Genetically Engineered Distortions

The New York Times published an op-ed on May 14 authored by Pamela Ronald and James McWilliams.

Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis, is the co-author of “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food.” Ronald was also a speaker at BIO’s recent 2010 International Convention in Chicago.  James E. McWilliams, a history professor at Texas State University at San Marcos, is the author of “Just Food.”

A report by the National Research Council last month gave ammunition to both sides in the debate over the cultivation of genetically engineered crops. More than 80 percent of the corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the United States is genetically engineered, and the report details the “long and impressive list of benefits” that has come from these crops, including improved soil quality, reduced erosion and reduced insecticide use.

It also confirmed predictions that widespread cultivation of these crops would lead to the emergence of weeds resistant to a commonly used herbicide, glyphosate (marketed by Monsanto as Roundup). Predictably, both sides have done what they do best when it comes to genetically engineered crops: they’ve argued over the findings.

Lost in the din is the potential role this technology could play in the poorest regions of the world — areas that will bear the brunt of climate change and the difficult growing conditions it will bring. Indeed, buried deep in the council’s report is an appeal to apply genetic engineering to a greater number of crops, and for a greater diversity of purposes.

Appreciating this potential means recognizing that genetic engineering can be used not just to modify major commodity crops in the West, but also to improve a much wider range of crops that can be grown in difficult conditions throughout the world.

Doing that also requires opponents to realize that by demonizing the technology, they’ve hindered applications of genetic engineering that could save lives and protect the environment.

Scientists at nonprofit institutions have been working for more than two decades to genetically engineer seeds that could benefit farmers struggling with ever-pervasive dry spells and old and novel pests. Drought-tolerant cassava, insect-resistant cowpeas, fungus-resistant bananas, virus-resistant sweet potatoes and high-yielding pearl millet are just a few examples of genetically engineered foods that could improve the lives of the poor around the globe.

For example, researchers in the public domain have been working to engineer sorghum crops that are resistant to both drought and an aggressively parasitic African weed, Striga.

In a 1994 pilot project by the United States Agency for International Development, an experimental variety of engineered sorghum had a yield four times that of local varieties under adverse conditions. Sorghum, a native of the continent, is a staple throughout Africa, and improved sorghum seeds would be widely beneficial.

As well as enhancing yields, engineered seeds can make crops more nutritious. A new variety of rice modified to produce high amounts of provitamin A, named Golden Rice, will soon be available in the Philippines and, if marketed, would almost assuredly save the lives of thousands of children suffering from vitamin A deficiency.

There’s also a sorghum breed that’s been genetically engineered to produce micronutrients like zinc, and a potato designed to contain greater amounts of protein.

To appreciate the value of genetic engineering, one need only examine the story of papaya. In the early 1990s, Hawaii’s papaya industry was facing disaster because of the deadly papaya ringspot virus. Its single-handed savior was a breed engineered to be resistant to the virus. Without it, the state’s papaya industry would have collapsed. Today, 80 percent of Hawaiian papaya is genetically engineered, and there is still no conventional or organic method to control ringspot virus.

The real significance of the papaya recovery is not that genetic engineering was the most appropriate technology delivered at the right time, but rather that the resistant papaya was introduced before the backlash against engineered crops intensified.

Opponents of genetically engineered crops have spent much of the last decade stoking consumer distrust of this precise and safe technology, even though, as the research council’s previous reports noted, engineered crops have harmed neither human health nor the environment.

In doing so, they have pushed up regulatory costs to the point where the technology is beyond the economic reach of small companies or foundations that might otherwise develop a wider range of healthier crops for the neediest farmers. European restrictions, for instance, make it virtually impossible for scientists at small laboratories there to carry out field tests of engineered seeds.

As it now stands, opposition to genetic engineering has driven the technology further into the hands of a few seed companies that can afford it, further encouraging their monopolistic tendencies while leaving it out of reach for those that want to use it for crops with low (or no) profit margins.

The stakes are too high for us not to make the best use of genetic engineering. If we fail to invest responsibly in agricultural research, if we continue to allow propaganda to trump science, then the potential for global agriculture to be productive, diverse and sustainable will go unfulfilled. And it’s not those of us here in the developed world who will suffer the direct consequences, but rather the poorest and most vulnerable.

Challenging Biotech’s Misperceptions

BIO is in Chicago for the 2010 BIO International Convention.  Visit this space for updates direct from our food and ag sessions.

Bruce Chassy is a Professor in the Department of Food Science & Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  Val Giddings (LVG) interviewed Chassy to get an academic’s perspective on the perceived controversies surrounding biotechnology:

LVG:    Why is there still controversy about ag biotech after all these years?

Chassy:   The science and results are clear:  products of biotechnology are probably safer than any others.  There is no scientific controversy or doubt about the real-world outcomes.  They are all positive, good for consumers, farmers and the environment.

LVG:    Then why do we keep hearing about all the risks of GM crops? 

Chassy:   There is a well-financed and organized global opposition to GM crops that spreads misinformation and fear.   Make no mistake about it, this isn’t a grassroots opposition. It is a small handful of people that profit from higher prices for organic and GM-free foods. They are paid to block GM crops that can benefit certain countries and companies.

LVG:    How can we set the record straight? 

Chassy:   There is nobody credible talking in favor of GM crops.  The industry can’t do it, they have a clear conflict of interest.  It’s not the regulators job – they regulate and stay neutral; USDA and FDA are afraid of being sued by these groups already.  The food industry isn’t going to fight for GM crops, especially when they make more money from organic foods.  Then there are the scientists: they know the truth, but it’s not their job to argue with the NGOs.  They have labs to run, students to teach, grants and papers to write.  So at the end of the day, there is nobody to advocate for an accurate and impartial representation of the facts about GM crops.

LVG:    What can be done about it?

Chassy:   Scientists need to speak out and realize that if someone else distorts the facts it’s their responsibility to set the record straight.  An example – Jeffrey Smith claims he’s an expert on GM safety and has written several books about the dangers.  David Tribe (University of Melbourne) and I analyzed all the arguments Smith makes in his book Genetic Roulette.  Not one of the claims Smith makes withstands scrutiny – I would call it peer review, but Smith isn’t a scientist or a peer.  You can see our work at a website we created to expose scientific hoaxes (http://academicsreview.org).  Eventually, we hope to grow the website to cover many scientific issues about which there is a lot of misinformation.  

*for the full length interview, go to http://gmopundit.blogspot.com/

Giddings is a genetics PhD and  biotech consultant with nearly 30 years regulatory, media, and policy experience.  He was a Vice President for BIO Food & Agriculture from 1997 to 2006. He can be reached at LVG@prometheusAB.com.

Consumer Resistance of Biotech is Only a “Perception”

BIO is in Chicago for the 2010 BIO International Convention.  Visit this space for updates direct from our food and ag sessions.

By Val Giddings

How Public Perception Affects Adoption of Technologies that Help Feed the World was the topic Wednesday afternoon of one of the liveliest panels we’ve seen in a while.  Moderated by Sally Squires (Weber Shandwick, former Washington Post writer), the panel included Margaret Zeigler (Congressional Hunger Center), Michael Specter (The New Yorker, author of Denialism:  How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens our Lives), Maywa Montenegro (Seed Magazine) and Bruce Chassy (University of Illinois).   

The session was well attended, nearly SRO, with almost a hundred folks in the audience.  Topics ranged widely:  common misconceptions about biotech and how people assess different types of risk (usually at odds with the data).  Does public perception affect the adoption of biotechnology?  Of course it does.  But perhaps not always as one might expect.  Data the world over show opposition to be more theoretical than real:  folks may say they are opposed, but at point of purchase, with few exceptions, they almost always buy based on quality and cost, where biotech foods stack up very well indeed. 

But the perception of consumer resistance makes political decision-makers reluctant to remove barriers, and the perception of resistance is the product of smoke, mirrors, and an aggressive, well-funded, and ruthless campaign of unrelenting mendacity by self-styled “green” groups who have been called “murderous hypocrites.”  Too bad we couldn’t get former European Commission staffer (now retired) Mark Cantley, to join the group and name this beast.

The howlers:  In response to a question as to how the situation could be improved, one panelist opined that “We (the sorts of folks in the audience) should “stop vilifying Alice Waters and Michael Pollan…”  Excuse me?  Fair disclosure – as the recipient of no small amount of vilification at the hands and pens of biotech opponents, my view may be colored.  But the last time I checked the vilification balance was pretty lopsided, with about a hundred examples originating with the mendacious for every one from the data-based pro-science camp.  This is not, I am said to say, a textbook example of moral equivalence. 

Another howler: One panelist offered her informed opinion that small farmers in Central America are opposed to biotech because they are skeptical of technological innovation.  Let’s see… would these be the same custodians of maize landraces, who have an unmatched and unbroken innovative history spanning ten millennia during which their approach to plant stewardship has made a fetish of importing germplasm, conducting experimental crosses with it, and selecting products from the results to weave into their ongoing harvests?  Explanation FAIL.

Third howler:  A panelist suggested that the role of NGOs has been, on balance, positive in the area of biotech and food.  Yes, there have been a small number of vocal NGOs in opposition, but the vast majority of them are honestly and helpfully focused on trying to improve food security for the poor of the earth.  Well… I’m not sure I can do better than to quote my teenage daughter:  OMG!!!!  I am glad to hear that some NGOs are doing good things on food and hunger issues.  But until they break ranks with Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and Friends of the Earth to condemn their profoundly misguided, contra-factual, and anti-human campaigns against crops that reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture while increasing quality and safety of food and the economics of smallholder farming they are complicit and indictable.

But what’s a good panel without a howler or two?  If you missed it, you missed it.  Don’t make the same mistake next year.

Giddings is a genetics PhD and  biotech consultant with nearly 30 years regulatory, media, and policy experience.  He was a Vice President for BIO Food & Agriculture from 1997 to 2006. He can be reached at LVG@prometheusAB.com.

Genetically Modified Food and the Global Fight Against Hunger

BIO is in Chicago for the 2010 BIO International Convention.  Visit this space for updates direct from our food and ag sessions.

By Randy Krotz

The continued adoption rate of biotechnology-enhanced crops on farms around the globe is stunning and clear testimony to the value gained by each producer when making the decision on the type of seed they plant. The number of farmers choosing to produce genetically modified crops now exceeds 14 million.

At a 2010 BIO Conference session discussing the existing challenges in addressing world hunger, C.S. Prakash, Director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University addressed the significance of biotech crops. “Many food problems that currently exist around the world can be addressed through biotechnology, and due to unwarranted concern the potential of the technology is only being scratched,” said Prakash.

The panel participants each overviewed their general observations regarding the impact politics have on acceptance of current and future biotech crops. The point was made and echoed that there is an absolute need to have science involved in political discussions, as politics without science can make for poor decisions. 

Currently, there are at least 1 billion people on the planet that do not have enough food to meet their daily requirements. Biotechnology is absolutely critical in addressing hunger where disease and pests ravage crops. There are those that attempt to keep the regulatory approvals and adoption of biotech advancements in check regardless of their potential and proven productivity advantages. Advocacy organizations that seek to stand in the path of these scientific advancements work to create fear and doubt in the minds of politicians and consumers, therefore restricting the benefits these crops can have in feeding the planet.

Plant breeding is simply not an understood science. It’s generally not taught or discussed in our classrooms today, and plant line-crosses and modifications have been ongoing for a very, very long time. In fact, nothing we consume today grows naturally in the wild, vegetable or grain.

Biotechnology is a keen tool that is used to speed the plant breeding process with an undeniable level of precision. Keep in mind, over 2 billion acres of genetically modified crops have been grown and consumed without even one incidence related to human health.

Randy Krotz has 25 years experience in agricultural and biotechnology related marketing and communications. He has served as Director of Public Relations at Monsanto and the National Corn Growers Association. He is currently Senior Vice President at v-Fluence Interactive and can be reached at Randy.Krotz@v-Fluence.com.

Biotech Papaya Sells Itself

BIO is in Chicago for the 2010 BIO International Convention.  Visit this space for updates direct from our food and ag sessions.

Ken Kamiya is a Papaya Grower in Hawaii, the former head of the Hawaii Papaya growers association.  He has  first-hand experience of the benefits of ag biotech.  Val Giddings (LVG) interviewed Kamiya to get an idea of how things look through the eyes of a small farmer.

LVG:  Tell us about yourself and your farm.

KAMIYA:  I grow my own brand of Papaya, Laie Gold, on 15 acres on the North Shore of Oahu.  Laie Gold is a hybrid between the Rainbow biotech papaya developed by scientists from the University of Hawaii and Cornell, and my own, Kamiya variety that I derived from Nakasone stock.  I developed Laie Gold after Hurricane Iniki and the ringspot virus wiped out my first efforts in the early 1980’s.  I’ve been farming for nearly 30 years, since I took over from my father.  We sell a premium, branded product locally, and our customers can’t get enough.

LVG:      I’ve heard that biotech papayas from Hawaii may soon be approved for import to Japan.  Can you give us an update?

KAMIYA:  The biotech papaya has cleared all the safety reviews by Japanese authorities, but they’ve recently established a new committee to deal with labeling standards.  That’s the final holdup, and we don’t know how long it will take, but we think we’re getting close.

LVG:  Some claim the Japanese won’t eat biotech foods.  What do you think?

KAMIYA:  We have a local farmer’s market in Kapiolani.  Lots of Japanese tourists come through there all the time.  We’ve offered them samples of biotech papaya, and a few of them don’t know what to think, but most of them will give it a try.  Once they do, they’re sold.  As I said, it’s a premium, tree ripened, sweet and aromatic papaya.  It sells itself.  Our local customers can’t get enough and have even started saving the seeds and planting them in their own back yards.  This has the added benefit of reducing the susceptible populations that maintain the virus in the Islands.

LVG:      So your verdict on the biotech papaya is…

KAMIYA:              We wouldn’t be here without it.

Giddings has a PhD in genetics from the University of Hawaii.  He is a biotech consultant with nearly 30 years regulatory, media, and policy experience.  He was a Vice President for BIO Food & Agriculture from 1997 to 2006. He can be reached at LVG@prometheusAB.com.

“It’s the Economy, stupid”

BIO is in Chicago for the 2010 BIO International Convention.  Visit this space for updates direct from our food and ag sessions.

“It’s the Economy, stupid”
by Val Giddings and Jens Katzek

It is said that President Bill Clinton used this sentence, when focusing his campaign staff: “It’s the economy, stupid!”

This sentence came to mind during a session exploring the wheat market and the potential impact that genetic engineering might have, in a BIO session titled: “Wheat, Don’t pass me by”.

Whereas the National Association of Wheat Growers in the United States once rejected the idea that GM could be an option, their position today is much more open. This is not because of new scientific developments with wheat that make it a more attractive target, but because of developments in wheat markets – other crops, especially biotech corn and soy, have become more profitable, and global competition has increased.  As a consequence, one can see a strong expansion of soybean and corn planting moving t the north and west. Meanwhile, the wheat harvest declined from 80 million acres in 1980 to 30 million in 2008!

Mark Darrington, an Idaho farmer, made very clear that he loved wheat as a rotation crop – but that it has become economically less and less attractive, although he pays five times as much for corn seed. 

Australian grower German Spangenberg also painted a compelling picture:  VABC has established a transgenic plant core facility in Victoria working on all relevant traits, especially drought and frost tolerance, and grain yield enhancement. Nine years out of ten drought impacts up to 20 Million hectares with losses of 70 percent in 2007 in Victoria costing U$300 million in losses.  Several fungal diseases cost another U$300 million. Not surprisingly 76 percent of all Australian wheat farmer support biotech according to data raised by the National Association of Wheat Growers. But also the public acceptance of biotechnology has increased dramatically during the last years in Australia.

Hayden Wands from the American Bakers Association was less concerned with yield. For him it was important to get quality and consumer benefit traits, and although acceptance concerns linger they are no longer seen s a serious deterrent.   

Today all big companies are working on wheat (Limagarin, Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, Syngenta, BASF). It is estimated, however, that new varieties will take 8-12 years before they are ready to commercialize. 

John Miller, Chairman of NAMA, the North American Millers’ Association, made clear, however, that although he strongly supports biotech solutions that this does not mean that in the future non GM wheat will not be offered. “Those consumers who would like to have it will get it.”

Dr. Jens Katzek is Managing Director of a biotech development consortium in Central Germany.  He has 25 years of regulatory, media, and policy experience.  He has been a scientific advisor to the European Commission, and worked for an environmental organization, a seed company, and was Managing Director of the German BIO, DIB.  He can be reached at katzek@biomitteldeutschland.de.

Giddings is a genetics PhD and  biotech consultant with nearly 30 years regulatory, media, and policy experience.  He was a Vice President for BIO Food & Agriculture from 1997 to 2006. He can be reached at LVG@prometheusAB.com.

To Find a Drop of Water in Lake Michigan

BIO is in Chicago for the 2010 BIO International Convention.  Visit this space for updates direct from our food and ag sessions.

New GM Crops and Their Asynchronous Approval: Implications for International Trade
By Jens Katzek

No-one seriously doubts that global trade is an essential of the wealth created over the last forty years in countries we used to number in the “third world.” They are today some of the most powerful economies on earth. And 10 percent of all merchandise traits are agricultural products.  Agricultural innovations are also without doubt essential to address the demands and challenges of the future.

How do we bring these facts in line with national sovereignty, to decide which products should be on a country’s markets according to national regulation? One way is through harmonization of regulation. But the kind and amount of regulation is not only based on science, it is also a question of culture, tradition, vested interests and readiness to take risks.  The U.S. government would not authorize a product just because it is approved in Brazil. Countries will defend and assert their sovereignty.

When the European Union needs 13 years to finally permit growing the Amflora potato, a plant in which the expression of only a single and naturally occurring gene was blocked, we have a problem.  One can imagine the challenges when stacking different genes and traits becomes more popular.  Today we have nine crops authorized for planting. There will be some 25 in four years. The theoretical number of possible combination is then 250.000! Even if only one percent of these stacked traits will be of interest for the market we still have 250 products. No regulatory system in the world is ready for this. 

The only answer therefore seems to be tolerance thresholds. What we request from our neighbors and in our family can be also the guidance for international trade. In concrete terms this means, that a realistic threshold for low level presence (LLP) of GMOs in non-GM seeds and commodities is imperative as long as we have disharmonized authorization systems in different countries. The Global Adventitious Presence Coalition and the International Grain Trade Coalition encouraged countries to utilize the Codex Alimentarius Annex of Food Safety Assessment in situations of low level presence. Codex decided recently on recommend standards for these thresholds.  The EU, however, has not yet approved the Codex position.

How urgent such a tolerance is, becomes obvious when we have a look at the quantity of agricultural products traded on a global scale. We talk about more than a billion tons! If simply considering the size of the necessary infrastructure everyone understands why zero tolerance is not possible in a global economy. Today we have already tolerance for almost everything in our seeds and feed and food – but not for GMOs.

Sometimes practical things show that theoretical discussions will not help. In only one Panamax vessel on a ship you will find corn from some 1900 trucks. How could one implement here a zero tolerance? Painful, practical experience has shown again and again that this is simply impossible. Just recently corn dust was found in soy imports in the EU. Because of microscopic dust on the soy the entire vessel load was rejected. The EU feeding industry calculated that it lost 5 Mrd. € because they were obliged to use sub optimal feed during the last year.

An anecdote reported during the meeting was that the European Commission and some Member States are funding the same organizations which are attacking any adaptation of the existing regulation to face the challenges described above. Don’t ask for the logic behind this.

Dr. Jens Katzek is Managing Director of a biotech development consortium in Central Germany.  He has 25 years of regulatory, media, and policy experience.  He has been a scientific advisor to the European Commission, and worked for an environmental organization, a seed company, and was Managing Director of the German BIO, DIB.  He can be reached at katzek@biomitteldeutschland.de.