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2004 Essays - Part II (August)

"THE PRODUCTS AND THE PROMISE: A TASTE OF THE GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS DEBATE, PART II"

    *This essay series debuted in June [2004] with a brief look at the basic products of modern agricultural biotechnology and the debate concerning genetically modified (GM) food. [Click here to read "Genes, Beans and Greens: A Taste of the Genetically Modified Foods Debate, Part I" now.] The first essay concluded with a look toward the future. The number of potential uses for transgenic plants are virtually limitless. However, creating something in a laboratory or growing it in a test field is far different from actually bringing a viable product to market. For every river of hope for the possibilities and promises of biotech have sprung streams of caution; for every note of praise from the companies and organizations promoting the technologies have come cacophonies of criticism from groups such as Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth.  And so the debate continues.

    Part II will focus on the products of modern agricultural biotechnology beyond the transgenic soy, corn, cotton and canola discussed in Part I. It will also include a look at what many consider to be the promise of the technologies. As before, it will be interactive in the sense that the reader can go back and forth between the essay text and the links embedded within it. By clicking the link you can read more about the particular topic being discussed, then return to the essay by clicking your browser's "back" arrow. (The links are included for informations purposes only. No guarantees are made as to the accuracy of the materials presented on the sites, although every effort has been made to search out reliable and respected sources of information. Please note that some links may have changed since 2004 or may no longer be in existence. Where possible, links will be updated and corrected.) Footnotes and a bibliography are also included at the end for anyone wishing to learn more about the subject. The materials represented here are only a small fraction of what is available on this very complicated issue. The glossary link below has been provided as a reference for use as needed. If your browser does not allow you to see text in the box, click here to reach the glossary.*

    Although the first transgenic plant was produced in 1982 (n1), it wasn't until 1994 (n2) that the first genetically modified (GM) food product marketed directly to consumers, the Flavr Savr tomato, became commercially available. Within a few years it was gone from store shelves, as were the cans of tomato paste in the United Kingdom which had been made with the tomatoes. In comparison, GM soy, corn, cotton and canola crops, which had their first wide-scale plantings in 1996, are flourishing. Last year about 80% of the soybeans and 40% of the corn grown in the U.S. were grown from transgenic seeds. (n3) Also, by some estimates as much as 70% of the human food products in the marketplace contain some ingredients from these crops. (n4)

    Since labeling of products containing GM ingredients is voluntary in the U.S. (the products have been determined to be "safe" and "substantially equivalent" to their non-GM counterparts through a regulatory process involving the EPA, USDA and FDA), little mention is found on supermarket shelves of any genetic origin of food items. Indeed, when mention is found, it is more likely to be from a company stating its products do not contain GM ingredients than from a company explaining what they are. This is in direct contrast to the European Union. A law took effect there in April of this year requiring labels for any product containing more than 0.9% genetically modified ingredients. (n5)

    But here again the talk is only of ingredients from primarily herbicide-tolerant or insect-repellant crops, not consumer end-products. One recent book lists work currently being conducted on the modification of fruits, vegetables and grains/seeds. It describes in detail applicable research on the genetic modification of all of the following:

  • Fruits: Apples, avocados, banana, melon, cranberry, grapevine, kiwi, mango, papaya, strawberries and raspberries

  • Vegetables: Asparagus, beans, beets, carrots, cucumber, eggplant, cowpea/lentil, chickpea, lettuce, maize, onions and sweet potato

  • Grains/Seeds: Barley, coffee, linseed flax, macadamia nuts, brassicas, rice, sorghum, sunflower and wheat (n6)

    With a "pipeline" full of products and potential products that could fill store shelves, why have so few reached the public? The answers are complex and involve issues far beyond basic science. Perhaps it is easiest to understand where the future of agricultural biotechnology may be heading by looking where it's been, at least as far as the products of the technology are concerned. The stories of four GM food products, only two of which have reached consumers, illustrate some of the difficulties and obstacles, as well as successes, faced by those who would attempt to bring GM products to the market.

The Products: A Miss, A Hit, and Hope and a Delay

The Miss: The FLAVR SAVR Tomato

    As stated earlier, the FLAVR SAVR tomato was the first GM food product ever to be commercialized. Anyone who has ever grown tomatoes in the backyard knows there is nothing quite like the flavor and aroma of a vine-ripened and fresh-picked tomato. Most sold in stores today are picked while green and then ripened in produce containers by being treated with ethylene gas, a ripening agent which turns the tomatoes red. (n7)

    Researchers at a company called Calgene sought to capitalize on evidence available at the time which suggested that an enzyme "because of its ability to dissolve cell-wall pectin, was key to fruit softening. [By] prevent[ing] or drastically reduc[ing] the formation of [the enzyme] . . . their expectation was that the ripe fruit would remain ripe longer, perhaps even allowing it to be transported to market after vine-ripening." (n8) [Click here to read more about the creation of the FLAVR SAVR tomato.] The company believed that their product, which would have a longer shelf life and (presumably) taste better, could be sold at a premium price.

    After the appropriate approvals for the tomato were procured, it was introduced to the market under the brand name "McGregor" in May of 1994. Although the product itself was viable and a scientific success, problems arose. The following narrative from a 2001 book entitled Lords of the Harvest vividly depicts some of the difficulties encountered:

    Tomato growers generally collected two thousand boxes of tomatoes per acre from a typical field. Calgene, in its financial projections, assumed yields of fifteen hundred to eighteen hundred boxes per acre and expected that 40 percent of those tomatoes would be big and beautiful enough to be sold in stores for high prices under the brand name "McGregor." As it turned out, Calgene's fields produced, at most, eight hundred boxes per acre; more often it was four hundred. Equally catastrophic, only 20 percent of those were of McGregor quality. . . The harvest was poor in California, worse in Mexico, and horrible in Florida. In California the plants weren't leafy enough to protect the fruit from the hot sun, [and] in Florida they were decimated by diseases. (n9)

    Growing operations were curtailed while new varieties were developed with better growth characteristics. (n10) [But] things got worse. Calgene tried to pick, sort and ship tomatoes when they were red and ripe, which also meant that they were soft - FLAVR SAVR gene or no FLAVR SAVR gene. Tomatoes ended up split, crushed and thrown into dumpsters. The company bought special padded processing lines, originally built for peaches, to handle the vine-ripened fruit. The equipment helped but cost a truckload of money. (n11)

    The McGregors were also good for paste, and "more than 1.8 million cans, clearly labeled as derived from genetically engineered tomatoes, were sold from 1996 through 1999 in the U.K." (n12) However, two factors intervened to decimate sales. First, in an interview televised in Britain, a Dr. Arpad Pusztai reported on research he had conducted showing that "feeding rats genetically modified potatoes resulted in biological effects that could be attributed to the process of genetic engineering." (n13) His research was published in 1999 in the North American edition of the journal The Lancet (n14), and it subsequently generated a substantial amount of controversy. (n15) An independent review of the data caused Dr. Pusztai to later recant what he had stated in the interview. (n16) During this period, however, consumers' safety concerns had been heightened, and sales of the tomato eventually ceased.

"New Zealand Lakefront, South Island" 1985, 2005 Dorothy A. Birsic

The Hit: Virus-Resistant Papaya

    Papaya (carica papaya) is a perennial fruit crop originating in Central and South America but now widely grown throughout the tropical and subtropical regions. The fresh fruit is an important part of the diet in many developing countries, while the enzyme papain obtained from the green fruit is used in the pharmaceutical and food industries. (n17) In the U.S., much of the papaya crop is grown in Hawaii. In the 1950s the trees were devastated by a virus known as papaya ringspot virus (PRSV). The industry recovered and was fine again until the early 1990s when the virus re-emerged.

    When PRSV invades the growing papaya trees, it causes "mosaic, chlorosis and distortion of the leaves, water-soaked oily streaks . . . and the presence of characteristic ringspots on the fruit. Infected plants become stunted, debilatated and commercially worthless." (n18) Infected trees must be removed and destroyed.

    Scientists from Cornell University and the University of Hawaii bred a successful transgenic papaya line which was resistant to PRSV. The two cultivars from that line are called "Rainbow, a yellow-fleshed hybrid between a conventional papaya and a genetically enhanced one; and SunUp, a red-fleshed transgenic papaya." (n19) With the successful cultivation of the virus-resistant line of papaya, production of the crop, which had dropped from 53 million pounds in 1992 to 26 million pounds in 1998, had risen back up to 40 million pounds in 2001. (n20) Today about 53% of the papaya grown is planted with GM varieties of the fruit (n21) and sold throughout the U.S. and abroad (where permitted). [To view a fact sheet of FAQs concerning GM papaya, click here.]

To return to the top of the page, click here.

The Hope: Golden Rice

    "Rice is one of the world's oldest cereal crops, and together with wheat and corn, it is one of the core staple cereals worldwide today." (n22) Estimates are that anywhere from 88% (n23) to 94% (n24) of global rice production and consumption are currently found in Asia. Like the soy, cotton and corn discussed earlier, traits such as herbicide tolerance, disease and insect resistance, and salt and drought tolerance are being modified in rice for possible release between now and 2012. (n25) However, the transgenic rice which has been receiving the most attention is one not yet commercially available, pro-Vitamin A, or "golden" rice.

    Golden Rice is a new variety which has been genetically engineered to contain beta-carotene, a precursor which the human body converts to Vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is a problem in much of the developing world. "Worldwide nearly 134 million children are at risk for diseases related to VAD. Some 3.1 million preschool age children suffer from eye damage and nearly 2 million children under five years of age die each year from diseases linked to persistent VAD." (n26) "For adults the implications can be serious, too. . . Nearly 600,000 women die in childbirth-related causes each year, many of them from complications which could be reduced through better provision of Vitamin A." (n27) The poor, especially those with a lack of diversity in rice-dependent diets, are particularly susceptible to VAD as rice in its original state contains no beta-carotene. (n28) Since Golden Rice at present "would deliver amounts of Vitamin A that are modest," (n29) it would be considered more of a complement to measures such as food fortification and supplementation than the sole means of introducing beta-carotene into existing diets. "Optimists praise it as the solution to overcome malnutrition and VAD. [However], others denounce it as a mere child of the biotechnology lobby and consider it a useless and rather harmful innovation for the poor." (n30)

Intellectual Property and Golden Rice

    In a landmark 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Diamond vs. Chakrabarty, the patenting of a genetically modified bacterium was allowed. Since that time, the U.S. and other countries "have had to decide on the patentability of other biotechnological inventions, and some of the most contentious debates have been about the granting of patents on genetic material" (n31) (which to some is part of the common heritage of man, not an ownable property). Such patents often have claims "that cover nucleotide sequences that encode genes or fragments of genes (which allows them to be claimed as "property" of the patent holder). [To review the link concerning genes and DNA from Part I, click here.] The number of gene patents granted has risen dramatically since the second half of the 1990s. In 2001, over 5000 DNA patents were granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), more than the total for 1991 - 1995 combined." (n32) In addition, to the protection granted for genetic materials, other gene products and the tools used to create transgenic seeds and plants have also been granted patent protection.

    While on one hand this has allowed for the rapid growth of the biotechnology industry, there is concern that in many ways the proliferation of patents and the complexity of intellectual property law and obligations may stifle future research and product development. Permission for use of intellectual property may be granted on a research only basis to scientists seeking to develop new transgenic products. Once the product becomes commercially viable, though, it often can entail the payment of substantial licensing or royalty fees to the patent holder. Such was the case for Golden Rice.

    A 2000 study identified "a total of approximately 70 patents applying across different countries" (n33) for the components/intellectual property used in creating the rice. Subsequently, this required "either compensation for the owners (of the IP) or an action on their part to 'contribute' the technology for the public good." (n34) A compromise position was reached, however, in the case of Golden Rice. The "ground-breaking arrangement between AstraZeneca (now Syngenta) and the inventors of Vitamin-A rice (Potrykus, 1999) . . . permits farmers in the developing countries to earn up to $10,000 without paying royalties. The deal permits the company to commercialize the rice, whil[e] effectively providing it free to small farmers." (n35) While this is one example of the vision of many for using biotech as a means of solving problems of hunger and malnutrition in the lesser developed countries, the notion of providing the products for free also has its critics.

    One author writes, in regards to Golden Rice:

. . . Stop for a moment and think about what the intellectual property attorneys representing the biotechnology companies must think of this precedent. Once they develop a product of commercial value, the argument will be it is too important to sell for a profit but it must be released free of charge to countries in the developing world! Of course, the reality will be for technology owners to segment the world's market, that is to sell seeds to those who can afford them and give them to others. But this effort will be complicated by the fact seeds can replicate and they do not know who owns them. . . The economic problem with golden rice also illustrates another problem with the promise that biotechnology will answer the hunger problems in the third world. Assume for a moment golden rice works and is available commercially. If the technology is marketed like other GMO products, it will be priced at a premium above the market so the companies developing it can recoup their substantial investments and make a profit . . . Most biotechnology is being developed as private commodities. The question arises: is it reasonable to expect the research agenda of private biotechnology firms to focus on the needs of customers who cannot afford to pay for their products?" (n36)

[To view a picture of golden rice and read about it from an Indian perspective, click here.]

     

"Bryce Canyon, View 3" (left) and "Utah Scenery" (right) 1991, 2005 Dorothy A. Birsic

The Delay: Transgenic Wheat and Monsanto

    In Monsanto's 2003 annual report, entitled "A Clear Focus," a section is devoted to a discussion of products in their research and development pipeline. The report lists Roundup Ready wheat (a GM wheat tolerant of the Roundup herbicide) as being in the advanced development phase. Products in this phase are described as having an average probability of success (that the trait will ultimately become a commercial product) at 75%. (n37) In May of this year, however, the company announced it would halt "its efforts to introduce the world's first genetically engineered wheat, bowing to the concerns of American farmers that the crop would endanger billions of dollars of exports." (n38) Although the company didn't abandon the wheat project, Monsanto said "it might introduce the wheat perhaps in four to eight years, when other genetically engineered wheat might be ready for market." (n39)

    Why has development of GM wheat lagged behind that of crops like corn and soy? There are a number of reasons. "Wheat genetics are more complex; wheat is a smaller volume crop; exports are of greater relative importance; import country regulations are less defined; and competition among exporting countries is more intense."(n40) In addition, whereas some of the other GM crops like soy have uses in "animal feed . . . and food oils," wheat is more likely to be used directly in food." (n41) With resistance to most GM products still strong in the European Union and questionable in other parts of the world, American farmers did not appear ready to risk ceding any portion of overseas sales which "account for half the nation's crop." (n42)

    In general, trade in GM products can be a complicated matter, and some think the situation may become more complex due to an international agreement called the Cartagena Protocal for Biosafety. [Click here to view the text of the protocol. It is available in English, Spanish, French, Russian, Chinese and Arabic.] The treaty "helps member countries regulate the movement of GM organisms across national borders, . . . allows member nations to ban GM products that lack safety information, and requires labeling for international shipments." (n43) Not all countries have ratified the treaty. Although "the European Community, India and the United Kingdom [have], . . . the United States, China and the Russian Federation [have not]. Countries that are not members must still adhere to the protocol's provisions when shipping GM products to participating nations." (n44)


    These four cases illustrate fairly well the realities of modern agricultural biotechnology as applied to food products. The first generation of GM technologies, conveying input traits that primarily benefit farmers, have met with success in four major crops: soybeans, corn, cotton and canola. Second generation products, with output traits geared to benefit consumers, have been virtually nonexistent in the market. This has been due in part to consumer resistance to GM products. Other complications have arisen from extensive regulations and testing requirements, costly development processes and procedures, intellectual property restrictions or limitations, and the business realities encountered in bringing any product to market.

    Still, there are many novel and innovative second generation products which have been mentioned as being in the research or testing phases. These include:

  • Fruit and vegetables with longer shelf life

  • Pre-colored cotton (blue)

  • Iron-rich rice

  • Viral resistant pepper, tomato, cassava and sweet potato

  • Salt- and drought- tolerant plants (n45)

  • Canola and soybeans producing oils high in stearate and low in saturated fat

  • Canola with high beta-carotene content

  • Naturally decaf coffee (n46)

  • Potato, cassava and plantain with increased protein content (n47)

    The New York Times reports, however, that "the pace of new product introductions has fallen sharply. In the last three years only two crops a year have been the subject of consultations with the FDA before marketing. In the late 1990s it was not unusual for a dozen crops to go through this process each year." (n48) While the introduction of new GM food products appears to have slowed, applications for what are considered to be third generation products, plant-made pharmaceuticals (PMPs) appear to be on an upswing.

Plant-Made Pharmaceuticals

    In addition to the continued modification of plants for food uses, the third generation of agricultural biotechnology is expected to also bring "non-food products [in plants] creat[ing] new markets for agriculture." (n49) Among the types of products anticipated are crops producing industrial oils/plastics, (n50) and crops altered to create proteins that can be used to produce edible vaccines and antibiotics, (n51) food and feed additives, . . . human pharmaceuticals and industrial enzymes. (n52) [To view a chart of the industrial uses of soybeans, click here.] The process of producing pharmaceuticals in plants has come to be known as "biopharming." It is expected in the future that once the proteins produced in plants are extracted, "purified and subjected to FDA approval and appropriate clinical trials, they will provide the building blocks for drugs targeting cancer, heart disease, HIV, diabetes, Alzheimers and other debilatating illnesses." (n53)

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that in 2002, approximately 130 acres of pharmaceutical-producing plants were produced in experimental field tests at 34 sites, most being less than five acres. (n54) The department anticipates that the number of requests for permits and the scale of production of biopharmaceuticals will increase significantly in the next few years, and that appears to be happening. In June of this year the Center for Science in the Public Interest released information showing that in the last 12 months, 16 applications had been received by the USDA for biopharmaceuticals, two thirds of which involved pharmaceuticals grown in food crops. (n55) [To view a copy of the news release and link to a related report entitled "Sowing Secrecy," click here.]

    A problem with biopharming, as seen by both those opposed to genetic modification as well as some supporters, is the production of drugs in food crops. "The production of drugs or drug intermediates in food or feed crop species bears the potential danger that pharmaceutical substances could find their way into the food chain through grain admixture, or pollen-borne gene flow (in maize, at least) or some other accidental mixup because of the excusably human inability to distinguish between crops for food and crops for drugs." (n56) Recently, "approximately 75% of the pharm field test applications filed in the U.S. were for a single crop, corn, a major source of both food and feed in the U.S. and worldwide." (n57) Corn is considered valuable because it can be used as an edible vaccine and is stable at room temperature (making it easier to deliver to locations like Africa or Asia where refrigerated transport and storage of vaccines are often difficult). (n58) Other crops considered for use as edible vaccines are bananas and potatoes. (n59)

    Two incidents in the last few years have fueled concerns about GM crops in general, but have also heightened awareness of potential problems in biopharming. The first involved a type of bt (insect resistant, see Part I) corn called StarLink. Because of the insertion of a gene in the corn which coded for a "protein that share[d] several unusual molecular properties with known [human] food allergies," (n60) it was approved only for use in animal feed, not for human consumption. However, the corn inadvertently became mixed with other corn destined for human food products. In September 2000, DNA fragments from StarLink were found in taco shells sold in many major grocery stores. This started a "frenzy of recalls as other manufacturers discovered StarLink corn in their products. By November of 2000, the FDA exercised its enforcement authority to recall nearly three hundred types of adulterated snack chips, corn flour and other corn foods. The cost of these recalls ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars." (n61)

    In the second incident, a biotechnology company specializing in PMPs:

    . . . failed to follow government regulations for growing GM corn engineered to produce . . . a pig vaccine, . . . leading to a government order of the incineration of 63 ha of corn growing near the experimental site [in Iowa]. In Nebraska, engineered seed from the previous year's experiment grew as 'volunteer corn' in a field of soybeans [which were] subsequently harvested and transported to storage. Despite an APHIS inspector's request to collect/destroy the corn before the harvest of soybeans, some of those corn plants were harvested and ended up mixed with more than 17.5 million L (a half-million bushels) of stored soybeans. [The company] received a fine of $250,000. In addition, the USDA required it to buy and destroy the soybeans containing the GM corn at an approximate cost of $3.5 million.(n62)

    The USDA has acknowledged the special concerns involving the use of GM plants for making pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals, and in 2003 issued new guidelines for their production. Some of the changes in the guidelines are related to scientific measures to achieve confinement [prevention of co-mingling with other food or feed plants or materials], whereas others are related to the ways the USDA administers the program. (n63) An example of a complete permit with all conditions for plant species engineered to produce the substances mentioned above, can be viewed at http://www.aphis.usda.gov/ppq/biotech/pdf/sample_permit.pdf. In addition, the National Research Council, part of the National Academy of Sciences, has released a report on bioconfinement measures. Click here to read that report. For further information on PMPs and future uses of agricultural biotechnology, including the genetic modification of trees, flowers, industrial and pharmaceutical products, animals, aquatic organisms and insects, click on either of the highlighted links in this sentence.

"Lower Plitvice Lakes, Croatia" 1983, 2005 Dorothy A. Birsic

The Promise: Agricultural Biotechnology and the World

    In general, "the vision and hopes associated with future biotechnologies are occasionally framed in terms of slogans proclaiming 'the promise of biotechnology.'" (n64) This notion can include the prospect of better and presumably healthier foods reaching greater numbers of people. The phrase has also come to be identified with hopes for the technologies in providing solutions to hunger and malnourishment in the developing world, particularly Africa. In the last few years the debate has taken on global dimensions, so much so that one author has referred to it as "The Global Food Fight." (n65)

From "Green Revolution" to "Gene Revolution"

    The term Green Revolution generally refers to the dramatic improvements in agricultural productivity over the last forty years or so which have allowed today's farmers to "feed almost twice as many people from virtually the same cropland base." (n66) The advances made during this time came primarily from "modern plant breeding, improved agronomy and the development of inorganic fertilizers and modern pesticides." (n67) Although the advances were widespread, they did not reach everywhere. Europe, North America, and parts of Asia and Latin America experienced significant gains in agricultural production, but not sub-Saharan Africa. "Poor infrastructure, high transport costs, limited investment in irrigation, and pricing and marketing policies that penalized farmers made the Green Revolution technologies too expensive or inappropriate for much of Africa." (n68)

    During this period many of the benefits experienced in the developing world came not from the private sector or multinationals, but from "governments, international financial instutitions and private philanthropies (especially the Ford and Rockefeller foundations)." (n69) Development of new strains of rice and wheat came from organizations such as the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines and the Center for Maize and Wheat Improvment (CIMMYT) in Mexico. In addition, "a full-fledged system of international agricultural research centers [which] now work on many aspects of developing country agriculture (the Future Harvest Centers that make up the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research [CGIAR])" (n70) was put into place. After new strains of crops were developed, "adapted local varieties were . . . replicated by national seed companies and given away to farmers. Intellectual property rights were not an issue, since government agencies wanted the seeds to spread as fast as possible."(n71)

    In the last decade or so, however, much changed.

  • Public investment in agricultural research slowed dramatically (n72)

  • Annual foreign aid to poor countries fell by 57% (1988-96) and World Bank lending for agriculture and rural development fell by 47% (1986-98) (n73)

  • Funding increases at the international agricultural research centers slowed (n74)

  • Private sector research in agricultural technologies such as biotechnology grew (with little of it taking place in developing countries) (n75)

  • Private firms took the lead in applying the tools of genetic engineering in agriculture (n76)

  • Key technologies in the biotech field became protected as intellectual property and concentrated in the hands of a small number of large multinational corporations based in North America and Western Europe (n77)

  • The structure of world agriculture changed rapidly, especially the vertical integration of corporations, with growing concentration at every stage of the food chain (n78)

    In addition to all of the above, "most investments in agricultural biotechnology have centered on widely-consumed crops that are traded internationally such as maize, rice, wheat, cotton, soybeans and canola. Neither the public nor private sector has invested significantly in genetic technologies in the more diverse or 'orphan' crops that are often critical in the world's most disadvantaged regions." (n79) These situations are at the center of the debate about not only what role agricultural biotechnology will play in poorer parts of the world such as Africa, but also about who will own and control access to the technologies and products of the technologies.

"Plitvice Lakes, Croatia" 1983, 2005 Dorothy A. Birsic

A Debate of Global Dimension

    The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations was founded in 1943 and has at its core a mandate "to raise levels of nutrition, improve agricultural productivity, better the lives of rural populations and contribute to the growth of the world economy." (n80) The organization cites food security for all as being at the heart of its efforts - making sure people have regular access to enough high-quality food to lead active, healthy lives. (n81) Every year the FAO puts out a report on the "State of Food and Agriculture." The 2003 - 2004 report was also titled, "Agricultural Biotechnology: Meeting the Needs of the Poor?" It was released in May of this year and can be viewed by clicking here.

    The report is fairly detailed, and in its conclusion, some of the points made concerning agricultural biotechnology include:

  • Agricultural production systems in developing countries are complex and diverse. Many producers are small-scale and resource-poor, and for such producers some biotech innovations may be inappropriate.

  • Some transgenic crops, especially insect-resistant cotton, are yielding significant economic gains to small farmers as well as important social and environmental benefits.

  • The changing locus of agricultural research from the public sector to the private transnational sector has important implications for the kinds of products that are being developed, how those products are commercialized, and who receives the benefits.

  • Biotechnology is not a panacea but a resource that can be useful when combined with adaptive research capacity.

  • Environmental effects in terms of pesticide reduction can be positive.(n82)

     The report also goes on to state that "the problem is that biotechnology cannot overcome gaps in infrastructure, regulation, markets, seed systems, and extension services that hinder the delivery of agricultural technologies to poor farmers in remote areas. Neither can it overcome the institutional failures, market failures and policy failures that hinder all efforts to promote agricultural and rural development in many countries." (n83)

    Within a month of the report's release, an open letter was sent to Jacques Diouf, Director General of the FAO. It criticized both the report and its conclusions, calling it a "politically-motivated public relations exercise to support the biotechnology industry [which] promotes the genetic engineering of seeds and further skewing of research funding towards this technology and away from ecologically sound methods developed by farmers." (n84)

    The letter continues alleging that the new gene revolution only exacerbates the problems of the Green Revolution and stating that "the more farmers are dependent on the biotech industry, the fewer options they will have to support and further develop their own farming and livelihood systems. It is unacceptable that FAO endorses the need for intellectual property for corporations. This amounts to FAO support for corporate biopiracy since the genetic resources that corporations seek to patent result from the collective breeding work of farmers over thousands of years." (n85) On the website of the organization coordinating the letter (http://www.grain.org/), it is claimed that 650 civil society organizations and 800 individuals from over 80 countries have signed the document.(n86) [Links to the FAO report, the open letter to Mr. Diouf and his reponse can be reached by clicking here.] Many of the elements of the arguments in the letter mirror those discussed in Part I in the debate over organic farming as opposed to genetic modification.

    In addition, the events playing out on the African continent mirror much of the U.S./European divide on GM foods already discussed. "In 2002, several African countries debated whether to accept food aid - including corn developed with biotechnology - from the United States. Fanned by biotech critics in Europe, opponents of that aid raised concerns that the food . . . could be unsafe for the hungry in Africa and could jeopardize future agricultural exports to the European Union." (n87) Only Zambia ended up refusing the aid. However, many of the same groups lobbying to keep GM products out of Europe are doing the same in Africa. "Over the past few years, international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved in development, such as Oxfam, Christian Aid, and Action Aid have joined with their environmentalist cousins from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth" (n88) in those actions. The other side of the argument does not go unrepresented on the continent either. "The United States and its private-sector allies would like the laws in African countries to reflect their own views - that GM technology is inherently safe unless proven otherwise, and that countries should not be allowed to refuse GM imports just because they don't particularly want to eat GM food." (n89)

    The issues and concerns have not gone unrecognized, though. In 2003, a new initiative led by the Rockefeller Foundation, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), was announced. It was formed in collaboration with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the United Kingdom Department of International Development, and the companies Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow and DuPont. "One of the goals of the AATF is to find solutions to the complex intellectual property arrangements that often hamper plant biotech research and development in Africa. In addition to certain patent rights, the companies will donate seed varieties, laboratory expertise, and other aid to African scientists." (n90) The foundation will be led by Eugene Terry, the former director-general of the West Africa Rice Development Association who "says its priorities will be driven by the demands of African farmers." (n91) Regardless of whether it is in Africa or other parts of the developing world, experts seem to agree that "policymakers in developing countries . . . need to carve out a greater measure of independence from the GM food debate in Europe and the United States. Much larger investments of their own in basic and applied agricultural research will be necessary to achieve this autonomy. New investments in locally generated technology represent not just a path to sustainable food security for the rural poor in these countries; in today's knowledge-driven world, such investments are increasingly the key to independence itself." (n92)

*    *    *

    "Whether we support or oppose them, GMOs are already with us and will only increase in both number and impact. Our best course of action is to learn the facts behind GM technology and each GM product, as well as their conventional alternatives. Then we can ignore both the scaremongers and the soothsayers, and consider the risks and benefits of genetic technology from different perspectives and in proper context. The only way to keep from being overwhelmed is by using your tools to learn the facts and decide for yourself." Alan McHughen, from Pandora's Picnic Basket (n93)


"(Dried) Ducks in a Row" 1985 Dorothy A. Birsic

FOOTNOTES - The following are the footnotes indicated in the text in parentheses with the letter "n" and a number. If you click the asterisk at the end of the footnote, it will take you back to the paragraph where you left off.

n1 - USDA, Economic Research Service, Economic Issues in Agricultural Biotechnology, AIB-762, Washington D.C., February 2001, p. 9(*)

n2 - Ibid.(*)

n3 - United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Acreage Report, Washington D.C., June 2003, pp. 24-25(*)

n4 - California Council on Science and Technology, Benefits and Risks of Food Biotechnology, Sacramento, 2002, p. 5(*)

n5 - Craddock, Neville. "Flies in the Soup: European GM Labelling Legislation," Nature Biotechnology, Vol. 22, No. 4, April 2004, p. 384(*)

n6 - Khachatourians, George G., McHughen, Alan, Scorza, Ralph, Nip, Wai-kit and Hui, Y.H., eds. Transgenic Plants and Crops. New York/Basel: Marcel Dekker, Inc. 2000, pp. x - xiii.(*)

n7 - Campbell, Neil A. Biology, 3rd Edition Redwood City, CA: Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Company, 1993, p. 765(*)

n8 - Bruening, G. and Lyon, J.M. "The Case of the Flavr Savr Tomato," California Agriculture, Vol. 54, No. 4, July/August 2000, p. 6(*)

n9 - Charles, Daniel. Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money and the Future of Food Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2001, p. 143(*)

n10 - Nottingham, Stephen. Eat Your Genes, 2nd Edition. New York: Zed Books, 2003, p. 65(*)

n11 - Charles, p. 144(*)

n12 - Bruening and Lyon, p. 7(*)

n13 - Ibid.(*)

n14 - Ewen, Stanley W.B. and Pusztai, Arpad. "Effects of Diets Containing Genetically Modified Potatoes Expressing Galanthus Nivalis Lectin on Rat Small Intestines," The Lancet (North American Edition), Vol. 354, October 16, 1999, p. 1353(*)

n15 - Correspondence, The Lancet (North American Edition), Vol. 354, November 13, 1999, pp. 1725-1729(*)

n16 - Bruening and Lyon, p. 7(*)

n17 - Lines, Rosemarie E., Persley, Denis, Dale, James, Drew, Roderick, and Bateson, Marion F. "Genetically Engineered Immunity to Papaya Ringspot Virus in Australian Papaya Cultivars," Molecular Breeding 10:119-129, 2002, Klewer Academic Publishers, on-line full-text journal, p. 19(*)

n18 - Ibid.(*)

n19 - Biotechnology Industry Organization website, www.bio.org, page: Agricultural Biotech Products on the Market, (viewed 5/7/2004) (*)

n20 - Gonsalves, Dennis, "Virus-Resistant Transgenic Papaya Helps Save Hawaiian Industry," California Agriculture, Vol. 58, No. 2, April - June 2004, p. 92(*)

n21 - Alstron, Julian M. "Horticultural Biotechnology Faces Significant Economic and Market Barriers," California Agriculture, Vol. 58, No. 2, April - June 2004, p. 86(*)

n22 - Kryder, R. David, Kowalski, Stanley P. and Krattiger, Anatole F. "The Intellectual and Technical Property Components of pro-Vitamin A Rice (Golden Rice): A Preliminary Freedom-to-Operate Review. ISAAA Brief #20-2000, p. 1(*)

n23 - Brooks, Graham, and Barfoot, Peter. "GM Rice: Will This Lead the Way for Global Acceptance of GM Crop Technology?" ISAAA Brief No. 28, Ithaca, NY, 2003, p. 44(*)

n24 - Kryder, et al., p. 1(*)

n25 - Brooks and Barfoot, p. 16(*)

"Nepalese Temple Monkeys" 1985, 2005 Dorothy A. Birsic

n26 - Kryder, et al., p. 1(*)

n27 - Somer, A. and West, K.P. Jr., "Vitamin A Deficiency: Health, Survival and Vision," NY: Oxford University Press, 1996 in Zimmermann, Roukayatou and Qaim, Matin, "Potential Health Benefits of Golden Rice: A Philippine Case Study," Food Policy 29(2004), p. 148(*)

n28 - Dawe, D., Robertson R. and Unnevehr, L., "Golden Rice: What Role Could it Play in Alleviation of Vitamin A Deficiency?" Food Policy, on-line full-text version, Vol. 27, Issues 5-6, October/December 2002, p. 3 of 19 (p. 543?)(*)

n29 - Ibid., p. 541(*)

n30 - Zimmermann, Roukayatou and Qaim, Matin, "Potential Health Benefits of Golden Rice: A Philippine Case Study," Food Policy 29(2004), p. 148(*)

n31 - OECD, "Genetic Inventions, Intellectual Property Rights and Licensing Practices: Evidence and Policies," Paris: OECD, 2002. Online at oecd.org/dataoced/42/21/2491084.pdf, p. 7(*)

n32 - Ibid., p. 8(*)

n33 - Graff, Gregory D., Wright, Brian D., Bennett, Alan B., and Zilberman, David, "Access to Intellectual Property is a Major Obstacle to Developing Transgenic Horticultural Crops," California Agriculture, Vol. 58, No. 2, April - June 2004, p. 124.(*)

n34 - Hamilton, Neil D. "Legal Issues Shaping Society's Acceptance of Biotechnology and Genetically Modified Organisms," 6 Drake Agricultural Law Journal, No. 1, Spring 2001, p. 116.(*)

n35 - Pretty, Jules. "The Rapid Emergence of Genetic Modification in World Agriculture: Contested Risks and Benefits," Environmental Conservation 28 Vol. 3, 2001, p. 257(*)

n36 - Hamilton, pp. 116-117(*)

n37 - Monsanto Company, 2003 Annual Report: A Clear Focus. St. Louis: Monsanto, November 2003, p. 13(*)

n38 - Pollack, Andrew. "Monsanto Shelves Plans for Modified Wheat," New York Times, May 11, 2004, p. C1(*)

n39 - Ibid., p. C8(*)

n40 - Wilson, William W., Janzen, Edward L., and Dahl, Bruce L. "Issues in the Development and Adoption of Genetically Modified (GM) Wheats," AgBioForum 6 (3), p. 101(*)

n41 - Pollack, p. C1(*)

n42 - Ibid., p. C8(*)

n43 - "Introduction: Transgenic Acreage Grows Amid Changing Regulation," California Agriculture, Vol. 58, No. 2, April - June 2004, p. 73(*)

n44 - Ibid.(*)

n45 - Pretty, p. 251(*)

n46 - Economic Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), "Economic Issues in Agricultural Biotechnology," AIB-762, February 2001, p. 19(*)

n47 - Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, "Harvest on the Horizon: Future Uses of Agricultural Biotechnology," September 2001, p. 43(*)

n48 - Pollack, Andrew, "Narrow Path for New Biotech Food Crops," New York Times, May 20, 2004, p. C1(*)

n49 - Shoemaker, Robbin, Johnson, D. Demcey and Golan, Elise. "Consumers and the Future of Biotech Foods in the United States," Amber Waves, Economic Research Service, USDA, November 2003. Online article available at www.ers.usda.gov/AmberWaves/November03/Features/futureofbiotech.htm, p. 3 of 6 (in online document)(*)

n50 - Pretty, p. 251(*)

n51 - Shoemaker, et al., p. 3 of 6 (in online document)(*)

n52 - Hood, Elizabeth E., Horn, Michael E., and Howard, John A. "Production and Application of Proteins from Transgenic Plants," in Vasil, I. K., ed. Plant Biotechnology 2002 and Beyond. Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003, p. 377(*)

n53 - Redick, Thomas P. "Biopharming, Biosafety and Billion Dollar Debacles: Preventing Liability for Biotech Crops," 8 Drake Journal of Agricultural Law 115, Spring 2003, Lexis/Nexis online full-text document, p. 2(*)

n54 - Federal Register, "Field Testing of Plants Engineered to Produce Pharmaceutical and Industrial Compounds," Vol. 68, No. 46, March 10, 2003, p. 11338(*)

n55 - Center for Science in the Public Interest, "Genetic Engineers Back Growing Drugs in Food Crops," online news release availabel at: http://cspinet.org/new/200406021.html(*)

n56 - "Drugs in Crops - The Unpalatable Truth," Nature Biotechnology, Vol. 22, No. 2, February 2004, p. 133(*)

n57 - Ellstrand, Norman, "Going to 'Great Lengths' to Prevent the Escape of Genes that Produce Specialty Chemicals," Plant Physiology, Vol. 132, 2003, p. 1771(*)

n58 - Hood, et al., p. 378(*)

n59 - Pretty, p. 251(*)

n60 - Bratspies, Rebecca M. "Myths of Voluntary Compliance: Lessons From the StarLink Corn Fiasco," 27 William and Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review 593, Spring 2003, Lexis/Nexis online full-text article, p. 3 (of online document)(*)

n61 - Ibid., p. 1 (of online document)(*)

n62 - Ellstrand, p. 1770(*)

n63 - Federal Register, p. 11337 - 11340(*)

n64 - Burkhardt, Jeffrey, "Biotechnology's Future Benefits: Prediction or Promise?" AgBioForum, 5(2) 2002, p. 21(*)

n65 - Paarlberg, Robert, "The Global Food Fight," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 79, No. 3, May/June 2000, pp. 24 - 38(*)

n66 - Pardey, Philip and Beintema, Nienke M. Slow Magic: Agricultural R&D A Century After Mendel, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), 2001, p. 1(*)

n67 - IFPRI, Green Revolution: Curse or Blessing?, Washington D.C., IFPRI, 2002, p. 1(*)

n68 - Ibid., p. 3(*)

n69 - Paarlberg, pp. 34 - 35(*)

n70 - IFPRI, Green Revolution, p. 2(*)

n71 - Paarlberg, p. 35(*)

n72 - Pardley and Beintema, p. 3(*)

n73 - Paarlberg, pp. 35 - 36(*)

n74 - Pardley and Beintema, p. 8(*)

n75 - Ibid., p. 10(*)

n76 - IFPRI, IFPRI Annual Report, 2000 - 2001, Washington, D.C.: IFPRI, p. 13(*)

n77 - Pardley and Beintema, pp. 20 - 21(*)

n78 - Pretty, p. 256(*)

n79 - Naylor, Rosamond L., Falcon, Walter P., Goodman, Robert M., Jahn, Molly M., Sengooba, Theresa, Tefera, Hailu, and Nelson, Rebecca. "Biotechnology In The Developing World: A Case for Increased Investments in Orphan Crops," Food Policy 29 (2004), p. 16(*)

n80 - www.fao.org/UNFAO/about/mandate_en.html(*)

n81 - Ibid.(*)

n82 - United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), The State of Food and Agriculture 2003 - 2004; Agricultural Biotechnology: Meeting the Needs of the Poor?, Online document available at www.fao.org/docrep/006/Y5160E/y5160e00.htm, Section C, Part 9, Conclusions: Meeting the Needs of the Poor(*)

n83 - Ibid.(*)

n84 - "FAO Declares War on Farmers Not on Hunger," www.grain.org, online document available at www.grain.org/front/front_files/fao-open-letter-june-2004-final-en.pdf, p. 1(*)

n85 - Ibid., p. 2(*)

n86 - www.grain.org, online indication on website home page(*)

n87 - Thrane, Linda, "Editor's Note," Council for Biotechnology Information, In Focus, Vol. 2, No. 1, February 2003, p. 1(*)

n88 - Masood, Ehsan. "A Continent Divided," Nature, Vol. 426, No. 6964, 20 November 2003, p. 225(*)

n89 - Ibid.(*)

n90 - United States House of Representative, Committee on Science, Subcommittee on Research, #108-16, "Plant Biotechnology Research and Development in Africa: Challenges and Opportunities," June 12, 2003, p. 7(*)

n91 - Hoag, Hannah, "Biotech Firms Join Charities in Drive to Help Africa's Farms," Nature, Vol. 422, No. 6929, 20 March 2003, p. 246(*)

n92 - Paarlberg, p. 38(*)

n93 - McHughen, Alan. Pandora's Picnic Basket, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 263(*)

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The list of links included in Part II of the essay is as follows:

  • FLAVR SAVR - www.agbios.com/dbase.php?action=ShowProd&data=FLAVR+SAVR

  • Papaya FAQs- www.whybiotech.com/index.asp?id=1646

  • DNA/Genes - www.dnafromthebeginning.org

  • Golden Rice - www.fbae.org/Channels/agri_biotech/rice/golden_rice.htm

  • Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety - www.biodiv.org/biosafety/protocol.asp

  • Industrial Uses of Soy - www.soystats.com/2004/industrialuses.htm

  • "Genetic Engineers Back Growing Drugs in Food Crops" and "Sowing Secrecy", Center for Science in the Public Interest - http://cspinet.org/new/200406021.html

  • National Research Council Bioconfinement Report - www.nap.edu/books/0309090857/html

  • Pew Initiative on Food And Biotechnolgy, "Pharming in the Field" workshop proceedings - http://pewagbiotech.org/events/0717

  • Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnolgy, "Harvest on the Horizon: Future Uses of Agricultural Biotechnology" (2001) - http://pewagbiotech.org/research/harvest

  • U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), "State of Food and Agriculture 2003-2004: Agricultural Biotechnology - Meeting the Nees of the Poor?" - http://www.fao.org/docrep/006/Y5160E/y5160e00.htm

  • Respose from head of FAO; links to open letter from NGOs and Food and Agriculture report - www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2004/46429/index.html

  • *** If for some reason you are unable to access the last two links, they can also be reached by going to the fao.org home page and clicking on the word "biotechnology" on the left side of the page ***


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