Prize winner defends biotech crops
She supports genetic engineering of plant genes to get seeds to display
By JERRY PERKINS
Des Moines Register
The controversial practice of gene splicing could have significantly
shortened the 30 years it took Evangelina Villegas and a partner to
develop a special variety of high-protein corn, according to Villegas, who
will receive the World Food Prize today for her work.
Villegas spoke Wednesday at a gathering of nine former World Food Prize
laureates and Iowa native Norman Borlaug, who won the 1970 Nobel Peace
prize for his work developing high-yielding varieties of wheat.
During a question-and-answer period she defended genetic engineering of
plants in which scientists manipulate plant genes to get seeds to display
Borlaug founded the World Food Prize, sponsored by Des Moines businessman
Villegas and Surinder Vasal will receive the 2000 World Food Prize at 6
p.m. today at the state Capitol.
Villegas, a biochemist, and Vasal, a plant geneticist, teamed up to
develop a high-protein variety of corn known as Quality Protein Maize. It
contains about 90 percent of the protein value found in skim milk and
twice the protein found in conventional corn varieties.
The corn's yield equals conventional corn and it has processing qualities
that make it palatable to hundreds of millions of people in the world who
eat corn as a dietary staple.
Villegas, 75, and Vasal, 62, worked for three decades to develop Quality
Protein Maize at the International Center for the Improvement of Corn and
Wheat in Mexico.
If today's more advanced technologies had been available to her and Vasal,
"We could have gone faster than we could go," Villegas said. "We didn't
have the opportunity to use biotechnology and accelerate our research."
Borlaug said Villegas" and Vasal's work also was interrupted for more than
a decade by a cutback in their research funding."It was lying there,
half-dead, for 12 years," said Borlaug.
Borlaug said biotechnology would have shortened the number of years needed
to develop Quality Protein Maize, "but it's difficult to say by how much."
In the early 1970s, Villegas and Vasal began work on a mutant corn known
as opaque-2, which had been developed at Purdue University in 1963, but
whose existence had been discovered as early as the 1920s.
Although its kernels contained more and better-quality protein, opaque-2
had lower yields and softer kernels that invited rot and fungus and led to
By the time Vasal and Villegas had developed high-yielding Quality Protein
Maize varieties. Vasal, a native of India, said only two programs were
funding the research.
Nevin Scrimshaw, World Food Prize laureate in 1991 for developing
low-cost, protein-rich foods, said funding organizations shifted their
emphasis on what kind of nutritional assistance was needed to combat world
hunger. That led to the cut-back in funding for high-protein corn
research."It took tremendous spirit on the part of the laureates (Villegas
and Vasal) and on the part of Norman Borlaug to keep alive" Quality
Protein Maize, Scrimshaw said.
Villegas said her fellow scientists inspired her to keep working on the
project."When you see what can be done with science (to help solve) the
problems of the world, you realize you can have something to do with the
future," she said.
The World Food Prize is given to those who have improved the quantity,
quality and availability of food.
It was founded by Borlaug in 1986 and endowed by Ruan, who assumed
sponsorship in 1990 and donated $10 million to permanently endow the prize
From: Roger Morton
Subject: Bt and Anthrax
David Harry writes regarding the links between Bt
and Anthrax and asks.
>I don't see more discussion of these issues. (There was also something
recently in Science if I recall). Why not? Have these suggestions been
These ideas have not been debunked. I think it is that it is just that the
sort of scenarios that are talked about are quite unlikely to happen so
that people that are really concerned about health issues do not take them
seriously because there are more important questions to think about.
If you had to weigh up the risks though of gene transfer from Bt sprays to
anthrax or the risk of transfer of gene from plants to bacteria the former
would be massively larger than the latter simply because gene transfer
between bacteria is so common and happens at high frequency - plasmids
have evolved to do exactly this - transfer between bacteria.
So what does it mean that people are ignoring one risk and concentrating
on another that is obviously much lower?
What I think it means is that activists have no real interest in safety at
all. They are just interested in bashing the big guys of industry for
whatever reason. Or they are actually stooges of the organic food industry
interested in bashing conventional food so they can sell more of their own
over priced stuff.
I call on organic farmers to put their money where their precautionary
principle is and join me in a call for a ban on the use of Bacillus
thuringeinesis insecticide sprays. ;-) As an alternative these farmers can
move to use the safe alternative - Bt crops. The Bt crops have zero risk
of becoming a deadly disease.
The absence of scientific certainty is not an excuse for the baning of a
practice that might have negative consequences. ;-)
Opinons expressed in this posting are personal and do not reflect the
position of my employer
Subj: A modest proposal
From: "Gordon Couger"
Instead of fighting the anti GM group give the what they want. Develop GM
free products and run the system like the organic folks run theirs. Only
in the GMO free label we can prove that it is what it says it is.
This way the farmer and processor make the money on the GM free label.
There are no ships turned back because of disallowed GM grain shows up in
the load. If the want GM free they buy it.
It would require total segregation from farm to customer but that is not
too difficult using containers to handle the grain. A device to haul a
container would not be difficult to build for farm operation. It could be
pulled behind a truck or tractor to shipping points.
It would be more expensive for processed product because the facility
would have to be dedicated to processing not GM products.
If we want to test the waters I suggest starting with cotton because we
already have system to trace the product from producer to user and with
modules we can clean out the gin and put the first 50 or so bales in GM
channels and sell the rest as GM free cotton.
There would have to be testing for GM genes all the way.
Play the dirtiest trick in the book on the protester give them what they
want and turn a profit on it.
Then when some one complains all we have to say is if you want non GMO it
costs $xx.xx per cwt.
At the same time I think we should be spot checking organic products for
GM crops and pesticides not cleared for organic production. We need to
hold their feet to the fire. There is no way organic or any other method
of production can grow at the rate that EU markets claim they will be
selling it. If there was ever an opertunity for fraud in the distribution
chain organic produce is the best chance of the next decade if the damand
numbers come close to predictions.
Most organic farmers are doing the best they can to raise crops that meet
the standard. But a processor that is out of organic celery and has an
over supply of nonorganic celery is going to be under a lot of pressure to
fill the organic order wiht the non organic product as long as there is no
testing of organic products.
I think when they have to put their money where their mouth is you will
find a lot more acceptence of food on price and lot less retoric on the
ethics of food production. There a group of people that will pay more for
organic and non GM products. I think this is a very small group and as
soon as there is a little over supply of these products and they sit
rotting on the shelf the retailers scramble for these products will
Gordon Couger email@example.com
Retired Farmer www.couger.com/gcouger
Subj: Re: AGBIOVIEW: Dubious Claims
From: "Bob MacGregor"
I remember reading that the application for approval to begin kiwi fruit
production in the US ran to both sides of an 8.5x11 in page whereas the
flavr savr tomato application ran to 6 feet of shelf space. Odd when one
considers that kiwi are related to gooseberries, to which many people are
allergic. I haven't seen warning labels on grapefruit juice, even though
it is well know to have a potentially dangerous potentiating effect on
many drug preparations (ie, it tends to result in overdose responses by
increasing the absorbtion of certain drugs beyond the medically-expected
absorbtion rate). In addition to the free ride from testing on many
so-called "herbal remedies", we fail to appreciate (much less test for)
the potential harmful effect of naturally-occuring pesticides, while
ASSUMING that the synthetic ones are worse (Ames' work suggests that, at
least for mutagenici ty/carcinogenicity, this is not the case). The
argument is that humans evolved with the natural chemicals, and are,
therefore, adapted to them; I wonder when was the last time that my
European ancestors were exposed (in their evolutionary history) to traces
of neem oil or kiwi or lichi nuts-- or any of thousands of "exotic" food
items from Asia, Africa, and, especially, South America (think of tomato,
potato, maize, amaranth, etc.).
The blind presumption that anything "natural" is inherently good and
anything man-made is inherently risky/unhealthy/hazardous, is a dangerous
one. As it is now, we can usually have a lot more confidence in our
understanding of the characteristics of commercial transgenic crops,
synthetic pesticides, and commercial, prescription drugs than we can in
conventionally-bred crops, "natural" pesticides and folk/herbal remedies.
>>From: Ray and June Shillito 20
Subject: dubious health claims
Remember how St. John's Wort was unleashed on the public, touted for it's
so-called health benefits, and without any testing. There are numerous
reports now of its interaction with various drugs, which can cause serious
Ray Shillito, Aventis CropScience
Subj: Response to Benbrook (was: Responses to Apel, Dubious Claims, etc)
From: "Wilson, Dale"
>The Stoessel piece has now assured that there will be more testing and
more direct comparisons of residues in organic versus conventional food.
The Averys have put the e.coli issue on the national radar screen; it will
not go away, and yes, there will eventually be testing and data to better
inform this important debate.
I don't think there is a groundswell of interest in these subjects among
the public. This is more a matter of ideologues taking potshots.
>Soon we will be publishing the results of the analysis, and then the
debate can move on. Those who believe all pesticide residues found in food
-- of any origin -- are safe will, of course, dismiss the clear
differences as not meaningful. Those that would prefer residues in a
smaller portion of their food, and on average lower residues, may be
attracted to seek out organic fruits and veggies.
The most important technical issues are not about minute relative levels
of pesticide residues, but about the toxicology, the practical importance
of the residues. This has been a continuing large effort. I did a quick
search in Bioabstracts on "pesticide x toxic*" and got over 12,000 papers
published since 1980. I think this is where the action is, and the
relevant debates have long been taking place in the scientific community.
If the public wants to become informed, they need to become more familiar
with the toxicological issues. Surveys showing that some apples have 1 ppb
of Guthion, while others do not, don't really shed much practical light,
but tend to provide support (and ammunition) for positions already
established on the bases of esthetics and ideology.
>We need to study how all production systems and food processing
technologies impact levels/frequency, and get away from the tit-for-tat
nature of this dialogue.
I agree. But the biggest problem in designing research is asking the right
questions, studying something important. The impact of production systems
on meaninglessly small levels of pesticide residues is probably not
important. In all this, the scientific community must be guided into
practical areas by epidemiological evidence. This tends to point toward
studies of food microbiology, both pre and post-harvest.
>Are we approaching a point where it is simply too risky for anyone to
test and discuss publicly the results of microbiological testing in foods?
Only if you do science by press release. There are appropriate public
fora, professional scientific associations, that are less politicized,
where such results are routinely discussed and winnowed.
>Time to move the debate forward and find out what the genetic and
biological factors/interactions are on farms, and farming systems that
just work well, regardless of what they are called.
My impression is that the scientific community has pretty much already
done this. I just did a little search in Agricola for papers on biological
pest control published since 1998 as an example. There are over 2800
>And when better methods are found, society needs a chance to express its
opinion whether any additional cost is "worth it."
Society does express it's opinion, in the market. This is why we sell RR
beans and Bt corn.
>If this transition in the debate does not occur, we will spend the next
several years with competing studies...
Agricultural scientists are not particularly interested in competing with
or even communicating with environmental activists. They are too busy in
field and lab. It is the activists who need to tone down the political
rhetoric and contribute to meaningful biological debate.
Future of Our Food and Farms Summit
The Future of our Food and Farms Summit will be held Nov. 30-Dec. 1 at the
Hilton in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. This year's theme is "New
Connections: Creating Partnerships in Farming and Food Distribution in the
Mid-Atlantic Region." You'll want to attend if you are involved in
farming, food distribution or hunger prevention efforts in the Middle
Guest speakers include Dennis Avery of the Center for Global Food Issues
and Rebecca J. Goldburg of Environmental Defense who will be discussing
genetically modified organisms (GMO's) -- as well as John Ikerd, Ph.D., of
the University of Missouri who will talk about "Reconnecting People
through Food and Farming". Special sessions on youth in agriculture
and.......the premier of a community food security documentary.
For more information:
The Future of Our Food and Farms
firstname.lastname@example.org or FAX 215 568 0882 or call Meredith Stone 215
568-0830 Ext. 10 ------- +=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+