E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


Asia holds key to future of GM food; Planting lies; other GMO news

(Friday, Dec. 10, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Below are three commentaries dealing with genetically modified crops.

1. Asia holds the key to the future of GM food
2. Planting lies
3. New law on gene crops a 'de-facto ban'

1. Asia holds the key to the future of GM food

Thursday, December 2, 2004
By John Feffer

Wary Asian consumers may decide how much genetically modified food will reach the world's dinner tables

MARYLAND - The transatlantic brawl between the United States and Europe over genetically modified (GM) food is attracting much of the media's interest. Billions of dollars in sales, the genetic fate of food crops, and the future safety of human beings hinge on this debate between skeptical Europeans and American technophiles. But it is in Asia that the new techno-food will live or die.

Asia is home to the world's largest consumer base and the greatest number of farmers. If Asians accept US claims about GM food ­ that it is safe to eat, safe to grow, and the only way to feed growing populations ­ these new varieties of rice, soybeans, and corn will rule the world. If Asian countries follow the cautious lead of the Europeans, however, by labeling GM products and establishing a system that can trace health problems back to their source, biotechnology will occupy a more modest niche on the farm and marketplace.

Put another way, if the GM struggle were an election, with the United States and the European Union the two frontrunners, then Asia would be one huge swing state. And so far, the undecideds rule.

Take China. It is the only country in Asia growing a significant amount of GMOs ­ more than half of its cotton crop. Chinese biotech research programs employ 20,000 people in 200 labs. China claims to have developed the world's first genetically modified wheat in 1990, is now running 10 GM rice field trials, and has become the world's largest importer of GM soybeans.

Yet the Chinese government has, until now, avoided planting GM food crops for public consumption. China also joined the Like-Minded Group, a coalition of 100 developing countries favoring strict regulation of GMOs. But quietly, China is trying to corner the Asian market on GM research and development and even overtake the US sector. As Wang Feng, a biotech expert at the Fujian Academy of Agricultural Science, told China Daily, "If we do not boldly push ahead with our GM technologies, we will never have our own Monsanto or Syngenta [biotech firms]."

Not all Chinese agree with the government's policy. Shanghai resident Zhu Yanling launched the country's first consumer lawsuit (against Nestle for a symbolic US$1.64 in damages) because she consumed a Nesquik instant chocolate drink that she believes contained unlabelled GM ingredients; GM skeptics demand appropriate labeling to alert consumers to possible risks. According to a recent poll by Zhongshan University, nearly nine out of ten citizens of the southern city of Guangzhou want GM ingredients labeled ­ roughly the same number shows up in polls in Europe and the US. In what may be the first of many state-level challenges, Heilongjang province in the northeast, China's leader in soybean production, has banned the import of GM soybeans.

India and Indonesia have also been cheerleaders for GM research, hopeful that the new crops can feed burgeoning populations and produce pest-free crops. But when both countries began easing into the technology by planting GM cotton, they discovered mixed results: crop failures in some Indian districts, lower yields, and more pesticide use than conventional varieties in parts of Indonesia. Still, the two countries are continuing research: Indonesia plans a "bioisland" on Rempang Island near Singapore, while India pours money into bio-fortified foods, such as vitamin A-enriched rice, peanuts, and mustard.

Japan is in a similarly ambivalent position. The world's largest importer of food, Japan is a huge potential market for GM products. The government is cautiously researching GM applications, such as super carbon dioxide-absorbent trees to combat global warming.

But Japanese people, reeling from a series of food scares including beef-mislabeling, mad cow disease, and contamination of GM corn feed in the human food chain, are highly cautious. Japanese consumer groups take credit for persuading their government to stop GM rice trials and ­ after a March 2004 meeting between US officials and representatives of 414 Japanese consumer and environmental groups opposed to biotech foods ­ for Monsanto's recent decision not to release GM wheat on the global market.

Japan has a labeling law, but it is somewhat looser than the European standard. While a product in Europe must be labeled if more than .9 percent of its ingredients are from GM sources, Japan has set the bar at 5 percent. Thailand also has chosen the 5 percent threshold. South Korea's threshold is 3 percent, and the government further requires all advertisements for food products to indicate GM presence. Neither India nor Pakistan has adopted labeling laws.

The issue, of course, runs a lot deeper than labels for consumers. As Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the US-based Oakland Institute, points out, the US and Europe look at the GM issue differently from the developing world. "The talk in the United States and Europe is about consumers," she points out. "The issue in Asia is livelihood, the farmers, and the takeover of the food system." And it is America, Mittal points out, that is transforming food production around the world through a mixture of carrots and sticks.

In terms of carrots for Asia, the US is providing research grants, such as a five-year agreement with India that has a strong biotech component. In 2002, the United States provided US$15 million for a GM research center in the Philippines. The US hopes that the research grants will serve as a hook, and that the recipients will be seduced by the new technology.

If the carrots fail, however, there is always the stick. As a warning to all GM-ambivalent nations, the US has challenged the EU in the World Trade Organization (WTO), under the presumption that a cautious stance toward the new technology is a trade barrier. When India rejected imports of a GM corn-soya blend in 2002, Washington enlisted CARE-India and Catholic Relief Services to lobby on its behalf. And Thailand must back GM foods before the United States will approve a free-trade agreement.

To counter US pressure, anti-GM activists are pushing their governments to assume the European stance. They've also been active at the international level, lobbying for the passage and ratification of the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, under which any country can justify their refusal of imports on the grounds of health and safety. Top GM-growing countries have not ratified the agreement, however.

Activists have also been working with farmers on the ground. In South Korea, for instance, organic farming nearly doubled in acreage from 2001 to 2002. In Japan, the Soy Trust movement has been contracting farmers to increase production of domestic soybeans to substitute for GM imports. In place of the modified "golden rice" that biotech enthusiasts are promoting, advocates of System of Rice Intensification (SRI) promise higher yields with less irrigation and fewer chemical inputs.

The stakes in Asia's decision on GM food are enormous: a huge market in seeds and crops, a total restructuring of farming practice, and a test of civil society's strength in countries where governments routinely dictate agricultural policy. The backlash against new technologies can be either a temporary speed bump or a significant obstacle. In the end, Asians will determine whether the new techno-foods remake the global diet or join radioactive fertilizer and cold fusion in the junk bin of science.

John Feffer, http://www.johnfeffer.com , currently a Pantech Fellow in Korean Studies at Stanford University, is writing a book on the global politics of food.

2. Planting Lies

Source: http://www.spectrezine.org/environment/GMO2.htm

The agricultural biotechnology industry likes to portray itself as the future, a future under threat from superstitious opponents who are anti-science. In fact, what genetic engineering is based on is barely worthy of the name "science". It is a hit and miss process based on a discredited scientific paradigm. The industry upon which it is based is in deep financial trouble. Only a ruthless propaganda machine lies between the dead-end of genetic engineering and oblivion. Steve McGiffen reports.

A week ago, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to approve changes in the European Union laws which govern the export of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The changes are necessary to enable the EU to ratify the Cartagena Convention on Biosafety, the international agreement governing trade in GMOs. Next month, two further measures will complete, for the time being, the EU’s new legislative framework for products of agricultural biotechnology. We will still lack effective legal requirements to guard against contamination of conventional or organic crops by GMOs, and any real system for tracking the effects of GMO consumption on human health. EU member states will not have the right, moreover, to exclude GMOs from their territory, either to prevent their cultivation or to keep them off supermarket shelves, whatever their citizens may want. Nevertheless, provided these measures are passed in Strasbourg at the beginning of July, the EU and its member states will have the strictest system of control of agricultural biotechnology of any country or bloc in the world.

This will have been achieved in the face of perhaps the most sustained, ruthless and unscrupulous propaganda campaign which even the European Parliament, an institution which works in the face of relentless harassment from corporate lobbyists, has ever witnessed. This campaign, moreover, is not content with spreading lies and confusion amongst legislators in Brussels and other European capitals, it has also kept up a disinformation campaign which has led large numbers of people to believe the exact opposite of a number of clear truths related to GMOs and their dangers.

The industry claims, firstly, that if the EU does not jump headlong into GMO cultivation then Europe will be left behind, deliberately excluding itself from an exciting, expanding, cutting edge technology and the dynamic industry which has grown up around it. The truth, however, is that after over a decade of attempts by American multinationals to foist this novel and dangerous technology on the world, hardly anyone is using it. Around 70% of land devoted to genetically engineered crops is in the United States, with almost all of the rest in Argentina. Of other countries, only Canada has a really significant GM agriculture sector, with China and South Africa leading a pack of only ten other, minor participants. Everyone else has been put off by the potential risks, the absence of clear benefits and the consequent difficulty of marketing GM products. Worse still, to allow GMOs to be cultivated means putting all of a country's agriculture at risk of contamination, contamination which can make vital exports unsaleable.

This brings me to the second strand to the industry and US-backed campaign of disinformation, the claim that there is no evidence that GMOs are potentially harmful to human health and the environment. 300 million Americans, we are told, have consumed GM products for years without harmful effects. In fact, no-one knows what effects the introduction of GMOs into the American diet has had. Not a single epidemiological study of the consumption of GM foods has been conducted. In other words, no-one has looked for health differences between people who eat them and people who don’t. In the States, foods do not have to be labelled as containing GM products. The fact that consumers have no way of knowing whether what they are buying contains GM, makes absurd the idea that no health ill effects have been uncovered. Go to the doctor in the States with, say, a liver problem, and the doctor will ask you if you drink alcohol, if you eat a lot of red meat or dairy products, whether you smoke. She will not say a word about GMOs, and even if she did, you would be unable to answer, because you have no way of knowing whether you are eating them ­ unless you grow your own food and regularly test it for contamination. Moreover, only seven peer reviewed studies on the health effects of individual GMOs have been carried out, and four of these have shown negative results as follows: Flavr Savr tomatoes resulted in lesions and gastritis in rats; GM potatoes caused gut lesions in rats, representing damage to the immune system of their digestive tracts. (The industry routinely describes Dr Pustzai, who conducted this research and was sacked for publishing its results, as "discredited", but this is simply part of their propaganda. The paper in question was peer reviewed six times and has been defended by many scientists since); and GM rapeseed fed to chickens led to increased mortality. Finally, BST milk-enhancing hormone derived from GMOs is used widely in the US but banned in the EU because of the clear threat it presents to human health and animal welfare.

At the end of 2002, the British Medical Association (BMA) went so far as to call for an end to GM crop trials, arguing that not enough had been done to ensure that they did not pose a threat to public health and that there should have been more public consultation. The BMA, whose membership embraces more than 80% of British doctors, declared in a submission to the health committee of the Scottish Parliament, that "Safety is a relative matter and is generally based on the results of a robust and thorough search for possible harm. There has not yet been a robust and thorough search into the potentially harmful effects of GM foodstuffs on human health." The submission mentioned in particular the possibility that antibiotic resistance markers, which are used to help identify when an introduced gene has been successfully taken up, might find their way "into pathogenic organisms causing human disease", and the danger of introduced genes provoking allergic reactions.

The industry claims that GM techniques are no different to traditional cross-breeding methods in use for at least 10,000 years. The reality, however, is that whereas traditional cross-breeding involves selection from within the existing genome of an organism or a very close relative, in GM technology genes can be introduced which come not only from another species but from another "kingdom" ­ the highest and broadest taxonomic category: bacterial genes into animals, animal genes into plants, plant genes into fungi: there are simply no limits. The artificial insertion of a gene, in contrast with traditional cross-breeding methods, disrupts the orderly, heritable sequence of instructions contained in the parent organisms’ genomes, resulting in a loss of the control and balance which characterise their hereditary substance. The results are therefore difficult to predict, and the fact that the process involves poorly understood mechanisms makes what would in any case be difficult into an impossibility.

The industry claims that GMOs are good for the environment. In fact, although GMOs sometimes permit a temporary reduction in pesticide spraying, such reductions are short-lived and come at a cost. Farmers must abandon, for example, the accepted good practice of varying which pesticides they use. The result is that pests develop resistance and pesticides stop working. On the other hand, the environmental dangers are clear. They include the threat of genetic contamination of wild plants (and, eventually, fish and other animals), the danger of introducing alien species, which has always been a problem but which is compounded by GMOs, and the fact that GMOs can only encourage monoculture, with all its disastrous consequences for the environment.

The US government claims to believe that GM foods and their non-GM counterparts are "substantially equivalent", and that there is therefore no reason why GM foods should have to be labelled as such. Whenever the matter is raised, the industry spends massively on ensuring that this status quo remains, helped by the ease with which US politicians’ support can be bought and a supposedly free press bullied by the threat of lost advertising revenue. Even the legality of labelling foods as "GM free" is in question, because to allow it would be to admit that there may be a difference, after all. The labelling and traceability regime currently before the European Parliament and Council of Ministers will ensure that all foods containing GM ingredients, or produced from them, whether imported or from EU sources, will be labelled as such. This will be the case even if they contain no DNA or proteins from the GMO used, so that oils and refined sugars will for the first time have to be labelled. Because of the difficulty of ensuring absolute purity, the presence of very small amounts of detectable GM residue in a product not labelled as containing GMOs will not be an offence. (This level is still under debate, with Parliament seeking a lower limit than the Council is prepared to accept, but the hope is that as detection techniques improve, it will be possible to lower it to close to zero.)

The insistence that foods such as oils and sugars, where no GM protein or DNA is present in the final product, must be labelled as derived from GMOs has been ridiculed in some quarters, seen as proof that opposition to GMOs is "unscientific". This assumes that the only legitimate concern consumers may have is with their own health. This is not, of course, the case. Consumers often refrain from buying things because they believe them to be environmentally harmful, for example, or because of exploitative methods used in their production. The aim of companies such as Monsanto is to sell seeds which can be used only in conjunction with their own product. So Roundup Ready seeds can be used only with glyphosate, the pesticide branded as Roundup. Moreover, farmers wishing to use these seeds must enter into a contract which forbids them to reuse seed from plants grown from Monsanto’s. They must buy fresh ones each year, undermining millennia of good farming practice. This is part of the drive to dominate the world’s food supply by bringing farmers into a closed loop, where all inputs must be bought from a multi-national corporation. After the abolition of slavery in the US, farmers black and white were newly enslaved by the "crop lien system", where all inputs had to be bought from the same "furnishing man" ­ who was consequently able to charge exorbitant prices. GMOs make possible a new version of this kind of bondage, one which would be bad enough in a relatively prosperous part of the world such as the EU but which, when applied to the Third World, will reinforce the subordinate relationship of poor farmers and the countries in which they live. Together with fears for their own and their families’ health, as well as the environment, consumers thus have every reason to boycott GMOs as a protest against exploitation.

The industry and the US government like to portray all opponents of genetic engineering as ignorant, superstitious people who fear and despise science. They like to portray biotechnology as cutting-edge science, giving the impression that its application is the future, the engine of prosperity which will dominate the next few decades. The truth, however, is that this is an industry in crisis, basing itself on a dangerous, untried technology which is in turn rooted in a discredited scientific paradigm. Predictable, safe genetic engineering might indeed be possible if the relationship between an organism’s genes and the organism itself were as simple as was believed before the Human Genome Project and subsequent studies discredited the idea that genes are stable entities, each of which performs a single function. We now know that this is not the case, that the genome is in fact a dynamic, complex mechanism whose exact workings depend on the interaction of thousands of components and in which an individual gene can perform very different tasks under differing circumstances. Whatever the genetic engineers may claim to continue to believe, genes cannot be removed or introduced like building blocks in a child’s toy. The process of genetic engineering is unpredictable and this fraught with risk. Perhaps, given further work, it may offer something useful to humanity. Clearly, however, given the current state of understanding the place for any such work is the laboratory.

The only reason that anyone thinks otherwise is that billions of dollars have been invested in what is turning out to be a dead end, and at a time when the American economy is entering what with every day that passes seems more and more certain to turn out to be a major crisis. Even Nature Biotechnology ­ something of an industry house journal - was obliged to report, at the end of 2002, that "the clock is ticking for many small (biotech) companies; their funds are drying up and although venture capital is abundant, it is currently available only at valuations that are highly depressed compared with those at which some companies raised their last lot of money."

Agricultural biotechnology in its present form is a vast scientific and commercial error. The people who have invested their money, time an reputations in it cannot afford to admit this. Unfortunately, they will not be the ones that end up paying the heaviest price for their incompetence, greed and hubris. As usual, the bill will be met by those least able to afford it, and the currency in which it will be denominated will not be dollars or euros alone, but the health and livelihoods of human beings and the environment in which we live.

The author, Steve McGiffen, is editor of Spectre and an environmental adviser to the European Parliament United Left Group, the GUE-NGL. He is currently writing a book for Pluto Press on the regulation of biotechnology in the EU and beyond.

3. New law on gene crops a 'de-facto ban'

Friday, December 3, 2004, By Kristina Merkner

Source: http://tinyurl.com/create.php

Opposition and farmers say green biotechnology regulations make agricultural genetic engineering impossible

A new law that takes effect next year will allow farmers to cultivate genetically modified organisms on German fields. A victory for farmers against Greenpeace, it seems. But farmers and plant breeders are not happy about the new law, which they say will actually keep farmers from exploiting the potential of gene splicing.

"In essential aspects, the law bears the handwriting of the Green coalition partner," said the managing director of Germany's association of plant breeders (BDP), Ferdinand Schmitz, referring to the Green party. "Its goal is to prevent genetic engineering. It's another setback for Germany as an innovative business location," Schmitz said.

The law on genetic engineering in agriculture, which parliament passed last Friday, was drafted by Agriculture Minister Renate K¸nast of the Green party. On paper, it allows the commercial cultivation of genetically modified organisms. In practice, however, little will change, since the risks to farmers are too high.

The law, which will take effect in January, entitles conventional farmers to claim compensation if their crops are contaminated by genetically modified organisms.

Contamination takes place when conventional plants are pollinated from genetically modified crops in a nearby field. If the culprit cannot be identified, all non-conventional farmers in the area will be held liable. Since cross-pollination cannot be ruled out even if minimum distances are adhered to, the German Farmers' Association (DBV) fears that the regulations will keep German farmers from experimenting with genetically modified cultivation.

Genetically modified crops, which are resistant to herbicides, are common in other countries such as Argentina and the United States, where one-third of all corn crops are genetically modified. The only EU country that has already introduced commercial gene splicing is Spain, where around 20,000 hectares of modified corn are being cultivated.

In Germany, 60 percent of DBV's farmers have now said in a survey that the liability risk will keep them from cultivating genetically modified plants. At the same time, two-thirds of them said gene splicing was necessary to remain competitive. "As a consequence of the law, research and development activities will not be undertaken, which are necessary to examine the opportunities and risks of green biotechnology without prejudice," said DBV president Gerd Sonnleitner.

While the law was being drafted, he had suggested that farmers could not be held liable if they adhered to certain security standards and that conventional farmers would in such cases be compensated out of a common fund maintained by all farmers and plant breeders.

Schmitz said that German farmers will earn between Euro 30 and Euro 50 less per hectare if they stick to conventional plants. "There is also reason to fear that research and development activities will be relocated abroad."

Similar concerns had been voiced in the Bundesrat, the German parliamentary chamber representing the federal states. Baden-W¸rttemberg's state premier, Erwin Teufel, called the law a îde-facto banî on green biotechnology. The Bundesrat parliamentary chamber of state representatives also criticized the law, which aims to fulfill an EU directive calling for clear rules on the coexistence of genetically modified and conventional crops. The opposition Christian Democrats, which control the Bundesrat, said the government clearly overshot the mark since the law prevents rather than enables the coexistence of conventional and genetically modified crops in Germany.

But on Friday, the German parliament overturned the Bundesrat's decision to reject the law. Since the law does not directly concern the federal states, the Bundestag parliament was able to pass it without the consent of the Bundesrat. The federal state of Saxony-Anhalt has already said that it would take the law to the constitutional court, and the EU commission has voiced doubts that the law is in keeping with the underlying directive. A ray of hope for Schmitz, who is "confident that the last word on the law on genetic engineering has not been spoken."