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GMOs Pose Significant Threat to World Food Supplies

WASHINGTON -- December 18 -- Genetically modified organisms are contaminating natural crops around the world and triggering mounting economic costs as farmers lose markets and organic producers lose their certification, writes Claire Hope Cummings in "Trespass: Genetic Engineering as the Final Conquest." Worse, consumers are eating GMOs whether they like it or not, and even GMOs not approved for human consumption have shown up in food products such as taco shells. Moreover, writes Cummings, patents awarded for the commercial use of genetic engineering technology are giving agrochemical companies ultimate control over the means and methods of food production.

"Agricultural genetic engineering is dismantling our once deeply held common vision about how we feed ourselves, how we care for the land, water, and seeds that support us, and how we participate in decisions that affect us on the most intimate personal and most essential community level," she writes.

Valuing corporate interests over long-term societal needs, successive U.S. governments have compromised international food security by giving a number of agrochemical companies a blank check to commercialize genetic technology prematurely, Cummings writes.

Government and research institutions, including many prestigious and once-independent universities in the United States, have sold out to industry agendas. This has unleashed agricultural genetic engineering into the public sphere before science has validated the techniques being used or evaluated the safety of products being developed. Lacking proper knowledge of long-term consequences, Cummings argues, the world now faces an uncertain future with these aggressive, genetically engineered organisms that are built to subvert billions of years of evolutionary safeguards and thereby threaten the biological integrity of the planet.

World Watch Magazine
January/February 2005

In this month's cover story, Trespass: Genetic Engineering as the Final Conquest, author Claire Hope Cummings explores the significant threat that agricultural biotechnology poses to world food supplies. And in "A New Paradigm for Security," leading military expert Gregory D. Foster explains why it is time to radically rethink our priorities and strategies on security.


'Pharma Crops' Threaten Food Safety

by Stephen Leahy
Inter Press Service
December 30, 2004

BROOKLIN, Canada - Medicine and farming are merging as genetically engineered (GE) maize and soy crops promise cheap drugs, but they also threaten to contaminate food and the environment, warn activists and experts.

The United States has planted very small amounts of these experimental 'pharma crops' since the early 1990s, including about 18 hectacre in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Although full-scale production is a few years away, a new report is warning that when it begins, the U.S. food supply will be contaminated sooner or later.

"It is sobering that drugs and industrial chemicals could have so many routes to the food supply," said David Andow, the report's editor and a professor at the University of Minnesota.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), an environmental non-governmental organization (NGO) that asked six independent scientists to prepare the report, is calling for an immediate ban on the field production of food or feed crops engineered to produce pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals.

"Biopharming" is a subset of biotechnology that turns ordinary plants and animals into protein production factories through genetic engineering.

Until recently nearly all drugs were manufactured via synthetic chemical processes. But in the last 20 years the science of biotechnology has led to a new class of drugs called "bio-pharmaceuticals" -- therapeutic proteins produced by living cells through microbial fermentation or mammalian cell culture.

The most successful of these has been GE (also known as GM or genetically modified) insulin, which is used by millions of diabetics around the world.

In the early 1980s a human gene for insulin production was stitched into the DNA (the building blocks of the cells of all living things) of the bacteria E coli. With a much lower manufacturing cost, this process completely overtook the traditional source of insulin -- the pancreas of cows and pigs.

Thousands of diabetics have experienced bad reactions and many have died as a result of this new GE insulin, called synthetic or "human" insulin, according to the Society for Diabetic Rights.

Despite this, more than 100 bio-pharmaceutical products or "biologics" -- serums, antitoxins, vaccines and biological therapeutics ¡- have been approved for use in the United States. Worldwide, another 500 are in clinical trials. These are not always new drugs; many simply replace existing products, like insulin.

The demand for these biologics is skyrocketing, with the market expected to top 56 billion U.S. dollars in 2006 in the United States alone.

However, GE bacterial fermentation systems cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build, require perfect growing conditions and are easily contaminated by other bacteria. By comparison, plants are bargain-basement "bio factories," costing potentially just 10 percent of the fermentation manufacturing process.

GE plants offer the additional advantage of being free of bacteria and viruses that could infect people.

Industry reports indicate roughly 300 companies, including some large pharmaceutical and agriculture-biotech corporations are involved in developing these plant factories.

One of the most ambitious is a European-South African alliance to produce plant-derived drugs for the developing world, including antibodies to prevent HI, the virus that causes AIDS.

Launched in July with 12 million euros in funding from the European Union, the Pharma-Planta Consortium and South Africa's Council for Science and Industrial Research, backers hope the project's first product will be a cream containing HIV antibodies to prevent transmission of the virus during sex.

Those antibodies are being engineered into maize in a highly experimental effort in South Africa. Other antibodies for use in a tuberculosis vaccine are also being inserted into maize.

Field trials of the GE crops are two-three years away, while clinical trials on humans are projected within five years.

But cautionary voices warn that the undeniable potential benefits of biopharming to produce life saving, low-cost drugs for the developing world have to be weighed against the risks of the new technology.

Among the first countries dealing with these risks is the United States, but its regulators seem to be in denial, according to Jane Rissler, a UCS scientist.

The U.S. food and drug safety system is considered among the best in the world, and Rissler has no doubt the drugs derived from biopharming will undergo extensive safety testing. However, those responsible for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have not put strict regulations into place to prevent pharmalogically-active proteins from slipping into America's foods, she said.

And that is despite the fact it almost happened two years ago, when experimental maize plants containing a pig vaccine were accidentally mixed with about 14 million kilograms of soybeans in the U.S. mid-west. ProdiGene, the Texas biotech company responsible for the mishap paid three million dollars in clean-up costs and fines. All of the soy was destroyed.

The USDA tightened its rules after the huge public outcry, which even included the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), the powerful U.S. biotech industry lobby, asking its members to start growing biopharma crops in more isolated regions.

Companies must now use designated equipment for planting and harvesting, provide better training for growers, and undergo at least five inspections a year. The new rules also require that biopharma maize be grown more than one km away from any other fields and planted at least 28 days before or after surrounding maize crops are sown.

But the new rules are not strict enough, concluded the UCS-sponsored study, released in late December. The bottom line is: it is extraordinarily difficult to prevent contamination.

"Pollen can be carried to fields with food crops by the wind or insects, seeds lodged in the crevices of harvesting equipment could come loose while harvesting food, and plants can come up as volunteers in the middle of a food crop," said report editor Andow in a news release.

The obvious solution is to grow biopharma crops in areas planted in non-food crops, like tobacco, says Rissler.

But that might not happen. Maize is ideal for producing high volumes of proteins, as are soy and rice, and the three are among the most studied plants in the world.

"There is no scientific reason to shift biopharma into non-food crops," says Lisa Dry, a spokesperson for BIO.

"The proteins being grown are well-known and present a low level of risk," Dry added in an interview.

Even though BIO asked its members to grow biopharm maize in non-food producing zones after the ProdiGene incident, it is satisfied with current USDA regulations, which do not require such segregation.

According to Dry, there are hundreds of products in the biotech pipeline, and biopharma products are likely to be commercially available within five years.

Craig Winters of The Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods, a U.S. NGO, predicts, "There will be drugs in breakfast cereals soon or later" because of large-scale planting of biopharma maize.

But even growing them among non-food crops would be unsafe, he told IPS.

Non-food biopharma crops could cross-pollinate with related wild plants and potentially transfer genes that produce the human proteins, he added. And pollen from maize has been documented traveling dozens of kilometers.

"The only safe way to grow these is in non-food crops inside greenhouses," argues Winters.

Dry rejects that suggestion as unnecessary and too expensive. "Greenhouses would need to be several acres in size, which would greatly drive up the cost of production."

But Winters warns that once cross-pollination transfers genes from biopharma crops into non-GE crops or other plants there will be no stopping it. "Those genes can't be recalled and it would be nearly impossible to clean up."

More darkly, an escaped gene that impairs the world's ecosystem is not out the realm of possibility, he suggests.

"Biopharma could be an important technology that brings the world cheap vaccines. But it has to be done right."

While environmentalists, the biotech industry and regulators struggle over the potential benefits and risks of this new technology in the United States, there are no regulations and little discussion internationally.

"The FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) has not developed an official position specifically on GMOs (genetically modified organisms) containing biopharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals," Andrea Sonnino of the FAO research and technology development service told IPS.

In general terms the agency supports a science-based evaluation system that would objectively determine the benefits and risks of each individual GMO, including biopharma, Sonnino added in an email message.

But organizations such as the UK-based Institute of Science in Society say international rules are needed quickly to prevent first-world corporations from using developing world countries as regulation-free testing and production grounds.

In the meantime, bans on growing biopharma crops should be put in place by developing countries, the institute recommends.


Africa's Hungry Are Fed Bad Policies

By Paul Kwengwere
December 30, 2004

Incorrect IMF advice and the US push for genetically modified food only worsen existing food crises

Amidst plagues of war and disease, hunger remains one of Sub-Saharan Africa's most devastating afflictions. Developed countries have responded with aid, relief efforts, and policy interventions to help the region's struggling farmers. But, as Paul Kwengwere writes, behind the gratitude for this assistance looms a debate regarding the long-term value of the terms involved. IMF loan conditionalities coupled with poor agricultural advice are responsible in part for the worsening food situation in Malawi, Kwengwere notes. And now, the introduction and promotion of genetically modified (GM) foods by the United States is proving particularly controversial, as developing countries question the true motives and implications of the gesture. Nevertheless, Kwengwere concludes, desperation will likely ensure that GM foods play a central role in the future of African food politics. - - - YaleGlobal

NEW HAVEN: From disease to civil strife, Sub-Saharan Africa has a host of troubles. But in the last five years, the problem of hunger also has come to the top of the list of woes. Developed countries have responded both bilaterally and multilaterally to help African farmers through policy interventions and humanitarian aid - though with debatable success. While grateful for the help, the countries find some of the solutions of dubious long-term value. And the US, in particular, has been blamed for using the situation to promote inappropriate agricultural policies through international institutions and to propagate genetically modified products.

In the UN Food and Agricultural Organization's October 2004 assessment report, twenty-three countries in the Sub-Saharan Africa region are listed as requiring emergency food intervention. Malawi stands out as a country that has been in dire straits for some time, with the situation worsening during the past three years. This small, impoverished, landlocked country of 12 million generally fed itself until the late 1990s. What is the real root cause of the drop in food production?

Natural climatic factors have obviously contributed to the fall in production. Malawi, like most of the Southern Africa countries, has only one rainy season. At the same time, production of its staple food, maize, depends on a good pattern of rainfall. Erratic rainfall means that the farmers have to carefully determine when to plant, apply necessary inputs, preserve the available water in case of reduced rainfall, and create good drainage systems in case of excess rains. Other factors, such as deteriorating soil fertility and population growth, also contribute to lowering the food availability.

While the above factors seem to provide adequate explanation for the decline, many observers blame the policies of the developed world. To access concessionary loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Malawi had to complete the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) from the late 1980s, a program replete with troublesome conditionalities. One of the conditions under SAP required full liberalization of the economy, the IMF's prescription for improving economic growth; the actual results, however, were cuts in social services and the removal of all agricultural subsidies. A bag of fertilizer that cost farmers about US$5 in 1990 more than doubled its price by 1998, rendering it unaffordable for most Malawians, half of whom live on an income equivalent to less than a dollar a day.

In 2002, during the country's worst food crisis, when hundreds of Malawians reportedly died from hunger and hunger-related diseases, the government revealed that the IMF had given inappropriate advice about maize reserves. A Reuters story reported that the Malawian President Bakili Muluzi "rebuked" the IMF, "blaming it for a biting food crisis and a reform agenda he said had failed to improve the lives of his people." He went on to claim that "the IMF asked his government to sell maize from strategic reserves to enable the state food agency to meet obligations on a commercial loan. The result was shortage of food for the people.

Further fueling the controversy is the perceived hypocrisy of the more influential IMF members. At the peak of the 2002 food crisis, while the Malawian government was suffering the results of the IMF's anti-subsidy policies and inappropriate agriculture advice, the US government passed an agriculture bill that increased subsidies to its domestic farmers.

The US$190 billion bill provides, among other things, increased subsidies for US grain and cotton growers over a ten-year period. Each year, these farmers receive more financial assistance than the US government provides to the entire African continent. Reacting to the passage of the bill, the minister of agriculture from Zambia, a neighboring country of Malawi and also a victim of SAP, observed, "They are the same people who tell us not to subsidize production, but do exactly that." The farm bill was indeed a clear sign of domestic protectionism, completely contrary to the standard IMF prescription for developing countries: Freeing the market is universally optimal for growth.

Despite these circumstances, most countries still look to the United States, as a world power, for solutions. The United States generously responded to the 2002 crisis by shipping tons of genetically modified maize to Malawi and most of Southern Africa. What was supposed to be a kind gesture, however, sparked a debate on genetic engineering. What seemed certain was that the United States wished to promote genetically modified products to Africa, a thing that worried countries like Malawi.

Considering that genetically modified (GM) products have higher yields than produce from normal hybrid seeds, one may ask why developing countries are worried. A farmer in Malawi does not buy seed; he saves seed from the previous harvest. With GM products such as those advertised by multinational biotechnology corporation Monsanto, he cannot save seed; he will have to buy them each year at higher prices. This farmer is also likely to face marketing problems since certain countries will not accept GM products. The EU just lifted the 6-year ban on sale of GM products within the member states earlier this year. But GM as a solution to food security problems among poor countries remains bleak.

NGOs, like the Third World Network and Greenwatch, provide a lot of information on genetic engineering and modification. According to soon-to-be-published results by the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, genes from genetically engineered grass can spread much farther than previously known. This finding raises concern that the grass could spread to areas where it is not wanted or transfer its herbicide resistance to weedy relatives, creating superweeds that would be immune to Roundup (the most widely used weed killer, also a Monsanto product).

Poor countries' options for dealing with food crises on their own are narrowing. It is becoming clear that developed countries are increasingly fostering dependency, whether by influencing national policies that fail to benefit citizens or by controlling microeconomic processes through the heavy influence of multinational corporations. This reliance is only increasing with the farmers switching to GM products from the developed world.

Indeed, Malawi's National Seed Company, a company that has produced hybrid seed for Malawian commercial farmers for years, recently sold off the majority of its shares to Monsanto. Farmers are no longer able to depend fully on hybrid open-pollen-variety seed, perhaps fundamentally changing both their environment and livelihood. The future of Southern African farmers is thus uncertain, but is sure to be deeply dependent upon GM products.

Malawi is just one example of policies that adversely affect agricultural productivity. As the Sub-Saharan region looks for viable solutions to chronic hunger, it will be necessary to involve local farmers. During hunger situations, communities devise coping mechanisms using simple and practical initiatives. Utilizing these measures to develop appropriate policies can greatly help. Furthermore, it is right and proper to allow input from farmers when dealing with issues that affect them. Handouts from outside or imported policies often have negative future implications; in many cases, the optimal solutions must come from inside a country's borders.

Paul Kwengwere is a 2004 Yale World Fellow and Policy Director for ActionAid International, Malawi.

YaleGlobal Online © 2004 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.

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