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April 15, 2001


Brute Force, Extremist Dilemmas, BIO.com, Golden Fears,


The final item of the AgBioView listing on 14 April was a post by
Professor Prakash of an essay written by Stephen Palumbi, Professor of
Biology at Harvard. Published in the April edition of the Chronicle of
Higher Education the piece presents a thoughtful discussion of the
differences between conventional breeding and genetic engineering as they
relate to evolutionary processes (post available at bottom of:
ioview&msg_num=1043&start_num= )

Professor Palumbi in particular focuses on contextual and gene regulatory
issues which are not addressed in what he calls the 'brute force' of
genetic engineering methods, and concludes his discussion by asking "how
best do we best use genetic technologies?".

It is a matter of considerable regret, therefore, that so little attention
has been paid to the application of genomics to modern plant breeding in a
way which does not have recourse to the use of recombinant DNA methods
(other than as a research tool). Such an approach offers the opportunity
to deploy the best of both worlds - the contextual methods of traditional
plant breeding and advances in molecular biology - without exposure to the
particular problems associated with genetic engineering which Professor
Palumbi identifies. For more on the application of genomics to
plant breeding see:


Date: Apr 15 2001 19:40:00 EDT
From: "Rosedale Organic Farm"
Subject: Re: AGBIOVIEW: Bright Earth Day; Uganda Vit. A; Thailand PM on
GM; Moyer's Bad Chemistry; Brute Forc

Let's jail all of these extremists. Or put them in concentration camps
which are just nice cheap jails. Let's do it at once before the people
wakeup and listen to them.

Date: Apr 16 2001 14:05:22 EDT
From: Andrew Apel
Subject: Extremist Dilemmas


Golden rice and the ruling in the case of Monsanto vs. Schmeiser have
brought various doctrines popular with the protest industry a step closer
to absurdity. With the development of golden rice, Greenpeace was forced
to publicly admit that its environmental agenda has, literally, no
humanitarian component.

In the case of Percy Schmeiser, we find a farmer committing ‘biopiracy’ by
growing Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready canola in his personal breeding program.
Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), which is said to oppose
biopiracy, pointedly
ignored this aspect of the case.

Greenpeace has yet to clarify its position on why humans (who also
constitute its members) have no priority on the group’s environmental
agenda, and RAFI has yet to explain why its championship of seed
developer’s rights is not even-handed.

The reason for the trend towards absurdity is simple: these extremist
groups must remain extremist to survive. If they were willing to admit the
issues are complex and involve legitimate, competing values, they would be
drawn into a coherent debate which threatens the possibility of
compromise. With compromise looms the specter of the obsolescence of these

If Greenpeace admitted that childhood blindness might be placed in the
balance against claims of imaginary environmental risk, it might
eventually be forced to admit that other, verifiable benefits of
biotechnology might be germane as well. If RAFI admitted that it truly
supported crop developer’s rights, it might eventually
be forced to admit that all who improve crops deserve the fruits of their
labors, be they individuals, businesses or governments.

New developments which force these groups to confront moral or logical
dilemmas have the tendency to force them to new extremes, and it will
force them into absurdity if this trend continues. Accordingly, proponents
of biotechnology may wish to adopt a strategy of regularly challenging
them with such dilemmas.


Bio.com begins on a promising note

BANGALORE: The first-ever symposium on biotechnology -- Bio.com-2001 --
began here on Sunday, amidst promises and 'vows' from the state government
and the industry.

Inaugurating the three-day symposium-cum-exhibition, Chief Minister S M
Krishna said, Karnataka, which has been in the forefront of the
information technology growth in the country, will strive to project
itself to be the leader in biotechnology as well.

Though Karnataka had already made some rapid strides, it still has
tremendous opportunities for growth, he said. "The scope is very wide and
we are scratching only the surface."

While about Rs 27,000 crore were being spent annually worldwide on
pesticides and insecticides, in India it was only Rs 3,000 crore and over
50 per cent of it was being spent on cotton, he said.

If the Indian farmers can adopt biotechnology, it can save an estimated Rs
15,000 crore annually, he added.

Krishna said of the estimated $ 2.5 billion worth national biotechnology
trade, about 60 per cent was accounted by healthcare while only 10 per
cent was being occupied by the agriculture sector.

There was a need to focus more on agricultural development through
biotechnology, he said.

As part of the Millennium Biotech Policy, the government will set up an
Institute of Agri-biotechnology in Dharwad at a cost of Rs five crore to
help farmers grow disease-resistant cotton, he said, and added that the
institute will come up in three months time.

Earlier, Kiran Majumdar-Shaw, chairperson of the Vision Group on
biotechnology, said that the industry vows to promote biotechnology to the
benefit of society in an eco-friendly and ethical way.

"We vow to be original and innovative in research, ethics, standards and
regulatory framework," she said.

Stating the IT and biotech sectors shared symbiotic relationship, she said
they together have an important role in shaping the future of the country.

The Vision Group will work towards making Karnataka the knowledge state of
the country and the Bio.com-2001 provides a new hope as well as new
opportunities, she said.

State IT minister Nanaiah, environment and forests minister Ranganath,
horticulture minister Allum Veerabhadrappa, tourism minister Roshan Baig,
Prof Sharat Chandra, Borge Diedrichsen of Novo Nordisk and IT secretary
Vivek Kulkarni were also present. (Web Exclusive)


Golden fears

Is this where our gastronomic future lies? In daffodils and bacteria
spicing up the decidedly colourful platter of rice on our tables? In a
development which is bound to once again animate the extremely hostile
pro- and anti-biotech camps, India has agreed to participate in a research
project aimed at developing a genetically modified variety of rice for
plantation in the subcontinent. Developed by Swiss scientist Ingo
Potrykus, golden rice -- with genes from daffodils and bacteria spliced in
to augment it with beta-carotene -- is already being hailed as a
wondergrain that will consign vitamin A deficiency to the history books
and save millions around the world from perils like blindness and worse.
(It is the beta-carotene which gives the grains a yellowish tinge.)
Potrykus's strain is however conducive only to temperate climates. In
India, scientists propose to apply this technology, which has been offered
gratis to developing countries, to tropical varieties of rice.

The stakes in perfecting and then applying this technology in the fields
are obvious. In India, where vitamin deficiencies pose a grave health risk
and where an estimated 12 million people suffer from just vitamin A
disorders, availability of golden rice and other nutritionally fortified
foodgrains could make a tremendous improvement in the quality of human
life. A clarification is in order here. Golden rice is the first GM crop
that offers advantages to the consumer; other transgenic plants developed
thus far lend advantages to the farmer, with promises that they will
reduce his investment on pesticides and fertilisers, save him from
rapacious weeds, or give him ever more abundant yields. Yet, the hostility
to golden rice in India is likely to be no different from the shrill
opposition to field trials of GM cotton that have been witnessed recently.
And while the hysterical demand that all research and field trials be
aborted -- made once again at the prospect of golden rice being replicated
in India --is downright silly, the government must address some very
serious concerns about transgenic crops.

There are three main apprehensions. One, since new genes are introduced in
GM seed and since genes carry instructions for making proteins, it is
feared that some proteins could cause allergic reactions in consumers,
with tragic consequences. Two, there is the spectre of genetic pollution.
For instance, field trials must establish that there is no danger of
pollen drift, of promiscuous jumping genes conferring a new hardiness to
weedy relatives. It is important, therefore, that research conducted in
temperate habitats be supplemented with meticulous field trials in
tropical environments to assess the possible impact on biodiversity and
ecological balance. Three, there are worries about the Indian farmer being
enslaved to agribusinesses. Biotechnology is no doubt an expensive
pursuit, and companies would like to recover R&D costs by ensuring that
the herbicide their seeds are resistant to is produced by them alone, by
exploring ways to verify that the farmer buys fresh seeds every season.
The Indian governmentsays it has formulated a thorough appraisal routine
taking into account these fears; now it must see to it that it is strictly


They're Serving Up a Pastoral Fantasy
But Small Farms Aren't the Answer to Every Agricultural Crisis

The Washington Post
By Stephen Budiansky
April 15, 2001

Roughly a million animals have been slaughtered so far in the
foot-and-mouth epidemic that is ravaging Britain's farms. And, in what has
become an increasingly familiar pattern whenever a problem appears in the
business of raising food, the seemingly uncontrollable spread of the
disease is seen by many as proof of the dangers inherent in large-scale,
high-technology, globally interdependent agriculture.

Like outbreaks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or "mad cow
disease"), the E. coli contamination of meat, the discovery of pesticide
residues in fruits and the presence of genetically engineered corn in
tortilla chips, the foot-and-mouth epidemic has been cited by
environmental and animal-rights activists as evidence of the need to
return to small-scale farming based on organic practices and traditional,
supposedly natural methods of raising food. In part by playing on
consumers' fears and environmental consciences, organic grocery chains
such as Fresh Fields have become a booming business in upscale markets in
the last few years.

There is some truth to the notion that the demands of globally oriented
agriculture have hastened the spread of foot-and-mouth disease. One major,
early vector of the disease in Britain was the transport of thousands of
live sheep over long distances to markets that feed a large export
industry. But in the larger picture, the attempt to use the epidemic as a
rallying point against modern agricultural practices is simply false.

When I began raising sheep 20 years ago, I quickly learned that decisions
about modern technology are never black and white. There are many things
that bother me about the intensive, large-scale raising of livestock,
including the potential environmental impact of the huge manure lagoons
that are a fixture of large pig facilities, for example, and more
generally the loss of personal contact between farmer and the livestock
under his care that inevitably occurs in huge operations.

Local, small-scale production can help preserve farmland and open space,
and rebuild personal connections between farmers and consumers. My wife
and many fellow small-flock sheep producers in Loudoun County have been
working hard to help build local markets for our lambs and wool: My
family's 30-ewe flock supplies local hand spinners with natural colored
fleeces, and we sell many of our lambs through the Loudoun Valley Sheep
Producers, which runs a successful cooperative marketing venture selling
lamb sausage.

Yet I cannot deny that some modern, high-tech farming practices are much
better for the safety of the food supply, the well-being of livestock and
the health of the environment than the traditional practices they have
replaced. Remember, the recent foot-and-mouth outbreak in Britain -- which
has since spread elsewhere in Europe -- began not on any large "factory"
operation with multinational connections, but rather on a small pig farm
in the north of England run by two brothers who were feeding their animals
swill recycled from local restaurants.

By contrast, the farms that epitomize high-tech excess and corporate
control of agriculture -- such as the high-intensity pig farms in North
Carolina and elsewhere -- are far and away the most safe from
foot-and-mouth or other disease outbreaks. The animals are raised indoors
where workers can control the unwanted intrusion of microbes by requiring
employees and visitors to pass through disinfection procedures and don
special protective clothing when entering. The pigs are fed processed,
commercially manufactured feeds that are much safer from microbial
contamination than swill.

On my farm, I can't count the number of lambs and ewes that simply would
have dropped dead -- and the many more that would have endured much
needless suffering -- were it not for antibiotics, vaccinations and
worming medications, all of which are taboo to organic producers.

We just finished lambing a few weeks ago, and it's always an exhilarating
and exhausting time of year -- and a reminder that nature is both
beautiful and terrible. When the lambs are a few days old they get turned
out from their pens with their mothers, and I doubt any shepherd ever
really tires of watching them charge about the field in their own little
playful herds, stopping every once in a while to baa and run back to the
placid ewes. Yet there's always a dark cloud hovering. Even in a small
flock like ours, where the ewes have access to pasture year round and give
birth to their lambs on clean straw, the risk of disease around lambing
time is a constant nemesis. The many internal parasites that afflict sheep
explode in number at just that point -- when ewes and their offspring are
most vulnerable. A whole family of bacteria, including tetanus and its
many relatives, is ready to invade the newborns and their mothers. A lamb
can be gamboling one day and drop dead the next from these infections. So
I for one am ever grateful to those large multinational chemical companies
that make dewormers and antibiotics.

Even issues like the use of agro-chemicals are not cut and dried. It is
obviously better to reduce the use of chemicals. But on the other hand,
the farmers in our area who practice no-till farming of their field crops
-- which requires the use of chemical herbicides to control weeds -- have,
for example, made a major contribution to the health of the Chesapeake Bay
by reducing soil erosion. By disturbing the soil only minimally to plant a
crop, and leaving a cover of plant stubble and other crop residues,
no-till methods reduce soil erosion practically to zero -- a far cry from
traditional tillage, which repeatedly exposes soil to wind and water
erosion by turning the ground over and repeatedly cultivating with
mechanical hoes to control weeds.

And in the bigger picture, scientist Paul Waggoner of the Connecticut
Agriculture Experiment Station has shown that high-tech, high-yield
farming in general -- made possible by thepanoply of modern technologies
such as chemical fertilizers, pesticides, hybrid seeds, growth hormones
and improved strains of livestock -- has already preserved for wildlife
millions of acres of land that would otherwise have come under the plow to
feed people.

In the past two generations, the amount of cropland cultivated per person
in America has fallen by half, even as Americans eat better and export
more. According to Waggoner's calculations, as a result of more efficient
methods of raising feed grains as well as in the use of that feed by
livestock, 50 million acres have been spared in the United States alone,
an area equal to one and a half times the entire state of Iowa -- or 24
Yellowstone National Parks. The adoption of intensive technologies by
wheat growers in India has spared 100 million acres of land since the
1960s that otherwise would have been needed for new production. Much the
same argument can be made about genetically modified crops, which have
provoked a wave of almost hysterical opposition in Europe and growing
concerns here, but have the potential to reduce the need for chemical
pesticides and to spare more land by increasing yields.

The traditional and supposedly "sustainable" methods of farming many
consumers think they should encourage are in fact often terribly wasteful
of nature and natural resources.

No doubt, things can and should be improved in the way food is
commercially produced, but there is nothing inherent in modern
agricultural systems and technology that makes such problems inevitable or
uncorrectable once discovered. Given the standards of sanitation that
prevailed in the good old days, I am skeptical that the effects on human
health are worse today than, say, 100 years ago, when diarrhea from food
poisoning was one of the leading causes of death.

The idea that whatever is "natural" is also automatically healthy for
people and the environment is a seductive one. Faith in the goodness of
nature has its roots in the 19th-century romantic reaction against
industrialization and the loss of the bucolic way of life. But farmers
have always known that nature is both good and bad. There are undeniable
reasons to be careful and judicious about the adoption of new
technologies. But a purely natural alternative would not have prevented
the foot-and-mouth outbreak in Britain, nor will it achieve the utopia
that is claimed for it.

Stephen Budiansky, a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, raises sheep
in Leesburg.