Home Page Link AgBioWorld Home Page
About AgBioWorld Donations Ag-Biotech News Declaration Supporting Agricultural Biotechnology Ag-biotech Info Experts on Agricultural Biotechnology Contact Links Subscribe to AgBioView Home Page

AgBioView Archives

A daily collection of news and commentaries on

Subscribe AgBioView Subscribe

Search AgBioWorld Search

AgBioView Archives





January 22, 2001


Response to Goldberg; Shaping our Ag Future; Hunger


Bob Goldberg's fiery rant against organic food demands a reply,
particularly as he has accused Whole Earth Foods, the company that I
founded in 1967, of being 'hypocritical' and of selling foods that are
higher in pathogens. I will try to be as brief as possible as I am aware
of your space limitations, but would like to address his points in the
order he makes them.

1. Hypocrisy. Organic businesses 'are quite hypocritical'. I first became
interested in sustainable farming as a 12 year old in my native Nebraska
when I saw the land scarred by soil erosion. When my uncle Floyd explained
to me about using feminising hormones in beef (this was 1960, so it was
still stilbestrol, finally prohibited in the 1970s) I became more
concerned. I started Whole Earth Foods in 1967 because a diet of organic
and natural foods had helped me to recover from a particularly bad case of
hepatitis that I contracted in India. To assume that all the people who
have dedicated their lives to organics are just cynical money-grubbing
hyprocrites is to fall into the same blinkered trap as that of anti-GM
campaigners who assume that all scientists are just hired liars who are
too afraid of losing research funding to tell the whole truth about what
they do.

2, Health. Organic foods do not routinely contain pesticide residues, many
of which have been banned in the past decade as evidence emerges of their
health risks. They also never contain the 7000 artificial additives
permitted for food use (a list also subject to many deletions in the past
few decades), they never contain hydrogenated fat, artificial sweeteners,
phosphoric acid or feminising growth hormones or growth promoting
antibiotics. There is no case in the UK of cattle bred and reared on an
organic farm developing BSE. (This is an important consideration for UK

3. Pathogens. There are no known cases of E.coli O157:H7 poisoning arising
from organic production practices. Alex Avery admitted his allegations
were statistically unsupportable on this website a few months ago. I am
quite happy to rehearse the arguments, but it could be embarassing for all
the scientists who repeated Avery's 'research' uncritically. (check the
archive). The CDC is clear - most of the up to 200 fatal E.coli O157:H7
poisoning cases every year arise from unhygienic slaughterhouse and meat
preparation practices, with slurry contamination of water a major
secondary factor. The FAO has stated that the risk of E. coli O157:H7 in
organic cattle is less than 1% of the risk in conventional feedlot raised
animals, due to the high proportion of forage (60% by dry weight minimum)
in their diets. There are no facts to support Prof. Goldberg's
'no-brainer.' Perhaps his description is more apt than he realises.

4. Pesticides: 48% of non-organic fruit and vegetables tested by MAFF in
1999 contained pesticide residues, as did 28% of all non organic processed
foods. MAFF have announced that they believe pesticide residue levels are
being underreported. Tests for pesticides only detect the original
pesticide and not its breakdown products, which can also be dangerous. The
Maximum Residue Level (MRL) of some pesticides has been progressively
reduced over the years while other pesticides, such as most recently,
Lindane and technazene, are being phased out. Nobody has properly
researched the 'cocktail effect' of consuming a wide variety of
pesticides, yet 86% of lettuces tested had up to seven different pesticide
residues. One recent study showed that 3 pesticides consumed together
produced harmful side effects equal to 100 times those of any of single
pesticide consumed on its own. Sir John Krebs recently announced that the
FSA will follow up this issue as a priority. Washing vegetables can help,
but most pesticides are designed to withstand heavy rainfall and are often
integral to the flesh of the plant or the fat of the animal.

5. Land - you recently reported on Jules Pretty's conference at St. James
Palace, which I attended. The evidence that yields truly do go up on small
scale sustainable farms is overwhelming. The direct benefit to local food
supplies is dramatic. This is not theoretical projection, this is hard
fact based on the study of actual cases covering 3% of the Third World
growing area. There is enough land for the world to feed itself

6. 'GM food is tested'. The tests on feeding GM tomatoes in 1992 were
sufficient to cause FDA scientists to object to the 'substantial
equivalence' idea, but they were overruled from the top down. Dr. Arpad
Puztai's research has been criticised, but nobody has sought to repeat it.
Feeding trials are the only way that we can fully satisfy public concern
about the little research that has been done, which indicates that
intestinal lesions are increased when GM food is consumed.

7 & 8 Bt insecticide and resistance. Organic farmers have been using Bt
for 30 years or so and some resistance has developed. They use it as an
occasional treatment, not as a routine spray. When Bt is engineered into
crops it is likely that insect resistance will develop more quickly. Prof.
Goldberg asks: 'Do we stop using antibiotics because bacterial strains
have become resistant?' Yes, we do. In the UK 10% of all people who are
hospitalised develop MRSA, and even Vancomycin, the 'last resort'
antibiotic, is becoming ineffective. In Japan they have closed and sealed
hospitals where MRSA has become ineradicable.

9 & 10 Pollen. Organic farmers livelihoods are threatened by
cross-pollination, though it's encouraging to know that Prof. Goldberg has
been working on suppressing the expression of GM traits in pollen for 15
years. Let's hope a breakthrough is imminent. By acknowledging that
reduced pesticide use is a 'good thing' Prof. Goldberg is coming closer to
the organic argument, which is that non-use of pesticides actually
improves soil health and fertility and also contributes to biodiversity in
the wider environment.

11. Nutrition. I find these arguments wearying, whatever their source.
Good nutrition comes from eating a balanced diet, not from choosing only
organic food or from eating the pathetically-enhanced-with-Vitamin A
'golden rice.' The colossal market failure of the Novartis functional food
line 'Aviva' shows that scientists and nutrition make poor bedfellows. It
is presumpuous and arrogant to regard humans as so many battery chickens
to be fed foods developed by people who are remote from the realities of
their lives.

12. There are hybrids and there are F1 hybrids. Farmers can plant hybrid
seed and get good results. F1 hybrids quickly lose their characteristics.
Organic farmers and gardeners understand this and decide accordingly. The
ignorance that Prof. Goldberg castigates is a creature of his own

13. 'We live in a market system.' Would that we did! If the market for
food had not been nationalised by the US and EU governments in the 1950s
then genetic engineering would probably not exist and a much higher
proportion of the land would be organic. Subsidies are an inefficient way
to keep down the price of food and mask the low productivity of so-called
'production agriculture'. In Russia, where the state has withdrawn support
for food production, it is now cheaper to import subsidised North American
wheat than to grow it. Unsubsidised farmers around the world have to
compete with inefficient North American and European producers who are
lavished with taxpayers funds and then use the WTO to force their
underpriced output onto free market economies.

Agribusiness (which includes agri-corporations, agrichemical manufacturers
and biotechnology companies) is an ungrateful dependent on free market
societies. Modern agriculture and biotechnology have nothing to do with a
'market system' and everything to do with the worst excesses of old style
Soviet agriculture, which also liked putting small producers out of
business and replacing them with giant agricultural enterprises that could
never survive without State subsidies. The US spent at least $79 bn last
year subsidising agriculture, the EU spend $50 bn, and this money goes
disproportionately to the largest farmers. Monsanto famously raised
billions on Wall Street and in subsidies to advance their miraculous
biotech breakthroughs and then what did they do with the money? They
bought up all the seed companies they could lay their hands on, thus
limiting farmers' choice of what seeds they would plant. This also ensured
a future for Roundup, on which the patent expired last year. Hardly the
high-tech investment that Wall Street thought it was backing, but simply a
crude effort to gain control of an existing distribution system.

14& 15. Allergies and toxins. All the scientific arguments for GM food
being safe can appear convincing. So why is there such a reluctance to
reproduce the results of the few feeding trials that have been performed?
If the scientists who got those results are as incompetent as they have
been accused of being, surely the answer is to reproduce those results.

16.and finally. Teosinte and wheat were not 'genetically engineered' by
man. This deliberate blurring of the language to make a point is
intellectually disingenuous. Gene splicing is not the same as breeding.
However, genomics could deliver many of the results of genetic engineering
by using conventional breeding techniques, backed by the awesome new
knowledge that we have about the genetic structure of plants. Organic
farmers have, through enhanced understanding of the science of farming,
achieved results that dwarf those of traditional farmers just 50 years
ago. Technology works for everybody. IBM never thought that Apple's
microcomputers would be more than a nerd's toy. They were wrong. Modern
technology, including genomics, can and will work in the service of
sustainable and organic agriculture.

Professor Goldberg is right, talk is cheap. More research is needed.
Happily, the organic food industry is growing at a rapid rate and, as more
multinationals enter the arena, investment in research will accelerate. At
the moment research priorities are distorted.

The US and EU govts have subsidised so much agribiotech and gene therapy
research that they have a political stake in its success, despite the
disappointing lack of results. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan both
eloquently described and practiced the withdrawal of the State from many
sectors of the economy, with tremendous benefits in productivity.
Agriculture is still waiting for the same treatment. Until it is
denationalised, worldwide, nobody can confidently make assertions about
what form it should take and, indeed, what systems will prevail.

Craig Sams President Whole Earth Foods Ltd.


Organic food sales disappoint Iceland reneges on organic

In spite of help by their highly paid organic consultant (and former
Greenpeace director) Lord Peter Melchett, Iceland Foods' profits dropped
due to their "misguided" organic campaign according to Iceland's CEO.
Iceland is now reneging on their pledge to "complete" conversion to
organic sales. Following a multi-year campaign attacking the safety of
conventional and biotechnology produced foods, Iceland was found guilty by
the U.K. Advertising Standards Board of false and misleading advertising
and marketing claims suggesting organic foods were better than
conventional and the false claim that biotech foods were somehow unsafe.



From: Andrew Apel
Subject: Ethics of PP


In an earlier post, Frederic Abraham wrote that the precautionary
principle . . . takes into account the distortion between the relativity
of our scientific knowledge and the necessity of decision making. While
that is a fair description, it does little to distinguish that principle
from the others he discusses. Abrahamís more remarkable claim is that the
foresight and the preventive principles do have an instrumental dimension
as it appears to be inherent to them. The precautionary principle doesn't

If the precautionary principle does not have an instrumental dimension,
i.e., does not help guide decision-making, then itís vacuous. Well,
perhaps not completely vacuous: on Abrahamís account, itís more of a guide
to how perceive risk: as he says, it ís an aknowledgement of the
uncertainty with a sense of the irreversible.

The other two principles he mentions also acknowledge uncertainty, so that
is scarcely a distinction. That leaves us, then, with the sense of the
irreversible as a distinguishing feature of the precautionary principle.
Taken in the context of Abrahamís discussion, and in the context of the
so-called 'debate' about biotechnology, this is quit possibly the most
salient feature of the precautionary principle.

The question then becomes: is the sense of the irreversible an important
part of decision-making in the face of less than perfect certainty? I
believe we have to admit that it is. Why? Because nothing is reversible;
time is a one-way street. Doing something as simple as going to the
grocery store has unknown consequences, none of them reversible. It is on
this very point that consequentialist theories of ethics often fail. Quite
simply, we can't know all the consequences of our acts. But we know, in
advance, that the results of our choices will be irreversible.

If the precautionary principle does not have an instrumental dimension,
then all it does, at best, is remind us that consequentialist moral theory
doesn't work perfectly. Abraham writes: While we lack scientific certainty
in the matter of the GM plants, we do know enough in genetic science that
if some alterations would occur, these would be irreversible. Alarming as
it sounds, it is, of course, true. However, it will always be true, just
as it is true of every choice made by a moral agent who is less than

Therefore, moral agents must (and can) do only one thing: act on the best
information available. Abraham says that world hunger is a challenge we
have to face actively. According to the best evidence available, genetic
engineering improves agricultural output while reducing its impact on the
environment. Given these facts, the right choice is obvious, and the
precautionary principle seems to offer no help in reaching it.


From: Roger Morton
Subject: Pusztai Responds

Pusztai wrote:

>I could, of course, say that Dr Morton should look at Tables 2 & 4 (I
> am sure he actually did) and then politely ask me why I thought that
> the real and significant differences in Tables 2 & 4 were not shown
> by the results of Table 3. Perhaps, I might have been able to
> enlighten him.

So you are saying that you get a significant effect on the cecum at 30%
inclusion of transgenic peas but not at 60% inclusion. Yes please enligten
me on why this might be so.

You are saying it is only safe to eat transgenic peas if you eat lots of
them not few of them? This is rather a strange recomendation.

>Why does Dr Morton think that "no detectable detrimental effect" is
>better than no detrimental effect, particularly if we may have
>detected detrimental effects?

Because you have not detected detrimental effects. You don't even discuss
the possibility that any of the observed effects might be detrimental. One
usually expects the title to reflect what is reported in the paper.

>On the final point, Dr Morton ought to ponder a little when he dares
>me to give him a plausible hypothesis to explain the results. I have
>to remind him why I was condemned by the scientific establishment in
>August 1998. It was, according to them, because I openly and without
>peer-review revealed experimental details of our GM potato work. Apart >
from tiny little details, such as the fact that I did no such thing, >it
just shows the hypocrisy of the whole system.

Why can't you answer the question Dr Pusztai? Is it because the only
plausible explaination is that the experiment was flawed and there was to
much random variation for there to be consistant results?

-- Roger L Morton

Opinons expressed in this posting are personal and do not reflect the
position of my employer


Shaping our Agricultural Future

M S Swaminathan (address to the Indian Science Congress, January 3-7,
2001; New Delhi)

Indian Agriculture at the Crossroads:

The first 60 years of the 20th century were marked by a sense of despair
and frustration regarding our capability to achieve a balance between
human numbers and the production of foodgrains and other agricultural
commodities. In 1968, this mood of despair and diffidence gave way to one
of optimism and self confidence in relation to our agricultural potential
and our farmers’ ability to adapt and adopt new technologies, a phenomenon
which was christened in that year as “Green Revolution”. This agricultural
transformation helped to strengthen our national sovereignty in foreign

Our agriculture is now at the crossroads. On the one hand, our national
capability in frontier areas of science and technology, as for example in
biotechnology, information, communication and space technologies, nuclear
and renewable energy technologies and in management science, has opened up
uncommon opportunities for achieving an evergreen revolution in most
farming systems based on knowledge and biological inputs rather than on
chemical and capital intensive production methods. An ever green
revolution is the pathway to sustainable advances in productivity per
units of land, water and time without associated ecological or social harm.

There are, on the other hand, both internal and external threats to our
agricultural progress. The most important among the internal threats in
the damage to the ecological foundations essential for sustained
agricultural advance, like land, water, forests and biodiversity. Prime
farm land is all the time going out of agriculture and ground water
depletion is proceeding at an alarming rate. The other major internal
weakness is the mismatch between production and post-harvest technologies
and between production and market demand, and the consequent need for the
Government of India to undertake “trade relief” operations like cyclone,
flood and drought relief.

The external threats include the unequal trade bargain inherent in the WTO
agreement of 1994, the rapid expansion of proprietary science and
potential adverse changes in temperature, precipitation, sea level and
ultraviolet B-radiation.

Facing the challenges

We can face the internal threats only through integrated attention to
regulation, education and social mobilization through Panchayati Raj
institutions. Also, there is need to restructure research strategies in a
manner that strategic, anticipatory and participatory (i.e. with farm
families) research all receive adequate attention. Similarly, extension
services should become farmer owned and controlled and should become
capable of converting generic into location specific knowledge essential
for taking to precision farming methods. The Rural Knowledge Centres
should provide computer aided and internet connected information services,
so that farm families have timely and relevant meteorological, management
and marketing information.

Another area which needs urgent attention is the restructuring of the
State Land Use Boards in a manner that they are in a position to offer
proactive advice to farm families on land use and cropping systems, based
on likely monsoon behaviour, ecological efficiency and trends in prices
and markets. Assured and remunerative marketing opportunities hold the key
to sustaining farmers’ interest in producing more. Our agriculture has
reached a stage when proactive advice to farm families on land and water
use planning based on an assessment of national and global market demand,
in terms of both quantity and quality, is vital for further progress.

At the national and state levels there is need for Technical Resource
Centres for Monsoon Management and Water Security. They should help to
train rural Climate Managers who can help to maximize the benefits of good
monsoons and minimize the adverse impact of unfavourable monsoons.

Global threats and opportunities:

The global threats to our agricultural destiny can be overcome only by
taking steps like the following:

- Ensuring that the Kyoto protocol relating to the Climate convertion is
implemented by USA and other industrialized nations both in letter and
spirit. - Adequate support is extended to public good research at the
national and international levels. - A “Livelihood box” is included in the
renegotiated World Trade Agreement, which will permit developing countries
to impose quantitative instructions on the import of agricultural
commodities, when such imports are likely to destroy livelihood
opportunities for resource poor farming families and landless agricultural
labour. The Livelihood Box may be necessary for 10 to 15 years, until
effective post-harvest infrastructure, facilities for scientific land and
water use planning, and effective agro-processing and agribusiness
enterprises are developed.

Agriculture, encompassing crop and animal husbandry, horticulture,
forestry and agro-forestry, inland and marine fisheries and
agro-processing, is the major determinant of the livelihood destiny of
nearly 700 million people of India. The methodology of “production by
masses” characteristic of Indian agriculture cannot easily compete with
products resulting from mass production technologies, until the power of
scale both at the production and marketing ends is conferred on small
scale production units, as has been done in the cooperative dairy sector.

Therefore, trade policies which impact on this destiny are of vital
concern to a majority of the rural population as well as to large numbers
of the urban poor. There is need for an integrated Trade Strategy, which
gives concurrent attention to home and external trade. Import policies
relating to farm commodities should be based on a careful assessment of
their impact on all those who depend upon agriculture for their livelihood
security. Government should bring out a White Paper on the World Trade
Agreement and Indian Agriculture giving information on.

a. What were the expectations on agricultural exports and imports when
India agreed to the World Trade Agreement in Agriculture in 1994? b. What
has been the experience of the last 6 years? c. What are the rationale and
international compulsions in relation to tariff rates with reference to
farm commodities? d. What is the stand Government plans to take in the
re-negotiation of the World Trade Agreement in agriculture and in the case
of Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS)?

Such a White Paper would help to dispel incorrect notions and misgivings,
wherever they exist, and reassure 70% of India’s population that their
livelihood options are not being mortgaged without adequate consultations
and consensus. In a democratic society, the citizen has the right to know
the facts and hence a White Paper on Agricultural Trade will be timely.

Governments’ macroeconomic policies are by and large oriented towards the
needs of big business and industry, who have powerful organizational
structures to represent them. There is an urgent need to voice the
voiceless through a National Federation of Agricultural Organizations.

A three-pronged strategy for Sustained Agricultural Progress

Immediately, action is needed to defend the gains we have already made, to
extend the gains to the areas which have been bypassed by the farm
revolution, particularly dry farming areas, and to make new gains through
sustainable intensification, market – based farming systems
diversification, and value addition to primary produce through
agro-processing and agri-business. The rice revolution, which began last
year in Assam, following the installation of over 1 lakh shallow like
wells, is evidence of the untapped potential existing in eastern India
even with the technologies on the shelf. The Assam achievement again
illustrates the need for agricultural strategies to be developed at the
local rather than at the national level. The whole of north Bihar, eastern
UP and Orissa and other regions which belong to the “green but no green
revolution” areas, are all waiting for an appropriately designed minor
irrigation stimulated agricultural revolution.

Demographic trends in India have two important implications for
agricultural research and development. First, more than 50% of the over 1
billion population belong to the age group 21 and below. Unless farming
becomes both intellectually stimulating through the pathway of IT–based
precision farming, and economically rewarding through value-addition to
primary produce, it will be difficult to attract or retain youth in
farming. The other demographic trend is increasing urbanization. Soon, 50%
of the population will be living in towns and cities. Urban agriculture
and urban green belts offer opportunities for jobs and income, as well as
for improving the urban environment and quality of life. Schools and
Colleges in urban areas can promote with the help of Agricultural
Universities and Institutions urban horticulture and green belt
development, which can help to promote symbiotic links between rural and
peri-urban farmers and urban consumers. Also they will help to generate
more non-farm jobs, which is an urgent need in rural areas.

Among the new gains we should make is anticipatory action to meet the
challenges of climate and market changes. An important adverse impact of
global climate change will be a rise in sea level. Fortunately,
anticipatory research to breed crop plants tolerant to sea water is in
progress. For example, scientists at the M S Swaminathan Research
Foundation have been able to transfer genes for sea water tolerance from
Mangrove tree species to annual crops. Another urgent need is to find
alternative cropping patterns in areas where tobacco is grown. Tobacco
smoking is injurious to health and hence tobacco will soon become a dying
crop, except for use in the preparation of pesticides. Prevention of
tobacco smoking and the protection of the livelihoods of tobacco farmers
through alternative land use should receive concurrent attention. Those
engaged in cigarette and bidi industries will also need alternative
livelihood opportunities. There will be increasing need for such
anticipatory research and action to ensure food and livelihood security.

The income and on-farm and off-farm employment potential of farming can be
improved only through integrated farming systems based on
crop-livestock-fish-trees combinations. Multiple livelihood opportunities
are essential both as an insurance mechanism and for a reasonable total
“take-home” income. India’s strength lies in a farming systems approach to
the use of natural resources. This is also the pathway to ecological
farming. Such research is best done in farmers fields through a
participatory approach. Conservation of bio-resources, particularly
medicinal plants and agro biodiversity in dry farming areas, and their
conversion into economic products through biotechnology will help to end
the situation where “a poor people inhabit a rich country”, to quote
Jawaharlal Nehru. Thanks to both democratic decentralization and
technological progress, there are now uncommon opportunities for
accelerated agricultural progress based on integrated natural resources

Agricultural progress will determine India’s economic and political
future. We can shape this future in a desirable direction though synergy
among technology, public policy and farmers’ cooperative action. If such a
synergy can be achieved, India can become the foremost among the nations
of the world in “Farm Power”. If our agricultural progress is halted or
reversed through inappropriate or inadequate public policies and research
priorities, social disintegration will be the result. The prosperity of
the virtual world and the misery of the real world cannot co-exist for


Hunger outweighs GM food fears

By SID MARRIS 22jan01

THE need to feed the world's starving was more important than worrying
about the vague risks of side-effects from genetically modified crops in
developing countries, according to a visiting agriculture expert.

In a speech in Canberra on Friday, International Food Policy Research
Institute (IFPRI) director-general Per Pinstrup-Andersen accused affluent
nations of engaging in "neo-colonialism" by trying to ban new food

He said the reaction against modified crops in advanced nations may stifle
the research urgently needed to help the 800 million people, mostly
subsistence farmers, who go to bed hungry every night. In a stinging
attack on his fellow Europeans, Danish-born Dr Pinstrup-Andersen said it
was wrong to tell nations such as Thailand they would lose all rice
imports if they developed any genetically modified crops.

Problems in affluent nations tended to be related to food and air quality
and ageing, while in developing countries higher production in a
sustainable environmental way was the priority, he said. Affluent nations
were prepared to put up with the risk of potential side-effects in new
medicines but would not allow others the choice for crops.

"Children are dying now because they do not have access to enough food and
that is primarily because the productivity of agriculture in developing
countries is so low," he said. "That is not a probability or a risk, that
is a fact. "If my children can't get fed with the current production
system I am more willing to take a risk with genetic engineering, just the
same as if my father is dying of Alzheimer's disease I am not going to
worry too much about the side-effects of the genetically modified pill."

Dr Pinstrup-Andersen, speaking at a luncheon sponsored by Agriculture
Fisheries and Forestry Australia, said it was vital to have proper
regulations in place in countries using the new technology. His comments
were endorsed by IFPRI chairman and former Australian agriculture
department secretary Geoff Miller, who warned of political opportunists
seizing on the uncertainty. "It is just this generation's confrontation
with scientific progress," he said.

"But there is a social trap in the geopolitical system that allows
politicians to take advantage of communities' anxiety and to misuse that
anxiety to create trade barriers. "And those trade barriers have high
costs, they have high costs for Australian farmers but they have much
higher costs for farmers in the third world."

Dr Pinstrup-Anderson said the concerns over mad cow disease and its
possible link to Creuzfeldt-Jacob disease were another sign of the need
for sensible debate. He said that CJD so far represented a "minor" health
issue but in terms of perceptions, consumers were fearful it would develop
into a new plague.


Embattled Bioengineers Out to Prove They're the Good Guys :
Scientific world split on biotech food

Tom Abate, San Francisco Chronicle January 22, 2001

There was an embattled air about the 50 or so academics who met at the
University of California at Davis last week for a conference on how to
deal with the growing controversy over bioengineered foods. "We've really
got the feeling some people think we're the bad guys," said Neal Van
Alfen, dean of agricultural and environmental sciences at Davis. It was
Van Alfen who organized the event that drew agricultural bioscientists
from as far as Cornell University in New York and the University of
Hawaii. The conference came after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
proposed two initiatives aimed at preventing bioengineered foods from
becoming the hot-button issue that has made such products so unpopular
with European consumers.

The FDA said henceforth it would require pre-market reviews of
bioengineered foods. The reviews used to be voluntary. The FDA also
proposed voluntary labeling guidelines that seem to be modeled after those
used on organic produce. It's up to organic farmers to label their goods,
since the FDA certifies the safety of crops grown with pesticides and
chemical fertilizers. The same logic would hold true with biotech crops.
Since the FDA has said there's no problem with splicing genes into foods,
the agency believes the best label would be one along the lines of saying,
"This product is not grown using biotechnology."

Although the FDA proposal amounted to an affirmation of their technology,
the scientists at the UC Davis conference remained uneasy. They complained
about the vandals who uproot their test crops and harass pro-biotech
speakers at public debates. They decried the attacks on their scientific
integrity. But some of the criticisms are tough to dismiss. Nature
Magazine, a leading scientific journal, wondered in a recent editorial
whether academic scientists haven't gotten too cozy with the biotech
industry. "Nowhere is this more so than on the West Coast of the United
States," Nature wrote, adding, "One third of all the world's biotechnology
companies were founded by faculty members of the University of California."

The editorial dealt with both medical and agricultural biotechnology. But
Nature singled out one agricultural biotech deal for criticism. Ever since
the Swiss firm Novartis made a 5-year, $25 million investment in plant
research at the University of California at Berkeley, some students and
faculty on the campus have protested the relationship, Nature said. Such a
deal gives academic scientists a black eye, said Michael Hansen, a
scientist with Consumer's Union, who was invited to bring a critical
perspective to the Davis event.

Hansen told the biotech scientists at the meeting that companies didn't
used to put strings on the money they contributed for agricultural
research. When they gave universities grants to do crop improvements, they
left it up to the professors to decide how to handle them. Hansen
suggested that instead of helping to design bioengineered foods,
university scientists should be doing ecological studies about how modern
farming methods -- fertilizer and pesticide use in addition to
biotechnology -- affect the sustainability of the soil. "This is the sort
of research that can only be done in a public university," Hansen said.
"This will never be done by the private sector because it doesn't result
in a product."

But the Davis conference really wasn't a soul-searching session about
where academic bioscience should be going. It was more of a strategy
conference for university officials who believe they are helping feed a
hungry world with crops bioengineered to grow with fewer pesticides or
less water. "That's a powerful message with consumers," said Therese St.
Peters, a spokeswoman for the Council for Biotechnology Information, a
national group formed by the largest companies in agricultural
biotechnology. St. Peters, a Bay Area resident, admitted that despite
spending $52 million last year, her group was not very effective in making
the case for bioengineered foods. "We may be a case study in how not to do
a PR campaign," she said. Her advice to the university officials was to
find simple ways to explain biotech foods to a public with a limited
understanding of science. "The more people learn about biotechnology, the
more comfortable they are," she said. "You want the mother of a 7-year-
old to feel comfortable feeding Cheerios to her child in the morning."

I was invited to the event as well, to provide a media view on the
genetically engineered foods debate. I apologized for the shortcomings of
news professionals like me, who have a limited time to boil complex issues
down to a few paragraphs that often miss the subtleties. It was a lively
group. Gene Sander, dean of agriculture at the University of Arizona, rose
to ask why he should bother to spend 20 or 30 minutes explaining some
intricate situation to a reporter on deadline, knowing he'll be lucky to
get in two sentences that may miss the point. That got a laugh from the
room, and a shrug from me, because I understand the unfairness of the
system. Consider this: Having spent four hours discussing everything from
gene patents to the historic role of public universities with a room full
of smart people, I snuck back to my computer to create this microscopic
version of the event. But at the risk of adding ingratitude to my long
list of sins, I believe it was a flawed premise that brought the
agricultural scientists to Davis. They came to discuss biotech
communication. By this they meant how to get people to understand their

That's only natural; everybody wants to be understood. But communication
implies listening as well convincing. And I didn't get the sense the
biotech scientists really got the critique of their work. It was good of
them to invite Hansen as resident critic. But that invitation was only a
start. There's a community of ecologists and soil scientists who oppose
the current drift in agriculture, who think we're putting too much
emphasis on bending nature to our will and too little effort in simply
understanding it. But you rarely see these scientific camps together.
Perhaps they'd only argue and call each other names.

But it seems worth trying to patch things up. Agriculture is the science
that started civilization. The desire to improve agriculture was the
impulse that led to the founding of our great public universities more
than a century ago. Today there is a scientific schism among academics
over how we should be doing agricultural research at public universities.
Last's week's meeting at UC Davis should be only a warm-up for a more
ambitious meeting of the minds.


Boffins label GM food labelling as 'hypocrisy'


Labelling all genetically modified (GM) foods would be practically
impossible and hypocritical, biotechnology experts said on Monday.

Canberra-based Centre for the Application of Molecular Biology to
International Agriculture executive director Richard Jefferson said there
were far more pressing food safety issues than those posed by GM foods.
"What do we want to label it for? If people are interested in food safety
why don't we deal with all the safety issues in food?" Dr Jefferson told
reporters at a biotechnology conference here.

"We have about 1,000 people around the world die from eating peanuts each
year which don't have a label. I question the hypocrisy." Dr Jefferson
said GM crops could cut out the need for many insecticides and herbicides,
which created bigger health and environmental concerns than genetic
modification. "Are we really concerned about safety and the environment
and health of foods or are we being fatuous hypocrites?" he said. "If
(anti-GM campaigners) say they're spraying because it's natural, so is
anthrax, so is polio and I don't think natural is all that much of a spin."

Dr Jefferson said testing procedures for GM products were also extremely
expensive and keeping them separate from non-GM products would require two
different lots of transport and storage systems. Washington-based
International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) director-general Per
Pinstrup-Andersen said moves to have GM products labelled in Australia
would result in enormous administrative problems.

"What do you label? If you feed a cow on GM soy beans, do you label the
milk?" Dr Pinstrup-Andersen said. "If a roll has GM soy beans do you label
the roll? If you have oil made from GM corn, which has none of the protein
in it, should that be labelled? Dr Pinstrup-Andersen said he did not know
if Australia had an answer to such questions. "In my opinion what's
currently available in the market in the United States - and 50 to 70 per
cent has been associated with genetically modified products somewhere
along the line - none of that causes any negative health effects."

Dr Pinstrup-Andersen said the debate over GM foods in Australia and Europe
also had an effect on food-poor nations in western Africa. He said with
ongoing debates about GM foods in developed countries, scientists
struggled to get research money to develop products which could help solve
world food problems.

"There's a direct extrapolation from not wanting genetically modified food
in Europe to not helping developing countries develop the solutions they
need using modern science," he said. Dr Pinstrup-Andersen said relatively
well-off countries such as Australia should consider that the extra yields
that could be gained from crops using GM techniques could mean life or
death to millions of Africans. "If we decide GM is unhealthy for consumers
here we can't turn around and say it's good enough for developing
countries, and the research will cease," he said.

From: Karen Edwards

GMOs: What Is Kenya's Stand?

Nairobi (The Nation, January 22, 2001) - Where does Kenya really stand on
the controversial issue of biotechnology?

Agriculture Minister Chris Obure recently voiced his opposition to
biotechnology, noting that although this is a superior method of producing
food, it may not be the solution to food insecurity and malnutrition in
developing countries.

The minister was also reported as saying that although the technology was
geared towards feeding the ever-increasing human population, heavy
commercialisation and the profit motive by the multinationals championing
biotechnology were detrimental to agricultural development in Kenya and
other developing countries.

Genetically modified seeds, he said, cannot be grown and used later for
planting. Yet farmers are being lured with the promise of high yields and
improved incomes to buy and plant these seeds, he said.

The minister agreed with a cross-section of traditionalists,
agriculturalists, environmentalists and nutritionists who warn that the
use of biotechnology could, in the long run, be counter-productive and
hamper agricultural production in developing countries.

It was surprising, therefore, that the minister beat a hasty retreat the
following day, heaping praise on biotechnological advances, and apparently
re-stating Government policy on the matter.

"The Government has not changed its policy. In fact, we are carrying
research on biotechnology and its use. Research on genetically-modified
foods by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute in collaboration with
multinationals companies, is going on," he said.

The implications of the commercialisation of genetically-modified seeds,
according to Paul Lane, director of the British Institute in Eastern
Africa, means that small-scale farmers or communities will be perpetually
hooked to the terminator technology products. As a result, agricultural
production will fall.

But, possibly, the greatest concern is the safety of biotechnology
products. Opponents fear that the transgenic plants and livestock or the
genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as they are commonly known, may not
be safe for consumers or the environment.

However, the director and president of the Institute for Genomic Research
(TIGR), Ms Claire M. Fraser, believes the fear is misplaced.

"This is a topic rife with misunderstanding - some of which is a cynical
misuse of public perception - but most of which is due to the abominable
failure of the scientific community to explain to the general public
exactly what biotechnology is. Scientists have done a lousy job of
communicating the methodologies, and the risk/benefit ratio of this new

"This has come back to haunt us now, unfortunately at a time when
increasing populations and stubborn diseases most demand innovative and
speedy solutions, some of which are offered by biotechnology."

Dr Fraser was delivering the third Annual Peter Doherty Distinguished
Lecture on the subject, Genomic sciences: impacts on medicine and
agriculture, at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)
headquarters, Nairobi.

Some people have characterised this controversy as pitting rich against
poor, ethicists against pragmatists, and environmentalists against
short-sighted opportunists.

But according to Dr Fraser, this is a battle between the scientifically
informed versus the uninformed; between those who understand the long
ancestral lines of biotechnology, and those who believe that we are
leaping blindly across an unknown genetic fault line. The public is
recoiling against science fiction, not science itself, she says.

"Does anyone really believe that mankind expanded from a population of 10
million people in the hunting age to six billion people today without
attempting to manipulate its environment?" she asks.

But Prof Simiyu Wandiba of the University of Nairobi believes the concerns
are genuine. Even in the United States where the public and the scientific
community is well-informed, he says, they have raised concerns about the
safety of biotechnology products and their implications on general
agricultural production. Which is why, he says, the developing world
should approach biotechnology with utmost caution.

Dr Fraser argues that from the very beginnings of agriculture, farmers
improved plants and bred animals through hybridisation, seeking better
food quality and higher yields.

"This is a form of biotechnology which can be fairly defined as any
process in which man deliberately modifies animal and plant species for
his own betterment - deliberately, because species are always randomly
cross-hybridising and reinventing themselves."

Early methods of gene transfer involved cross-breeding of species to
achieve desirable traits. These species were grown and observed, and then
"back-crossed" to reduce the number of undesirable traits unintentionally
transferred during the first transaction.

And this is exactly the point. New techniques in biotechnology do not in
way veer away from the aspirations of earlier efforts. Our ability to
excise and transfer specific gene traits only expedites the process, she

However, the justification for biotechnology should not be based on its
incredible achievements - the phenomenal increases in crop yields, the
lowered use of pesticides and insecticides which are so harmful to our
environment, and the increased nutritional value of transgenic crops.
According to Dr Fraser, the only criterion that should guide us on
genetically-modified organisms is the safety of its products.

But how can the safety be determined?

The American Society for Microbiology says it neatly: "Oversight and
regulation should be based on the risk associated with products of
biotechnology and not on the processes used to create or produce these
products." Dr Fraser compares this to the manufacture of automobiles. "The
mere fact that an automobile is manufactured using robotics or other
techniques is in itself irrelevant; what matters is its safety. Does it
meet commonly-accepted standards? Just by its presence on the showroom
floor, the public assumes and trusts that it does. The same must be true
of genetically-improved crops and livestock."

She says the importance of oversight and regulation in any kind of food
production system and distribution cannot be overestimated. "Our health
depends upon it, but public confidence depends on it in equal measure.
Without that confidence, all the promise of this incredible new technology
may be thrown into the sea."

The threat is real. At the moment, European Union member states have
imposed a moratorium on imports of biotech corn varieties, even though
they have been approved by European scientific authorities as safe. Japan,
Australia, and New Zealand are poised to impose mandatory biotech food
labelling systems.

However, Dr Fraser believes some of these are thinly disguised forms of
market protectionism that have been boosted, unfortunately, by a public
panic. This is ironic, she says. The international community has done a
credible job of monitoring the safety of biotech foods.

She argues that there is nothing on earth that is totally risk-free.
Penicillin is not risk-free, nor are vaccines against measles, polio, or
tuberculosis. "Our job as scientists and administrators is to minimise
these risks and weigh them against potential benefits. For the sake of the
consumer we can only hope these risks will be assessed in the name of
science and not by fear-mongering or political gamesmanship."


Copyright © 2001 The Nation. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media