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July 2006 Updates

Seven-year Glitch

By Susan Lang
July 25, 2006

Cornell warns that Chinese GM cotton farmers are losing money due to 'secondary' pests

Although Chinese cotton growers were among the first farmers worldwide to plant genetically modified (GM) cotton to resist bollworms, the substantial profits they have reaped for several years by saving on pesticides have now been eroded.

The reason, as reported by Cornell University researchers at the American Agricultural Economics Association (AAEA) Annual Meeting in Long Beach, Calif., July 25, is that other pests are now attacking the GM cotton.

The GM crop is known as Bt cotton, shorthand for the Bacillus thuringiensis gene inserted into the seeds to produce toxins. But these toxins are lethal only to leaf-eating bollworms. After seven years, populations of other insects -- such as mirids -- have increased so much that farmers are now having to spray their crops up to 20 times a growing season to control them, according to the study of 481 Chinese farmers in five major cotton-producing provinces.

"These results should send a very strong signal to researchers and governments that they need to come up with remedial actions for the Bt-cotton farmers. Otherwise, these farmers will stop using Bt cotton, and that would be very unfortunate," said Per Pinstrup-Andersen, the H.E. Babcock Professor of Food, Nutrition and Public Policy at Cornell, and the 2001 Food Prize laureate. Bt cotton, he said, can help reduce poverty and undernourishment problems in developing countries if properly used.

The study -- the first to look at the longer term economic impact of Bt cotton -- found that by year three, farmers in the survey who had planted Bt cotton cut pesticide use by more than 70 percent and had earnings 36 percent higher than farmers planting conventional cotton. By 2004, however, they had to spray just as much as conventional farmers, which resulted in a net average income of 8 percent less than conventional cotton farmers because Bt seed is triple the cost of conventional seed.

In addition to Pinstrup-Andersen, the study was conducted by Shenghui Wang, Cornell Ph.D. '06 and now an economist at the World Bank, and Cornell professor David R. Just. They stress that secondary pest problems could become a major threat in countries where Bt cotton has been widely planted.

"Because of its touted efficiency, four major cotton-growing countries were quick to adopt Bt cotton: the U.S., China, India and Argentina," said Wang. Bt cotton accounts for 35 percent of cotton production worldwide. In China, more than 5 million farmers have planted Bt cotton; it is also widely planted in Mexico and South Africa.

When U.S. farmers plant Bt crops, they, unlike farmers in China, are required by contracts with seed producers to plant a refuge, a field of non-Bt crops, to maintain a bollworm population nearby to help prevent the pest from developing resistance to the Bt cotton. The pesticides used in these refuge fields help control secondary pest populations on the nearby Bt cotton fields. Researchers do not yet know if a secondary pest problem will emerge in the United States and other countries, Pinstrup-Andersen said.

"The problem in China is not due to the bollworm developing resistance to Bt cotton -- as some researchers have feared -- but is due to secondary pests that are not targeted by the Bt cotton and which previously have been controlled by the broad-spectrum pesticides used to control bollworms," added Pinstrup-Andersen, who also is serving as president of AAEA for 2007.

Wang and her co-authors conclude, "Research is urgently needed to develop and test solutions."

These include introducing natural predators to kill the secondary pests, developing Bt cotton that resists the secondary pests or enforcing the planting of refuge areas where broad-spectrum pesticides are used.

This study was jointly conducted by the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy, Chinese Academy of Science and Cornell.


Lid Stays on Modified Rice

By Nao Nakanishi
The Standard (Hong Kong)
July 18, 2006

China, the world's top rice producer and consumer, is unlikely to give its nod for commercial production of genetically modified rice at least until next year with a government panel demanding more data to prove its safety.

Scientists in China said the biosafety committee - which examines the safety of genetically modified crops for the government - fell short of supporting large-scale production of insect resistant Bt rice at its biannual meeting last month.

Instead, the panel has recommended transgenic papaya, which could become the first GMO crop in seven years to pass Beijing's scrutiny for commercialization.

"There has been no agreement on any commercialization of rice," said Lu Baorong of Shanghai's Fudan University who is a member of the committee. "The requirements are getting harder."

Early last year China looked set to approve commercial production of a disease-resistant GMO rice, known as Xa21 rice, paving the way for the world's first large scale planting of a GMO crop for direct human consumption.

But Beijing has hit the brakes following reports of illegal sales of GMO rice in China. The reports also sounded alarm bells in China's top trading partners.

While more and more farmers around the world have shifted to GMO varieties in the past 10 years, cotton, corn, soybeans and rapeseed account for almost all of the transgenic crops currently grown commercially.

"It is still far from commercialization," said Dayuan Xue, a professor from the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences, referring to transgenic rice. "It's not possible this year. Maybe they may consider it next year."

The mainland scientists said it will take a year or two to collect data that the committee had now asked for to decide if Bt rice is safe for the environment and human consumption.

Even then, the government might not go ahead immediately, especially if uncertainties remain about whether China's trading partners will accept the biotech crop, they said.

For the same reasons, US farmers have so far refrained from planting herbicide-resistant GMO rice, known as Liberty Link rice, for which Washington has given already the green light.

"The government takes different aspects into account, not just the biosafety data," said another scientist member of the committee, who declined to be indentified. "They also have to consider political, economic and trade matters. It is a complicated issue."

But the committee saw no safety problems for production of genetically modified papaya, resistant to ring spot virus that often causes devastation in the mainland as well as other producing areas, such as Thailand and Taiwan.

"They feel that it is relatively safe at this moment," Lu said, adding Beijing might approve its commercialization late this year or early in the next.

The scientists said that GMO papaya, developed in Guangdong, used a different technology from the variety developed and released in Hawaii since 1998.

Looking to the future of GMO rice in China, Angus Lam from Greenpeace said chances of Beijing approving the crop will rise if the European Union allowed imports of Liberty Link rice.

This will send a signal on the acceptability of transgenic rice in Europe.

"The decision will be made in a global context. Local scandals might be only a part of the consideration," he said, referring to illegal sales of Bt rice, which Greenpeace has said found its way into baby food manufactured in China.

The scientists said one of the biggest concerns for the biosafety committee is possible mutation of pests to develop resistance to the Bt toxin, originally derived from bacteria.

China is already the world's top grower of Bt cotton, which it introduced in 1997. About 70 percent of its cotton acreage this year is estimated to be of the transgenic variety.

"So far, we have not found insects developing resistance," said the scientist who did not want to be identified. "But we have to monitor this carefully in the future. The biosafety committee is seriously concerned about this problem."


Farmers Use As Much Pesticide with GM crops, US Study Finds

By Steve Connor, Science Editor
July 27, 2006

One of the major arguments in favour of growing GM crops has been undermined by a study showing that the benefits are short-lived because farmers quickly resort to spraying their fields with harmful pesticides.

Supporters of genetically modified crops claim the technique saves money and provides environmental benefits because farmers need to spray their fields fewer times with chemicals.

However, a detailed survey of 481 cotton growers in China found that, although they did use fewer pesticides in the first few years of adopting GM plants, after seven years they had to use just as much pesticide as they did with conventional crops.

The study found that after three years, the GM farmers had cut pesticide use by 70 per cent and were earning over a third more than conventional farmers.

But, by 2004, the GM cotton farmers were using just as much pesticide as their conventional counterparts and were spending far more because GM cotton seed is three times the price of conventional cotton seed.

The findings will undermine claims by the biotechnology industry that GM technology can boost food production without necessarily damaging the environment with pesticides.

Scientists from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, carried out the study which involved interviews with hundreds of Chinese farmers who had switched to cotton that had been genetically modified with a gene for a bacterial toxin.

The toxin - known as Bt - is secreted by the GM cotton plant and is highly effective at stopping the growth of bollworm, a major pest of the crop that can cause millions of pounds worth of damage.

Major cotton producers, the United States, China, India and Argentina, quickly adopted Bt cotton after it was introduced in 1996 by Monsanto, the American biotechnology company.

Today, more than a third of the global cultivation of cotton is accounted for by Bt cotton, ranging from 42.8 million hectares in the United States to 3.7 million hectares in China.

Before the introduction of the GM crop into China, farmers in the country had to spray on average 20 times each growing season to control bollworm but, with Bt cotton, the average number of treatments fell to below seven.

The amount of pesticide also fell by 43.3kg per hectare in 1999, which was a decrease of about 71 per cent on previous years.

However, Professor Per Pinstrup-Andersen and his colleagues at Cornell found that all those benefits have since been largely lost due to the rise of other pests that were not considered a problem for cotton.

"Using a household survey from 2004, seven years after the initial commercialisation of Bt cotton in China, we show that total pesticide expenditure for Bt cotton farmers in China is nearly equal to that of their conventional counterparts," the scientists say in their report.

"Bt farmers in 2004 on the average have to spray pesticide 18.22 times, which is more than three times higher compared with 1999.

"Detailed information on pesticide expenditures reveals that, though Bt farmers saved 46 per cent of bollworm pesticide relative to non-Bt farmers, they spend 40 per cent more on pesticides designed to kill an emerging secondary pest," they say.

Secondary pests, such as a type of leaf bug called mirids, are not normally a problem in cotton fields because bollworm, and sprays against bollworm, tend to keep them in check.

However, because Bt cotton is targeted mainly against bollworm, other pests are able to exploit the relatively low use of pesticide that such fields need.

"These results should send a very strong signal to researchers and governments that they need to come up with remedial actions for the Bt-cotton farmers, otherwise these farmers will stop using Bt cotton and that would be very unfortunate," Professor Pinstrup-Andersen said.


A Matter of Ethics

ACT ( News Release
July 28, 2006

Action by Churches Together (ACT) International adopts policy on the use of GM food in emergencies

GENEVA - The debate over genetically modified organisms, or GMOs as they are also known, is one of the most polarising and controversial flash points related to food supply and its impact on social, economic, cultural and environmental welfare, often triggering passionate responses.

Add the humanitarian imperative in disaster response to the discussion, and you end up with a double-edged sword: the non-acceptance of genetically modified food can lead to a deepening crisis, with more deaths as a result, but at the same time, accepting these foods can lead to changes in agricultural practices, pollute the environment and damage local food grain varieties.

In April this year, the global alliance Action by Churches Together (ACT) International took a stand on the issue, adopting a policy on genetically modified organisms to guide its members when responding to humanitarian disasters.

"As the debate continues on the harmful effects of GMOs, the ACT alliance could not just sit and watch from the sidelines without producing a policy to protect our food beneficiaries in emergencies," says John Nduna, director of ACT International.

Melton Luhanga of Churches Action in Relief and Development, a member of the global ACT alliance, believes that it's important to have such a policy. "It will help guide us when we carry out our relief interventions," he says.

Not enough conclusive information

"Most non-governmental organisations [working in Malawi] are discussing the issue," he says.

What concerns Luhanga, however, is that there is simply not enough conclusive information on GMOs-plants and animals that have been manipulated at the genetic level though a special set of technologies that alter living organisms. But he also acknowledges that blanket recommendations force people to make difficult choices: "Could you see people dying if there was food?"

One of the eight guidelines that lie at the heart of ACT's new policy on food distributions and GMOs during emergency operations addresses this troubling concern specifically. It recommends that if the distribution of donated genetically modified food is unavoidable, in order to alleviate a serious hunger situation if there is no other alternative and timely solution, ACT members will make sure that everyone benefiting from the distribution knows where the food comes from and whether the food has been genetically modified or not. And all beneficiaries will have the right to choose and decide if they want the food or not.

Sibongile Baker, director of ACT member Lutheran Development Service (LDS) in Zimbabwe, says that education is crucial. "People need to know what this about," she says, explaining that in emergencies "we have to address people's immediate needs * hunger, in other words."

"Our experience is that when people are hungry they will eat whatever food they can get. And if they can preserve anything [such as seeds], they will. Without the knowledge of the long-term effects it may have," she says. "If the government says no to GMOs it's important for us to be able to explain why it's a 'no.' If we do this, then people will understand. It is our responsibility."

Donna Derr, the director of the emergency response program of U.S.-based ACT member Church World Service, emphasises that "the 'right to know' is a critical aspect of the food aid debate."

"All those involved-food donors, organisations distributing food and recipients of food aid-must have full access to information that allows them to understand the implications of donating, distributing or accepting GMOs," she believes.

A matter of principle

Three principles underpin the implementation guidelines that all ACT members will follow in the future when distributing food in emergencies. The first is the precautionary principle. The essence of this principle is that the burden of proof of harmlessness of a new technology, process, activity or chemical lies with the proponent, and not with the consumer and general public. "Of course, this is not the task of the ACT members," says Rev. Cornelia Füllkrug-Weitzel, director of Diakonie Emergency Aid, the ACT member based in Germany. "But it obliges members of the ACT family to lobby their respective government concerning appropriate legislation," she explains.

The second principle is the right to food. Everyone has a fundamental right to be free from hunger and being undernourished. Realising this right requires not only equitable and sustainable food systems, but also clear entitlements such as the right to work, to land and to social security, with the understanding that the primary responsibility for this rest with the states.

"Again, it is imperative that ACT members advocate their governments: in the North to provide enough finances to feed the people in emergencies; in the South to pay enough attention to the agricultural sector in general, to sustainable farming, and building and keeping stocks in particular," Füllkrug-Weitzel says.

The third principle is the right to know. All people have the right to know whether there are genetically modified ingredients in the food they buy or the seeds they sow. This also means that they have the right to have enough information to make responsible decisions.

Rev. Forbes Matonga, national director of the Zimbabwean NGO (and member of the ACT alliance) Christian Care, believes that GMOs pose "a threat to food security in developing countries, precisely because the seeds are controlled by a few multi-nationals-the principle of a few having it all."

For him, as a member of the faith-based community, it is crucial that "as long as scientists are not telling us what the implications are for mother earth, then we should not simply accept it."

He explains that although the Zimbabwean government does not allow GMOs to enter the country in principle, it has allowed some consignments in during emergencies, but only milled grains.

ACT's director agrees that it is a "complex issue with some of the largest food companies in the world having an economic interest in promoting the production of genetically modified foods because of the huge profits they reap from selling these products."

The Lutheran World Federation's (LWF) director and country representative in Zambia, Enos Moyo, argues that the issue of GMOs is about ethics and biodiversity that leads to a nasty catch-22 situation. "Poor people cannot afford to buy new seeds each season and cannot recycle hybrid seeds, which means that every season, they are forced to buy new seeds. But it's a difficult issue."

Moyo, who contributed to the guidelines for the policy regulating the use of GMOs by LWF's Department for World Service (DWS) that formed the basis for the ACT policy on the issue, describes how between 2001 and 2003 LWF found people eating a certain kind of poisonous root that they had to boil for at least 24 hours before they could eat it [as a result of the drought that had the country in its grip]. Even then," he says, "they still got diarrhoea, although it was manageable."

"But if people had a choice - GMOs or poisonous roots?" he asks, shrugging. "There's no real answer. It's just a difficult issue."

This is exactly why the LWF/DWS program believed it was crucial to develop such guidelines. DWS's acting director, Rudelmar de Faria, says given that most of the LWF/DWS programs working in emergency situations are involved in food distribution, "we felt that it was urgent to provide guidance to our staff on the use of GM food in emergency and development operations, in order to ensure compliance to and coherence with our principles for sustainable development and social justice."

Is it safe?

Sangster Nkhandwe, director of ACT member Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, Synod of Livingstonia, in Malawi, sums up the one thing that drives most people's fears. "We [just] don't know the long-term effects on humans."

LWF's Moyo agrees. "We understand that it's safe, but this is based on the fact that rich people in the north are eating it. But are they eating it in large quantities. What if 100 percent of all your meals are made of GMO-based food. What is the effect then?"

Sibongile Baker believes the scientific community should continue to research exactly this, saying that it's hard to say a "blanket no" to food, if the only other option is no food. "Has the medical field done enough thorough analysis? What quantities need to be consumed to have a long-term effect?"

"We work with humans," says Melton Luhanga. "Are all the real facts known?"

"When dealing with commercialisation, it's sometimes difficult to find the truth," he notes, then adds, "And the concern is, of course, that the truth will only be known when the damage is already done."

In Malawi, he explains, whenever and wherever possible, his organisation has and continues to buy non-GMO commodities: maize, rice, biscuits. He stops for a moment before asking, "But do we really know whether the biscuits don't contain GMOs or not? We need to proactively go after the truth in this matter," he says.

It is exactly for this reason that ACT International's director believes that the adoption of this policy was an important step. "It's been four years in the making-four years of discussions and deliberations, and even though there is no conclusive evidence related to the products' 'safety' either way," Nduna says, adding that there is a belief that GMOs can be harmful to human consumers in the long term."

A crucial point in the new ACT policy is that ACT members will in the future follow the guideline that they will not buy any genetically modified food with the resources administered by them, even if the food comes from local markets (given that in ACT's procurement policy, members of the alliance are encouraged to, wherever possible, buy as much food aid locally, nationally, and in the region.) There is also the understanding that ACT members will comply with the relevant national legislation on biosafety (if it is in place), especially regarding the use of GMOs in food aid. And in the future, all ACT members will, in the event of having to distribute GMO crops as food aid, with no other option, do so only if the crops are milled.

"Safety also applies to long-term food security. Genetic modification of food often includes the elimination of its potential to be used as seed. Because of this aspect, people remain dependent on foreign food aid in the upcoming seasons-to the benefit of the world-wide agricultural industry," says Füllkrug-Weitzel.

A question of ethics

"The issue of GMOs has important ethical implications. In order to take a stand on GMO-related issues, it is important to ask for whom and for what purpose and - not the least - what the driving forces behind the development are," says Karin LexEn, policy director for ACT member Church of Sweden. For her, several questions related to this controversial issue have not been fully answered. "Are marginalized and poor people and their perspective in the centre of the development and the investment? What will happen in the long-term perspective in terms of ecological, social and economic sustainability? It is of vital importance that poor people and countries are not pushed or forced to accept GMOs."

"While we know that in severe situations of food crises, people will accept any food they are given simply to survive. The policy calls for any GMO grain given in a food emergency to be milled. This is one way of reducing the risks that GMOs may have," says Nduna. "This policy was long overdue and I am happy that we have it now."

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