Today's Topics in AgBioView.
* Pew Highlights AgBio Potential
* New Zealand GM Discussion: Where Were You?
* Paarlberg Statement on AgBiotech to US Governors
* Seeds of Contention
* Allergic Overreaction to GM Plants?
* Ensure Biotech Reaches Poor, Says ADB Report
* French Growers Urge Justice in GM Crop Sackings
* Why People Believe Weird Things
* Authors of 'Empire' Defend Globalization with Marxist Theory
* Do EU GM Regulations Help Regain Consumer Confidence?
* Southern Illinois U. Researcher Deconstructs Soybean Genome
* Technology's Impact on Food Production
* Reduced Bt cotton efficacy in Australia
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Pew Highlights AgBio Potential
Bullet-proof vests made from goats' milk, plants that can clean up toxins from soil and foods that can target specific vitamin and nutritional deficiencies could be a few of the next wave of products in the agricultural biotechnology pipeline, according to a new report, "Harvest on the Horizon: Future Uses of Agricultural Biotechnology," released today from the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.
The report catalogues selected current research and development efforts in agricultural biotechnology. "This report shows that biotechnology is a powerful technology with the potential to create remarkable new products," said Mike Rodemeyer, executive director of the Initiative. "However, many of these products are likely to generate significant public debate over their relative risks and benefits. In addition, the broad scope of the research profiled in this report raises important questions, including whether the regulatory system will be ready for the next generation of biotechnology products."
"By describing what's in the biotechnology R&D pipeline, Harvest on the Horizon is intended to stimulate debate and help the public and policymakers better understand both the potential and the risks of the next generation of biotechnology products," said Rodemeyer. Other activities of the Initiative will focus on the controversies surrounding the technology, which are not addressed in this report.
Highlights of biotech research underway include:
* Nutrition: Research is being undertaken to add vitamin E, an anti-oxidant with a possible preventive relationship to cancer, to vegetable oils; to reduce the undesirable saturated fats of cooking oils; to increase protein quantity and quality in vegetable staples; and to reduce the allergenic properties of milk, wheat, and other products to make them available to those who are ordinarily sensitive to them. There is also research on ways to add nutrients such as vitamin A and iron to rice, a staple part of the diet in many developing countries.
* Food vaccines: Foods such as bananas are being genetically modified to produce vaccines for illnesses ranging from Hepatitis B to traveller’s diarrhoea to tooth decay. The advantage to using foods to deliver vaccines is that it permits the vaccine to be consumed directly by humans or animals as food or feed, and eliminates the need for purification of the vaccine strain, refrigeration and the hazards associated with injections.
* Environmental clean-up: Researchers are creating TNT-sensitive bacteria that could be useful in landmine detection as well as engineering zebrafish that can detect pollutants such as dioxin or PCBs. Scientists are also working with a number of plants to enhance their natural ability to absorb and store toxic and hazardous substances that could assist in the cleanup of contaminated soils and chemical leaks.
* Medical treatments: Scientists are investigating ways to bioengineer animals to produce human medical treatments, such as genetically modified sheep that produce fibrinogen, a major component in blood clotting that is used in wound treatment. Researchers are also genetically modifying animals to be able to use their organs for transplantation into humans; for example, scientists might be able to transform pigs so that humans won't reject their organs, a current problem with animal-to-human transplants.
* Endangered trees: Genetic engineering is being used to help recover trees threatened by disease, such as the American chestnut, a hardwood that was destroyed by a blight that killed 3.5 billion trees in the first half of the 20th century.
* Disease containment: Research is being conducted to reduce the ability of mosquitoes to spread diseases such as malaria. For example, engineering mosquitoes to be resistant to the malaria parasites they host could reduce their ability to transmit the disease -- which strikes some 300 to 500 million persons in the developing world annually.
* Decorative plants and grasses: Scientists are working to genetically engineer grass that needs little watering. Research is also being conducted on ways to engineer flowers and potted plants with different shades of colour and intensity than would normally be found in nature, as well as ways to change their size and shape (e.g. dwarf plants). Biotechnology techniques are already being used to extend the shelf life of cut flowers.
Copies of the full report are available at: http://www.PewAgBiotech.org/harvest
The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology describes itself as a nonprofit, nonpartisan research project whose goal is to inform the public and policymakers on issues about genetically modified food and agricultural biotechnology, including its importance, as well as concerns about it and its regulation. It is funded by a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts to the University of Richmond.
Web site: http://www.PewAgBiotech.org/harvest
New Zealand GM Discussion: Where Were You?
- Leonard N. Bloksberg; (Forwarded by Francis Wevers )
I came sailing down Queen St. on my bike with my Pro GMO placards draped over my body, front and rear. I met the parade at Fort St. and led the march up Queen St. When I arrived, I cycled right down in front of the mob, smiled and raised my fist. They all cheered for me and then their jaws dropped as they realised what they were cheering for. It was magnificent. All the way up Queen St. I shouted "Feed the hungry, Cure the sick, Fight for a real cause". I wonder if you could hear me where ever you were?
One highlight was when a protestor got in my face and demanded "what are you on about?". "I replied that 120 million children die of starvation every year" and he stopped me and shouted "Birth control you idiot, birth control". I replied that I agreed with him , absolutely, but "for the people who are alive, don't we have a responsibility to take care of those who are already born?". "No, he shouted, kill them all, population control". Stunned, I looked him in the eye and asked, "would you personally kill 120 million innocent children a year?". "Yes I would" he shouted back "To stop GMOs, I would kill them all"! And there you have it.
One news paper reporter asked for my name. I declined, and told him that "I have hundreds of friends who would like to have been out here today, but were afraid of being attacked and having their homes and cars vandalised by these people. I hope you will understand".
One TV camera asked me for a statement. I said "We paid 6.5 million dollars to get all Kiwis together, to review all the facts, and to see what this meant to New Zealanders. These people are protesting because they didn't get their way, and they are willing to bully the rest of the country into going against the will of all New Zealanders."
Another TV camera asked me for a statement. I told him that "120 million children die of starvation every year. We are trying to provide a way to help these people. I would like to ask each of these protestors to come with me to Ethiopia or Sudan with me. I would like to hand them a starving child, reduced to skin and bones by starvation. I would like to ask them to look at that child in their arms and look me in the eye and then tell me that they would take even one tool away from me which would help me feed this child."
Radio B-FM interviewed me. I said "Do you remember that calculation someone did back in the 1960's that said we had enough food to feed everyone on the planet?" "Yes", he replied. "That was 40 years ago. The population of the planet has doubled since then. It is no longer true.
The president of the United Nations World Food Bank said that his job has been reduced to presiding over the deaths by starvation of 120 million innocent children per year. He begged scientists to provide him with any tools which would help make a difference and save some of these people."
Yet another TV camera asked for a statement. I said "GMOs have been around for 30 years and there have been no problems. Over half the planet, that's more than 3 billion people have consumed GMO products, and there have been no problems. There are people dying of starvation and disease, and GM technology offers hope to do something about these problems, but these people want to stop it. We are trying to do something positive about real problems in our world and these people want to stop it because they are afraid of a technology that's been around for 30 years with no problems. We can make a difference, we can make our world better, but we need to work together for real causes."
Another TV camera ran up as an anti GM protestor jumped in my face and started demanding facts. The camera came up and I responded calmly to his vehement attack "How about this for facts. The USA is the most litigious nation in the world. Now over 3 million people have consumed GM products, and I ask you, has there been even 1 law suit filed against Monsanto for injury suffered due to GM products? I'm not asking for one they won, but has anyone even suffered any injury that led to a single injury suit being filed against Monsanto due to GM products? After 30 years, and more than 3 billion people consuming GM products, there have been no problems, and you can name no law suit." The anti GM protestor stuttered and the camera backed away.
Occasionally a protestor would holler "On your bike" at me. I hollered back "I am, and I ride my bike to work every day, how about you?". that shut them up but good. Yes, I had people try to knock me off my bike, yes I got hit with some stuff they threw at me, but I was there, and I had fun.
PS: Here are the slogans I was wearing:
Go GMO; 30 Years And No Problems
Go GMO; 3 Billion Served And No Problems
Pro GMO, Anti Hunger (Fight For A Real Cause)
Pro GMO, Anti Disease (Fight For A Real Cause)
Pro GMO, Anti Native Logging (Fight For A Real Cause)
Pro GMO, Anti Pollution (Fight For A Real Cause)
Pro GMO, Anti Pesticide (Fight For A Real Cause)
Leonard N. Bloksberg Ph.D. ; Senior Staff Scientist (Bioinformatics, Gene Mining, Molecular Genetics, Biochemistry) ; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.genesis.co.nz
Statement on Agricultural Biotechnology to the Annual Meeting of The National Governor's Association at Providence, Rhode Island; August 6, 2001
- Robert Paarlberg , Department of Political Science
The United States has recently been out of step with the rest of the world in a number of policy areas, including climate change, landmines, the international criminal court, a comprehensive nuclear test ban, and national missile defense. So perhaps it is unsurprising we are also out of step with the rest of the world on the issue of genetically modified (GM) crops. A majority of farmers in the United States are enthusiastic about growing GM crops, and most of our consumers are comfortable eating foods made from those crops, but in much of the rest of the world an attitude of skepticism and opposition prevails. Because U.S. farm and food industries are export dependent, hostility toward GM crops and foods abroad cannot so easily be ignored.
GM crops were released commercially after extensive testing in 1994, they have been in wide use by farmers in the United States for more than six years now. They have performed in the field exactly as advertised. These genetically engineered crops - especially Roundup Ready soybeans and Bt corn and cotton - allow farmers to control weeds and insects while cutting production costs by using fewer, less toxic and less persistent herbicide and insecticide sprays. Yet the planting of these crops has not yet spread very far beyond the Western Hemisphere. As of last year, 98 percent of all the world’s GM crops (mostly soybeans, corn, and cotton) were being planted in just three countries: The United States, Argentina, and Canada. Farmers in the rest of the world are scarcely producing any GM crops, for a variety of reasons:
In Europe and Japan regulators approved RR soybeans and Bt corn at almost the same time as in the United States, and food safety officials announced these crops posed no new risks, but consumer opposition to these crops nonetheless emerged. Enflamed in part by organized media and direct action campaigns against GM foods waged by nongovernmental organizations such as Greenpeace, this consumer opposition reached a critical mass by 1998, at which point retail food chains in Europe began competing for customers by removing GM products from their shelves. Under these circumstances it was not surprising that farmers in Europe decided to forego planting GM crops.
It was an accident of bad timing that GM foods first went on sale in Europe in the spring of 1996, at exactly the moment that mad cow disease was finally certified to be a human health threat. Mad cow disease had nothing to do with transgenic crops, but when regulatory authorities tried to assure consumers that the new GM foods were safe, those assurances had no credibility, because the same regulators had earlier said meat from mad cows was safe.
Resistance to GM foods in Europe also derives in part from Europe's far more conservative food culture (in France, officials actually refer to their nation's “culinary sovereignty”), plus the multi-party political systems that operate in many European countries (this creates greater space for green parties to influence regulatory policies), plus some understandable resentment of the global reach and technological prowess of U.S.-based multinational firms such as Monsanto. In Japan, where a national culture against supposedly impure foods is also strong, consumer resistance to GM products has sometimes grown to reach humorous dimensions. Health conscious smokers in Japan now insist on cigarettes containing only non-GM tobacco leaves, and health conscious beer drinkers insist that brewers use only non-GM cornstarch.
This consumer resistance in Europe and Japan has through commodity market channels into the rest of the world. Consumers inside most poor countries are not yet influenced directly by GM food safety scares, but governments in poor countries nonetheless have to think twice about allowing their farmers to plant GM crops for fear of losing export sales to Europe or Japan. Earlier this spring even China, which has invested more than any other developing country in GM crop technologies and is now planting GM cotton over a significant area, decided for the moment not to legalize the planting of any GM food or feed crops, such as corn or soybeans, partly for fear of losing export sales to Europe, Korea, or Japan
Farmers and food industries in the United States must now confront similar worries. The United States exports roughly $10 billion worth of corn and soybeans every year. We export roughly 30 percent of all the soybeans we grow, and 20 percent of our corn. This year two thirds of our soybeans and 26 percent of our corn will be GM. Our exporters must naturally worry about continued international acceptance for our products.
Until this year, the adverse impact was confined to relatively slight losses of U.S. corn sales to Europe and to Japan. Authorities in the EU halted all bulk shipments of imported corn from the United States in 1998, for the reason that bulk shipments were likely to contain kernels from some new GM corn varieties not yet approved for growing in the EU. The Europeans in that year had halted approvals of new GM varieties under political pressure from consumers, NGOs, and green parties. The result for the United States has been a loss of about $200 million worth of corn sales to Europe every year.
This has been wounding, but the European market was never really wide open to U.S. corn sales anyway, and even with the total ban on bulk corn shipments our farmers can still sell processed corn products into the EU, including animal feed products such as corn gluten. And bulk soybean sales to Europe have so far been hardly affected at all, since the one GM soybean variety so far approved for planting in the United States is also approved for planting in the EU (in fact, the U.S. has informally halted new GM soybean approvals to keep things this way). Also, most soybean products are used in Europe for animal feed, which has made them, until now, less directly worrisome to most European consumers.
But our GM corn product and soybean sales to Europe are now facing a new threat, in the form of much tighter EU traceability and labeling requirements. In February of this year the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers adopted a new updated Directive (2001/18/EC) governing the release of GM commodities into the environment, and this directive – when it comes into force in October 2002 – could harm trade by imposing what is called “traceability” onto the marketing of GM crops. From the farm to the final market, GM commodities (including food crops, animal feed crops, and even processed products derived from such crops) may now have to be segregated from non-GM commodities so they can be separately labeled and traced throughout the market chain. The stated purpose of this new regulation is to ensure the credibility of labeling rules, and to facilitate the rapid withdrawal of a GM commodity from the market in the event that an unforeseen risk to human health is subsequently detected. No such risk
If the EU goes ahead with these new traceability rules do U.S. exporters have any recourse? Since the EU is embracing this hyper-cautious approach without any scientific evidence of actual food safety risks (and even the EU Commissioner for Health, Mr. David Byrne, concedes there is no evidence of risk) you would think these burdensome new labeling and traceability regulations would be a violation of the rules of the World Trade Organization. The WTO allows governments to block imports under conditions of scientific uncertainty if human health or the environment could be at risk, but only on a provisional basis while seeking further scientific evidence of risk. The European regulations don't meet this standard because they are not explicitly linked to any search for additional evidence of risk.
Yet I would discourage the thought that we can simply use WTO rules and dispute settlement procedures to force the EU to reverse its emerging stance on GM labeling and traceability. We and the Canadians tried the WTO option earlier, in response to EU import restrictions on hormone-treated beef. We were successful in the WTO, winning two separate judgments that the European import restrictions were without any scientific justification. But rather than let hormone treated beef into the EU, political leaders in Europe took the other course allowed under WTO rules: they kept their unjustified import ban in effect and invited the U.S. to even the score by retaliating against a comparable value of imports from Europe - products such as Roquefort cheese and Danish ham. So the result of using the WTO in this case was not a market opening but a tit-for-tat trade war. Trying to use the WTO to force political leaders in Europe to open their markets to GM products that many consumers don't want to eat is likely
In the case of Japan, the livestock industry in that country is so heavily dependent on corn and soybean imports for animal feed that officials there have tried hard to reassure consumers on GM foods without placing excessive formal restrictions on trade. Japan has implemented a labeling rule for GM foods - it came into effect this last spring - but it is a weak rule designed to produce minimum market disruptions. It is weak in part because it only covers corn and soybeans, and only for direct human food use not animal feed use, and it because doesn’t cover processed foods such as GM soy sauce of corn oil, corn syrup, or corn flakes, and also because a generous 5 percent tolerance is permitted (foods that are 95 percent GM free can be labeled as though completely GM free).
Even so, U.S. corn and soybean sales to Japan have been anything but safe from interruption. On several occasions last winter, traces of a GM corn variety called StarLink, which had been approved for feed use in the United States but not for food use and not for export to Japan, were detected in U.S. corn shipments to Japan. Under pressure from consumers, Japan briefly cut back on its purchases of U.S. corn. StarLink corn had been denied approval for direct human food use because this variety contained a protein that digested slowly and therefore might in some people produce allergic reactions (regulators guessed there was a "medium" risk here). This decision not to approve StarLink for human food showed admirable precaution, but it was a mistake to then go ahead and approve planting of StarLink for feed use, since it would only be a matter of time before some would leak into food channels.
Yet even when this leakage took place, triggering sensational media reports and a costly recall (plus lost sales to Japan), evidence of actual harm to human health was still missing. Following stories in the media about taco shells contaminated with StarLink, several dozen U.S. citizens did come forward complaining that they had indeed suffered allergic reactions. But when our federal government conducted tests using blood samples from those who complained, no allergenic antibodies were found. And in the food samples provided as evidence by those who complained, no StarLink was found. So the leakage was apparently small enough to present no real danger, but by the time this was known the damage to everyone's reputation had already been done.
We are now learning that the risk to Monarch butterflies from Bt corn pollen is also apparently negligible. Two years ago the New York Times gave front-page attention to the fact that it was possible, in a laboratory, to use Bt corn pollen to kill Monarch caterpillars. The authors of that original Cornell University experiment cautioned that inferences should not be drawn about what Bt pollen was doing to caterpillars in the field, but GM crop critics drew such inferences anyway. Now the EPA has gathered enough data from actual field tests in Maryland, Minnesota, and Iowa to estimated that only one in 100,000 Monarch caterpillars is ever likely to be affected at all by Bt corn pollen. But this report is unlikely to get front-page coverage, and in any case it is two years too late to repair the damage.
Since future consumer acceptance of GM crops in Europe and Japan - and even in the United States - could depend more on media-hyped perceptions of risk than on actual evidence of risk, the advocates of GM crops (especially food crops) will be fighting a long difficult battle. What would the world look like if this battle were lost? What if farmers in the United States joined their counterparts in Europe and Japan and simply gave up on the planting GM crops?
If U.S. farmers all stopped growing GM corn and soybeans this would be turning back the clock - but not very far, only back to 1994. U.S. farmers would still be prosperous and U.S. consumers would be well fed. It would certainly be bad for the biotech industry and for Monsanto’s shareholders, otherwise here in the United States few would notice. Farm production costs might go up slightly, and the spraying of more toxic and persistent herbicides and insecticides would increase a bit, but that might be seen by U.S. agriculture as less costly than paying for the redundant storage and handling infrastructures, and dealing with all of the government inspectors and lawyers that might be needed to operate a fully segregated and traceable marketing system for GM versus non-GM crops, in order to retain access to markets abroad.
Turning back the clock to 1994 might for some be a tempting escape, but I certainly hope that isn't the final policy outcome. Farmers and consumers in rich countries could live with this outcome, but farmers and consumers in poor countries could not. If I am a farmer in Kenya, trying to produce corn to feed my family, I might need Bt corn to help me fight against stem borer infestations. If I am a woman in Niger trying to produce cowpeas, I might need a GM cowpea variety to help me fight against pod borers or weevils. If I am a poor farmer with 5 hectares of land in India trying to grow cotton, I might need a GM cotton variety to help me fight against bollworms. And in the future, assuming adequate research investments, poor farmers in semi-arid lands might even get access to salt tolerant or drought tolerant GM crops. Just last month a researcher at UC Davis announced the engineering of a salt-tolerant tomato, able to grow in soils 50 percent saltier than normal. For those interested in solving fo
Critics of GM crops in rich countries need to pause before they wrongly stigmatize these crops. If today's rich countries decide to stop or turn back the clock, they will still be rich. But if we stop the clock for the poor and the hungry, they will still be poor and hungry.
Seeds of Contention (Interview with Robert Goldberg)
- Greg Goldin, Los Angeles Times, Sept 2, 2001.
UCLA molecular biologist Robert B. Goldberg wants to understand in plants what stem-cell researchers want to understand in humans: How the undifferentiated molecules of a seed develop from nearly identical dabs into highly specialized plant parts. A decade ago, his pioneering process for turning off a plant's ability to pollinate led to new, higher-yielding hybrids. Now, Goldberg's lab, in partnership with other university researchers, is poring over plant DNA in a quest to find the genes necessary to assemble seeds from the raw material of life. He spoke recently about why his own research--and that of human geneticists--is controversial.
Question: The battle over stem-cell research lately has focused on religious and ethical notions of when life begins. Your work modifying plant life has sparked its own backlash. Why the anxiety over genetically modifying life?
Answer: There's something mystical about nature. Plants have been designed by nature, and we shouldn't alter nature. For some, it's God's plan.
Q: But hasn't man altered the world inexorably from the first time somebody stuck a kernel of corn into the ground?
A: Absolutely! Food is an easy target, because in the West, we don't really need genetically engineered food. We can produce most of the food we need by conventional means. That does not mean that we don't need an abundance of food to feed the millions of people still starving around the world today, let alone the 10 billion people who are going to be on the face of this Earth in the next 50 years. That is a daunting task, and we're going to have to do it on a shrinking amount of agricultural space unless we want to tear down every forest on the face of the Earth. If we want to be able to grow the best plants that are optimized for human health and for human nutrition, we have to use the absolute best technology, which includes genetic manipulation, something mankind has been doing through selection and cross-breeding for 10,000 years.
For affluent Westerners--who don't have to worry about standing in line for food, who use only 10% of their disposable income on food, who can afford to pay $4 a pound for organic tomatoes--food is not much of an issue. We're not faced with the kinds of choices that someone in Africa or Asia, or in parts of Latin America are forced to face: 80% to 85% of their disposable income goes for food, and not having food and not producing a crop is a matter of life or death.
Q: Do we suffer from tunnel vision?
A: The opponents of genetically modified (GM) foods don't make the scientific connection. The exact same technology that we're using for plants we're using for medicine. When someone takes a drug that keeps him alive, that drug--tPA, insulin, growth hormone--was probably created with the same exact gene-splicing technology. People will never argue that we shouldn't make gene-spliced drugs. Yet, genetic engineering of plants could potentially save millions of lives, in parts of the world that depend on the latest technology in order to be able to live on a daily basis. Will genetically engineered plants eliminate starvation and hunger? No. But it's one tool in the toolbox that we need to be able to use.
Q: What about the environmental or health risks of genetically modified foods?
A: There's not one case, not one example, not one shred of credible scientific evidence indicating that anything that we've done in the manipulation of plant material or the making of crops has been harmful to humans. This technology is old technology. Genetically engineered plants have been around for 15 years or more. We're talking about herbicide-resistant (Monsanto's Roundup Ready) soybeans. We're talking about insect-resistant corn and cotton. They've been tested and retested. I don't think any plants on Earth have been under more scrutiny than these plants. There's absolutely no question about it--as opposed to any of the supplements that you can buy at a natural-foods store, which have never been tested, are completely unregulated and you have no idea what active ingredients they contain.
Q: What of the worry of creating a Brave New World of super-insects and super-weeds that resist all forms of insecticide or herbicide? Doesn't the current decline of the usefulness of many antibiotics provide a proscriptive warning? In other words, technological solutions don't always provide absolute solutions.
A: I think that antibiotics provide a good illustration. If someone had said at the time of the discovery of penicillin, "Oh, you have an antibiotic and it destroys that particular bacteria, therefore, we might get resistance in humans, so we're never going to use that to be able to cure human beings," look at how many millions and millions of people would be dead today. And how much suffering we would have had because that antibiotic wasn't used. I think one can make a similar analogy with GM foods. It's just the first step of being able to use these technologies to help people. As with antibiotics, you learn. You learn that it's overprescribed and you have to learn how to manage it.
Q: What lessons can we learn from stem-cell research?
A: I think the real issue is: Do we want to be exploring the unknown? That's what scientists do. We ask how the real world works in the biological or physical sense. To understand the process of differentiation, whether it's how a little seed develops into an oak tree or how an egg and sperm unite and develop into an incredible human being, is a process of knowledge-seeking. We're nowhere near understanding this process. Maybe we'll understand it a thousand years from now. Maybe we'll understand it a hundred years from now. But it can only be learned by studying stem cells.
Q: So all the talk about cloning humans or replacement parts is what?
A: Hype, if you're talking about a new liver, a new heart, a new kidney. Sure, maybe 50 years from now we'll do those things, but, right now, the research is more about how stem cells form a line that makes, for example, skin in a mammal. And that question is very similar to the questions we address in my lab. How does a plant make a leaf? How does it make a root? These are very legitimate, important, groundbreaking, frontier questions. These are the mysteries man has been investigating with primitive tools and complex tools for all of our existence. And stem-cell researchers are just trying to take our understanding of the process of development one step further.
Q: Nearly everyone agrees that great strides in medicine are on the horizon, due to stem-cell research. So why all the fear?
A: It's the perception that human beings are different.
Q: Aren't we?
A: In a social context, yes. In terms of intelligence, we absolutely are. But in terms of biology, there's not that much that's special about us, other than perhaps our complex brains. In terms of developmental biology, stem cells from a human basically do the same things as stem cells from a mouse or a cow or a pig or a goat.
Q: So the fear is?
A: Of playing God. I think it's important to respect those fears, but it's also a slippery slope. Things that were considered unethical 30 years ago, like in-vitro fertilization, are now well accepted. Still, one has to separate studying stem cells to understand how they have the capacity to form different organs and tissues and cells in the human body from using those stem cells to make organs or clones. We live in the era of genomics--the sequencing of the human genome, of plant genomes--and we are trying to find the basic mechanisms of disease. For example, eventually we will learn how to make better antibiotics that really might not even be antibiotics--that might prevent bacteria that cause pneumonia from even infecting us. That, in truth, is where stem-cell research is taking us.
Q: What about cloning?
A: I think people are afraid that we're going to have this super-human race.
A: Exactly. And that's an important issue. Nevertheless, it's important to point out that we do clone human beings. They're called twins, and triplets, and quadruplets, and sextuplets. But they're not the same human being. They interact with their environments in very different ways, and they have their own unique potential. So, I think the kinds of fears that one thinks about in terms of building a super-race are based on non-science.
That said, I can see certain circumstances where people might want to clone, not themselves, but maybe to have stem cells that have the same genetic constitution as themselves. What could be better than to be able to replace a liver that has given out with a new liver? What could be better than having someone who has children stay alive rather than having them suffer some premature death because of kidney failure or heart failure? I think that in 50 or 100 years--I can't put a time framework on it--people will look back and say it was a good decision to clone.
Q: Now that we've sequenced the human genome, what more do we have to learn about genes?
A: There are many genes in us and in plants and in other creatures that are duplicated and tripled, and there are genes that compensate for another gene when it's lost. What we don't really know is how a lot of these genes work together; that's one of the great problems many of us are exploring. How do thousands of genes work together to make a plant or make an oak tree or make a human being? Our cells work as one; all the genes in that cell work as one. There's not a single one of them that's working by itself.
Q: So no gene is an island?
A: I think all complex organisms function holistically. We can understand how single genes work. We can understand how several genes work together. But these things work together with millions of proteins and millions of other things, and we haven't even begun to grapple with the complexity of how one single cell works in its totality, let alone the trillions of cells in a human body. There will be new rules that will surprise all of us, and these things are going to come out of basic research, which is why basic research is so exciting.
Allergic Overreaction to GM Plants?
Genetically modified plants have to undergo a range of tests for allergenicity that non-GM plants bypass completely, and some scientists feel this is unreasonable. However, Steve Taylor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln says that on balance it is important to stick with these rules to assure that the novel proteins in biotech foods have been soundly evaluated for their allergenic potential, and give the public confidence. Taylor spoke on these issues at the American Chemical Society meeting at the end of last month.
The FAO/WHO have developed a decision-tree approach for evaluating new proteins, using information about the allergenicity of the source of the gene, determination of the degree of amino acid sequence homology with known allergens, reactivity by immunoassay using the sera of individuals with known allergies to the source material, reactivity by immunoassay using sera from individuals with known allergies to related materials, degree of pepsin resistance, and immunogenicity in suitable animal models predictive for allergic potential.
Taylor notes the difference in the way non-GM and GM foods are handled. "The FAO/WHO protocol would definitely be viewed as excessive by comparison to the approach used with non-GM foods. Non-GM foods do not need to be tested for their potential allergenicity. They just enter the market and we see what happens. A great example is the kiwi which was introduced over the past 3 decades and is now one of the most commonly allergenic fruits".
However, Taylor believes that the assessment of the allergenicity of GM foods is needed to establish consumer confidence. He says some scientists believe that the new FAO/WHO approach is too extreme "and I am in agreement with some of their arguments. That group may have gone too far (and I was on the consultation so I am criticizing myself)", he said.
Commenting on the fiasco over StarLink, he points out that this failed the existing decision tree (the 1996 ILSI/IFBC one) and would also fail the new FAO/WHO decision tree because the novel protein is resistant to pepsin. "That is why StarLink was never approved for human food. I agree with that decision as recently endorsed again by the EPA SAP."
He says StarLink confirms how useful the decision tree approach is. "The problems with StarLink were that Aventis was unwilling to accept the decision based on the failure to meet just one of several criteria; I suspect that their current position is different." He said that it was a "bad decision" to go ahead and allow its use in food at the time and it looks even worse in retrospect.
Taylor says the genetically modified products currently available raise no issues of significance relative to potential allergenicity. "I am not aware of all of the products in development but know of nothing under commercial development now that raises alarm bells," he says. "But, I would advocate that each new variety be assessed to assure safety and inspire consumer confidence."
Contact: Steve L. Taylor, Department of Food Science and Technology, University of Nebraska, 134 Filley Hall, Lincoln, NE 68583-0919, USA.; Fax: +1 402-472-1693; Email: email@example.com
Ensure Biotech Reaches Poor, Says ADB Report
Governments and funding agencies should continue and increase their investments in biotechnology as a means of achieving their goals of poverty reduction and food security in Asia over the next 25 years. However, achieving these goals with presently available technologies will be difficult, given the present trends and challenges facing the rural sector in Asian environments. So says a report "Agricultural Biotechnology, Poverty Reduction, and Food Security" conducted for the Asian Development Bank, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, and the Australian Agency for International Development. The report goes on to recommend key ways that funding and policy can make agbiotech more likely to help the poor and improve food security.
The report argues that there are some genuine risks associated with biotechnology which need to be addressed by the public and private sectors to ensure that GMOs are widely accepted. "An open, transparent, and inclusive food safety policy and regulatory process is required." It argues that the "potential long-term impact of genetically improved foods on human health and the environment is unknown, and requires monitoring and further research" particularly in relation to allergenicity and toxicity of GM foods. In addition gene transfer, weediness, trait effects, genetic and phenotypic variability, expression of genetic material from pathogens, and worker safety are highlighted as potential GM risks.
The report’s authors say it is crucial that the problems of small farmers in the rainfed and marginal areas where most of the poor live are addressed, while not forgetting small farmers in the irrigated areas. Economically important orphan crops and high-value crops and livestock are important targets. They also call for the development of low-cost, appropriate technologies for small farmers, particularly high-yielding varieties for rainfed and marginal areas, and for technologies with minimal risk to health and the environment. However, for the technologies to be implemented successfully, it is critical that the extension, delivery, and regulatory systems be improved, so as to reach the poor farmers and consumers.
Turning to the role of government, it is argued that Asian countries should providing adequate resources for agricultural biotechnology (seeking external assistance where necessary), and establish clear polices and priorities in biotechnology R&D. Appropriate public-private cooperation is important in helping small farmers. Governments must set up effective biosafety regulatory and enforcement systems, and IPR laws that will protect and stimulate private sector investments in biotechnology. They must also talk to non-governmental organizations, consumers, and farmers about the issues.
The report suggests that the ADB should assist developing member countries in policy and priority setting to enhance investments in the safe applications of biotechnology, increasing dialogue and supporting risk assessment and management capabilities in its DMCs through systematic capacity building.
ADB should also help improve access to proprietary technologies and encourage greater private and public sector cooperation in the development and delivery of new products at affordable prices for the poor. There should be a strategic R&D agenda and associated human resources development in Asia to generate new knowledge and disseminate the results for the public good, involving the funding of national governments and IARCs to undertake important initiatives that will have significant impact on poverty reduction and food security.
Contact: Asian Development Bank, P.O. Box 789, 0980 Manila, Philippines
Fax: (632) 636-2648; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; URL: http://www.adb.org/
French Growers Urge Justice in GM Crop Sackings
PARIS, Aug 30 (Reuters) - The activists who are tearing up the French countryside in a bid to rid it of genetically modified crop tests should be brought to justice, the country's maize growers' group AGPM said on Thursday. "The escalation of violence being carried out with impunity against experimental fields duly authorised and regulated by the authorities is unacceptable. It is intolerable to let a band of irresponsible activists make the law," AGPM said in a statement.
"AGPM solemnly demands that proceedings be brought against the authors (of the string of crop sackings) for the heavy damages suffered by the industry and the maize growers who have been attacked," it added. An AGPM spokesman was not available for further comment.
The activists have accused the government of underestimating the possibility of cross-pollination between genetically modified and natural crops, and have threatened to continue their blitz on experimental fields across the country. Their campaign to destroy GM crop tests began in late June, when the farm ministry published the list of French districts where genetically engineered plants were being tested.
The campaign received a mental boost in late July after the French food safety agency AFSSA released a report saying it had found traces of GM organisms in several conventional crops across the country. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, the French seed industry and the U.S. biotechnology giant Monsanto have all criticised the protests. While GM crops are common in the United States, France and other European countries remain highly reluctant to sanction new genetic technology in agriculture. France nonetheless grows experimental GM crops on around 100 sites.
Excerpts from an interview with Michael Shermer, editor in chief of Skeptic magazine and author of "Why People Believe Weird Things":
Even people who aren't particularly religious will give the knee-jerk response that some things are nature's business without realizing that what they're saying is that certain things are only "God's work."
They don't think it through. There's this idea that if it happens naturally, then it's OK. But we went off that road a long time ago when we began agriculture and tweaked the genome of plants and animals 13,000 years ago. The natural argument is like the organic food people. It's laughable. You wanna eat one of those ears of corn from a couple thousand years ago? They were about a half-inch long. How many starving people in a Third World developing nation are you going to feed on those natural little corns and potatoes? Once you start down the road using science and technology, you just have to keep going.
Authors of 'Empire' Defend Globalization with Marxist Theory
- Don Hill; Radio Free Europe (Forwarded by Andrew Apel )
Prague, 30 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Two committed neo-Marxists say in a talked-about new book that globalization is, at least for now, a benign development. They also say that leftists who consider the United States a world center of imperialism are just flat wrong.
Equally remarkable as these assertion by authors Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri is the fact that "Empire"-- their weighty book of dense political philosophy -- is a major seller in the United States and is gaining notice around the world. "Time" magazine calls it a "hot new book." Hardt is a Duke University professor of literature, and Negri an Italian political philosopher who was jailed in Italy for culpability in left-wing excesses in the 1970s.
They contend that world sovereignty has escaped the imperialism of nation-states and now is vested in a decentralized host of international and supranational institutions and groups -- from the United Nations and the World Bank to non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In a telephone interview, Hardt tells our correspondent that the old imperialism of European nation-states and colonial powers has lost its force.
"Imperialism, by which we understand a form of expansive rule by which the nation-state exerts its power over foreign territories, is no longer the model of sovereignty that rules global affairs."
Hardt says that he and Negri conclude from their analyses that neither the United States or any other nation can be a world leader in the way that modern European nations once were. "One of the things we are intending to argue against is the notion -- which is somewhat common on the left -- that contemporary global order is defined by U.S. imperialism. We think that is not true."
Hardt and Negri disagree with Francis Fukuyama, the author of "The End of History" and "The Great Disruption," who argues that liberal democracy history finally has reached the highest form of political governance. But they agree that mankind has entered a new phase of history -- however fleeting -- based on the hegemony of supranational organizations. "Today we do not have several competing powers, but, in fact, one power within which the nation-states function. And that single power, in philosophical terms, constitutes a new form of sovereignty."
"Empire" is the name they give to this new sovereignty. It is not, Hardt says, a bad thing. Empire, as he and his co-author put it in the book, "wields enormous powers of oppression and destruction, but that fact should not make us nostalgic in any way for the old forms of domination. The passage to Empire and its processes of globalization offer new possibilities to the forces of liberation."
From: Andrew Apel |
Subject: EU GM Regulations
It is often suggested that the stringent regulations proposed by the European Commission regarding GM crops and the food and feed made from them will "help regain consumer confidence" in the European Union. This will supposedly make it possible to re-start the process of approving new GM products for production and consumption in Europe, a process brought to a halt by a de facto moratorium.
These people are sadly mistaken. While it is true that activists have been very good at portraying themselves as frightened of GMOs, and by extension, as representing people frightened of GMOs, most European consumers are not frightened by them per se. Europeans are frightened instead by the lax enforcement of food safety regulations which have led to massive food scares.
No matter how stringent the laws of Europe may be, they will make no difference to consumers, who have come to understand that their governments appear powerless to prevent foodborne illness. These same consumers will also understand that more stringent laws will change nothing.
What is more, these stringent new rules, if approved, will make food scares far more likely than before. The one percent tolerance limit, being so low, will make it more likely than ever before that foods "over the limit" will be found to have "escaped into the food chain." Traceability will make it more convenient than ever to pinpoint who is involved in each GMO food scare. And with each new GMO food scare, it will become apparent that once again, the government is not in control of food quality.
Which will be true. In fact, that is precisely what the European Commission has in mind – it intends to do nothing about GM content in food and feed. Policing GM content is left to private enterprise, along with the costs and the risks – the same scheme Europe uses for food safety regulations, the scheme that underlies all the food scares Europeans have been made to suffer.
Europeans want credible enforcement of food standards, and no law, especially the new proposal on GM content and traceability, can give that to them. The "new consumer confidence in GMOs" will as a result never materialize, making it extremely doubtful that the GM product approval process will restart.
Southern Illinois U. Researcher Deconstructs Soybean Genome
August 24, 2001 (Via Agnet) (Forwarded: email@example.com)
CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Biotechnologist David Lightfoot has come to the conclusion that the era of adding foreign genes to other organisms is finished for agriculture. "We will still do it for medical purposes," said Lightfoot, who works out of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale's college of agriculture. "I think GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are not going to be around for too much longer. There is too much societal resistance."
Lightfoot is conducting soybean research in the field of genomics. Genomics is he science of studying every gene in an organism at once. Genetic research at SIU seeks to find the economically important genes within soybean plants. The genetically modified soybeans may bring on images of organisms that have been the focus of protest by consumers and environmentalists in England and elsewhere. Genomics differs from other gene-spliced genetically modified organisms, because it adds genes from the same species. "The idea of genomics is that you don't go outside of the species to incorporate good genes," Lightfoot said. "In most species, there are a lot of variations. Some genes are good and some are not so good. Genomics is seeking to understand what those combinations are and which ones can be made more positive."
"It's what plant breeders have always done blindly. It's what nature does too, slowly," Lightfoot said. "Mother Nature is the ultimate genetic engineer; we want to do what she can do, just a little faster." The research has succeeded in finding genes that are resistant to two of the four major diseases that afflict soybean farmers in Illinois and throughout the United States. The project Lightfoot helped research started in 1998 and is almost complete. He began by trying to define the position of valuable genes -- genes that are disease resistant or promote greater yield and higher nutritional content.
"We found natural resistance mechanisms that could be improved by bringing in genes from wild soybeans," Lightfoot said. "We quickly got to the point where we could define the position of 40 of these economically important genes whose values range from $200 million dollars a year down to $20 million dollars a year."
Illinois farmers lose about $200 million to the soybean cyst nematode, a little worm that sucks on soybean roots, and they lose $100 million to sudden death syndrome caused by a fungus that chews on soybean roots. Illinois produces about 20 percent of the soybean crop in the United States. With the identification of genes that would boost resistance to these two diseases, soybean plants can now be engineered to withstand these threats. Mike Plumer, natural resource management educator from the University of Illinois extension of the Dunn-Richmond Economic Development Center, said the genetically modified soybeans would be a boon to farmers in Illinois. "There are around 10 to 12 million acres of soybeans in Illinois. If this technology is utilized you could figure a $10 to $20 increase in profitability per acre," Plumer said. "We do a little bit of cultural work to try to reduce the incidence of these pests with crop rotation and tillage rotation, but genetics is where the answer is."
However, genomics is not free from trepidation or without its critics. Julie Sommer, president of the Campus Shawnee Greens, said as a consumer she is against genetic modification of agriculture due to the lack of information provided by food companies. "Generally, the greens are against genetic tampering because of ecological concerns. In the ecological web of nature, one thing affects the next," said Sommer, a senior in university studies. "We don't know what the effects will be on the plant life we are directly changing. We don't know what the effects will be on wildlife or the human population in the future." Problems with genomics also arise with the debate on who can own and patent genes. According to Lightfoot, the genomics industry is highly concentrated in the United States.
This leads to other concerns about the potential for limited medical research and a global monopoly by the United States. Lightfoot said there is concern that U.S. companies will focus solely on diabetes, weight gain in middle aged men, heart disease and cholesterol -- the major health concerns of the nation.
"U.S. companies go prospecting throughout the world for useful genes to bring back to serve the purposes of the U.S. market," Lightfoot said. "The fear is that the U.S. market, which is so large and puts such a high value on medical technology, is going to develop a de facto monopoly on genetically derived technologies. No one else can afford to do it as well as the United States."
Genetic engineering and biotechnology are fairly new industries, spawning debates about its beneficial effects versus its harmful ones. There are environmental, religious, economical and societal concerns about how today's genetic engineering might impact the future. But Lightfoot said GMOs can protect the earth from further human activities. "What society decides to do is what society decides to do," Lightfoot said. "We have to come to a democratic consensus of the value of different things in our planet and how we are going to proceed."
Enhancing the Livelihoods of 'The Resource Poor' Through Biotechnology
September 3-5, 2001. Nairobi, Kenya
NAIROBI, August 23, 2001 - Biotechnology Trust Africa (BTA) has organized an international symposium on biotechnology between 3rd and 5th of September 2001 at the Grand Regency Hotel. The theme of the Symposium is “Enhancing the livelihoods of the resource poor through biotechnology.”
Chairman of BTA, Professor Norah Olembo says, “ the event will bring together stakeholders from the region and other parts of the world actively involved in biotechnology to discuss the current trends in research and development in the fields of agriculture, human and animal health, environment, industry and policy as well as look at the role of the mass media in biotech development.”
Journalists, researchers, scientists, policy makers and farmers will form part of the participants in the two-day Symposium. Minister for Agriculture, Dr Godana will officially open the Symposium before the talks begin the Minister for Rural Development, Dr Yekhoyada Masakhalia will officially launch BTA.
Among the organizations expected to attend are International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Epicyte from the United States of America, International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and other research institutes, universities and line ministries. BTA has begun plans to start operations in the three East Africa countries. The regionalisation process is set to take off by the end of the year. Already, BTA has initiated meetings with relevant government organs in the region.
Among the topics set for discussion at the Symposium are marker-assisted breeding - a form of molecular breeding in plants and its applications. Others will be a look at the state - of - the - art in biotechnology globally, funding of various biotechnology ventures and the role of farmers in agribiotec. The role of the mass media in creation awareness on biotechnology in societal development will also come under spotlight. The BTA Coordinator, Mr. Joseph Wekundah has emphasized the role of the press in disseminating information on biotechnology to increase public awareness.
Global biosafety considerations, global status of commercialized transgenic crops, significance of the human genome in medical health and the state of art in biodegradation and disposal of Municipal Waste and pesticides residues are also among the topics to be covered. The meeting comes hot on the heels of a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report which has generated much discussion on the future of biotechnology funding. The report quotes the director of the Human Development Report Office, saying that GM crops are not a silver bullet that can feed people. He asserts that there other are complex social, political and economic reasons for the food problem.
Biotechnology Trust Africa is a non-charitable organization based in Nairobi whose principle objectives are to; promote and facilitate Biotechnology Research and Development in agriculture, health and environment, industry, and policy in Africa, create awareness on biotechnology in Africa and administer fund to support technology activities in Africa. Above all, BTA remains committed to biosafety through support for biosafety regulations for Kenya.
Technology's Impact on Food Production: Book Review
Agriculture and Modern Technology: A Defense; by Thomas R. DeGregori
Iowa State University Press, 2001; ISBN 0-8138-0342-X
Thomas DeGregori is a professor of economics at the University of Houston and specializes in the study of science and technology for economic development. In conjunction with a long and illustrious academic career, he has also worked in over 50 countries in the developing world. And despite his vast experience and expertise, there is one anomaly that he just can't understand.
According to Dr. DeGregori, science and technology have brought about vast improvements in the quantity, quality, safety and cleanliness of our food. We live longer and healthier than at any previous time in human history. The real price of food has fallen almost 70% through the last century. And yet, the very things that have allowed for these monumental advances are attacked by a myriad of groups the Houston professor refers to as the 'antitechnology elite', and feared by an increasingly technophopic and scientifically illiterate population.
Agriculture and Modern Technology: A Defense, released in June 2001 by Iowa State University Press, is the result of Dr. DeGregori's ten-year examination of this theme. Meticulously researched and well-documented, with supplementary references also available on the author's website, the book examines the impact of technological advances in food production on life expectancy, human health and other socioeconomic indicators. What have we achieved through the adoption of technological innovation? How have chemical pesticides saved millions of lives? What dangers lie in the pursuit of the 'natural'? How do global antitechnology movements threaten developing countries?
Dr. DeGregori is an unabashed proponent of technology, which he believes "is at the core of the human potential for a life of richness and fulfillment". The scientific, historical and anthropological evidence presented in Agriculture and Modern Technology: A Defense is likely to lead many readers to a similar conclusion. -Reviewed by Brenda Cassidy, AGCare Executive Director
Reduced Bt cotton efficacy in Australia
Farmers in Australia are now being advised to spray additional insecticide on Monsanto's GM Bt cotton known as INGARD "under conditions of reduced INGARD plant efficacy".
The latest official guidance (Resistance Management Plan For Ingard® Cotton 2001-2002 - Transgenic and Insect Management Strategy (TIMS) Committee of the Australian Cotton Growers Research Association - http://www.cotton.pi.csiro.au/Publicat/Pest/IRMS/irms0102.htm) makes it clear that Bt is in some circumstances failing to control the principal target pest it was introduced for. This pest is known as Helicoverpa armigera.