Ecological Monitoring of Genetically Modified Crops
National Academy of Sciences summary of the workshop held in July 2000 is
now available at http://www.nap.edu/books/0309073359/html/ .
The contents include : Keeping watch on Genetically Modified Crops ; The
Rationale for Ecological Monitoring; Scientific Issues in Ecological
Monitoring ; Policy Issues in Modeling
Philippine President Reverses Course On Transgenics
April 20, 2001 Cropchoice news
http://www.Cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?RecID=299 (From Agnet)
The president of the Philippines made a 360-degree turn on transgenic
foods. Cropchoice reported two weeks ago that the Crop Protection
Association of the Philippines (CPAP) and members of the National Academy
of Science and Technology of the Philippines (NAST) were pressuring
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to reconsider her stand against
transgenic foods. It worked.
She now wants to move ahead with the commercial planting of transgenic
crops and sales of food with ingredients derived from the technology. At
the same time, the president instructed the Agriculture, Health and Trade
and Industry departments to develop mandatory labeling policies for
transgenic foods so that consumers know what they're buying.
From: "Kershen, Drew L"
Subject: Rice to Rice Transfer -- Prof. Athula Perera's Question
Under the Cartagena Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity
(the Biosafety Protocol) adopted in Montreal in January 2000, ARTICLE 3
USE OF TERMS states:
"(i) Modern Biotechnology means the application of: (i) In vitro nucleic
acid techniques, including recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and
direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles, or (ii) Fusion
of cells beyond the taxonomic family that overcome natural physiological
reproductive or recombination barriers and that are not techniques used in
traditional breeding and selection."
In light of this definition, I believe that the rice variety created by
the rice-to-rice transfer methods described in Professor Perera's message
(i.e. agrobacterium-mediated gene transfer or biolistic method) would be a
transgenic plant. By being a transgenic plant, the rice variety would be
subject to the regulatory regime created by the Cartagena Protocol. I
could describe that regime in detail but I do not consider that the legal
regime information is pertinent to Professor Perera's question.
- Best regards, Drew
Biotech Education Web Site
- European Initiative for Biotechnology Education The European Initiative
for Biotechnology Education (EIBE) seeks to promote skills, enhance
understanding and facilitate public debate throughout Europe. Founded in
1991, EIBE has become an active European multidisciplinary network of
experts in biotechnology education drawn from 20 centres in 17 European
countries. The main activity of the Group has been to generate teaching
materials for 16 -19 year olds. EIBE Units are collections of activities
including a variety of experimental protocols, practical activities,
role-plays, information and debates. The units are accessible on the World
Wide Web and are suitable for immediate classroom use. .....
For more information on EIBE visit the site at:
Transgenic plants I: http://www.eibe.org/ENGLISH/U9.HTM
This Unit includes up-to-date information on the production and use of
transgenic plants. It is intended to increase understanding and provide
background information for classroom discussions about the role of
transgenic plants in the modern world.
Contents: Transgenic Plants: Introduction: * How a transgenic plan is made
* The use of transgenic plants * Information box Case studies: * Rape,
maize, tomatoes * Soya beans * Potentials and problems Appendix 1: *
Commission decision Appendix 2: * Specimen questionnaire
Transgenic plants II: economy, environment and ethics.
EIBE Unit 10 is a role play. It is based on the decision an imaginary town
council has to make as to whether or not they should give permission to a
local plant breeding firm, to develop and release transgenic plants.
Although the methodology is oriented towards a rôle-play the materials can
also be used as background for a debate. Information is given about the
town, risk assessment, trials on the release of transgenic plants in
different countries, as well as newspaper articles, etc. The Unit is cross
referenced to Unit 9, which gives more scientific background to
understanding how transgenic plants are made and what steps and
regulations are taken before they can be released into the environment.
Societal issues are emphasised more than scientific concepts. The Unit
could therefore also be appealing to non-science teachers and students.
Contents: Guide lines for the teacher: * Aims * Prior knowledge * Timing *
Debriefing * List of roles The roles Materials: * List of characters *
Setting the scene * Map of Smalltown * Advice to the council * New
article: Fireworks! * International discussion of risk evaluation .
Newspaper cuttings: * News article: Partytime * Gene technology and ethics
Genetically Modified Crops : Why? Why not?
International Conference in Stockholm, Sweden 14-15 May, 2001
This Conference will provide an informed dialogue between parties involved
in the debate on Genetically Modified Crops. The aim of the Conference is
to present global perspectives on the scientific frontier and to elucidate
the possibilities, risks and public perception of GMO applications in
agricultural crops. The Conference will end with conclusions on what needs
to be done to avoid or deal with the risks while at the same time reaping
the benefits linked to the technology.
The main topics and confirmed speakers include: Global perspectives
(Jacques Diouf, FAO, and Ingo Potrykus, CH), Science and public perception
(Peter Sandoe, DK, and Måns Lönnroth, SE), GM based development of crops
(John Pickett, UK), Evolutionary and ecological perspectives (Daniel
Simberloff, US), Resistance to pests and pathogens (Bruce Tabashnik, US),
GM crops in EU (Rolf Annerberg, EU) and Functional genomics (John
Biotechnology - Present Position and Future Developments
This book focuses on the applications of biotechnology, describes the
technologies involved, explains the progress made to-date and outlines the
future of the technology for each application. The main areas covered
include crop production, animal biotechnology, the environment, industrial
biotechnology and animal and human health. Considerable attention is
devoted to developments in new platform technologies including genomics,
proteomics and bioinformatics along with the implications of high
throughput analytical techniques including microarrays. New developments
in imaging and optical biology are dealt with in detail, while the impact
of biosensors, bioelectronics and bionetworks are discussed.
Investment in applied biology includes the promise of new approaches to
the genetic improvement of plants, particularly for disease resistance,
pest resistance, better nutrient content and reduced risk of pesticide
residues. The authors highlight the key factors which make biotechnology
particularly relevant to the Agri-Food sector. They also discuss the major
contribution biotechnology can make on medicine and health care, for
humans and animals, in providing improved approaches to the diagnosis,
treatment, and prevention of disease. The emergence of Biotechnology has
raised many questions of enormous public interest, including the safety of
genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food, and the effects of GMOs on
the environment. These are discussed.
This book highlight the many promising avenues of research and
technological development offered by biotechnology and pinpoints where
investments in research can make major contributions to economic growth in
Ireland in the 21st century.
The Authors: * Martina Newell McGloughlin, a graduate of Trinity College
Dublin, is currently Director of Biotechnology and Life Sciences
Informatics programmes at the University of California, Davis * James I.
Burke is a graduate of University College Dublin and currently Chief Crops
Scientist at the Teagasc Crops Research Centre, Oak Park, Carlow.
From: Tom DeGregori
Subject: FARMERS MOVED TO MAKE ROOM FOR MONKEYS
If these farmers were being moved to make way for a Dam for electric power
and/or irrigation for agriculture, I am sure that there would be a big
international campaign to save them and the World Bank would be picketed.
Conclusion, saving Monkeys (which I consider to be a good thing) is more
important than feeding people or providing electricity for schools,
hospitals and refrigerators to preserve food from spoilage and protect
vaccines and for children to a have some light at night to do their
schoolwork. The silence on this from those who claim to be protecting the
poor is deafening. - Tom DeGregori
Farmers Moved to Make Room for Monkeys
African Eye News Service (Nelspruit); April 17, 2001; By Stephen Mbogo;
More than 200 peasant farmers in Kenya's Tana River district are to be
relocated from their ancestral land to create room for the Red Colubus and
Crested Mangabey monkeys, the Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) announced at
In return, 247 of 330 families moved out of the 166-square kilometre Tana
River Primate National Reserve, will be given residential houses in a new
settlement scheme. Some of the banana and corn farming peasants are
reluctant to move from the fertile land, however, and accuse the KWS of
being more concerned with the plight of monkeys than of people.
"We are against everything that has happened. We will never leave," said
Seth Ablo, a 76-year-old man who has farmed on the land all his life. He
represents about 100 families who are reluctant to move out of the reserve.
KWS corporate communications manager Connie Nkatha-Maina said each family
would get 15 acres of farmland with a title deed, a quarter acre land of a
housing plot, a fully constructed house and access to clean water. The new
resettlement scheme will also include an equipped primary school, police
station and a dispensary.
In February this year, several dozen chanting women angrily charged at
scientists working on the edge of the reserve. The women exposed their
private parts as the highest form of insult. There are about 2 400 rare
Red Colubus and Crested Mangabey monkeys in the reserve. KWS is currently
implementing a US$6,2 million World Bank funded project to protect the
primate reserve. The primate reserve is the last vestige of riverine
forest system in Kenya.
Copyright © 2001 African Eye News Service. Distributed by AllAfrica Global
"Organic" Foods: Will Certification Protect Consumers?
Stephen Barrett, M.D.
If you, as a consumer, want to purchase a fake or a fraud of one kind or
another, should your government guarantee your right to do so? More than
that, is your government obligated to prosecute one who, knowing of your
propensity for fraud, tricks you into buying the genuine in place of
buying the fake? Remembering that "your government" is all the rest of us,
is it right for you to take our time and money to underwrite such
ridiculous exercises as making sure you are cheated when you want to be
cheated? And must we penalize the man who breaks his promise to cheat you?
These astute questions were raised in 1972 by Dick Beeler, editor of
Animal Health and Nutrition, who was concerned about laws being adopted in
California and Oregon to certify "organic" foods. Those laws signaled the
beginning of efforts that culminated in 1990 with passage of the U.S.
Organic Foods Production Act, which ordered the U.S. Department of
Agriculture (USDA) to set certification standards. Although USDA had
opposed passage of the act, the Alar scare plus a campaign by
environmental, consumer, and farm groups persuaded Congress to include it
in the 1990 Farm Bill .
As directed by the law, the Secretary of Agriculture established a
National Organic Standards Board to help develop a list of substances
permissible in organic production and handling and to advise the Secretary
on other aspects of implementing a National Organic Program. In 1992, the
Secretary appointed 15 people, 8 of whom were industry members. The board
held 12 full-board meetings and 5 joint committee meetings and received
additional input through public hearings and written submissions from
interested persons. It presented its recommendations to the Secretary in
1994 and issued 30 subsequent addenda.
The Current Marketplace Total retail sales of the organic industry have
reportedly risen from $1 billion in 1990 to $4.2 billion in 1997.
"Certified" organic cropland production expanded from 473,000 acres to
667,000 acres between 1992 and 1994 and is expected to reach two million
acres by the year 2,000. Despite this rapid growth, the organic industry
represents a very small percentage of total agricultural production and
The most common concept of "organically grown" food was articulated in
1972 by Robert Rodale, editor of Organic Gardening and Farming magazine,
at a public hearing: Food grown without pesticides; grown without
artificial fertilizers; grown in soil whose humus content is increased by
the additions of organic matter, grown in soil whose mineral content is
increased by the application of natural mineral fertilizers; has not been
treated with preservatives, hormones, antibiotics, etc.  However, in
1980, a team of scientists appointed by the USDA concluded that there was
no universally accepted definition of "organic farming." Their report
The organic movement represents a spectrum of practices, attitudes, and
philosophies. On the one hand are those organic practitioners who would
not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides under any circumstances. These
producers hold rigidly to their purist philosophy. At the other end of the
spectrum, organic farmers espouse a more flexible approach. While striving
to avoid the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, these
practitioners do not rule them out entirely. Instead, when absolutely
necessary, some fertilizers and also herbicides are very selectively and
sparingly used as a second line of defense. Nevertheless, these farmers,
too, consider themselves to be organic farmers .
Today, approximately 4,000 farmers and 600 handlers are certified by 33
private or 11 state agencies. Each certifying agency has its own standards
and identifying marks. No industrywide agreement exists about which
substances should be permitted or prohibited for organic production and
The Proposed Rule: On December 16, 1997, the USDA Agricultural Marketing
Service proposed rules for a National Organic Program . The proposal
includes: (1) national standards for production and handling, (2) a
National List of approved synthetic substances, (3) a certification
program, (4) a program for accrediting certifiers, (5) labeling
requirements, (6) enforcement provisions, and (7) rules for importing
equivalent products. A new USDA seal will be the only permissible marker.
The proposed rule defines organic farming and handling as: A system that
is designed and managed to produce agricultural products by the use of
methods and substances that maintain the integrity of organic agricultural
products until they reach the consumer. This is accomplished by using,
where possible, cultural, biological and mechanical methods, as opposed to
using substances, to fulfill any specific function within the system so as
to: maintain long-term soil fertility; increase soil biological activity;
ensure effective pest management; recycle wastes to return nutrients to
the land; provide attentive care for farm animals; and handle the
agricultural products without the use of extraneous synthetic additives or
processing in accordance with the Act and the regulations in this part.
The weed and pest-control methods to which this refers include crop
rotation, hand cultivation, mulching, soil enrichment, and encouraging
beneficial predators and microorganisms. If these methods are not
sufficient, various listed chemicals can be used. (The list does not
include cytotoxic chemicals that are carbon-based.) The proposal does not
call for monitoring specific indicators of soil and water quality, but
leaves the selection of monitoring activities to the producer in
consultation with the certifying agent.
For raising animals, antibiotics are not permitted as growth stimulants
but are permitted to counter infections. The rules permit up to 20% of
animal feed to be obtained from non-organic sources. This was done because
some nutrients (such as trace minerals) are not always available
organically. Irradiation, which can reduce or eliminate certain pests,
kill disease-causing bacteria, and prolong food shelf-life, is permitted
during processing. Genetic engineering is also permissible.
In an accompanying news release, USDA Secretary Dan Glickman stated: What
is organic? Generally, it is agriculture produced through a natural as
opposed to synthetic process. The natural portion of the definition is
fairly obvious, but process is an equally critical distinction. When we
certify organic, we are certifying not just a product but the farming and
handling practices that yield it. When you buy a certified organic tomato,
for instance, you are buying the product of an organic farm. And,
consumers are willing to fork over a little more for that tomato. They've
shown that they will pay a premium for organic food. National standards
are our way of ensuring that consumers get what they pay for.
More Nutritious? The USDA proposal applies to all types of agricultural
products and all aspects of their production and handling, ranging from
soil fertility management to the packaging and labeling of the final
product. The document is intended to address production methods rather
than the physical qualities of the products themselves. In fact, it
states: "No distinctions should be made between organically and
non-organically produced products in terms of quality, appearance, or
safety." In other words, no claim should be made that the foods themselves
are better -- or even different!
Organic foods are certainly not more nutritious . The nutrient content
of plants is determined primarily by heredity. Mineral content may be
affected by the mineral content of the soil, but this has no significance
in the overall diet. If essential nutrients are missing from the soil, the
plant will not grow. If plants grow, that means the essential nutrients
are present. Experiments conducted for many years have found no difference
in the nutrient content of organically grown crops and those grown under
standard agricultural conditions.
Safer? "Organic" proponents suggest that their foods are safer because
they have lower levels of pesticide residues. However, the pesticide
levels in our food supply are not high. In some situations, pesticides
even reduce health risks by preventing the growth of harmful organisms,
including molds that produce toxic substances .
To protect consumers, the FDA sets tolerance levels in foods and conducts
frequent "market basket" studies wherein foods from regions throughout the
United States are purchased and analyzed. Its 1997 tests found that about
60% of fruits and vegetables had no detectable pesticides and only about
1.2% of domestic and 1.6% of imported foods had violative levels . Its
annual Total Diet Study has always found that America's dietary intakes
are well within international and Environmental Protection Agency
Most studies conducted since the early 1970s have found that the pesticide
levels in foods designated organic were similar to those that were not. In
1997, Consumer Reports purchased about a thousand pounds of tomatoes,
peaches, green bell peppers, and apples in five cities and tested them for
more than 300 synthetic pesticides. Traces were detected in 77% of
conventional foods and 25% of organically labeled foods, but only one
sample of each exceeded the federal limit .
Pesticides can locate on the surface of foods as well as beneath the
surface. The amounts that washing can remove depends on their location,
the amount and temperature of the rinse water, and whether detergent is
used. Most people rinse their fruits and vegetables with plain water
before eating them. In fact, Consumer Reports on Health has recommended
this .Consumer Reports stated that it did not do so because the FDA
tests unwashed products. The amount of pesticide removed by simple rinsing
has not been scientifically studied but is probably small. Consumer
Reports missed a golden opportunity to assess this.
Do pesticides found in conventional foods pose a health threat? Does the
difference in pesticide content warrant buying "organic" foods? Consumer
Reports equivocates: "For consumers in general, the unsettling truth is
that no one really knows what a lifetime of consuming the tiny quantities
of foods might do to a person. The effect, if any, is likely to be small
for most individuals -- but may be significant for the population at
large." But the editors also advise, "No one should avoid fruits and
vegetables for fear of pesticides; the health benefits of these foods
overwhelm any possible risk."
Manfred Kroger, Ph.D., Quackwatch consultant and Professor of Food Science
at The Pennsylvania State University, has put the matter more bluntly:
Scientific agriculture has provided Americans with the safest and most
abundant food supply in the world. Agricultural chemicals are needed to
maintain this supply. The risk from pesticide residue, if any, is
minuscule, is not worth worrying about, and does not warrant paying higher
Tastier? Taste is determined primarily by freshness. In the early 1990s,
Israeli researchers made 460 assessments of 9 different fruits and
vegetables and no significant difference in quality between "organic" and
conventionally grown samples . The Consumer Reports' study found no
consistent differences in appearance, flavor, or texture.
Organically produced ("range-free) poultry are said to be raised in an
environment where they are free to roam. To use this term, handlers must
sign an affidavit saying that the chickens are provided with access to the
outdoors. A recent taste test conducted by Consumer Reports rated two
brands of free-range chicken as average among nine brands tested. Its
March 1998 issue stated few chickens choose to roam and that one manager
said that free-ranging probably detracts from taste because it decreases
the quality of the bird's food intake .
Organophiles Object Health-food-industry trade and consumer publications
indicate widespread dissatisfaction with the proposed rules. The Henry A.
Wallace Instutute for Alternative Agriculture called them "Fatally
flawed."  The Organic Farmers Marketing Association stated: The
definition of organic as written in the proposed national organic
standards lacks the holistic approach central to organic practices. The
proposed rules take a reductionist approach to organic food production
that eliminates key concepts such as the health of the agro-ecosystem and
biodiversity on the farm.
The USDA received more than 270,000 comments on the proposed rules .
One distributors' association official wrote that if the rules are
implemented, its members would seek to buy its agricultural products from
foreign sources. Others have complained that the proposed fees are too
high. Other objections include permitted use of amino acids as growth
promoters, antibiotics (when necessary to save the animal's life),
synthetic animal drugs, food additives, and animal feed from non-organic
sources. Certification agencies with "higher standards" have objected that
they are prohibited from stating this on their labels. Some poultry
farmers have objected to provisions enabling intermingling of range-free
poultry and other poultry. However, the vast majority of the objections
pertain to the provisions that permit irradiation, genetic engineering,
and the use of sewage sludge as fertilizer. In May 1998, Agriculture
Department Secretary Dan Glickman announced that the proposed standards
would be revised to eliminate these three provisions.
Canada, which in 1999 became the first country to establish a national
organic standard, also excludes these methods .
The Bottom Line
Organic certification, no matter what the rules, will not protect
consumers. Foods certified as "organic" will neither be safer nor more
nutritious than "regular" foods. They will just cost more and may lessen
consumer confidence in the safety of "ordinary" foods. Instead of
legitimizing health nonsense, our government should do more to attack its
References 1. Larkin M. Organic foods get government "blessing" despite
claims that aren't kosher. Nutrition Forum 8:25-29, 1991. 2. Rodale R.
Testimony. New York State public hearing in the matter of organic foods.
New York City, Dec 1, 1972. 3. USDA Study Team on Organic Farming. Report
and Recommendations on Organic Farming. USDA, July 1980. 4. National
Organic Program; Proposed Rule. Federal Register 62:65850-65967, 1997. 5.
Newsome R. Organically grown foods: A scientific status summary by the
Institute of Food Technologists' expert panel on food safety and
nutrition. Food Technology 44(12):123-130, 1990. 6. FDA Center for Food
Safety and Applied Nutrition. Pesticide Program: Residue Monitoring 1999,
August 2000. 7. Organic produce. Consumer Reports 63(1):12-18, 1998. 8.
Healthy ideas: Wash your produce. Consumer Reports on Health, 10(3):5,
1998. 9. Basker D. Comparison of taste quality between organically and
conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. American Journal of
Alternative Agriculture 7:129-136, 1992. 10. Chicken: What you don't know
can hurt you. Consumer Reports 63(3):12-18, 1998. 11. Youngberg IG and
others. Beyond the "Big Three": A comprehensive analysis of the proposed
National Organic Program. Greenbelt, MD: Henry A. Wallace Instutute for
Alternative Agriculture, April 30, 1998. 12. Public outcry to organic
regs. Natural Foods Merchandiser 19(12):36, 1998. 13. The National
Standard of Canada for Organic Agriculture. Ottawa: Canadian Organic
Advisory Board (COABB), June 1999.
Stephen Barrett, M.D., a retired psychiatrist who resides in Allentown,
Pennsylvania, is a board member of the National Council Against Health
Fraud and board chairman of Quackwatch, Inc. This article was adapted from
a similar one in the March/April 1998 issue of Nutrition Forum. News about
the USDA standards can be accessed through the National Organic Program.
A Reader Protests:
From an "organic food" fan: In regards to your comment that organic food
is not healthier or safer for you (comments on "juicing") I must say, that
is complete BULLSHIT. If you want to eat food that is coated in
pesticides, plastic, and vegetable wax, FINE. But don't tell people that
farmers who don't use pesticides are QUACKS.
For example, the Web page of the Hartzler Family Dairy -- details the
history of a company dedicated to pesticide-free food and animal products;
I thought you'd like to know there are professional businessmen and
worldwide organizations interested in organic farming techniques, as
opposed to just a few "QUACKS" who like to overprice their produce. If you
check out the site you'll see not all people who prefer organic food are
tree-hugging vegetarian wackos who should be dismissed as nutty "quacks."
It is people like you, medical professionals (who should know better) who
group organic food with true quackery (like curing cancer with magnets)
that really endanger the health of this nation. Granted, this IS America,
and you have every right to eat what you want, and even to say you think
organic food is overpriced, but don't group organic farmers with "quacks"
just because they prefer not to use pesticides. Honestly, is it so nutty
to think we would be better off eating food that ISN'T full of chemicals
and additives, preservatives and artificial colors? I feel sorry for you.
You are so blind to the threat of toxins in your food that colon cancer
will probably sneak up on you. You'll tell the doctor, "But I ate a
low-fat diet; but I drank my Metamucil everyday; but I stayed away from
red meat," but it won't matter. You will subject yourself to chemotherapy
(because, being in the medical profession, THAT's the only thing that
cures cancer, right?). You'll get sicker and sicker from pumping even more
toxins in your body, and when it finally sinks in that maybe you didn't
know everything, it will be too late to save you. It's too bad you don't
think before you eat. You're fueling your body with poison on a daily
From: "NLP Wessex"
Subject: Lifesciences breakthrough heralds sustainability revolution
The latest edition of the peer reviewed scientific journal 'Frontiers in
Bioscience' (Vol 6, April 1, 2001) has published two research papers which
herald a major breakthrough in the lifesciences, promising to take
biotechnology away from the expensive and ineffectual methods of genetic
engineering and towards genuinely effective and cost efficient methods of
natural medicine and agriculture in a way which is both holistic and
non-genome-disruptive in its approach. The new approach is based on the
application of a unified understanding of the role of quantum biology in
the functioning of living organisms.
Although these papers relate to medical applications ("The instantaneous
relief of pain and improvement in function in such a high proportion of
subjects with chronic arthritis is unparalleled in modern medical
science": Frontiers in Bioscience, Vol 6, h7-17, April 1, 2001) work is
now also underway to apply this more sophisticated understanding of the
holistic nature of the genome to the field of agriculture. This work is
anticipated to precipitate a revolution in the development of sustainable
systems of agriculture.
Quantum biology is now a rapidly evolving and exciting field of science
which is expected to replace the incoherent and disruptive recombinant DNA
methods currently fashionable in modern biotechnology. More details of the
papers published in 'Frontiers in Bioscience' available at:
Decision Crisis: Why GM foods elicit Frankenstein Fears that leave us
- T. George Harris, Science and Spirit
There are some indications that advanced industrial societies may be
becoming less, rather than more, capable of serious informed deliberation
around major issues.-Daniel Yankelovich, in a research plan on the
decision crisis over genetically modified organisms.
The fight over genetically modified organisms is a tough test case for
Frankenstein fears-mankind's rising panic over a cascade of scientific
advances. Not even the shocked reaction to Hiroshima brought this blinding
variety of terrors, uncertainties, and hopes that pursue technologies
streaming from labs worldwide. Foes and friends worry we lack the social
machinery to decide before it's too late whether to develop and use
This level of decision calls for a thought leader, and Daniel Yankelovich,
76, is arguably better equipped than any other scholar-activist to dig in.
For more than 30 years, he has been a leading researcher in the shifting
values that drive personal and political choices.
During the past year, Yankelovich and colleagues began work at the
University of California at San Diego (UCSD) on the GM food turmoil and
other far-reaching Frankenstein fears. In the UCSD region-ostensibly the
world's most concentrated center of advanced technology since being
selected in December as home to the California Institute of
Telecommunications and Information Technology, Cal-(IT)2. Its aim is to
envision the future so as to make it happen.
In a consensus report 15 months ago for the American Science Foundation,
science policy leaders here provided the first compelling overview on how
to achieve a sustainable Earth environment. Around the Salk Institute, in
nests of corporate think tanks, and soon at Cal-(IT)2, scientific people
on LaJolla's sun--baked beaches talk utopian optimism. If, as Harvard
theologian Harvey Cox argues, man must take responsibility for
co--creating with God, such folks are more than willing to contribute
their part of the new reality.
Such unbridled enthusiasm is exactly what others fear most. With
profit--driven corporations introducing GMOs without labels or a public
review process, however, most of the country has lost its uncritical
appetite for scientific miracles--especially GM foods. Last June Humphrey
Taylor, chairman of The Harris Poll, found 45 percent of American adults
believe it very or somewhat likely that genetically modified food will be
poisonous or cause diseases; only a few more, 47 percent, feel this
specter unlikely. A majority, 56 percent, believe GMOs likely to upset the
balance of nature and damage the environment, and only one-third feel
that's unlikely. Though a two-thirds majority believes biotech will
increase agricultural production, only half-52 percent vs. 42
percent-think it will make food cheaper. At the time, only 15 percent
claimed to have seen or heard a lot about GMOs, but 86 percent were sure
of one thing: Government must require labels on all such food.
This marked the first stage of opinion formation, a stage that Yankelovich
has analyzed in dozens of issues since he began annual monitoring surveys
in the 1960s. Raw opinion combined with a sense of urgency produces
extreme swings; a 20 percent minority can turn into an 80 percent majority
with a shift in events or language. As recently as December 5, such
volatility appeared in The New York Times: While 70 percent of the U.S.
favored biotechnology in food and agriculture, two-thirds opposed
genetically engineered foods. Same question, different words.
Working through a dialogue process that leads to instability before
resolution (see diagram) is difficult. The process involves a shifting of
deeply held values. But to make sound decisions in the midst of this new
industrial revolution--biotechnology-we must increase our capacity for
And that's what Yankelovich and other thinkers across the country aim to
do. UC Berkeley's Dr. Walter Truett Anderson, Chairman of the Sierra Club
National Task Force on Biotechnology, jumpstarted the process with an
overview of the most dangerous and fear-rousing initiatives now in the
labs-pharming medicines from GM plants and animals, xenotransplants,
genetically engineering infants. Anderson, Yankelovich and key leaders
joined 20 scientific experts at UCSD on October 20, 2000 to draft plans
for an American dialogue on Frankenstein fears. The planning conference,
co-sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the LaJolla
Seminar, developed a detailed plan for a three-year research program.
Yankelovich's experiments intend to reveal possible alternative scenarios
and common ground, foregoing the standard social science illusion of
value-free choices so as to tap the deepening spiritual dimension
supplanting doctrinaire materialism. Focus groups direct the project deep
into the anatomy of fear, searching for what is scientific fact, what is
cyber rhetoric, and how those interact with our deepest beliefs.
Sophisticated opinion surveys keep the dialogue real in its social
Without the prophetic power of Yankelovich's value studies on religious
change-"the world is changing its mind"-there would be no basis to believe
in the potential of a profoundly religious encounter with Frankenstein
fears. Those are an inevitable reaction to human intelligence that rests
entirely on a surface of fact without the richer reality that makes life
itself sacred. The onrush of scientific power calls us to thoughtful and
reverent dialogue about what is worth doing and what is best left undone.
---- Meeting Dan Yankelovich: Talking about GM foods and other
Frankenstein Fears will be no easy task. But it's a requirement if we are
to responsibly incorporate myriad emerging technologies into our lives. At
76, Daniel Yankelovich is poised to lead the inevitably difficult
His graduate work in Harvard's philosophy department probed Western
assumptions about truth and its moral use, a problem he spelled out in his
classic book with philosopher William Barrett, Ego and Instinct: The
Psychoanalytic View of Human Nature (Random House, 1970). In Coming to
Public Judgment: Making Democracy Work in a Complex World (Syracuse
University Press, (1991), he documented his profoundly democratic
conclusion that ordinary men and women, given facts and time, tend to be
wiser than social scientists and other experts on most serious survival
Yankelovich's research ability plays well in the real world. In a series
of experiments run by the Public Agenda, a foundation he established with
former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in 1975, Yankelovich developed
distinctive knowledge about how the public, in dialogue with experts and
interest groups, can come to sounder judgments on hot controversies. His
most recent work, The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into
Cooperation (Simon & Schuster, 1999), explains how to improve the ordinary
but mysterious combination of cognition and passion that leads people into
deeper, more human levels of understanding.