessment, EU environment commissioner Stavros Dimas has publicly cited some of these same flawed studies as the basis for remaining cautious about GM crops.
EU ministers seem to share his sentiment. In March the EU council of environment ministers voted overwhelmingly to allow Austria and Hungary to maintain bans, with 22 of the 27 EU environment ministers voting to uphold them.
The EC has a legal obligation to follow the EFSA's suggestions. Given the political stalemate, it has a few options. The most likely scenario, says Nathalie Moll, director of green biotechnology at EuropaBio in Brussels, is that the commission will draft another proposal to lift the bans, written in a slightly different way, and present it to ministers for another vote. But with the European Parliament having just held elections in June, the task of resolving this problem will now fall to the new governing board.
Anti-GM sentiment lives on
In the meantime, in some countries the anti-GMO movement is stronger than ever, fueled in part by a sympathetic media (Box 1). In Germany, for example, activists have periodically destroyed fields planted with GM seed. But they are now starting to threaten research institutes in which the most basic plant science is conducted, says Karl-Heinz Kogel, a molecular biologist at the plant pathology institute at the Justus-Liebig Universität in Giessen, Germany. Activists are not only occupying and sometimes torching fields in which any plant research is conducted, they are also confronting and in some cases threatening scientists and employees.
And the actions of politicians have only served to confirm public fears. When German agriculture minister Ilse Aigner announced that Germany would ban MON810 seed in March, she told reporters that she had legitimate reasons to believe that MON810 posed "a danger to the environment." Bavarian environment minister Markus Söder also stated that he wanted to stop field trials with GM plants, preferring to move research into greenhouses.
"These are people who in other positions expressed different opinions," says Kogel. "That indicates that the discussion is driven by the public and by fear of the next election. This is the ground on which the anti-GM and anti-science movement proliferates." (Federal elections in Germany will take place later this year.)
Political ping pong
To be fair, not all of Europe is against GMOs. The anti-GM movement is most vocal in western European countries such as France and Germany, and the reasons why there is so much opposition in these countries isn't always clear. Although the greens do have strong support in these countries, politicians don't seem to be entirely pandering to their constituents—they also seem to be using the GMO issue to assert their own sovereignty.
For example, after European environment ministers voted on the Austrian and Hungarian bans, Italian environment minister Stefania Prestigiacomo stated publicly that the EU Council "did not vote to authorize the cultivation of GMOs but instead has ruled on the possibility of some countries making use of the safeguard clause that is expressly provided by the European Directive. We have deemed it necessary to defend this possibility."
What's more, protesters and activists aren't necessarily opposed to the technology per se. "Many are protesting the societal implications that such crops symbolize," says Rauschen.
Regardless of the reason politicians voted to uphold bans, the political ping-pong over this issue reflects badly on scientists, says Rauschen. "The discrepancy between scientific findings and political activities undermines the reputation of German and international researchers and the institutions at which this research is carried out," he wrote in a letter to Aigner. "If politicians do not consider and take this research seriously, why should citizens?" His reproach fell on deaf ears: Aigner announced the MON810 ban shortly afterward.
The political drama is sure to continue. And although the question of whether countries will eventually come to accept GM technology remains open, some experts are downright pessimistic. "I am not optimistic that countries will change their minds," says Kogel. "I don't think that science or scientists can change public opinion, and so we'll probably have to wait another five to ten years when the technology is a huge success in other places and people come to realize that they are missing out."
1. Hogan, M. German court rejects Monsanto plea to end GMO maize ban. Reuters (5 May 2009). http://www.reuters.com/article/companyNews/idUSL558166220090505
2. Velimirov, A., Binter, C. & Zentek, J. Biological effects of transgenic maize NK603 X MON810 fed in long term reproduction studies in mice. Report of the Austrian Ministry for Health, Family and Youth (2008). http://bmgfj.cms.apa.at/cms/site/standard.html?channel=CH0810&doc=CMS1226492832306
3. Monsanto Corp. For the record: do monsanto corn products reduce fertility in mice? Monsanto Today.com (2009). http://www.monsanto.com/monsanto_today/for_the_record/monsanto_corn_mice_fertility.asp
4. Lamb, J.C. Review of Zentek paper. GMObelus (20 November 2008). http://www.gmobelus.com/news.php?viewStory=290
5. Prasifka, P.L., Hellmich, R.L., Prasifka, J.R. & Lewis, L.C. Environ. Entomol. 36, 228–233 (2007). | Article | PubMed |
6. Rosi-Marshall, E.J. et al. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 41, 16204–16208 (2007). | Article | ADS |
7. Beachy, R.N., Fedoroff, N.V., Goldberg, R.B., Hughen, A., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 105, E9 (2008). | Article | PubMed | ADS |
8. Rosi-Marshall, E.J. et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 105, E11 (2008). | Article | ADS |
9. Planting of controversial genetically modified maize stopped. Der Spiegel Online (14 April 2009). http://www.spiegel.de/wissenschaft/mensch/0,1518,618850,00.html
Seed Magazine story on scientific flip flop: Comments from Dr. Dave Wood
Prakash: Thanks for the link to the 5-person 'debate' on GM. It took me to a headache-inducing re-read of the complex IAASTD files.
Of the five, Patel and Philpott are anti GM and lean heavily on the IAASTD report – example: Patel: "The answer that IAASTD came up with was that, after billions of dollars already spent, the promise of genetically modified (GM) crops remained unfulfilled."
But the entire corpus of the IAASTD process did no such thing. But nobody will read all the files.
They consist of "Full Regional Reports" from SWANA; ESAP; LAC; NAE; and SSA (these seem not to be available from the IAASTD web site but from an NGO parallel site: http://www.agassessment-watch.org/report/index.html as sub-global reports). These are neutral to positive on GMOs (often, as with LAC, linked with nanotechnology).
Next are the abstracted "Summaries for Decision Makers" of these regional reports (http://www.agassessment.org/index.cfm?Page=IAASTD%20Reports&ItemID=2713 ). Again, these are neutral or mildly positive, except for SSA, which has concerns over human health and environmental risks.
Then comes the eight thematic "Global Reports" of which only No. 2 is antagonistic, mainly on IPR issues (others are positive, neutral, or ignore GMOs). I've lost track of where these came from – probably from IAASTD itself last year and seemingly not now available. I think Jonny had a go at No. 2.
The problem starts with the abstracts of these relatively mild reports – i.e. cherry-picking the criticisms beyond what is reasonable. All are at http://www.agassessment.org/index.cfm?Page=doc_library&itemid=14
There is the "Global Summary for Decision Makers", more or less neutral; then the "Synthesis Report", which is highly critical of biotech; then the "Executive Summary of the Synthesis Report" which is garbage. For example, the last paragraph on biotechnology:
"A problem-oriented approach to biotechnology research and development (R&D) would focus investment on local priorities identified through participatory and transparent processes, and favor multifunctional solutions to local problems. These processes require new kinds of support for the public to critically engage in assessments of the technical, social, political, cultural, gender, legal, environmental and economic impacts of modern biotechnology. Biotechnologies should be used to maintain local expertise and germplasm so that the capacity for further research resides within the local community. Such R&D would put much needed emphasis onto participatory breeding projects and agroecology."
So the bits the NGOs and hangers-on are quoting bear little relation to the earlier deliberations and recommendations and were cherry-picked, invented, or otherwise parachuted-in late in the editing.
This seems to be a general problem of such reports: what the consultations come up with is not reflected in the summaries. One similar example is the FAO "Global Plan of Action on Genetic Resources". In the IAASTD case, editors such as Watson and Herren simply write what they have been paid to produce and hide the earlier text in a warren of documents. The final parts are not worth the paper they will be (expensively) printed on.
Another generic problem is polarization: We don't want Monsanto therefore the only alternative is `agro-ecology and participatory research'. Not so – there is a perfectly valid research and development paradigm somewhere in the middle that has the "Green Revolution" to its credit. And how about using all the tools in the box, rather than the untried mish-mash of agroecology?
I now need a drink or three after wading through this bilge.
> Five experts debate the roots of GM opposition, the role of big
> agribusiness, and whether we've achieved real scientific consensus.
> Why the opposition to genetic engineering? Our Panel Responds:
The Political Economy of Agricultural Biotechnology Policies
- Gregory D. Graff, Gal Hochman and David Zilberman, AgBioForum, Volume 12, Number 1, Article 4
Full paper at http://www.agbioforum.org/v12n1/v12n1a04-graff.htm
This article develops a political-economy framework to analyze the formation of agricultural biotechnology policies. Going beyond accounts that largely attribute differences between US and European regulatory environments to consumer attitudes, we consider the impact of what amounts to a Schmpeterian process of “creative destruction” across the entire range of relevant economic sectors and interests.
The analysis suggests that in Europe and in some developing countries a “strange bedfellows” constellation of concentrated economic interests (including incumbent agrochemical manufacturers, certain farm groups, and environmental protest activists) act in rational self-interest to negatively characterize GM technology in the public arena and to seek regulations that block or slow its introduction. In contrast, those interests most likely to experience welfare gains from biotechnology are the more diffused and less informed--including consumers and small farmers.
The most profound implications of overregulation of agricultural biotechnology are (1) delays in the global diffusion of proven technologies, resulting in a lower rate of growth in the global food supply and higher food prices, and (2) disincentives for investing in further R&D, resulting in a slowdown in innovation of second generation technologies anticipated to introduce broad consumer and environmental benefits.
In this article we develop a political economy framework to analyze the formation of agricultural biotechnology regulations. By accounting for the different interests within society and the interactions amongst them, we try to shed light on how the very different regulatory environments for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have emerged in the United States, Europe, and developing countries. Specifically, we question the notion that regulatory differences between the United States and Europe primarily reflect differences in consumers’ underlying attitudes, as many argue. Instead, we highlight the roles of other economic interests in framing the debate and influencing the policy-making process. This is crucial. Our political economic analysis suggests that the broad social welfare gains from introducing the technology are likely to be distributed amongst many consumers and small farmers—particularly those in developing countries—who may not have strong influence over regulators because of their relatively small individual stakes, lack of expertise, and lack of collective cohesion. On the other hand, our analysis suggests a “strange bedfellows” constellation of more concentrated economic interests (including incumbent agrochemical manufacturers, certain farm groups, and environmental protest activists) have incentives to negatively characterize this technology in the public debate arena and support regulations that block or slow its introduction.
Conclusions - This analysis, based on a refinement of traditional political-economy models, has argued that the degree of regulation of new agricultural biotechnology has been affected by the alignment of self-interested welfare maximization and rent seeking by the various interest groups engaged in the policy-making process. The resulting regulatory environment has delayed and eliminated the introduction of many new technologies and products. The foregone benefits from these otherwise feasible production technologies are irreversible, both in the sense that past harvests have been lower than they would have been if the technology had been introduced and in the sense that yield growth is a cumulative process of which the onset has been delayed. The dynamics of this impact are likely to be accentuated by the fact that R&D has been dis-incentivized and investments that would have helped to disseminate and further advance the technology have not been as broad as they likely would have been in a technologically more tolerant and rational world. Resulting high costs of entry have led individuals and companies to exit the industry, reducing the development of human capital and innovative capacity to address impending crises of productivity as demand from the biofuel sector increases.
Low-cost and environmentally sustainable supplies of food and biofuels will require significant R&D investment in agriculture, yet agricultural research has been deemphasized in recent years as a spending priority of governments. At the same time, as we are postulating, governments have overregulated biotechnology, which has led to it being underused relative to a putative optimal rate of use and moreover underdeveloped relative to a rate of R&D investment that an objective analysis of risk versus returns might have recommended.
Consider, for example, the welfare implications if wheat and rice had experienced yield increases over the last decade comparable to those observed in cotton. When aggregated to the global scale and considered over the long run, such differences in growth rates can have massive impacts on food supply and use of arable lands, which in turn have massive implications for social and environmental welfare. Furthermore, the bulk of the impact is felt at the margin, including the marginal consumer—those poor consumers whose operate at the most inelastic portion of their demand curves and whose household budgets are the most sensitive to food prices—and marginal lands—those lands which yield the lowest gains in agricultural productivity and incur the highest costs from environmental disruption. Unfortunately, these are the interests least likely to be directly represented in any political-economic calculation of policy by any government.
Pursue Transgenic Crops With Care, Respect
- James Ennis, Des Moines Register, July 14, 2009
As noted recently in the Register, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, an independent body within the Vatican, recently endorsed transgenic plants as necessary for food security. Not all would agree, both within and outside the church.
Scientists of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, a global, United Nations-backed think tank, last year rejected genetically modified crops as a solution to hunger.
Some say the Pontifical Academy, when holding its seminar on transgenic plants at the Vatican in mid-May, excluded dissenters within the church who fear that technology for genetically modified organisms allows corporate agribusiness to control agriculture and food production at the expense of the poor. An aggressive push of genetically modified seeds and crops, critics say, runs the risk of pushing out small landholders, making remaining farmers dependent on the production companies and abolishing traditional methods of seed-keeping.
So within the broad Catholic community, genetically modified organisms remain an open question. In many cases, it is not the science or the technology itself that's in question, but its application and who truly benefits if transgenic plants pervade local food-production systems around the world.
The National Catholic Rural Life Conference, based in Des Moines, has followed the issue of transgenic plants since their commercial introduction in the late 1990s. In discussions with both row-crop farmers and Catholic bishops, we came to depend on a set of principles that guide us as a people of faith in understanding use of this technology.
In the eyes of the church, human beings are co-creators who help bring the world to the fruition God intends. Technology, including genetic modification of plants, is at base a tool for doing good. But while the making of transgenic plants is morally neutral in itself, concrete applications are subject to moral judgment.
Both the promise and risk of genetically modified crops are uncertain because the technology is still relatively new and requires long-term study of environmental and human-health impacts. Each application of the technology must be evaluated on its merits and judged in light of current practice. In general, widespread commercial application of the technology should be pursued with great care.
In principle, genetically modified seeds and crops are acceptable for a just food production and distribution system, but only as they serve the common good. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, genetically modified herbicide-tolerant crops have not increased yields significantly, so the claim to food security seems overblown. The benefit appears to be little more than reducing a farmer's time in the field. Higher seed costs accrue to the very few seed companies with patenting rights.
The Pontifical Academy addressed the question whether technology for genetically modified organisms should be developed so as to better serve the needs of small-scale farmers and the poor. The promise is that their production will improve, with transgenic plants engineered to better deal with pests, drought and other agricultural challenges. The reality is that genetically modified seeds are part of a global, industrialized agri-food system that is biased toward large producers and mega-farms.
By applying precautionary principles to transgenic plants, we believe this technology has a role to play in food production and security. Failure to abide by precautionary points will:
- Accelerate the decline of agricultural biodiversity in local areas, where vast crop varieties have already been lost in the past century to monocultural practices.
- Allow a few dominant seed companies to control the supply of seeds worldwide, reaping a greater share of the food dollar at the expense of farmers and primary producers.
- Deny farmers of the world their just benefits to the development of genetic resources by their experimentation and local application.
- Threaten the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and indigenous people who depend on open access to resources, such as the traditional saving of seeds for future sowing.
Proponents of transgenic crops should not over-promise, should be respectful of alternatives and should engage critics in a responsible way. Similarly, critics should state their objections without exaggerations and engage proponents in a responsible way.
(James Ennis is executive director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org )
Organic Tastes Good, But Better For Us? No
- Margaret Wendt Globe and Mail (Canada), July 11, 2009
If you want to heal the land, it helps to be well-heeled. Let's just rethink what we eat
Our farmers' market in the country has gone dramatically upscale. It used to be that, if you wanted, say, carrots, you had to settle for orange ones. They were crude, gnarly things that were sometimes as thick as baseball bats. Not any more. Today, you can buy carrots in a wide variety of designer colours. They are slender and delicious, and almost as sweet as sugar. They are 100-per-cent organic, grown without pesticides or fertilizers or genetically modified seeds. They are the most refined and righteous carrots you ever ate. So what if they cost $5 instead of 50 cents? Affluent weekenders line up for them, and if you don't get there early, they'll be gone.
The new-style farmers at the market are nothing like the old-style ones. They are highly educated young people with three or four degrees who've gone back to the land to build a better life for themselves and the planet by growing food the sustainable way. They've all read Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which describes the year when she and her family decided to grow their food themselves on their own subsistence farm. It's odd to buy carrots from people who have PhDs, but I salute them. They've made my life better. I know they're not making any money doing this, even if their carrots do cost five bucks a bunch.
Across the street from the farmers' market, there's a new 100 Mile Store. These are sprouting up all over, because people want to eat local (especially this time of year, though not so much in January). Business is booming. The artisanal cheese is fabulous. But people with average incomes (including most of those who live around here full-time) probably won't shop there. Not when cheese costs three times more than the cheese at Valu-Mart.
“It's only natural to want food this good,” says Tim Young, who, with his wife, Liz, is the proprietor of Nature's Harmony Farm in Georgia. They were written up in The New York Times. He made a fortune in marketing, but he realized that it didn't help the planet. Now he and Liz raise rare breeds of animals, the natural way, with love and respect. They have Berkshire pigs and heritage Poulet Rouge chickens.
“We see ourselves first and foremost as healers,” their website says. “We need to heal the land naturally and allow nature to achieve its delicate balance that so effectively nurtures life.” They also want to heal the food system and the community, as well as bring their patrons back in touch with nature. One Poulet Rouge chicken will set you back $17.98, which suggests that, if you want to help heal the land, it helps to be well-heeled.
All this food tastes good. But is it better for you? Or the planet?
I'm sad to tell you it's not. Despite numerous popular alarmists, there is virtually no evidence for the claim that organic food is either safer or more nutritious than the other kind. “No conclusive evidence shows that organic food is more nutritious than is conventionally grown food,” says the Mayo Clinic, which is perhaps the leading cancer centre in the world. “Most experts agree that the amount of pesticides found on fruits and vegetables poses a very small health risk.” The American Cancer Society is even more unequivocal. It says there is “no evidence that residues of pesticides and herbicides at the low doses found in foods increase the risk of cancer.”
The other problem is that organic farming is not very productive. You need a lot more land to produce the same amount of food. What would we rather do - farm four hectares of land “organically” to feed 40 people (and turn millions and millions more over to food production) - or farm one hectare “artificially”?
Organic farming is sustainable so long as not many people have to rely on it. If we did it on a global scale, reckons British scientist John Emsley, two billion people would starve to death. “The greatest catastrophe that the human race could face this century is not global warming but a global conversion to ‘organic' farming,” he wrote in the journal Nature.
The reason has to do with one thing: fertilizer. All plants depend on nitrogen. Traditional farming takes nitrogen from the soil, but even the best farming practices can't return nitrogen to the soil very efficiently. The 20th-century discovery of nitrogen fertilizers was one of the most important technological breakthroughs in history. Agrochemical nitrogen has boosted global food productivity so much that it now accounts for meeting about 40 per cent of the world's dietary needs.
It's no surprise that organic, local eating is the biggest food trend of our time. Everyone knows the way we eat is bad for us. Fast food is unhealthy, even evil (to say nothing of low status). Big Agri-Food has a lot to answer for. And besides, “pesticide” sounds awful. Modern living has so disconnected us from our food that some city folks are actually surprised to see real apples growing on real trees.
It's time for us to rethink our food, no doubt about it.
But let's face facts. Artisanal food is too expensive for a lot of folks, including the folks who grow it. (As Barbara Kingsolver proved, the only way to make money on subsistence farming is to write a bestseller about it.) “Sustainable” farming may be fine for sustaining a few rich consumers but not for a hungry planet.
Unfortunately, the organic hype is so great that all the moms I know believe regular food might be poisoning their kids. I have reassuring news for them: The 50-cent carrots are okay, too - even if they come from Valu-Mart.
Hacker cleans out (Thai Anti-) BioTech's database
- The Nation (Thailand) July 14, 2009
The website of a non-governmental organisation helping Thai farmers fight against foreign agricultural conglomerates has been hacked and its information stolen for the third time over the past few years.
The BioThai Foundation's website is hacked every time it starts a major campaign against projects launched by foreign companies, including moves made to register genetically-modified (GM) plants with Thai authorities or experimenting on those plants in Thailand, deputy manager Kingkorn Narinkul na Ayutthaya said.
Webmaster Khwanchai Muenying said he had received an e-mail last year threatening that the website biothai.net would be hacked and had tightened the site's security system.
"However, the latest attack was the most severe. The hacker, who is highly skilled, entered our root directory and deleted or stole most of the database collected over the past five years," he added.
The foundation was established ten years ago with the objective of educating Thai farmers and the public about foreign agricultural conglomerates' attempts to bring in GM plants and grains as well as their efforts to declare ownership of local plants and those under copyright protection.