(Sorry for the blank before! The new system is behaving rather odd!)
Today's Topics in AgBioView at http://www.agbioworld.org/
* Mystery DNA? No, Just More Unfounded Fears From Greenpeace
* Monsanto: Regulators Don't Oppose Unknown DNA In GMO Soy
* Julian Morris on Swaminathan Interview
* Heard Of It, But What Is It
* Don't Tread on Turf Made Through Genetic Engineering
* GM: Past, Present And Future
* Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food
* Owning the Future: The Green-back Revolution
* Science Education Paradox
# (Following Stories Were Missing from Previous AgBioView)
* Africa Needs New Development Vision
* U.N. Report That May Help The Third World
* Genetically Modified Crops -- What Do Scientists Say?
* Firefighter deaths in Washington State
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Mystery DNA? No, Just More Unfounded Fears From Greenpeace
- Michael Mbwille, MD http://www.foodsecurity.net
"Mystery DNA found in soya!" trumpeted the headlines spurred by Greenpeace's well-heeled propaganda machinery throughout the globe. Greenpeace's web sites boldly warns of "unknown" and "alien" genes found in biotechnology-improved soya suggesting heretofore uncharted dangers and risks. Greenpeace prints and circulates these lies faster than the Code Red virus infected the word's computers.
By Greenpeace's scientifically illiterate standards, all foods should now be banned due to our lack of complete awareness of their genetic make-up. Even the prized organic foods which helps pay for Greenpeace's food fear campaign must fall into this category. DNA is DNA, and there is no mystery about it, period. Most genes in plants are "unknown" and to date no scientist has yet reported the discovery any extraterrestrial "alien" genes. All life is formed by the same basic building blocks. The ordering and location of those blocks for virtually all our food is mostly uncharted. The charting of the genetic materials, essentially known as the genome, for plant varieties is only known for a handful of well-researched plants.
As for the so-called new DNA discovered in Roundup Ready soya by Belgian food scientists it is well known and broadly reported in scientific literature that this is to be expected during the insertion of a new gene through biotechnology. According to scientists at the American Soybean Association, the same or more severe examples of DNA rearrangements take place in conventional soybean breeding. That is why the food from a new plant, and not the individual genes which make it up, is tested.
The food in its entirety, such as soya grown from plants improved through biotechnology to resist herbicide, is what is important. Were one to compare, for example, the DNA of the hundreds of varieties of soya grown throughout the globe the amounts of variation in genetic materials discovered would be vastly greater than the small amount of recently discovered DNA found in the Roundup Ready variety.
The questions to ask are: Is this soya safe? Has it been tested? Is it the same in all nutritional, quality and related food safety characteristics as soya which comes from non-improved plants? And in the case of the herbicide-tolerant Roundup Ready soya the answer to all these questions is yes. Independently verified tests over the past decade in dozens of countries has shown the soya grown using biotechnology-improved crops to be equivalent to non-improved soya and to be completely safe for people and the environment. Even the Belgian food safety advisor and scientist, whose findings Greenpeace claim prove new untold dangers, stated that he was "not worried by the finding and that the discrepancy was simply a case of improved technology which now allowed scientists to examine DNA in more detail than previously. The product itself has not changed."
That we know so much about foods derived from biotechnology improved crops, including the ever-increasing knowledge about the genetic structure of these foods, should be of reassuring comfort. However, Greenpeace and others who profit from these misleading fear campaigns would like us to think otherwise.
The real mystery here is how did information publicly available for months all of the sudden become headlines around the globe? Scientists had known about this for 14 months, Monsanto reported this information to regulators more than a year ago, the findings were published some four months ago, regulatory authorities were informed, and none of the knowledgeable food and agriculture scientists were concerned one wit. It appears, however, the timing and lack of concern from the experts on this issue over the past year did not serve the political interests of Greenpeace until now. Thoughtfully planned the propaganda artists at Greenpeace, with a little help from headline writers at the New York Times, launched this massive dis-information campaign as an attempt to manipulate and disrupt pending regulatory approvals for this product in places like Brazil. While regulators may be unimpressed, given the number of foreboding news reports, an unsuspecting public and media seem to have fallen, once again, for Greenp
The benefits of plants improved through biotechnology are urgently needed in the Latin America and throughout the developing world. Roundup Ready technology, the benefits of which are widely enjoyed in places like Argentina, Canada and the United States, helps increase yields while reducing the overall amount of chemical herbicides and labor needed to produce healthy crops. In addition, this technology coupled with conservation tillage practices saves precious topsoil and prevents erosion which pollutes our groundwater, rivers and lakes. Increasing yields while reducing reliance on chemicals is a worthy cause to champion in places like South America and Africa, where poor yields and soil concerns force farmers to slash and burn tens of thousands of acres of biologically-diverse rain forests and other lands to feed our children.
Dr. Michael Mbwille is the Africa editor of the non-profit Food Security Network. Dr. Mbwille speaks and writes on issues of hunger, nutrition, food safey and food security drawing from his experience practicing pediatric medicine in Tanzania and other parts of Africa for over ten years.
Monsanto: Regulators Don't Oppose Unknown DNA In GMO Soy
Dow Jones Newswire, August 16, 2001
LONDON -(Dow Jones)- U.S. chemicals giant Monsanto Co. (MON) said Thursday that regulatory authorities in the U.K. have no objections regarding a DNA sequence in its line of Roundup Ready soybeans - the world's most widely grown genetically engineered crop.
Media reports on Thursday about a Belgian scientists' paper published in the journal of European Food Research and Technology said that a mysterious DNA sequence had been found in Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans. This led to a sharp sell-off on soy complex futures at the Chicago Board of Trade. CBOT soy was down 10 cents at $5.03 per bushel at 1844 GMT.
In a news statement, Monsanto said that it had knowledge of the specific DNA sequence mentioned in the paper and that it has reported it to regulatory authorities in the U.K. over a year ago. "The DNA sequence) reported in the (scientific) paper refers largely to the same segment of DNA Monsanto identified as a part of its advanced molecular characterization (and that) was conveyed to regulatory authorities more than a year ago," the statement said.
Monsanto said that a body of the U.K.'s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, didn't raise any safety issues referring to this segment of DNA when it analyzed it. "The presence of the DNA does not appear to have any deleterious effects with respect to environmental safety and ... the soybean is comparable to conventional soybean," Monsanto's statement quotes the advisory committee as saying. The committee also said that the DNA sequence was already present in original safety assessment studies, Monsanto added.
Monsanto said that it stands by the safety of Roundup Ready soybeans because the DNA sequence mentioned in the scientific paper was already present in original crops subject to safety tests when the product was launched. "This new sequence does not change the conclusions by regulatory authorities around the world: these soybeans are as safe and nutritious as conventional soybean varieties," Monsanto's statement said. "They do not pose any risk to the environment."
Monsanto added that the only new thing now is that it is possible to characterize more clearly the DNA sequences in the product - using technology not available when the line of Roundup Ready soybeans were developed 10 years ago - but that it is "incorrect and misleading" to say that this paper reports a new DNA segment.
From: Julian Morris
RE: Swaminathan Interview in the Far Eastern Economic Review
Swaminathan suggests that governments should impose compulsory licenses on seed varieties in order to reduce the costs of seed to poor farmers. But what incentive would companies then have to produce seed varieties relevant to people in those countries where governments engage in such practices? Very little. Swaminathan essentially presumes that government funding can replace the private sector, but the reality is that the private sector has the expertise in development and marketing of new seed varieties - and if it is allowed to sell at market prices it also has the incentives to discover and develop new seed varieties to meet market demands.
We can learn from the Assizes of bread in England in the Middle Ages. Local councils imposed maximum prices and minimum loaf sizes on bread. As a result, when the price of wheat rose, breadmakers stopped producing. Government then stepped in forcing bakers to bake, often at knife point.
Swaminathan's thinking is barely more enlightened than that of the medieval governments. A far superior solution would be to enable companies to price discriminate: selling at high prices to people who can afford to pay high prices and at lower prices to poorer people. In order to be able to do that, they need freedom of contract (amongst other things, this would enable the company to impose restrictions on the reuse or resale of seed, which would be necessary in order to prevent a secondary market undermining the price discrimination). So-called 'terminator' genes would help in this process. Government should stop interfering with the agreements between farmers and companies, except where there has been fraud or other breaches of contract.
As regards 'bio-piracy', there may be merit in the creation of an indigenous knowledge database such as is being developed at WIPO under the direction of R.A. Mashelkar and others. This would offer people who are privy to knowledge about the uses of peculiar plant varieties an incentive to divulge that information and ensure that they are fairly compensated for that knoweldge. However there are many problems (such as: who is to be treated as the owner of the knowledge; where is the line to be drawn between the public domain and communal/indigenous knowledge; etc.). Fatuous statements about biopiracy are of little use.
- - Julian
Heard Of It, But What Is It
China Daily August 16, 2001
If you ask any young man or woman on the streets of Beijing whether he or she has heard of genetically modified (GM) food, you are very likely to get a positive answer. In fact, this biological concept has become known to many Chinese, especially to the people in big cities, as the so-called biological wave has been sweeping across China over the past few years. The media has played a major role in fuelling this wave by introducing such concepts as cloning and genetic engineering to the general public. Yet if you ask the same person what genetically modified food actually is, the chances are quite slim that you will get the correct answer. That's the situation most Chinese people are now in: drowning in information but starving when it comes to knowledge about biological technology. This lack of knowledge can lead to ignorance and misunderstanding of the technology and its impact on human life. This situation poses a potential threat to the burgeoning biological industry of China, scientists have warned.
Unless the situation is changed soon, the biological industry and even some research programmes in this area in China may be damaged, they said at a symposium in Yunnan Province in Southwest China that concluded last week. Public perception Scores of top biologists from across China attended the symposium which focused on ways of communicating knowledge about rapidly growing biological technologies to the public. It's no easy task, especially given the increasing public concern about the safety of genetically modified foods, many delegates agreed. They did not have to explain the concepts, theories and data to their peers in research, but now they find themselves faced with the difficult, if not impossible, task of explaining these things to lay people.
"I really feel it's quite a demanding task," said Lu Baorong, a professor from Shanghai-based Fudan University. "Of course you don't have to be a talk show host to be good at communicating these concepts, but it does take practice and you have to take into account the attitudes of the public in addition to your knowledge of the subject itself."
But the need for such communication is underscored by two things. One is the public suspicion of biotechnology, especially of the highly contentious attitudes towards genetically modified organisms (GMO), which was revealed by a survey of four Southeast Asian countries - Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. The survey, conducted by the Asian Food Information Centre, revealed a high public awareness of the existence of GM foods in these countries, but a very low level of knowledge about them. For example, when faced with such questions as "Is it correct that ordinary soybeans don't contain genes, but GM soybeans do?" most of the people surveyed answered "yes." Similar affirmative responses were given for the question: "Is it correct that if you eat GM food, your own genes will be changed?" So what about China?
Chen Zhangliang, vice-president of Peking University and a biologist, revealed that they have conducted a large-scale survey of public awareness of GM-related research and products in China. They are now processing the data collected and the final results will come out soon, he noted. The preliminary analysis also points to a high public superficial awareness, but a lack of any knowledge beyond that level, he said. "Basically, there seems to be little difference (from the survey by Asian Food Information Centre)," he added. This general situation will in a way determine the progress of China's research and development of the biological industry, he said. Food labelling Another thing that makes it imperative to make the public aware of biological engineering, especially concerning the safety of GM foods, is the issuance of administrative regulations governing the field by the central government last May.
According to China's Constitution, administrative regulations issued by the central government of China are secondary only to the Constitution and the laws passed by the National People's Congress in judicial authority. Courts can directly cite these regulations in their decisions. The regulations have come into force and govern the biological safety of genetically modified organisms in agriculture.
These regulations are so far the most authoritative and definite answers of the Chinese Government to the many questions raised over the biological safety of GMO going back to the first successful cloning of an animal, the sheep Dolly, by British scientists in 1996. The regulations, which were the focus of the symposium, require a strict appraisal system to measure the risks of GMO in agriculture and products containing elements of such GMOs. A licence system was introduced to ensure the safety of GMOs and related products "from the lab through to the dinner table," said a biologist attending the symposium. Each step of the chain - experiment, growth, distribution, import and export and sales - should be under close supervision of related governmental agencies, according to the regulations.
The most outstanding article in the regulations is the one that requires a mandatory labelling system. Although the system has not been detailed in the regulations, sources close to the drafting group of the detailed implementation rules revealed that identification and labelling of agricultural GMOs will not be limited to products directly sold to the consumers, but apply all the way through the processing and production lines. A catalogue of GMOs and related products affiliated with the regulations is now being examined by the Ministry of Agriculture under the authorization of the State Council and its issuing will demarcate labelling areas and specify how it should be done.
How will the housewives of China, who have so far not encountered GM foods, react to tomatoes labelled as being "genetically modified"? Most of the scientists at the symposium expect a negative reaction from Chinese customers. Part of the reason lies with faulty or inaccurate media coverage in China of GM foods, some of them suggested. They complain that the media have exaggerated the risks, if any, of GM foods and scared off consumers who have little knowledge of GM foods.
"Sometimes, it takes four positive news stories to offset the impact of one negative story," said one delegate, who requested anonymity. Apart from the possible negative reactions of consumers, some suggested the labelling system, if strictly applied, would cost the industry vast sums of money. A report by KPMG, one of the biggest accounting companies in the world, last year suggested that the labelling of GM foods is likely to result in a 9-10 per cent increase in retail prices and a 30-45 per cent increase in production costs. This is because the labelling will not be limited to the foods themselves, but will also include the machines, trucks and warehouses that have been used in the processing of GM foods.
"That would be very costly," warned Chen from Peking University. To communicate this point to the consumers, however, will be hard, he admitted. Sometimes, such communication may result in unwanted effects. "I agree that the public have the right to know the truth about GM foods," Chen said. "But another truth about human nature is that the more you learn, the less safe you feel."
Even biologists admit that it is not advisable to say that GM foods are absolutely safe. The recommended approach is to say that there is no absolutely safe food at all in the world and that GM food is at least as safe as any other food. In north America, where GM foods - such as GM tomatoes and bean products - have been consumed by over 300 million people for six years, there have been no cases confirming that GM food is detrimental to either humans or the environment. But the truth is that the worry over potential risks of GM food affecting humans and the environment has never died away, even among biologists. This worry is in a way derived from the technical nature of genetic modification, which for decades remained a relatively crude and unpredictable process. The introduction of foreign gene fragments into a host cell is still a rudimentary and random process using such current techniques as microscopy.
Whether and how far the process is successful is still not completely under the control of scientists. In an experiment conducted by a team led by Lu from Fudan University, it was observed that wild rice and cultivated rice grown side by side substantially affected each other through pollen flow. Lu pointed out the possibility of some GM plants affecting neighbouring plants against the expectations of scientists. Against such a mixed backdrop, the labelling of GM foods may be read differently by different people, scientists noted. Some may read these labels as warning against risk, while others may take them as a government guarantee that these are safe GM foods.
Either way, with the catalogue of GMOs and related products to be released soon, no force seems to be able to stop the labelling system, or GM foods themselves, from appearing in China. "GM foods have increased very rapidly in the world over the past few years," said Chen from Peking University. "If they do not appear in China within five years, they will be everywhere in the country within 10 years."
Researcher: Don't Tread on Turf Made Through Genetic Engineering
The Providence Journal., Knight Ridder/Tribune, August 17, 2001
SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. - Albert Kausch fears unseen predators. The marauders, emotionally driven and with no regard for the law, could easily set Kausch's biotechnology start-up back seven months with one quick strike. Venture capitalists?
Kausch is director of research for HybriGene LLC. The two-year-old company is creating new types of turf grass through genetic modification. HybriGene's seven employees transplant genes from other organisms into turf grasses to create foliage immune to weed killers. Some of the company's grasses have insecticide built in, eliminating the need for pesticides. HybriGene is also designing the plants so that they can't spread their genetically modified traits to innocent wild grasses.
But genetic modification of plants is extremely controversial. In an effort to stop genetic experimentation, activists across the country have struck silently in the middle of the night - burning research crops, hacking down genetically altered trees and destroying hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of research and development.
In Kausch's mind, eco-sabotage is HybriGene's number-one business challenge. Although the company is facing a money crunch and has competitors breathing down its neck, eco-terrorism is at the forefront of the scientist's mind. Unable to predict when or if a strike may come, Kausch says eco-terrorists are the worst type of business threat - the irrational kind.
"These people are nuts," says Kausch, who is transplanting the genes into plants and growing the experimental grasses in Rhode Island. "(An attack) would set us back seven months to a year. These plants are commercial entities and they are proof for our patents," he says.
Genetic modification of plants has drawn criticism from environmental groups, which say that the long-term effects of tampering with an organism's genetic makeup are still unknown. These groups, such as the Earth Liberation Front, say that genetic engineering is creating unnatural organisms that could spread their traits to other plants, harming people and animals. During the past year, companies working throughout the gene modification field have been attacked. In June, a rash of eco-sabotage swept the West Coast, including the destruction of a field of pea plants containing transplanted genes owned by Seminis Inc.
Last summer, eco-terrorists in Maine cut down $10,000 worth of experimental poplar trees. Also last summer, HybriGene's sister company, Pure Seed Testing in Oregon, suffered $500,000 worth of turf grass being destroyed by environmental activists. It takes three to five years to create a commercially viable line of genetically modified plants, according to Kausch. It requires at least seven months to grow each crop of test plants from an embryonic stage.
"The process of putting genes into grasses isn't something you do overnight," Kausch says. Considering that HybriGene isn't expected to generate revenues from its modified plants for another three to five years, an act of sabotage could knock it completely out of the turf grass market.
"The application of the technology is very costly. The destruction of a field trial is going to set a company back, especially if they are a small company. Their risks are certainly greater, especially financially," says Angela Dansby, director of public relations for the American Seed Trade Association in Virginia.
The turf seed market is a $1 billion annual business in the U.S., with $70 million worth of turf seed exported every year, according to the seed association. Despite the potential for derailment, Kausch may be overly worried, says Dansby. Eco-terrorist attacks are still relatively few and haven't been enough to derail the bio-tech industry. This year, more than 51 million acres, or 68 percent, of soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered, according to a survey by the Department of Agriculture.
HybriGene has been on a two-year roller coaster ride and last year it faced extinction. HybriGene was part of AgriBioTech Inc, a Nevada-based publicly traded company that encountered financial troubles last year and filed for protection from its creditors in bankruptcy court. HybriGene's continued existence was questionable, according to Kausch. The company was rescued by Bill Rose, one of HybriGene's original founders. Last July, he bought the technology of HybriGene at an auction of AgriBioTech's assets.
Although HybriGene's official headquarters were moved to Oregon, Rose kept the company's operations in Rhode Island. The decision provided a stroke of luck for the company because last September the Slater Center for Environmental Biotechnology granted HybriGene an $85,000 loan. Looking to reduce HybriGene's research risks, Kausch is setting up research partnerships with universities across the country.
Kausch says he wants to get $10 million for research but has also set up a separate revenue stream which in the last year has pulled in $100,000 from patent licensing. "These patents not only control modifications to turf grass, they apply to all cereals," Kausch says.
Kausch is assaulting the competition, as well. The Scotts Company, a $1.76-billion grass seed and turf company in Ohio, has been working in conjunction with chemical giant Monsanto Co. to develop genetically altered, herbicide-resistant insect-killing grasses. The companies seem to be about a year ahead of HybriGene, according to Kausch, but their products aren't sterile and can spread their genetic modifications to other grasses.
That's another criticism of some genetically altered products. Kausch, and other biotech companies, are lobbying the federal government to make genetically modified, unsterile grasses illegal. The only business challenge Kausch can't attack is eco-terrorism. "I'm for the environment. I'd love to just talk to these people," says Kausch sadly. "It's just so ill-conceived."
GM: Past, Present And Future
- Channapatna S Prakash, Sp!ked, August 16, 2001
Mankind has been modifying crops for thousands of years - so why is there such hostility to genetically modified food?
-- There is no unequivocal evidence that genetically modified crops harm our health or the environment - yet there is an intense debate about their value and safety.
-- Such concerns about the risks of GM technology must be balanced against its enormous benefits - far from causing any new food safety problems, biotechnology has already demonstrated its potential in enhancing the nutritional quality of our food and in reducing harmful toxic compounds that exist in our food.
-- Understanding agricultural history is a good starting point in alleviating people's unease about GM foods - humans have been modifying crops for thousands of years, and without human care many of today's crops would cease to exist.
-- We should recognise the positive impact that GM technology can have on the environment - and that if problems arise, we can deal with them. Most problems raised by science can be solved by science itself.
Complete article at : http://www.spiked-online.com/Articles/00000002D1F5.htm
Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food
New Book by Dan Charles
Hardcover - 352 pages (September 18, 2001) Amazon.com Price: $18.20; Perseus Books; ISBN: 0738202916
A riveting tale of the battle over genetically engineered foods, and an inside look at a biotech food empire. Once confined to the research laboratory, the genetic engineering of plants is now a big business that is changing the face of modern agriculture. Giant corporations are creating designer crops with strange powers-from cholesterol-reducing soybeans to plants that act as miniature drug factories, churning out everything from vaccines to insulin. They promise great benefits: better health for consumers, more productive agriculture-even an end to world hunger. But the vision has a dark side, one of profit-driven tampering with life and the possible destruction of entire ecosystems. In Lords of the Harvest, Daniel Charles takes us deep inside research labs, farm sheds, and corporate boardrooms to reveal the hidden story behind this agricultural revolution. He tells how a handful of scientists at Monsanto drove biotechnology from the lab into the field, and how the company's opponents are fighting back
Science reporter Daniel Charles has been a technology correspondent for National Public Radio and the Washington correspondent for New Scientist. He has covered the misadventures of the Mir space station, earthquakes in India, nuclear smuggling in Germany, and the frontiers of technology. He lives in Washington, D.C.
Owning the Future: The Green-back Revolution
- Seth Shulman, Technology Review, September 2001
Bona fide or not, concerns about the safety of genetically modified crops have been grabbing headlines. But a far bigger story looms in agricultural biotechnology: that of an industry choking on its own patent claims. For a powerful example, consider recent patent activity at Monsanto.
First, the company won a patent—number 6,174,724 for those keeping score—that covers a seminal technology in transgenic plant research: the use of antibiotic-resistant genes as markers. It works like this: when researchers want to insert new genes into plant cells, say to create a drought-tolerant crop variety, they couple these ingoing genes with such a genetic marker. By then exposing the target cells to antibiotics to see if they die (they don't if things got to the right place), scientists can easily test whether the gene transfer was a success. There is probably no one in transgenic plant research who doesn't make use of this technique. But now, thanks to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's woeful ineptitude, they will all have to beg permission from Monsanto to use this fundamental technology, not to mention pay any royalties the firm sets.
Amazingly, however, an even worse intellectual-property nightmare is brewing. A pending Monsanto patent claims exclusive rights to a pivotal, widely used germ called Agrobacterium tumefaciens. This was the very first Trojan horse that scientists employed to sneak foreign genes into plants way back in 1983. And if Monsanto wins exclusive control over it, the field will be rocked even harder.
The real tragedy here is that both these patents (one granted, one pending) would confer monopolies on technologies that fall way too far upstream of the market to deserve patent protection. As many scholars have noted, patents are supposed to be a compact between the public and the inventor: in exchange for allowing the inventor a limited monopoly, the public gets access to a new product. But in these cases, there is no new product. Instead, Monsanto has essentially grabbed a piece of the ag biotech "infostructure"—claiming exclusive rights to a technological technique that everyone in the field needs to compete.
The problem is even worse in the Agrobacterium case. This patent was filed nearly two decades ago but has been tied up in a purgatory called "interference." With four competing research teams claiming to have invented essentially the same thing, the tortuous case has already taken a mind-numbing 18 years to adjudicate, with, not one, but two administrative-law judges retiring during the process!
Thankfully, new rules will prevent the worst excesses of such situations by starting the clock ticking on a patent's life when an application is filed. But under the rules operating in this case (and all pre-1995 filings), the clock doesn't start until a patent is granted. Which means that Monsanto is poised to walk away with a spanking-new, 17-year monopoly on a technology that has long since become indispensable.
Which leads me to another gripe: the private capture of public investment. Several teams that developed this powerful technology included academic researchers operating partly on government grants. In a collegial spirit, these scientists freely passed valuable findings to Monsanto, which is now turning them into an exclusive claim.
The full story is chronicled with great insight by Daniel Charles in 'Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money and the Future of Food'. The book has a lot more on its mind than Agrobacterium tumefaciens, as Charles examines the outsized ambitions that characterize the whole ag biotech industry. But to my eye, if Monsanto succeeds in patenting the use of this germ, it will go down as a classic tale of a collaborative scientific endeavor perverted by a capricious, winner-take-all patent system.
The problems extend far beyond two bad patents. In fact, so many overly broad patents have issued in agricultural biotechnology that the entire field will likely suffer. With tremendous consolidation in recent years, warring fiefdoms of technological know-how have emerged. Firms like Monsanto use their patents to squelch competitors and leverage control of technology in the pipeline. Researchers are becoming so hamstrung by proprietary claims to key conceptual tools—sometimes shut out from using them entirely—that it is becoming ever harder to bring new inventions to market.
This is bad enough in the commercial sector. But the tangle of exclusive claims on basic research is also smothering public-sector researchers who, just a generation ago, launched the Green Revolution to bring high-yield crop varieties to the famine-plagued developing world. That revolution was spawned not only by new technology but by a commitment to use new seed varieties as building blocks to breed even better varieties in the future. With proprietary claims like Monsanto's, we're tilling a far less fertile field. Maybe we should call it the Greenback Revolution. - Seth Shulman is a freelance writer and author of the recent book Owning the Future
Science Education Paradox
- David Goodstein, Technology Review, September 2001
How can the same system produce scientific elites and illiterates?
The United States by any conceivable measure has the finest scientists in the world. But the rest of the population, by any rational standard, is abysmally ignorant of science, mathematics and all things technical. That is the paradox of scientific elites and scientific illiterates: how can the same system of education that produced all those brilliant scientists also have produced all that ignorance?
The situation is not merely paradoxical; it's downright perilous.We face an era that promises ever accelerating technological change in every aspect of our lives, while at the same time the very survival of our civilization may depend on our ability to make wise decisions about how to manage our resources, our climate and our conflicts. In the next century, we will need to be able to deal confidently with technical issues, and a responsible electorate will need to have some reasonable mastery of how the world works.
In these circumstances, an undergraduate major in science should be the best possible preparation for any serious profession. Or, put another way, the science major today should be what classical Greek and Latin were in the 19th century, and the liberal-arts major was in the 20th: the union card required to enter the professional world. Unfortunately, the science education we have in place to provide this union card could not be less suited to the task.
Science education in the United States today exists as a kind of mining and sorting operation, in which we, the existing scientists, cull through what comes our way, searching for diamonds in the rough that can be cleaned and cut and polished into glittering gems just like us. The rest are cast on the slag heap, left to fend for themselves with no basic understanding of the sciences. The paradox of elites and illiterates exists because our system of science education is designed to produce that result.
The problem starts in grade school, where few children ever come into personal contact with a scientifically trained person—including, unfortunately, their teachers. In most of the United States the only way you can graduate from college without taking a single science course is to major in elementary education. And, it is said, many people major in elementary education for precisely that reason. Our elementary school teachers are therefore not only ignorant of science; they are hostile to science. That hostility must, inevitably, rub off on the young people they teach.
A few years ago, I was on a committee to look into how well the "breadth" requirement—that all students take at least one course in science—was working at one University of California campus. We found that, of those students not majoring in a technical subject, 90 percent were satisfying the breadth requirement by taking a single biology course known informally among the students as "Human Sexuality." Now, I don't for an instant doubt that it was a useful and interesting course. It may even have tempted students to do hands-on experiments on their own time (a result we seldom achieve in physics). But I don't think it constitutes a sufficient education in science for university graduates at the dawn of the 21st century.
I also know a bit about what goes on at the secondary level because in the 1980s I made an educational TV series, The Mechanical Universe, that's still widely used in U.S. colleges and high schools. There are about 24,000 high schools in the United States. Nobody knows how many trained high school physics teachers there are (with, say, the equivalent of an undergraduate major in the subject) but certainly there are no more than a few thousand. I made The Mechanical Universe primarily for the "crossover" teachers, those who teach physics even though they weren't trained for it. It's a source of great satisfaction that hundreds of teachers have thanked me for making it possible for them to have successful careers. But guess what? They tell me their greatest satisfaction is not in preparing the rest of their students to thrive in an increasingly technical world, but in finding those diamonds in the rough that can be sent on to college to be cut and polished into real physicists.
But nowhere is the problem more vivid than in graduate school. Graduate students are the elect, those selected to go on to the final stage of the mining and sorting operation. The average professor in a research university turns out about 15 PhDs in the course of a career. While the problem of science education is often framed in terms of a perceived lack of PhDs—too few elites to fuel our scientific and technological progress in the future—it's clear we actually have a process in place equipped to multiply our kind 15 times over with each succeeding generation. What's lacking is a means to provide the rest of our population with even the most basic understanding of science in an increasingly science-driven world.
My friends from around the country tell me that the number of undergraduate physics majors is at its lowest point since Sputnik, nearly 50 years ago. That's not surprising. The undergraduate major in physics is largely regarded as preparation for graduate school, and the academic job market is still saturated from the influx of baby boomer PhDs in the 1970s, dissuading potential new candidates from pursuing an under- graduate science degree. Those without an interest in an academic profession don't see a degree in physics as relevant. Thus, far from being the liberal-arts major of the 21st century, the undergraduate science major has become an endangered species.
Is there any conceivable remedy? Can we imagine a world in which we do better than turn out a handful of PhDs, many of whom will wind up with little but frustration to show for all their hard work, while the rest of the young people who graduate from college are unprepared to cope with a society shaped largely by science and technology? Of course, it would help if those of us who teach science in college would change our own attitudes and devise more inviting ways of presenting our subjects. But even if we could do that it would barely make a dent in the problem. By the time the kids get to us, they are already lost to science.
But imagine a world in which teaching in high school is such an attractive profession that it would be worth the trouble of a doctoral level education to get the job. For that to happen, we would have to pay teachers more, at least as much as what graduating doctoral students get. And they should be paid more. But that's not the whole answer. Just as important, schools would have to learn to treat these teachers with professional respect, and society would have to afford them the honor and admiration that professionals expect. This is not unthinkable. Something like it was true in much of Europe before World War II. But it is very far from true in today's United States.
Much more is needed, of course. The revolution would have to extend right down to the first grade. Teachers would have to be literate in science, and kids would have to find learning science as cool as following the fortunes of rock groups. That's an awful lot to ask for. But then again, only our future depends on it.
David Goodstein is vice provost, professor of physics and applied physics, and the Frank J. Gilloon Distinguished Teaching and Service Professor at the California Institute of Technology.
Because of a software error in the new Listbuilder server, following messages were cut off in the previous AgBioView newsletter. I apologize for this and reproduce the missing contents below...CSP
Dr.John Kilama: Africa Needs New Development Vision
- Zephania Ubwani, Sunday Observer, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania- August 5, 2001
(Missing Piece continues...)
The reforms he proposed include creating viable institutions to help and promote entrepreneurship in order to create employment for hundreds of thousands of unemployed people in Africa. "The leadership must be absolutely committed to their country by demonstrating, as an example, on how to curtail misuse of public funds" he said.
Which reforms is he talking about? Understandably many African countries had undertaken major economic reforms in the last decade or so, I inquired. Unfortunately, no reform "of substance" had taken place in the entire African continent since independence he says.
He blames the economic woes in Africa to failure of the African governments to invest in human resources through training in entrepreneurship, education, science and technology and creating forum for civic societies to debate the future of their respective countries.
(John Kilama can be reached at )
U.N. Report That May Help The Third World
- Dennis T. Avery, Grand Forks Herald August 13, 2001 (Excerpts here)
"The United Nation's Human Development Report 2001 sharply criticizes First World governments for pandering to affluent young dissidents instead of worrying about the real and urgent needs of the world's poor. The current debate in Europe and the U.S. over genetically modified crops mostly ignores the concerns and needs of the developing world, says the report, and tends to be driven by the views of Western consumers, who do not face food shortages or nutritional deficiencies, or work in the fields."
"The activists claim private corporations will patent biotech crops, freezing out low-income farmers and countries. The United Nations says there's an easy solution: more public funding for biotech crop research. Washington Post editorial writer Sebastian Mallaby calls opposition to biotech farming murderous nonsense. He writes, Over the next two decades, world population is projected to grow by between 2 billion and 2.5 billion. This increase, together with rising incomes, means that crops will have to grow by about one-third. ... We could do that by chopping down forests and planting marginal lands, which would be environmentally awful. Or we could do it by boosting yields with new technology.
Genetically Modified Crops -- What Do Scientists Say?
Rockville, MD -- In covering the issue of genetically modified crops, the national media have generally reported the views of anti-biotech interest group representatives, biotechnology company spokespersons and of federal regulatory agency officials. Often not reported in news stories in the national debate on this science question are the views of individual plant biologists. However, plant scientists with in-depth knowledge of modern transformation technologies offer views on this subject which merit public dissemination.
"Genetically Modified Crops: What Do The Scientists Say?" is a new special publication of the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) that provides the observations of prominent plant scientists concerning their own perspectives on modified crops. The publication is a collection of a dozen editorials published in ASPB's widely cited plant science journal, Plant Physiology from May 2000 to May 2001. (Headquartered in Rockville, Maryland, ASPB was formerly named the American Society of Plant Physiologists formed in 1924.) Editor-in-Chief of Plant Physiology Dr. Natasha Raikhel of Michigan State University noted, "We (plant scientists) have an obligation to help people understand the reasoning behind scientific research and genetic technology."
Dr. Norman Borlaug, founder of the Green Revolution and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, offers his valuable insights into the role that biotechnology might play, if allowed to, in fighting world hunger. Dr. Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and one of the creators of "Golden Rice," discusses the scientific, legal, and political hurdles that he and his colleagues are working to overcome to achieve their dream of providing vitamin-enhanced rice varieties for free to the poor of the world to prevent millions of children from being stricken blind. Dr. Mae Berenbaum of the University of Illinois discusses the distortions of science that have arisen as an academic debate concerning the safety of transgenic maize to Monarch butterfly larvae, has become the basis of a propaganda war. Drs. Jesse Machuka of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture and Luis R. Herrera-Estrella, Professor at Cinvestav-Mexico and Howard Hughes Medical Institute International Fellow, offer their perspectiv
Dr. Norman C. Ellstrand of the University of California, Riverside, offers a cautionary note of the need to maintain safeguards against unintended cross-pollination with the release of certain types of GMOs into the environment. Dr. Chris Somerville of the Carnegie Institution notes that the "pronouncements of professors are much less interesting to the media than those of protestors dressed as corncobs" as he suggests more effective ways for scientists to become involved in the public debate on modified foods. Dr. Bob Buchanan of the University of California, Berkeley, addresses genetic engineering and the allergy issue.
Dr. C.S. Prakash of Tuskegee University looks at the genetically modified crop debate in the context of agricultural evolution. Dr. James Siedow of Duke University reviews three books addressing the needs of feeding a growing world population and relates them to benefits offered by genetically modified crops. Dr. Ben Miflin of the IACR-Rothamsted Experimental Station, United Kingdom, looks at possible ramifications of rejection of modified foods in Western Europe led by nongovernmental organizations, such as Greenpeace. Dr. Anthony Trewavas of the University of Edinburgh discusses the importance of agricultural efficiency to save the wilderness. This collection of essays is essential reading for anyone interested in gaining a science-based understanding of the scientific questions underlying the GMO controversy.
Press copies of this special publication on modified crops are available by contacting Brian Hyps, ASPB Public Affairs Director at firstname.lastname@example.org. Others can order the publication though the ASPB web site at http://www.aspb.org/hotnews/gmcpub.cfm
From: "Miller, Larry"
Subject: Red v. Apel and firefighter deaths
Regarding the firefighter deaths in Washington State:
I have been following this debate, and while it is clearly unrelated to GMO discussions, I believe that both Red and Andrew need to understand some things about wildland firefighting and fire shelters. I have some experience and training in this area.
First regarding fire shelters: These devices were never designed to support a firefighter indefinitely when in contact with the intense heat of a wildland fire. Thus, it is critical that the person find a good spot to deploy. Clearly, the 4 that died picked a poor location. Why did they pick a bad spot to deploy? Because of a number of factors that all conspired to kill them, most of which were under their control.
1. They were working in an area not in direct contact with the fire, an inherently dangerous position.
2. They were working above the fire (upslope), another dangerous place.
3. There should have been at least one other person (eye-in-the-sky, scout on the ground) who was monitoring the fire, in communication with the fire crews, and in a position to tell them to get out before they did not have enough time to find a safe place to deploy.
4. If there was no such person monitoring the fire, the crew bosses should have allowed themselves more time to get out.
5. All crew and squad bosses carry radios, and it was incumbent upon them to regularly check with the overhead team about potential changes in the weather. If they didn't do this, they bear some responsibility.
6. Good escape routes and safety zones (that can be reached quickly) are critical on wildland fire. If these were not established and well known to the firefighters, here is another shortcoming.
There are a number of other factors contributing to the recent entrapment, but the above were probably the most critical. To place blame on the fire shelter itself is akin to blaming a Chevrolet Malibu when it takes a head-on collision from a Freightliner. There are several (fortunately, very few) instances over the past 15 years where firefighters had to deploy, did so in good safety zones, and although very scared, emerged alive and in one piece.
One can argue that the delay in water drops because of ESA concerns caused the fire to grow much larger than it would have otherwise, and I believe this to be case. But, it is clear in my view that a number of human mistakes were made, as outlined above, that were the primary causes of the entrapment. Resources (airtankers, e.g.) are often in short supply on wildland fires, so the firefighters very frequently must deal with the situation as is. These folks clearly made some very basic mistakes, and it cost them their lives.---- Regards, Larry
From: Alex Avery
Re: More on Pro-biotech and Infotainment
From: Red Porphyry>
Actually, Andrew, the infotainers Hannity & Colmes didn't get their facts
wrong about the firemen who burned to death in the Okananga National Forest.
They made the facts up.
If H&C made the story up out of whole cloth (as Red asserts), then The Washington Times repeated the lie in Wednesday's edition. I'm inclined to think H&C got it right, not wrong, but time will tell. It either happened the way H&C said, or it didn't. I think its clear that there was a huge time delay between the request for air support and the delivery of water. What explains that time delay, Red? Or was the time delay fabricated as well?
Red, are you assuming that because no other media outlets picked up on the story, it didn't happen? Can you back it up or prove it didn't happen the way H&C said? Can you explain the huge time delay? The infotainment charge is thin basis for calling "liar."- Alex Avery, Hudson Institute