1.Science split on GMO issues
2.GM crops: The splice of life?
1.Science split on GMO issues
By Richard W Bruner
The Budapest Sun
July 28, 2005 - Volume XIII, Issue 30
"JANOS Koka [the Minister of Economic Affairs] has gone to the United States quite a few times in this year. And each and every time the biotech industry was quite an important target group for his visit as a potential investment group," said Abel Garamhegyi, state secretary in the ministry.
"Those investors," he continued, "quite a few times, mentioned that it is quite a strange situation that, on the one hand, Hungary is promoting biotech as a strong point of the Hungarian business environment and, on the other hand, we seem to be against biotech results, [that is] GMO.
"Minister Koka's answer was that it is completely two different things. We don't have any trouble with the GMO itself because it is not our responsibility. "The Hungarian Government has other ministries who have to deal with that issue and of course we hope that they do their very best. For us, it's important to know that, in economic terms, [there are food processing] companies today asking for GMO-free declarations, so we have to be careful that we can [truthfully] issue a GMO-free declaration. It is a kind of slippery situation, a very complex issue."
Environmentalists believe that the biotech companies and the US Embassy are pressuring KÃ³ka to campaign for a lifting of GMO restrictions. But Katalin Molnar, an information specialist at the American Embassy said, "We don't disclose details of private conversations between US Government officials and Hungarian ministers.
"On more general terms, though, it is well known that promotion of biotechnology is part of the US Government policy."
She provided a press-handout, part of whose text reads: "Biotechnology is one of the safest forms of plant breeding because of its precision in isolating specific crop traits, a leading official of a US food regulatory agency [Food and Drug Administration] says."
But FDA scientific opinion is not unanimous. At least two FDA scientists have disputed the official view: Dr Louis Pribyl of the FDA Microbiology Group wrote, "There is a profound difference between the types of unexpected effects from traditional breeding and genetic engineering...."
He added that some aspects of gene splicing "...may be more hazardous." Dr E J Matthews of the FDA's Toxicology Group has warned that genetically engineered plants could contain unexpected toxins that could "...be uniquely different chemicals that are usually expressed in unrelated plants." And the Director of FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) said "...CVM believes that animal feeds derived from genetically modified plants present unique animal and food safety concerns." He explained that residues of unexpected substances could make meat and milk products harmful to humans.
These writings were unearthed by an Iowa-based environmentalist who sued the FDA to obtain access to its files. In the interests of non-partisanship, it should be noted that pro-GM policies are not unique to the current US administration of George W Bush. President Bill Clinton's administration gave support to biotechnology companies, too. Moreover, the FDA scientists are not the only American scientists critical of GM. Senior staff scientist Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists spoke at a hearing of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Biotechnology, May 5, 2000.
She said her group, UCS, has no philosophical objections to GM, but "On the other hand, where benefits are few, where risks are borne by society at large, and not by choice, and where alternatives exist, we question whether even small risks are worth taking”¦. Simply put - there hasn't been nearly enough sound science in US biotech regulation." Still another American academic contends that the advantages of GM seeds have been overstated. The Des Moines Register, reported in January, 2002, that studies of Iowa farmers conducted by Iowa State University economist Dr Michael Duffy showed that, "Farmers who plant genetically modified corn and soybeans fare no better financially than those who grow traditional crops. "Duffy said seed companies and chemical companies have reaped the primary benefits of biotechnology so far."
Here in Hungary there is scientific opposition to GM. Professor Bela Darvas of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Plant Protection Institute, Ecotoxicology Department, Budapest has conducted tests of DK-440-BTY (YIELDGARD) BT MAIZE, a Monsanto maize seed with insect resistance characteristics and found that it endangered Hungary's protected species of butterflies. Also, he reported that the seed "has a substantial impact on soil biology. The effect of the toxin on the soil organisms is assumed to be responsible for the decline of biological activity." All of which has led environmentalists like Veronika MÃ³ra of the Environmental Partnership Foundation and Noémi Nemes, the leader of Greenpeace in Hungary to battle against any relaxation of the government's prohibition of GM.
MÃ³ra said, "Hungary was the first country in central and eastern Europe to legally regulate the whole GMO issue." The law became effective in 1999. According to it, "Just as in the European Union, all relevant gene technology activities are subject to approval.... There is no legal GMO production in Hungary going on.”¦ At least four years of field trial were required before a certain variety can gain approval for marketing, for commercialization.
"The first were due in 2003; but we were so close to joining the EU that the first permits were suspended in order to wait to be part of the EU approval system. Since then Hungary joined the entire EU-level decision-making process.
"Up to now the Hungarian Government belonged to those member states which more or less say no to GMOs." According to Mora, the only groups in Hungary who want GMOs are the biotech industry and some research facilities allied with the it.
Most farmers - including the very big operators - are not in favor, since using GM seed would destroy their GM-free reputation which gives them a market niche.
In fact, all Hungarian farmer organizations are opposed to GM. The only exception is MOSz which has not taken a stand against GM, but "is cautious about its use."
"The major advantage of using GM is that it makes agriculture simpler”¦. It makes plant protection a whole lot simpler and easier. It takes less work and less thinking." Yet, Dr ÃrpÃ¡d Pusztai raised the most important question:
"How can the public make informed decisions about genetically modified foods when there is so little information about its safety?"
US Ambassador George H Walker published an essay on GMO in the Hungarian business paper VilÃ¡ggazdasÃ¡g. He wrote, "The biotechnology revolution will profoundly change the way we live and work, perhaps to an even greater degree than the information technology revolution of the past decade.
"The United States has been one of the leaders in the initial phases of biotechnology research and industry. Other countries in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere, which, because of their industrial infrastructure and intellectual capabilities, have also been natural leaders in this rapidly expanding field. I believe that Hungary has the opportunity to join them."
GREENPEACE has surveyed food retailers in Hungary and categorized them according to their attitudes toward GMO foods. Retailers who are GMO-free in all their products: SPAR, Penny Market, CBA, METRO, Interfruct, CO-OP, Plus. Retailers whose own store brands are GMO-free: Tesco and Auchan. Retailers who either did not respond or gave no guarantee of GMO-free products: Real Hungaria, Cora, Honiker, Match, Profi, Alpha.
2.GM crops: The splice of life?
By Richard W Bruner
The Budapest Sun
July 21, 2005 - Volume XIII, Issue 29
DR Arpad Pusztai was fired from his job as a researcher at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, for having been so indiscreet as to question the safety of genetically modified (GM) foods.
A Budapest-trained chemist with additional degrees in physiology and biochemistry from the University of London, he had worked in several countries, published nearly 300 peer-reviewed papers and had written or edited 12 books.
His specialty was the effect of dietary lectins on the gastrointestinal tract and he was reporting on the effects of Galanthus nivalis (GNA) in a genetically modified potato used in rats' diets.
In 1998, he told a TV interviewer that, when used as a protein supplement, GNA had no harmful effects on the rats.
But when the GNA was in a GM potato, it hindered growth and had other adverse effects. Later, he said that many essentially harmless substances can become harmful when genetically altered.
His being fired can be interpreted in at least two ways: first, as a Hungarian scientist, in the tradition of Ignac Fulop Semmelweis, who took a principled stand against compromise; or second, as a naÃ¯ve idealist who became an unknowing participant in a controversy of enormous scope with billions of dollars at stake.
Hungary is a party to that controversy.
On one side of the argument is US President George W Bush, who told a gathering of biotechnology executives that famine is worsening in parts of Africa because EU countries have opposed GM food. "For the sake of a continent threatened by famine, I urge the European governments to end their opposition to biotechnology."
On the other side are a wide range of scientists, activists, and even the UN agency, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). It issued a report essentially contradicting Bush's remark. GM technology, despite its promise, was not yet doing much to help feed the world's poor because it was not being applied to the kinds of crops grown in developing countries - potatoes, cassava, rice, wheat, millet and sorghum.
The FAO report emphasized that the problem of feeding people in underdeveloped parts of the world is one of poverty and not the world's ability to produce food.
In the world as a whole, there is enough, or more than enough, potential food production to meet a growing demand for food for people who can pay farmers to produce it. GM will not solve famines.
Also, most Europeans oppose President Bush's contention. A study published by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, as reported in the International Herald Tribune, shows that 89% of respondents in France believe GM food is harmful. So do 81% of Germans, and 65% of Britons.
"Even in the United States, where the use of genetically modified food is common, 55% of those surveyed said they disapproved of the practice."
For the United States government, however, the controversy has taken on the dimensions of a crusade. Since American companies dominate the biotechnology industry, they would reap enormous gains if the ban against GM food were lifted in Europe. The American Farm Bureau Federation has estimated that without the ban, American companies would export about $300 billion more in corn each year. At the same time, it would wreak mayhem on Hungarian corn farmers, cutting into their EU market. Hungarian farmers' GM-free maize is both desirable and highly competitive in Europe.
Perhaps the biggest player is Monsanto, the American biotech company whose GM corn, Mon 810, has become ubiquitous worldwide.
In its shareholder statement of June 29, it reported, "for the first nine months of 2005, net sales were slightly more than $5 billion, a 20% improvement compared with net sales in the same period last year. Organic growth in the core business accounted for 14% of the sales growth for the nine-month period."
The core business, of course, is GM seeds. Monsanto Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer Hugh Grant commented, "Our strength in seeds and traits has been proven again this quarter, reflecting the acceleration we're seeing in biotech trait adoption, the increased use of stacked biotech traits, and the growth of our corn seed business."
GM (or GMO, genetically modified organism) seeds have two main reasons to exist: to resist insects - mostly corn borers - and to counteract herbicide (allowing herbicide to be used in corn fields, without affecting corn plants). About 99% of GM crops are grown in just six countries - United States, Argentina, Canada, Brazil, China, and South Africa. And besides corn, much worldwide acreage is sown with soybeans, cotton, and canola.
These are crops used for animal feed, clothing or oil and other ingredients for processed foods. Hardly any is eaten directly.
An exception is a GM sweet corn developed by the Swiss company Syngenta.
After getting the EU approval last year, Syngenta withdrew the product because of consumer resistance.
Hungary, like other European countries, has resisted GM. On January 20, 2005, Hungary prohibited the sale and planting of Monsanto's Mon 810. Two months later, on March 21, Poland adopted the same ban. In April, Greece banned Mon 810.
Austria, whose population is very anti-GM, had banned the seed even earlier.
While Mon 810 has been approved for cultivation in the EU, individual countries can use their own discretion on prohibiting it. France, Germany, Greece and Luxembourg had also banned Mon 810.
Ironically, these actions put them at odds with the European Commission which, last November, submitted to the EU regulatory committee proposals which would have required all the banning countries to lift their prohibitions.
Maria Rauch-Kallat, Austria's minister for health, women's affairs and environment, and Josef Pröll, minister for agriculture and forestry, sent a plea to their counterpart ministers in all EU member states.
They asked them to oppose the Commission's efforts to lift individual countries' bans on three GM products.
After listing their concerns, they diplomatically wrote, "We therefore hold the view that, for the above-mentioned reasons, a decision leading to the lifting of our national protective measures, but also of those of France, Germany, Greece and Luxembourg, is presently not appropriate."
On June 24, the majority of environmental ministers, including Hungary's, voted to allow countries to ban GM at their own discretion, using the EU's "safeguard clause." The Austrian view had prevailed against reportedly heavy pressure by the United States.
What is genetic modification?
Traditional breeding is based on sexual reproduction between organisms from the same species.
In GM, bioengineers isolate a gene from one type of organism and splice it into the DNA of a dissimilar species, disrupting its natural sequence.