Today's Topics in AgBioView.
* Cheap Attempts to Smear GM with Anthrax and Bio-terrorism
* Bioterror and Biosafety - Vandana Shiva
* New DNA-Based Vaccine Approach Protects Mice Against Anthrax
* Chemical Neutralizes Anthrax Toxin
* A Splice of Life: Two Looks at Genetically Engineered Food
* Livestock Could be at Risk
* Borlaug's Life Focuses on Education
* Papaya Biotechnology Network of Southeast Asia Meet In Vietnam
From: "Rick Roush"
Subject: Another attempt to smear GM with Anthrax
I would never have believed that anti-GM crusaders would stoop so low as to try to use the anthrax scare to attack GM, but here is one example from Australia. Of course, Bt crops produce only one or two insect-specific proteins from Bt and thus eliminate the potential for accidental contamination with anthrax toxins or bacteria, even though this remains a remotely possibility with Bt sprays. Let's hope that such stories don't also threaten the use of Bt sprays in the organics industry!
From: Bob Phelps on 18/10/2001
To: All Victorian MPs; other MPs as addressed
Subject: URGENT: Need strong GE laws based on precaution and real
Bt GM crop toxin is from Anthrax family
The Bt gene (from the soil microbe Bacillus thuringiensis) which produces an insect toxin is now genetically engineered into many food crop plants (including 30% of the Australian cotton crop from which oil, seed and linters are derived).
Starlink corn has not been registered as human food because it is one new variety of Bt that is recognised as a probable human allergen. Many other strains of Bt have been approved for inclusion in our food supply, despite a paucity of sound evidence showing their safety. This is relevant in the current public concerns over Anthrax as Bt is a member of the same family of micro-organisms.
We again invite you to delay passage of the Gene Technology Act 2001 until the state government conducts a public review of needed amendments. We fully support the regulation of gene technology and its products but the proposed system is manifestly inadequate. Our letter to Health Minister Thwaites, previously sent to you, sets out our concerns.
We ask you to strengthen the Bill's provisions, to make it strictly evidence based, which the new Office of Gene Technology Regulator and its processes are not. Please favourably consider our request after reading the following.
Best wishes, Bob Phelps, Director GeneEthics Network
Thanks to NLP Wessex UK for compiling the following:
"...probably the nearest relative of B. thurigiensis is B. anthracis (anthrax) with whom it shares genes". Professor Anthony Trewavas, Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology, Edinburgh The Lancet, Volume 355, Number 9207. p. 931-934 11 March 2000
"Small genetic differences have so far maintained the distinction that makes B. anthracis a notorious human pathogen and Bt merely a useful pest control bug. However, Bacillus expert Lars Andrup of the National Institute of Occupational Health in Copenhagen has identified a novel gene-swapping system that enables Bt to exchange an unusually wide variety of DNA with other Bacillus cells. The potential for spawning very dangerous strains and unleashing them into the environment is clearly there, he says." New Scientist, October 9, 1999
"B.t. belongs to a small group of closely related Bacillus species, including B. cereus, a bacteria that is an agent of food poisoning, and B. anthracis, the pathogen of the virulent animal disease, anthrax. These three bacteria are so similar it has been theorized that they are all varieties of the same species. If B. cereus is cultured with B.t. cells, genetic material is transferred to the B. cereus cells that allows B. cereus to produce B.t.'s crystal proteins. Transfers of genetic material between B. anthracis and B.t. have also occurred." Journal of Pesticide Reform, Volume 14, Number 3, Fall 1994
17 October 2001 Yesterday the vice-president of the British Veterinary Association confirmed that the food supply is a major risk area for terrorist activity through deliberate biological contamination (http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/uk/newsid_1601000/1601846.stm ). Not surprisingly this is a highly sensitive issue following the recent anthrax attacks in the US and the earlier outbreaks of BSE and foot-and-mouth in the UK. These latter two experiences alone should have taught us that we lose control of our agricultural and food biology at our peril.
And yet, with the advent of genetically modified crops we find our politicians - not only in the UK but throughout the world - consciously acquiescing in the legislative endorsement of the introduction of radical molecular changes to global food supplies. Although limited in number at present there is almost no food for which such genetic modification is not being planned.
Such a dramatic change to the very 'staff of life' - over a time scale in evolutionary terms which is infinitesimally small - is overwhelmingly without precedent. That these changes are fundamental is not disputed in the published scientific literature (www.btinternet.com/~nlpwessex/Documents/gmrisk.htm).
Indeed, such radical change forms the very basis on which the proprietary ownership of these 'novel foods' is secured through the vehicle of intellectual property rights, and from which unchallengable investment returns are derived.
In order to emphasise the extraordinary nature of what is taking place here, it is worth remembering that the same technology that is used to create GM crops (recombinant DNA technology) is the same technology that is used to create modern bioweapons. One example is the genetically engineered anthrax which the US government has recently admitted it has covert manufacturing proposals for, according to the London Times 5 September (the Times also discloses that the Pentagon has secretly built a germ factory 'capable of producing enough deadly bacteria to kill millions of people' http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/0,,3-2001305743,00.html).
In this context claims that GM crops are 'just an extension' of traditional plant breeding are patently absurd. Essentially this technology now allows the out-of-context incorporation of genetic material from almost any source into food and other organisms. For example, although a version allegedly benign to mammals, the Bt pesticide toxin that is already engineered into millions of acres of GM crops around the world is from a bacteria which belongs to the same family as anthrax (see Nature Biotechnology and New Scientist articles below).
Whilst Bt in its natural form has been used as a pesticide in agriculture for a long time, in genetically engineered crops it exists as a novel construct incorporated through a process known as 'illegitimate recombination'. This has it own unique implications for biosafety http://www.btinternet.com/~nlpwessex/Documents/ECnoconfidence.htm).
In contrast to the traditional use of Bt pesticide sprays which are applied to the exterior of the crop, with Bt GM crops the toxin is embedded into the inner cellular structure of the plant itself and becomes an integral part of the food produced from it (this is not a case of pesticide residues; rather the plant itself is a pesticide). Whilst the scientist from the Los Alamos National Laboratory featured in the New Scientist article below does not consider that the use of naturally occurring Bt is likely to give rise to new biohazards, it is notable that no discussion is presented on the implications of the use of Bt in genetically engineered plants - particularly when the novel transgenic constructs involved may be continually expressed in every cell of each plant over huge acreages. In the case of GM plants the Bt toxin is expressed in highly artificial circumstances commonly activated by a potent regulator taken from a virus which is itself related to Hepatitis B and HIV and is associated with illegiti
To what extent this type of situation can facilitate the swapping of novel genetic sequences in the environment is the subject of considerable debate. Whilst only briefly alluding to the use of Bt in GM crops the New Scientist article nonetheless specifically draws attention in a more general context to the issue of the swapping of 'regulator genes' within the anthrax family of bacteria and the potential for the creation of new hazards.
Despite ongoing specific concerns relating to allergenicity and mammalian toxicity ( http://www.biotech-info.net/structural_changes.html ), it may still be felt in many quarters that these factors have little or no significance in the case of those Bt GM crops that have already passed through the official regulatory approval process (that the European Commission itself, for example, has significant doubts about the robustness of the safety tests carried out in that process does not for some reason seem to have become a major issue yet - see http://www.btinternet.com/~nlpwessex/Documents/ECnoconfidence.htm ).
However, these crops are only the very beginning of a never-ending process of radical and rapidly accelerating biological change which has profound implications for the already acutely fragile future of global biosecurity. It has been clear for some time that the use of recombinant DNA technology in the so-called 'life sciences' is rapidly melting the boundaries not only between species, but between food, drugs and weapons.
According to a report on biotechnology published last year by the US Industrial College of the Armed Forces:
"There are substantial future opportunities to bioengineer plants for nonfood purposes, such as medical treatments through 'neutraceuticals' (i.e., plant-based therapeutic products) or the detection of biological weapons on the battlefield through plant sensors..... No fewer than 17 nations, including Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Russia, and China, as well as several international terrorist organizations, have known or suspected bioweapons programs.....The rapid advances in biotechnology mean that increasingly insidious bioweapons are becoming increasingly accessible to even minor actors...... In addition, the technology to produce bioweapons is 'dual-use,' meaning that it could also be put to legitimate purposes, such as in the manufacture of vaccines, which would provide cover to bioterrorists.... Cloning, bioengineered foods, genetic patenting, and advanced knowledge of inherited diseases will threaten long-cherished beliefs about how we interact with nature, who we are as a society, and what we are as
http://www.biotech-info.net/bt_crisis1.html "Bacillus Identity Crisis" Aaron J. Bouchie, Nature Biotechnology, Volume 18, No. 8, August, 2000 Researchers at the Biotechnology Centre at the University of Oslo, led by Anne-Brit Kolst ¯, have determined that what were thought to be three separate bacterial species are actually three strains of the same species (Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 66, 26272630, 2000; MEDLINE). This team had previously found evidence that Bacillus thuringiensis, the sire of Bt toxin, and B. cereus, a common cause of food poisoning found ubiquitously in the soil, appear to be the same species, exhibiting low degrees of clonality and frequent exchange of genetic material. Through multilocus enzyme electrophoresis (MEE) and sequence analysis of nine chromosomal genes, the Kolst¯ group now has found that B. anthracis, the cause of anthrax, belongs to the same species as well. The difference in phenotype is due to virulent plasmids harbored within B. anthracis. With B. anthracis currently unde
"Friend or Foe?" Debora MacKenzie
New Scientist October 9, 1999
The bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), B. cereus and B. anthracis are all the same species, biologists believe. If, the story asks, you're thinking "so what?", then consider this: Bt is sprayed over crops in vast quantities and B. anthracis is the bug that causes anthrax. Small genetic differences have so far maintained the distinction that makes B. anthracis a notorious human pathogen and Bt merely a useful pest control bug. However, Bacillus expert Lars Andrup of the National Institute of Occupational Health in Copenhagen has identified a novel gene-swapping system that enables Bt to exchange an unusually wide variety of DNA with other Bacillus cells. The potential for spawning very dangerous strains and unleashing them into the environment is clearly there, he says. So why use Bt at all? For one thing, it is a highly successfully pesticide......
Now Vandana, our favorite 'fear-monger-in-chief' joins this chorus....talks about risks posed by 'biological agents'.... (One can avoid biological agents by not breathing or eating). Her diatribe below is intellectual dishonesty at its lowest level...I wonder if she were to be in an unfortunate situation like Tom Daschle or Peter Jennings, whether she would refuse 'Cipro', the antibiotic? - because it comes from scientific research involving a 'biological agent', developed at a Western, profit-driven, corporate lab and is patented - all of which she despises so much. What we see above and below is nothing but an insidious exploitation of fear among public to advance their anti-progress vested agenda .............CSP)
Bioterror and Biosafety
- Vandana Shiva, The Hindu (India)
The reports of anthrax cases in Florida and New York have put a renewed focus on bioterror - the risks and hazards posed by biological agents. From the U.S. to India, Governments are on high alert. Even the World Health Organisation has issued warnings. Americans and Europeans have been stockpiling gas masks and antibiotics, and images of policemen and investigators in biohazard suits have started to make front- page appearances in newspapers and magazines.
The panic and fear being spread about biohazards in the post- September 11 period is so different from the complacency earlier, even though the threat to public health and the environment from hazardous biological agents is not new. If we have to respond adequately and consistently to bioterror, we need to take two basic issues into account. Firstly, infective biological agents cause disease and kill, irrespective of who spreads them and how they spread. The current paranoia arises from the fear that they could get into terrorist hands.
However, terrorists can get them because they are around. And they pose hazards even if they are not in terrorist hands. As Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic, said in his opening remarks of Forum 2000 in Prague on 14th October, "Bin Laden did not invent bacterial agents''. They were invented in defence or corporate labs. Anthrax has been part of the ascend of biological warfare of the very states which are today worried about bioterrorism. And genetic engineering of biological organisms, both for warfare and food and agriculture, is creating new biohazards, both intended and unintended.
Secondly, it is fully recognised that stronger public health systems is the only response to bioterrorism. However, precisely at a time when public health reports are needed most, they are being dismantled under privatisation and trade liberalisation pressures. Bioterrorism should help governments recognise that we desperately need strong biosafety regulation and public health systems.
The global citizens movement and the movement of concerned scientists for biosafety have been alerting Governments to the ecological and health risks of genetic engineering and therefore the imperative to test, assess and regulate the release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment. This basic conflict over the need to assess GMOs for biohazards was at the heart of negotiations that stretched over a decade under the aegis of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and were finally concluded in February 2000 in Montreal on the Protocol on Biosafety.
There are two major concerns for potential risks of biohazards from GMOs. Firstly, the vectors used for introducing genes from one organism to another to make a GMO are highly infectious and virulent biological agents. It is, in fact, their infectious nature which makes them useful as vectors to introduce alien genes into biological organisms. The risks of the use of virulent vectors for engineering novel life forms have not been assessed. And their use for bioterrorism becomes easier as they spread commercially around the world.
Secondly, since GMOs are novel organisms which have not existed in nature, their impact on the environment and on human health is not known. Ignorance of the impact is being treated as proof of safety, a totally unscientific approach. This has been called a "don't look, don't see'' approach to biosafety.
Biowarfare or bioterrorism is the deliberate use of living organisms to kill people. When economic policies based on trade liberalisation and globalisation deliberately spread fatal and infectious diseases such as AIDS, TB and malaria, by dismantling health and medical systems, they too become instruments of bioterror. This is the way citizens groups have organised worldwide against the TRIPS (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights) Agreement and GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) of the WTO. TRIPS imposes patents and monopolies on drugs, taking essential medicines beyond the reach of the poor.
For example, AIDS medicine, which costs $200 without patents, costs $20,000 with patents. TRIPS and patents on medicines become recipes for spreading disease and death because they take cure beyond people's reach. Similarly, privatisation of health systems as imposed by the World Bank under SAPS (Structural Adjustment Programmes) and also proposed in GATS, spreads infectious diseases because low cost, decentralised public health systems are withdrawn and dismantled. These are also forms of bioterror. They are different from the acts of terrorists only because they are perpetrated by the powerful, not the marginalised and the excluded and they are committed for the fanaticism of the free market ideology, not fundamentalist religious ideologies. But in impact they are the same. They kill innocent people and species by spreading disease.
Stopping the spread of bioterror at all these levels requires stopping the proliferation of technologies which create potentially hazardous biological organisms. It also requires stopping the proliferation of economic and trade policies which are crippling public health systems, spreading infectious diseases and leaving societies more vulnerable to bioterrorism.
(The writer is Director, Research Foundation for Science, Technology and
Ecology, New Delhi.)
New DNA-Based Vaccine Approach Protects Mice Against Anthrax
Columbus, Ohio - Researchers here have shown that mice injected with fragments of DNA from anthrax bacteria can be immunized against the disease. In traditional vaccine approaches, researchers have used live, weakened or dead pathogens - or proteins produced by the organisms - to produce an immune response.
"The current work is a strong argument for the feasibility of using a DNA-based immunization strategy against anthrax." This new approach represents a new -- and perhaps, safer -- way to produce vaccines against highly contagious diseases. This latest study, published in a recent issue of the journal Infection and Immunity, improves on earlier work that suggested that DNA-based vaccines might be effective. By using combinations of two gene products produced by the bacteria responsible for causing anthrax -Bacillus anthracis - the researchers were able to successfully immunize mice against the disease.
The work was headed by Darrell Galloway, associate professor of microbiology at Ohio State University, and colleagues at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research and the Biological Defense Research Directorate program at the Naval Medical Research Center in Silver Spring, MD. Anthrax is a lethal disease if not detected shortly after exposure to bacterial spores. Antibiotics are effective in halting it if given soon after exposure before any symptoms develop. It is one of the leading potential agents discussed for use in biological terrorist attacks.
Once anthrax spores are inhaled, they are pulled deep into the lungs where they usually are consumed by macrophages - white cells that scavenge the body for pathogens and other components that may lead to disease.
"Unfortunately," Galloway says, "the macrophages seem to be uniquely sensitive to this bacteria and are essentially targeted." Once inside the macrophages, the spores germinate producing bacterial cells that multiply until their numbers literally burst the cells, spreading infection. The bacterial cells produce and release toxin components that specifically attack additional macrophages, ultimately leading to death. This, in turn, releases massive amounts of cytokines - critical chemical components of the immune response that cause physiologic effects throughout the system.
"Ultimately, the destruction of the macrophages, and the dumping into the bloodstream of the large amounts of cytokines produced by these cells, causes the patient to go into shock which ultimately kills him," Galloway says. His team focused on using the genes responsible for producing the bacterial toxin. These genes normally secrete three gene products - protective antigen (PA), lethal factor (LF) and edema factor (EF). The protective antigen combines with the lethal factor to form a molecule known as lethal toxin, which can invade the cell and claim credit for the fatal potential of anthrax.
"Without PA," Galloway said, "neither of the remaining two toxin components would be effective." To construct their vaccine, the researchers assembled groups of mice and injected them three times at two-week intervals with plasmids - circular DNA molecules that are widely used for the cloning and expression of genes and their products - containing fragments of PA and LF.
Some mice received PA plasmids only, some LF plasmids only and some received a combination of both. A control group received plasmids lacking PA or LF genes. Two weeks after the last injection, researchers measured the groups' antibody response to both gene products. Mice receiving gene-laden plasmids developed strong immune responses to the gene product they were exposed to.
"Significantly," the researchers wrote, "titers (measures) of antibody to the LF antigen appeared to be about twice those of antibody to the PA. This suggests that the LF antigen induces a greater response." The researchers also found that mice that had received both PA and LF had nearly twice the immune response of mice receiving either agent alone. This is extremely important for researchers striving to produce the most effective vaccine.
The groups of mice were then injected with five times the lethal dose of the anthrax bacterial toxin. All mice that had received the plasmid injections were immune while all animals in the control group died within several hours. Galloway says that the results are important enough to suggest that an effective vaccine might be possible that focuses on using additional Bacillus anthracis antigens, including a mutated form of the lethal factor antigen. This point is important since earlier vaccine studies were focused on using the PA antigen alone.
"The LF antigen appears to be much more immunogenic and produces an immune response lasting much longer than the response to the PA antigen," he said. The researchers believe their current work is a strong argument for the feasibility of using a "DNA-based immunization strategy against anthrax" and that any future vaccines should incorporate a mutated version of the LF antigen.
In a recent, as-yet unpublished study, the Ohio State University research team, in collaboration with scientists from Battelle, has demonstrated that the vaccine can protect against a significant aerosol challenge more than a year following the last inoculation.
Chemical Neutralizes Anthrax Toxin
- Nathan Sepp, Science News Oct. 6, 2001; Vol. 160, No. 14
Scientists have created a synthetic compound that disables the toxin that makes the bacterial disease anthrax so lethal. Meanwhile, another research team has discovered a gene that protects some mice against anthrax. These findings could lead to an antidote to the anthrax toxin and help clarify the mechanism by which it kills.
Whether the new compound can serve as an antitoxin in people remains unclear since the scientists have tested it only in rats, says R. John Collier of Harvard Medical School in Boston. Nevertheless, the concept of neutralizing anthrax toxin has appeal because the current treatments, which target the bacterium, and the vaccine now in use have drawbacks. When a person inhales spores of Bacillus anthracisóthe microbe that causes anthraxóthey unleash three proteins that combine to form a toxin. This triad makes blood pressure plummet, causes hemorrhaging, and can lead to coma and death.
The proteins attack human cells as a team. One proteinóprotective antigen (PA)óbinds to a receptor on the cell surface and is cleaved by enzymes there. The part of PA that remains stuck, called PA63, provides a docking site for the other anthrax proteinsólethal factor and edema factor. Once assembled, the toxin enables lethal factor to enter the cell. There, it chops up proteins, setting into motion the chain of events that leads to anthrax's symptoms, says Nicholas C. Duesbery of the Van Andel Research Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Since no drug in use at present disables the toxin, Collier and his colleagues set out to create such a compound. First, they identified a peptide, or partial protein, that bonds to PA63 in lab tests. Next, they linked together multiple copies of the peptide. In test tubes, this synthetic molecule, which they call polyvalent inhibitor (PVI), prevented the natural anthrax proteins from binding to PA63. When injected into rats, PVI protected the animals against subsequent exposure to 10 times the normally lethal dose of anthrax toxin, the researchers report in the October Nature Biotechnology. Without PVI treatment, rats died within hours.
Antibiotics can kill B. anthracis but have no effect on the toxin already present in the body when symptoms appear, says Robert C. Liddington of the Burnham Institute in La Jolla, Calif. The vaccine poses problems, too. It can cause side effects, and "it's hard to justify vaccinating a whole country against one particular agent of biological terrorism," he says. Ideally, a toxin antidote would be mass-produced and kept in storage around the country, Collier says.
Researchers are currently charting the anthrax proteins' course in the body. In the Oct. 2 Current Biology, William F. Dietrich of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Harvard Medical School in Boston and his colleagues report that certain variations of a gene called Kif1C, which encodes a protein that ushers other proteins around inside cells, protect mice from the effects of the anthrax toxin. "We've got the PA63 molecular activity on one end and the disease on the other end. The Kif1C gene gives us some clues as to where to look in between," Duesbery says.
A Splice of Life: Two Looks at Genetically Engineered Food
- May Berenbaum, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 18, 2001
Living in east-central Illinois the past 20 years, I've been ideally positioned to witness what is perhaps the greatest revolution in American agriculture since the invention of the self-scouring steel plow in 1837.
John Deere's remarkable technological innovation literally changed the face of the landscape; today's ongoing revolution, however, is far more subtle. To me, the landscape looks pretty much the same as it always has. This is a revolution that's almost invisible to all but the most well-trained observer. The ability to splice genes encoding proteins that confer protection against pests or that improve the quality, appearance or storage properties of a crop hasn't radically changed the basic appearance of the crop itself or the land it grows on. What has changed, however, is the nature of agricultural enterprise, and along with it, the balance of power, the flow of money, and the basic biological and ethical principles that govern food production.
And therein lies the problem. Understanding the changes that agriculture has undergone in the past 20 years as a result of advances in biotechnology is not an easy task. Compounding the challenge are the spectacularly rapid changes. "Roundup Ready" soybeans, genetically engineered for resistance to herbicide, were first approved for planting in 1996; that year, they were planted on about 1 million acres. Within two years, those soybeans occupied 25 million acres, almost one-third of all soybeans planted in the United States.
Bt-corn and cotton, crops engineered with a gene from a bacterium that confers resistance against caterpillar pests, have enjoyed a similarly rapid rise in popularity. It's not altogether surprising, then, given the effect of the changes wrought by the introduction of what have come to be known as GMOs - genetically manipulated organisms - into agriculture, and the scientific subtleties underlying those changes, that journalists would find the story an appealing one to tell.
Two of them have produced books on the subject. Daniel Charles, author of "Lords of the Harvest" was a science-technology reporter for National Public Radio from 1993 to 1999; Bill Lambrecht, author of "Dinner at the New Gene Cafe," is a Washington correspondent for the Post-Dispatch. Interestingly, both have some connection to the soil. Charles grew up on a small Pennsylvania farm, where his brother still works, and Lamprecht hails from central Illinois, where no home is far from a cornfield.
The two books differ dramatically in their approach to the subject. Charles has elected to serve as impartial observer who explains objectively and dispassionately "how genetically engineered foods came to be, and why."
Lambrecht's story is more personal, detailing his own adventures in reporting, traveling around the world and interacting with the principal combatants in many of the most acrimonious debates. In a recurring sidebar, Lambrecht acquires his own genetically engineered soybeans and watches them grow. Dissecting the issues: Of the two approaches, Charles faced the greater challenge because objective voices in discussions of GMOs have been few and far between. I don't think I have read a more balanced, even-handed discussion of virtually every issue that bedevils agricultural biotechnology.
What are these issues?
* They're philosophical: Are manipulators of genes tinkering with nature and usurping the natural order of things?
* They're technological: How can genes from unlikely sources, such as viruses or bacteria, be made to function in a plant without affecting the desirable properties of that plant?
* They're ecological: Can pest control be too effective, in that extremely high mortality leads inexorably to the evolution of resistance?
* They're environmental: Does altering the genetic constitution of crop plants pose a risk to the natural landscape through unintended, nontarget effects?
* They're economical: Does a biotech company have the right to control the seed supply, charging "technology fees" and effectively licensing genes to farmers, and at the same time control the supply of agricultural chemicals on which those seeds depend?
* They're personal: Does purchasing GMO-derived food pose a risk to health?
* They're political: Should technological innovations be subject to democratic oversight?
Charles tackles these issues with thoroughness and clarity. As a result, there are no stock characters - scientists oblivious to the environmental consequences of their acts, biotechnology magnates driven by greed and desire for world domination, or environmentalists whose desire is altruistically to save the world.
The story of the disastrous failure of Flavr Savr is particularly noteworthy in this regard. Flavr Savr, a tomato developed by Calgene with enhanced shelf life, failed not because of adverse environmental or health effects, but because of a fundamental lack of appreciation of the mundane complexities of growing and marketing tomatoes. (The chapter is called "The Tomato That Ate Calgene.")
Focus on personalities
Although Lambrecht's book may be more approachable, it also is less intellectually satisfying. In focusing on the personalities and dramatic conflicts involved in the debates, he gives short shrift to the science and in doing so, perhaps inadvertently perpetuates many scientific misconceptions about GMOs that influence the nature of ongoing debates.
Two debates illustrate this superficiality. In 1998, a Hungarian scientist working in a Scottish research institute reported on television that an experiment he had conducted demonstrated that genetically engineered potatoes had adverse effects on the health of laboratory rats. For months afterward, a furious debate ensued.
In Lambrecht's one-page account, this debate involved suppression of data by the science establishment, with the Royal Society apparently baselessly criticizing the work, and eventual "vindication" via publication in Lancet.
Charles' more detailed account lays out the concerns more explicitly (and fairly) - legitimate scientific concerns were raised over experimental design and interpretation, the appropriateness of public disclosure of data prior to peer review, and consistency with previously published accounts. Such details may seem tedious, but sound scientific judgments generally don't (and shouldn't) make for dramatic reading.
It's not clear how firm a grasp Lambrecht has on the science. Some of the statements in the text are opaque to the point of being nonsensical, as when he writes, "The first gene, a so-called promoter, generates a toxin that obstructs the gene's capacity to germinate. ..." Promoters are genetic switches, not genes; promoters do not encode toxins; and genes don't germinate.
Which book you choose to read probably will be based on your personal proclivities. Those with a political bent will enjoy Lambrecht's dramatic accounts of conflicts and clashes (his own experience at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle provides interesting insights into the physical risks that reporters often face in tracking down a story). Those with an interest in science, agriculture and policy probably will prefer Charles' more objective account (and his excellent notes on sources).
I would recommend reading both. In attempting to understand the biggest change in almost two centuries that affects everything we eat, collectively reading some 700 pages doesn't seem an unreasonable assignment.
"Dinner at the New Gene Cafe: How Genetic Engineering is Changing What We Eat, How We Live, and the Global Politics of Food" By Bill Lambrecht; Published by St. Martin's Press, 383 pages, $24.95
"Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food" By Daniel Charles; Published by Perseus, 348 pages, $27
BOOK REVIEWSMay Berenbaum is professor and head of the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois. Among her research interests are nontarget effects of GMOs on butterflies.
Livestock Could be at Risk
'Governments are ill-equipped to deal with infected animals, a bioterrorism expert warns.'
- Jerry Perkins, Des Moines Register, Farm Editor, 10/19/2001
A bioterrorism expert said Thursday at the World Food Prize symposium that U.S. agriculture is extremely vulnerable to terrorism, especially the introduction of disease in the livestock industry.
Peter Chalk, biological agroterrorism analyst with the Rand Corp., a Washington, D.C., think tank, said governments at the federal, state and local levels are ill-equipped to deal with an outbreak of a contagious livestock disease like the foot-and-mouth epidemic that swept through England and other parts of Europe this year. "Agriculture is a highly critical sector that is vulnerable" to terrorists introducing animal diseases or diseases that could be contagious to humans like anthrax, Chalk said.
U.S. agriculture makes up one-sixth of the national economy and accounts for 24 million jobs and $190 billion in annual cash receipts, Chalk said. Foot-and-mouth disease is an example of a highly contagious livestock disease that terrorists could introduce in the United States, Chalk said.
There have been no reported cases of foot-and-mouth disease in the United States since 1929, but outbreaks occurred in Mexico and Canada in the 1950s. Foot-and-mouth can cripple but usually does not kill cattle, hogs, sheep and other cloven-hooved animals. It has never been detected in humans, and meat from infected animals is safe to eat. Animals are usually destroyed to contain the disease.
The U.S. livestock industry is particularly vulnerable to bioterrorism because it is primarily made up of large operations that are highly concentrated, which makes the spread of contagious diseases easier, Chalk said. The mobility of livestock among the states also makes containing an epidemic more difficult, he said. "If you did get a contagious disease introduced, it's likely to spread."
A lack of surveillance at most livestock operations, inefficient disease reporting systems, and lack of proper training for veterinarians also make containment of livestock diseases more of a problem, Chalk said. Foot-and-mouth disease led to the slaughter of 5.5 million head of livestock to prevent its spread, at a cost of $3 billion, said David Shannon of the Department of the Environmental Food and Rural Affairs in the United Kingdom.
The outbreak in England and elsewhere in Europe "was a wake-up call that demonstrated just how serious the spread of the disease can be," he said.
Borlaug's Life Focuses on Education
- Jerry Perkins, Des Moines Register, Farm Editor, 10/14/2001
Iowans know little about Cresco native Norman Borlaug, says Ken Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation.
"It is possible to go to school in Iowa for 12 to 16 years, and never learn about Norman Borlaug's role feeding people in the world," Quinn said of the man who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for saving hundreds of millions in India and Pakistan from starvation, and who is known as the Father of the Green Revolution.
The World Food Prize Foundation hopes to focus attention this week on Borlaug as part of ceremonies connected with the awarding of the 2001 World Food Prize to Per Pinstrup-Andersen, director of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C. The activities coincide with plans by family and friends in northeast Iowa to turn Borlaug's boyhood farm near Cresco into an educational center that will teach Iowa students about Borlaug and his life work.
The Norman Borlaug Heritage Foundation, led by Borlaug's nephew, Ted Behrens of Cedar Falls, took title to the property last year and will use the farm to promote understanding of Borlaug's contributions to the world. "It is important that the Foundation focus on developing education programs for youth," said Behrens. "American students desperately want and need heroes of substance to emulate."
Borlaug, 87, was born on his grandparents' farm in 1914. When he was 8, his family moved to the 106-acre farm near Cresco, where he grew up. "More than anything else, the values I learned here," Borlaug said during a 1996 visit to the Howard County farm, are the values that drove his life-long efforts to increase world food production. "I don't think up on cloud nine," he said. " think about that little farmer, trying to feed his family with only hand tools, living on the edge of starvation."
After graduating from college in 1937 and working for DuPont, Borlaug went to Mexico in 1944 as a wheat researcher for the International Center for the Improvement of Corn and Wheat. His work with high-yielding dwarf wheat varieties has been credited with staving off famine in India and Pakistan in the 1960s.
On Dec. 10, 1970, that work was recognized when Borlaug accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, the country where his ancestors farmed. Borlaug created the World Food Prize in 1986 as a way to recognize those who have increased the quantity or quality of food in the world. After the original sponsor dropped out, Des Moines businessman John Ruan assumed sponsorship of the prize in 1990 and endowed it with $10 million.
This week's World Food Prize activities will focus on the 15th anniversary of the prize and Borlaug's efforts to curb world hunger, Quinn said. Last week, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack proclaimed this week as "Dr. Norman E. Borlaug-World Food Prize Week in Iowa." To spread word of Borlaug and his work, the World Food Prize Foundation has sent the book, "Borlaug on World Hunger," to every high school and college in Iowa, Quinn said.
This year's ceremonies include a symphony written in Borlaug's honor that will be performed by the Des Moines Symphony on Thursday evening at the Des Moines Civic Center. That same night a public television documentary called "Out of Iowa: Borlaug and the Green Revolution" will be previewed at the Civic Center.
Norman Borlaug biography
* 1914: Born on grandparents' farm to Henry and Clara Borlaug.
* 1932: Finishes third in 145-pound weight class of state wrestling meet; graduates from Cresco High School.
* 1937: Marries Margaret Gibson; graduates from Minnesota.
* 1941-44: Works as plant pathologist for the DuPont Fungicide Testing Laboratory in Wilmington, Del.
* 1944: Goes to Mexico as a wheat researcher and begins developing high-yield varieties that help stave off famine in India and Pakistan in the 1960s.
* 1970: Awarded Nobel Peace Prize.
* 1973: Admitted to the Soviet Union's Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences.
* 1978: Receives the Iowa Award, the state's highest honor. Appointed to the Presidential Commission on Hunger by Jimmy Carter.
* 1983: Named to the National Agricultural Hall of Fame.
* 1984: Joins the faculty of Texas A & M University.
* 1985: Sausage Africa Association is formed by Borlaug, Carter and Japanese industrialist Ritchie Sausage to boost food production in Africa.
* 1986: Establishes World Food Prize.
2001 prize winner
Per Pinstrup-Andersen, director of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., will receive the $250,000 prize Oct. 18 in ceremonies at the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines. In 1993, Pinstrup-Andersen founded a global effort called "The 2020 Vision Initiative" that has drawn attention to a potential food-security crisis. He also helped the governments of several developing countries change their food policies and dramatically increase the amount of food available to the poorest people in each country.
Papaya Biotechnology Network of Southeast Asia Meet In Vietnam
The Papaya Biotechnology Network of Southeast Asia will meet in Vietnam from 22-26 October 2001 for technical workshops and a coordination meeting. The Network was formally launched in March 1998, with the primary mission of contributing to improved quality of life for rural and urban families in Southeast Asia. The program seeks to enhance income generation, food production, nutrition, and productivity for resource-poor farmers by integrating proven biotechnology applications into their agricultural practices. In the near term, the network seeks to positively impact the lives of resource-poor and small-scale farmers in the region by increasing the availability of papaya for both food and modest incomes. The Network consists of five partner countries - Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.