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May 12, 2001


Scaring with Gaia; Starve 'em but No GM; Ethics; Allergy;


AgBioView - http://www.agbioworld.org

Congratulations Calestous!

Dr. Calestous Juma of the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
has received the Henry Shaw Medal -- the Missouri Botanical Garden's
highest award. He was cited as "one of the world's leading authorities on
protecting the environment while promoting ethical sustainable development
in developing countries". The Henry Shaw Medal honors those who have made
a significant contribution to botanical research, horticulture,
conservation or the museum community. The medal is named in honor of the
Garden's founder, the 19th century St. Louis philanthropist. It was first
presented in 1893 and previous medalists include William Ruckelshaus, Jose
Sarukhan, Edward O. Wilson, Peter H. Raven, William McKibben and M.S.
Swaminathan. This is a honor that Dr. Juma richly deserves and well


Complexity and Other Scary Ideas

- From: Andrew Apel


Every time you see the word 'complexity' or one of its variations,
especially in the context of biotechnology, beware. One of several
infectious memes (1) is about to get you.

Back in the good old days, when the Newtonian model ruled, the universe
was perceived as a mechanism operating on linear rules, i.e., A>B>C, etc.
As I pointed out in an earlier post, cybernetics shows that the model of
any system is necessarily less complete than the system itself. Under the
Newtonian linear paradigm, this means anything not understood by science
was a mere step or two away from being understood.

Well, the universe proved to be more complicated than that; which means,
what science does not understand is more complicated than folks thought it
was. Complexity magnifies the magnitude of the unknown. Science
encompasses more all the time, but the complexity it uncovers and explains
consistently suggests the existence of a complexity which lies beyond its
grasp. And there is the rub.

With the old linear model, crude but elegant, what science did not
encompass was only briefly separated from established fact. Once
complexity was acknowledged, it was found that one step away from what is
understood can lead to several places at once. That makes complexity a
scary notion.

The scariness of the complexity of the unknown makes the Gaia hypothesis
an ideal nexus for scary ideas. According to the (original) Gaia
hypothesis, the Earth is a self-regulating organism, capable of enduring
horrific cataclysms and re-balancing Herself, but Gaia, being a deity (2),
is naturally (sic) beyond human comprehension. Gaia, being non-linear and
complex and beyond understanding, might do anything at all. Gaia cannot,
as a concept or a deity, survive within the borders of scientific

Indeed, Gaia is who She is only because She exists on the far side of the
border of what is known, from where She can threaten 'unknown
consequences.' On the account of Mae-Wan Ho, this makes Gaia the Earth
Mother a hateful witch, who smites her curious children for crossing some
boundary of knowledge (3).

Notions of Gaia and 'complexity' are pernicious memes (1) which
conspicuously haunt all discussions of agricultural biotechnology. Both
notions act as foci for speculative fears, Gaia appealing most to those
who fear a goddessí revenge, complexity appealing most to those who prefer
to describe the unknown in quasi-scientific terms (4).

Those who prefer to encapsule their fears in legalistic terms find them
nicely expressed by the precautionary principle. Like Gaia, like
complexity, the precautionary principle stands at the border of Eden with
a flaming sword, threatening those who know too much with exile into the
unknown (5).

Complexity, Gaia and the precautionary principle are merely three
different ways to focus on and magnify a fear of the unknown. These
pernicious memes are all of the same species, and infection has nearly the
same symptoms (6).
1. Dawkins accidentally discovered memes in the course of writing a book
on genes. According to Dawkins, a meme is an idea that acts like an
infectious microbe, but instead of hijacking cellular machinery to
propagate itself, it hijacks human brainpower and prompts humans to think
itís a cool idea, and to pass the idea around to other humans. Some
computer viruses work this way, too.

2. Scientists are often asked not to anthropomorphize, i.e., attribute
human motivations to natural processes, but the Gaia hypothesis neatly
dodges this by attributing godlike motivations to nature instead. 3. The
story in the Book of Genesis about the penalties of eating of the Tree of
Knowledge parallels this quite closely. 4. Mae-Wan Ho likes to use
'quantum physics' as a stand-in for 'complexity,' and it works, since
quantum physics is complicated and hard to understand, sort of like how
Gaia is complicated and hard to understand (and feminine), and also
potentially scary. Since quantum physics also has to do with making
nuclear weapons, equating complexity with quantum physics helps makes Hoís
claims really extra scary. 5. According to the account in Genesis, the
exile of Adam and Eve forced them to engage in organic farming. Ouch. 6.
See my earlier post diagnosing anti-biotech fanatics as paranoiacs, i.e.,
people galvanized by fears of the unknown. (Pssst... corporate scientists
refuse to admit that there's unknown monsters under your bed at night.)


Subject: Re: AGBIOVIEW: L-Tryptophan
From: rdmacgregor@gov.pe.ca

I seem to recall reading on another list a year or two back that Showa
Denko was using a GE bacterium for L-tryptophan production for a period of
time before the EMS outbreak. Along with introduction of a new variety of
GE bacterium, they simultaneously introduced process changes that have
been fingered as the likely culprit in the outbreak. My speculation is
that the new GE breed probably had slightly elevated levels of the
culprit toxins (along with higher output of the desired, target
chemical), which only became problematic because of the shortcuts in the
filtration/purification process. Is my recollection of pre-EMS use of GMO
correct? Is all the L-typtophan on the market now produced without GMOs
(or maybe this is some sort of trade secret)?


Safe Food

- From: a0felan3@hotmail.com

It is always interesting to find out that only now is food unsafe. If we
return to good old fashioned farming then without all the pesticides,
genetically modified food etc, we can all live long and happy lives -that
is if one does not get a nasty parasitic infection from the meat, or
perhaps ; die as many did in the middle ages of fungus poisons on the

Or perhaps without additives find our thyroids growing and eyes popping
etc. Not all is ok with modern farming but it is a lot better than any
alternative even though many who care little for food safety are pressing
for Organic to read safe.

I like organic food but I want it controlled in the same way as all other
production methods and open to the same critical gaze as we bestow on GM
food - Terry Hopkin


'Care India' Blamed For Supplying GM Food, Action Sought

- Business Standard 11-May-2001

Gene Campaign, a ginger group working for preservation of bio-resources,
has charged the international voluntary organisation Care India with
bringing genetically modified (GM) food into the country clandestinely and
supplying it under the Integrated Child Development Services.

In a statement today, Gene Campaign convenor Suman Sahai demanded that
punitive action be taken against the Care India for violating the
country's law. Maintaining that India is a GM-free country, Sahai said
that GM crops are neither allowed to be cultivated nor imported in any
form. "Care India's mixing the banned GM foods in its food aid programme
is not the result of careless contamination, which might even be pardoned,
but a willful and knowing decision, in deliberate contravention of Indian
Law," she stated and demanded that it should not go unpunished.

She also cited the defence offered by Care India country director Tom
Alcedo that "there is no understanding about the long term effects of GM
foods" and that such food is sold in the US. Sahai counters this argument
by claiming that the consumers in Europe and the US have boycotted GM
foods because of fear of adverse effect on environment and human health.
Many governments have set up commissions to examine the safety aspects of
GM foods precisely because there are concerns. "How can this agency expose
vulnerable children to an uncertain and perhaps even dangerous food?," she


'Ethical Questions Concerning Genetically Modified Foods'

- Lecture delivered by Gary Comstock recently at Harvard University (March

You can listen to this talk at


More Ethics: FAO Reports

- Download these two reports at http://www.fao.org/ethics/ser_en.htm

1. Ethical issues in Food and Agriculture

Technological advances and organizational changes affecting agrifood
systems in recent years have been radical and rapid; the repercussions,
however, will be felt for a long time to come and the consequences may be
irreversible. Whether these changes be as specific as individual food
production techniques or as broad as the effects of globalization, they
have refocused attention on age-old human values and fundamental human
rights, including the right to adequate - and safe - food. The resulting
controversies have brought to the fore a number of basic ethical concerns
that are central to the global goals of world food security and
sustainable rural development: the need for equitable participation, for
example, that reconciles the interests of wealthy and less advantaged
countries today while guaranteeing viable options for future generations;
and the need to ensure broad-based involvement in decisions concerning
technology development, particularly genetic engineering. The resolution
of these issues demands careful reflection and constructive dialogue - the
purpose of this new series on ethics in food and agriculture is to give
impetus to that dialogue.

2. Genetically modified organisms, consumers, food safety and the

Biotechnologies developed over the past few decades have opened up a wide
range of avenues and opportunities in diverse sectors, yet the scale of
the today's global debate on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and
their application in agriculture is unprecedented. Furthermore, the
scientific and policy bases for assessing and passing judgement on
genetically engineered products are necessarily evolving as rapidly as the
pace of evolution in biotechnology itself.

The purpose of this publication -- the second in FAO's new series
dedicated to ethics in food and agriculture - is to share the current
knowledge of genetically engineered products in relation to consumers,
including the safety of their food and protection of their health, and
environmental conservation. It seeks to unravel and explore the claims and
counterclaims being made in the GMO debate from an ethical perspective,
considering the proprietary nature of the tools used to produce GMOs, the
potential consequences of their use in intensifying food production and
the unintended and undesirable effects that their application could have,
both now and in the future.


Genetic Engineering and the Allergy Issue

- Bob B. Buchanan, Member of the National Academy of Sciences

Plant Physiol, May 2001, Vol. 126, pp. 5-7 (EDITOR'S CHOICE)

Although much has been learned since the field was put on a scientific
basis at the turn of the last century, our knowledge of food allergies is
far from complete. It is still unclear, for example, why only certain
individuals are affected and why, even among them, the problem is often
restricted to childhood. It is also not clear why the allergies caused by
various nuts and aquatic animals tend to persist and be lifelong. Milk,
egg, soy, and wheat are the major food allergies in children, whereas
peanut, tree nuts, shellfish, and fish are most prevalent in adults.

The field is complicated by the fact that many more people believe they
suffer from food allergies than is actually the case. Thus, although up to
20% of Americans have a perceived food allergy, the problem can be
medically diagnosed in only about 2% of the population (Altman and
Chiaramonte, 1996). The issue is further clouded by confusion with food
intolerance and by evidence that allergies are increasing rapidly in
developed countries for reasons that are only beginning to be understood.
These factors collectively contribute to the lack of understanding that
has long been a part of the food allergy field.

Aside from limited attention drawn to the increased prevalence, food
allergy has historically attracted little notice. However, with the advent
of genetic engineering and its application to the production of food, the
situation has changed dramatically. The development and commercialization
of a variety of food crops with transgenes has thrust the allergy issue
onto a public stage and given the field unprecedented exposure worldwide.
Although not yet apparent, I believe the allergy and food technology
fields will benefit from this attention in the long term, akin to the
progress made in understanding the cellular immune system as a result of
publicity brought by the acquired immune deficiency syndrome epidemic.

The increased public awareness of food allergy has arisen from a
combination of three factors: reasoned concern, fear through ignorance,
and political motivation. The first two factors are expected and limited
in scope. The third, which was unanticipated and amplifies the second,
stems from the goal of certain individuals and environmental organizations
to delay the commercial development of genetic engineering, especially as
applied to food. The allergy issue was selected because of its
vulnerability: In addition to its enigmatic nature mentioned previously,
opponents of genetic engineering recognized early on that it is difficult
to determine with absolute certainty whether a protein introduced into a
food by genetic engineering is a potential allergen. In retrospect, one
wonders why the allergy issue was not raised earlier for example, in the
countless plant breeding programs since World War II that significantly
have not converted nonallergenic into allergenic foods. A new allergen has
been introduced independently of plant breeding. The introduction of kiwi,
a relatively obscure fruit, led to the development of a new allergy in the
general population of the developed world.

Interest in the allergy issue has been heightened by knowledge that a
protein known to be an allergen in one species remains an allergen when
transferred by genetic transformation to a second species. An example of
such a protein, now widely known, is the Brazil nut allergen (2S protein)
transferred to soybean. The allergenicity associated with the original 2S
protein in Brazil nut was found to be retained after it was over-expressed
in soybean (Nordlee et al., 1996). Although not surprising, this example
is reassuring in documenting that the scientific community is capable of
detecting and identifying a known allergen that has been transferred from
one species to another by genetic engineering. As a result of the allergy
tests, the transgenic soy product in question was not further developed as
a commercial product.

In this commentary, I shall identify the issues surrounding the allergy
issue and discuss their scientific validity, rather than the production of
hypoallergenic foods by genetic engineering a research focus of a number
of laboratories, including ours. I then turn to a discussion of the tools
available to address the concerns and where we are in their resolution. It
will be seen that a solution to this problem appears to lie on the near

Concern about the genetic modification of food appears to stem from three
questions: Is the protein of interest an allergen? Has the protein of
interest become an allergen as a result of the transformation and
selection process? Has the transformation and selection process in some
unknown way altered a normal cellular protein so that it has become an

The first question, whether a particular protein is an allergen, is valid
and should be answered. The second question, based on the conversion of
the protein of interest into an allergen (for example, by glycosylation)
also relates to a change that is biochemically feasible. One would think
that indications of such a change would have surfaced with significantly
abundant proteins in earlier plant breeding programs. Nonetheless, this
point should be tested, at least until we have a greater understanding of
the fate of transgenic proteins in plants. The last question, which raises
the possibility that a given protein of the cell could become an allergen
as a result of transformation and selection, is less tenable. However,
this question, like the other two, will continue to be raised until
additional experience has been gained and consumers have expressed
confidence in genetically modified foods, especially those based on a
protein to which the human population has not been previously exposed.

The question of whether a transgene product is an allergen or whether its
presence unintentionally renders a food product more allergenic than its
nonengineered counterpart is addressed in several ways, including: (a)
comparing the predicted amino acid sequence of the transgene product with
that of known food allergens; (b) determining the abundance of the protein
in food as significant food allergens typically represent one percent or
more of the total protein; (c) examining the expressed protein for
characteristics often associated with known food allergens, such as
glycosylation, heat stability, and presence of disulfide bonds; and (d)
monitoring the digestibility of the transgene product in simulated
mammalian gastric and intestinal fluids.

Although numerous nonallergens show one or more of the properties often
associated with allergens, each analysis provides indirect evidence that
is of some predictive value. Moreover, the tests to determine these
properties were included in a decision tree that was proposed by Metcalfe
et al. (1996). As far as I know, the protocol suggested in that tree has
been closely followed in the industrial development of transgenic food
products. However, as a result of recent problems in introducing new
transgenic foods, it has become clear that an additional test is needed,
namely an animal model for testing genetically modified products.

An animal model is needed to provide a direct test of the allergenic
properties for proteins showing potential evidence of allergenicity. Such
tests cannot be done on humans directly, ethical considerations aside.
Present populations have not been exposed to the engineered food in
question and, as a result, would not show an adverse reaction, even if the
food contained an allergen. In developing the decision tree, Metcalfe et
al. (1996) pointed out the desirability of including an animal model, but
did not do so because none "have been shown to predict the allergic
potential of introduced proteins." Animal models were also a major topic
of discussion at a recent conference dedicated to allergy issues,
"Assessment of the Potential Allergenicity of Genetically Engineered
Foods" held December 5 and 6, 2000, at the National Center for Food Safety
and Technology (Summit-Argo, IL). The advantages and disadvantages of each
model were considered at the meeting: Brown Norway rat, guinea pig, dog,
pig, and various mouse models. To be beneficial, it was considered that an
animal model should: (a) show an allergic response to allergens in humans,
but not to nonallergens; (b) show an allergen profile similar to that of
humansfor example, the response to a strong allergen(peanut) > moderate
allergen (milk) > a nonallergen (spinach leaf); (c) have a
gastrointestinal system similar to humans; and (d) ideally, show an
epitope response similar to humans. This latter feature was considered a
desirable but not a mandatory feature in view of the wide range of
epitopes that humans can recognize.

The advantages, disadvantages, and current status of each model were
discussed in Summit-Argo. It was agreed that, although decisive progress
has been made, none of the current models meets these criteria because
characterization and testing is still ongoing. Therefore, at this point it
is not clear which of the models will prove to be of most value in
detecting and assessing food allergens.

I am personally prone to the dog because, perhaps as a reflection of
having a gastrointestinal system similar to humans (Strombeck and
Guilford, 1990), it is unique among animal models in having natural
allergies as far as is known. The dog shows clinical symptoms typical of
food allergy in humans, i.e. vomit and diarrhea (Ermel et al., 1997; del
Val et al., 1999). Advances made using the dog will, therefore, benefit
dogs as well as humans because of similarities in their allergic response.
In recognition of these features, our laboratory started a project to
determine the suitability of the dog as a predictor of allergens in humans
in collaboration with Dr. Oscar L. Frick (University of California, San
Francisco) and Drs. Laura Privalle and Greg del Val (Syngenta, Research
Triangle Park, NC). Initiated 3 years ago, this study is now entering its
final stage and is yielding encouraging results. The results, which will
be published when the study is complete, suggest that the dog will be
useful as an animal model. That point withstanding, the other models
mentioned above warrant continued study, because, in the end, each of
several could present a particular advantage in detecting and
characterizing allergens in humans.

One precautionary note seems in order. While proceeding with allergy
testing, we must be careful not to overregulate and impose undue
restrictions to stifle innovation. Rather, we should seek to formulate a
balanced policy that insures food safety without hindering product

Great strides have been made in our understanding of food allergy since
the problem was originally recognized by Hippocrates almost 2.5 millennia
ago. Despite this rich history, large gaps remain in our knowledge and
they are of such nature as to lend an element of mystery to the field.
These features have led certain individuals and environmental groups to
target food allergy in an effort to slow the commercial development of
genetically modified crops and foods and, at the same time, utilize the
issue as a fund-raising mechanism. Their efforts have been successful not
only by having the intended effect, but also by negatively influencing
science funding, especially in Europe. The net result has been that the
participating organizations have experienced financial gain and
genetically modified crops derived from research in developed countries
are now being grown disproportionately in the developing world. For
example, between 1999 and 2000, the area used for growing transgenic crops
increased by 2% in industrial countries, whereas the area in developing
counterparts, although still relatively small in total hectares, grew by
51% (James, 2000). The long-term economic effect of the shift in emphasis
to developing countries could significantly impact research on transgenic
crops in developed countries unless the situation changes. Such an impact
on research would eventually adversely affect hunger and nutrition
worldwide because, as recently pointed out in this series (e.g. Borlaug,
2000), continued progress in the genetic engineering of crops is critical
to feeding future world populations.

I believe, however, the problem to be transitory and that, once
appropriate allergen testing capability is in place, health concerns will
abate and the development of transgenic foods will continue apace. As seen
above, the needs to bring about this change are not extensive. What seems
to be most lacking at this stage is an animal model to identify transgenic
plant proteins that either are, or have become, allergens in humans. Such
a model is especially important for proteins to which humans have not been
exposed. Had a reliable model been available, it is likely that StarLink
corn could have avoided current problems (for example, see Barboza, 2000).
Animal test data would have been available to allay consumer concern once
the product was on the market. I am confident that, with progress now
being made, one or more animal models will soon be available to serve as a
reliable indicator of allergens in human and that a safe but reasonable
testing policy will be formulated. Once such testing capability is in
hand, the public will respond in a positive manner. In the long term, the
food allergy and technology fields will likely benefit, rather than
suffer, from this pause in their development.


* Altman DR, Chiaramonte LT (1996) Public perception of food allergy. J
Allerg Clin Immunol 97: 1247-1251
* Barboza D. December 4, 2000. Negligence suit is filed over altered corn.
New York Times; Sect C:2
* Borlaug NE (2000) Ending world hunger: the promise of biotechnology and
the threat of antiscience zealotry. Plant Physiol 124: 487-490
* del Val G, Yee BC, Lozano RM, Buchanan BB, Ermel RW, Lee YM, Frick OL
(1999) Thioredoxin treatment increases digestibility and lowers
allergenicity of milk. J Allerg Clin Immunol 103: 690-697
* Ermel RW, Kock M, Griffey SM, Reinhart GA, Frick OL (1997) The atopic
dog: a model for food allergy. Lab Anim Sci 47: 40-49
* James C (2000) Global review of commercialized transgenic crops:
2000. The International Service for the Acquisitiion of Agri-biotech
Applications, no. 21. http://www.isaaa.org/publications/briefs/Brief_17.htm
* Metcalfe DD, Astwood JD, Townsend R, Sampson HA, Taylor SL, Fuchs RL
(1996) Assessment of the allergenic potential of foods derived from
genetically engineered crop plants. Crit Rev Food Sci Nut Suppl 36:
* Nordlee JA, Taylor SL, Townsend JA, Thomas LA, Bush RK (1996)
Identification of a Brazil-nut allergen in transgenic soybeans. N Engl J
Med 334: 688-692[Medline]
* Strombeck DR, Guilford WG (1990) Small Animal Gastroenterology, Ed 2.
Stonegate Publishing Co., Davis, CA, pp 346-355

Bob B. Buchanan
Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, University of California, 111
Koshland Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720 © 2001 American Society of Plant


Agricultural Biotechnology for Africa
- African Scientists and Farmers Must Feed Their Own People

- Jesse Machuka
Plant Physiol, May 2001, Vol. 126, pp. 16-19 (EDITOR'S CHOICE)

Few would disagree that the many claims and counterclaims concerning what
biotechnology can or cannot do to solve Africa's food insecurity problem
have mainly been made by non-Africans. It is no wonder that Florence
Wambugu's (1999) excellent article titled "Why Africa needs agricultural
biotech" is now widely cited by those who support the view that developing
countries, particularly in SubSaharan Africa (SSA), stand to gain the most
from modern biotechnology applications. The article explained in a
nutshell some of the potential benefits Africa stands to gain by embracing
biotechnology. Although opinions differ regarding the role biotechnology
can play in African development, all (hopefully!) must agree about the
urgency to eradicate the perpetual cycle of hunger, malnutrition, and
death in a world of plenty. It is an acknowledged fact that Africa is
endowed with tremendous natural (including genetic) and human wealth that
has yet to be harnessed to the benefit of its people. Sadly, some of this
reservoir of resources have been disintegrating and the trend is bound to
accelerate unless urgent measures are taken to stop and reverse this
drift. Since farming is the most important source of income and sustenance
for about three quarters of the population of SSA, there is no doubt that
agricultural biotechnology (agbiotech) can make very substantial
contributions toward increasing food production by rural resource-poor
farmers, while preserving declining resources such as forests, soil,
water, and arable land (Bunders and Broerse, 1991). However, application
of modern biotechnology tools is not likely to significantly reduce the
contributions that conventional disciplines such as soil science,
breeding, plant health management, agronomy, agricultural economics, and
social sciences make to enhance crop production.

In villages, constraints to crop production include pests, diseases,
weeds, environmental degradation, soil nutrient depletion, low fertilizer
inputs, inadequate food processing amenities, poor roads to markets, and
general lack of information to make science-based decisions that underlie
farming methodologies and systems. For some of these constraints,
biotechnology is the most promising recourse to alleviate them. For
example, an insect known as Maruca podborer is the major constraint
restricting increased grain legume production in Africa, often causing up
to 100% crop failure during severe attacks on important crops such as
cowpea (Fig. 1). Many decades of conventional breeding efforts have failed
to control this pest. However, recent research in U.S. universities and at
the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture based in Ibadan,
Nigeria, shows that this pest can be controlled by applying biotechnology
tools. This is just one of the myriad problems facing food production
systems in Africa for which biotechnology can provide at least some
solutions. Although biotechnology has potential downsides, the major
"concerns" in Africa are not so much about justifying its role in
agricultural productionthe "why" question. It is conceivable that the
millions of dollars being wasted each year by antibiotech activists
elsewhere could go a long way to help build badly needed capacity for
agbiotech research in Africa! The key issues revolve around questions of
where, when, how, and who will do biotechnology for Africa's benefit? If
we are thinking of ultimate answers, then there is probably only one
answer: biotechnology for Africa should mostly be done in Africa and
mostly by Africans themselves, now. And yes, this is being realistic, and
it can be done, if there is consensus and goodwill.

Despite many years of agricultural and other "development" aid and
promises by different agencies related to increased food security and
poverty eradication, those of us who live in Africa do not have confidence
that things are getting any better. Because of this history, some are
either pessimistic or skeptical, but the majority remain cautious and
optimistic, that modern biotechnology opens new opportunities to address
constraints that have led to declining harvests in farmers' fields in the
midst of an expanding population. Richard Manning (2000) makes a good
point when he suggests that one way to feed the increasing world
population is to help "third world scientists to feed their own people,
while ensuring sensitivity to culture and environment that we missed in
the first green revolution" (http://www.mcknight.org/crop-frontier.htm).
For SSA, the pertinent question is, how does the international community
of public and private institutions and donors, governments, scientists,
and other actors help African scientists (and farmers!) to feed their own
people? It is crucial that scientific information reaches farmers in the
rural areas who have space to practice farming and that other actors such
as agricultural scientists and extensionists interact with farmers to
attain acceptance and use of new technologies for sustainable food
production and development. In this regard, we must have it in mind that
life science technologies that offer hope to farmers, such as agbiotech,
belong to the farmer. We must also ensure that the technology not only
reaches farmers but that they understand it and are empowered to use it.
Furthermore, our starting point is not the "ignorant peasant" but the
practices, techniques, experience, and knowledge of the African farmer
built over the centuries (Duprez and DeLeener, 1988).

A good example of how biotechnology can reach rural farmers involves a
special program by the Biotechnology Development Co-operation of the
Netherlands Government, the Kenyan Ministry of Research, Science and
Technology, and the small-scale farming system stakeholders. The program
structure is designed to ensure that biotechnology reaches the small
farmer (end-user) through a bottom-up approach steered by the Kenya
Agricultural Biotechnology Platform. The composition of farmers includes
male and female farmers, oxen owners, different age groups from different
subvillages, etc. Projects under the Kenya Agricultural Biotechnology
Platform funding bring together collaborators who include scientists from
research institutions such as universities, national agricultural research
centers, and farmers. A Farming Systems Research Program ensures that
farmers participate in the research as partners with scientists,
extensionists, and other actors and enables scientists also to utilize
indigenous knowledge in research and development. This prevents "cut and
paste" approaches that may be foreign market-driven and which tend to
provide short-term, quick-fix solutions to unique problems faced by
small-scale farmers in Africa who have developed their own unique crops,
cropping, and farming systems that cannot be changed without their full
and careful involvement. Since 1992, Farmers Research Groups and Farmers
Extension Groups, established along the lines of Farming Systems Research
Programs, have been in existence in the Lake Zone of Tanzania for purposes
of farmer participatory research. This experience shows that such
participatory methods increase farmers' inputs in the decision-making
process as well as in the dissemination of research products through their
involvement in field trials, farmers' and "on-station" field days, PRA
surveys, and farmer-to-farmer diffusion of information through Village
Extension Workers rather than institutional extension (Fig. 2). Since
Farmers Research Groups represent different geographic zones and hence
different agro-ecological and farming systems, linkage mechanisms that
bring together their experiences need to be established to allow
horizontal and vertical dissemination of technologies as well as
collaboration in the SSA region. Obviously, this is not the only way that
research results from the laboratory reach farmers' fields, but it
illustrates the fact that applied agbiotech research can similarly be
targeted and tied to meet specific needs of rural farmers, both in the
short- and long-term, in the face of scant resources. With African farmers
and scientists working together to set the research agenda, there is hope
that the research will focus on uniquely African ("orphan") crops such as
millet and sorghum that are very important in marginal, famine-prone
regions such as the Sahel and Horn of Africa. Root and tuber crops such as
yam, sweet potato, and cassava may also begin to receive the attention
they deserve.

Although Africa lags far behind other regions when it comes to public
information and awareness of biotechnology issues, excellent work is being
done by organizations such as the Nairobi-based African Biotechnology
Stakeholders Forum and South African-based AfricaBIO to educate the
general public in biotechnology. Opportunities abound for scientists in
Africa to get involved in these efforts that are urgently needed if
Africans are going to decide for themselves what biotechnology can do for
them rather than let others decide for them, especially anti-genetically
modified organism activists! There is also urgency to educate policy
makers in African governments and the private sector concerning the need
to support and invest in biotechnology Research and Development (R&D). At
the same time, the international donor community needs to begin to trust
Africans and allow them to manage their research agenda for themselves.
They can take the cue from very successful initiatives undertaken by the
Rockefeller Foundation in Africa. There are enough African scientists
around to make a difference on farmers fields if resources are properly
channeled for agricultural R&D. African scientists and science managers in
government and other institutions as well as farmers, on the other hand,
need to be efficient and faithful in the way they manage research programs
and funds if they are going to be trusted with money by national and
international donors. The current success in tissue culture-aided
production and multiplication of disease-free planting materials for
cassava, yam, banana, plantain, citrus, and flowers in countries such as
Kenya and Ghana is attracting private sector companies who are seeing the
potential to invest in successful new biotechnologies.

On November 8-11, 2000, the Strategic Alliance for Biotechnology Research
in African Development (SABRAD) held a workshop in Accra, Ghana, that
brought together more than 150 participants from southern, East, Central,
and West Africa as well as partners from the U.S. 1890 Land Grant
Universities, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Agricultural
Organization of the United Nations, United Nations Environment Program,
International Agricultural Research Centers, other non-governmental
organizations, private companies, and journalists. International
Agricultural Research Centers were represented by the Mexican-based
International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre and International
Institute of Tropical Agriculture. The theme of this first SABRAD Workshop
was "Enabling Biotechnology for African Agriculture." Increasing education
and awareness and formulation of regulatory (policy) frameworks that would
allow access to modern biotechnology for R&D were identified as key
priorities for enabling biotechnology for African development that targets
resource-poor rural farmers. The one thing that was unique at the Accra
meeting was that Africans themselves were at the center of discussions to
work out plans for enabling biotechnology to take root in their respective
countries. The action plans agreed upon will be implemented through
networking between regions. The ultimate socio-economic impact is food
self-sufficiency and improved living conditions of resource-poor farmers
who were identified as the target recipients for products generated from
biotechnology applications.

We live in a world that has become an increasingly interdependent "global
village" due to advances in information and transportation technology. In
this global village, millions have plenty of food to throw away, while
millions of others die daily because they have nothing to eat. It is not
always true that those with surplus food do not care about those who die
in near and far away places! In Africa itself, there are many that have
plenty of food, acquired either genuinely or by stealing public wealth,
and who still watch their hungry neighbors die helplessly. Although
Africans are thankful for development and relief aid, they are
uncomfortable about their condition of continuous dependence on handouts
that come in many forms, including food and expatriate foreign aid, with
no permanent solutions apparently in sight. The SABRAD initiative is one
step in the right direction that deserves support from all those who want
to help African scientists and farmers to feed their own people.

* Bunders FG, Broerse EW (1991) Appropriate Biotechnology in Small-Scale
Agriculture: How to Reorient Research and Development. CAB International,
Wallington, Oxon, UK
* Duprez H, DeLeener P (1988) Agriculture in African Rural Communities.
Macmillan and Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Co-operation.
CTA, London
* Manning R (2000) Food's Frontier: The Next Green Revolution. North Point
Press, New York
* Wambugu F (1999) Why Africa needs agricultural biotech. Nature 400: 15-16
Jesse Machuka
Biotechnology Research Unit, International Institute of Tropical
Agriculture, c/o L.W. Lambourn & Company
Carolyn House, 26 Dingwall Road, Croydon CR9 3EE, United Kingdom © 2001
American Society of Plant Physiologists


Feeding Ten Billion People. Three Views

- James N. Siedow
Plant Physiol, May 2001, Vol. 126, pp. 20-22 (EDITOR'S CHOICE)

Recent issues of Plant Physiology have contained a marvelous series of
essays dealing with issues and controversies that surround the
introduction and use of crops developed through the application of
recombinant DNA technologies and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
These articles have provided considerable insight and thoughtful analysis
of some of the major issues related to this timely topic. Among the points
raised throughout these essays is the important role that GMOs will play
as one of the components needed to enhance future agricultural
productivity. Continued improvements in crop quality and productivity are
crucial if we are to be in a position to feed the world of 10 billion
people that will come into existence sometime after the middle of the
current century.

In the first essay in this series, Chris Somerville admonished plant
biologists to make their voices heard in the ongoing GMO debate. However,
plant biologists who make their voices heard on this issue, and that
should include every member of the American Society of Plant Biologists,
need to be knowledgeable on many aspects relating to GMOs, a number of
which go beyond the science involved. One difficulty with many plant
biologists in this regard is that we know a lot about the biology but
often much less about the agricultural, sociopolitical, and economic
issues that bear on the discussions surrounding GMOs. This is particularly
true when talking about GMOs in terms of world agriculture. I will admit
to having been relatively ignorant of agriculture worldwide myself until
several years ago when I first read the book written by M.J. Chrispeels
and D.E. Sadava, Plants, Genes and Agriculture, which remains an excellent
primer on the topic. Recognizing this general deficiency, I would like to
recommend three books to anyone interested in the larger topic of feeding
the world's population and in particular to those of you who are publicly
engaged in the GMO debate.

The first book, Feeding the Ten Billion: Plants and Population Growth, is
written by Lloyd T. Evans. Evans is a crop physiologist from Australia and
takes the interesting tack of following the progressive development of
agriculture through time, going from a population of five million about
10,000 years ago, to the six billion reached a couple of years ago. Evans
notes at the outset that the book is not meant to be an all-inclusive
history of agriculture, and it is not. However, much agricultural history
is woven throughout the fabric of the text in a very readable fashion.
Evans also does a good job of illustrating how advances in our
understanding of plant biology have been incorporated into agricultural
practices. It is interesting that although plant physiology began to be
applied to agriculture in a knowledgeable manner in the first half of the
19th century, until the advent of the Green Revolution after 1960, the
major contributor to increases in the world food supply was the extension
of arable land. Increased production since then has been obtained through
rising yields, a feature that is beginning to show some signs of slowing

The subject of arable land provides an illustration of why Evan's book is
worth reading. I have often seen it stated that most, or even all, of the
arable land on the earth is already under cultivation, suggesting there is
no more land available for that purpose. Worldwide, this is not true, but
the actual situation is complex. There is a lot of potentially arable land
that is currently not under cultivation but much of it is undisturbed
forest and wetland, whereas other land is arable but marginal. Arable land
is being lost all the time to urbanization and replaced with previously
uncultivated land, keeping the total roughly constant. The book is filled
with topics like this that will help the reader better understand the
complexities of the issues related to producing enough food to keep up
with population growth. Most plant biologists should come away from
reading this book with a better sense of world agriculture in terms of
where we are today, how we got there, and the constraints that will drive
its development over the next 50 years.

In a more philosophical vein, Evans begins the book by juxtaposing two
views of the relationship between food production and population growth.
The one view of Thomas Malthus has the supply of food being the driving
variable and population growth dependent upon it and the other view is of
Ester Boserup, who sees it the other way around, with population growth
being the driver of agricultural development. Evans makes no attempt to
resolve this issue, but keeps it front and center throughout the book and
leaves it to the reader to ascertain which view might be closer to the
truth. I would note that the correct answer, if one truly exists, would
have a large bearing on the eventual acceptance of genetically modified
crops, particularly in developing countries.

The second book I recommend reading is Feeding the World: A Challenge for
the Twenty-First Century by Vaclav Smil. Although the title is similar to
that of Evans' book, the approach is quite different. Smil brings more of
an ecological perspective to the topic and treats the subject from the
standpoint of where we are now and where we need to go in the future. Smil
has long addressed issues of sustainability. The often-quoted limit of
four billion people that can be sustained if nitrogen were only applied
following the principles of organic farming can be traced to him, although
others have made similar calculations. Smil's book makes for good reading
because he regularly searches for practical approaches (or as he calls it,
"truth") to achieving a sustainable agriculture that can support
10 billion people. It is interesting that he does this in part by
appropriating the most legitimate points of both those who see only
catastrophe on our present course and those who effectively see no limits
to the number of people that the earth can sustain long term. As he does
this, Smil also points out fallacies associated with many of the numbers
that both of these camps regularly cite.

As noted, Smil's goal is how to achieve long-term agricultural
sustainability. To do that, he works his way up the food chain, from crop
productivity through postharvest losses and onto food production,
consumption, and human nutrition. In the process, he continually presents
a message that there is considerable slack in the current system and that
the prospects for more efficient use of existing resources at all levels
are very real. Smil's background in ecology and his understanding of food
chains shows up well in his discussion of nutrition and how an omnivorous
world can be sustainable, but only if done in an intelligent way, which
means more chicken and much less beef. It is equally important that the
efficiencies Smil envisions are achieved with existing technologies and
knowledge bases, although some of his approaches to optimizing plant
physiological parameters are based on more ideal control of plant
functioning than is presently attainable. The use of GMOs, pro or con,
garners little mention. Far from being a drawback, this omission makes the
book all the more important to read. It serves to remind us not only that
GMOs are just one part of the solution to feeding a 10 billion-person
world but also identifies what other components of the solution are likely
to be.

Smil's movement from Evans' primary focus on agriculture onto issues of
ecological sustainability and nutrition represents a good segue into the
third book, The Doubly Green Revolution: Food for All in the 21st Century
by Gordon Conway. Conway is currently President of the Rockefeller
Foundation and was the recipient of the American Society of Plant
Physiologists' (ASPP) Leadership in Science Public Service Award last
year. Although Conway is cited as being an agricultural ecologist, there
is clearly a lot of economist in him. This makes for tough sledding in
some parts of the book. On the other hand, this also leads to a wealth of
interesting and useful data presented throughout the book. Conway has
spent much of his career working with the international agricultural
research centers, and he provides a more detailed picture of the world
agricultural scene than either of the other two books. He also understands
poverty and the many socioeconomic factors that contribute to the
existence of significant numbers of underfed people in a world of
sufficient food supplies. Opponents of GMOs often use this fact and point
to poverty as the problem, not a lack of food. Conway makes it clear that,
however true the latter is, alleviating poverty is not a practical or
workable solution and does not address the future need to feed 60% to 70%
more people than exist at present.

Conway sympathizes with Smil's goal of achieving a more sustainable form
of agriculture than that he sees associated with the first green
revolution; hence, the notion of the next one being "doubly green." He
approaches this goal with several themes that appear regularly throughout
the book. One is that he is much more supportive than Smil of the need to
include new technologies in the mix needed to feed a world of 10 billion
people. In that regard, GMOs (plants and animals) are addressed
specifically, with Conway seeing the potential gains from the application
of GMOs as far outweighing their perceived risks at this point. This is
especially true when he talks of pest and disease management, where Conway
envisions GMOs as being an important way out of the cycle of large-scale
application of pesticides associated with the first green revolution.
Conway also sees the need for far more broad-ranging partnerships than
currently exist. He cites several examples where industry has either
partnered with, or given technologies to, public agricultural research
centers in developing countries. Conway is particularly upbeat about the
possibility of companies acting as stewards of their technology in a way
that benefits developing countries and protects their intellectual
property rights in developed countries. However, this is not the only kind
of partnership Conway envisions and another recurring theme is the need to
empower and include local farmers in the new partnerships. He feels there
is much to be learned on the ground from people who have spent decades or
even centuries growing crops and surviving on a particular plot of land.
In the end, Conway is calling for a comprehensive agricultural revolution,
one that includes the technological, the ecological, and the sociological.
He recognizes this will not be an easy task to accomplish but sees the
cost of a failure to act as being extremely high. This book is the most
difficult of the three to read, but I believe the reward is worth the
effort to those who persevere.

In summary, all three books are built around the same general theme:
feeding the world in the middle of this century. Although there is much
overlap in what they have to say, each tends to emphasize a different area
when looking to the future. Evans looks more to the capabilities inherent
in the biology of plants, Smil stresses a more environmentally based
approach and the need to optimize our use of resources to achieve
agricultural sustainability, and Conway brings the socioeconomic and
cultural dimensions of the world food supply more to the fore. In total,
these three books make for informative and important reading for any plant

Before ending this essay, I would like to add a couple of my own thoughts
related to the GMO debate and why the information provided in these three
books is important for any plant biologist participating in that debate to
know. First, in spite of their different outlooks, all three would agree
that feeding a world of 10 billion inhabitants cannot be accomplished
without making significant changes, particularly in the developing world,
that run throughout the food chain, from agricultural quality and
productivity to socioeconomics. However, the battle over the application
of GMO technology to help feed the earth's growing population currently
rests in the hands of the developed countries, whereas most of the people
that will need to be fed are located in developing nations. The irony of
this situation rests on the fact that thanks to modern agricultural
practices, the population of the developed world has access to the most
abundant, healthiest, and cheapest supply of food in the history of the
human race. Simply stated, people in the developed world are spoiled when
it comes to food, and they are in a position to be picky about what they
chose to, or choose not to, eat. Opponents of GMOs do not need to prove
whether any claim about the possible dangers of GMOs is true or not. Just
raising the specter of a possible risk associated with GMOs in many
people's minds is enough to make them say they do not want to eat any food
containing GMOs. This decision is easily made because it comes with no
apparent consequence for the cost, availability, or quality of the food
they subsequently eat. That luxury is not afforded to someone in a country
where food is nowhere near as cheap and available, as all three books make
abundantly clear.

Second, as a long-time member and recent Chair of ASPP's Public Affairs
Committee, I believe the Society can justifiably be proud of the extent to
which members of the Public Affairs Committee and the Society as a whole
have been willing to participate in the public debate on GMOs. In doing
so, we have attempted to behave as honest brokers, ensuring that the
scientific issues underlying the GMO debate are presented in as fair and
objective a manner as possible. This is not always an easy thing to do
when it comes to GMOs, given how polarizing the issue is. It has become
difficult to take a position that remotely feigns in the direction of one
side of the GMO issue without immediately being seen as some sort of
mindless lackey by people on the other side. The best way I know of to
counter the latter charge is to develop support for one's arguments (pro
or con) based on a thorough understanding of the subject. Knowledge truly
is power in this case, and one can never be too knowledgeable on this most
controversial, current, and important of topics. Just as Chris Somerville
opened this series of essays with a call for plant biologists to make
their voices heard, I would like to end the series with a second important
recommendation: "Go read a book (or three)."

* Chrispeels MJ, Sadava DE (1994) Plant, Genes and Agriculture. Jones and
Bartlett, London
* Conway C (1997) The Doubly Green Revolution: Food for All in the
Twenty-First Century. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY
* Evans LT (1998) Feeding the Ten Billion. Cambridge University Press,
Cambridge, UK
* Smil V (2000) Feeding the World: A Challenge for the 21st Century. MIT
Press, Cambridge, MA
* Somerville C (2000) The genetically modified organism conflict. Plant
Physiol 123: 1201-1202[Full Text]
James N. Siedow
Department of Biology, Box 91000, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708
© 2001 American Society of Plant Physiologists


How do agricultural scientists view advanced biotechnology?
- Thomas A. Lyson

If the 20th century belonged to physics, the 21st is likely to belong to
biology. Today, basic and applied research in genomics, biotechnology, and
genetic engineering is sparking a new scientific revolution. The Human
Genome Project is only one aspect of a much larger endeavor to decode and
manipulate the genetic makeup of all living matter.

Decoding and manipulating plant and animal genomes has the potential to
radically transform agricultural and food production. We have already seen
the development and diffusion of disease-, insect-, and drought-resistant
crops, as well as more-productive farm animals. Biotechnologists are
developing edible vaccines that can be incorporated into fresh fruits and
vegetables and are working on a broad range of biopesticides, which lead
to reduced use of agrichemicals. Ultimately, bioengineered foods may
prevent or cure diseases.

Driving the genomics revolution in agriculture are the large,
multinational life science companies such as Novartis, Monsanto, DuPont,
and Dow Chemical (1) and the colleges of agriculture in America’s land
grant universities. Sometimes working independently and sometimes working
together, the private life science companies and the public land grant
universities are not only unfolding the fundamental processes of life, but
are also applying their findings to a wide range of practical
applications. The potential for commercial development of
agriculture-based genomics research is presenting large and small private
firms with a wealth of commercial opportunities.

Given the imperatives faced by the multinationals to develop and exploit
markets for advanced biotechnologies, one might expect private life
science companies to speak with one positive voice about the benefits of
genomics. Indeed, proponents of capital-intensive, industrially organized,
high-yield farming (2, 3) point to the need for agricultural scientists to
rise to the challenge of feeding billions more people around the world
within the next 50 years. For these advocates of high-tech farming,
anything less than a complete embracing of biotechnology represents a
dangerous diversion that can lead to reduced crop yields, an increased
threat of famine, and ultimately social unrest.

Genomics is clearly becoming a focal point for a broad array of programs
and activities in colleges of agriculture. However, previous research on
the perspectives and values of agricultural scientists suggests that the
academic community may hold multiple perspectives on advanced
biotechnologies. Furthermore, the strategic alliances formed between
colleges of agriculture and private life science companies have become a
point of contention among agricultural scientists (4).

Disciplinary differences are especially important in understanding varying
viewpoints held by researchers in colleges of agriculture. Almost 20 years
ago, Busch and Lacy noted, “Agricultural research is increasingly
fragmented along disciplinary lines. Scientists typically receive all or
most of their education within the same disciplines. They rarely subscribe
or publish outside disciplinary lines. As each discipline develops a
somewhat different vocabulary, cross-disciplinary communication is
restricted” (5). Overall, the most important goals for agricultural
research are the creation of disciplinary knowledge and the increase of
agricultural productivity. Other goals congruent with the land grant
mission, such as human nutrition, improving rural levels of living, and
community development, are related to a handful of disciplines (e.g., food
science, nutrition, and rural sociology).

Two views of agricultural biotechnologies: There are at least two distinct
views within the land grant system about advanced agricultural
biotechnologies. The predominant view is that the role of the land grant
system is to educate the public about all aspects of these emerging
technologies. Thus, many land grant universities have organized symposia,
developed outreach materials, and established liaisons between the public
and the university to address questions and disseminate information about
biotechnology research on campus. Biotechnology opponents often express
the concern that land grant scientists too often advocate—rather than
educate about—these technologies. From their perspective, educational
materials dealing with biotechnology indiscriminately promote a particular
viewpoint and do not acknowledge the potential social and environmental
problems associated with these technologies.

Although many agricultural scientists believe that the benefits to be
gained by developing biotechnologies greatly outweigh any potential costs,
a second school of thought in the land grant system endorses a more
cautious approach to this line of research. Whereas few agricultural
scientists call for an outright ban of biotechnology research, some
advocate more inquiry into the impacts of advanced agricultural
biotechnologies on the environment, food system, structure of agriculture,
rural communities, and population health before large investments are made
in this line of research.

To address how advanced agricultural biotechnologies are perceived by
scientists in America’s land grant universities, data were collected as
part of a larger U.S. Department of Agriculture sponsored regional
research project (NC-208) titled Impact Analysis and Decision Support
Strategies for Agricultural Research. The objective of the larger project
was to analyze decision strategies for agricultural biotechnology research
funding by state agricultural experiment stations.

A survey of agricultural scientists: In 1995 and 1996, a sample of 1668
agricultural faculty was drawn from a directory of professional workers in
state agricultural experiment stations and cooperating institutions
maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A mail survey was
administered following procedures outlined in Dillman (6). After removing
undeliverable questionnaires, persons not qualified to participate (i.e.,
nonprofessorial respondents), and refusals, usable questionnaires were
received from 1011 individuals for a response rate of 60.6%.

Agricultural scientists in the land grant system believe it is incumbent
upon the university to educate the public about advanced biotechnologies.
Opponents of biotechnology believe that the university too often promotes
a probiotechnology perspective. To capture this dimension among
agricultural scientists, I constructed a five-item, summated Education and
Promotion Scale (Cronbach’s = 0.760) (7), based on their views about the
role that biotechnology is now playing in land grant colleges of
agriculture. Biotechnology refers to “new biotechnologies”—the relatively
new genetic and cellular-manipulative technologies such as recombinant
DNA, immobilized enzymes, tissue culture, polymerase chain reaction, and
protoplast fusion. The respondents were asked to rank their opinions on
the following items from 1 (not important and not needed) to 5 (very
important and needed right away).

1. More active promotion of the benefits of new biotechnology products by
land grant administrators and scientists 2. Greater emphasis by
agricultural extension services on farmer education on biotechnology 3.
More intensive public educational programs about biotechnology 4. More
biotechnology research by land grant colleges of agriculture 5. More
emphasis by land grant researchers on biotechnology products that enable
farmers to use fewer chemical inputs

Scores for the Education and Promotion Scale ranged from 5, indicating no
support for an educational or promotional effort on the part of land grant
universities for biotechnology, to 25, indicating an urgent need for
education and promotion (mean, 17.16).

In the land grant system, some agricultural scientists favor a “go-slow”
approach to the development and dissemination of biotechnologies. Others
think that such caution is