Judging the Facts About Biotechnology – a producer’s perspective


Judging the Facts About Biotechnology
– Reg Clause, AgWeb, June 25, 2010
http://www.agweb.com (Jefferson, IA – Board member, Truth About Trade & Technology)

In the Supreme Court’s first-ever ruling on genetically modified crops, the justices issued a resounding decision in favor of biotechnology. The Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s decision to impose a nationwide ban on GM alfalfa.

The Supreme Court is famous for its 5-4 split decisions, especially in cases that generate political controversy. The alfalfa ruling, however, was no nail-biter. The justices ruled 7-1 in favor of biotechnology.

The case marks a clear victory for American farmer choice in the matter of biotech seed. It affirms the idea that relevant government agencies and regulators set the rules that govern agriculture – and those rules must be science-based. The United States has benefited since its founding from a process of lawmaking and regulatory rules making. When this is subverted by finding friendly courts or endlessly clogging our processes with frivolous suits, nobody benefits except the very narrow interest groups who happen to oppose progress.

Technically, the ruling in Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms was procedural. Important legal and regulatory decisions lie ahead as the Department of Agriculture finishes an environmental assessment of GM alfalfa. Farmers like myself agree with a robust and continuous process that assures me and all Americans that our food is safe and always available.

Yet the case also sets farmers on a course that may allow them to take full advantage of what GM alfalfa has to offer and opens up the possibility for plantings to begin within a few months.

Those opposing biotechnology obviously were hoping for a different result. For them, resorting to litigation was a desperate maneuver. They’ve lost significant battles over GM crops in just about every other arena.

Farmers across the country are adopting and planting GM crops as soon as they become available because the value is there in improved productivity and quality. This spring marks the 15th year that biotech crops are being planted in the U.S. Today, the vast majority of corn, soybeans, and cotton are genetically enhanced to fight weeds and bugs. The broader public has responded favorably as well, especially when there is objective information provided. Of course the public might be against GM seed if they are told there might be a problem. That’s why I’m writing this article. I haven’t seen these problems, research scientist inside and outside the industry haven’t been able to show these problems and our regulators didn’t find these supposed problems. The American people need to know that. Let’s put some trust but verify into action on this important subject and question those who oppose important new things, “just because.”

As a farmer I do not take more risk than I can justify. My legacy is my farm and the young people I leave to farm it. When I see the decades of regulatory research into biotech seeds and the billions of acres planted over the years, I simply ask a question. When there are no negative outcomes in the environment or human health discovered after so many years, is there not a point when those fearful of biotechnology can admit there is no longer need to just fear? I want the regulatory functions to go on and get better if anything, but simply stopping progress with the courts is not a way to facilitate proper research and rules development.

Science also has come down solidly on the side of biotechnology. Research has shown that these plants pose no threat to anybody and may even enhance human health as new traits that improve nutrition become available. On the environmental front, GM crops have let farmers adopt no-till methods that fight soil erosion. Gains in yield allow farmers to produce more food on each acre of land, thereby reducing the pressure on wilderness areas.

The anti-biotech activists are applying a cynical approach to science, technology, and food production by hiring lawyers and seeking out friendly court venues. Yet these professional rabble-rousers have a lot invested in their litigious scheme. The Supreme Court’s decision probably isn’t enough to make them abandon it completely. Even if they don’t win on alfalfa, they’ll try to win on sugar beets–another important crop that they are attempting to thwart.

The good news is that the Supreme Court’s ruling will make it harder for them to succeed. My goal in farming is to improve the environment in my care and provide ever safer food for Americans and the world.

All across our land I hope for us to all come together around achievable goals like mine. If there are legitimate objections to the adoption of new farming tools such as biotech seeds, I’m waiting to hear them and would want to see such objections thoroughly handled. Right now the objections appear to come without merit attached. So sayeth our Supreme Court.


Why our fears don’t always match the facts… looking at GM Salmon

How Risky Is It, Really? – Why our fears don’t always match the facts

– David Ropeik, Psychology Today, June 28, 2010
‘Uh, Oh. FrankenSalmon! Why is genetically modified food so scary?’

The psychology of risk perception is really powerful when it concerns food. Imagine sitting down to a lovely meal of grilled salmon, firm, moist, delicious—-
and genetically engineered. Does that sound different than firm, moist, delicious wild salmon? Or firm, moist, delicious farm-raised salmon? Probably. But why. Salmon is salmon is salmon right?

Well, no, you might say. With genetic engineering there might be a gene in there from a peanut or a potato or a pig. They can mix anything they want together these days. What if I told you that the only genes in the entire salmon, are salmon genes. The genetic engineering just took genes from one species that matures faster, the Chinook, and put them in the Atlantic salmon which people like to eat and which can be farm-raised and mass produced, so the salmon grows to its normal size faster. (They also put in a gene from a salmon relative, the ocean pout, to turn the Chinook growth gene on.)

But wait, you say. There was nothing on the label that said it was genetically engineered. That’s because the Food and Drug Administration long ago ruled that food that is the same after genetic engineering as it was before is, well, the same, so it doesn’t have to be labeled as different. It’s like milk produced from cows injected with Bovine Growth Hormone, the natural hormone from cows that stimulates milk production. Put more BGH in the cow and you get more milk, but the milk is the same milk. Well, this is the same salmon.

But wait, you say. These genetically engineered salmon could interbreed with wild salmon, and then humans are messing with nature. To avoid just that problem, the genetically engineered salmon will only be sold as eggs, to companies that breed their salmon in inland tanks. Oh, and the eggs will produce females that are sterile.

But wait, you say. The government won’t release all the documents on how this genetically engineered fish is being produced. The FDA says that’s because it regulates genetic modification of food the same way it regulates new pharmaceuticals. To protect companies that invest billions developing new drugs, trade secrets are kept secret. (So are the formula for Coke and the recipe for Thomas’s English Muffins, by the way, and we eat those industrially produced foods.)

That’s a lot of “Yeah, buts—” before you finally dig into the salmon, albeit hesitantly. What’s all the hesitation about? Do you know all you need to know about how genetic engineering is done to make a fully informed rational choice about this perceived risk? No? Do you have all the time to go learn up on it, or all the background knowledge and smarts you’ll need to understand all that science? Nope. Then, if we’re talking about a judgment that is not purely rational, i.e. purely fact-based, where do these fears come from?

The perception of genetically modified food is like the perception of any risk, a combination of the facts and how those facts feel, a mix of reason and gut reaction. GM food has several unique characteristics that psychologists have determined make some things feel scarier than others. It’s human-made, and that alone makes it scarier than a risk that’s natural. We’re more afraid of what we can’t detect ourselves, what we don’t understand, and what we’re exposed to involuntarily (remember your complaint about no labels?). We depend on the government to keep us safe, but we don’t completely trust the government, and that lack of trust feeds greater worry (ergo the complaints about secrets).

None of this has anything to do with the fact that the genetically modified salmon is 100% salmon, just grown up faster. But the psychological lenses of risk perception ,through which we filter what information we do have, mean that genetically modified food that is essentially identical to the natural kind, which offers the promise of more sustainable production of more protein at less cost, is going to bump up against resistance from people who, as we all do to some degree, just naturally worry about risks that are human-made, hard to understand, invisible and undetectable, imposed on us, and that a not-completely trusted bureaucracy is supposed to protect us from.

The opponents will argue all those facts that you just argued a few moments ago, but it will be their (our) underlying perception psychology doing the talking. It will be interesting, a few years from now, to listen in on the conversation they have with friends who invite them for dinner, and serve salmon.


How Risk Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Match the Facts

– new book by David Ropeik, Hardcover: 288 pages, McGraw-Hill; February 8, 2010 * ISBN-10: 0071629696, Amazon.com $16.47

International risk expert David Ropeik takes an in-depth look at our perceptions of risk and explains the hidden factors that make us unnecessarily afraid of relatively small threats and not afraid enough of some really big ones. This read is a comprehensive, accessible, and entertaining mixture of what’s been discovered about how and why we fear-too much or too little. It brings into focus the danger of The Perception Gap: when our fears don’t match the facts, and we make choices that create additional risks.

This book will not decide for you what is really risky and what isn’t. That’s up to you. HOW RISKY IS IT, REALLY? will tell you how you make those decisions. Understanding how we perceive risk is the first step toward making wiser and healthier choices for ourselves as individuals and for society as a whole.

David Ropeik is an international consultant and widely sought-after public speaker on risk perception and risk communication. Ropeik is an instructor at the Harvard University Extension School’s Environmental Management Program and taught risk perception and risk communication at Harvard School of Public Heath


ESFA Meet on on environmental risk assessment of GM plants

The following is an article from SeedQuest  on the  outcomes of the recent meetings of EFSA around  environmental risk assessments and GM plants.  Attached are several supporting documents including: public consultation and scientific opinion docs and  reports from stakeholder meetings in December of 2009.




Berlin, Germany
June 17, 2010

Webcast of the meeting – http://www.flyonthewall.com/FlyBroadcast/efsa.europa.eu/TechnicalMeeting0610/index.php?language=english&stream=wmv

EFSA scientists held a day of discussions with experts from Member States on the newest scientific developments and approaches to assess possible environmental risks from genetically modified (GM) plants. Experts in the field of environmental risk assessment of GM plants from Member State authorities and members of GMO Panel Working Groups reviewed a guidance document outlining how EFSA carries out its environmental risk assessment (ERA) of GM plants and the data requirements which must be met by applicants.

Participants at the technical meeting held in Berlin discussed comments made by Member States following a public consultation on the draft EFSA guidance document as well as a draft scientific opinion addressing the specific issue of non-target organisms (NTOs)[1]. The meeting was webcastlive on EFSA’s website.

EFSA’s GMO Panel continuously seeks to ensure that its risk assessment approach reflects the scientific state-of-the-art in its guidance to applicants It regularly reviews all its guidance documents on GM plants with updates made in 2005, 2006 and 2008. Since 2007, the GMO Panel has been further developing and strengthening its environmental risk assessment (ERA) which is now the subject of the separate guidance document discussed in Berlin. This focuses on potential long-term environmental effects, the potential effects on non-target organisms, and criteria for setting up field trials, taking into account the diverse environments where the GM plant will be cultivated.

”The ERA should follow a step-by-step approach, according to the clearly defined framework laid out in the guidance. Each GMO is unique and must be assessed individually. This requires specific evaluation of the plant, its traits, how it will be used and its possible interactions with the receiving environment,” said Professor Salvatore Arpaia, chair of the GMO Panel’s Working Group on Non-Target Organisms.

When carrying out their assessment, independent experts of EFSA’s GMO Panel use their extensive knowledge and wide experience in evaluating the data provided by applicants as well as all other available scientific literature.

More than 250 comments were received from Member States during the public consultation of the draft ERA guidance. At the meeting, EFSA experts explained specific areas which have to be addressed by applicants and experts carrying out the risk assessment. These include: the possibility of gene transfer between the plant and micro-organisms, the potential invasiveness of the plant itself; the plant’s potential effects on: human and animal health, including both target and non-target organisms; and the implications for cultivation, management and harvesting techniques.

With respect to non-target organisms (NTOs), the draft opinion of the GMO Panel sets out proposals on the criteria for the selection of NTOs and advice on testing methodology. EFSA’s Working Group on NTOs considered the impact of GM plants on invertebrates and also took account of ecosystems that could be altered.

This meeting follows technical discussions during the preparation of the ERA and NTO opinions held last year with Member States and stakeholders such as applicants, environmental groups and non-governmental organisations.[2]

EFSA works closely with Member States in the environmental risk assessment of GMOs; for instance, for cultivation applications for GM plants, an initial environmental risk assessment is carried out by one Member State, which can be assisted by and share expertise with other Member States.

EFSA engages in dialogue with Member States and takes into consideration comments they may have.[3] The discussions at the Berlin meeting will help inform EFSA’s GMO Panel and its Working Groups in view of finalising the documents which are due to be adopted and published by November 2010.

All supporting documents of the Berlin meeting will be published on EFSA’s website as will a written report and video recording of the meeting.

Meeting documents

GMO EFSA Public cons doc April 2010.pdf
Download this file

GMO EFSA Scientific opinion doc April 2010.pdf
Download this file

EFSA Stakeholder2009.12.18_meeting_report_18June (1).pdf
Download this file

EFSA Stakeholder2009-12-18_meeting report 17 June (1).pdf
Download this file

EFSA Stakeholder2009 12 18_meeting_report_16June.pdf
Download this file

mapping the Canadian and EU flax supply chain: a systematic analysis to estimate costs associated with AP & Triffid Flax

Centre for Society and Genomic’s “Ten Years After: Mapping the Societal Genomic Landscape” Conference
May 2010

Smyth&Ryan-AP 2010 Extended Abstract.pdf
Download this file

ISAAA Videos and Podcasts on Global Status of Biotech/GM Crops


The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) has co-produced a series of six short videos on /Highlights of the Global Status of Biotech Crops/. Dr. Clive James, ISAAA Founder and Chair, provides a focused and comprehensive analysis of the different themes of the video series. All six videos are available in video streaming or in downloadable format at the ISAAA website (http://www.isaaa.org ) or in YouTube. The topics of the videos are:

* The Norman Borlaug Legacy
* Global Adoption of Biotech Crops
* Biotech Crops in Developing Countries: The Significance of Bt Rice
and Phytase Maize in China
* The Global Impact of Biotech Crops
* The Future Prospects of Biotech Crops
* The Mission of ISAAA: Knowledge Sharing

Web visitors may also subscribe to podcasts to be alerted on new videos such as those mentioned above, audio files and PDFs by visiting http://www.isaaa.org/rss/podcast/default.asp.


Science is not trusted by organic farmers, and that plays against their economic interests

Green thumbs

Genetically engineered crops are more environmentally friendly than
organic ones

By Elliot Entis
April 11, 2010
The Boston Globe


The yield per acre of such organic crops as wheat and beans is
between 50 and 80 percent of the yield of conventional crops


GE outperforms conventional crops: yields from genetically
engineered crops are 36% better for corn and 12% better for soy beans


Since 1997, the reduction in pesticide use resulting from
genetically engineered crops is estimated at 790 million pounds,
or 8.8%, and herbicide reduction in soybeans at 161 million
pounds, or 4.6%

“Farmers who grow Bt-corn [a GE variety that contains the natural pesticide Bt] use 75 percent less pesticides, essentially receiving the benefits of chemicals without releasing them into the environment or leaving residue on the final product.’’ Bt is one of the pesticides organic farmers use to protect their own crops.”

“The organic movement is largely a romantic ideal, far removed in many ways from science. It believes it is environmentally friendly, but it largely avoids science. True environmentalists look at the facts, and those facts do not support the growth of organic farming as a way to feed the world. However, with few exceptions, environmental organizations do not admit to this publicly. Why? Because they share a constituency: citizens who oppose certain elements of mass production farming, who yearn for a simpler time, when things were more natural. But this constituency is built on a shared belief system about the past, not the future.”

Kenya protests block GM maize shipment in Mombasa

BBC News
April 9, 2010

A shipment of genetically modified (GM) maize has been blocked at the Kenyan port of Mombasa after protests by environmentalists. GM imports have been banned in several African countries. The 40,000-tonne shipment contained four varieties of maize, three of which were made by Monsanto.

Mariam Mayet, an activist at the South African-based African Centre for Biosafety, criticised her government’s policy. “The way it is, one is inclined to say that South Africa was a springboard to contaminate the rest of the African continent by allowing multinationals to export from South African soil,” she told South Africa’s Business Report newspaper.

Many African countries are under increasing pressure to grow GM crops to tackle hunger and malnutrition, and drought in recent years has caused food shortages in Kenya.

A survey of views on genetically modified (GM) crops shows that 80 per cent of Indian farmers are unwilling to use GM seeds to grow food.

Farmers prefer to use GM seeds for cash crops, survey finds

T. V. Padma

9 April 2010

“India’s first survey of farmers’ and consumers’ views on genetically modified (GM) crops indicates farmers are more willing to use GM seeds for cash crops rather than food crops…The findings, released last week (1 April), revealed that around 40 per cent of the farmers surveyed were willing to grow cash crops with GM seeds, but 80 per cent of them said they would not cultivate food crops from seeds containing a poison to control pests. The response was consistent across big and small farmers and those educated or uneducated…The survey revealed low awareness among urban consumers of GM foods. ”

See more at: http://xrl.us/bhf7fp

DG Sanco and LLP Policy Options for the EU

On 7 May 2008, the European Commission delayed a decision on allowing farmers to grow more GM crops, and asked European Food Safety Authority to reconsider its previous review, which it had admitted was inadequate, as it was unable to take indirect and long term impacts into account. This paper represents a follow up from this debate which concluded that the Commission services should work on a technical solution for the issue of LLP of non approved GMOs in feed and foodstuffs before the summer.



Road Map for Delivering GM Crops to the Third World?

A Search for Regulators and a Road Map to Deliver GM Crops to Third World Farmers
March 31, 2010

The New York Times
by Gayathri Vaidyanathan of ClimateWire

“In the transgenic crop fight, the foot soldiers on either side have been dug in for years. But despite the doubts about the necessity of GM, farmers have been voting with their seeds.”


Key points in article:

Now and what is to come:

* transgenic crop acreage is increasing with developing nations and small farming ops being the newest adopters (up 7% over the last year according to the ISAAA)
* European Commission predicts that by 2015 there will be 120 commercial crops grown worldwide (currently there are 30)
* ~ 90% of 14 million farmers worldwide that use GM are ‘resource
poor’ farmers


* As many as 100 developing countries lack tech and management capacity to review tests and monitor compliance of GMs

“Biosafety regulations of countries are usually modeled after the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, an international agreement that promotes a “precautionary approach.” It says that GM crops can be adopted if they are of minimal risk to the environment and human health. It lays out a clear set of guidelines to test for that risk. But guidelines alone don’t suffice.”