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Date:

April 27, 2001

Subject:

Celebrating Earth; Russian Potato Famine?; African Biotech;

 

AgBioView - http://www.agbioworld.org; Archived at http://agbioview.listbot.com

A New Reason to Celebrate Earth Day

- Laurence M. Brill; San Diego Union Tribune, April 22, 2001;
http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/uniontrib/sun/opinion/news_1e22brill.html

It encompasses the soil, the air and supports the plants and animals that
give us food. It stretches beyond the largest building and can be smaller
than a seed. It's the environment, and it is being honored once again
today for Earth Day. However, this year, as more people around the world
begin to realize the impacts of their actions on the environment, they
should rally behind a technology that could help lessen the effects from
pollution and the loss of biodiversity. This year, the world should
celebrate agricultural biotechnology.

Of course, agricultural biotechnology, or the science of selectively
breeding crops through gene transfer, isn't exactly new. In fact, it's as
old as agriculture itself. As scientists continue to make agricultural
advances through this safe and precise method, they also recognize that
biotechnology has the ability to protect and preserve our environment.

Here at the Scripps Research Institute and the University of California
Los Angeles, we're involved in two leading-edge scientific projects that
are pioneering new ways of using the tools of biotechnology to protect the
environment. In one instance, we are working to decipher a process called
nodulation by which specialized bacteria called rhizobia naturally infect
the roots of legume plants and allow the plants to utilize nitrogen from
the air. Plants need large quantities of nitrogen to grow, and the plants
that are unable to acquire nitrogen from the air, which includes cereal
crops such as wheat, oat, and barely, require nitrogen fertilizer.

This fertilizer is generally safe, however, it requires large quantities
to be applied and could potentially cause problems like runoff or leaching
into nearby ground water. If we can find a way to transfer this nodulation
process into plants like the cereal crops, then we could significantly
reduce farmers' dependence on fertilizer treatments and help protect our
water resources.

In another research project, our scientists are trying to gain a better
understanding of how viruses infect plants. Through first understanding
the process by which plants become infected, we can then work to interrupt
this cycle and prevent the virus from causing damage to the plant. In the
end, farmers will have a healthy plant that is higher in quality than its
conventional counterpart and delivers superior yields at harvest. Whether
in a laboratory or on a farm, biotechnology is already demonstrating its
potential benefits to the environment. Farmers plant numerous seeds of
corn and cotton that have been enhanced through biotechnology. One example
is a strain of corn that has a built-in resistance to naturally protect
against insect pests.

These corn plants are one of a variety of "Bt" crops, which have several
environmental benefits. First, these crops enable farmers to use fewer
pesticides, saving money while improving crop yields. The Bt plant
varieties have already helped to eliminate the need for millions of pounds
of chemical sprays.

Second, the healthier Bt corn stalks stand up straighter, enabling air to
blow through and preventing the growth of harmful fungi. Since these crops
are less likely to fall to pests, farmers can produce more food while
using fewer land resources and consuming fewer fossil fuels used to run
farm machinery. Bt crops are also safe for humans because the natural
proteins produced by the added genes are only harmful to a specific group
of insect pests.

Weed control is essential for efficient agriculture because it prevents
weeds from competing with the crops. Weeds cause losses in yield, and as a
result more acres must be planted for compensation. So, instead, farmers
are planting biotech soybeans that can withstand an herbicide called
Roundup. Since spraying Roundup will not damage these plants, farmers can
effectively control weeds. It is important to remember that Roundup is
designed to kill only harmful weeds that surround crops and it does not
harm humans.

During future Earth Days, biotechnology could allow farmers in the
developing world to produce more food for their growing populations while
potentially conserving soil, water and wildlife habitats. Several
environmentally positive improvements from this technology are already on
the horizon. The development of agricultural biotechnology is a key
component to ensuring that we can celebrate a healthy environment for
thousands of Earth Days to come.

*Brill is a postdoctoral research biologist at The Scripps Research
Institute in La Jolla. - Copyright 2001 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.

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Arguments Support Biotech Foods

Mary L. Grodner : The Times (Shreveport, LA), April 21, 2001
http://www.whybiotech.com/en/news/con796.asp?MID=17

The public discussion surrounding biotechnology foods has less to do with
their safety, a question already well settled by objective science, and
more to do with the cultural values and societal attitudes toward
technology. As a scientist and a consumer, I know biotechnology foods,
which are produced by enhancing the genetic characteristics of crops to
improve their nutrition, durability or other characteristics, are safe.

Despite the suggestion that food biotechnology is a new, untested field,
its roots are as old as agriculture. Chinese farmers were improving the
genetic characteristics of their crops through crossbreeding and selective
breeding as early as 2000 B.C. When objective science is applied to food
biotechnology, the conclusion is nearly always that these products are
safe. A vast regulatory apparatus, which begins with local authorities and
extends to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection
Agency and Department of Agriculture, imposes rigorous scientific
standards on these foods.

Biotechnology holds enormous promise to improve the lives of farmers, the
world’s poor, consumers in industrialized nations and everyone concerned
about the environment. Biotechnology is a scientific field, but make no
mistake -- these are valued-oriented goals.

Here in Louisiana, farmers have suffered for years under the yoke of
depressed prices and poor growing conditions. Biotechnology may help to
identify genes that can enable crops to withstand drought or other tough
weather conditions. Biotechnology’s highest promise may be borne out in
developing nations, where hunger and malnutrition are endemic. A
biotechnology strain of "golden rice," for example, may prevent millions
of cases of Vitamin A deficiency -- whose devastating effects include
blindness. Here in the industrialized world, consumers may some day be
able to purchase foods that help to prevent certain forms of cancer and
heart disease because they have been enhanced through biotechnology.

And everyone will benefit from biotechnology’s potential to improve the
environment. Does that mean biotechnology should be automatically
accepted? Of course not. Like every other food, its safety should be
regulated thoroughly, and it is. And like every other scientific advance,
its merits should be thoroughly debated.

These facts should be a central part of the discussion. Struggling farmers
may be able to make a better living. People today at risk for blindness
may instead be able to see. Consumers may be healthier. The environment
may be cleaner. And those are compelling arguments on the field on which
the discussion of biotechnology is being conducted: values.

*Mary L. Grodner is the pesticide coordinator and pesticide safety
specialist at the Louisiana State University AgCenter and the Louisiana
Cooperative Extension Service. Reprinted with permission of the author.

*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*

Biotechnology in Africa: Much Remains to be Done

- African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum: Editorial -Biotekafrica
(Jan-march 2001) http://www.absfafrica.org/

The recent announcement that 300 researchers had completed sequencing of
all the 26,000 genes in the plant Arabidopsis thaliana, a relative of
mustard, is one of the two strongest indications that despite the endless
biotech debates Africans must wake up and practically focus on various
aspects of biotechnology revolution.

The other was the launching of the first draft of the Human Genome by US
President Bill Clinton and Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair -
considered the world's top policy makers. Still a nation like Germany,
where some cabinet ministers are staunch Greens, has publicly stated that
its sustainable socio-economic agenda for the millennium has two major
components namely biotechnology and information technology.

In short when it comes to biotechnology Africa must look beneath the GM
crops rhetoric especially when it is noted that with modern biotechnology
there may be no dividing lines in the generation of food, health and
industrial products and services needed for sustainable development and
competition in the global market place.

As the millennium begins, there are all sorts of mind boggling but real
research activities going in well equipped biotech labs in the technology
advanced West which is in the same league with Japan. In the developing
world only China and India already have tangible plans that will ensure
they are not sidelined as biotechnology revolutions continues to unfold.

In Africa South Africa has been leading the way with bold moves into the
world of modern genetic engineering while Kenya launched its first
transgenic crop -sweet potato- developed by researchers at the Kenya
Agricultural Research Institute collaborating with life science firms that
have certain patented biotech innovations or packages.

Even more the director of KARI, Dr Romano Kiome, has made it clear that
the goal is ensure the institution acquire adequate skilled manpower and
equipment to serve not just Kenya but, directly or indirectly, the region
especially after ensuring that bio-safety regulation and policies are in
place.

ABSF has worked to create an enabling environment in which even biotech
debates can be conduced with at least some element of sincerity and
minimal falsehoods. The year ended in grand note when two ABSF members, Dr
Florence Wambugu and Margaret Karembu, scooped the first prize for
outstanding research and development presentation on tissue culture
bananas during the Global Development Network's workshop in Tokyo Japan.

ABSF officials held discussions with biotech experts from Nigeria,
Zimbabwe, Malawi, South Africa, Ghana, Europe, US, Mexico, Algeria,
Tanzania, Netherlands and Uganda.

====
African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum

Background
1. The global debate on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) does not
adequately reflect the interests of the developing countries. This is
mainly because the issues are framed in the context of industrialized
country concerns.

2. Sustainable agriculture will require that developing countries make
prudent choices and that they are not restricted to using only the
technologies available today. Making such choices require access to wider
range of technologies, especially those resulting from advances in
molecular biology. Undue restriction of the use of these technologies is
inconsistent with sustainable agriculture and would undermine long-term
ecological and human welfare.

3. One of the main policy goal of developing countries is to enhance food
security. While biotechnology cannot solve all the problems associated
with agricultural production, it has the potential to address specific
problems. These include (1)increasing crop productivity; (2) diversifying
crops; (3) enhancing nutritional value of food; (4) reducing environmental
impacts of agricultural production; and (5) promoting market
competitiveness.

OBJECTIVES: 1. Provide a Forum for sharing experience, concerns and
practice in biotechnology application with a view of strengthening their
adoption for hunger and poverty alleviation, environmental conservation in
Africa. 2. Improve public understanding of the real issues and aspects of
biotechnology with a view of facilitating informed participation that
adequately articulates Africa's agenda in global biotechnology. 3. Explore
innovative and appropriate biotechnological application internationally
and devise strategies for promoting their responsible use in Africa.

Justification: : Lately, intensive and persistent negative literature on
biotechnology has emerged in Africa, aimed at creating uncertainty and
discontent and therefore, stifle the continent's efforts in acquiring,
developing and utilizing biotechnology processes and products in the war
against hunger, malnutrition, diseases and poverty. This is mainly due to
inadequate sources of accurate information and weak dissemination
mechanisms.

Mission Statement:: The Mission of African Biotechnology Stakeholders
Forum (ABSF) is to create an enabling environment where Africa can
participate and benefit from the use of biotechnology in sustainable
environment, through enhanced understanding and awareness of all aspects
of Biotechnology, Bio-safety and Intellectual Property Rights.

Objectives:
The Specific Objectives of ABSF include: Providing a Forum for sharing
experiences, concerns and practices in biotechnology application with a
view of strengthening their adoption for poverty alleviation, increased
food security, health improvements, industrialization and environmental
conservation in Africa. Improving public understanding of the real issues
in biotechnology with a view of facilitating informed participation in
articulating Africa's agenda in the global biotechnology agenda. Explore
innovative and appropriate biotechnological applications internally and
devise strategies for promoting their use in poverty alleviation and
sustainable development. Create capacity for information generation,
dissemination and wise use of biotechnology. Contribute to policy
development and infrastructure for meeting Africa's aspirations and needs
in biotechnology development.

*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*

Russia Needs Help to Fend Off Potato Famine, Researchers Warn

- Quirin Schiermeier; Nature| vol. 410 ; 26 APRIL 2001 www.nature.com

Aggressive strains of potato blight could trigger a potentially
catastrophic potato famine in Russia, scientists have warned. The
researchers want an international effort to provide Russian potato-growers
with fungicides and seed varieties that are resistant to virulent late
blight pathogens, which last year destroyed more than 15% of the country's
total crop.

"The situation is worrying, and it could quickly worsen," warns Kandukuri
Raman, a plant scientist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and
head of the Cornell- Eastern Europe-Mexico (CEEM) project on control of
potato late blight . Potato late blight, which is caused by the fungus
Phytopthora infestans and originated in Mexico, is one of the world's most
devas-tating crop diseases, with annual losses and fungicide costs
estimated at US$3 billion. Potatoes are a vital subsistence crop grown by
poor Russians who cannot afford to buy vegetables or meat. Russia is the
world's second-largest potato producer, after China.

Raman fears that the state of its economy means that Russia will not be
able to control the disease without outside support. He points out that
Russia has no strong potato-breeding programme aimed at developing
varieties resistant to late blight. Spores of P. infestans constantly
repro-duce and take on characteristics that enable them to survive and
spread. The new, aggres-sive strains proliferate freely and can survive in
the soil over winter, attacking potatoes in summer and destroying the
harvest. Late blight caused the Irish potato famine in the 1840s, leading
to the death of a million people and a huge wave of migration. But
fungicides have been available since the late nineteenth century, and have
fought off even the more virulent strains across Europe. However, late
blight remains a major threat to small farmers and householders in Russia,
who lack access to suitable fungicides.

"Pesticide-resistant and virulent strains of P. infestans have appeared in
the major potato-growing regions in Russia," says Patrick Russo, a plant
geneticist at the Uni-versity of Helsinki in Finland and a technical
adviser on control of late blight in Russia. Even types of potato that
showed some resis-tance to late blight "are no longer resistant to the
newer strains", he adds.

The CEEM project aims to help distribute seeds of resistant potato
varieties to Russian smallholders, but has limited resources. It is also
collaborating with Polish and Russian scientists to test wild potato
species, and to study the molecular biology of the inter-action between P.
infestans and the potato. Much of the work is being done at the N. I.
Vavilov All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Plant Industry in St
Petersburg, which holds one the world's oldest and largest potato
collections.

The US Department of Agriculture and the CEEM project are sponsoring a
June workshop in Warsaw on potato late blight. Experts from ten countries
will discuss the use of plant genetics and traditional breeding methods to
develop broad-based resistance, and explore the possibility of a programme
to forecast the arrival of different strains of the pathogen. n ç
http://www.cals.cornell.edu/dept/plantbreed/CEEM

*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*

From CSP: I asked Dr. K V Raman who is mentioned above
as to what biotech can offer to address the above problem. See his reply
below:

Several antifungal protein genes (osmotins and others) have been tried and
transgenics have been tested in many field trials. Unfortunately there are
still no promising materials which can be commercialized. There is also
work on potato genomics (you must have seen the article from Canada)-- its
posted below. Work is also in progress for identifying novel genes from
wild species. Most of this work is long term and may take couple of years.

---
Scientists Create First Potato Genome Library

- AgWeb.com Editors 4/20/2001

Lethbridge Research Centre scientists have developed the first potato
bacterial artificial chromosome (BAC) library, a powerful tool to help
scientists unlock the secrets held within the potato genome. The BAC
library is expected to speed cloning of potato genes and accelerate the
development of new cultivars with improved pest and disease resistance,
attributes necessary for a sustainable potato industry, according to Dr.
Qin Chen, a molecular cytogeneticist at the Centre who led the development
of the BAC library in collaboration with scientists from Texas A&M
University.

Late blight, a major threat to the global potato industry, annually costs
potato growers $3 billion worldwide, while the Colorado potato beetle tags
growers with another $150 million globally each year. A BAC is a special
vector used for cloning large pieces of DNA, Chen explained. Using BAC
vectors, Chen has developed a DNA "library" that represents the complete
genome of a wild Mexican potato, Solanum pinnatisectum. "This species is
of interest to scientists because it is resistant to several insects and
diseases that plague Canadian potato crops," Chen said. "Unfortunately,
resistance genes in wild species come loaded with undesirable traits that
would take years of painstaking work to remove through conventional
breeding. With this BAC library, we now have a tool to help us identify
the genes that are imparting resistance and then, hopefully, we can work
more quickly to incorporate those valuable genes into the breeding
program."

After only one year of study, Chen, in collaboration with colleagues, has
already identified high levels of resistance to late blight and to the
Colorado potato beetle in this Mexican wild potato species. Researchers
are now aiming to isolate these potato genes and then transfer them into
western Canadian potato cultivars. This accelerates the process that would
be achieved by natural plant breeding. "The advantage of larger BAC
libraries over traditional DNA libraries, is that they allow us to do
large scale potato genomics research, and to study an entire gene, rather
than just pieces of genes. Since many agronomically important traits such
as disease resistance and quality are often controlled by a large gene or
multiple genes, using the BAC vector is a much better way to construct a
DNA library," Chen explained. "This will shed light upon the molecular and
biochemical events responsible for disease and insect resistance and allow
cloning of the significant resistance genes."

That is a challenge because the entire potato genome has about 30,000
genes, Chen added. "In order to 'find' the genes we're looking for, we
need to identify the molecular markers that are closely linked with the
traits we're after," Chen said. "We can then use those markers to screen
our BAC library to find which clone is carrying the trait."

*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*

Without DDT, Malaria Bites Back

- Roger Bate; Spiked-science #24 April 2001
http://www.spiked-online.com/Articles/000000005591.htm

Malaria is on the increase in all tropical regions of the planet -
especially in Africa. In 2000, the disease killed more than one million
people and made 300million seriously ill.

According to Professor Wen Kilama of the African Malaria Vaccine Testing
Network in Tanzania, 'Malaria is equivalent to crashing seven jumbo jets
filled with children every day'. Malaria halts economic development,
places huge burdens on a country's health resources, and causes massive
productivity losses. It also scares away investors from developing
countries, who are not keen on having their workforce suddenly become ill
and unable to work. Professor Jeffrey Sachs of the Harvard Centre for
International Development reckons that the disease destroys around one
percent of Africa's wealth every year.

Given the devastating humanitarian and economic costs of malaria, you
might expect the international community to be fighting the disease with
all its might. But instead, the world's politicians are trying to force
developing countries to abandon their best weapon in the fight against
malaria - the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT). The United
Nations (UN) is even promoting a treaty that might completely ban the use
of DDT across the globe.

Today malaria is a tropical disease, but until the 1920s it was endemic
all over Europe and America. Oliver Cromwell died of malaria, and the
disease was mentioned (as 'the ague') in eight of Shakespeare's plays. It
was a British army major, Dr Ronald Ross, serving in Madras, India, who in
1898 found that the female anopheles mosquito was the disease vector.
Ross's discovery led to new, more effective methods to control malaria.
After the Second World War, Europe and North America used DDT to eradicate
malaria. The pesticide saved millions of lives by killing the malarial
mosquito - but it never had complete success in the world's poorer
countries. Then, following complaints from environmentalists in the 1970s,
DDT was removed from the malaria control programme in many developing
countries - but it continued to be used in more than 20 countries, most of
them in Africa.

According to Dr Donald Roberts, professor of medical entomology at the
Uniformed Services Hospital of the Health Sciences in Maryland, USA, the
huge drop in houses sprayed with DDT has resulted in an average annual
increase of 4.8 malaria cases per 1000 of the population in Latin America,
from the mid-1980s to the mid-90s. For the whole of Latin America, a
minimum of 1.8million additional cases of malaria were occurring each year
up to 1996. Case rates have continued to grow since 1996, and according to
Dr Roberts, 'we can reasonably expect that the number of excess cases is
now much greater than in 1996'. Only Equador, which has continued to use
DDT, has seen a reduction in the number of malaria cases in recent years.

Other mosquito-borne diseases are also on the rise. Until the 1970s, DDT
was used to eradicate the aedes aegypti mosquito from most tropical
regions of the Americas. The reinvasion of aedes aegypti since then has
brought devastating outbreaks of dengue fever, dengue hemorrhagic fever,
and a renewed threat of urban yellow fever. Dr Donald Roberts is livid at
the 'high pressure tactics of international activist organisations who
have forced developing countries to abandon public health uses of DDT',
which has caused a colossal public health disaster in Latin America.
'There are annually more than 250,000 cases of dengue fever - a disease
which had been eradicated', says Roberts. Worse still is the appearance of
a more aggressive strain - dengue hemorrhagic fever - which literally
makes its sufferers bleed to death. There were 9129 cases of this disease
in 1995 alone.

So given all the human suffering, why is DDT to be banned?

DDT is the totemic baddy of the green movement. Suspicions about it caused
the first green crusade, inspired by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring nearly
40 years ago. When it was used in vast quantities in agriculture, DDT
probably harmed reproduction in birds of prey - but this harm subsequently
proved reversible. After 50 years of study there is not one replicated
study that shows any harm to humans at all. And DDT is now only used for
vector control, and is only sprayed inside houses. Dr Amir Attaran from
Harvard University estimates that the amount of DDT used to spray a few
acres of cotton in the USA in the early 1960s would spray all the homes in
Guyana of those at risk of malaria - and that such indoor spraying will
have 'negligible impacts on the environment'.

Despite the evidence, Greenpeace militants have been protesting to close
down DDT's only major production facility in the world, in Cochin, India.
The Indian government has given its assurance to Greenpeace that
production will cease from 2005. But fortunately, India's National
Anti-Malaria Programme has objected to this commitment, because it has
used DDT to control vectors since it began its operations in 1953. The
government may make an embarrassing but essential U-turn. In South Africa
the government stopped using DDT in 1996 - and since then malaria rates
have risen by around 1000 percent, because mosquitoes are becoming
resistant to the new generation of pesticides. The parasite that causes
malaria is also becoming resistant to drug treatments - and out of sheer
desperation, South Africa has returned to using DDT.

As a result, the South African government faced hostility from the United
Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which met in December 2000 in
Johannesburg. The country delegates to the Persistent Organic Pollutants
Legal Instrument Negotiations (POPs) decided to restrict the use of DDT,
and agreed a text which will be discussed again in Stockholm on 22 May
2001, before a final version is agreed and signed. So it is still possible
that the greens will have their ban on DDT. But the case for using DDT for
malaria control is overwhelming and will hopefully be maintained by the
country delegates whose citizens so desperately need it. Yet even if a ban
is not agreed, the reported restrictions demanded under the existing draft
will be onerous for the poorest countries - some of which have health
budgets of less than five dollars per person per year. And many countries
have been put under pressure from international health and environmental
agencies to give up DDT or face losing aid grants. Belize and Bolivia have
admitted that they stopped using DDT after giving in to pressure from the
US Agency for International Development (USAID).

The result of this is that although more than 20 countries around the
world currently use DDT to control malaria, at the last count only 17
asked for an exemption for use under the POPs treaty. No doubt other
countries will either not use DDT or use it without reporting it to the
UNEP. Since DDT was reintroduced in South Africa in April 2000, the number
of mosquitoes is down. The locals are optimistic that things will now
improve. They were not aware of the reason for the removal of DDT, nor are
they aware of the debate around whether or not to ban it outright. They
are simply a few of the countless millions who are victims of the
thoughtless politicking of an environmentalist elite.

It seems outrageous that the Western world can even contemplate imposing a
ban on the use of this life-saving pesticide - but that is what may
happen, either directly under POPs, or indirectly by donors withdrawing
funding from DDT projects.

Dr Roger Bate is a director of the South African NGO Africa Fighting
Malaria. His co-authored paper When Politics Kills is published here. An
updated version will be available at an Institute of Economic Affairs
lecture in London on 21 May 2001. To reserve a place at the lecture, phone
+44 (0)20 7799 8900.

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Direct Action and Dire Ideas
- Mick Hume http://www.spiked-online.com/articles/00000002D08B.htm

'So do you support direct action?' people are asking in the run-up to the
May Day anti-capitalist protests planned for cities around the world. To
which the answer is, yes and no. And in this case, no.

Direct or extra-parliamentary action has a long and honourable tradition.
It has played a key part in the most important struggles of the past two
centuries. Votes for women in Britain, civil rights for blacks in the USA,
an end to apartheid in South Africa - none of these or many other causes
could have been successful without the intervention of direct action.

The question should not be, are you for or against direct action in
general, but what does this direct action represent here and now? Nobody
supports direct action all of the time. An organisation like Greenpeace,
for example, is known worldwide for its involvement in militant protests.
Yet when some lorry drivers and others took direct action against UK fuel
prices last year, Greenpeace supporters picketed the pickets demanding
that they go home. After all, we can't have unaccountable cliques of
activists disrupting the fuel and food industries in the name of 'the
people', can we Lord Melchett?

Let us make a distinction between types of direct action. There is direct
action which becomes the focus for popular aspirations to change society
for the better. For example, last week was the seventy-fifth anniversary
of the British General Strike, when millions took action to defend living
standards and working conditions. And then there is direct action that
becomes a substitutionist tactic, where a relatively small number of
people protest 'in the name of' the people, or the poor, or laboratory
animals. This is a moralistic minority that effectively assumes the
authority to act on behalf of everybody else. The kind of direct action we
are dealing with today largely falls into this category, whether you are
talking about protests against animal research outside Huntingdon Life
Sciences, or anti-capitalist demonstrations in Seattle, Quebec or London.

At the Royal Society last week, I debated the Green guru George Monbiot
and the internet activist Mike Slocombe on the pros and cons of direct
action. Monbiot insisted that environmentalists had the right to take
action on behalf of, among many others, 'the unborn'. As I pointed out to
him, that kind of thing amounts to a blank cheque for protestors to pursue
whatever policies they see fit. After all, nobody can ask the unborn what
they think about their name being used in this way.

The kind of direct action we see today has no real anchor in society, no
connection with any wider sense of forward political movement. As such, it
can easily become an exercise in moral self-flattery by relatively few
individuals - a case of 'I am a better person because I don't eat in
McDonalds/wear Nike trainers/support animal research, etc'. from this
starting point, one can end up taking direct action in pursuit of all
sorts of aims. Some may be worthwhile - but others can just as easily turn
out to be anti-democratic and dangerous.

Last week many protest groups were celebrating the role of direct action
in forcing the big pharmaceutical corporations to climb down and allow
South Africans access to cheaper anti-AIDS drugs. We will have to wait and
see the details of how this works out in practice, but at first sight it
does indeed look like a positive breakthrough, and a big success for the
'people before profits' campaign. Yet many of the same groups involved in
those protests on behalf of AIDS sufferers are also taking direct action
against animal experiments - research that is crucial to the search for a
cure for AIDS. And they are also campaigning for a UN ban on the use of
the pesticide DDT - the best available defence that Africa and the
developing world has against malaria, which killed more than a million
people last year.

They might have ethical objections to the drug companies putting profit
before people, but from the same moralistic standpoint many seem quite
willing to put animals before people, or the environment before people.
And for all their talk of 'the people', they appear to feel no need to ask
the people on the wrong end of these problems what they want to see done.
At a time when mainstream politics seems so lifeless and irrelevant, some
will object on the activists' behalf that 'at least these young people are
doing something'. Leaving aside the issue of exactly how young many of the
overgrown adolescents indulging in childish antics on the May Day protests
might be, this misses the point. It is not just that such a day of direct
action offers the most token of alternatives. It is that, based on the
kind of incoherent and backward-looking ideas many of the groups involved
espouse, 'doing something' is often worse than useless (1).

Having said all that, the last thing we need in Britain is yet more laws
against direct action and political protests. Of course, there have been
reprehensible attacks on people who work at places like Huntingdon Life
Sciences. But the last time I looked, it was already illegal to hit
somebody over the head with a baseball bat outside their own home. In the
hands of home secretary Jack Straw, new laws can only act to stifle
legitimate protest and argument. His new anti-terrorist laws look like a
step towards changing the legal definition of terrorism from the use of
violence for political ends to the use of politics for political ends.
Instead of demands for bans focused on the activists' tactics, we need
some more open and critical discussion of the dangerous ideas behind
today's version of direct action.

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Photosynthesis Society From: Govindjee

I would appreciate your help in soliciting members for ISPR (International
Society of Photosynthesis Research) . The web address of ISPR is:
http://www.photosynthesisresearch.org . ALL scientists interested in any
aspect of photosynthesis are requested to go to GUEST Services, and add
their names, addresses, etc whether they are members of ISPR or not. You
can add your name to the Directory, if interested in any aspect of
photosnthesis (You do not have to be a member to be listed).

- Regards, Govindjee; Professor Emeritus of Biophysics and of Plant
Biology [In theDepartments of Plant Biology and of Biochemistry and in the
Center of Biophysics and Computational Biology]; And, member, Graduate
Faculty (till August, 2,002); Department of Plant Biology, University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 265 Morrill Hall, 505 South Goodwin Avenue,
Urbana,IL 61801-3707
http://www.life.uiuc.edu/govindjee/