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July 30, 2000


PP in Organic Food?; Natural Plant Toxins; Pro-GM Label;


A long posting gave various views on the precautionary principle. All the
views took for granted a major premise of the environmentalists - that it
applied only to new science-based agriculture. If you can define what the
principle is applied to, you can predetermine the direction of the

Suppose we apply the precautionary principle to the increase in production
and sales of organic foods. When someone suggests a possible harm, e.g.
increased transmission of pathogens from manure, the organic advocates get
away with demanding proof that it does harm and niggling at the offered
evidence that it does. They do not feel obliged to offer conclusive proof
that organic foods are not harmful.

More generally they assume a rather vague organic past, which they demand
be assumed harmless.

Applying the precautionary principle depends entirely on who gets to
define the standard state, deviations from which must be proved harmless.
(Following was in response to request for information on naturally
occurring plant toxins in our food...CSP)

From: Dave Wood <113077.3244@compuserve.com>
Subject: Natural Plant toxins

Spina bifida in the newborn is given as `a possible consequence of
ingesting too much solanine' by mothers eating traditional Solanum
vegetables (Schippers, R.R. 2000 African Indigenous Vegetables: an
Overview of the Cultivated Species. Natural Resources Institute,
University of Greenwich, p. 175.). There are many Solanum species (with
solanine and other nasty alkaloids) used throughout Africa for their
edible leaves and fruits. They are tricky to identify and to prepare.
Other symptoms include vomiting, diarrhoea, and delirium leading to coma
and death. When symptoms are recognized in time, people switch to other
vegetables to detoxify themselves.

I don't have the sorghum reference to hand - I'll try to get it, but it
was in the nature of folk wisdom in a sorghum programme I once worked
with. Sorghum is a major target for birds (Quelea) in drier areas of
Africa. Birds don't like eating the red, bitter soghum (probably tannin)
but this can't be used as a deterent as it causes digestive problems in
humans, and eventually cancer (although I think it can be used for beer).
The sorghum people at Texas A & M may know. And doesn't chillie pepper
cause gastric cancer?

There are dozens of traditional crops that are toxic unless treated, or if
taken in quantity. For example, toxicity is a major feature of crops
originating in S. America - including potatoes, Lima beans, common bean,
quinoa and bitter cassava. Problems start when they are moved away from
their traditional areas, and the indigenous processing knowledge is lost
in transit. In CIAT we were putting a heat-labile insect toxin in common
bean from a wild relative to protect against bruchids, by conventional
breeding, when somebody pointed out that African kids liked to eat raw
beans (chick pea and faba bean) which is never done in Latin America as
raw beans are dangerous: Africans would have killed themselves eating the
CIAT bean raw, so the programme was stopped. One classic is the akee
(Blighia sapida - a fruit tree named after Captain Bligh of the Bounty and
a big delicacy in the Caribbean). Unless really ripe it is a killer (for
example, it killed Wilson Popenoe's wife in Honduras, and he was a skilled
botanist). You mention lathyrism from the vetch-pea in India: many other
pulses are sub-toxic.

A major reference is D'Mellor et al. (1991) Toxic Substances in Crop
Plants. Royal Society of Chemistry, London: the title alone says it all.
Norman Simmonds in his Principles of Crop Improvement (1st Edn.) p. 15
notes the loss of toxicity during domestication in lots of species,
especially roots and tubers (but there is still a lot left and potato and
bean breeders check before releasing varieties). Most of these anti-GM
activists are supermarket shoppers, with no idea of what food is like in
the real world.

It seems that a lot of the aversion to GM crops is intellectually the same
as the aversion to inorganic fertilizers at the time of the founding of
the Soil Association in the late thirties (there's an account of this in
the Agricultural History Review sometime in 1999). This was politely
called neovitalism (and less politely, `muck and magic') - the belief that
there was a vital principle in plants which came from the `natural' soil,
and which promoted plant health, and in turn, human health. It couldn't be
proved, but that didn't matter. Now we have the argument that GM crops are
unhealthy - can't be proved, but so what! The parallels are close.

One factor that has not been considered by the `zero tolerance' demands
for GM free crops in Europe is `contaminated' pollen blowing over from
North America. There must be billions of grains of GM maize pollen
crossing the Atlantic weekly (but it may lose viability before it lands on
this side). So much for quarantine and separation distances.

My regards,

From: Steven Milloy

For what really happened to DDT, check out

Steve Milloiy

From: "J. Bishop Grewell"
Subject: Labeling Suggestion

As one main concern with mandatory labeling seems to be that the labels
will imply that GMO's are bad (beyond any concerns over the costs of
labeling), perhaps companies should consider a pre-emptive strike on the
labeling game. By this I mean voluntary labeling in a positive way. I
would suggest something along the lines of a food label reading,
"Genetically modified to improve quality and to protect the environment."
Again, I don't know what the costs of labeling might add to the product,
but it will be a lot harder for anti-GMO groups to call for mandatory
labeling if voluntary labeling is already out there. And under the
voluntary program, GMO supporters will get to determine the wording. Going
on the offensive and stealing the high ground back from anti-GMO groups
and individuals is key. It will also shift the burden of proof. Groups
like Greenpeace will then have to prove that GMOs are harmful to the
environment instead of pro-GMO people having to prove that they are safe.

My two cents,

J. Bishop Grewell
J. Bishop Grewell PERC
Research Associate 502 South 19th Avenue, Suite 211 grewell@perc.org
Bozeman, MT 59718
Tele: (406) 587-9591 FAX: (406) 586-7555

"Montana seems to me to be what a small boy would think Texas is like from
hearing Texans." - John Steinbeck
Travels with Charlie
A. Thomson
Chicago Tribune July 27 2000

The recent debate over biotechnology foods is a luxury well-fed people of
the industrialized world can afford. But in developing nations, where the
population is soaring while the supply of farmland shrinks, people are
grappling with a much thornier--and higher-stakes--dilemma. Unless they
can grow more food on less land they will starve. Biotechnology is helping
to resolve that quandary by making it possible to grow more and healthier
food in conditions and places where it could not be grown before.
Biotechnology crops are safe and nutritious and offer perhaps the only
hope for producing enough food for a growing world population.

According to a recent UN report, 800 million people worldwide are already
chronically undernourished and there is every reason to believe that
problem will grow worse. As farmers in developing nations clear-cut more
land and consume more natural resources to grow the food their mounting
populations need to survive, the world faces an environmental tragedy in
addition to a human one.
Innovations in biotechnology could transform that picture, making it
possible to feed a growing population while reducing the environmental
strain of agriculture. Some of the most important innovations are plants
that draw nutrients from the soil more efficiently. As a result, they are
able to grow in the poor conditions--such as drought, changing weather
patterns and depleted soil. Many can grow year-round regardless of the
season, potentially relieving food shortages in tropical areas. Food
biotechnology, for example, is already boosting production of legumes, a
major dietary staple in the Philippines, Sri Lanka and India. Projections
say biotechnology could boost food productivity in the developing world by
25 percent, feeding more people while consuming fewer natural resources.

Biotechnology could also reduce crop losses to pests and disease, an
especially welcome innovation in developing regions like Africa, which
lost 60 percent of the 1998 cassava crop--the region's largest source of
calories--to the mosaic virus. The European corn borer destroys nearly a
third of the world's corn crop every year. But biotechnology crops can be
produced with genetic characteristics that enable them to resist pests and
disease, improving crop yields while reducing the need for chemical
sprays. Biotechnology corn, which is already widely used in the United
States, produces its own insecticide. Research is under way on
virus-resistant strains of sweet potatoes and other crops. And
biotechnology can also retard spoilage by allowing foods to ripen more
slowly, a potentially life-saving innovation in developing nations that
lack refrigeration.

Biotechnology also could alleviate the epidemic of malnutrition by making
crops that are already dietary staples more nutritious. "Golden rice," for
example, has been produced through biotechnology to deliver higher doses
of beta-carotene, the protein the body needs to make Vitamin A.Researchers
are even on the verge of developing a banana that would deliver the
vaccine against Hepatitis B, replacing costly, often inaccessible
inoculations with a locally grown, inexpensive piece of fruit. Each of
those life-saving innovations could soon transform life in the developing
world, where hunger and malnutrition are spreading fast and taking a
tragic--and needless--toll.
Jennifer A. Thomson heads the department of microbiology at the University
of Cape Town