Today's Topics in AgBioView.
* GM Tomato May Lead to Edible Medicines
* Plastid Engineering Bears Fruit
* Stable Genetic Transformation of Tomato Plastids
* Tomato Vaccines With A Green Tinge
* Victor and Victim
* Organic Food Too Pricey
* Beware The Purveyors of Ignorance
* EU Plans To Label And Trace GMOs
* GM Crops Are No Panacea For Poverty
* In Defense Of The Precautionary Principle
* Discussion on Virus in Africa by Rick Roush
* A Statistician With A Mission
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GM Tomato May Lead to Edible Medicines
Press Association , August 31, 2001. www.checkbiotech.org
Scientists have developed a genetically modified tomato which could pave the way to fruits and vegetables containing edible medicines. The tomato was created by altering its DNA, but a different kind of DNA from that normally targeted in GM experiments.
Instead of tampering with the chromosomes in cell nuclei, the scientists inserted a new gene into loops of DNA found in chloroplasts - specialised plant cell bodies which generate energy from sunlight. Unlike chromosomal DNA, the DNA in chloroplasts is not transmitted in pollen. There is, therefore, no danger of windblown pollen spreading foreign genes to other crops and wild plants.
Another advantage is that much more of the desired protein is produced using this technique because many thousands of copies of the genome are present in chloroplasts and other DNA-containing cell bodies, or "plastids".
Technical difficulties meant that non-chromosomal gene manipulation had been fully achieved only in tobacco plants before. One expert commenting on the research, reported in the journal Nature Biotechnology, described it as a "milestone". (See below for Abstract...CSP) The German scientists, led by Ralph Bock at the Institute of Plant Biochemistry and Biotechnology in Munster, inserted a gene for a marker protein into the tomato by bombarding leaves with DNA-coated gold particles.
Tests showed that a large amount of the protein was produced, amounting to up to 5% of total soluble leaf protein, and about half that level in the fruit. The scientists wrote: "Given the generally very high foreign protein accumulation rates that can be achieved in transgenic chloroplasts, this system paves the way to efficient production of edible vaccines, pharmaceuticals, and antibodies in tomato."
Plastid Engineering Bears Fruit
- Pal Maliga, Nature Biotechnology Sept 2001 Vol 19 pp 826 - 827
The tomato has been engineered to express in its plastids high levels of a recombinant protein.
Plastid transformation involves the targeting of foreign genes to the plastid's double-stranded circular DNA genome instead of chromosomal DNA. Plants engineered in this manner offer improved gene containment (because plastid DNA is not transmitted in pollen in most cases), high levels of protein accumulation, and the capacity to express multiple genes from polycistronic messenger RNA (mRNA). Until recently, most experimental work on transplastomics has focused on tobacco. In this issue, Bock and colleagues1 report successful plastid transformation in tomato, achieving notable levels of protein accumulation from a plastid transgene in the tomato fruit. Their findings indicate that transplastomic tomato fruit may be a useful system for production of edible vaccines.
Thus far, plastid transformation in higher plants has been routinely obtained only in tobacco. The tomato plants described by Bock and colleagues are the only other transplastomic plants that have been shown to be fertile and capable of transgene transmission to the next generation. Transplastomic potatoes, Arabidopsis, and rice have also been engineered, but these plants have not yet been shown to successfully transmit transgenes to the next generation2-4.
The difficulty of engineering the plastid genome lies in the large number (1,000–10,000) of genome copies per cell distributed among numerous (10–100) plastids. Transformation involves introduction of transgenes by the biolistic process, followed by insertion of foreign genes by two homologous recombination events via flanking plastid "targeting" sequences. Incorporation of the transgenes into the plastid genome is only the first step in obtaining a genetically stable plant, as several cell generations are necessary to dilute out all wild-type plastid genome copies. Other important factors for successful transformation include efficient homologous recombination to incorporate the transforming DNA, success in selective amplification of the transformed plastid genome copies, and attainment of a homoplastomic state in calli before plant regeneration in culture.
A key facet of the approach used by Bock and colleagues to generate transplastomic tomato plants was altering the conditions for chloroplast transformation, using low-light conditions during the selection phase, extending the selection phase, focusing on smaller leaf pieces, and optimizing the selection and plant regeneration scheme. --cut--
Stable Genetic Transformation of Tomato Plastids And Expression Of A Foreign Protein In Fruit
Nature Biotechnology, September 2001 Volume 19 Number 9 pp 870 - 875
Stephanie Ruf1, 2, Marita Hermann1, Irving J. Berger3, Helaine Carrer3 & Ralph Bock1, 2
1. Institut für Biologie III, Universität Freiburg, Schänzlestrae 1, D-79104 Freiburg, Germany. 2. Institut für Biochemie und Biotechnologie der Pflanzen, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster, Hindenburgplatz 55, D-48143 Münster, Germany. 3. Centro de Biotecnologia Agrícola, ESALQ, Universidade de São Paulo, Av. Pádua Dias 11, Piracicaba, SP, 13418-900, Brazil. Correspondence should be addressed to R Bock. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
(Abstract) Transgenic chloroplasts offer unique advantages in plant biotechnology, including high-level foreign protein expression, absence of epigenetic effects, and gene containment due to the lack of transgene transmission through pollen. However, broad application of plastid genome engineering in biotechnology has been largely hampered by both the lack of chloroplast transformation systems for major crop plants and the usually low plastid gene expression levels in nongreen tissues such as fruits, tubers, and other storage organs. Here we describe the development of a plastid transformation system for tomato, Lycopersicon esculentum. This is the first report on the generation of fertile transplastomic plants in a food crop with an edible fruit. We show that chromoplasts in the tomato fruit express the transgene to 50% of the expression levels in leaf chloroplasts. Given the generally very high foreign protein accumulation rates that can be achieved in transgenic chloroplasts (>40% of the total soluble pr
Tomato Vaccines With A Green Tinge
-Tabitha Powledge, BioMedNet News,
Transgenic tomatoes producing edible vaccines could be ready in two to three years, says a joint team of researchers from Germany and Brazil. The engineered plants are also unlikely to disperse foreign genes into the environment, the researchers claim.
"To develop similar technologies for other major food crops (particularly cereals) is likely to take a few more years of research," said Ralph Bock from the Institute of Plant Biochemistry and Biotechnology in Münster. "Plants like maize or wheat are much more difficult to handle in tissue culture and also are more difficult to regenerate from genetically engineered single cells," he added.
Bock, with colleagues from the University of Frieburg and the Center for Agricultural Biotechnology in São Paulo, claim to have made the tomatoes more environmentally friendly by inserting transgenes into the plant's plastids rather than into chromosomes in the cell nucleus. Like mitochondria in animal cells, plastids contain their own double-stranded DNA. Because there are thousands of them in every cell, transformed plastids can potentially produce lots of a desired protein. In addition, plastids don't usually contribute DNA to plant pollen, so they offer foreign gene containment superior to that of conventional genetic manipulation.
But not everyone is convinced of the tomatoes' contribution to ecological harmony. "If it's like a lot of other biotechnology 'breakthoughs,' they are often hyped beyond what they eventually become. I would be reserved in making strong statements about what the risks are, because I want to be sure it [the transgene] is solely confined to plastids," said Jane Rissler, the senior staff scientist in the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, DC.
E. Ann Clark, a plant scientist at the University of Guelph in Ontario, also has reservations. "In general terms, non-nuclear DNA transformation would improve the 'containability' of proprietary genes - which are completely out of control with the present nuclear-based approaches," she told BioMednet News. "However, it does not address - or improve upon - other fatal flaws in transgenic agriculture." She cites "the unintended, unpredictable, and demonstrably undetectable side-effects caused by transgene insertion (detected only post-commercialization, by farmers - missed entirely by regulators and even the proprietors, because the risk 'assessment' system is not designed to look for them)."
Other flaws, says Clark, include "the impossibility of post-harvest containment/segregation - which will still force consumers and importers to consumer products they clearly do not want to buy, and the absence of need for most if not all of the transgenic interventions currently in the marketplace." Clark concluded: "To a very large degree, transgenic crops are a solution in search of a problem, not vice versa."
Nevertheless, the research results from Bock and his colleagues, out tomorrow in September's Nature Biotechnology, have been impressive. These tomatoes' transgenes did generate high levels of a test protein, records Bock. And they are the only "transplastomic" plants except tobacco that have so far produced fertile seeds containing the transgene, he adds. This means that, once transformed, the fruit could be grown - and eaten - like ordinary tomatoes, Bock concludes.
Two key factors enable successful transformation of plastids, says Bock. First, microscopic specks of gold must be coated efficiently with transforming DNA and then shot into living cells with a particle gun, sometimes called a gene gun.
Then there are the tricky conditions for tissue culture and plant regeneration. "Successful delivery of foreign DNA into plastids is a rare event upon particle bombardment and optimum selection conditions are subsequently required to kill all the non-transformed leaf cells but let a cell with transformed plastids survive," he noted. Rissler points out that there are other potential risks not addressed by confining the transgene to plastids and harvesting only the fruit.
"What happens to the rest of the plant? Does it get plowed under? Does that affect soil communities? Is there a problem with those chemicals getting into places where they weren't intended to be?" she asked. It is also possible that vaccine-laden tomatoes could get into the human food supply, just as StarLink corn did, despite the fact that it was supposed to be fed only to livestock, notes Rissler. "There's going to be a real concern among other producers, post-StarLink, about any crop like that," she told BioMedNet News.
Bock concedes that one possible peril is release into the environment of antibiotic resistance genes, which are used as marker genes and for the moment are required to generate transgenic plants. "Our first tomatoes with engineered plastid genomes still contain an antibiotic resistance gene," Bock told BioMedNet News. But future biotechnological/biopharmaceutical applications of the technology will make use of new methods being developed to remove the antibiotic resistance gene.
Victor and Victim
- Howard P. Segal Nature 412, 861 (2001) August 30, 2001
'The true message of Frankenstein is about morality, not mad science.'
The increasing use of the word 'Frankenfood' by critics of genetically altered food is merely the latest instalment in the unending saga of anti-scientific sentiments allegedly originating with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818). It bespeaks the novel's continuing influence that so many immediately recognize the derivation of the term. Yet 'Frankenfood' also echoes persistent distortions of the novel. Those who use Frankenstein to bash not just biotechnology but science overall have apparently never read the book, or have never read it carefully.
In truth, Frankenstein is hardly a Luddite tract. its message is not a call to destroy laboratories or experiments in the manner of the legendary English machine-breakers of the same period. Nor is its message akin to the famous 10-year moratorium on all scientific research proposed by the Bishop of Ripon in 1927.
Instead, Frankenstein insists that scientists must take moral considerations into account before, during and after research and development, and that they must assume responsibility for the outcomes ˜ both intentional and unintentional ˜ of their experiments. Only if experiments prove harmful to society should they stop or be stopped. It is hardly surprising that Frankenstein is not more specific here. These now-commonplace positions were barely discussed in 1818, when science was largely the province of wealthy gentlemen whose research was immune from such regulations as university or governmental reviews of experiments on human subjects.
Contrary to the presentation of the story in most films and plays, what actually troubles Shelley about the scientist Victor Frankenstein is not so much his quest to discover the "cause of generation and life" but rather the secretive, self-centred and finally self-destructive manner in which he pursues this primitive form of physiological engineering. Victor works alone, confides in no one and steadily abandons his family and friends in the attempt to win fame (but not fortune, as he is already well-to-do).
What further disturbs Shelley is not so much Victor's use of dead animals and people to construct his being as his indifference towards how the creature would look, would relate to its creator, and would function outside the laboratory. Victor builds an eight-foot-tall being simply because larger body parts are easier to work with. He never ponders his creature's appearance until he brings it to life.
Indeed, it is critical to the novel's message that the creature is nameless. Contrary again to so many movie and stage versions, the name 'Frankenstein' belongs not to the creature but only to Victor and his family. Abandoned by Victor at 'birth', the unnamed being later compares its miserable plight to God's loving creation of Adam.
Yet it is too easy to characterize Victor as the quintessential mad scientist of most popular treatments. Rather, Shelley portrays him as extraordinarily self-centred. Victor himself notes that he is "not recording the vision of a madman". Instead, from the age of 15 until his death, he repeatedly blames "fate" for all his misfortunes. As Shelley understood, a truly mad scientist might escape moral responsibility for his actions.
Popular culture has also misrepresented the creature as an uncaring monster who kills innocent people without remorse. By now, 'Frankenstein' has nearly become a generic term for monster. In the novel, however, the creature feels guilty about its deeds and ironically, apart from appearance, is far more appealing than Victor. In fact, it is self- educated, sensitive and articulate, unlike the ignorant, grunting beasts of most popular versions. The creature is thereby capable of becoming Victor's missing moral compass. If Victor blames "fate", the creature blames itself, planning to build a bonfire and commit suicide as penance for its actions. Had Shelley believed that scientists should not explore the "cause of generation and life", she would surely have portrayed a genuine moral monster.
Still, recent feminist perspectives illuminate Shelley's implicit condemnation of Victor's intended usurpation of women's unique reproductive role. Victor's arrogance towards women is no less outrageous than his abandonment of his creature. His replacement of female procreation constitutes a threat to women far greater than any presented by his creature. In this context, Victor's eventual refusal to satisfy his creature by completing a female companion for it ˜ allegedly to prevent the couple from hurting other humans and from having offspring ˜ is not a sincere ethical stance but rather a self-serving attempt to control both women and the creature.
Like many of her contemporaries, Shelley was fascinated by reports of electrical charges being used to produce temporary signs of life in corpses and by speculation over the potential uses of both electricity and chemistry to create new life forms. One can certainly imagine her endorsing experiments in genetic engineering if they were conducted with the external scrutiny and the moral consideration utterly lacking in Victor's case.
Recent debates about cloning animals and eventually people, about stem-cell research creating and destroying life in the laboratory, and, of course, about 'Frankenfood' all clearly pose challenges to even the most fervent advocates of genetic engineering. Yet it is precisely such scientific and ethical dilemmas that engaged Mary Shelley and that make her original, undistorted Frankenstein more timely than ever.
Howard P. Segal is in the History Department, University of Maine, Orono, Maine 04469-5774, USA.
Letter: Organic Food Too Pricey
Totonto Star; August 30, 2001 Re A hard row to hoe, Food, Aug. 22.
Stuart Laidlaw's feature on organic agriculture tells readers that organic farmers have lower production costs than other farmers. But consumers pay twice as much for the resulting food products.
The most obvious conclusion is that consumers are being ripped off - by organic farmers, wholesalers or retailers - or perhaps all three. If Laidlaw's article really reflects the truth, then organic food should be cheaper than other foods - not more expensive. How about it Big Carrot?
- Terry Daynard, Ontario Corn Producers' Association, Guelph
Beware The Purveyors of Ignorance
- New Zealand Life Sciences Network Chief
The public should fear the misinformation and distortions of some anti-GM activists much more than GE itself, the Chairman of the New Zealand Life Sciences Network (Inc), Dr William Rolleston, said today. “The Greens are playing on people’s fears to pursue a political agenda. Having failed to convince the Royal Commission that they were right they have now turned to ordinary New Zealanders and are cynically trying to manipulate them.
“The Royal Commission spent many months closely examining all the evidence the Greens could muster from around the world and then said we should proceed cautiously with GM on a case by case basis. The Royal Commission said the risks can be assessed and managed. “The Greens couldn’t persuade the Royal Commission they asked for. Now they seek to persuade the public with misinformation and outright distortion.
“This is not democracy, this is a small minority trying to impose their ideas on the rest of us. “We all have the right to choose. Making a choice does not give us the right to stop someone else making a legitimate choice for themselves. There is no factual or scientific basis for the assertion that GM can’t co-exist with other types of agriculture in New Zealand – to say otherwise is to lie,” concluded Dr Rolleston.
For further information contact: Dr William Rolleston (03) 6126688 or (025) 2460634
EU Plans To Label And Trace GMOs
- Emma Dorey, Nature Biotechnology Sept 2001 Vol 19 p 795
On July 25, the European Commission (EC; Brussels, Belgium) adopted a system for labeling and tracing food and feed derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). While the aim is to address consumer safety fears and prompt the EU's national environment ministers to lift the de facto moratorium on GM crops, the proposals have been widely criticized as unworkable, costly, and prejudiced against biotechnology.
Mindful of the recent Starlink saga in the US (in which a GM crop approved for only feed found its way into the food chain; Nat. Biotechnol., 19, 298, 2001), the commission plans to establish an all-or-nothing approval procedure whereby GMOs must be approved for both food and feed or not at all. This new authorization procedure is the only proposal to have been generally well received.
Also under the new proposals, foods derived from GM ingredients—whether or not they actually contain GM DNA or protein—will have to be labeled as being derived from GMOs, and thus would include such highly refined foods as soya oil and glucose syrup. For the first time, the legislation will also apply to feed.
The EC wants to be able to trace GMOs from farm to fork and aims to set up a system requiring businesses at each stage of the production and distribution chain to record and keep information relating to the origin and movements of GMOs. The EC says this paper trail will "reduce the need for sampling and testing of products." As well as ensuring accurate labeling, the EC hopes the traceability measure will enable the quick withdrawal of a product should there be any adverse effect on human health.
As a trade concession, the commission has said it is willing to allow up to 1% adventitious presence of authorized GMOs in imported food and feed. Imports into the EU are to be labeled with an open declaration of possible GMOs they might contain. Importers will be required to conduct sampling and testing of unlabeled imports, and the Joint Research Centre of the Commission will be set up as a new Community Reference Laboratory that will have the main task of validating sampling and detection methods.
GM crop approvals were halted three years ago by a group of EU environment ministers bowing to public pressure. Food safety commissioner David Byrne says the new laws "will ensure that the regulatory framework in the EU is up to the high standard consumers expect." Indeed, Beate Kettliz, food policy advisor for the European consumers' organization Le Bureau Europeen des Unions de Consommateurs (BEUC; Brussels, Belgium), says BEUC's reaction to the proposals is "positive."
However, while the commission panders to European consumers, trade and industry groups are up in arms about the plans. If implemented, says Val Giddings, vice president of food and agriculture at the US Biotechnology Industry Organization (Washington, DC), the proposals will "further erode consumer confidence in European political and regulatory authorities; further inflame transatlantic tensions; and further retard European progress toward transforming agricultural production to a more sustainable, environmentally friendly, and economically successful model such as those emerging everywhere else in the world."
One of the concerns is that the proposed traceability regime will be hugely expensive to implement in the long, complicated distribution chains. Randall Warin, trade policy manager at the worldwide Grain and Feed Trade Association (GAFTA; London) says it is simply impractical because of the shear volumes of traded commodities.
Another is that the labeling requirements will be practically impossible to police because there is no test sensitive enough to verify samples. While the EC says it will develop technical guidance on sampling and testing methods, GAFTA's Warin notes, "We've talked to quite a few scientists and they've said this legislation is probably 10 years ahead of the analytical methods."
Even spokespeople from less vociferous groups question the logic. "We are concerned that fraud is much more possible when you are labeling things without being able to test for them," says Natalie Moll, manager of external and government relations at the EU industry body EuropaBio (Brussels, Belgium). "If you make laws that are so easily side-steppable, then we have to wonder why you are doing it." Even BEUC's Kettlitz questions the practical application of the proposal to test for the presence of non-authorized GMOs. "How would this happen," she asks.
Moreover, it is unclear how the labeling and tracing provisions provide improved food safety, as GM crops undergo extensive scientific risk assessment before being placed on the market. And labeling products derived from biotechnology with no GM material present amounts to labeling a process—something the Grocery Manufacturers of America (Washington, DC) says is not consistent with the EU's trade obligations and penalizes countries that have adopted biotechnology. "The proposal establishes a costly, discriminatory and likely prohibitive set of requirements for trade in products of biotechnology without the identification of any health or safety risk to justify such measures," according to the GMA. "The EC's mandatory labeling requirements targeting methods of food production undermine science-based labeling...and will play havoc with global food trade."
The European Parliament and Council have now to decide whether to go ahead with the proposals. But as Tony Anderson, chair of the American Soybean Association (St Louis, MO), warns: "If the EU follows through on their promise of accurately testing every [unlabeled] load that comes in, I'll stand by my statement that the EU has bought the last of the grain from outside their country."
GM Crops Are No Panacea For Poverty
Liz Fletcher, Nature Biotechnology Sept 2001 Vol 19 pp 797 - 798
At the end of July, Brazil's government was flirting with the authorization for the release of Monsanto's Roundup Ready soy for planting, potentially reversing an earlier moratorium on the planting of genetically modified (GM) crops in this country. Brazil is just one of many developing nations debating the benefits of GM crops, and a recent report from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA; Ithaca, NY) reveals that the uptake of GM crops in developing countries now outstrips that in industrialized nations. Some supporters of agricultural biotechnology claim that transgenic crops could help alleviate global hunger, but insufficient public funding for agricultural research and limited access to the technology could hamper this goal.
According to the Global Status of Commercialized Transgenic Crops: 2000 report by the ISAAA, there was an 11% increase—equivalent to 4.3 million hectares—in transgenic crops planted between 1999 and 2000. In total, 44.2 million hectares (109.2 million acres)—roughly twice the size of the United Kingdom—are now cultivated with GM crops (around 16% of all crops grown globally). However, almost all of this increase (84%) was within developing regions of the world: GM crop planting in industrialized nations increased by just 2%, compared with the 51% rise in hectares planted within developing regions. Today, around a quarter of all GM crops are now planted outside North America (see Table). GM has, it seems, gone global.
The ISAAA claims that the figures make a "compelling case for biotechnology ... [in their] vital contribution for food security," and that the uptake "spoke volumes of the confidence and trust farmers have placed in transgenic crops." Indeed, the United Nations' Human Development Report 2001 claimed that transgenic crops could "significantly reduce malnutrition" in developing countries, calling for greater investment in R&D in this area.
However, various interpretations of the data can be made. Peter Rossett, the co-director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy (Oakland, CA) points out that, to date, only wealthy farmers in relatively well-developed countries have adopted the technology. The majority of the hectares planted outside of North America (75% of the total) are in Argentina (23% of the total) and South Africa (<1% of the total; and see Table 1). "These crops are planted entirely by larger farmers for export—this is nothing to do with poverty and hunger," says Rossett. Michael Khoo, genetic engineering campaigner for Greenpeace Canada, also doubts that farmers in developing countries are clamoring for GM crops. "There is no indication of a ground swell of support [in developing countries]." Indeed, Greenpeace has a petition from 291 international development agencies against GM foods.
Val Giddings, vice president of food and agriculture for the US Biotechnology Industry Organization (Washington, DC) argues that GM products are in demand in developing countries. "[The ISAAA] report shows that, where governments have got out the way [e.g., Argentina], GM products are snapped up because they deliver," says Giddings. Although European activists capture most media attention for their aggressive lobbying campaigns, developing countries have also cultivated a healthy anti-GM sentiment, which has forced the hand of governments to ban GM food products and crop trials. For example, last year, Sri Lanka banned all GM foods, and Thailand has placed a moratorium on field trials of up to 40 GM crops.
However, despite claims that transgenic crops can feed the world's poor, agbiotech provides no simple fix for hunger and poverty. Khoo comments: "Nine out of every ten people who think it [agbiotech] is a good thing know nothing about world hunger". Rossett agrees: "Hunger is entirely unrelated to food production but to access and distribution...Hunger is more to do with macroeconomic policies." He adds, "If there is low productivity then what are its causes? If it were due to farming practices then these might have to be changed. If it were due to crop genetics then perhaps we could talk about crop biotechnology, but it is not; and we would still have to analyze the risks."
BIO's Giddings agrees that local initiatives to develop transgenic varieties of local staples may be well placed to provide targeted solutions for local farming conditions such as poor soils, drought, and local pests. Indeed, recent ISAAA research suggests that many developing countries are actively developing GM varieties of local staple foods. For example, China has approved four of its own transgenic products (cotton, tomato, sweet pepper, and petunia) and has another 14 products in field trials. Although the Indian government has not approved any commercial GM crops, it is actively developing local varieties of GM rice, tobacco, potato, tomato, brassica, mustard/rapeseed, and cotton.
However, "home grown talent focused on solving local problems" can only, says Giddings, provide a long-term solution if there is greater publicly funded research internationally. "General funding for agricultural research has been in decline for two generations," says Giddings. Greenpeace's Khoo agrees: "There is a trend within countries to reduce government support and increase the role of corporations in funding science." Large corporations prefer to invest in research into products with large-volume markets rather than low-volume local ones. Khoo is also concerned about access to these new technologies, when the intellectual property ("the seeds") is owned by a limited number of companies. "Almost 80% of households in developing countries use saved seeds," a practice that is prohibited with products such as Monsanto's RoundUp Ready soybeans.
Another concern arising from the application of transgenic technologies is the absence of a robust regulatory framework in most developing countries. Regulatory systems are generally created on an ad hoc basis, or with help from Western companies or governments. Giddings says countries whose regulatory systems are most well advanced—Argentina and Egypt—based much of their protocols on those from North American and Australia, adapting them to suit their local environment. For example, agbiotech giant Monsanto (St Louis, MO) helped Egypt develop regulatory practices for GM cotton. But developing countries generally have poor role models, getting advice in the form of "exported European policies and regulations that are dysfunctional and flawed models," he says.
In addition, the UN's Human Development report points out that developing countries lack the financial resources to set up monitoring systems to measure the impact of GM crops on human welfare and the environment. Communication strategies for public education about GM products are also inadequate. In the end, says Rossett, any risks of the technology within developing countries are, as in industrialized nations, both economic and ecological, "but the risks are much larger when they are taken by poorer farmers."
In Defense Of The Precautionary Principle
Carolyn Raffensperger & Katherine Barrett , Nature Biotechnology Sept 2001 Vol 19. p 811-812
To the editor
As representatives of one of the civil society organizations mentioned in Miller and Conko's Commentary on the precautionary principle (Nat. Biotechnol. 19 , 302–303, 2001 ), we would like to respond by clarifying both our position and the current status of the precautionary principle in environmental and public health policy.
The precautionary principle was first established as a concept of environmental law in the 1970s. Since that time, precaution has been invoked in numerous international environmental agreements, including the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, and more recently the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety which regulates international movement of genetically modified (GM) organisms. The precautionary principle is also stated explicitly in the environmental policies of several countries (e.g., Canada, Australia, and Sweden) and in the Maastricht Treaty of the European Union. The US Department of Agriculture (Washington, DC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA, Rockville, MD) adamantly claim that US food safety policies are firmly grounded in a precautionary approach, but stop short of acknowledging precaution as a principle of law1. Precaution, therefore, is a widely recognized and adopted foundation for making wise decisions under uncertain conditions.
Although there are differences in wording, three core elements are present in all statements of the precautionary principle: if there is reason to believe that a technology or activity may result in harm and there is scientific uncertainty regarding the nature and extent of that harm, then measures to anticipate and prevent harm are necessary and justifiable.
The precautionary principle is necessary and justifiable because, simply stated, our ability to predict, calculate, and control the impacts of technologies such as GM organisms is limited. The novelty and complexity associated with inserting isolated gene constructs into organisms, and releasing those organisms on a global scale demand that we acknowledge uncertainties, accept responsibility, and exercise due caution. This is recognized by the international adoption of the Protocol on Biosafety and by independent scientific bodies in the US, EU, and Canada among others2, 3.
Although there is consistency among definitions, no uniform, global recipe exists for implementing the precautionary principle. It is a general principle, not a set of rules, and it must remain responsive to social and ecological context. Nonetheless, it is possible and important to set procedural guidelines such that implementation is not arbitrary. We advocate the following six steps:
By this process, the precautionary principle is neither unscientific nor anti-technology. It requires robust scientific analysis with close attention to uncertainty and to the probability of both false positive and false negative conclusions. The precautionary principle can also stimulate alternative directions for regulatory policies and technology development. Its power lies not in halting all new activities, but in heightening our attention to the potential consequences of our actions, shifting the scope of questions we ask about technologies, and finding innovative solutions to complex problems.
Above all, the precautionary principle is grounded firmly in democratic process. None of the above steps can be implemented without transparent and inclusive decision-making. Lack of democratic process has been a primary source of contention surrounding GM crops and food. Under the precautionary principle, not only is this ethically unacceptable, it is an impoverished procedure for making decisions about a technology that now affects (voluntarily or not) millions of people and many other species throughout the world.
REFERENCES 1. http://www.foodsafety.gov/~fsg/ fssyst4.html
Continuation of Discussion on Virus in Africa by Rick Roush
Dear Rev Hunt:
We can trade activist web sites all month, but they still don't answer the question: " What traditional or organic methods would you propose to use to control plant virus diseases in Africa?". I am still looking for a practical and effective answer from the people on this list, but thus far I am getting only platitudes. How can you are so easily dismiss a GM solution without knowing of or offering a viable alternative? -Rick
I am very familiar with the basics of Biointensive farming and think that it has great value, but neither they nor you have answered my question. A healthy soil and ecosystem can go a long way to fending off insect pests (although not always; a healthy cotton crop is well protected against spider mites but is even more attractive to boll worms), but have you anything specific about viruses in the tropics? As a recent volcanic island, Hawaii has some of the richest soils in the world, but lost all of its non-GM papaya orchards to virus.
A healthy body will survive better in the face of AIDS, but won't cure it. A better strategy is to combine the best of all of the available tactics, drugs and good health. That is the principle many of us are trying to apply; not the unbridled use of GM everywhere, but to consider it as an option when other strategies work poorly.
I happy to approach this with an open mind, but ask in return that you do like wise. If you can't offer specific alternatives, how can you fairly dismiss a GM approach? - Rick
A Statistician With A Mission
- Tony Gilland, spiked-science
'There is very little rocket science in this book', states Professor Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World. Maybe not - but its publication in the UK has caused something of an explosion.
Lomborg does not strike you as the type to embrace the role of Eco-Enemy. This young-looking 36-year-old blond Dane carries a rucksack with a minidisc player in the pocket, and you can just imagine him taking an easy hike up a mountain and extolling the virtues of clean living and the natural world to those of us still trying to catch our breath. He is also, as I discovered over lunch, a vegetarian.
So what caused this fresh-faced former Greenpeace member to put together a relentless attack on what he terms 'the Litany of our ever-deteriorating environment', marshalling page after page of figures, tables and arguments to blow apart the commonly held beliefs of resource scarcity, species extinction, air and water pollution, massive deforestation, soil erosion and all kinds of other environmental scares? What transformed him from something of an armchair environmentalist into the Skeptical Environmentalist?
Lomborg did not set out to prove the conclusions he draws in his book. Indeed, until relatively recently, Lomborg himself bought into the very 'Litany' that he now condemns. From the age of 18 to 22, Lomborg was a member of Greenpeace - attracted to the organisation because of 'a feeling that the world was coming apart, that man was abusing the Earth and we really had to do something about it'. While his track record as an environmental activist is unimpressive ('I was never in a rubber boat, and when short of cash as a student I had to discontinue my membership of Greenpeace'), he maintains that his concerns for the environment 'continued well into the 1990s'.
Lomborg describes his original environmental concerns as 'fairly unreflective' and 'more the average intelligent newspaper reader kind of a worry'. Despite being an academic statistician, he had never thought to subject his own environmental beliefs to the rigorous scrutiny of his discipline.
But in 1997, Lomborg became a statistician with a mission. He happened across an interview with the late American economist and anti-environmental crusader Julian Simon in Wired magazine; and Simon's argument - that much of our knowledge about the environment is based on preconceptions and poor statistics - provoked Lomborg to establish a study group of his 10 best students. Though he describes the exercise as 'primarily for fun', to Lomborg's surprise much of what Simon had said 'stood up to scrutiny' and prompted him to probe the issue more deeply.
The Skeptical Environmentalist is the consequence: the product of four years of thorough statistical examination of the major environmental concerns over the past 30 years. The outcome of this research leads Lomborg to conclude that things are getting better on almost every count. While still claiming to be an environmentalist because he 'cares for the Earth and the future health and wellbeing of its succeeding generations', Lomborg's analysis of environmental facts has clearly left him with a favourable impression of human beings and their achievements. 'We have more leisure time, greater security and fewer accidents, more education, more amenities, higher incomes, fewer starving, more food, and a healthier and longer life,' he writes. 'This is the fantastic story of mankind, and to call such a civilisation "dysfunctional" is quite simply immoral.'
Armed with an impressive amount of statistical knowledge of environmental issues, from deforestation to species loss, from air and water pollution, to water scarcity and global warming, Lomborg now wants 'to have a discussion with people who are like I was, and just go along with all this stuff'. Consequently, Lomborg, who regards himself as 'something of a lefty', turned down offers from The Sunday Times and the Daily Telegraph to serialise his book, and instead pursued a (recently published) serialisation in the UK Guardian . This certainly provoked a reaction - although it is doubtful whether, given the pervasiveness of the environmental concerns addressed by Lomborg, readers of the more right-wing press would, as he had assumed, 'just nod and say we knew that all along'.
The reaction against Lomborg's arguments has been strong and vocal, yet to date it has been fairly superficial, and appears to be based on the abbreviated presentation of his facts and argument printed in the press. For example, after publishing Lomborg's series, the Guardian invited three leading environmental figures to 'dispute his theories'. Charles Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth, argued that Lomborg 'has turned a proper scepticism about green claims into a slapdash attempt to dismiss all environmental arguments'. Tom Burke, a former director of Friends of the Earth, stated that 'the one resource crunch that Lomborg neglects to mention is the availability of water' - a resource that 'many environmentalists have consistently warned is most likely to be the first to become indisputably under threat'.
Lomborg easily accepts the gaps in this particular serialisation: 'Since I'm talking about the entire world there will always be stuff I haven't been able to deal with in a six-page Guardian article.' But had his critics managed to read his 500-page book, which contains over 180 well-presented figures and tables, over 80 pages of detailed notes and a 70-page bibliography, they might have qualified the 'slapdash' accusations. Likewise, they might have noticed that, far from ignoring the concerns about water scarcity, Lomborg has devoted a chapter of his book to this very issue.
The critics' difficulty with Lomborg, it seems, is not his failure to engage with the water issue, but the conclusions he draws from having done so: that the problem is not, as many claim, 'a shortage of water', but the difficulty in getting it to people. His analysis shows, in short, that 'the problem is not that some are using too much water but that the world is using too little'. If more countries could afford to desalinate sea water, for example, the problem would be solved. That they cannot bears out Lomborg's point: that 'poverty, and not the environment, is the primary limitation for solutions to our problems'.
In order to appreciate fully The Skeptical Environmentalist , the whole book really needs to be digested. But discreet and sophisticated examples can give you a sense of the 'shoddy and misleading' statistics that Lomborg has become fascinated by and incensed with. One example that particularly intrigued me was Lomborg's account of a figure used by the influential environmental organisation the Worldwatch Institute to support its Malthusian predictions about the impact of population growth on food consumption.
The figure in question - average grain produced per inhabitant of the world - is reputable, and is sourced from the United States Department of Agriculture. But the way it is presented is somewhat misleading. The statistic peaked in 1984 at 344 kg of grain produced per person in the world. This per capita average has since fallen by about 11 percent. The implication seems to be that improvements in agricultural productivity are no longer keeping pace with an expanding population, and that the amount of grain potentially available to each person (if it were distributed equally) is declining.
But Lomborg's analysis shows that it pays to ask a few questions about the composition of this statistic. If you break the statistic down into industrialised countries and developing countries, you find that in industrialised countries grain production has stabilised at about 650 kg of grain per person. In developing countries, grain production has grown from 157 kg per person in 1961 to 211 kg in 2000.
While it is the case that, as the world population grows less grain is currently being produced per capita, the focus on the global average hides the fact that, in the developing countries where the population is growing, more food per capita is actually being produced. The reason why the global statistic shows a decline is because of the large number of additional people living where agricultural productivity is so much lower than productivity in the industrialised world. But productivity in the developing world is still increasing sufficiently to maintain an increasing per capita amount of grain production there, despite massive increases in population levels. Obviously, further improvements are desirable and achievable, but it is clearly not the case that things are getting worse, as the Worldwatch Institute would like us to believe. On the contrary, food production is improving.
Such statistical sleights of hand (described by Lomborg as 'a statistical finesse') are obviously nothing new, and their use has certainly not been restricted to environmentalists. However, The Skeptical Environmentalist is full of similar examples, which Lomborg has used to undermine some of the most cherished environmental concerns. And while Lomborg is not the first to highlight the gap between perception and reality when it comes to many environmental concerns, the breadth of his statistical examination is impressive. I have considered myself something of an eco-sceptic for some time: still, on reading Lomborg's book I was struck by just how many questions have gone unasked, and statistics that have gone unchallenged, because so many seem predisposed to believe that things are getting worse and worse.
Even those companies and industries at the wrong end of environmental campaigns - which, you might imagine, would be the first to marshal Lomborg's arguments in their defence - often prefer to go along with the general negativity about the environment. Here Lomborg has a story to tell. When he first got his study group together to examine Julian Simon's claims, an initial thought was that Simon must be wrong, otherwise industry would be making far greater mileage out of his arguments. So Lomborg got on the phone to one of Denmark's leading industrial trade associations to ask if they were aware of Simon's work. They were. But when Lomborg asked them why they were not drawing people's attention to these issues, the response was simply: 'bad PR.'
As Lomborg now realises, 'companies can pass on the cost of environmental regulations and they want to look good, so they don't care because they are not paying'. While not true in every instance, in general industry has an interest in selling us things that society appears to want, and little interest in challenging deeply held myths. Ultimately, political argument, drawing on facts and analysis, is required to clarify why we have become so susceptible to pessimistic fears, and to encourage us to fight for a better human world than the one we inherit at birth.
Why are we such pessimists, when it comes to the environment? 'I think it is basically something about what we want to see in the world', says Lomborg. 'If you know the world is going downhill you don't even stop to ask questions.' He went on to explain that 'one of the main points in statistics is to check for a third variable to disaggregate and shed light on the information before you'. This sounds straightforward enough - for example, when it comes to grain production, the third variable would be per capita grain production in developing countries.
But as Lomborg points out, half the battle is working out what that third variable might be. 'Students frequently ask me how we know which variable to check when there are an infinite amount of possibilities', he explains - and to know that is ultimately a question of 'smartness' and your ability to 'ask the right question'.
Clearly, one of Lomborg's biggest talents is in asking the right question. But notwithstanding the impressive amount of insightful statistical analysis in his book, the broader political conclusions implicit in this analysis are crucial. Despite Lomborg's desire to focus on the facts, his research has led him to an understanding about the way in which society has become so pessimistic about its relationship with nature, and what humanity can achieve, that we have lost the ability to question our own negative assumptions. Without this understanding, no number of facts can explain the impact of environmentalism today - let alone challenge this phenomenon.
Lomborg argues that he is still 'very much an environmentalist', and that 'it is a good thing to have green organisations around, though we should always treat them as complete truth-sayers'. However, Lomborg's brand of environmentalism is clearly very much at odds with the environmental issues that hold sway today. For example, he doesn't object to the concept of sustainable development in its literal and banal sense, but does object when 'it is used as an argument against industrialisation based on the idea that we have consumed too much or that others would be repeating our mistakes'.
And when some argue that we are destroying the planet for future generations, Lomborg responds that 'we are leaving future generations much more able to do pretty much whatever they want, that most of the things that matter to us we are fairly well in control of and passing on to our descendants an even better state of affairs'.
Lomborg places a great deal of emphasis on human ingenuity, which, he says, 'seems to be solving the problems we face'. He is critical of the precautionary principle - the orthodoxy that every new scientific development should be treated with the utmost caution - because he believes that this exaggerates the significance of uncertainties in relation to the environment and leads to 'a vast over investment in environmental areas and our missing out on much better opportunities elsewhere that cost lives'.
How successful does Lomborg think his critique of the 'the Litany of our ever-deteriorating environment' will be? He believes that his work has already had some positive impact in Denmark, and that as a result 'when it comes to the environment people worry a little less and ask a few more questions'. Moreover, he argues that 'the environmental ministry now has to step up its cost benefit analysis, and so we spend our money more wisely. That has to be good for everybody'. And now his book is published in the UK, we will see the impact for ourselves. Certainly, The Skeptical Environmentalist should be required reading for all senior civil servants, government ministers and corporate executives who adopt ever more environmental policies and regulations to assuage often misplaced fears.
As I wrap up my conversation with Lomborg, he tells me that his book will be coming out in the USA on 6 October, but that he is concerned that he will have to 'be even more careful to say I'm just stating facts and not supporting George Bush...just providing a better foundation for making decisions about how to improve the world'. He is concerned about being misconstrued as a right-winger or a messenger boy for Bush, before people listen to his argument. But there is more to Lomborg than Mr Facts - and if The Skeptical Environmentalist is going to make the impact Lomborg desires, he has to get out there with the analysis, too.
Facts are crucial, but Lomborg's analysis of the facts have led him to something just as important - the understanding that a human-centred world is something to be celebrated. Building on these points is the only way we will ever get to explore the full potential of being human. In this sense, the issue is not simply one of resource optimisation and prioritisation, as Lomborg has a tendency to present it, but one of recognising that human beings are our most important resource, as an asset not a burden.
While it is important to win the argument that in general things have got better and better, this alone would be too complacent. You only have to look at the underdeveloped character of so many parts of the world (of which Sub-Saharan Africa is the most glaring example), which the phrase 'sustainable development' has become an apology for, to see how human lives, creativity and potential are being squandered. And in the Western world can anybody seriously argue that they are intoxicated by how well we are maximising our human potential? To paraphrase the Skeptical Environmentalist - wake up and smell the coffee!
The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg, is published in the UK on 30 August 2001 by Cambridge University Press. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)
Hear the Skeptical Environmentalist in his own words, at this spiked-debate: The State of the Planet: an evening debate produced by spiked in association with Cambridge University Press and The Royal Institution. Mick Hume, spiked editor and columnist with The Times (London), will lead a discussion with Professor Bjorn Lomborg and Edward Goldsmith, founder of The Ecologist and author of The Case Against the Global Economy and The Way.
When: Wednesday 12 September 2001, 7.30pm
Where: The Royal Institution, 21 Albemarle Street, London W1S 4BS (nearest tube station: Piccadilly Circus). Booking line: +44 (0)20 7670 2985 ; Enquiries: +44 (0)20 7409 2992
Tony Gilland is co-director of Science, Knowledge and Humanity , a major public debate examining the contemporary controversies surrounding the pursuit of knowledge and application of science. The conference takes place from 26 to 28 October 2001 in New York City, and is hosted by the Institute of Ideas in conjunction with the New School University. For more information call +44 20 7269 9229, email email@example.com