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August 24, 2000


Help?, Organics, Biotech foods


I need your help: I would like to start a project of plant genetic
transformation using gene "at low environmental impact". Does some of
you have suggestions, comments, bibliography, help etc...?!
best greetings, Lucia Martinelli

Is Food Safe Just Because It's Organic?

New York Times
August 12, 2000

In a column last week criticizing the press for alarmist coverage of
pesticides, I referred to a danger of organic food. Environmentalists and
organic farmers havenow criticized that allusion as alarmist. As a
devout opponent of bogus food scares, I owe the critics a hearing.

I wrote that scientists believe that there is a greater risk of bacterial
contamination in organic produce because it is grown with manure. I based
this on a couple of simple facts: organic farmers commonly use fertilizer
made from animal waste instead of synthetic chemicals, and there can be
dangerous bacteria in
animal waste.

Organic farmers compost the manure to kill the bacteria, but the procedure
is not always followed properly, especially by uncertified farmers. With
scientists concerned about a virulent new form of E. coli, federal
officials are drawing up new standards for organic food.

Clearly, then, there is some risk. But how great is it? Organic farmers
and environmentalists complained, correctly, that there is no body of
scientific evidence quantifying the relative risks. ABC's "20-20" this
year reported finding higher concentrations of bacteria on organic produce
than on conventional produce, but that was apparently the first such
comparison, and it was not a formal scientific study.

"There has been remarkably little research done on this topic, and that
bothers me," said Dean Cliver, a professor of food safety at the
University of California at Davis. "We know that animals are shedding
bacteria that can make people sick if the manure hasn't been treated
properly. Personally, if I knew something was grown with conventional
chemical fertilizers, I would feel it was extra safe. But we don't have
any data to show that organic food is more or less safe."

Dennis T. Avery, director of global food issues for the Hudson Institute,
a conservative research group, looked at outbreaks of foodborne illness
traced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1996 and
concluded that organic produce caused a disproportionate amount of illness
considering its small share of the market. But that was his conclusion,
not the C.D.C.'s, which says that it has not studied the question.

"We really don't have much information at all," said Dr. Robert Tauxe,
chief of the centers' Foodborne and Diarrheal Diseases branch. One
complicating factor, he noted, is that some conventional farmers also use
manure in fertilizer. Conventional farmers are presumably less likely to
use animal waste, since they're the ones who buy chemical fertilizer, but
precise statistics seem hard to come by.

"The big question is how to properly compost manure, which scientists are
still working on," Dr. Tauxe said. "But our concern applies to both
organic and conventional farms."G IVEN all the uncertainties, what should
a consumer conclude? I asked one of the critics of last week's column, Ken
Cook, the president of the Environmental Working Group, which supports
consumption of organic food. "In the absence of data, I would assume that
organic is just as safe from bacterial contamination as conventional
produce is," Mr. Cook said. "But we need to do some research to make sure
that this is the case."

It's sensible not to jump to conclusions, but why not apply this standard
to the evidence on pesticides, too? Environmentalists routinely advise
people to buy organic food and issue estimates on how many Americans are
being poisoned by tiny amounts of pesticides. Yet the only victims that
can be reliably identified are rodents that were fed enormous doses.

Scientists use rodent experiments to rank the potential danger of
chemicals, but they don't pretend to know exactly how many humans, if any,
are actually hurt by small amounts of pesticides.

Noting the tiny levels of most synthetic chemicals in the food supply, a
panel of the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of
Sciences, concluded in 1996 that for humans the chemicals are "unlikely to
pose an appreciable cancer risk."

Meanwhile, there's no doubt about the dangers of bacteria. When the C.D.C.
estimated the annual toll from bacterial foodborne illness -- 1,500 dead,
4 million sick -- it relied not on extrapolations from rodents but on
interviews, hospital records and death certificates.

Scientists can name Americans poisoned by organic lettuce. They may not
have the data to know if the organic variety is riskier than conventional
lettuce, but they know it's foolish to assume that natural is better. E.
coli are natural, too.

Full of Manure: You say you want a totally organic world?

August 24, 2000
Houston Press
By George Alexander

Just this past August 11, the mighty American Broadcasting Corporation,
via its employee John Stossel, issued an apology to all viewers of ABC's
investigative journalism program 20/20, for a story he had
anchored in February that had been rerun in July. The organizations that
he cited as having caused him to indulge in a public self-criticism
session of his story were not the usual pressure group suspects who can
bully huge media operations such as ABC. He was not apologizing for
offending the sensibilities of the Israel lobby or even the National Rifle
Association. The new 900-pound gorilla on the block was -- The Organic
Trade Association. Backing it in a one-two combination was an obscure
Washington, D.C.-based
organization called the Environmental Working Group.

Stossel begins his mea culpa by stating, "I said, in essence, why buy it
when it costs so much more? I interviewed a critic who questioned some of
the widely assumed advantages of organic produce: that it's more
nutritious or safer."

A reasonable question. Stossel then went on to submit some organic produce
to testing. The pressure groups took issue with some fine points of the
test procedure. Then he apologized for not revealing some data he had
researched on chicken -- the report was on produce, not meats.
(Incidentally, how did the Organisation Polizei find out what had been
left out?) Finally, he had stated that no pesticides were found on either
the organic or the conventionally grown produce. This was the final nail
in his and ABC's coffin: It was discovered that the laboratory Stossel's
group had hired had never done a test for pesticides.

Maybe Stossel should have stayed out of the supermarket and come down to
Houston for a videotaped chat with the University of Houston's Dr. Thomas
R. DeGregori. A professor of economics, DeGregori wrote an article for the
publication of the American Council on Science and Health. It is titled
"Can Organic Agriculture Feed the World?" And it entirely sidesteps issues
such as how many disease-causing microorganisms can dance the Macarena on
the head of a radish or whether taking a bite out of a conventionally
grown apple will cause you to keel over like an animated cockroach in a
Raid commercial.

He correctly identifies the organic-produce industry as being, at its
core, a sort of agricultural Luddite movement. The Luddites, to be fair,
were working-class craftspeople who saw mechanized textile-making as a
threat to their livelihoods, which it most certainly was. Modern Luddites
tend to be professional people who don't want to live in a thatched hut,
but think others should be encouraged to do so. DeGregori writes, "
"Sustainability' has become a major buzzword for the nineties and may
remain so into the next century. Few people would oppose sustainable
techniques -- ways of using a particular resource (e.g., agricultural) so
that the resource is not depleted or irrevocably damaged. Virtually no one
would approve unsustainable techniques -- methods that endanger human
survival, as by lowering food production."

Thus, the appropriate question is not whether sustaining resources is
desirable, but which purported sustainable techniques work.

In agriculture, the intellectual position on sustainability is too often
romantic and antitechnological. "Back to nature" enthusiasts who favor
so-called organic agriculture -- farming supposedly without the use of
manufactured fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics or pesticides --
represent an extreme of this position. Organic food buffs have corrupted
and greatly diluted the meaning of the word "organic," which for more than
a century in organic chemistry has meant "containing or consisting of
carbon compounds." All artificial pesticides are organic.

What would a, like, you know, totally organic world look like? DeGregori
explains dryly, "Organic agriculture started off on the wrong foot. As
applied to this mode of farming, the term "organic'
originally meant "without the use of artificial (synthetic or inorganic)
fertilizer.' However, bacteria must decompose organic (plant or animal)
material before plants can absorb its inorganic components.
Plants absorb and use inorganic substances from animal manure and other
organic matter exactly as they do the same inorganic substances that
constitute artificial fertilizers.Although animal manure is generally
considered better for soil structure, it may have a high content of salts,
and it may harbor toxic chemicals, viruses, harmful bacteria, insects,
worms or other pests."

The professor then makes a second, perhaps more important point, which we
could boil down to this: There's not enough cow flop to go around.
DeGregori continues: "And farmers must use manure in
relatively large amounts, since it always contains less nitrogen than
artificial fertilizers.So even if manure were the better fertilizer, the
quantities of manure necessary to provide plants with enough nitrogen
severely limit its usefulness in feeding the world's population:
Transportation costs would be prohibitive. And replacing
artificial-fertilizer nitrogen -- which now provides more than twice as
much nitrogen for agriculture worldwide than manure provides -- with the
nitrogen in manure would require a three- to four-fold increase in world
animal production and concomitant increases in feed production.

"The environmental costs of cultivating more land for feed, converting
more land to pasture and hauling several billion tons of manure would far
exceed the environmental costs of manufacturing and transporting
artificial fertilizer."

And we won't even get into the greenhouse gases generated by all those
extra cows…

Enviro's anti-biofood stance is puzzling since crops need far less

Guestchoice network
By John K. Carlisle

Environmentalists frequently urge industry to adopt "Clean Technologies"
that reduce pollution and promote conservation. Why is it, then, that
those same environmentalists advocate a ban on agricultural biotechnology
that significantly reduces the use of potentially harmful pesticides,
decreases soil erosion by up to 98 percent and helps prevent the
destruction of ecologically important rainforests?

Their opposition makes no sense. Indeed, environmentalists should be
stumbling over themselves advocating the rapid development of this amazing
new technology. Agricultural biotechnology is a technology in which
scientists employ genetic engineering to create, improve or modify plants
and animals.

Under traditional crossbreeding methods, which farmers have been doing for
thousands of years, it would take 10-12 years to develop hybrid plants and

Agricultural biotechnology enables scientists to transfer the desired gene
traits much more efficiently and quickly.

Environmental activists claim that genetically enhanced crops are poorly
regulated and pose a dangerous threat to public safety. However, these
arguments are without merit.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture
and the Environmental Protection Agency require all genetically enhanced
products to go through a rigorous regulatory review. It takes a company
about eight to 10 years to bring a genetically enhanced product from the
laboratory to the

In addition to U.S. regulatory agencies, leading national and
international organizations have endorsed the safety of genetically
enhanced food, including the American Medical Association and the World
Health Organization.

Already, biotechnology has yielded many benefits. Strains of corn, cotton,
potatoes, rice, squash and papaya have been "vaccinated" with genes that
make them resistant to a variety of crop-destroying viruses.

The benefits of such plants are twofold. First, disease-resistant crops
mean that farmers can significantly increase the levels of their harvests.
So much so that it is estimated that food biotechnology could meet up to
25 percent of the world's food needs in the next 50 years.

The other benefit is environmental. Because of the increased productivity
of genetically enhanced crops, farmers will only have to plant on one or
two acres of land to ensure a one-acre harvest _ in contrast to the five
acres they must plant using conventional crops.

Farmers in developing countries will no longer have to clear as much
tropical rainforests for farmland to increase their yields.

Another environmental benefit is that farmers have dramatically reduced
their reliance on pesticides and herbicides. In 1996 corn farmers used 1.5
million fewer pounds of insecticide to fight the European corn borer
thanks to "genetically vaccinated" corn plants.

Yet another environmental plus is that farmers can preserve valuable
topsoil because they would no longer have to plow under harmful weeds
before and after harvesting or planting. Estimates of the topsoil that can
be saved by no-till farming range from 70-98 percent.

But environmentalists insist that agriculture biotechnology is a genetic
apocalypse waiting to happen. They derisively call disease-resistant corn
and vitamin-enhanced tomatoes "Frankenfoods" that could unleash some sort
of nightmarish genetic domino effect with dire ramifications for human
health and the ecosystem.

However, they never offer credible scientific evidence for their dramatic
claims. Dr. Norman Borlaug, the Nobel prize-winning scientist who is
considered the Father of the Green Revolution accuses the environmental
movement of playing upon peoples' fears for short-term political gain.

"You get a few extremists into the (environmental) movement and they stir
up controversy and confuse people for their own interests," says Borlaug.

Former President Jimmy Carter defends biotechnology saying: "Responsible
biotechnology is not the enemy; starvation is."

But the informed recommendations of Nobel Prize-winning scientists and
former presidents have no effect on environmentalists. Analyzing their
opposition to biotechnology, one gets the impression that it is not really
science that motivates many environmentalists but a bizarre brand of New
Age-like religion.

Dr. Mae Wan-Ho, one of the most vocal of the small number of scientists
who opposes biotechnology, condemned agricultural biotechnology as a
morally bankrupt product of a "reductionist-mechanistic science" that has
already "taken the poetry out of farming" by turning the farmer into a
tractor driver.

Taking aim not just at modern biotechnology but all of the farming
improvements made possible by science, Dr. Wan-Ho called for a "holistic
science" in which farming is once again an "emotional, aesthetic
experience produced with love and creativity."

While Dr. Wan-Ho may find something "aesthetic" in a farmer getting off
his tractor and breaking his back using discarded techniques, it is
doubtful that many farmers share her quixotic opinions.

Sadly, there is just no pleasing the environmental movement when it comes
to technological progress _ even if it means a world with less hungry
people and a better environment.

John K. Carlisle is the director of the Environmental Policy Task Force at
National Center for Public Policy Research. Readers may write him at:
777 N. Capitol NE, Suite 803, Washington, D.C. 20002.


Chicago Tribune
By Jack Kemp

In spite of an ill-considered, anti-progress publicity campaign from left
wing self-appointed consumer and environmental groups, the New Green
Revolution based on genetic engineering is alive and well. Mark Twain
himself might have gotten a chuckle from a new U.S. Department of
Agriculture report that shows farmers are sticking with biotechnology
despite claims that they would bail out under pressure from a
well-organized media campaign. It was Twain, you recall, who contacted
the media in 1897 to advise that, "The reports of my death are greatly

Just a few months ago anti-technology activists were crowing with delight,
thinking they had created enough hysteria to drive farmers away from
technologies that scientists believe have the utmost potential for meeting
global food demand, which could triple in just the next 40 to 50 years.

The air got let out of these activists' balloon June 30, when the USDA
announced that the amount of acreage planted with genetically engineered
crops was holding steady--69 million acres this year compared with 71
million acres last year. Farmers continue to use biotech seeds despite
pressure from activists and a severe slowdown in the farm economy.
According to the USDA's survey, 54 percent of soybeans, 61 percent of
cotton and 25 percent of corn grown in the U.S. is being produced from
biotech seeds.

Farmers were fully aware that activist pressure was shutting some doors
for biotech crops, including Frito-Lay, McDonald's, Whole Foods and others
who unfortunately decided to cave rather than fight. But they also
realized that the demand for so-called conventional crops was only a small
percentage of the overall U.S. production. The Archer-Daniels-Midland Co.,
for example, says that less than 5 percent of ADM's sales were to
customers who preferred non-biotech grain. Farmers also learned that while
a few companies were willing to pay a premium for non-biotech crops, the
premium they actually were willing to pay hardly made up for losing the
efficiency gains from biotechnology.

The National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy estimates that
farmers save an estimated $220 million annually in weed control costs by
switching to soybeans that withstand glyphosate (Roundup herbicide. And
cotton growers reduced their use of chemical insecticides by 2 million
pounds during the first year that insect-resistant cotton was on the
market. The reduction should be even greater as growers increased the
biotech cotton acreage from 55 percent in 1999 to 61 percent this year.
Equally important, there are major ecological benefits in cutting the use
of pesticides and herbicides this way.

Corn acreage planted with bioengineered seeds did drop significantly in
2000, about 20 million acres versus 25 million last year, but that's
because farmers were told the European corn borer population, the main
pest targeted by biotech corn, would be light this year.

Meanwhile, the scientific consensus continues to build in favor of
biotechnology. The National Academy of Sciences, joined by six other
academies from around the world (Royal Society of London, Third World
Academy of Sciences and national academies of Brazil, China, India and
Mexico) recently issued a report declaring that biotechnology "should be
used to increase the production of main food staples, improve the
efficiency of production, reduce the environmental impact of agriculture
and provide access to food for small-scale farmers." The Food and
Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health
Organization also issued a joint report approving the method we use to
assess the safety of biotech crops.

Perhaps most important of all, eminent scientists are joining in huge
numbers to endorse a "Petition in Support of Biotechnology." In July,
chemist Paul Boyer was the third Nobel Prize winner to sign the petition,
along with Nobel laureates Norman Borlaug and James Watson and more than
2,700 other highly regarded agriculture and health experts..

Even in Europe, where this new technology has encountered the most
aggressive opposition, there is some encouraging news. The European
Commission has agreed to pursue ways to restore public trust in their
approval procedures for biotech foods, although the European Union
unfortunately continues to pursue new regulatory options, such as labeling
requirements that mislead more than they inform the public.

While a few well-publicized voices continue to stir up unfounded fears,
science, technological innovation, and economic freedom will in the end
win the war for a Second Green Revolution that will save lives, meet the
demands of a growing and more affluent world population and combat disease
and environmental disruption as well. That's too powerful a combination
for ignorance to overcome.

Jack Kemp, the 1996 Republican nominee for vice president, is a
distinguished fellow with Competitive Enterprise Institute and a
co-director of Empower America.

Poisoned By A Word
BY Peter Huber
FORBESSeptember 4, 2000

THE VERY WORD "ENVIRONMENTAL" HAS BECOME hazardous to the public health.
How can a word kill? When South Africa's president recently seemed to
suggest that the HIV virus might not be the direct cause of AIDS, he left
vaguely defined "environmental" causes as the culprit. Such talk is
dangerous. It could give people the impression that they shouldn't bother
with the simple protections that stop this particular "environmental"
toxin from spreading. We shouldn't say that AIDS is caused by "the
environment" -- even though it literally is -- because ordinary people can
so easily misunderstand the message.

When we attribute a health hazard to "environmental" factors, we are
telling people they can't individually do much about it. A large Swedish
study written up recently in the New England Journal of Medicine concludes
that genetic factors account for "only" 20% to 40% of our risk of cancer;
so "environmental" factors must be responsible for the rest. The
Washington Post immediately translated that to mean "chemical pollutants,"
"occupational exposures" and "radiation." Yes, the Post did also give
"lifestyle" factors a passing mention, but moved on quickly to the need
for tighter regulation of workplace chemicals. We can't change our genes,
the logic ran, so let's get on with regulating environment.

What irresponsible claptrap. Lifestyle factors, most particularly tobacco,
food and sex, are by far the largest risk factors that medical types label
"environmental." But these factors have more to do with personal autonomy
than with either "environment" or "genes," at least in the sense that
ordinary people use those words. And lifestyles, unlike genes, can be
changed. Though not by government edict, at least not in a society that
calls itself free.

Playing down the importance of genetic factors is probably even more
hazardous to the public health. No, we can't change our genes -- but we
can anticipate, and fend off, the frailties embedded within them. Family
history for breast, prostate and colon cancer is one of the first things
any competent doctor asks you about at a checkup. If you have the history,
and you have any sense, you then submit to periodic body-part-ographies or
-oscopies, however undignified. I do. We can't yet snip genes, but we can
snip lumps and polyps, and to almost equally good effect when they're
caught early enough.

The perils of uttering the word "environmental" in public health discourse
are rising fast, because genetic science -- the not-environment
alternative -- is so quickly emerging as such a powerful predictive tool.
A complete decoding of "the" human genome is now imminent. The relentless
search for differences and deviations from that baseline is accelerating
apace. For an overview of the possibilities, read Matt Ridley's excellent
new book, Genome. By comparison, environmental science hasn't progressed
much beyond its toddling infancy, and it still produces more speculative
babble than serious science. Much of it brings to mind the genetic science
of a century ago, when experts in the field were measuring skull sizes
with calipers and correlating physiognomies with intelligence.

Yes, that history taught us that junk genetic science is socially
poisonous. But genetic science is now about as rigorous as science gets,
and day by day it reveals new links between health and the double helix.
It is the rapid decoding of those links that makes it so important to
relegate "environment" to its proper place in public-health analysis.
Which is to say, far below "genes" and "lifestyle." Our pagan ancestors
attributed everything to environment -- to trees, planets, stars and the
fickle deities within them. View the world that way, and you waste little
effort struggling to grow better crops or fight disease -- what's the use,
when all things are determined by distant forces far beyond your power to
change? Real progress begins when we discover -- and then accept -- that
many problems arise, or can be controlled, much closer to home.

Genes are as close as problems get. Our stunning new power to probe their
significance will improve human health as profoundly as did the
development of vaccines, antibiotics, pesticides and sanitary sewers in
centuries past. Which developments, by the way, remain the real keys to
eradicating the many serious "environmental" hazards that remain -- like
malaria, cholera and AIDS.