Biotech's "Six Myths" Addressed by Report
Farm Industry News via NewsEdge Corporation
The truth about biotechnology has been clouded by half-truths, detail
omissions and exaggerations of problems. Stanley Abramson, environmental
attorney, recently spoke out about the myths about genetically modified
plants that are widely propagated by opponents to biotechnology. These
myths are disproved in research and field practice, according to Abramson.
He comes well qualified to discuss the issue. Last winter, he completed a
committee assignment for the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The
committee investigated the risks and benefits of biotech crops as well as
their regulation. The committee included 10 scientists, one economist and
Abramson, who is with the Washington, DC, law firm Arent Fox Kintner
Plotkin & Kahn. The report issued by the committee was a consensus report,
a unanimous report, he relates. We found no evidence to conclude that
products on the market today pose any harm. After working on the NAS
committee, Abramson categorized the misconceptions about biotechnology
into the following six myths.
- Genetically modified plants are not regulated.
The first myth is that these products are rushed to market with no special
governmental oversight, Abramson says. This is particularly painful to me
because I was at EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] in the 1980s when
the early experiments were conducted and the coordinated framework
developed. I can speak firsthand about the years of regulation that go
into the development of these products. The coordinated framework requires
regulation by EPA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food
and Drug Administration (FDA). Each agency is responsible for regulating
certain aspects of the new products. Using the Bt potato as an example,
Abramson says EPA regulated the insecticidal protein, USDA reviewed the
plant itself and FDAs jurisdiction included the safety of the entire
product. In the Bt potato, the health, safety and environmental data were
reviewed by the three different federal agencies over a seven-year period.
No comparable oversight for conventional hybrids exists, he explains. The
three agencies found no Bt protein in the environment or in food products,
making the products safe for human consumption. Just because a plant is
transgenic does not make it hazardous, Abramson says. He notes that the
biotechnology industry supports the frameworks regulation.
- No data exist to support genetically modified products.
I was told just three weeks ago that there is simply no data to support
[biotech product] approvals, Abramson says. The reality is that data are
routinely submitted to these three agencies and reviewed by the agencies.
There is clearly data and a great deal of it. All the data are available
for public review. All three agencies require a variety of studies from
the developers of the products. The studies must consider potential
adverse effects, such as the impact on nontargeted insects and insect
resistance. If an issue comes up that wasnt considered during the initial
reviews, the agencies often ask for more data.
- The public does not have a role to play.
Through the 1970s and 1980s as the issue of biotechnology developed, the
agencies and even Congress held many public hearings and comment periods.
But the reality is that most people didnt care, Abramson says. Beyond
industry representatives and a few environmental groups, very few members
of the public or the media attended the debates. Each agencys public
records show that these issues were debated in public. And the public
continues to have opportunities to participate through Web sites and
public comment periods, Abramson says. Extensive public participation
opportunities over the past 25 years have existed, he adds.
- Benefits of biotechnology do not exist.
The benefits are well known [to seed developers and growers], but not well
known to the public, Abramson says. In fact, the public is told there are
no benefits or only benefits to the developer of the crop. In reality,
there are clearly established agronomic, environmental and health benefits
from the crops on the market today. The NAS report considered benefits, he
adds. For example, it cited the advantages of Bt cotton, which requires
dramatically less insecticide. The report concluded the product causes a
reduced application of chemical pesticides, which could lead to greater
human health benefits. Abramson worked at EPA in the 1980s when we were
being told every day that we must take these chemical products off the
market. And then when EPA provides the opportunity to reduce the use of
these chemical products, the same groups that wanted these off the market
came to us in the 1990s and said no because it will cause harm to the
- There is actual harm to health and the environment.
Abramson reports that, in the past 14 years of intensive governmental,
academic and commercial scrutiny, not a single incidence of actual harm to
health, safety or the environment has ever been documented concerning the
crops on the market today. Am I trying to tell you this is a zero risk
situation? he asks. Absolutely not. Zero does not exist in terms of risk.
But is there evidence of adverse effects? Absolutely not. Abramsons
assertions about safety include Bt corn products. He says field studies
show no adverse effects from Bt corn on monarch butterflies. Im not
talking about lab studies where the monarch larvae have been stuck in Bt
pollen in laboratories. Im talking about in the field under real-world
conditions. Instead, loss of habitat and chemical sprays threaten monarch
butterflies. Greenpeace disagreed and filed a lawsuit in 1999 against EPA
over the Bt crops. The group asked that all Bt product approvals be thrown
out and no further approvals given. EPA answered with a 107-page response,
available on its Web site, according to Abramson. He adds that Greenpeace
then withdrew its lawsuit.
- No biotech products are labeled.
This is simply not the case, Abramson says. Crops developed through modern
biotechnology are subject to the exact same labeling requirements as all
other food. Labeling is required for information that is material to the
consumer, he explains. For example, if a new variety of orange is
developed with less vitamin C than expected in the market today, that
information must be provided. The labeling line is crossed, Abramson adds,
when the government requires labels for societal purposes. Theres lots of
information consumers say they want to know, like if oranges come from a
farm where workers have adequate sanitation, Abramson says. It is
important information. But is it information the government must put on a
label? I dont think so.
Bowl of Hope, Bucket of Hype?
By Barry A. Palevitz The Scientist 15:15, Apr. 2, 2001
When a research team led by Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute
of Technology in Zurich and Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg in
Germany announced last year that they had produced beta carotene, or
provitamin A, in rice grains,1 the news created quite a stir.2 For one
thing, getting "golden rice," as it was quickly dubbed (for its color, not
its monetary value) required a biotech tour de force. Potrykus and Beyer
inserted two genes from daffodil and one from a bacterium into rice plants
in a way that allowed them to function in the normally white, starchy
endosperm. Scientists, industry, and the media hailed the achievement as
an example of how biotech can help people other than western farmers--in
this case, by saving the eyesight and lives of millions of children in
developing countries who lack sufficient provitamin A in their diets.
Potrykus even made the cover of Time magazine.3
Activists opposed to genetically modified (GM) foods lost little time
responding. Potrykus and Beyer were attacked for the way they worked with
companies to make seed available to the poor. Then, in February,
Greenpeace got to the very germ of golden rice's existence. According to
the organization's calculations, an adult "would have to eat around 9 kg
of cooked rice daily to satisfy his/her daily need of vitamin A." That's
about 20 pounds--clearly an unrealistic amount. In other words, Greenpeace
argued, golden rice was little more than "fool's gold."
The Guardian in England soon picked up Greenpeace's argument, as did the
New York Times on March 4, when op-ed columnist Michael Pollan faulted
"the great yellow hype" given golden rice by industry advocates. In a
letter to the London Independent, Benedikt Haerlin, Greenpeace coordinator
in Berlin, refused to rule out direct action against test plants. Like
rice at a wedding, E-mail flew back and forth over the Internet, one
E-voice accusing the other of reasoning as soggy as day-old pilaf.
Potrykus forcefully responded to detractors, most recently in an issue of
Plant Physiology devoted to agronomically important grasses.4
Taking the measure of golden rice depends on yardsticks used to judge
nutritionally valuable levels of vitamin A. Greenpeace apparently relied
on the recommended daily allowance (RDA) set by health agencies, which for
children is 0.3 mg/day. But Beyer and Potrykus argue that even 30 percent
of RDA can be valuable in alleviating damage from deficiency. Their
initial rice lines produced 1.6-2.0 micrograms of beta carotene per gram
of grain, making their goal of 0.1 milligrams/300 grams of rice a day seem
"realistic." By taking into account new efforts to further enhance rice's
carotene content three- to fivefold, plus other potential sources of
provitamin A in the diet, Beyer and Potrykus expect reasonable levels of
rice consumption--as little as 30-76 grams a day.
In explaining their updated figures, the scientists ask, "What is the risk
from golden rice, which has no selective advantage in whatever
environment, and which produces just a few micrograms more of an
environmentally neutral substance (beta carotene) in the endosperm, in
addition to the same substance being present in large quantities in all
other parts of the natural plant? How does such a risk compare to the
expected benefit? I believe the public has a right to a more concrete
answer from Greenpeace. ... Let us peacefully do our work and test the
rice lines available plus develop new ones, which in part are already
1. X. Ye et al., "Engineering the provitamin A (beta carotene)
biosynthetic pathway into (carotenoid-free) rice endosperm," Science,
2. B.A. Palevitz, "With GM crops, who needs vitamin pills?," The
Scientist, 14:14, Feb. 7, 2000.
3. J.M. Nash, "Grains of hope," Time, 156, July 31, 2000.
4. I. Potrykus, "Golden rice and beyond," Plant Physiology, 125:1157-1161,
March, 2001. www.plantphysiol.org.
From: Mark Waugh
Subject: Re: AGBIOVIEW: Trader Joe's
As an interesting aside, if you decide to visit
use their own form to send Trader Joe's encouragement to not cave in to
extremist nuts like greenpeace, don't bother. While they cleverly make it
look like you can edit the message sent, you can't. It will put your
personal information on their canned rhetoric no matter what you do. I
always find it interesting that when someone can't defend an ideology with
fact they will result to whatever means necessary to hammer it home,
including clever little perl tricks. ... Pathetic.
CARTOGRAPHY OF GOVERNANCE: EXPLORING THE PROVINCE OF ENVIRONMENTAL NGO’S
Meeting in Boulder, Colorado. APRIL 7 & 8, 2001
Governments, and civil societies, are changing in response to the growing
importance of: business & industry, “not for profits” or non governmental
organizations (NGOs), and globalization.
This interdisciplinary symposium will address and evaluate such changes.
The symposium will begin by tracing the extent, and manner in which,
business, NGOs and globalization are changing the geo-political, and
socio-economic boundaries of national and international governance. In
general, it will raise the questions: Have “not for profits”or NGOs, and
market forces, gone too far in diminishing the role of the public sector,
and the nation state? Is the prevailing faith in the increasingly
important role played by business and NGOs misplaced?
Second, the symposium will undertake four case studies with a view to
identifying the functions that each sector is best suited to perform.
Specifically, the symposium will employ the prism of environmental policy,
science, and law in examining the role played by NGOs in addressing:
Genetically modified organisms (GMO’s); Dams; Wildlife and Species, &
Indigenous peoples ----- The geo-political, and socio-economic boundaries
of the three main provinces of national and international societies are
being re-drawn. This conference will use the prism of environmental
policy, science, and law to examine the nature, extent and justification
for the changing jurisdictional boundaries among (i) government or
international institutions, (ii) entrepreneurial organizations, and (iii)
non governmental, non-profit organizations (NGO's).
We have witnessed a striking increase in the national and international
power and influence of the nonprofit sector in government and in corporate
decision-making. NGOs and private corporations have filled the vacuum
created by shifting boundaries in the domains once occupied by the
public/government sector. Domestically these changes have, to a large
extent, been caused by the downsizing and outsourcing of many government
functions in the wake of more market driven policies and programs. On the
international scene the declining hegemony of the national state, the
cyber revolution, and the growth of multinationals, have created an
apparently inexorable shift to globalism, without any concomitant growth
of global government. This global institutional lacunae has been filled by
a plethora of NGOs advocating a variety of paradigms based on free trade,
environmentalism, human rights, science and technology.
The increased presence of NGOs in making and implementing policy and law,
has been viewed by many as a welcome infusion of civic virtue into
national and international governance. Critics, who fall on different
sides of the political divides, take a less sanguine view of the
increasing influence of nonprofit associations. Some point out that NGOs
are, after all, fragmented groups of single-issue activists, ill informed
about science and technology, and unconstrained by public accountability
or transparency. Others argue that neither the private sector, driven by
its self-interest in profits, nor the civil sector, driven by its
self-interest in mission, can, at least on the national level, replace the
unifying attributes of the public sector and government.
Have civil society, and market forces gone too far in diminishing the role
of the public sector? Is the prevailing faith in the increasingly
important role played by NGOs misplaced? National and international
environmental NGOs both map and symbolize the changes giving rise to these
issues, and the proposed conference will address them by examining the
role played by environmental NGO's in shaping domestic and international
policy and law.
GM Food--Another View
Danny Kohl; The Nation
Genetically modified food has been the object of extensive criticism by
many, including in the pages of this magazine. Here is a different
perspective. --The Editors
The technology that creates genetically modified organisms (GMOs)--for
example, corn with built-in insecticide--has aroused opposition from much
of the left equal in intensity to that induced by sweatshop labor and
racism. Does GMO technology warrant this reflexive rejection, or can it
make a contribution to human welfare? Products that contribute little or
nothing to improving human welfare do not justify taking even a small
risk. Who needed bovine growth hormone? Does anyone really care that
engineering an increase in potato starch content makes better potato
chips? But GMO technology can also address extremely important issues. For
example, the ravages of severe vitamin A deficiency among poor children,
especially in Southeast Asia, annually results in the death of several
million children and blindness in 250,000, according to UNICEF and the
World Health Organization. Work aimed at contributing to amelioration of
this nutritional deficiency has resulted in the widely publicized "golden
rice." By adding two plant genes and one bacterial gene, this genetically
modified variety allows beta carotene to be synthesized in the edible
portion of rice, rather than primarily in its leaves. Beta carotene, whose
main dietary source is deeply colored fruits and vegetables, is converted
by humans to vitamin A. If society were to eliminate poverty so that
families could afford a balanced, nutritious diet, there would be less
need for attempting to fortify rice. But since that will not happen soon,
surely improving the beta carotene content of rice is worth diligent
Despite the apparent altruistic motive in developing golden rice, the
anti-GMO movement has vigorously attacked the project and succeeded in
influencing public debate. For example, in a March 4 New York Times
Magazine essay, Michael Pollan concludes that golden rice is no more than
a poster boy for biotech companies. This is ironic since the work was
supported entirely by the public sector and philanthropic funds with the
commitment that golden rice would, in the words of Ingo Potrykus, a lead
scientist on the project, "reach subsistence farmers free of charge and
Whether golden rice can make a positive contribution to health depends on
the answers to a series of questions. But these involve empirical, not
ideological, issues. Among them: Will poor Southeast Asians be able and
willing to buy or grow golden rice? How much beta carotene will golden
rice supply and with what efficiency can malnourished children convert it
to vitamin A? Will the plausible three- to fivefold increase in beta
carotene content be realized as the result of further research? And, as
important, what impact might a product like golden rice have on the
structure of agriculture, and how might those structural changes affect
the rural poor?
Instead of indiscriminately rejecting GMO technology, we should direct our
ire at corporate control of the research agenda, since under corporate
control profitability rather than public need determines which projects
are pursued. This results in crops and pharmaceuticals of immense
importance in the developing world being "research orphans." With little
potential for profit, corporations are not competing to develop
virus-resistant cassava, for example, despite cassava's being the third
most important source of calories worldwide [see Ken Silverstein,
"Millions for Viagra, Pennies for Diseases of the Poor," July 19, 1999].
Most of the potential problems activists have highlighted are the result
of racing to market. One such problem is escape of a transgene from an
engineered crop to wild relatives. This would be virtually eliminated if
the pollen of a transgenic corn plant, for example, were able to fertilize
only other identically engineered corn. There are strategies for
accomplishing this consistent with current knowledge of plant
reproduction. A second example is the presence in many GMO crops of the
gene for a protein that degrades antibiotics. Such genes are often
inserted into the plant genome to facilitate creation of the genetically
modified plant. Using existing techniques, this antibiotic resistance has
been eliminated from golden rice. We should insist that genetically
modified plants incorporate features like these before any GMO products
are approved for marketing. And the more trivial a product's contribution
to human welfare, the higher should be the safety bar.
While opposing corporate domination of the research agenda, we should
encourage government and philanthropic organizations to support research,
development and marketing of products aimed at alleviating the most
serious problems afflicting poor people without regard for profit
potential. When immense good with little risk is the likely outcome, we
should celebrate not only with the people who benefit from the product but
also for the success of a project motivated by humane values rather than
the pursuit of profit. There are scientists in the forefront of genetic
engineering who have a far different agenda from that of the
multinationals. Their commitment is to bring modern science to bear on
problems of importance to the Third World "free of costs and restrictions
on property rights," in the words of Ingo Potrykus
Center for the Application of Molecular Biology to International
Agriculture, in Australia (http://www.cambia.org.au), operates on a
"bottom up" principle. In its words, "CAMBIA develops technologies that
enable local researchers and producers to regain an appropriate measure of
control over breeding, utilization of genetic diversity and management of
We need to be talking with such researchers. They can help us identify
truly important potential uses of GMO technology, risks associated with it
and strategies for minimizing the risks. For our part, we can encourage
such researchers to insist on appropriate regulatory vigilance and to
resist being co-opted by corporate devotion to the bottom line.
Danny Kohl, a progressive activist for over fifty years, is a professor of
biology at Washington University in St. Louis. Full disclosure: He has a
grant from the university, funded by Monsanto, to study adaptations of
plants to drought stress. Copyright 2001 Gale Group Inc. All rights
reserved. COPYRIGHT 2001 The Nation Company L.P
MODIFYING THE ARGUMENT
March 31, 2001 The Herald Page 12 James Freeman (From Agnet; April 5)
Battle lines have, according to this story, been drawn for a clash of two
of the titans of the genetically modified ( GM ) crop debate in Edinburgh
today when Dr Arpad Pusztai, the scientist sacked by the prestigious
Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen for whistle-blowing, and Professor
Tony Trewavas of Edinburgh University debate head to head. Holding the
jackets at the Royal Botanic Garden will be the McCarrison Society, a body
which explores the links between nutrition and health.
The story says that since being 'silenced', Dr Pusztai has lectured by
invitation worldwide. His itinerary has included Canada, Japan, India,
Bulgaria, Colombia, and every EU country. He has just returned from giving
evidence to New Zealand's government commission - at the commission's
request - which will determine the future of GM in that country. Professor
Trewavas, of the Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology at Edinburgh
University, is a powerful international voice in favour of GM research
whose primary concern is how agriculture is going to resolve the enormous
complications being wrought by global warming and population growth.
Dr Pusztai describes the current state of GM research as 'target-shooting
blindfolded' but acknowledges his work is at an end. The 20-strong team of
scientists he headed at Aberdeen has been disbanded, he claims, with 18 of
the 20 'drifting away' from the Rowett. 'They were treated like pariahs,'
he says. 'Other scientists they had known for years were afraid to speak
to them. I grew up first under the Nazis and then the communists so I was
not surprised. I regard my role now as a communicator. These are issues
people ought to know about. The research was funded by the taxpayer and my
allegiance is to the taxpayer. This is the most secretive country in the
world but these are issues the ordinary man in the street must know about.
After all, he is eating the stuff.'
Hungarian-born Dr Pusztai, 44 years in Scotland and with a worldwide
scientific reputation, made a 150-second appearance on World in Action in
August 1998, in which he voiced concern that the testing procedures on
food containing GM material might not be adequate. All hell broke loose :
with hindsight, many in science believe what happened next came right from
the heart of government in both London and Washington, where successive
administrations are known to clasp the vast GM industry to their bosom.
Within a few days, he was suspended from the Rowett, allegedly for
releasing misleading and incomplete information, and silenced by the
threat of legal action. His sin was to disclose the findings of his recent
research - that the growth and immune responsiveness of rats fed on a diet
containing GM potatoes were depressed. The establishment closed ranks, and
a secret and anonymous peer review group discredited his research. But,
the story says, an international panel of scientists, using the same data
from Dr Pusztai, rejected what they said was a selective and biased audit
and vindicated Dr Pusztai's work and scientific concerns.
Dr Pusztai was quoted as saying, 'In a scientific argument we need facts
but in this argument nothing has been published by the other side. Instead
we have these high and mighty people telling the public they have looked
at all the facts and they think everything is all right. It is a
condescending attitude which says that 'you little people cannot
understand this high science. We will make the judgment for you - just go
and buy the stuff and eat it'. This is absolutely ludicrous. Why should we
take their word for it?'
Dr Pusztai, now 70, adds that he first met Ralph Nader in America in 1967
when he was in the throes of exposing the criminal state of car safety.
The motor industry and the US government tried to destroy Nader but he was
right about car safety, was right subsequently about many other issues,
and has now had more consumer legislation passed through the US Senate
than anyone else. He is now taking up the issue of GM safety in the US and
Canada. The parallels are obvious.
The story goes on to say that the ultimate reason the government and the
scientific establishment did not want Dr Pusztai's work to be completed
was that ordinary people would readily grasp what it was about, he
believes. 'I have never had any problem explaining anything to people.
Even complex molecular biology can be explained. The concepts are easily
understood. The body is dependent on its immune system for protection in a
very hostile world. If you are eating something which is interfering with
the speed of your response that is not a good idea.'
Rat and human immune systems are distanced by several million years of
evolution but, he says, they are basically the same. 'We do not know if
the changes we found to the rats' immune systems were temporary or
permanent or reversible. We could have found all this out and we had the
plans in hand. Why did they stop us? The reason was, they were afraid.'
Professor Trewavas was quoted as saying, however: 'People are fussing
about what is in their food at the moment but I think it is only a matter
of time before they get used to the idea. They are fussing about it
because of the lack of knowledge.' His view is that we require GM for the
future of mankind, so he cannot understand why such a fuss is being made.
Scientists have been shuffling genes from weeds to crops for some time and
have been bombarding plants with X-rays and radiation to generate mutants,
and many such crops are currently available and in extensive use.
Long experience, he says, has taught him a different perception of what to
be concerned about and persuaded him that there is nothing wrong with GM .
Dr Pusztai, he claims, stands alone in the debate and he has become
involved in personalities. 'I think that is unfortunate. I will tell him
right at the outset that everything which has happened to him is his own
doing. He has this idea that I had a hand in the science festival episode'
- Dr Pusztai was first invited to speak at Edinburgh Science Festival but
then told the invitation was withdrawn - 'which is not true. He has become
paranoid about those he sees as enemies. But he has made his own bed and
he must lie in it. 'He spoke to the media about unpublished research and
he has got to accept responsibility for what he did. He has published more
than 300 papers in the best scientific journals. He is an expert in
lectins. He decided to blow it all in 150 seconds on television. I have no
doubt that what has happened to him is a tragedy.'
Professor Trewavas was cited as criticizing Dr Pusztai's researches as
having 'too many things missing' for anyone to make any deductions. He
claims Dr Pusztai is selective in not describing other scientists' papers
which relate to very detailed investigations but which have found nothing.
'I think it is time he stopped saying that not enough has been done. A
vast amount of science into the possible effects of GM has been done,' he
states. The Food Standards Agency is, he claims, 'perfectly happy with
what is on offer at the present time', and goes on to criticise
environmentalists who respond in terms of a political agenda which ignores
the science. The idea that once genetically altered material is released
into the wild it can never be recalled is a case in point. No crop has the
ability to survive in the wild, he maintains, because they cannot behave
as wild plants - weeds - do. Crops, including genetically modified crops,
die out after two or three years and vanish.
Of his recent all-out attack on organic farming published in Nature and
then repeated in the Daily Telegraph, Professor Trewavas was quoted as
saying, 'I want to start a debate about organic farming because there is
none at present and that is wrong. The so-called benefits are largely
based on assertion. We need to be aware of what we actually want, The
human race has always tried to keep progressing while minimising damage -
the aeroplane and the car are perfect examples. Who now would chuck them
away?' Criticism by scientists of GM may have been muted, perhaps by
self-censorship or otherwise, after Dr Pusztai's high-profile sacking. The
issues will, however, return to centre-stage today.