The program for the Harvard Conference on Precautionary Principle is now
(From Agnet; Douglas A Powell )
GM FOOD: WHY THE NEW-FOUND CONSCIENCE?
The Age August 3, 2000
Sharon O’Brien, a rural writer involved in women’s organisations, writes
that behind the hysterical facades erected by opponents of genetically
modified food, such as Jeremy Rifkin (on this page, 25/7), and
detailed-labelling afficionados, such as our premiers, lie, according to
this story, the visages of average people. Presumably they shop each week
and buy normal food - bread, milk, sugar - and probably do not pause for a
second to ponder its origins.
Before Rifkin and his ilk buy their next loaf of bread, they might like to
scrutinise the label or badger the baker over its contents. If it contains
triticale (as breads and breakfast cereals have done for some time), they
should fling it to the floor in horror. Triticale is a genetically
modified grain, a bastardised hybrid of wheat and rye (a primary hexaploid
to be exact). And we have been eating it for years.
Triticale was developed as feed for dairy cows, most of which, in
commercial herds at least, have been genetically manipulated also.
Microscopic specks milked from some anonymous, genetically enhanced bull
are imported in frozen semen straws and manually inserted into a
restrained cow’s uterus. The results of this "unnatural" process are
grazing the irrigated pastures of Australia’s eastern seaboard and
providing milk for your daily lattes.
Unnatural genetic modification of plants and animals has been around since
the beginning of civilisation. It’s not that we haven’t known about it
until now, it is that we have conveniently chosen not to know. "The wild
relatives from which we derived corn are scraggly little weeds you
probably wouldn’t even recognise as a relative of corn," Margaret Mellon,
a biologist at the (US) Union for Concerned Scientists, stated last
It is impossible to prove that any food, processed or otherwise, is free
from genetic manipulation of some kind. Admittedly, now we have discovered
the four molecules that all genes are made from we can cross species,
placing fish genes in tomatoes, but as the Nuffield Council on Bioethics
concluded in its report on the GM issue this year, "Who is most
responsible (for this)? The scientist, the development company, the
farmer?" The consumer?
A society that has previously benefited from advances in agricultural
science and happily chosen to remain ignorant of them is now demanding to
know what goes on in the paddock and the laboratory. Like born-again
virgins, sanctimonious consumers now want to know how their food is
produced and what it contains. Where has this collective conscience been
for the last few centuries?
The problems with the GM debate lie in a vacuum-sealed, sliced, diced,
shrink-wrapped, would-you-like-fries-with-that society that is
geographically and culturally distant from the production of the food it
consumes. Unable or unwilling to confront the truth, consumers now want it
both ways; food that is clean and green, low-cost, free from "nasties" and
placed neatly on the supermarket shelf.
Do consumers actually want to know that the shiraz-baked lamb cutlets they
are devouring had their small lamb faces placed between a neck halter to
be hit with a stun gun between the temples and their throats cut with a
mechanised blade? A case of "tell us something on the label - just don’t
tell us too much".
As always it is farmers who must carry the costs and bear the brunt of
public misinformation surrounding the development of genetically
engineered organisms. "Farmers are making a killing," wrote one concerned
Age reader (who presumably traps and skins his own T-bones).
Are consumers prepared to pay for the information they so ardently desire?
Are they willing to acknowledge some of the more problematic ethics
involved in the production of our food and fibre? If GM crops are
eventually prohibited, who will bear the burden of doing without them?
Instead of reacting to alarmist scenarios and baying for the blood of
bio-technicians and primary producers, we might do better to acknowledge
that nothing is natural any more. We lost our biological innocence a long
SEEDS OF HOPE: MOST SCIENTISTS THINK THAT GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS ARE
SAFE, YET THE PUBLIC REMAINS UNEASY. JOHN KREBS PLOTS A WAY FORWARD New
Scientist August 5, 2000
John Krebs writes that the debate about genetically modified crops has
stagnated over the past few years. We are no closer to resolving issues
such as environmental damage, food safety, globalisation and the rights or
wrongs of tampering with nature. Wild assertion and distortion of the
facts have all too often taken precedence over thoughtful discussion.
Krebs says that all parties should take some blame for this. You could
point to scientists +who have been dismissive or condescending about
public concerns, or lobby groups and media who have manipulated the issue
for their own ends. Meanwhile, industry and governments failed to spot the
public unease about GM technology early enough, and failed to respond
effectively or rapidly.
In the light of this, Krebs has proposed the setting up of an
international panel to cut through the dogma and woolliness that is
clouding the debate over GM crops and food. The idea crystallised earlier
this year at the OECD conference on GM food safety in Edinburgh, which
Krebs chaired, and last week the leaders of the world’s major industrial
nations, the G8, discussed it at their summit in Okinawa, Japan. There was
some disagreement with the US wanting it to focus strictly on science, and
the French and Germans wanting it to reflect other societal concerns. They
have agreed to look at it further.
Could an international panel of scientists do for the GM debate what the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) does for the global
warming debate? GM technology is advancing apace, and there is an urgent
need to underpin policy with rational argument and assessment of its
implications. The panel would be the focus of this. It would have two
aims. First, to offer governments and the public the best possible
independent scientific assessment of current knowledge about the
uncertainties and risks of GM crops. Second, to bring the science to the
wider debate on the implications of GM.
To succeed, the panel will have to gain international respect and
confidence. It will have to be scientifically authoritative, but it must
also represent the diversity of scientific opinion, just as the IPCC does.
It is true of all scientific debates that there is a mainstream view and a
range of dissenters on either side. This is the essence of science and is
a key part of its dynamic and progressive nature. To be effective the
panel would have to be small -- perhaps 20-strong -- but it should have a
wide consultation network to embrace the full range of views. Krebs says
the panel will also have to be geographically inclusive. It will not do to
have a small set of scientists from the G8 handing out assessments on the
risks of GM technologies for governments in the rest of the world.
Developing countries will have to be fully involved, and leading where
appropriate, as they were in Edinburgh. The panel’s assessments would be
used to underpin both national policy and international agreements, just
as with the IPCC.
Finally, the panel should encompass the whole range of concerns about GM
crops. The panel itself should be science-led and include the social
sciences and scientists from pressure groups, but to be truly inclusive it
should also embrace ethical, trade and other issues. One way it could do
this would be to present its draft reports to conferences along the lines
of the Edinburgh meeting, where a wider forum can contribute to the
debate. Some have argued that such a mechanism would be a step too far:
that it would reduce the credibility of scientific assessment by
contaminating it with broader concerns. I disagree. Scientific evaluation
must, of course, be central to the panel’s work, and it must be robust and
rigorous, but unless a way can be found to place it within a broader
context, the GM debate will not move forward.
Some critics have said that the panel would simply duplicate what is
already going on. There are indeed international regulatory frameworks and
committees already in place, such as the obscurely named Codex
Alimentarius Commission, which issues guidelines on novel foods. It
operates under the auspices of the World Health Organization and the UN’s
Food and Agriculture Organization. But an international panel would build
on rather than duplicate the work of these groups.
Independence will be the key to earning the public’s trust and confidence.
The best way to secure this would be to place the secretariat in a host
organisation, such as the UN or OECD, that has international and
independent stature. In addition, the panel should be completely
transparent in its deliberations. Choosing the right chair will be
decisive. Some might think that GM food and crops have no future, so
debate about their safety for human consumption and for the environment is
unnecessary. The Edinburgh conference showed clearly that this is wrong.
While we in the northern hemisphere can afford to pick and choose how our
food is produced and may for the moment eschew GM, there are many people
-- perhaps a billion worldwide -- who are in a different position.
The overwhelming message from developing countries at Edinburgh can be
paraphrased as: "We would like to be like you, with plenty of food for our
people. We need every tool at our disposal to achieve this, including
biotechnology, which will allow us to grow things without costly chemicals
and irrigation systems that we cannot afford. We do not want to be
dependent on aid or redistribution, we want to be in control of our
In the face of this, calls for a worldwide moratorium seem to me to have
no moral or practical credibility. We need to explore thoroughly the
implications of GM technologies, rather than close the door on them. An
independent scientific panel would be best placed to drive this search and
to separate the facts from the propaganda.
Corn rootworm: A face only an environmentalist could love
By Mike Aylesworth
I wonder if any of those Washington-based "environmental" groups have ever
seen a corn rootworm or a corn borer. I wonder if they have any idea what
kind of damage these two pests can do to a farmer's crop. I suspect that
they have no clue what it takes to protect thousands of acres of corn from
these and other pests. How else do you explain their campaign to take away
all the tools we use to protect our crops and our livelihood?
The Environmental Protection Agency, responding to pressure from activist
groups, recently announced that it is canceling some uses of a major
insecticide that we have used safely for years. But activists were not
satisfied. They want further cutbacks if not an all-out ban of that
product and others.
These same groups are also opposed to biotechnology, which has created
insect-resistant crops that control major pests without the use of
chemical insecticides. The activists use the same types of tactics they
have used for years to generate fear about pesticides. I don't know what
these people want, but I can tell you that I don't have enough time to
walk row by row through 1,400 acres of corn, picking insects off by hand.
Actually, the insects that cause the greatest damage to corn are not even
visible. The European corn borer is the larval form of a moth, which lays
its eggs on the underside of corn leaves. As soon as the eggs hatch, tiny
larvae bore into the corn stalk. As they grow to maturity, they will
hollow out the stalk to the point that nutrients won't move through the
plant. Eventually, the stalk will break off. Second generation borers also
tunnel into the ears, depositing their waste and creating pathways for
diseases that can sicken humans and kill livestock.
If a farmer spends time scouting his fields, he can tell when the corn
borer infestation is about to begin. With proper timing, he can apply
insecticides to kill a large percentage of the larvae before they tunnel
in. Field-corn producers usually apply no more than one or two times a
year, but sweet corn producers may apply insecticides up to 40 times a
season or even twice a day. They know that people will reject worm-eaten,
disease-infested ears. The other option for corn growers is to protect
their crop in advance by planting biotech corn, which contains a protein
from a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). The corn borers
take one bite, quit eating and die.
The corn rootworm, the larval form of a beetle, hatches from eggs
deposited in the soil. Its main source of food is the roots of corn
plants. These insects will completely destroy the root structure to the
point that the plant cannot produce an ear or even stand under its own
weight. Eventually the plants topple over. Farmers must prevent the yield
loss that will result, so we use soil-applied insecticides. However, we
are anticipating the arrival of a new Bt corn, now in field tests, which
will control the rootworm without chemicals.
We will still need chemicals to take care of other pests, but corn borer
and corn rootworm account for about 80 percent of the insecticides used in
corn, so obviously Bt crops would make an important impact. I am very
anxious to reduce the use of chemicals, not just for the environmental
benefits, but also because of my own health. But if activists have their
way, we won't have chemicals or Bt.
About every "environmental" and "consumer" group you can think of
petitioned EPA to stop the development of Bt crops. These are the same
groups who have been working for years to ban pesticides. To date, EPA has
largely rejected their arguments about Bt crops. EPA has thoroughly
reviewed health and environmental safety studies and points out that
independent scientific experts endorse the safety and efficacy of the
products, which provide nearly 100 percent control of the target pest but
are harmless to birds, mammals, fish, earthworms and most other insects. I
know of no credible scientific evidence that these products are not safe.
By stirring up fears in Europe, activists created a situation where some
markets are closed to us if we use biotechnology. Despite this threat,
most farmers are sticking with the technology because we know that it
would be a terrible mistake to cast our lot with these people who are so
opposed to agriculture. What if we give in to their pressure and give up
Bt crops? Do we then go back to using pesticides? Oh, I almost forgot. We
won't have pesticides either.
Maybe we could all switch to organic farming which seems to be the real
agenda of these people. Organic farming is just a trendy name for the
backbreaking work that families used to do to scratch out a living on
about 80 acres of land, when they had eight or 10 kids to help tend the
crops. Those days are gone, and it's unrealistic to think we can go back.
Food prices would go up, yields would drop and a global food shortage
would result. In 1950, before the dawn of modern agriculture, corn yielded
about 43 bushels per acre. Today, with new hybrids, fertilizers,
pesticides and biotechnology (all opposed by anti-technology groups), we
are producing three times as much corn (121 bushels per acre). Good thing,
too, because population has nearly tripled and will continue to increase.
The same people who have never seen a corn borer or rootworm actually
think we should go back to those days.
#Mike Aylesworth, who farms near Hebron, Ind., is president of the Indiana
Corn Growers Association and is a member of the Public Policy Action Team
of the National Corn Growers Association.
AfricaBio’s Response to SAFeAGE
AfricaBio is opposed to the South African Freeze Alliance on Genetic
Engineering (SAFeAGE), based on the information that has been distributed.
AfricaBio supports the safe and responsible use of genetic engineering
because of the enormous benefits offered by the technology.
˙ The SAFeAGE five year freeze campaign is based on misinformation and
misunderstanding of the facts in South Africa:
˙ The growing of Genetically Improved (GI) crops for field trials or
commercial purposes only occurs once the risks have been carefully
assessed and containment is feasible when needed. Field trials are
essential to test environmental safety. All approvals are given in the
interest of the environment and of the people of South Africa and our
neighbours. Consideration of alternatives to GI are an integral part of
this process and approvals are not given where alternatives are proven to
work. The strictly contained laboratory tests designed to assess
ecological and health impacts must be followed by field trials to get the
information needed for environmental safety assessments.
˙ The import and export of GI foods and farm crops is already covered by
local legislation and is regulated to minimise risk to people and our
˙ The patenting of genetic resources for food and farm crops is already
covered by existing legislation and now needs to be tested in local courts
to see how far reaching it really is.
A freeze is not needed to develop the following: ˙ People can already
exercise their democratic right to choose products free of GI ingredients
and derivatives. The information on what is and is not produced with GI
ingredients is freely available and has been advertised to the public.
˙ A comprehensive review of government policy and legislation concerning
GI was undertaken during the development of the legislation and since its
˙ Public participation in decision-making is legislated in the GMO Act
(15, 1997) and is already being used by the public.
˙ Several independent assessments of social and economic impacts of GIOs
on farmers have been carried out and more are planned for new products.
˙ All approvals require the establishment of a system whereby genetic
mixing in the environment can be prevented, minimised or monitored, as
deemed necessary on a case-by-case basis. For example, grape genes in
strawberries offer no new genes to the food chain and cannot move out of
the crop, which has no sexually compatible local relatives. In this
instance gene mixing is prevented naturally.
˙ Independent assessment of the implications of patenting genetic
resources. This process has been in place long before GI products were
produced. This is not a GI issue and does not require a GI freeze to be
˙ The designers of the GMO legislation (industry, regulators, public)
requested a public policy process which is open and transparent and
includes civil society representation on the Advisory Committee and the
Executive Council of the GMO Act. The decision to enable public policy
representation by direct interaction with the Executive Council was the
decision of the ANC government at the final stage of the Bill.
AfricaBio notes that the SAFeAGE call for support is based on a lack of
understanding of GI regulation in South Africa.
AfricaBio’s contact details are:
Tel: 012 667 2689
Fax: 012 667 1920
Subject: AgBioForum Newsletter
We are pleased to inform you that the latest issue of AgBioForum is now
on-line at <http://www.agbioforum.org>http://www.agbioforum.org. Several
articles in this issue discuss the economics of neutraceuticals and
functional foods, and the role of biotechnology in this emerging industry.
In addition, we are pleased to announce several new features of the
journal. They include a Message Board, a Search Engine, and the AgBioForum
The Message Board is a discussion forum available to AgBioForum's members
for exchange of ideas and opinions on topics related to agrobiotechnology.
The Search Engine is provided to help readers navigate through the site
and quickly identify articles of interest. The Search Engine is available
to all readers.
The table of contents for the new issue appears below for your
information. We look forward to your comments through our feedback and
Marketing & Publications Coordinator for AgBioForum
AgBioForum Technology Coordinator
The Economics of Neutriceuticals and Functional Foods
Functional Foods: Technical, Institutional And Market Innovation . .
Food As A Source Of Health Enhancing Compounds . . . P. Burn & G. M.
Kishore Health Claims & Labeling Regulation, of Functional Foods . . . . .
.. L. J. Unnevehr & C. Hasler Consumer Response To Functional Foods In The
21st Century . . . . . . . . D. B. Schmidt Marketing Functional Foods: How
To Reach Your Target Audience . . .L. Gilbert
A Real Options Explanation For US Specialization In Biotech . . . B. F.
Lavoie & I. M. Sheldon Negative Labeling Of Genetically Modified Organisms
(GMOs): TheExperience Of rBST . . . . C. F. Runge & L. A. Jackson
The Economics of Within-Field Bt Corn Refuges . . . J. Hyde, M. A. Martin,
P. V. Preckel, C. L. Dobbins & C. R. Edwards
The Concept of Natural: Implications For Biotechnology Regulation . . D.