AgBioView - http://www.agbioworld.org
* Re: Betrayal of Indian Farmers
* Re: Enlightened Support
* Risk and Uncertainty
* U.N. Reaches Key Agreement to Save Crop Diversity
* Italian Public Votes out Anti-GMO Greens
* Biotech Grains Make Gains
* Real and Metaphorical Moral Limits in the Biotech Debate
* GMO Contamination of Seeds
* Messenger (harpin)
* Global Governance of Technology: Synthesis Report
* Promising Peanuts; View from Ghana ; River Runs Clean
From: Gurumurti Natarajan
Re: Betrayal of Indian Farmers
Many thanks for forwarding the article of Mr. Chengal Reddy and Dr. JR
I endorse the view that anyone interested in adopting technological
advances that would address issues of increasing farm productivity in
a sustainable manner that would alleviate poverty, hunger and
malnutrition, must have access to such developments after due diligence.
The deferment of environmental release of Bt-cotton by the GEAC for
the reasons cited is a slap in the face of all progress on the Indian
farm front. This denial of opportunity to progress is a fraud
perpetuated on the indigent Indian farmer to produce more from less
and thus unshackle himself from the perennial tyranny of poverty and
hunger that haunts him from birth through death.
It is a pity that the Greenpeace activists and their ilk organised
themselves so well to stonewall this opportunity by getting themselves
co-opted in the GEAC deliberations and further orchestrating
stage-managed petitions decrying the proven benefits of this
technology to the President of India, the Prime Minister, the
Agriculture Minister and various others that may have had a say over
the outcome of the deliberations.
The real farmers, that do not command the wherewithal to get one
square meal a day, much less to stand up for themselves on a crucial
issue as this, got steam rolled over, once again.
It is time that the voices of everyone concerned be echoed to support
the frustrations and anguish of Mr. Chengal Reddy, Mr. Sharad Joshi
and similar such truly interested sons of the soil for the larger
benefit of one and all. Scientists also have the responsibility of
ensuring that their professional endeavours reach out to the
beneficiaries for whom the research was undertaken in the first place.
I encourage through this forum that every concerned individual makes
his little efforts in promoting science for the larger welfare of all.
And lastly, Mr Cheangal Reddy's article needs to be translated into
the vernacular and widely circulated to the popular media who would
then be encouraged to inform their readership in a more meaningful
manner than what can be achieved through the media covering the
English language alone.
- Gurumurti Natarajan, Ph. D., India
> BETRAYAL OF INDIAN FARMERS
> P CHENGAL REDDY President, Federation of Farmers Associations,
> - Dr. J.R. MURTHY, Sr. Faculty, Administrative Staff College of
> (Forwarded by: Chengal Reddy )
> Public Memory is short, regretfully. Henceforth, 19th June must be
> declared "Farmers' Betrayal Day". On this day, the Genetic
> Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of Government of India withheld
> approval for freely providing the first transgenic agri-technology
> (the Bt cotton seed) to farmers.
From: "L. Val Giddings"
Subject: Re: Enlightened Support
The "terminator" seed patent was shared between USG and Delta &
Pineland, a US cotton seed company. Monsanto never owned this
technology, though it made a bid (later dropped) for the cotton seed
company. Neither Monsanto nor any other company has ever produced
crop varieties carrying this "terminator" trait. The fiction that
this has ever been done has been peddled by opponents of biotechnology
as a way of fomenting fear and outrage, overlooking the fact that it
is merely a genetic/economic analogue of hybrid seed corn. It should
be noted that the economic and agronomic incentives thus provided in
hybrid corn have led to advances in yield and other agronomic
properties that have left in the dust improvements in farmer-savable
seed varieties like cotton. (Of course, farmers can save hybrid corn,
it just makes more economic sense to buy new hybrid seed every year,
which they do freely and happily, because they get larger economic
returns -- it pays for itself and then some). Rather than opposing
genetic use restriction technologies (GURTS) therefore, those
interested in improving the lot of farmers, esp. in the developing
world, should welcome them applied to crops where hybrid corn-like
heterosis is not found.
Monsanto was not forced to drop the technology -- they never owned it;
it was never theirs to drop. They did respond to the wave of
hysteria fostered by dishonest or ill informed opponents by vowing not
to use it -- a painless promise since it was never theirs to begin
with. Informed observers will confirm, however, that more elegant and
efficacious GURTS are being developed and could be commercially
deployed as fast or faster than "terminator" in any event. This will
>Benigno D. Peczon, BusinessWorld (Manila) 29 June 2001
>Dear Editor: We value views expressed by opinion makers of
>BusinessWorld. They serve as a clarion call to alert the public on
> Seed companies have indeed sought to control their product by limiting
> farmers from saving seeds for future planting. In the late '90s, the
> US government granted a patent to an invention that allowed GE plants
> to produce sterile seeds. The technology was later used by Monsanto to
> develop bio-engineered corn carrying these so-called terminator genes
> for distribution and sale. But the strong backlash from the public,
> including farmer and consumer groups and the science community, forced
> Monsanto to drop the use of this technology.
Risk and Uncertainty
- At the frontiers of science, we don't always know what may happen.
Robert May, Nature v. 411, p. 891 ( June 21, 2001)
Robert May is President of the Royal Society, Carlton House Terrace,
London SW1Y 5AG, UK, and former chief scientific adviser to the UK
The science we encounter at school deals mainly with crisp
certainties, such as newtonian predictions of planetary orbits or the
underlying reasons for arranging elements in the periodic table.
Otherwise, science appears as rather tedious lists of names ? of
chemicals or plants and animals ? in the trivial guise of a television
quiz. This situation is as understandable as it is unfortunate:
understandable because such certainties, derived from yesterday's
research, are naturally easier to teach; and unfortunate because the
implied equation of science with certainty is misleading.
Uncertain outcome: even with sophisticated data collection and
computation, weather prediction is still probabilistic. The 'already
understood' is thus the limit of most people's acquaintance with
science. Insofar as uncertainty enters, it is because the underlying
laws, although known, manifest themselves in a sufficiently
complicated way that only probabilistic statements can be made.
Examples range from roulette wheels to the chaotic dynamics of local
weather prediction. Given this conception, or misconception, of what
science is all about, it is not surprising that people expect
scientists to give them clear and unambiguous advice when new and
worrying problems appear.
Difficulties arise when the uncertainties in scientific advice to
policy-makers are not caused by probabilistic predictions, but rather
derive from a fundamental lack of understanding of new phenomena at or
beyond the frontiers of present knowledge. Having met science as 'the
known', many people balk at scientists saying "I do not know, but here
is a reasonable guess". Zealots who preach a particular answer with
unfounded but unshakeable belief often make these problems worse.
Medical advances have not only lengthened life expectancy, but have
also reduced its variance in the developed world; we now regard three
score years and ten as a basic right, and look for someone to sue if a
relative does not get them. Such expectation of longer and healthier
lives results, I think, in our often worrying about relatively minor
risks in ways that an earlier age would find incomprehensible. Today,
some parents are just as concerned about conjectured risks from
vaccinations as an earlier generation of parents was about the very
real risks of childhood infections such as poliomyelitis. By the same
token, many people happily accept risks where they have the illusion
of control (driving cars, for example) whereas they flatly reject
risks of vastly lower probability, which, however, have a 'miasmic'
quality, such as the perceived risks from radiation. Such subjective
perceptions create their own realities, but they frequently ignore
objective or 'scientific' approaches to risk analysis.
Whether scientific advice is a confident prediction, a statistical
distribution of outcomes, imaginative guidance when we are
scientifically ignorant, or nothing more than a sharper set of
questions to guide us in the fog, the results will necessarily play
out in an arena shaped by public perceptions. Public attitudes to
risks can be hugely affected by the emotional colour of particular
words. In Britain, the public-health benefits of irradiated food have
not been realized as they have in many other countries, essentially as
a result of public reaction to the word 'irradiated', with its
misleading echoes of nuclear radiation. Appreciating this point, the
medical community delivered the benefits of 'nuclear magnetic
resonance' techniques, without evoking anxiety, by renaming it
'magnetic resonance imaging'.
Conversely, there are strong indications that heavy intake of vitamin
B6 can be harmful, but proposed restrictions caused an outcry from
people who felt that a vitamin must, by definition, be beneficial. As
another example, I share many of the environmental ideals of the
organic farming movement, but I find it fascinating how the word
'organic' has been cut free from any biological moorings and made
emotive, synonymous with 'good' ? whereas many 'organic' plants
contain naturally occurring toxins.
There are substantial questions that need answering in relation to
genetically modified foods, especially in their potential for further
intensification of agriculture with consequences for the countryside
and the plants and animals in it. But much of the discussion has been
conducted in terms of the emotional loading on words such as 'mutant'
or 'genetic' ? not to mention "Frankenstein foods" ? in ways that
create feelings divorced from factual underpinning. Today in Europe,
many people feel apprehensive about mixing genetically engineered soya
beans with those produced as a result of generations of artificial
selection, whereas such mixing causes little concern in the United
States. It is easy to forget that, when the underlying gene-splicing
technology was first emerging in the 1970s, it was Americans but not
Europeans who were apprehensive. At one major debate of that time in
Cambridge, Massachusetts, one speaker began by intoning "nicotine,
cigarettes" and then "gene splicing, genetic engineering", observing
that although the former words have little emotional resonance, the
latter cause shivers. But the first set of words stand for
demonstrable harm on a large scale, whereas the latter do not.
The past century saw great advances in scientific understanding,
applied with good intentions to make life better. But we now begin to
see unintended adverse consequences: climate change and diminishing
biological diversity. In the new century, society needs to do a better
job of deciding what kind of world it wants to make with the
opportunities science offers, rather than just letting things happen.
This is a debate about values, with science having no special voice
except in factual clarification of possibilities and constraints. But
the task is as hugely difficult as it is hugely important. And a large
part of the difficulty lies in the uncertainties that are an
inseparable part of science at the frontier. It helps to recognize,
and explicitly acknowledge, these uncertainties; it hinders further to
cloud the uncertainty with emotionally coloured language.
U.N. Reaches Key Agreement to Save Crop Diversity
- David Brough, Reuters, July 1, 2001 (from Agnet)
ROME, - Officials were cited as saying that the U.N. world food body
reached a landmark agreement on Sunday to try to save the world's
diversity of agricultural crops, following an anguished debate pitting
many poor countries and environmentalists against multinational
corporations and wealthier nations.
The story says that after a week of touch-and-go talks, delegates said
the United States had agreed for the first time in a public forum to
mandatory payments by plant breeders and geneticists developing new
crop varieties in return for access to public seed banks. The seed
banks lend out crop seeds at no charge, enabling research into new
varieties of plants to increase resistance to disease and ameliorate
some of the impact of global warming.
In turn, this helps alleviate hunger in poorer nations. Jose
Esquinas-Alcazar, secretary of the Commission on Genetic Resources for
Food and Agriculture, part of the U.N. Food and Agriculture
Organisation (FAO), was quoted as telling Reuters, "This international
undertaking is a milestone -- it will allow the conservation of
genetic resources for future generations."
He said an international agreement to conserve plant genetic resources
was needed because agricultural biodiversity was being lost at an
Italian Public Votes out Anti-GMO Greens
- Anna Meldolesi , Nature Biotechnology, July 2001.
After a tense electoral campaign marred by anti-GMO issues, Italy?s
center-left coalition government?the first to include Green Party
ministries?was defeated in the national election on 13 May. The
extreme anti-GMO antics of the world?s first Green agricultural
minister Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio are widely blamed for the demise of
the Green party in Italy, and the saga presents a lesson to Green
parties elsewhere in Europe.
Since taking office in May 2000, Pecoraro Scanio has become the most
notorious antiGMO minister in Europe. He banned products derived from
GM corn commercialized elsewhere in the EU (Nat. Biotechnol. 18, 1137,
2000), he pressed the Italian environment minister not to drop the
European de facto moratorium on GMOs, and he persuaded the European
Council of ministers not to approve a new directive on vines as it
showed some softening toward GM varieties (Nat. Biotechnol. 19, 15,
2001). But his political demise began in earnest last autumn, when he
suspended ministerial funds for agbiotech research. The move prompted
a protest by top scientists, forcing him to back down in front of the
prime minister (Nat. Biotechnol. 19, 293, 2001). Luigi Manconi, former
secretary of the Green Party, says it was this protest that caused a
great loss of historical support for the party, particularly from the
intellectual middle class. Pecoraro Scanio remained undeterred,
however, and GMO controversies continued to dominate his last few
months in office. Next, he set about alienating farmers.
Commercial growing of GM corn and GM soybeans is not allowed in Italy,
but the country depends heavily on seeds imported from the US and
Argentina, where GM varieties are widespread. At the beginning of
march, an ecologist group accused Monsanto (St Louis, MO) of
intentionally selling GM seeds in Italy. Police subsequently embargoed
130 tons of corn and 400 tons of soy in the Monsanto grain store in
Lodi near Milan on suspicion of being genetically modified. Before
quantitative analysis could be conducted to establish the percentage
of GM seeds, Pecoraro Scanio called for a suspension of Monsanto?s
seed import licence and instructed Monsanto to recall all seeds
already sold, leaving Italian farmers without anything to plant in
time for the growing season.
Environmentalists claimed Monsanto was trying to sell corn and
soybeans that was 100% and 84% GM, respectively. They claimed that
once sown the suspect seeds would have covered an area double that of
Rome and would have genetically polluted hundreds of kilometres by
crosspollination. On April 3, the Monsanto grain store was subject to
an arson attack that caused $175,000 in damages.
At first, Pecoraro Scanio suggested the arson was undertaken to hide
the truth? implying that Monsanto itself was guilty of starting the
fire. However, the seeds burnt were not those embargoed, but a totally
separate load of corn, soybeans, oilseed rape, and alfalfa. Pecoraro
Scanio was forced to retract when the health minister Umberto Veronesi
publicly announced that qualitative tests were not enough to condemn
Monsanto and that accidental contamination was possible. Indeed,
subsequent test results fully vindicated Monsanto? qualitative and
quantitative analysis showed almost all the seeds were GMfree, and
that contamination levels were well below the minimum values allowed
by the EU Scientific Committee on Plants (up to 0.5% for GM corn and
0.3% for GM soybeans).
Before the election, Pecoraro Scanio still had time to sabotage the
EU?s efforts to set up a free market for GM seeds. EU directives 98/95
and 98/96 update several old directives that cover the marketing of
various agricultural seeds, taking into account technical advances
such as genetic modification. GM seeds to be marketed have already
been approved under directive 90/220 (which assesses safety and risks
to the consumer and the environment), and the aim of 98/95 and 98/96
is to ?remove any actual or potential barriers to trade which may
hinder the free movement of seeds within the Community? and that ?to
this end any possibilities for member states to derogate unilaterally
from the provisions of the said directives should be removed?.
All EU members are required to implement the two directives into
national law. However, in setting up Italy?s decree, Pecoraro Scanio
added so many restrictions that the resulting law actually opposes the
goals of the directive: He set up a new commission with the authority
to refuse to register seed varieties already approved under 90/220 if
the commission thinks they pose ?risks? for consumers, the
environment, or Italian agriculture ?considering Italy?s agrarian,
agrarian ecological, and climatic peculiarities?? nonsensical criteria
that could easily close the Italian market to GM seeds. Although there
was some opposition to the decree within the cabinet (for instance
from the health minister), the government, not wishing to be split
over GMO issues again just three weeks before the election, approved
the law on April 24. However, Leonardo Vingiani, director of
Assobiotec, Italy?s association of biotech industries, is optimistic
the European Commission will ammend the law in keeping with the aims
of the directives.
Ironically, on May 7, the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine
published a long piece about mutations randomly induced in crop
varieties. According to the article, hard wheat used to make Italian
pasta is among the 2252 varieties grown worldwide that are listed by
the International Atomic Energy Agency as resulting from radiation or
chemical mutagenesys treatments. ?This is absolutely true?at least a
quarter of Italian hard wheat descends from parents mutated with X or
gamma rays by the former Italian agency for atomic energy and these
varieties enjoyed a striking commercial success,? says Norberto Pogna
director of Istituto sperimentale per la cerealicoltura (Experimental
Institute for Cereals) in Rome. ?As Italian pasta is made from a mix
of different wheat types, we can say that every spaghetti package
holds some genetically modified grain.?
After spending the past year condemning products containing GMOs in
favor of Italy?s traditional products, Pecoraro Scanio rushed to
defend Italy?s pasta, pronouncing it absolutely GMfree and accusing
Germany of weaving plots against Italy. Pecoraro Scanio became a
The result of the election on May 14 showed the popularity of the
Green Party to be at an alltime low?less than 1%. Manconi says
Pecoraro Scanio caused so much trouble that the public came to
associate the Greens with disaster. He says the problem was that the
Greens always stressed the dangers of GMOs, but never offered any real
solutions to potential problems.
With the Greens gone, Assobiotec president Sergio Dompé is optimistic
the environment for agbiotech in Italy will calm down. ?It is too
early to express an opinion on the future of biotechnology in Italy,
but this voting could mark the end of the Italian anomaly [green
extremism] in Europe and could start a reorientation of the country
nearer to the positions prevalent in the continent.? Anna Meldolesi, Rome
The extreme anti-GMO actions of the former agriculture minister
Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio are widely blamed for the demise of the Green
party in Italy.
Biotech Grains Make Gains
- Willie Vogt, Farm Progress 7/2/2001,
Apparently farmers are finding they get good returns from biotech
crops -- at least soybeans. Release last Friday of planted acreage
numbers shows that soybean producers nationwide increased their
percentage of biotech acres from 54% to 68% for this year.
In Kansas and South Dakota as much as 80% of the soybean crop is
biotech. No state showed a drop is biotech soybean use and some saw a
greater than 100% gain in acres. For example, North Dakota reported
about 22% of its soybean acres were biotech last season. This year the
percentage of acres planted to the crop hit 49%. In part, this is due
to a rising number of Group 0 and Group I choices available for those
northern growers. Meanwhile, in biotech corn, the numbers were more
steady. Overall, biotech corn plantings (all biotech types) rose from
25% to 26% of acres. There were incremental increases among acres
planted for herbicide resistance and for insect resistance.
In biotech cotton, for all biotech varieties acreage rose from 61% to
69% as those growers boosted their use of herbicide and insect
resistant lines. Stacked-gene varieties and herbicide resistant lines
saw the biggest gains. Insect resistant-only lines actually dropped in
Real and Metaphorical Moral Limits in the Biotech Debate
- Marc A. Sane, Nature Biotechnology July 2001
From the beginning, the regulatory and public debate over
biotechnology has been closely tied to the question of whether it
matters what process is used to develop a product. Generally speaking,
critics of genetic engineering argue that, yes, it does matter, while
proponents argue that, no, only the features of the product matter.
I argue here that this question is at the root of the ethical debate
over modern biotechnology. I argue further that fully understanding
this question is of critical importance in moving the ethical debate
surrounding modern biotechnology ahead.
The process-versus-product view is important to the ethical analysis
because the two views neatly map onto the distinction between
nonconsequentialist and consequentialist ethics. Simply put,
nonconsequentialists formulate ethical prescriptions that stand
regardless of the consequences, whereas consequentialists consider
consequences in ethical decision making. For example, a
nonconsequentialist may hold that killing an innocent human being is
wrong under all circumstances. In contrast, a consequentialist would
not prohibit such killing absolutely, but would attempt to judge it in
the context of predicted consequences (e.g., one can imagine a
lifeboat situation in which the choice is between a single act of
murder and the probable death of all passengers). The critical point
is that nonconsequentialists may formulate absolute moral limits,
whereas consequentialists will prefer to formulate ethical
prescriptions contingent on the forecasting of consequences.
Within this classification, the process view is nonconsequentialist
and the product view is consequentialist. Nonconsequentialists may
argue that some or all types of genetic engineering are wrong, because
these methods lie beyond a moral limit. An expression of this view
would be, for example, "the genetic engineering of humans violates the
basic dignity that all humans possess." In support of this line of
argument, one can point out that metaphysical concepts, such as
"dignity" and the prescription of moral limits, are common ingredients
of existing and widely accepted legal and moral frameworks; for
example, in human rights declarations. The categorical refusal to
consider the use of human embryos as a source of stem cells is based
on such an approach. Arguing that some nonhuman animals also have
"dignity" that could be violated can extend this line of argument.
Finally, one may single out genetic engineering as the worst offender
within biological technologies, all of which may be considered a
threat to the "intrinsic value" of nature (the existence of such value
is implied in the United Nations World Charter for Nature of 1982) or
to the "integrity of ecological systems" (the existence of such
integrity is explicit in the new Earth Charter Initiative, see
http://www.earthcharter.org/draft/charter.htm). I would call such
moral arguments "the prescription of a 'real' moral limit."
In contrast, consequentialists would argue that no method is
intrinsically wrong, morally speaking. What really matters is the harm
that may result, and such harm should be forecasted with risk
assessment methodology. Very broad categories of goods may be
considered within this approach. As a result, risk assessment may have
to be conducted not just with human health and the economy in mind,
but also to assess environmental, aesthetic, social, and political
change. Still, what matters is the risk of harm; all decisions are
contingent on the prediction and consideration of risks and benefits.
This line of argument does not support the view that a type of
research is intrinsically immoral.
The differentiation between nonconsequentialists and consequentialists
suitably characterizes two extreme approaches to the evaluation of a
new technology. In practice, however, advocates and opponents of
modern biotechnology often combine consequentialist and
For example, Greenpeace's slogan "no genetic manipulation of nature"
(http://www.greenpeace.org/~geneng/) appears to describe a moral
limit. In reality, however, Greenpeace debates the issue using science
and (consequentialist) risk language. Greenpeace is not alone. In the
public debate, all opponents are pressed to provide a whole list of
arguments that often have the structure: first, genetic engineering is
absolutely wrong; and second, the projected risks are too high
considering the projected benefits. This prompts the question: Why do
we need to add a risk argument after stating the moral argument?
The absolutist, nonconsequentialist moral prescription would trump the
contingent risk argument in any case?even if the balance of benefits
and risk would call for the use of biotechnology on consequentialist
moral grounds, as the industry keeps arguing. Perhaps the moral
language is just a metaphor to strongly suggest a conclusion reached
on the basis of (consequentialist) risk. I would call this position
"the prescription of a metaphorical moral limit."
The problem with this approach is that it lacks clarity. Is a
metaphorical moral limit specified to illustrate that the consequences
are thought to be so severe that only an absolute prohibition will do?
Or, is risk language used to convince science-minded individuals who
may not be inclined to accept the true reason, the real moral limit
specified first? Lack of clarity on this point fuels the rhetoric in
It is perhaps helpful here to consider an ethical prescription of the
second order?a prescription for the way ethical prescriptions should
be used in this debate. I believe it is, in principle, defensible to
argue for the prohibition of a technological method on moral grounds,
even when the argument is based on an extension of traditional moral
limits (e.g., an extension from a human-centered approach to one not
centered on humans). I note in this context that religious freedom is
a human right. I further believe it is defensible to scrutinize
closely the control structure over vital resources, such as food and
health care, or to scrutinize closely the conditions for release of
persistent technologies that may be hard to trace or manage, and in
cases in which it is difficult to assign liabilities. However, I do
not believe it defensible to call for prohibition when tight
regulation is in order, or to argue for tight regulation as a tactic
toward achieving the real goal of prohibition.
Similarly, if the primary goal is profit, then one should avoid the
argument that "we have to feed the world." The use of imprecise
language or rhetoric entails a very real cost: when it becomes
necessary to alter one's stance over time, then credibility and trust
are at risk. A loss of credibility and trust hurts advocates in both
camps?and most of all, the public.
In a nutshell, a second-order viewpoint of the ethical debate leads to
a straightforward prescription. If we want fairness, respect, and
progress in this debate, then we all have to say what we really mean.
Marc A. Saner is managing director at the Ethics & Policy Issues
Centre (http://www.carleton.ca/epic/), Department of Philosophy,
Carleton University 1125 Colonel By Drive, Ottawa ON K1S 5B6, Canada
GMO Contamination of Seeds
Nature Biotechnology, July 2001 Vol 19 N0. 7 p 613
Institute of Microbiology and Genetics University of Vienna, Dr.
Bohr-Gasse 9, A-1030 Vienna, Austria (e-mail: email@example.com)
To the editor: Since November, the transgenic maize variety Starlink
has turned up in nearly one-tenth of 110,000 grain tests performed by
US federal inspectors, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that the prevalence of Aventis's
StarLink, which has yet to be approved for human consumption, is far
greater than the small area of crop land on which it originally was grown.
In the past few months, the problem of GMO contamination of
conventional seeds and European traceability and labeling
requirements, as foreseen in amended regulations for GMOs (ref. 1),
have again caused serious trade concerns in the United States. Shocked
by the need for a buy-back program for seed corn containing
potentially allergenic Cry9C protein, the American Seed Trade
Association has called for global adoption of practical seed GMO
Currently, the European Commission discusses tolerance levels for
contaminations and proposed temporal and spatial limitations for the
use of GMOs in areas of seed production specific for different plant
species according to pollination characteristics and seed longevity.
But there is also a continuing discussion about the extent and
consequences of contamination and whether thresholds for contamination
and measures for seed production can really solve the problems.
Complex mechanisms of pollen dispersal over long distances may
practically preclude the attainment of uncontaminated seeds using
conventional strategies for seed production.
Pollen dispersal of up to 0.75% at 500 m and the need for
acknowledgment of a potential movement of maize pollen by bees and
long-range transport under certain weather conditions have recently
been summarized in a report of the UK National Pollen Research Unit3.
Ecological consequences of seed contamination with GMOs are unclear,
as outcrossing, selective advantages, and introgression into natural
or agricultural ecosystems are not well understood, and the
probability of gene flow is a function of the spatial scale of the
presence of gene donors4. Consequently, the EU Scientific Committee on
Plants states that contaminations are inevitable. In particular, a
zero level of unauthorized GM seeds from third countries is
unobtainable in practice and would have severe consequences for GM
field trials, and for evaluation of new GM plant varieties5. Also, an
enforcement of such measures would be problematic as, because of a
lack of international databases of DNA sequences and robust analytical
procedures, unauthorized GM material from third countries may not be
detected at all.
The real risks arising from the contamination of seeds with GMOs
remain poorly understood. Clearly, risks and benefits of GMOs may vary
on a case-by-case basis. However, there are as yet no data to suggest
that contamination of seeds with GMOs in most cases will result in
environmental risks, because at least for GMOs with recent types of
modification, no invasiveness or better persistence than their
conventional counterparts has been shown6. Ecological research even
points to the fact that the use of specific GM plants in adequate
agricultural environments may have ecological benefits7.
Also, for the production of food or feedstuff, contamination of seeds
with approved GMOs does not pose a risk. Approval of GMOs under almost
all international regulations comprises an intensive analysis of toxic
or allergenic components according to the principle of the substantial
equivalence with the comparable conventional organisms8. Moreover, the
implementation of tolerance levels for seed contamination would not
deal with the problem of allergenicity of seed contamination with
nonauthorized GMOs from field trials, as already nanogram amounts of
protein?amounts below any tolerance levels for
contamination?theoretically could elicit allergic responses in some
cases. In addition, labeling regulations for foods containing
GMO-derived constituents would not really profit from the attempt to
keep tolerance levels for seed contamination as small as possible: In
fact, there is very little correlation between maximal tolerance
levels for labeling foods as genetically modified (e.g., according to
the European Novel Food regulation) and the degree of contamination of
seeds because of seed crop management and practices of food processing.
What in fact may be the problem is that around the world, many
citizens and consumers explicitly demand GM-free production of food
and feed, such as is the case in organic farming, where GM crops are
not permitted9, or in particularly valuable natural ecosystems, where
introduction of GM varieties could have harmful effects.
Establishing tolerance levels in combination with temporal and spatial
limitations for seed production may not be sufficent to enable this.
In fact, the flow of recombinant genes resulting from natural gene
dispersal, further breeding practices using GMOs, and the demise of
terminator strategies and continued propagation of seeds by farmers
are all likely to result in significant contamination of ecological
systems and food production chains.
Taking all these factors into account, I believe a potential solution
could be to produce seeds in areas where it has been ensured that no
GMOs, or at least no GM varieties of the same or closely related
species, have been grown. Therefore, the idea of GMO-free areas for
nature protection and seed production, such as recently discussed in
Europe, merits special attention.
1. Haslberger, A.G. Science 287, 431-432 (2000).
3. A report from the National Pollen Research Unit (2000).
4. Wolfenbarger, L.L. & Phifer, P.R. Science 290, 2088-2093 (2000).
6. Crawley, M.J., Brown, S.L., Hails, R.S., Kohn D.D. & Rees M. Nature
409, 682-683 (2001).
7. Johnson, B. & Hope, A. Nat. Biotechnol. 18, 242 (2000).
8. Nowak W.K. & Haslberger, A.G. Food Chem. Toxicol. 38, 473-483 (2000).
From: "Steven V. Beer"
Subject: Messenger (harpin)
Perhaps readers of AgBioView would appreciate becoming aware of
Messenger, a product containing harpin, a protein produced by the
plant pathogenic bacterium, Erwinia amylovora, which causes fire
blight of pear, apple and related plants. Harpin was isolated,
characterized and its encoding gene cloned in my program at Cornell.
We also found harpin elicits resistance to pathogens and insects and
enhances growth of a wide range of plants that are treated with the
protein by conventional means. The harpin-based technology was
licensed in 1995, to a start-up company, EDEN Bioscience of Bothell,
Washington. EDEN developed harpin as a commercial product, obtained
EPA registration and is producing and selling harpin as Messenger(R).
Last week the EPA awarded EDEN its Green Chemistry Award. The
Messenger will be made available to third world farmers.
Harpin was discovered through biotechnological research, and it is
produced through fermentation of Escherichia coli containing an
engineered construct that results in enhanced production of the
protein. Although transgenic plants expressing harpin are not yet
available commercially, we have had very encouraging experimental
results at Cornell with several plants. Thus, I feel that transgenic
plants expressing harpin that confer the several beneficial effects of
the protein, are likely to be available in the future.
More details at http://www.edenbio.com/
Global Governance of Technology: Synthesis Report
The synthesis report from the Workshop on Global Governance of
Technology, held at Harvard University on 20-21 April, 2001, is now
available at http://www.cid.harvard.edu/cidbiotech/globalgovconf/index.htm
The Science, Technology and Innovation Program at Harvard University
http://www.cid.harvard.edu/cidtech/ distributes information on
research and training opportunities on issues related to science,
technology and sustainable development. If you would like to be added
to our mailing list, please subscribe by sending a message to
The program is a joint activity of the Center for International
Development at Harvard University http://www.cid.harvard.edu/ and the
Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard
University http://ksgnotes1.harvard.edu/BCSIA/BCSIA.nsf/www/Home. It
is implemented in conjuction with the Program in Science, Technology
and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Biotechnology could help alleviate food allergies that afflict
millions of people.
Peanuts and peanut butter are among America's most popular foods.
Americans consume more than six pounds of peanuts and peanut products
per person each year. However, if you are allergic to peanuts, a
peanut butter sandwich may endanger your life. Researchers are working
on ways to remove common allergens from the foods we eat. This could
be good news for the approximately 6 million to 7 million people
suffering from food allergies in the United States today. Through
advances in biotechnology, scientists have found they can isolate and
potentially remove the allergy-causing proteins in some common foods.
For example, researchers may be able to reduce or possibly even
eliminate the potentially fatal allergen in peanuts. This could be
great news for moms. Instead of avoiding peanut butter sandwiches,
some children could be able to benefit from this great source of
protein, fiber and vitamin E.
"Approximately 6 million to 7 million people suffer from food
allergies in the United States today." Researchers in Japan are also
using biotechnology to develop a variety of rice that is
allergen-free. This new rice would bring considerable relief to people
in Southeast Asia who suffer from an allergy to this dietary staple.
Similar research is being conducted on other allergenic foods. In the
United States, researchers are looking at ways to use biotechnology to
develop varieties of soybeans with reduced allergenicity, as well as a
vaccine for people with food allergies. This could be a major benefit
for children and adults who are predisposed to food allergies.
"Researchers are looking at ways to use biotechnology to develop a
vaccine for people with food allergies." Currently, the only method of
preventing an allergic reaction is by not eating problem foods. With
continued advances in food research, biotechnology may allow allergy
sufferers to enjoy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and other
nutritious foods, too.
The View from Ghana
- Dr. George Acquaah, a native of Ghana, Africa, discusses how
biotechnology could benefit the people of Africa.
As a native of Ghana, and a professor at Langston University in
Oklahoma, I see both the enormous challenges facing the people of
Africa and the potential solutions. Growing up in Africa, I saw first
hand so many of the problems that people in the United States only
read about: chronic hunger, children going blind from malnutrition and
people dying from treatable diseases. As a scientist, I find
biotechnology a challenging field, but as an African, I am genuinely
encouraged by its potential to help alleviate these problems that
plague Africa and developing countries around the world.
"Vitamin A deficiency leads to approximately half a million cases of
permanent childhood blindness and 1 million to 2 million deaths."
© CGIAROne of the gravest health issues facing Africa is malnutrition
and the diseases it spawns. For example, vitamin A deficiency leads to
approximately half a million cases of permanent childhood blindness
and 1 million to 2 million deaths each year. Part of the reason is
that the staple foods of many Africans are starchy crops like rice and
cassava that do not provide enough nutrients. Now there is real hope
in a new type of rice called "golden rice" that is fortified through
biotechnology with beta-carotene, the nutrient the body uses to make
vitamin A. This technology could soon be used to increase the levels
of vital nutrients in other crops as well. Food storage is another
significant problem in Africa because of the lack of refrigeration.
Tons of food rots before it gets to the market. Biotechnology could
help to prevent these losses by producing crops that ripen more
slowly. If crops ripened more gradually, there would be more time to
get them to market before they spoil, and far less food would go to
"Vaccines to prevent diseases like cholera and hepatitis B may someday
be grown in fruits and vegetables." Biotechnology could also help
reduce hunger by decreasing the amount of food lost to pests and
disease before it is harvested. In East Africa, a virus can destroy an
entire maize crop, and between 20 percent and 80 percent of the sweet
potato crop is lost to pests and disease every year. Scientists have
already developed some types of crops that resist insects and disease,
and more are on the way. Less food lost means less hunger. Helping
farmers in developing countries grow more food will go a long way
toward reducing hunger and, by developing crops that can grow in
difficult conditions like poor soil, extreme heat and drought that are
common in much of Africa, biotechnology could help local farmers grow
"In East Africa, a virus can destroy an entire maize crop..."
Biotechnology has benefits for Africans that go beyond food, too.
Vaccines to prevent diseases like cholera and hepatitis B may someday
be grown in fruits and vegetables. Currently, too many Africans die of
preventable diseases because vaccines are too expensive or
inaccessible. Often the refrigeration needed to preserve them is not
available. The edible vaccines that biotechnology researchers are
developing could be produced for pennies, and would not need the
extensive purification and refrigeration that injectable vaccines
require. For Americans, biotechnology offers great benefits - from
more flavorful and healthful foods for consumers to insect-resistant
crops for farmers. But for Africans, biotechnology could be the
difference between health and illness, or life and death.
Dr. George Acquaah is the chair of the Department of Agriculture and
Natural Resources at Langston University in Langston, Ok.
A River Runs Clean
- Farmers now have new tools to help prevent soil erosion and help
keep our rivers clean.
A tractor pulling a plow across a field is an enduring image of
American agriculture. For generations, farmers have plowed their
fields to prepare the soil for planting, and to fight harmful weeds
and insects. But plowing can also expose topsoil to erosion. And, as
topsoil is blown off by wind or washed away by rain, crops are robbed
of nutrients they need.
"As topsoil is blown off by the wind or washed away by the rain, crops
are robbed of nutrients they need." What is more, eroded topsoil can
end up in local rivers and streams where it settles to the bottom and
clouds the water. Fish, mussels, and other aquatic wildlife and
vegetation suffer when water is filled with sediment. Some species of
fish have even become endangered due to soil runoff because, when
sediment is thick, they are unable to lay their eggs. While some river
species suffer from the soil runoff, other plants like algae benefit
from the fertilizer in the soil so much that they can overwhelm the
natural ecosystem. Over the years, farmers have made great strides in
reducing topsoil erosion through the use of windbreaks and waterways,
as well as by plowing less frequently. Today, farmers have a new tool
to help save topsoil. It is called biotechnology. Some biotech crops
are now making it easier and more cost-effective for farmers to adopt
one of the best methods for conserving the soil - reduced plowing. In
fact, farmers have planted biotech crops that fight weeds and insects
on millions of acres. These crops have built-in defenses against weeds
and insects, so in some cases - like biotech cotton and soybeans -
less plowing is required. In fact, some farmers have reduced plowing
from as much as eight times a year to one or two times a year,
dramatically decreasing soil erosion.
"Some species of fish have even become endangered due to soil runoff."
Some farmers can even stop plowing altogether or can plow their fields
gradually over the course of several years. When farmers can avoid
plowing, the quality of the topsoil gets much better and the sediment
run-off is reduced by as much as 98 percent. The improvement is so
dramatic that farmers can see the difference after a heavy rain - the
water in their streams runs clear. And that is good news for farmers
and fish alike.