|In this 1996 photo, an example of plant breeding to alleviate a problem on dwarf wheat (Triticum aestivum). Wheat rust, the fungal disease that was the cause of famines in Biblical times, as well as destroying North American wheat crops no less than four times in the last century, has been “bred out” of the new cultivar on the right whereas the older one on the left has pretty much succumbed to the disease. Author photo.. |
Did you read or hear any of the press reports about the Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology held in Sacramento California Monday to Wednesday this past week? It was the largest gathering of international agriculture ministers to discuss biotechnology and was hailed by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman on Wednesday as a success for uniting agribusiness with developing countries and researchers overseas. She said partnerships that foreign countries forged with corporations and researchers will improve technology and lead to better ways to irrigate drought-stricken lands.
"A seed has been planted," Ann Veneman said. "Out of these discussions, a seed can grow into more discussions."
But critics of the talks, and there were many, claimed the seed was genetically altered and would harm human health. Demonstrators who attempted to derail the conference staged mostly peaceful protests that drew attention away from foreign ministers and to the streets of the state capital. More than 1,000 people rallied over three days, proclaiming that genetically modified foods weren't the answer to the world's food problems. At least 70 demonstrators were taken into custody. Critics also said the United States was attempting to lower trade barriers and push risky science on struggling nations.
The conference was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to discuss ways to end world hunger and poverty. It focused largely on biotechnology as a means of reducing starvation, improving nutrition and boosting economies through bigger harvests and less pesticide use. Agriculture ministers, scientists and health care experts came from more than 100 countries. Ann Veneman said she received thanks for giving corporate officials, researchers and agriculture officials access to the delegates. She added that the next steps are to expand research to farmers, continue partnerships with scientists in developing countries and possibly start regional conferences.
As has always been the case, most of the loud protests against genetically modified foods come from Europe. The US public is not nearly so concerned as is the European public. In fact, the Bush administration had asked the World Trade Organization (WTO) to force Europeans to lift their ban on genetically modified food so U.S. biotech companies and farmers could sell their wares in Europe. The European Union banned the import of genetically modified food in 1998.
Talks between the European Union (EU) and the US broke off a week ago Thursday in Geneva and U.S. officials now plan to ask the WTO to convene a panel for the case. Critics say the U.S. trade complaint, filed in May, will only unify and mobilize Europeans in opposition. "It's going to backfire," said Jeremy Rifkin, a prominent anti-biotechnology author. "The United States made a tragic error in going to the WTO to push for a lift of the ban."
Tito Barbini, regional agriculture minister in Tuscany Italy, said the EU may reach a compromise with the United States on its ban but wants a system for labelling genetically modified foods, something the industry successfully fought in the US.
An official with Monsanto Co., one of the world's largest suppliers of herbicides and genetically altered seeds, said his company's products were safe and useful. "Biotech products, if anything, may be safer than conventional products because of all the testing," said Robert Fraley, Monsanto's executive vice president.
About 51 percent of the world's soybean, 20 percent of cotton and 9 percent of corn are genetically modified. Bioengineered corn has produced higher profits for farmers in the Philippines and other countries because fewer pesticides were used, Fraley said.
An example of the European opposition to Genetically Modified (GM) foods is detailed in the current edition of Nature magazine. “Intruders have destroyed genetically modified research plants growing at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK.
“The plants were part of a three-year contained experiment looking at the effects of drought on plant growth. They were not part of a trial of commercial crops.
"’This attack was intended solely to suppress the collection of scientific evidence which will help inform society as to the benefits, or otherwise, of GM technology,’ said Chris Lamb, director of the John Innes Centre.
“Trespassers broke into the site early on Saturday 14 June, slashed a large plastic tunnel and uprooted specimens growing inside. No one has admitted responsibility. The incident coincides with the UK's ongoing public discussion process on GM crops. The results will inform the government's decision on whether to allow them to be planted commercially.
"Although we don't agree with their methods, we can understand what drives people to do this," says Sue Mayer, executive director of GeneWatch, an independent watchdog concerned with the ethics and risks of genetic engineering. People feel frustrated by their inability to influence the GM-crops situation, she warns.
“The pea plants contained an extra gene, designed to highlight parts affected by drought. Researchers had hoped to compare thirsty and well-watered GM and non-GM plants, to explore how some species can tolerate long dry periods. This is important for farmers in the UK and the developing world, because drought can limit plant yield.
"‘Understanding how drought tolerance works through GM doesn't mean we'll automatically use GM plants in the future,’ says Ray Mathias, head of the Science Communication and Education Department at the John Innes Centre.
“Some plants survived the attack, and the researchers hope to publish their results within the next six months.” All of that from the June 19 issue of Nature. In that same issue we find another genetic modification story, this one having received some press coverage here in Canada, and of specific interest to coffee drinkers.
“Decaffeinated coffee is growing on trees in Japan. The genetically modified bushes could yield low-caffeine beans within three or four years. Whether consumers will prefer them to chemically decaffeinated beans remains to be seen.
“Coffee is currently stripped of caffeine using expensive industrial processes. Carbon dioxide or organic solvents flush the caffeine from beans, often along with other key flavour compounds. The resulting taste can send connoisseurs racing for a full-jolt fix, despite its negative effects on health. The alternative, more costly Swiss Water Process sieves out caffeine through a carbon filter, leaving a fuller-flavour brew.
"‘Theoretically the new bean should taste like normal coffee,’ says Hiroshi Sano from the Nara Institute of Science and Technology in Japan, whose team produced the plants, now a year old.
“That the coffee might be cheaper and in some ways safer than other decafs does not mean the public will buy it. Reactions could be favourable because there are clear benefits to the consumer, suggests plant geneticist David Baulcombe from the John Innes Centre. ‘It's in contrast to herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant lines, where the benefit is for the farmer and the environment.’
“With more than 10% of the world's coffee market decaffeinated, demand for a flavoursome low-caffeine blend is high. Full-strength coffee can raise blood pressure, trigger palpitations and disrupt sleep.
“The new plants lack a key caffeine-making gene. They produce up to 70% less of the stimulant than normal plants, bringing their levels in line with chemically decaffeinated beans. The shrubs are a derivative of Coffea canephora, a variety commonly used for blending. The next step is to modify the slower-growing Arabica plant, which produces high-quality beans and accounts for 70% of the worldwide coffee market.”
Finally on this topic, the idea of using gene modification to develop a blue rose continues high on the priority list for a number of scientists. It’s perhaps an even higher priority than developing more fragrant roses, or those that are resistant to insects and diseases. But that’s another story for another time.