Today in AgBioView.
* EC-supported Research Into The Safety of GMOs: Foreword
* Roger Morton Analyses Craig Sam's Reply
* Mary Murphy on San Francisco Fruits
* DeGregori on 'Finding No Harm by EU'
* Field of Genes: Issues and Non-Issues in High-Tech Farming
Personal Note from Prakash:
My 'tusk.edu' email has been down since Friday because of a computer
virus problem with our University server. If you have sent me any
email in the past three days, can you please resend it to
? ...Thanks, - Prakash
EC-supported Research Into The Safety Of Genetically Modified
- J.E. Beringer, School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol (UK)
"GMOs are unsafe and must never be released into the environment."
"We don't know enough about GMOs to risk releasing them - what is
being done about this?"
"Why doesn't someone do something to understand what the risks of GMOs are?"
We have all heard these and related comments about GMOs, which have
been used by people opposed to the commercialisation of GMOs to
demand that "the precautionary principle" be used to halt their use
in agriculture. They have encouraged and exploited public unease very
effectively because most people are unaware that biosafety research
is being done and, with the exception of GM vaccines and other
medical uses, there has been very little direct public benefit to
counteract perceived risks.
The success of the anti-GM lobby is clearly demonstrated by the fact
that in much of Western Europe governments have appeared very
ambivalent. They have invested in biotechnology and promoted its
advantages, while at the same time they have tacitly accepted delays
in the regulatory system for marketing GMOs to ensure that their
commercialisation for agriculture has been impeded. The fact that
this behaviour has been primarily directed towards satisfying
perceived concerns of potential voters, as opposed to providing
leadership, is an issue that needs to be debated elsewhere. European
governments have most certainly not been helped to appear
dispassionate because state-owned plant breeding institutions have
been sold to the private sector, thereby strengthening the hold of
multinational agrochemical companies over food production.
One does not need to be a rabid eco-terrorist to have doubts about
the wisdom of so much control of the food chain falling into the
hands of multinationals whose financial strength is greater than that
of many of the world's developing countries. To make matters worse, a
major public health scare (bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE))
has been added to this mixture of distrust, confused leadership, and
lack of knowledge. Such was the position in Europe as it approached
the end of the 20th century. It is against this background that we
need to consider the relevance of the research results published in
Throughout history ignorance has been a major driver for apparently
irrational and backward looking behaviour, for the simple reason that
most humans feel uncomfortable when confronted with things and issues
they do not understand. It is so much simpler to condemn something
than to attempt to understand it. We have a 'fine tradition' in
Europe of burning those people we do not understand, whether they be
witches or heretics, for it is much easier to do this than to try and
understand them. It is important to recognise that not far below the
surface of us all are emotions that have evolved over many millennia,
which are ill adapted to managing the enormous technological changes
of the 20th century. We have not had time to evolve brains that can
easily handle the quantity or complexity of so many issues facing
Furthermore, our educational systems are struggling to come to terms
with the need to link scientific and sociological education to
provide future citizens with the ability to make knowledge-based risk
assessments. Traditionally, strong leadership has provided people
with assurance that changes are safe and desirable, but it is
becoming increasingly obvious that as general levels of education
improve the public becomes less willing to accept authority. I
applaud the change, but it carries within it the problems we face in
deciding how to communicate the risk/benefit analysis of the use of
new technologies. Leaving industry to come forward only with new
technologies that are perceived to be advantageous despite apparent
risks, such as mobile telephones, is not the solution. It would
preclude the introduction of technologies that are less harmful than
present ones, but are not deemed to be of value to individuals.
Is it all doom and gloom? It most certainly is not, as this
compilation of results from 80 EC-supported projects on GM safety
research demonstrates. One of the 'best kept secrets' during the last
few years of acrimonious discussion about GMOs has been the enormous
body of research being conducted in Europe and elsewhere that is
directly relevant to risk assessments. For those of us who have been
involved in running GM safety committees in Member States there has
been a steady stream of research results that have enabled our
committees to improve their ability to make risk assessments and
recommend safe conditions for the release of GMOs. Even a casual
glance at the contents of this publication will confirm that over the
last decade the EC has been very effective in identifying important
issues and funding appropriate laboratories in which relevant and
useful results can be obtained to enrich our understanding of the
issues confronting us. A very valuable example has been the research
projects on pollen flow and fertilisation in plants, which have
greatly enhanced knowledge of the probabilities of cross-pollination
of adjacent crops and wild relatives of crop plants. There should not
be a GM regulatory system in an EU Member State that has not modified
its activities to take into consideration the implications of
research derived from EC programmes.
A decade of research has been done and millions of euros have been
spent, but the anti-GM lobby's agenda has hardly changed at all. They
profess still to be concerned that we have insufficient knowledge and
that no GMO should be released until we can predict with certainty
what it, and the cloned genes within it, will do in the environment.
Does this demonstrate a failure of the EC programmes? Were the
programmes poorly targeted? Was the work unsatisfactory, or is far
more work needed? The programmes most certainly have not failed
scientifically. In retrospect, one could argue that sociological
issues should have been included. For example, how many of us believe
that "if only the public knew the issues they would surely understand
why we believe that properly tested GM crops and food are safe". I
certainly did. Unfortunately, this belief is almost totally wrong -
if indeed a belief can be wrong. The reason why it is wrong is that
we confuse knowledge with understanding.
Full knowledge of the genetic and biochemical changes arising from a
gene-cloning event is useful and certainly helps risk assessments for
food safety. However, our understanding at the molecular level (and
indeed biological) of the factors that will change the ecology of an
organism are very poor indeed. If one assumes that existing crops and
foods derived from them are safe, as most people do, GM crops and
foods will, for a long time to come, have an aura of uncertainty
associated with them. The fact that we do not understand why the
enormous changes to genomes that occur during traditional plant
breeding do not lead to health or environmental problems with new
crops, is neither known by the general public nor taken into
consideration by opponents of GMO release. Indeed, if we responded to
demands to avoid unpredictable risks to the environment we would have
to stop traditional plant breeding and the introduction of different
varieties and species of crop plants.
With respect to my comments above about sociological issues, it is
here that I would criticise our funding of research over the last
decade, but do so with the benefit of hindsight! The programmes have
been about biosafety and have concentrated rightly on obtaining
scientific understanding, which has benefited risk assessment and
furthered our knowledge of basic science. However, in technological
societies an assessment of risk needs to include public responses and
should take into consideration possible long-term issues that may
arise as a result of the commercialisation of new technologies. For
GMOs we have concentrated almost solely on risks to human safety and
harm to the environment arising from the GMO itself. However, the
much-derided problem of secondary impacts that may result from the
displacement of existing, and particularly traditional, practices has
been largely ignored. There have been few voices louder than my own
in criticising the demands for a "Fourth Hurdle" for GMOs, but where
was the research to support or overturn criticism of it? It is surely
time that we paid more attention to the impact of technology on
societies, because if we do not the rate of progress of technology
will greatly outstrip our ability to handle its impacts. We benefit
from change, but is every safe development to be accepted regardless
of how it might change our perception of ourselves and the world
around us? (1)
The problem of how to proceed with the development and
commercialisation of GMOs confronts us with very difficult policy
decisions. Should we conduct research to facilitate marketing, or to
develop understanding? If the first is our priority, the projects to
fund would be those that identify risks and uncertainties associated
with conventional plant breeding and different agricultural
practices. The public might find it easier to understand relative
risks if there was a greater understanding of the enormous
unpredictability of conventional plant breeding, but would they
benefit from the increased uncertainty about food safety? The EC
research programmes have taken the correct course of funding
high-quality basic science and we should not be deflected from our
objective to develop increased understanding.
Our role as scientists is to obtain and interpret information so that
governments and their advisors are in the best possible position to
identify the best route forward. It is important to remember that EU
countries are part of a larger world in which the major trading
partner is the USA - a country in which concerns about the safety of
GM crops are so much less that various categories have been
deregulated. World trade rules require governments wishing to control
the movement of products to provide appropriate scientifically-based
reasons for interfering in free trade. Whether one agrees with
outspoken opposition to GMOs within Europe or not, we can hardly
expect farmers elsewhere in the world to segregate crops that are not
subject to regulatory control in their own country without providing
very compelling reasons for so doing.
The EC programmes have provided a very good basis for moving ahead in
the 21st century with an increased awareness of possible problems and
knowledge of relevant science. I have concentrated my comments on
GMOs because concerns about their safety have provided the impetus
for funding the research. We should realise that environmental harm
is not something that will happen only if we use GMOs, but is
something that is happening all around us as a consequence of human
activities that predate GMOs.
Our exploitation of natural resources and the increasing
intensification of agriculture cause great harm to the environment
and biodiversity. If we are to halt and redress this harm should we
not concentrate research on how to satisfy the needs of humans, while
at the same time respecting and protecting wildlife and the
environment? Almost all such research would be directly applicable to
the need to assess the safety of GMOs. It would also have the
enormous benefit of leading to regulatory systems in which all
activities would be subject to appropriate risk assessment. Such
funding would be entirely relevant to the needs of regulatory bodies
and those making GM products. It would also tackle the real causes of
environmental harm and should, in time, lead to a compilation of
research results that are at least as useful as those published here.
From 1992 to 1999 Sir John Beringer was Chair of the UK Advisory
Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE).
(1) Editors' note: Over the past decade EC research programmes have
supported many studies, workshops and other actions addressing
broader socio-economic aspects and implications of biotechnology.
Currently, the Fifth Framework Programme's 'Key Action' approach
explicitly seeks to link research projects to broader socio-economic
missions of European relevance. For details see the "Biosociety"
website at: http://biosociety.dms.it/
From: "Roger and Carolyn Morton"
Subject: Craig Sam's Reply
Craig Sams Wrote:
>As far as sulphur dioxide in organic food. It is only permitted in wine
> and only at a maximum residue level that is one third of
> the level permitted in conventional wine.
>I hope that the above will appeal to those who seek rationality
>rather than fanaticism in
>the organics vs GM debate that has emerged. It surely shows that,
>supporters are cautious and apply more rigorous standards that apply
>agriculture and food processing, they are not rigid fanatics who are
>about moderate use of an extremely limited selection of chemicals.
Let's examine these statements from Mr Sams carefully
>1. Appeal to rationality rather than fanaticism:
What exactly defines what is and what is not permitted in organic
agriculture? And is it rational? Man made chemicals like sulphur
dioxide are not allowed because they are dangerous to the environment
and human health - except when they are allowed. But only if they are
found in small amounts and only in certain products. I guess when
sulphur dioxide is in organic wine it is not dangerous. Maybe this is
because of the extra "life force", "vital quality" and "organizing
activity" that organic wine contains.
I wonder if you can detect any life force - sulphur dioxide
conjugates in organic wine. I could do the research for you. When
sulphur dioxide is in conventionally grown "apricots, raisins, fruit
juices, beer, sausages or pickles" it is of course very dangerous
because the lower levels of the protective "life force" in these
products. It all sounds so rational.
Where is the rationality of disallowing glyphosate but allowing
[The Environmental Defense fund's Scorecard site gives glyphosate
(Roundup) a "Less hazardous than most chemicals in 9 of 10 ranking
nce_id=1071%2d83%2d6) By contrast the EDF says this about copper
sulphate: "Data lacking; not ranked by any system in Scorecard".
http://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/cgi-bin/sis/htmlgen?HSDB tells me that
COPPER (II) HYDROXIDE SULFATE causes liver disease and that two
children have been killed from copper sulphate residues on grapes. ]
What rational reason do you have for choosing copper sulphate over
Where is the rationality of allowing Bt bacteria containing plasmids
expressing enterotoxins (food poisoning proteins) to be sprayed while
banning genetically modified Bt bacteria that have the enterotoxins
removed. [As far back as 1997 scientists had cloned the gene for
enterotoxin and have suggested that the gene should be removed from
Bt sprays by genetic engineering to "eliminate a human health
Where is the rationality of allowing the spraying of potentially
pathogenic Bt bacteria while banning Bt crops that have no pathogenic
properties whatsoever? [According to Carrie Swadener.(2) from the
Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, Eugene, OR. "a
man working on a spray program splashed B.t.k. on his face and eyes.
He then developed skin irritation, burning, swelling, and redness.
B.t.k. was cultured from a sample taken from his eye. Ground-spray
applicators using Foray 48B reported symptoms of eye, nose, throat,
and respiratory irritation. The frequency of their complaints was
found to be related to the degree of exposure. Workers with similar
preexisting health problems were more likely to report adverse
effects from the ground spray." (2) "Human volunteers suffered from
nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, colic-like pains, and fever after eating
food contaminated with one B.t. strain, B.t. var. galleriae. This
indicates the close relationship between B.t. and disease-causing
pathogens. " .(2) "Feeding studies of pure Bt toxin to mammals show
no ill health effects indicating that the toxic effects of B.t.
sprays are due to the fact that the spray is a live spore producing
organism" .(2) "...B.t. can easily take up an anthrax plasmid and
create anthrax related disease in mammals. Such plasmid transfers
readily take place in nature. It is grotesque and improper for people
who claim expert knowledge to maintain that plasmid exchanges are out
of the question. Indeed, government bureaucrats and university
administrators are clearly showing a common malady, scientific
imperialism. They are using their positions to promote views that are
contrary to well established facts and palming off such views on
poorly informed members of the public." (3) ]
What is the rationality of using fossil-fuel-derived indiscriminant
insecticides like mineral oil when you could use a targeted
insecticide produced by solar energy? [I refer here to Bt crops which
make an insecticide targeted against the pest species using the
completely renewable resource of the sun and actually consumer green
house gases at the same time]
>2. That organic farmers apply a higher standard to the use of chemicals:
What experiments are done to show the effects of the compounds used
in organic agriculture on humans or animals? It is ludicrous to
suggest the organic industry applies a higher standard to the use of
chemicals. They demonstrably apply a lower standard. All new
agricultural chemicals undergo strict safety testing for toxicity and
biodegradability. Chemicals permitted on organic farms have not been
subject to such tests and would fail them miserably. How do we know
this? Because the properties of these chemicals are widely known and
are only allowed in agriculture because historically they have been
used. This does not mean they are safe as you readily admit is the
case with copper sulphate. If these chemicals were required to be
registered now they would not be allowed.
Copper sulphate was used as a fungicide in Europe from the mid 1880s.
Why don't you organic farmers bring back some of the other great
"natural" agricultural chemicals from yesteryear? You could bring
back Paris Green (a formulation of copper arsenite) or you could
re-introduce the organo-mercury seed dressings used in Germany from
1913. (7) The latter even has a name you could use in your marketing
Using the rational mind the scientists of the world have improved on
the methods of plant protection of yesteryear and have brought us
compounds which are highly specific to the target species and which
have low residual effect. But the organic industry want to turn the
clock back to 1880. Conventional agricultural chemicals are held to a
higher standard than "organic" agriculture's chemicals.
>3. Contributors to Agbioview are paranoid "about moderate use of an
>extremely limited selection of chemicals.:
Mr Sams, the entire organic industry is based on preying on people
who are paranoid about moderate use of an extremely limited selection
of chemicals. This is why your industry promotes the lie that you
repeated on this list not so long ago - "organic farmers don't use
any pesticides". To suggest that it is the contributors to Agbioview
that are paranoid is - well I am lost for words - you joke surely?.
Contributors to Agbioview are not paranoid about the list of
chemicals that organic farmers are allowed to spray on to their
crops. We just want to see the organic industry tell the truth. We
are happy to eat crops sprayed with moderate amounts of an extremely
limited selection of chemicals we just think the public should know
whether the chemicals that are sprayed on their food have been
subject to rigorous testing or not. We think the public should be
given the opportunity to choose between organic food or conventional
food. But we think that the public has the right to make this choice
based on a full presentation of the facts. They should know that
their organic food has been sprayed with known highly toxic "natural"
compounds like copper, sulphur, calcium polysulphide and potassium
permanganate or that it has been sprayed with a live pathogenic
bacteria. They should know that their GM food has been produced
without chemicals. They should know that their food has been sprayed
with a modern chemical that has been tested and found to be safe.
The organic industry is attacked with venom on this list because
those of us who really care about the issues of sustainability and
the environment get really upset when they see people like you
denigrate a whole technology that does and will have great benefits
in terms of agricultural sustainability and the environment. You
denigrate it with a pack of lies and half truths when you don't even
have your own house in order. You denigrate it with the sole
objective of increasing your profits from the paranoid. This is why
you are attacked with such venom.
Mr Sams - thanks for answering my questions about copper. You
answered nearly all of them but did not mention what the organic
alternative fungicide is going to be in 2003? Does this mean there is
not an alternative?
I found this EC document published in 1991 (4) that mentions that
Copper sulphate is to be stopped by 31 March 2002. Now you say it is
2003. The organic industry has had 10 years to come up with an
alternative but you admit that they have not done so - as evidenced
by your admission that "French wine growers pleaded for time to
adjust their vineyards". In the meantime soils in French vineyards
continue to be polluted with the heavy metal copper. It is totally
appalling that the organic industry has allowed this pollution to go
on for 10 years since it recognized it as a problem. Now it looks set
to continue. What guarantee is there that it will stop in 2003 when
you can not offer an alternative fungicide?
You say that one reason organic farming is done the way it is is that
you "don't want to have any part of the ... 200,000 pesticide related
deaths annually worldwide" Even if copper sulphate is banned, the
list of allowable pesticides in organic farming is still long and
contains many compounds that will definitely kill you if you
deliberately ingest them. (The 1991 EC document above tells me that
these are the allowable fungicides in organic farming: Lecithin,
Plant oils [e.g. mint oil, pine oil,caraway oil], Lime sulphur
(Calcium polysulphide), Potassium permanganate, Sulphur.)
Potassium permanganate for example does this to you if you ingest it:
"Slow pulse; & shock with fall of blood pressure. If death is not
"Acute effects of sulfur inhalation incl catarrhal inflammation of
nasal mucosa, which may lead to hyperplasia with abundant nasal
One other point. You mentioned in your post:
>But I am not anything to do with Whole Foods Markets,as suggested in
I did a search of Andura's biography as posted and could not find any
mention of "Whole Foods Markets". She seems only to mention "Whole
Earth Ltd" and you include "Whole Earth Foods Ltd" in your
affiliations. Why do you deny being involved in an organization that
no one has suggested you were involved with.
1. Asano,S.-I., Nukumizu,Y., Bando,H., Iisuka,T., Yamamoto,T., 1997.
Cloning of novel enterotoxin genes from Bacillus cereus and Bacillus
thuringiensis. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 63, 154-157.
2. Bacillus thuringiensis (B.t). Journal of Pesticide Reform 14, 13-2. 1994
3. Dr. Joseph E. Cummins, Professor (Genetics), University of Western
Ontario as quoted on the web site of the "Society Targeting Overuse
of Pesticides" http://www.vcn.bc.ca/stop/part2.html (paragraph 73)
4. COUNCIL REGULATION (EEC) No 2092/91 of 24 June 1991 on organic
production of agricultural products and indications referring thereto
on agricultural products and foodstuffs.
5. Ingestion of solid or concn potassium permanganate causes brown
discoloration & edema of mucous membranes of mouth & pharynx; cough,
laryngeal edema, & stridor; necrosis of oral & pharyngeal mucosa;
slow pulse; & shock with fall of blood pressure. If death is not
immediate, jaundice & oliguria or anuria may appear.
6. Acute effects of sulfur inhalation incl catarrhal inflammation of
nasal mucosa, which may lead to hyperplasia with abundant nasal
secretion. Tracheobronchitis is frequent occurrence with dyspnea,
persistent cough & expectoration ... Sometimes streaked with blood.
There may also be irritation of eyes, with lacrimation, photophobia,
conjunctivitis and blepharoconjunctivitis; cases of damage to
crystalline lens have also been described, with formation of
opacities and even cataract and focal chorioretinitis. Skin may be
subject to erythematous and eczematous lesions and signs of
ulceration, especially in ... Workers whose hands are in prolonged or
repeated contact with powdered sulfur ... At beginning, miner suffers
from upper resp tract catarrh, with cough, & expectoration which is
mucoid & may even contain grains of sulfur. Asthma is frequent
complication. Maxillary & frontal sinuses may be affected;
involvement is usually bilateral & pansinusitis may be observed in
some cases. ... Lung function exam has shown changes in pulmonary
ventilation, incr oxygen consumption, reduced expiratory volume/sec &
incr residual vol pulmonary carbon dioxide diffusion capacity was
7. Dutch Ministry For The Environment (Vrom), European Commission
Directorate General Xi/E/2, Dutch Ministry Of Agriculture (Lnv).
Possibilities for future EC environmental policy on plant protection
product SUB-PROJECT 6: ASSESSMENT OF THE BENEFITS OF PLANT PROTECTION
PRODUCTS FINAL REPORT Reference: E2/ASS/960027 10 December 1997 .
From: "terry hopkin"
Subject: copper again
Did I read that letter by Craig Sams correctly? Still in shock, it's
all a blur, did he really mean that when levels are to high they will
stop? But dear friends this loon (me!) knows that any land poisoned
by copper can take 125 years before it's safe to use again. What a
shock I must lay down, perhaps for a hundred and twenty six years.
Until it's safe to eat from my organic garden again
- Terry Sundby Hopkin
From: "Mary Murphy"
Subject: San Francisco Fruits
On Saturday the 13th of October, a parade of fruits, vegetables, and
(probably) monarch butterflies marched through the Streets of San
Francisco. The goal was to "inform the public of the terrifying
implications of genetic technology," they say on their web site,
But a quick look at the sponsors of the parade once again shows the
real goal of such a spectacle: to increase sales of organic foods by
* The Rainbow Grocery Cooperative, an organic food co-op
* Pesticide Action Network, an anti-peticide pro-organic group
* The Organic Consumers Association, Nuff said
These sponsors profit every time an individual is scared enough (and
stupid enough) to buy overpriced, low-yielding organic food, so no
wonder they finance parades with "celery with hooves, a tomato with a
pig's snout, an artichoke with wings, rats with huge tumors chewing
on corn with fish heads, a stampede of mad cows" (from their website).
And this is taking place even after a report from the ever skeptical
Europeans was released last week declaring GM foods may be even safer
than conventional foods! Oh well, don't let science or truth get in
This blatant slandering of the competition in order to increase their
own profit is something that only the organic food industry could get
away with. Could you imagine what would happen if Coke sponsored a
parade to inform the public of the dangers of drinking Pepsi? What if
General Motors sponsored a parade to educate the public about the
dangers of driving Fords? Somehow I doubt they'd be allowed to do so.
From: Tom DeGregori
Subject: Re: Anthrax
Very significant! In my book I refer to the 17 studies (in addition
to the umpteen earlier studies) funded by the EU that were in process
in early 1999 to try to find harm from hormone fed beef when the US
said enough and brought the matter before WTO. Not a single study has
found any harm.
My note is 100% accurate but also a bit of a spoof. I make it very
clear that I have no fears that live Bt could end up causing harm to
humans even if it started expressing the anthrax endotoxin. My point
is simply that though remote, it is several magnitudes greater than
any possible harm from GM food with the Bt protein. In other words,
if you are a luddite or a protectionist, it is not the quality of the
evidence that matters but the degree to which it matches your
preconceptions. Further, we who favor GM food and are critics of
organic agriculture, could have a field day if we wanted to be
demagogues on this issue. Look at the symbolism, - crop dusters, live
bacterium sometimes over fields where anthrax bearing animals may
have roamed or been stabled or where animal manure is used as
fertilizer, the genome that could express the anthrax endotoxin etc.
including all the hypothetheticals and the unknowns which always are
the special province of the know-nothings. We don't have the option
of dressing as monarch butterflies (I would not look all that good in
such an outfit) but maybe we good dresses up as Peter Pan or similar
with magic wands spreading white powder that is all natural and 100%
organic. Imagine the possibilities!
I would like these facts to get out to the media, not to generate
hysteria but simply to put some balance and perspective on a range of
issues and to give another dimension to the story.
Did you happen to see the "Asides" article at the bottom of the
editorials in today's Wall Street Journal? Is it as significant as it
sounds? It reads as follows:
"Vive la Biotech
"And now for some good news. Turns out genetically modified foods are
actually safer than Mother Nature's version. Says who? The biotech
squeamish Europeans, no less. Over the past 15 years the EU spent $64
million on 81 on 81 research projects to examine the risks involved
in genetically modified crops and products. Not single study found
'any new risks to human health or the environment, beyond the usual
uncertainties of conventional plant breeding...Indeed, the use of
more precise technology and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably
make them even safer than conventional plants and foods.' We hope the
French don't have a collective nervous breakdown."
AgBioView...Selection From the Past....
'Field of Genes: Issues and Non-Issues in High-Tech Farming'
- Jeremy Cherfas, (Edited version of a contribution to Old Crops in
New Bottles? Six Thoughts on the Science of Genetically Modified
Crops, published on December 2, 1998 by the Royal Agricultural
Society of England.) (January 8, 1999, Issue 45)
'You don't need genetic engineering to create genetic pollution.
Conventional agricultural methods work just fine.'
As a biologist and science writer who has watched the development of
genetic engineering from the start, I see genetic modification (GM)
as just the latest technology to serve the massive intensification of
agriculture. There is nothing new about either the benefits it
promises or the risks it threatens, many of which are already upon us.
For example, farmers have been spraying herbicides and insecticides
for decades, wiping out anything they think competes with their
harvests. Naively, one thinks a bumper harvest makes for a happy
farmer. In reality, the farmer does best out of scarcity, as the
Porter in Macbeth knew full well: Knock, knock, knock! Who's there,
in the name of Beelzebub? Here's a farmer that hanged himself on the
expectation of plenty.
Plenty pushes prices down. Best for the farmer is to have plenty in a
time of general scarcity. The farmer who can afford to protect a crop
from pests will more than recoup his costs by selling into a short
market; but that is true for all farmers. The result is an upward
spiral in which all farmers are using more pesticides than they
should be, biologically and economically. This undermines the value
of the pesticides, and means the farmers often fail to recoup their
costs. Worse, it squanders the pesticide by selecting for resistance.
For pesticide performance, the darling of the genetic engineers is a
bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt for short. Organic
farmers like it, too, because it is a natural product and therefore
must be good. However, several economically important pests have
become resistant to Bt - not because they feasted on crops that had
been genetically modified to make Bt toxin, but because in their
efforts to eradicate Bt, farmers overused ordinary, old-fashioned
Warning signs about the resistance of Bt appeared in 1986 on the
island of Oahu in Hawaii. A watercress grower noticed that some
diamondback moths in his field were not succumbing to Bt. Experts at
the University of Hawaii decided the numbers involved were
insignificant, and the farmer continued to spray. By 1989, three
years later, the proportion of resistant moths had doubled. Moths
resistant to Bt had turned up in another watercress field on Oahu,
and in a cabbage field on the big island of Hawaii. Resistant moths
appeared in Thailand, the Philippines, Japan, Florida, and New York.
In every case, the growers were using frequent, high doses of Bt. One
sprayed 15 times in a single year.
Plant diseases have become resistant in exactly the same way, with no
help from genetic manipulation. Government and industry have tackled
the question of resistance by drawing up management plans and hoping
these will do the trick. Take Bt, for example. In 1996, corn
engineered to express the Bt toxin accounted for less than 1 percent
of all U.S. production. By 1998, it had risen to 19 percent - 4.2
million acres. The risk of selecting resistance is greater than with
a spray, because Bt is present all through the season and in all the
plants, instead of temporarily and patchily.
Novartis Seeds, an industry leader with its Bt corn, offered a
financial incentive to help farmers make the tough decision to forego
certain methods of pest resistance. Novartis offers growers
substantial savings if at least 20 percent of each order includes
non-Bt hybrids.  The idea is that farmers will create refuges of
non-Bt corn, where susceptible pests can survive and thrive, mating
with occasional resistant specimens. (But only if they buy all their
seed from Novartis.)
The irony is that, having seen the value of Bt corn, farmers are
unwilling to sacrifice a single ear. The National Corn Growers
Association noted that if the refuge requirements are too onerous,
growers will not be able to justify using the technology from an
economic perspective. One Canadian farmer said the refuge strategy
would fail because no farmer will pay a premium price for Bt hybrids
if he has to plant junk hybrids on 25 percent of his acreage. Most
progressive farmers, he said, would buy and plant the new hybrids
edge to edge and leave it to their less progressive neighbors to
stick with the older, cheaper varieties lacking the Bt gene. To date,
farmers have shown no evidence of having the greater good at heart;
and why should they, when (as in other industries) they tend to reap
profits themselves, while society at large pays the costs?
I have dwelled at some length on issues of pests and diseases, but
one can detect the same pattern - conventional agriculture got there
first - in all other concerns about GM food. Some protesters worry
about a gene smog - the uncontrolled dispersion of modified plant
genes across long distances. But pollen has always traveled, and
unless the conventional crop is being raised to produce fresh seed
(in which case, contamination is something the farmer ought to be on
guard against no matter what its source), the fact that the pollen is
from a genetically modified plant presents no additional hazards.
Drivers along Britain's roads can already marvel at conventional
genetic pollution. Smears of the brilliant yellow flowers of oilseed
rape (Brassica napus) are a familiar sight wherever grain lorries
have spilled their unmodified seed. That, and the spread of
agriculturally improved varieties of wildflower, are clear evidence
of genetic pollution that owes nothing to genetic engineering.
Conventional agriculture has also already managed to realize yet
another of the big fears: superweeds, resistant to all the pesticides
one can throw at them. In Manitoba on the Canadian prairies,
two-thirds of the cropland has patches of wild oats resistant to two
or more classes of herbicide. In 1997, triple- and
quadruple-resistant oats appeared. Weed scientists with Agriculture
and Agri-food Canada blamed farmers who ignored advice to rotate
crops and herbicides.
In 1996, an annual ryegrass resistant to glyphosate appeared in
Australia. It was the first resistant plant species in 20 years of
glyphosate use. Some Australian populations of annual ryegrass can
now survive all herbicides registered for their use. Goosegrass has
become resistant to dinitroaniline herbicides such as trifuralin and
oryzalin. Scientists finally understand at a detailed molecular level
exactly why they are resistant. (They proved this, incidentally, by
manipulating the mutant gene into maize to make it resistant, too.)
But as the researchers point out, in the wild this resistance has
arisen, and been selected for, as a result of repeated exposure to
this class of herbicide. 
A final fear is that eating GM foods can be dangerous. Again, GM
foods pose no new threats. The intensification of the food supply
industry has contributed to the safety (or lack thereof) of
ingredients and food in many ways. A simple example: Feeding cattle
grain considerably increases the number of Escherichia coli bacteria
in their guts, and those bacteria are more resistant to acid than E.
coli from grass-fed cattle. Because they are more numerous, the E.
coli from grain-fed cattle are, all else being equal, more likely to
make their way into the human digestive system. They are also better
able to resist acid attack, and more likely to survive their trip
through the stomach. If they are of the virulent strain 0157, the
result can be fatal.
Cattle are fed grain because it is cheaper and more fattening than
hay, but farmers do not have to abandon grain feed (and consumers do
not have to stomach the increase in meat prices that would accompany
a switch back to grass). Feeding cattle hay or silage for five days
before slaughter greatly diminishes the number of acid-resistant E.
coli in the gut. 
It is also worth bearing in mind that the human diet contains a huge
number of entirely natural, unselected items that are extremely
unsafe if not properly prepared. People with nut allergies may react
very badly to a GM food or ingredient that contains genes from nuts.
But they have always run the risk of unwanted pieces of nut finding
their way into, say, chocolate bars. The issue is one of information
about the food, not of the processes that created the ingredients.
GM crops pose no potential threats that intensive agriculture has not
already made a reality. But because opponents have focused on
scientific worries, the biotech industry has been able to respond by
trying to show that those fears are groundless. The results on both
sides have been pretty unedifying. Basing an argument on the desire
for scientific certainty, especially in a culture that understands
neither statistics nor risk and has not embraced the precautionary
principle, always permits one's opponents to come up with
countervailing conclusions. My suspicion is that the opposition to GM
crops is actually much more emotional and less scientific than most
people will admit.
Opponents of GM food crops should come out with it and admit that
they just don't like the idea. Farmers would do well to stand back
and ask whether they cannot reap the benefits offered by GM crops by
using other techniques, with the added gain of supplying products
people might actively prefer (for whatever dubious reasons).
Jeremy Cherfas has a Ph.D. in animal behavior but is a now a
freelance journalist and communicator by trade. He has been biology
editor of New Scientist, European correspondent of Science, and a
reporter for several BBC Radio Four programs about agriculture and
the environment.; Andrzej Krauze is an illustrator, poster maker,
cartoonist, and painter who illustrates regularly for HMS Beagle, The
Guardian, The Sunday Telegraph, Bookseller, and New Statesman.