AgBioView - http://www.agbioworld.org
* Genetically Modified Crops: What do the Scientists Say?
* Let Them Eat Scrambled DNA: GM Crops Included In Bolivian Food Relief!
* Food Fight: Too Much Emotion And Too Little Science
* Biotechnology In Africa Conference
* Impact of GM Food on the Health and Economy of Rural Populations
* Knowing Where it's Going: Bringing Food to Market in the Age of GM
* Regulation: A Bump In India's Biotech Lane
* GM Foods, Compelling Concerns and the Dilemma of the Farmers
* Biotech Bonanza
* Food Scares Agency
* The Biotech Protest That Wasn't
* Science and the Public: who needs to understand whom?
Book: ?Genetically Modified Crops: What do the Scientists Say??: A
Collection of Editorials Published in Plant Physiology
Preface: During 2000 and 2001, Plant Physiology published a series of
Editor's Choice articles devoted to biotechnology and genetically
modified (GM) crops. Why did the Editors of the journal take this
initiative? In recent years, the media have increased the public's
awareness of the environmental and health dimensions of cultivating
and consuming GM crops, often uncritically reporting results of
controversial studies. Emotionally charged terms such as
?frankenfoods?, "superweeds", and "genetic pollution" have entered the
discussion and the popular vocabulary.
We believe that it is critically important for plant scientists to be
actively involved in educating the public, including legislators,
about the scientific issues that involve GM technology. We have an
obligation to help people understand the reasoning behind scientific
research and genetic technology. As scientists, we need to consider
the complexity of issues involved from the points of view of history,
politics, culture, ecology, safety, environment, and business. Some of
our colleagues are actively involved in these educational processes,
and we have invited twelve of them to write essays expressing their
views on the many issues surrounding this debate. We wanted to put
into a broader framework our daily work in the laboratory and our
discussions with opponents of genetic modification of crop plants. In
some cases opponents of the technology have resorted to criminal
activities, resulting not only in destruction of field trials- often
of non-GM plants - but also in incidents of arson of research
facilities. Graduate students have had their materials destroyed as a
result of such activities. Many of our readers are in the "trenches"
of these confrontations, and we believe it is extremely important that
the voices of prominent scientists be heard, not only by the general
public and politicians, but also by plant biologists.
These articles are written mainly for scientists, and particularly for
our fellow plant biologists. We believe it is absolutely essential
that every plant biologist become educated about the broader issues of
food security, especially with respect to biotechnology, and that they
become proactive in educational activities at every level. There are
many widely held public misconceptions and much unfounded fear about
the safety of transgenic crops. Educating the public about the success
of biotechnology to date and its future promise will require a
commitment on the part of the entire community of plant biologists.
- Natasha Raikhel, Editor-in-Chief of Plant Physiology
Ordering: You can purchase this book by forwarding this form to Ms.
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Let Them Eat Scrambled DNA: Genetically Altered Crops Included In
Bolivian Food Relief
22 Sept 2001 Earth Island Journal
BOLIVIA -- Farmers and environmentalists were livid when the Bolivian
Environment and Development Forum revealed that shipments of US food
aid contained significant amounts of genetically engineered soy, wheat
and cornmeal. The import of genetically altered food is banned under
Bolivian law. According to La Prensa, US embassy officials replied
that they were "not aware of the regulation." US Ambassador Manuel
Rocha's response was even less diplomatic.
Rocha informed critics that, if they didn't like genetically
engineered food, they should think twice about ever visiting the US
because "that is what we offer to visitors." The contaminated food was
shipped in April and distributed by Project Concern, CARE, Food for
the Hungry and ADRA.
Food Fight: Too Much Emotion And Too Little Science Dominates Reaction
To Genetically Modified Crops
By James Quick Rocky Mountain News, July 21, 2001
In a perfect world, food would be plentiful for all. Weather
conditions would ensure lush crops, lack of insects, diseases or weeds
to compete with them, enough rain for moisture and enough sun for
growing tall. In a perfect world, no one would go hungry. But as we
know, it is not a perfect world. Famine, overpopulation, weather
disasters and hordes of insects exist to challenge farmers who grow
the food we all depend on to live.
For centuries, man has been tinkering with nature to enhance, change,
mutate or genetically alter its characteristics to bring better
quality and higher yields to crops for food. Called traditional
breeding, including hybridization, backcrossing and selection, this
process, while effective, takes sometimes a decade to perfect a crop
ready for commercial growing.
Nature itself, meanwhile, has been tinkering with genes, producing not
one but two widely different varieties of wheat from wild grasses with
different chromosomes: one for pastas and one for breads, both of
which are still grown today.
A natural outgrowth of breeding is the science of genetic engineering
(or transgenic breeding), a type of biotechnology, and a much more
precise method of inserting genes into crop plants, which are then
grown and backcrossed into adapted varieties for public and private
use. After nearly 20 years of testing in labs and greenhouses, more
than 35,000 field trials over 14 years, seven years of
commercialization and after hundreds of millions of people have used
or consumed the products of biotechnology, there has not been one
allergic reaction or illness tied to them.
So why is biotechnology -- or one of its processes, genetic
engineering -- so controversial?
As a scientist and wheat breeder at Colorado State University, I
believe fear of genetic engineering exists simply because there is too
much emotion and too little science in the reaction to crops that are
genetically modified in laboratories.
Man has tried to mimic nature's processes for years. Genetic
engineering is simply another tool in the breeder's tool chest for
diversifying or enhancing seed quality to produce plentiful,
high-quality foods. Because we live in a not-so-perfect world, farmers
are constantly looking for new ways to grow crops to harvest.
Biotechnology, through precise genetic modification, has already
benefited farmers by allowing them the choice of growing seeds that
require either much less pesticide or that help conserve water and
soil. And that is just the infancy, really, of biotechnology.
Scientists and breeders are testing crop plants that require much less
water to grow, or that have certain traits, such as golden rice, which
has increased Vitamin A that can address serious diet deficiencies in
the Third World that result in 500,000 children annually going blind.
And scientists are now working on genetic improvements that would
allow farmers to grow crops for their pharmaceutical, nutriceutical or
energy use, allowing farmers new markets and perhaps premiums on what
traditionally have been commodity crops.
But biotechnology, as with any tool introduced in a not-so-perfect
world, must be carefully monitored or regulated. That is why a
thoughtful and rigorous regulatory process has been in place for more
than 15 years. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) already requires
years of field trials under strict conditions for crops into which
genes from foreign organisms have been spliced. And the job of the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is to study any potential
deleterious effects on the environment.
The Food and Drug Administration requires that companies ensure,
through many nutrition and allergen tests, that the products they
introduce are safe to be consumed by animals and humans. Activists who
raise alarms about genetic engineering (despite current questionable
tactics and words), do indeed have a continued role to play,
challenging the establishment and asking thoughtful questions, while
engaging in dialogue. And companies seeking to commercialize these
improved crops must continue to listen.
A perfect world? Hardly. But having the knowledge and the ability to
better produce the most basic need -- safe food -- is a goal worth
James Quick is head of the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at
Colorado State University.
Biotechnology In Africa Conference; September 26-27, 2001, South Africa
Are you ready for this exciting conference which includes key local
and imminent international speakers representing government, industry
International speakers include:
-The Honorable T. T. Isoun; Minister of Federal Ministry of Science
and Technology, Nigeria
-Professor Marc Van Montagu; World recognised Belgian scientist, who
discovered the gene transfer mechanism for plants, which is now widely
used to produce transgenic crops
-Andrew Benson; The Director of International Outreach for the
International Food Information Council (IFIC), which is responsible
for food safety and nutrition issues for the consuming public
-aril L. Kochenderefer; The Director for Environment and New
Technologies for the Grocery Manufacturers Association of America,
which represents the world?s largest association of food, beverage and
consumer products companies
-Mark Mansour; Specialist in the legal regulation of and trade in
packaged foods and pharmaceuticals produced through Biotechnology
-Dr Robert Frederick; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), USA
Date: 26 and 27 September 2001; Venue: Indaba Hotel and Conference
Centre, Witkoppen, Johannesburg; Contact: Wadzi/Remi at AfricaBio 27
12 667 2689 or fax +27 12 667 1920 or email: email@example.com
Knowing Where it's Going: Bringing Food to Market in the Age of
Genetically Modified Crops
Pew Initiative & ERS/USDA Workshop (Forwarded by Kimberly Brooks
On Sept. 11, 2001, The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology and
The Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture
will sponsor: "Knowing Where It's Going: Bringing Food to Market in
the Age of Genetically Modified Crops" A full day conference at The
Hyatt Regency in Minneapolis, MN uniting leading agricultural
economists, consumer advocates, technology providers, grain handlers,
food manufacturers and others to share their perspectives on the
challenges and opportunities of preserving the identity of crops and
food products in the food supply chain.
Keynote:'From Seed to Sandwich: Tracing the complex path that our food
* The many steps grain takes before it reaches your dinner plate
Separation Anxiety What we know about keeping food products separate
in the marketing chain Tradeoffs: Costs and Benefits The obvious, and
not-so-obvious, costs and benefits of preserving the identity of bulk
commodities through marketing channels
How Can We Be Sure? How public and private systems could operate to
certify and verify that product identity has been preserved
Choices and Challenges of Product Segregation: Upstream and Downstream
Ramifications for producers and consumers
Full-day program, including lunch. Space is limited! Registration:
$50; government and non-profit : $25 To register:
sgoodloe@BurnessCommunications.com; For more information visit
Evaluating the Impact of Genetically Engineered Food on the Health
and Economy of Rural Populations
November 12, 2001 (1 to 4 PM); University of Michigan's International
Institute, Ann Arbor, MI
The intent of this seminar is to deepen the general questions about
the safe and ethical use of genetically engineered food (GEF) and its
impact on trade, health, and the economic status of rural populations
in developing countries. Participants will focus on the case of the
rice genetically engineered to be higher in iron and beta carotene,
known as 'golden rice'. Issues to be addressed include how free the
technology will be to the subsistence farmer, the need for developing
countries to assess and develop regulations for the use of golden
rice, how well it combats vitamin-A deficiency (VAD), and how the
integration of golden rice into agricultural systems will pave the way
for other GEF.
C.S. Prakash, Professor, Center for Plant Biotechnology Research,
Anuradha Mittal, Co-Director, Food First, The Institute for Food and
Fred Buttell, Chairman, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences,
University of Wisconsin-Madison
* Sponsors: School of Public Health; International Institute; Advanced
Study Center; Science, Technology, and Society; and Life Sciences
Regulation: A Bump In India's Biotech Lane
Parul Malhotra, The Financial Express, New Delhi. Thursday, July 26, 2001
"We have three levels of approval committees with increasing order of
incompetence", confided a renowned agricultural scientist, on the
sidelines of a recently held Confederation of Indian Industry
conference on Regulatory reform in the biotechnology sector?.
If the proof of the pudding lies in its eating, this is one pudding
that has gone sour, in spite of top-of-the-line ingredients used to
prepare it. India began its journey on the agricultural biotechnology
lane way back in the 80s. Keen on harnessing its comparative
advantages "a strong research and development (R&D) base, rich
biodiversity and a massive agricultural sector" the government started
promoting agbiotech education and research. By 1990, India was among a
select few to have in place safety guidelines for research in
transgenic crops. Within a decade, government investment had promoted
impressive work in gene transformation (see box) and biotechnology got
a mention in the National Agricultural Policy.
But in spite of its head-start, the progress appears slow. Six years
after the first genetically modified crop entered the regulatory
stream, no crop has been approved for commercial release.
Meanwhile, global area under transgenic crops has gone up from 2
million to 44 million hectares in the past four years, a quarter of it
in developing countries. China?s progress is especially
impressive.Detailed regulation was formulated only in 1996, but today,
at least five crops have been approved
Interestingly, P K Ghosh, adviser in the Department of Biotechnology
(DBT), believes India is doing well. "We're only a step away from
commercialisation. Pakistan, Bangladesh etc are not even close. Even
the US, the country with the largest area under transgenics, took 13
years to approve their first transgenic crop. We'll take six ". He
adds: "Eventually we'll also give faster approvals. But right now, in
following our well-accepted guidelines, we're being reasonably cautious".
Dr Ghosh is right on at least two counts. One, that the basic
framework is well regarded. Three ministries?science and technology
(DBT), environment and agriculture "have crucial roles and the roles
of six agencies (see box) are well-defined. To the government?s
credit, it has tapped not only India?s pool of experts but also
incorporated guidelines of other countries and consulted international
experts. The result, according to Shanthu Shantharam, a former
regulator with the US Food and Drug Administration, is "fairly robust
regulation, one which has incorporated safety aspects well." Two,
that there is need for caution. Again, there is near universal
agreement that India's framework judiciously balances a cautionary and
a permissive approach.
But, unnecessary delays have shown up the system in poor light. Last
month, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) deferred its
judgement on Mahyco's Bt cotton field trials which took place in 2000.
Instead, the company was asked to repeat trials under the direct
supervision of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).
Experts such as Gurdev Khush, a plant breeder associated with the
Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research, are aghast.
"In 1999 the Monitoring and Evaluation Committee, which comprises of
ICAR scientists, had cleared trials. In 1999, ICAR itself conducted
and approved six independent field trials. Where was the need for
Privately, government officials agree that scientific principles took
a back-seat. "There were problems within the agriculture ministry
itself as well as a clash of egos between the agriculture ministry and
the environment ministry. The agriculture ministry deliberately threw
a spanner in the works", claims one official.
Incompetence, lack of transparency and accountability and lack of
communication are other evils plaguing the system. Says a baffled
official of an agriculture biotech company, "Their toxicity studies
are inappropriate for seeds as they are based on OECD?s pesticide
guidelines, rather than feed guidelines. Why couldn't they consult
industry experts?" Both Dr Khush and Dr Shantharam believe the
secrecy which shrouds the functioning of the GEAC and the Review
Committee on Genetic Manipulation creates distrust. They have a point.
If the regulator does not feel the need to inform the public "about
not just the decisions taken but the rationale behind these decisions"
how can it address public perception? issues, a prominent hurdle
facing biotechnology today?
The absence of a grievance redressal mechanism is undermining the
credibility of the system. Two years after Mahyco got approval for
feed trials carried out on goats and rats, it was arbitrarily
instructed to repeat them with cows, buffaloes and fish. No
explanations were forthcoming from officials. Today the industry is
worried. "Can they not have someone who is competent to carry out
bridging studies. We can't appeal against such ad-hoc decisions as
there's nowhere to go?"
Nor can the process afford to exclude important stake-holders. The US,
European Union, Australian and Canadian systems consulted farmers,
industry and civil society groups before formulating guidelines.
Surprisingly, the rDNA advisory committee did not feel a similar need.
The official response is predictably hackneyed. Dr Ghosh asks: "How
can decisions of the GEAC be made public?" He adds by way of
explanation: "Only the actions based upon these decisions are part of
the public domain, not the decisions themselves. Once a final decision
is made ...(presumably whether a crop is to be accepted or rejected
for commercialisation)...we will make everything public". As for
inadequate stakeholder representation, his response is inconsistent.
While he acknowledges that civil society representation is desirable
and assures that a non-governmental organisation would be henceforth
involved, he can?t see the point of having farmers? on board. "We have
our agronomists, aren't they enough to safeguard farmers? interests?"
A system is, at the end of the day, only as good as the manner of its
implementation. Clearly, a reform is required. What should it entail?
The Australian system provides clues. Only one regulatory body is in
charge and it is directly accountable to Parliament. It's three
committees "the Technical Advisory Committee, the Consultative
Committee and Ethics Committee" follow clear-cut paths. A similarly
independent commission, directly accountable to the Cabinet, could do
the trick. To facilitate testing, evaluation and approval processes,
sub-committees 'such as a food safety committee, an environmental
committee, and a community consultative community'could be opted for
within the commission. Rationalising the number of players involved
would facilitate inter-ministerial as well as external interaction,
essential for avoiding unnecessary delays. Direct accountability would
Clearly specifying the scope and method of review, institutionalising
dispute settlement mechanisms and putting in place qualified and
trained experts with impeccable track records, will help restore
credibility. Will the babus bite the bait?
(Thanks for Barun Mitra of Liberty Institute
for forwarding this)
GM Foods, Compelling Concerns and the Dilemma of the Farmers
: Salus Populi Suprema Lex Esto
- Gurumurti Natarajan (to be published in 'The
Hindu' (India) shortly)
Montreal has come and gone; the WTO agenda is far from being wished
away. Doha is at hand. Agriculture, services and other perplexing
issues such as biotechnology, market access, environment and labour
arising out of the Uruguay round but found to be elusive at Seattle
and Montreal despite prolonged debates and wrangling will surface again.
Developing countries, which are also traditionally agriculture
dependent and therefore dominated by rural concerns, however, have not
paid due attention to critical elements of the policy in the WTO
regime pertaining to agriculture or the multifaceted areas of
agricultural biotechnology, despite the latter forming an integral
part of it. Inadequate understanding of Codex regulations and
negligible participation in its formulation are impinging on export
opportunities of the developing agricultural economies through a rash
of new non-tariff barriers.
Sadly, the ground reality obtaining in the vastly agricultural
economies of the Asian and SE Asian region in so far as awareness to
the genuine concerns relating to genetic engineering, genetically
modified (GM) foods, intellectual property rights, conservation and
protection of the centres of genetic diversity, conclusive recognition
and rewarding of local knowledge systems, at various strata of the
society, is at best resplendent with jingoism. Very few of the
countries in this basket have laws or statutes governing IPRs, plant
variety protection or conservation of biodiversity. The main features
of the WTO regime that could impact the agricultural sector namely (a)
support mechanisms that can be made available to farmers; (b) national
policies to ensure food security and (c) market access, do not appear
to have been understood. Many of these countries have yet to
comprehend the imperatives for the realisation of the primordial
objective of ensuring domestic food security.
Be it the parliamentarians, administrators, farmers, pressure groups
or the lay users of the products of this technology, there is more
verbosity and little action of any utility for the common good. The
worst traitors to the cause are the self-appointed protectionist
groups that have unleashed a trail of gory stories of unfounded merit,
going so far as to label GM foods as Frankenstein Foods! The woods
are missed for the trees from the noxious smoke screen that they so
successfully engender with their unabashed breast beating and the
Yet, Bt-corn, for example, that incorporates a gene found in a common
soil bacterium, Bacillus Thuringiensis, renders the whole plant toxic
to the gregarious corn borer. Bt-cotton, likewise, rids the crop of
the devastating boll worm that otherwise ravages the cotton crop.
Herbicide-resistant soybeans are tailored to be resistant to the spray
of herbicides, thus empowering the farmers rid their fields of weeds
and improve their profits by using herbicides.
Even so, consumers, particularly those outside the US, are not very
impressed by the idea of GM foods despite their various benefits. The
European Union, Japan and Korea have withheld approval of some GM crop
varieties until further tests are carried out. Labelling requirements
of GM foods imposed by these large importers of American grains
hampers free trade flow. Some of the large grocers, processors and
food market chains have refused to sell GM foods. Today, in America
where the largest quantum of GM seeds are sown, the farmer is a
troubled man, having to choose between the demonstrated gains from
plating GM seeds and increasing his profit versus the unknown risk of
having to dump his produce, come next harvest, because commodity
prices for GM foods may have bottomed out.
Citing from India, a country that is largely dependent on agriculture,
besides the fact it is also the second most populous state in the
world with a teeming population of a billion of her own, we have seen
the setting of new milestones and achieving higher peaks in farm
productivity continuously now. The year 1999 witnessed the watershed
mark of 205 million metric tons of food grains, translating into 24.65
% of the GDP. This is no mean achievement given the fragmented land
holdings, vagaries of monsoon, massive illiteracy among the rural
folks, afflicting role of malnutrition among the masses, inadequate
infrastructure in the villages, and the near 30 % wastage of farm produce.
The green revolution that was ushered in the late sixties had
certainly transformed the country from one of want to self-sufficiency
in the arena of food. However, with the population growth galloping
as it is and our notching up the one billion mark, the achievements of
green revolution are proving to be insufficient to feed our teeming
Injurious farm practices commonly in use have damaged the cultivated
land through water and wind erosion, compaction, salinisation, water
logging and so on. Forest reserve is a sad mismatch between desirable
levels and actual ground reality. The excesses of over tilling fast
ravage the prime agricultural lands. Very little quality land is
available to increase the hectarage under farm production today. Yet,
it is estimated that India would need to import 45 million metric tons
of food grains to meet the basic requirements of food by year 2030.
There is little doubt that agricultural research will have to be
rejuvenated to meet the newer demands of increased farm production.
There will have to be a paradigm shift from the methodologies of the
decade of 1970's and of 1980's in order to achieve this. Radical
changes will have to be adopted in the very thought processes that go
into planning for the needs of the new century. Conservative and
obsolete policies drawn for an older era will have to give way to
realistic measures that reflect the urgency of the demand and to also
avail technological breakthroughs that are available today.
The very architecture of the crop plant is being redesigned to take
advantages of the current knowledge of how the plant cell works with a
view to maximize energy conversions and to increase farm productivity
with less of inputs. In addition to increasing the total useful
biomass in plants, improving or creating resistance to herbicides,
insects and microbes, value addition to crops through suitable
alteration of the carbohydrate profile, addition of specific amino
acids and vitamins, modification of fatty acid profile to meet the
dietary requirements of man and animals, elimination of certain
identified biosynthates that are harmful to animals, enhancing shelf
life of fruits and vegetables and enhanced production of certain
metabolites are some of the options that have been worked out
successfully employing biotechnology tools.
Likewise, the elimination of hazardous substances found in various
products as aflatoxin in groundnut, neurotoxins in Kesar dhal and
cyanide in tapioca can effectively be silenced by deploying
biotechnology tools. Vaccines can also now be efficiently
administered to the entire population through incorporation in a banana!
Bioremediation of degraded soils, waste dumps and polluted water
bodies are a veritable reality, thanks to genetically modified
microorganisms, which are also capable of harnessing elemental forms
of various macro- and micro-nutrients needed by the plants from the
The successes of Green Revolution of the earlier decades will now have
to be repeated through a Gene Revolution!
Let us remember that amidst all the din of protests and denunciation
of the perceived risks in undertaking genetic modifications and
consuming foods from such modified organisms, every human activity has
inherent risks. Be it the use of electricity, nuclear power or even
the use of new drugs and vaccines, there are both perceived risks and
Public acceptance of these risks is driven by the perception of the
risk rather than the physical reality. Deadly chemicals continue to
be manufactured even after the Bhopal leakage, nuclear power plants
churn out megawatts of power despite the Chernobyl debacle. The take
home lesson from these instances is that risks abound all human
activities. But as an intelligent society, we ought to be able to
rationalize the risks based on scientific data and make sensible
In the case of biotechnology, the risks have been far too exaggerated.
It is not as though genes were not being introduced from wild species
or unrelated organisms in the past through classical breeding
methodologies. Nor is the introduction of exotic plant species to new
habitats a new development. Yet, genetically modified organisms do
not entail large-scale transfer of genes into the genome. Far from
it, one or a few genes are introduced very specifically and only if
the desired trait finds due expression in the new genome, is it
commercialised but only after due process of assessing environmental
risk impact including that of human and animal health. Thus there is a
greater loss to our society from the outright rejection of GMOs and
the benefits that they would confer than from a studied acceptance of
these crops and their useful products based on scientific reasoning.
It would be interesting to note that presently 12 different countries
spanning from the United States to the Peoples Republic of China and
including Canada, Argentina and Brazil, GMOs are planted in 40 million
hectares. Billions of dollars of genetically modified foods ranging
from cheese to tomato and soybean are being consumed in all these
countries besides Japan and Australia and there has not been one
adverse report to either human health or to animals from the use of
However equally, it has to be remembered that some of the deleterious
effects of GMOs or GM foods could mimic the now well-established path
of some drugs whose harmful effects or side effects are not discovered
until years after their use. We have not accumulated enough data from
the effects of GMOs and GM foods as they are both of recent origin and
therefore we need to exercise every valid scientific caution and not
necessarily embrace the new technology without a full understanding of
the broader implications.
In order to achieve this, communication and transparency are two key
elements to address the valid concerns emanating from the use of these
new technologies. The mainstream population will have to be
necessarily involved and duly communicated to without hype or false
hope. The scientists who are creating these new organisms and the new
opportunities that they foster are the fountainhead of this knowledge
and hold primary responsibility for its due dissemination. The
various stakeholders, namely the policy framers, legislators,
administrators, judiciary, industry, farmers, consumers, activists and
the media will each have to play an active role in safeguarding
society's interests by their prudent, participative decision making.
The private sector that has been deeply involved in the development of
these new technologies will also have to shed their motives of pure
profit and soften their stand on premia on these new generation
products and royalties on cutting edge technologies. Equitable
sharing of the profits by both the developers of the new products with
the rest of the society that made it possible in the first place to
innovate upon by identifying, conserving and propagating land races
and wild species and equally by protecting and nurturing the habitats
alone would provide for natural justice.
Above all the role of the media in proper and unbiased presentation of
knowledge based on scientific merit can not be over emphasised. The
media has the cardinal responsibility of holding a mirror to its
society without fear or favour.
Eventually, each society must decide what is best for its people based
on the local context.
Let the welfare of the people be the supreme law.
Dr. Gurumurti Natarajan, President, Greenthumb Agri-Horti Advisor,
- Graham Fuller, Inside Brisbane, June 2001. p 15
Key movers and shakers in their chosen fields of expertise often visit
Australia's most liveable city either as part of a hectic business
schedule or, perhaps, during a global campaign designed to draw
attention to a specific issue. Famed environmentalist David Suzuki,
Goodwill Games sponsor and CNN media mogul Ted Turner, plus Virgin
chief Richard Branson have all grabbed their share of limelight after
touching down briefly in Brisbane.
This autumn, however, a man with equal claims to fame, but who
probably won't ever become a household word, delivered a worthy
keynote speech at the Brisbane Institute on the increasingly
contentious topic of biotechnology in the food industry. Whether it is
the genome theory which has revolutionised biotechnology, the industry
is on the move courtesy of international scientists like Dr. Craig
Ventner, Dr. Leroy Hood and 'home grown' scientists of equal repute,
such as Professor John Mattick.
However, Dr. Channapatna Prakash is at the cutting edge when it comes
to promoting discussion on genetically modified organisms.
Increasingly he is adopting a pioneer role in furthering the
community's perceptions of gene technology in the 21st century.
For the moment, it looks and sounds as though there probably is no
more an important industry than biotech. And the Queensland State
Government and Brisbane City Council believes its city namesake may
have the potential to be the greatest research-oriented biotech
commuinity in the country - certainly when factoring in major industry
sectors like mining, medicine and agriculture.
None of this probably was news to Dr. Prakash, a man with serious
biotechnology credentials - who almost certainly knows that Brisbane's
research community has been at the forefront of many developments in a
range of biotech areas and is now seeking to champion its
For the record, the current Professor in Plant Molecular Genetics and
director of the Centre for Plant Biotechnology at America's Tuskegee
University also serves on the US Department of Agriculture's
Agriculture Biotechnology Advisory Committee, plus sits on the
Commission on Biotechnology of the International Society for
To say Dr. Prakash has an interest in all things related to
Biotechnology would be something of an understatement. A fervent
columnist on the topic, a leading policy guru on plant technology, and
with a special interest in the technique's application in developing
countries, his thoughts are pivotal to our awareness of food
biotechnology issues around the world.
His Brisbane speech acknowledged the point that societies still
exhibit considerable anxiety about the acceptance of genetically
modified crops and GM foods, emphasising the need to distinguish
between the perceived sks of these crops from contrived and
conjectural concerns. The point is well made in an earlier paper,
which suggested that the UK, instead of becoming one of the world's
leaders in developing biotechnology, today was known worldwide as the
nation most responsible for impeding introduction of this technology.
It's certainly not a label that can be tied to Australia in general,
and Queensland in particular, which is keenly cultivating a
'SmartState' philosophy through the auspices of the Premier, Peter
Beattie and Brisbane Lord Mayor, Jim Soorley.
"Those of us who work in agricultural biotechnology know that it has
the potential to solve many of the food production problems of the
world, whose population will increase by at least 50 percent in the
next 30 years or so," Dr. Prakash said. "Biotechnology can improve
nutrition among developing nations. It can help fight disease by
delivering vaccines in common foods, such as bananas. It can improve
crop yields, thus preventing natural areas from being converted to
agriculture to meet global food demand, and it can drastically reduce
the use of chemical pesticides.
"Biotechnology has the potential to save and improve millions of lives
worldwide," he added. In explaining his work, Dr. Prakash told his
audience that the genetic modification of crop plants - essentially,
putting one, two or a few genes directly into crop plants - was a
radical method. And it also was a new method, mainly - because of the
use of recombinant DNA technology. But he made the point it was not a
destructive method, suggesting the only things the technique probably
would destroy were old pesticide sprayers.
He also said that one of the most important features of genetic
modification was its knowledge-based approach. Dr.Prakash underscores
the fact the whole genetic modification debate should be looked at
from a historical perspective. He said the process of domesticating
crop plants was being undertaken all the time. Strawberries never
existed 200 years ago, as we see them today. While native Americans
ate wild strawberries they were very small and not as sweet. An
accidental crossing of a strawberry from Virginia in the United States
and from Chile is what gave us the modern strawberry. He make similar
comparisons about the evolution of modern wheat plants.
So what benefits can biotechnology bring to Australia, questions Dr.
Prakash? He surmises that it will permit modern-day agriculture to
reduce pesticide usage levels through, for example, growing more Bt
cotton, slash fuel and labour consumption, limit losses to by pests
and diseases, and provide a means to improve nutrient efficiency.
Direct benefits to the consumers increasingly are being detailed.
Evidence already is available that we will be able to improve the
nutritional quality of our food by, for example, enhancing vitamin
content or increasing the quality of oils in soybeans.
Other value-added benefits attributed to biotechnology centre on the
production of pharmaceutical compounds in plants, coming up with a
plant that can clean up the environment, as well as provide novel
products that will bring additional income dimensions to growers -
especially those working in peasant-like farming regimes.
"I think the most important example of the humanitarian application of
this technology is the golden rice, engineering the pro-vitamin
(beta-carotene) into rice for the first time." Dr. Prakash said. "I
think it is a good example of using the technology." Having listed
some of the positive issues surrounding biotech, there also are
growing concerns about corporate control and related socio-economic
In other words, will it only be rich farmers who can afford the
technology? Safety too, is high on the agenda of concerns surrounding
the biotechnology debate. The approach adopted by Dr. Prakash is to
examine each product on a case-by-case basis. While acknowledging that
biotechnology does pose some food safety concerns, he prefers to
remain firmly focused on the positive issues relating to biotech.
As a footnote, Dr. Prakash reminded his audience that, historically,
there always had been opposition to and apprehension about many
different and new technologies. The challenge remainded that of
taking a proactive position to ensure that both the benefits and the
risks of biotechnology were discussed in a responsible manner. Only
then could the industry move ahead.
This is one example of an industry in which Brisbane can play an
As the president and chairman of the Boeing Corporation, Phil Condit
said in a speech in Seattle when addressing the Asia Pacific Cities
Summit, an initiative of Lord Mayor Jim Soorley: "Progress is only
limited by the inability of people to accept change." Meanwhile, a
bullish Premier Beattie has no illusions that the biotechnology
revolution currently sweeping the world ultimately will see Queensland
become a major player - in line with his 'SmartState' agenda for the
The building blocks already are here. Evidence to hand includes some
impressive first steps including the establishment of the new Ministry
if Innovation and Information Economy, a Bio-Industries Taskforce and
a Biotechnology Advisory Council. Pharmaceutical companies - both
here and from overseas - already have channelled millions of dollars
towards developing the industry. And vital research and development
funds have resulted in the Institute for Molecular Bioscience being
established at the University of Queensland.
Similar initiatives could result in an adjoining Natural Science
Precinct in partnership with the CSIRO. "The CSIRO says Australia
leads the world in Biotechnology research," Mr. Beattie said.
"And, as part of my government's 'SmartState' strategy, I am
determined to make Queensland a major biotechnology hub in the
His words are music to the ears of academics like the vice-chancellor
of the University of Queensland, Professor John Hay, who believes that
embracing biotechnology industries will play a vital part in shaping
our future. He draws attention to the fact that the management of the
Australian human genome project is centered in Brisbane - a driving
force behind the construction of the joint Institute of Molecular
Bioscience. Ultimately, some 700 scientists and researchers will soon
be able to call Brisbane their home. The point to make here is that
Queensland is taking a lead role in developing Australian scientific
infrastructure. Stages two and three of this mammoth venture already
are on the drawing boards.
"Initiatives like these are having a transforming effect upon the
knowledge economies of Australia - and Queensland is a leading
player," Prof Hay said. Victoria's Minister for State Development,
John Brumby, acknowledges that biotechnology is the world's
fastest-growing industry, but believes there is more than enough room
for every Australian State to contribute towards enhancing our
"Biotechnology's potential for Australia in huge, especially in terms
of all the research, commercialisation and development of products,"
he said." Mr. Brumby says that while Victoria is in the race with
Queensland to develop a top-flight biotechnology industry, healthy
competition between the States never hurt anybody. "There's certainly
room for Australia to grow the (biotech) industry substantially - in
both Queensland and Victoria," he added.
It is against this backdrop that Jim Soorley currently in leading a
Brisbane City Council drive towards implementing recommendations
designed to ensure key locations in Brisbane are part of its growing
IT and biotechnology hub. "The future of Brisbane is exciting of some
hard yards are put into actually getting biotech opportunities off the
ground," CEO of the Office of Economic Development of the city of
Brisbane," Richard Joel said. "We have such an insignificant part of
the world market, there is only one way we can go - and that is up -
provided we have all our initiatives in place," he added.
The Biotech Protest That Wasn't
By Michael Fumento, National Review Online, July 26, 2001
"15,000 Biotech Researchers, 5,000 Protesters Converge on San Diego."
So declared an Associated Press wire story headline the day before the
annual Biotechnology Industry Organization conference in San Diego
began in late June. But an AP story after the conference had actually
begun by referring to a mere "a handful of protestors." These are the
days of the so-called "Million Man March," the "Million Mom March,"
and the no doubt forthcoming "Million Manatee March." Numbers have
taken on a special meaning and when it comes to protest rallies, you
don't need Masters & Johnson to tell you that size does count.
By the time I got to the conference center the day after the meeting
opened, I counted one corn cob wearing a pair of Birkenstock sandals
and a couple of sad-looking guys in monarch butterfly costumes. There
might have been a rutabaga or tomato off in the distance, but I
couldn't be sure. Other media besides the AP commented on the smaller
than expected crowd, which by the third day had disappeared completely.
Moreover, many of these were protesting things other than biotech.
"Free Mumia" signs were quite fashionable, a reference to death-row
inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal accused of killing a Philadelphia cop, not of
destroying biotech crops. Others described as anarchists were
protesting global trade.
To comprehend the importance of the tiny turnout, it helps to
understand how much effort went into getting even that. Every name in
the international anti-biotech scare business had worked to mobilize
their troops, under the auspices of a group called "Biodevastation
2001." More than 35 radical groups were listed on Biodevastation's
website, including: Greenpeace USA, Sierra Club Canada, the Ruckus
Society, Genetically Engineered Food Alert, the Organic Farming
Research Foundation, the Sunshine Project, Campaign to Label
Genetically Engineered Food, Northwest Resistance Against Genetic
Engineering, Global Alliance Against Genetically Engineered Trees,
genetiX snowball from the UK, and the South African Freeze Alliance on
I could keep right on going, but for fear of carpal-tunnel injury.
To encourage these groups' members to picket in San Diego, the
organizer provided maps, directions, and connections to hotels,
hostels, and restaurants. It planned nine days of "convergence
training," along with teach-ins and motivational speakers. For all
this, the myriad anti-biotech organizations apparently managed to
deliver up less than a fraction of a demonstrator each. Previous
annual conferences in far less hospitable climates drew far more
protesters (about 2,500 last year in Boston) dressed in an array of
vegetable, insect, and monster suits.
While sitting on a conference panel, CBS reporter Andrew Wyatt was
asked why, considering the tiny number of protesters, did journalists
who covered the meeting feel obliged to devote large chunks of their
stories to such small numbers of people. He thoughtfully replied that
those protesters' positions represent apprehensions of many Americans
who lacked the time or the inclination to play corncob for the day.
But do they?
Biodevastation's official symbol, as displayed on their websites,
comprises the letters "DNA," with a circle around it and a slash
through it. To put it in words, they're against DNA. Apparently,
unlike most of us, they are unaware that everything on earth that has
ever crept, crawled, walked, flown, or dressed up like a tomato is
made up of DNA. That includes, naturally, you and me and all the food
But often it's these same tiny numbers of ignorant people who manage
repeatedly to make mountainous fears out of molehill possibilities.
For example, the monarch butterfly remains the activists' favorite
symbol of the unintended consequences of planting biotech corn, based
on a single laboratory study more than two years ago. Yet a veritable
slew of new studies, with several more upcoming, show that initial
concerns were groundless. Biotech corn poses virtually zero harm to
Likewise for the scare over StarLink corn's alleged allergenicity,
which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have now
discounted. The product was intended for animal use but nevertheless
found its way into human food. This exposed a regulatory gap, which
has now been sealed. Still, StarLink was never more than a potential
allergen, and given the small amount inadvertently mixed into the food
supply, it could never have been consumed in doses to cause allergies
even if it were allergenic.
Americans have been eating biotech food for five years, with no
evidence that it's caused a single cough, sneeze, or pimple. Yet
allergies to non-biotech foods kill about 100 Americans yearly. It's
true that the public is woefully undereducated about biotechnology.
Even well-informed people have questions and concerns over biotech.
How could they not, considering that this is a science that is already
changing the world?
But what the public demands is information, not disinformation. Polls
show that merely informing people that they've already been eating
biotech food for five years reassures them and tremendously bolsters
their support for the products. So it's no coincidence that more
biotech food is being planted than ever.
The U.S. Agriculture Department reports that biotech soybeans alone
jumped from 54% of all soy acres planted last year to 68% this year.
Biotech cotton planting is also way up, though biotech corn does seem
to have been hurt by the false accusations. Even at that, biotech corn
acreage stayed even with last year. Biotech promises to conquer
diseases ranging from cancer to Alzheimer's to AIDS, to end hunger and
malnutrition in the underdeveloped world, and to clean up toxic and
radioactive waste sites with engineered bacteria and plants. Yet none
of this eliminates the need for scientists, businesses, and legitimate
watchdogs to keep the public fully informed and to keep constant vigil
for unexpected outcomes.
Still, perhaps the day when biotech opponents think they can win us
over with infantile appeals to gut emotions and fear is behind us. The
cantankerous corncobs and mischievous monarchs may soon be out of a job.
Food Scares Agency
by Jan Bowman, spiked-central, 25 July 2001
In recent months the UK has been trembling over food scares and
concerns about modern agriculture - over antibiotics in poultry,
dioxins in milk, and pet food sold off as chicken nuggets. And who
could forget those old classics, like mad cow disease?
In an age of scary food, something like the Food Standards Agency
(FSA) might sound like a good idea. Set up in 2000 with an annual
budget of £120million - the equivalent to the entire cost of local
government food enforcement (1) - the FSA aims to restore consumer
confidence in food. But there's a problem: it has an impossible brief.
The FSA is meant to be independent. Yet it is funded and staffed
directly by the government. And as a New Labour progeny, the FSA is
mandated to act according to the precautionary principle. This
imperative - to treat every new scientific development with caution -
views science and innovation as suspect, welcomes regulation, and
values the views of the public as much as (if not more than) the views
of scientific experts. But at a time when popular participation has
hit an all-time low (think UK general election), consumer lobby groups
now act as a proxy public. They are the lay-people most keenly
watching the FSA, and they tend to be more suspicious of science than
the rest of us. And it is their views that increasingly influence policy.
Today's radical activists are imbued with the precautionary principle
and they tend to see processes as unsafe, regardless of the evidence -
which means they're all in favour of the FSA's brief: 'If we believe
there is a serious threat to consumer safety, we will take action
where necessary, without waiting for conclusive proof.' (2)
So in May 2001, the Soil Association accused the then Ministry for
Agriculture, Food and Fisheries of lying about antibiotic residues in
poultry. Without conclusive proof it claimed that conventionally
reared chickens posed a risk to consumers' health, warning that
'regulators should assume that all drug residues in food pose
potential dangers?in the absence of solid evidence suggesting
But do all drug residues in food cause harm? In truth, you would have
to eat a lot of chicken with 'maximum residue levels' of antibiotic
for a very long time to suffer any health problems. And the residues
mentioned in the Soil Association's report were all at levels well
below World Health Organisation (WHO) safety limits. So which is more
harmful to public health: the occasional chicken egg with a trace of
drug in it at a level that even WHO considers harmless - or the
cumulative effect of panicking people about accidental dangers in a
heavily regulated industry? But still the FSA responded to the Soil
Association's report on drugs in chickens with a careful 'thank you',
and promised to pass it on to the relevant government body.
The problem is, the precautionary principle makes it hard for the FSA
to be objective - and even harder to avoid panicking the very people
it is trying to build links with. Early on in his job as chairman of
the FSA, Sir John Krebs made the mistake of saying that people who buy
organic products are 'not getting value for money if they think they
are buying extra nutritional value or extra safety' - and was roundly
lambasted by Joanna Blythman, author of How To Avoid GM Food, for
being 'out of step with consumer concerns' (4).
But Blythman is wrong - Britain may be the fastest-growing market for
organic food in Europe (5), but it is still the case that just seven
percent of shoppers account for nearly 60 percent of all organic sales
- so 'buying organic' is hardly a mass consumer movement. Yet the
response to Sir John Krebs' 'anti-organic' comments made the FSA even
more wary of offending its critics.
The FSA operates in a climate where many people are prepared to
believe the worst. The FSA is constantly attacked for not being
sufficiently independent - or rather, for not making enough fuss about
the right issues. The Guardian's health correspondent has accused the
FSA of 'conniving in the silence' over GM rape seed being
inadvertently mixed with ordinary stuff in 2000, claiming that
'self-satisfaction at the safety of our food should be tempered while
there are still horrific examples of unscrupulous companies trying to
bend hygiene' (6). The FSA is caught between a rock and a hard place -
and its attempts during the foot-and-mouth crisis to calm concerns
while simultaneously alerting us to previously unknown terrors over
dioxin illustrates its dilemma.
On 25 May 2001, the FSA sent letters to 15,000 farmers around the
country, warning them that their cattle's milk could be contaminated
with dioxins if the cattle had grazed within two kilometres of
smouldering foot-and-mouth pyres. Apparently dioxins could be lurking
in the grass (7).
Now this does sound alarming - but, in fact, the letter only applied
to 900 of the farmers contacted. Only those who sourced all their milk
and milk products from animals near pyres were in any way affected -
and, most importantly, the risk was so minute as to be meaningless.
Even if higher than normal levels of dioxin were to be traced to milk,
the harmful effects of dioxin take a lifetime to build up, not just a
few weeks. As one farmer said upon receiving the FSA's letter: 'When
they admit that the risk is absolutely infinitesimal, I can't work out
why they have even raised this.' (8)
The FSA had understandable difficulty trying to explain why it was
prepared to risk causing another food scare. 'This is highly
precautionary advice for a very small number of consumers', said Sir
John Krebs. 'It is unlikely there will be any health concerns but we
need to double check.'
The FSA operates in a climate where many people are prepared to
believe the worst. So the Soil Association welcomed the FSA's warning
to farmers, but added that 'this is more bad news for farmers and
their families'. And for the general public, the FSA's warning can
only have contributed to their distrust of modern agriculture, and
encouraged worries about food safety.
The FSA was created to draw consumers into dialogue with the
government and to win trust and reassure the public. But the dioxin
issue suggests this is not going to happen. Instead, the FSA is
constantly scolded for not blowing the whistle hard enough, so it
increasingly feels it has to flag up every possible danger, however
small and insignificant.
It may one day become a trusted source of advice on food - but it will
have been at the expense of giving us all ulcers from anxiety.
Food: the new poison? by Tony Gilland
(1) Poison chalice, Paul Humphries, Guardian, 25 April 2001
(2) FSA Strategic Plan 2001-2006: Putting customers first, p7
(3) 'Too hard to swallow: the truth about drugs and poultry', Soil
Association Executive Summary, 4 May 2001
(4) Sacred cow, Joanna Blythman, Guardian, 4 November 2000
(5) Annabel Roberts, ITN, 14 May 2001
(6) 'The debate nobody wants?food safety', James Meikle, Guardian, 1
(7) 'Farmers shocked by milk dioxin warning', Scotsman, 26 May 2001
'Science and the Public: who needs to understand whom?' :
- Joe Kaplinsky spiked-central, July 2001
In the third in its series of summer fringe debates, on 19 July 2001,
the UK Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and
Commerce (RSA) together with The Economist magazine debated the
question: 'Science and the Public: who needs to understand whom?'
The panel boasted Anthony Gottlieb, executive editor of The Economist
and author of The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the
Greeks to the Renaissance, in conversation with Lewis Wolpert,
professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College
London, and author of Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy of Depression and
The Unnatural Nature of Science
'I'm an exhibitionist', declared Lewis Wolpert, and put on an
entertaining show, explaining the distinction between science and
technology, giving his recommendations for science education, and
recommending which experts the public should trust. Anthony Gottlieb
deployed a philosopher's scepticism, in gently probing Wolpert's
forthright defence of his views.
Wolpert's defence of science seems less evangelical than detached. It
is not the job of scientists, he says, to combat astrology or
religion. He was concerned to absolve scientists from responsibility
for the misuse of technology. Fair enough - it was not science or
scientists, after all, who decided to use nuclear weapons against Japan.
But while this defence of science is valid, it is also one-sided.
Scientific advance is not a sufficient condition for social progress,
but it is a necessary one. Wolpert emphasises the former point: the
world's problems cannot be laid at the door of science. A more
all-rounded appreciation of science would also stress that science, by
making possible new technologies, opens up tremendous new
possibilities. It is not just that GM crops do not kill people
(Wolpert's point), but rather that they could be used to help pull
people out of dependence on farming, and to create new drugs and new
Access to science, says Wolpert, is important if people want it.
Science should be available to all, but not stuffed down anybody's
throat. And while there is room for improvement, he thinks that this
is pretty much the situation we have right now: a relaxed attitude,
which does not get overly concerned about the need for the public to
know more science, and is not obsessed with making scientists talk to
the public. Wolpert challenged anybody to come up with a genuinely new
ethical dilemma posed by the use of stem cellsNot having taught in
schools, Wolpert was reluctant to give too much advice to teachers -
but he described as 'bizarre' the fashionable proposal that ethics
should be introduced into the science curriculum. Not only are ethics
irrelevant to the learning of science (and therefore a distraction) -
Wolpert argued that science throws up far fewer new ethical dilemmas
than is often assumed. He challenged anybody to come up with a
genuinely new ethical dilemma posed by the use of stem cells, beyond
those posed by IVF; and lamented that 'not one politician had the
knowledge or the guts to stand up and say there is no ethical
distinction between stem cells and IVF'.
The question Wolpert found hardest to answer was how the public could
make sense of the scientific disputes that are now so common in
political debate - for example, the disputes about genetic
modification. He insisted that the public was not competent to judge
the evidence for themselves - when compared to expert opinion, the
opinion of the public counts for nothing. He gave the example of
climate change as an 'extremely difficult question', where as a
non-expert in the field, 'I don't know what I believe'. The problem,
then, is which experts to trust? For Wolpert the answer is the Great
and the Good in the relevant scientific discipline, personified by the
chief government scientist. For him, this does not need to mean
believing every government press release or media headline, which
often promote a precautionary response even to very measured
scientific statements. And as he suggests, what is the alternative? To
spend your whole life worrying, because some crank has claimed that
the food you eat and the air you breathe might be poisoned?
A general scientific education is desirable for many reasons - but
helping people negotiate controversies over risk is not one of them.
While Wolpert is right to emphasis the importance of expert opinion
over public prejudice, for those people who really do want to spend
their time thinking about environmental risks I can think of no better
recommendation than studying some science. To understand that the
science of global warming is not settled, or that the risk from GM
crops is somewhere between very low and zero, you don't have to be a
scientific expert at the cutting edge of research.
Today's environmental protesters clearly have tremendous
determination, passion and energy. Yet they often seem peculiarly
ignorant about science. If a fraction of their energy were applied to
learning something of the discipline, who knows what might happen?
The RSA/Economist fringe debates continue on Thursday 27 September
2001, looking at education in the twenty-first century, in the RSA
Durham Street Auditorium, 8 John Adam Street, London WC2. To reserve a
seat in advance, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or telephone 020
7451 6868. For press information contact RSA press office on +44 (020)
7451 6842 or email email@example.com