Today's Topics in AgBioView.
* Anthrax Has No Role in the GM Row
* Graham Scole- When did the term 'Spud' originate?
* Ferdinand Engelbeen of Chlorophiles - On Greenpeace Gestapo Tactics
* Positive Possibilities for Kenyan Sweet Potato
* Have We The Nerve To See This Through? (Brits Now Ponder!)
* Confronting the Litany (Brits are Optimistic!)
* IITA: Agro-Biotechnology for Improving Agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa
* Biotechnology and Food: Voices from a Southern perspective
* Anti-Biotech Activist Attempts Humor.......
* Criminalizing Science: Outlawing "Therapeutic Cloning" and Stigmatize genetic Research
* Rifkin-Kristol Petition and Weldon Bill: Comments of Paul Berg and Arthur Caplan
Anthrax Has No Role in the GM Row
'It Is The Information That The GenEthics Letter Omits That Betrays It as an Exercise In Scaremongering'
- Graeme OíNeill, Science Watch, October 28 2001, 'Sunday Herald Sun', Melbourne, Australia
http://www.heraldsun.news.com.au/. Posted by David Tribe, U Melbourne
The anthrax-causing bacteria Bacillus anthracis has been dragged unnecessarily into the debate on GM crops.
A message to all Victorian [Australian State] MPs this week urging them to delay passing the Gene Technology Bill 2001 has set a new standard in vile opportunism in the debate over genetically modified crops. The message, from the director of the Australian GenEthics network, Bob Phelps, Australiaís most prominent anti-GM activist was titled "Bt GM crop toxin is from anthrax family".
What followed exemplified the truism that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. This column has criticized the anti GM movement for willful ignorance. It has also charged the organics industry with hypocrisy for exaggerating the hypothetical health and environmental risks associated with GM. crops and foods while denying any potential for its practices and products to create similar hazards.
The GenEthics letter reproduced, in part here, proves both charges:
"The Bt gene (from the soil microbe Bacillus thuringiensis) which produces an insect toxin is now genetically engineered into the many food crop plants (including 30 percent of the Australian cotton crop from which oil, seed and linters are derived).
"Starlink corn has been not been a registered as human food because it is one new variety of Bt that is a recognized as a probable human allergen. Many other strains of Bt have been approved for inclusion of in our food supply, despite the 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 the microorganisms.
"We again invite you to delay in the passage of the Gene Technology Act 2001 until the State Government conducts a public review of the needed amendments. We fully support the regulation of gene technology and its products but the proposed system is manifestly inadequate.
"We ask you to strengthen the bills provisions, to make it strictly evidence based, which the new Office Of the Gene Technology Regulator for and itís processes are not."
The letter thanks the NLP Wessex (the natural law party the major proponent of organic agriculture in the UK) for supplying three extracts in from research journals and the magazine New Scientist supporting the inference that the relationship between the insecticidal microbe Bacillus thuringiensis and the anthrax bacterium Bacillus anthracis is relevant in the current public concerns are over anthrax .
The New Scientist article from October 1999 states: "Small genetic differences have so far maintained the distinction that makes B. anthracis a notorious human pathogen and Bt and 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."
The extracts from the GenEthics letter confirm the very close relationship between the Bt and anthrax bacteria . The GenEthics letter, from the heading onwards is full of innuendo that invites MPs to conclude that because of the close genetic relationship between the Bt and the anthrax microbes, the use of Bt toxin genes in crop plants may pose some anthrax-like hazard.
The reference to Starlink corn requires some explanation. Last year the anti-GM lobby in the U.S. discovered traces of Starlink in taco shells and corn chips sold in the U.S. and Japan. Starlink is a transgenic variety developed by Aventis CropScience, containing a gene called Cry9c, which encodes an insecticidal protein that protects that crop against the European corn borer. The Cry9c gene is not from the same B. thuringiensis strain as the Cry1a gene used in all other transgenic maize varieties grown in the US. The only thing that they have in common is that both produce protein crystals in the plants tissues that kill European corn borer larvae before they can damage the crop.
The Cry1a gene has been used safely and for more than half a decade in transgenic cotton and maize plants. It is non-toxic and non-allergenic to humans, breaking down rapidly and harmlessly in the human digestive tract. The Cry9c seed protein hits a different molecular target in the larvaís gut. Like Cry1a it is non-toxic to humans but during routine digestibility tests it did not degrade immediately. The US Environment Protection Agency demanded further tests before it would approve Starlink corn for human consumption. The EPA required growers to segregate Starlink from other corn varieties during harvest; the system failed and a DNA-testing company linked to the anti-GM. movement detected traces of Starlink corn in Taco shells and corn chips. The quantities were hardly detectable - too low to cause an allergic reaction if eaten by humans even if Cry9c had been allergenic.
In stating that Starlink corn is "a probable human allergen", the GeneEthics letter bends the truth as it was never more than a potential human allergen. GenEthics offers no "sound evidence" that these matters have any relevance to the current public concerns over anthrax except for the vague statement that "Bt is a member of the same family of micro-organisms." The toxins that make the anthrax bacterium lethal to humans and other mammals are very different to the toxins that make the Bt bacterium deadly to certain butterfly and moth larvae. Gene technologists have not spliced the entire genetic blueprint for the Bt microbe into plants; they have used single Bt genes whose mode of action is understood.
The human digestive system rapidly breaks proteins down into their constituents amino acids. Itís basic biology so the anti GM-lobbies vague warnings about "long term consequences" for human health - never specified - have no scientific basis. Nor can the transferred gene cause based human infection all be picked up by other microbes in the human gut - for that, you need an intact bacterium with all its 6,000 plus genes, and the scientists developing transgenic plants are not working with the anthrax bacterium or its toxin genes.
Is GenEthics implying that geneticists could accidentally or deliberately insert and anthrax-like toxin gene into plants destined for human consumption? The subtext of the letter makes it clear that is precisely what it wants us to believe.
But it is the information the GenEthics letter omits that betrays it as an exercise in scaremongering. GenEthics and the Organics Federation of Australia, the peak body for organic farming organisations in Australia, have been close allies for years in the propaganda war against genetically modified crops.
Organic farmers use only natural pesticides because everyone knows that "natural" means "safe". A favorite with organic farmers is a naturally occurring soil bacterium that kills leaf-chewing insects such as cabbage white butterfly larvae. That bacterium is none other [than] Bacillus thuringiensis, our kissing cousin of the anthrax bacterium.
In fact, concerns that the use of Bt genes in transgenic crops might cause resistance to emerge in insect pests led the organic farming industry to oppose GM crops in the first place - resistant pests would neuter the industry of its most effective and natural pesticide
Phelps has managed the mentioned this threat in a number of previous GenEthics press releases, so why did he not mention it in his latest missive to Victorian MPs? Was it irrelevant or un-important? Surely it wasnít - as the attachments to the GenEthics letter make clear, research has shown that the Bt and anthrax bacteria, in intact living form, can exchange genes.
The reason the organic farming industries use of Bt as a "living pesticide" was not mentioned is that the risk of genetic exchange between Bt and anthrax bacteria is real, as microbiologist Lars Andrup confirms in the New Scientist extract. The Organics Federation of Australia must be aghast at its supposed allyís ill-conceived attempt to link GM crops to the anthrax terrorism campaign because, any risk of nasty genes being transferred between the living bacteria must, in logic be much greater than any risk associated with GM crops.
For the sake of balance, it must be stated that the risk is still very small - Bt has been used as a natural pesticide for 75 years without any clinical consequences more advanced than a persistent wound infection or eye inflammation.
As for GenEthicsí contemptible effort to link the GM industry to bioterrorism - the arrow it has aimed has instead pierced the foot of its long time confederate, the organic food industry.
That is what happens when you cannot aim any lower.
From: "Graham Scoles"
In Colin East's Oct. 25th posting he suggests that the term spud was arose as an acronym in the 17th century (surely too early for acronyms?) for "Society for the Prevention of Unclean Diet". While this seems quite credible given the concern around this new food when first introduced to Europe, the OED provides no reference to this as the origin of a slang term for potato. Before anyone propagates this idea could Colin provide clarification?
> Letter: GM Food
> - Colin East, The Christchurch Press, 23 Oct 2001>
> Sir - The "Society for the Prevention of Unclean Diet" (Spud) was
>From Prakash: Although I could not find an answer to the history of the term 'spud', there is a good site dedicated to Potato. See http://www.stim.com/Stim-x/9.2/fries/fries-09.2.html for an nice history of potato and French fries.
From: "Ferdinand Engelbeen"
Re: AGBIOVIEW: Greenpeace Gestapo Tactics
A little late, due to vacation, we only can agree with Dr. Patrick Moore about the scaring tactics of Greenpeace. But his proposal to fight back really works. As workers in the chlorine and PVC industries, we have the same experiences with Greenpeace as people who work with GMO's or nuclear, whalers,... Some 7 years ago we started with a group (the "Chlorophiles") to counterattack the false allegations of Greenpeace regarding chlorine in general and PVC in particular. We had actions at their headquarters in Brussels and where everywhere we expected that they could have an action. After a few times of confrontation before the TV-camera's they stopped all direct actions, as they don't want any dialogue and don't like any confrontation where both sides of the story are made public. They like to be alone on the market with their untruths and half-truths... So using the same (but honest and non-violent) tactics as they use themselves makes them very uneasy! See our photo-album at: http://www.ping.be/chlorophiles
- Best wishes, Ferdinand Engelbeen, Chairman Chlorophiles
>Dr. Patrick Moore:
>In response to Greenpeace's scandalous attacks on the promising
>development of Golden Rice, one of its inventors, Dr. Ingo Potrykus,
>accused Greenpeace of 'crimes against humanity'. I agree with him. But how
>can we fight back without resorting to crimes of our own?
Positive Possibilities for Kenyan Sweet Potato
For Kenyan researcher Daniel Maingi, agriculture has been a lifelong endeavor. After years of hard labor as a child on his grandmother's traditional farm, Daniel has spent the last few years at the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) producing genetically enhanced sweet potatoes. He is working to try and ease some of the planting burdens for not only his grandmother, but for all small-land farmers across Kenya.
"Life on my grandmother's farm was really hard. You had to really work the soil to get out the weeds and put the seeds in. My favorite crop was sweet potato because they were good. It was always very interesting to watch the sweet potato crop," Maingi said. The sweet potato in Kenya is a security crop. One sweet potato can feed several people.
Traditional farming is very labor intensive. Maingi and the rest of his family farmed their two-acre plot to plant all kinds of crops, such as sweet potatoes, corn and beans along with others. The main purpose of the farm was to provide enough for the family to eat. Surpluses for selling were rare. Traditional farming also took the children out of school for several weeks to help the family, Maingi said. That's why he went to school and studied agriculture. It was there he learned agricultural practices like crop rotation, pest control, fertilizers and biotechnology.
Kenya's climate is very hot and arid. This creates a breeding ground for pests and insects, like the weevil, which can destroy a family's sweet potato crop. The winters in Kenya do not get cold enough to kill off these pests, so insect-resistant crops are seen as a desirable crop to the area farmers because they will kill the weevil. "The weevil is the largest and most serious pest problem. And not just in Kenya but all over the world, and can cause up to 100% yield loss," Maingi said.
Have We The Nerve To See This Through?
- David S Taylor, The Daily Telegraph (London), Oct 27, 2001, p13
Do we have the stomach for tough decisions in the war against terrorism?
During the past decade, our society has become chronically averse to risk. Driven by hysteria and fear, we have become unable to think lucidly about how we should respond to threats to our lives or well-being. We routinely make cowardly or plain dumb decisions about how we manage risks.
Many of the most egregious examples emanate from Westminster. The catalogue of legislative stupidity goes back to John Major's Tories, who gave us the "dangerous dogs" law and the post-Dunblane handgun ban. The risks of being savaged by a pit-bull or gunned down by a member of the British Olympic handgun team were tiny. But Parliament scrambled to introduce constraints on freedom.
The Government has been building on these traditions. It has fuelled hysteria over CJD by banning beef on the bone, allowed loony propaganda on genetically modified food to crowd out rationality and scientific discovery, and precipitated the demise of Railtrack by giving the "safety at any price" lobby its head - at a cost of about pounds 20 million per life potentially saved.
In each case, we display the same inability to deal with risk rationally. We go for easy answers - the rushed legislation, the compromise without honour - assuming that someone else can pay the price: "profits before safety" Railtrack capitalists, gun nuts, greedy farmers. We are no better when dealing with risk in our private lives. On hearing rumours that radiation from mobile phones caused cancer, thousands rushed to buy fiddly headsets. Some of those people are doubtless still using mobiles while they drive, which is much riskier.
Meanwhile, our worries about traffic and paedophiles mean that we drive children to school and encourage them to stay at home, enforcing a sedentary lifestyle with all sorts of health risks. This week, Prince Philip said the obsession with safety was preventing children from enjoying adventurous activities, a "damaging" trend that denied them a rounded education. We can no longer distinguish between remote dangers and real hazards. All this has serious implications for the war on terrorism. Woolly thinking about risk is undermining our collective resolve to beat bin Laden.
Admittedly, most people in Britain seem to agree that "something must be done" about terrorism. More than 70 per cent support the bombing. But an increasingly vocal lobby says that the "something" that must be done is, well, nothing. The risks are too great, they cry: we will create martyrs. And why does Tony Blair insist on dragging Britain into the front line? All these arguments discount the much greater risks to our lives and our freedoms that arise in a world where bin Laden, the IRA or ETA believe they can get away with mass murder.
It would be wonderful if we could turn the clock back to September 10, reason with bin Laden and food-bomb the Taliban into loving us. But that will not happen. We are stuck with this war and it is not going to be pretty. We are going to read and hear of terrible things. The chances are that some of our servicemen will be killed or injured. There might be terrorist attacks nearer home. Our American allies are learning to cope with the threat of anthrax. What can we learn from them?
Well, the first signs are encouraging, even surprising, when you consider the line Americans have taken on negligible risks such as passive smoking. Anthrax is genuinely scary, posing an obvious threat to health and an insidious one to morale. But, with sensible precautions, it is manageable.
Despite early bungling, America has been quick to protect postal, media and government employees. More importantly, it has demonstrated a new maturity. People are frightened, and that seems perfectly reasonable, but there is no mass hysteria. In confronting the biological threat, America appears to have broken its bad habits of the past 10 years. Instead of panic, it has responded with courage. Will we show the same fortitude when things get nasty?
Confronting the Litany
- Social Issues Research Centre (UK), 15 August 2001 http://www.sirc.org/articles/confronting_litany.shtml
What has happened to the Guardian - the newspaper of choice for the green-leaning middle classes? In place of the usual diatribes about the evils of globalisation, environmental pillage, Frankenfood and the-planet-is-going-to-hell-in-a-handcart doom-mongering, we find the first of series of articles by Bjorn Lomborg - the Danish statistician who cogently challenges each and every deeply-held assumption of the paper's core readership. A feature in the Daily Telegraph championing socialist principles and a return to the welfare state would not seem more out of place.
Perhaps the reason behind the Guardian's apparent rush of blood is the realisation that whether or not you like what Lomborg has to say, he is someone who cannot be ignored. His new book The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the real state of the world moves what has traditionally been an irrational and hidden agenda-driven debate towards a far more sensible evaluation of what are the real problems and what might be the most sensible ways of tackling them.
In the Guardian Lomborg comments: "We are all familiar with the litany of our ever-deteriorating environment. It is the doomsday message endlessly repeated by the media, as when Time magazine tells us that "everyone knows the planet is in bad shape", and when the New Scientist calls its environmental overview 'self-destruct' Ö We have heard the litany so often that yet another repetition is, well, almost reassuring. There is, however, one problem: it does not seem to be backed up by the available evidence. We are not running out of energy or natural resources. There is ever more food, and fewer people are starving. In 1900, we lived for an average of 30 years; today we live for 67."
Not content with debunking myths about environmental pollution, exponential population rise, acid rain and forest death, chemicals and pesticides, Lomborg also considers the arguments of the opponents of GM food, seeing in these the 'encapsulation of the litany' which he is determined to challenge. In his book he writes:
"GM foods will contribute - possibly greatly - to the world's food supply Ö There are possibilities of countering malnutrition by increasing the nutritional value of staple foods Ö For the industrialized world, GM crops can help reduce the need for intensive use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides Ö we will see more nutritious cereals, potatoes that absorb less fat in frying, reduced calorie sugar beets and oil seeds with more healthy reduced-saturates."
Lomborg, however, is equally concerned with the potential hazards of GM technology, which must be balanced against its potential benefits. To do that, however, one has to distinguish between the myths surrounding GM and what good science might indicate are its possible pitfalls: " Ö the most exploited scare stories of toxic potatoes, allergenic beans and dead Monarchs were based on myths. Nevertheless, there are also real problems to be considered."
Among these problems are the risk of novel allergens, antibiotic resistance and the spread of pesticide resistance to weeds - all issues, however, for which appropriate tests and safeguards can be developed within a proper control framework: "Weighing the risks and benefits it seems obvious that the substantive benefits GM food can deliver for both the developed and the developing world far outweigh the manageable risks, which, however, suggest the need for a strong regulatory system."
This same regard for balanced evaluation of both the true nature of the problems, and the optimal means of overcoming them in order that benefits can be realised, is evident in Lomborg's consideration of global warming. Accepting that such warming is occurring, and accepting that CO2 emissions have played a role in creating this change, he comments: "Is it not curious Ö that the typical reporting on global warming tells us all the bad things that could happen with CO2 emissions, but few or none of the bad things that could come from overly zealous regulation of such emissions Ö Indeed, why is it that global warming is not discussed with an open attitude, carefully attuned to avoiding big and costly mistakes to be paid for by our descendants, but rather with a fervour more fitting for preachers of opposing religions?"
It is in this context that Lomborg reaches what many people will see as his most controversial stance. Instead of cutting CO2 emissions, which would be very costly (about $4 trillion) and impact most heavily on the developing world, we should "pay the costs of adaptation to the increased temperatures." While technological development may have contributed to climate change, it is technology which holds the best promise of being able to ameliorate such effects.
Lomborg's book and his essays in the Guardian will unsettle many people simply because of the dispassionate and rational style with which he builds and elaborates his key arguments. He will undoubtedly upset those whose life revolves around being 'friends' of the Earth. If Lomborg is right the object of their public affections is not as sick as they thought, and reports of its imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated. Similarly, the solutions to the problems which do exist lie not in the superstitious, anti-science rhetoric of the self-appointed pressure groups, but in the application of evidence-based, sound measures which have demonstrable benefits.
The contributions of the 'skeptical environmentalist' are timely. They arrive at a point where rational debate is in short supply. In the coming year SIRC will be hosting, in collaboration with other organisations and institutions, an 'event' which will start to focus on 'ways of thinking' about the issues which so concern us today - from the food we eat to the appropriate stewardship of our planet. The aim will be to find a ground where genuine disagreements can exist, and even flourish, but where there is a common regard for logic, evidence and the civilities of rational discourse. We will keep you posted.
Agro-Biotechnology for Improving Agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa
- Rationale, Philosophy and Summary of On-Going Research at IITA
- Rodomiro Ortiz http://www.iita.org/
The staple foods of Africa (e.g. cassava, yam, cooking banana, plantain, cowpea) feed tens of millions of poor people daily yet receive relative little attention from the biotechnology industry, because they are not major cash crop commodities. These crops are mostly consumed in the home or villages. The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) bridges this gap by linking advanced research institutions around the world to developing countries to help them share the benefits of biotechnology. For example, molecular markers are being used to tag specific chromosome segments bearing the desired gene(s) to be transferred (or incorporated) into the breeding lines (or populations), i.e., finding genes with DNA markers and magnifying the power of selection in plant breeding. Likewise, IITA and research partners world-wide are transforming genetically crops to overcome pest and disease constraints or producing new diagnostic and fingerprinting tools for identifying pests and pathogens or dangerous foo
*Agro-Biotechnology advances and its applications in crop improvement, pest and disease control, and crop or natural resources management, will allow IITA to:
*Accelerate progress by shortening the breeding cycle
*Transform crops to overcome pests and disease constraints
*Develop new diagnostic tools to identify food contaminants dangerous to human health
*Enhance genebank and agro-biodiversity management using new molecular tools
*Find genes with DNA markers and magnify the power of selection in plant breeding
*Learn the language of resistance genes and putting it to use
*Use gene synteny and bioinformatics for gene discovery in other research-neglected tropical crop species
IITA Strategic Plan 2001-2010 and Agro-Biotechnology
While undertaking genomics and genetic transformation research, IITA addresses these questions:
*What kind of genomics and genetic transformation research IITA needs to fulfil its mission?
*Where are we, and what are the applied aspects of genomics and genetic transformation research for the improvement of crops in Sub-Saharan Africa?
*How IITA can benefit from specific partnerships with Advanced Research Institutes (ARIs) or global initiatives involving ARIs and National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) on both and how they should be able to attract funding from development investors?
The answers are in the recent IITA Strategic Plan 2001-2010: "IITA's role in research-for-development for agrobiotechnology in sub-Saharan Africa includes: (i) fostering of the international sharing of knowledge and skills in biotecchnology tools important to agriculture improvement in the continent; (ii) helping African national partners to negotiate acceptable terms on intellectual genetic, and other propietary biotechnology assets needed for crop breeding; and (iii) launching creative and innovative approaches such as molecular breeding of crops relevant to African agriculture."
Biotechnology and Food: Voices from a Southern perspective
31 October to 1 November 2001 (first round)
6 November to 13 November 2001 (second round)
On 31 October 2001 at 9 am (Central European Time) the online debate "Biotechnology and Food: Voices from a Southern perspective" will kick off. More than 100 people from over 31 countries have already registered to ensure that their voices are heard. The Network University and Biotechnology and Development Monitor (BDM), under the auspices of the Dutch parliamentary commission Terlouw, invite you to join us in this unique online event.
The complexity of the agricultural chain has meant that the introduction of genetically modified food crops has wide reaching repercussions. The impact of Dutch policy around food safety and the conditions under which biotechnology is - or is not acceptable, reaches beyond national borders. This debate aims to gain insight into the arguments from the South as well as those from the North in order to inform the Dutch parliamentary debate on the subject.
Anti-Biotech Activist Humor.......
Time To 'Lighten Up' : Halloween Genes
(Posted by to an Activist Newsgroup)
London, Oct 24, (Rotters Newswire) - According to this story, the beleaguered biotech company Monsinto plan to patent a pumpkin which glows in the dark. A leaked report from Monsinto's HQ apparently reveals that the company aims to corner the lucrative Halloween market by adding jellyfish genes to pumpkins to make them emit a yellowish light. The report also outlines plans to introduce a 'terminator' gene to ensure that the pumpkins stop glowing once Halloween is over.
Monsinto refused to confirm the leaked report. However a spokesman told us that luminous pumpkins have been in the pipeline for some time. When asked what possible benefits such pumpkins could provide for mankind, he replied that they would save energy because they don't require candles. Monsinto's PR department dismissed claims that large fields of GM pumpkins glowing eerily at night would confirm the publics' worst fears about Monsinto's 'Frankenstein food' image, and could further weaken the company's poor share performance. Trick or treat indeed!
- Rotters Newswire 2001. Anti(-C)copyright (Rb:)
Seriously though boys and girls. Do try and avoid eating yellow crookneck squash from the USA (unless it's organic) because those scary biotech people have laced some varities with foreign genes; and although they may not glow in the dark (just yet), they could well be bad for you. (See: "EDF Condemns USDA Approval of Genetically Engineered Squash") http://www.edf.org/pubs/NewsReleases/1994/Dec/d_asgrow.html
'Responses to a left-right alliance to outlaw "therapeutic cloning" and stigmatize genetic research'
- Virginia Postrel (editor-at-large, Reason, author, The Future and Its Enemies), REASON, October 21, 2001
In late August, I received an email from writer Michael Lind, forwarding a striking document. It was a request that he add his name to a petition against basic biomedical research. The lead signatories included not only well-known technophobe Jeremy Rifkin and others on the anti-technology fringes of the left but William Kristol and Francis Fukuyama, two pillars of the respectable (and more-or-less secular) intellectual right. Lind himself had refused the petition with a typically tart reply. He forwarded it to me because he knew of my concerns that such de facto intellectual alliances were coalescing against biotechnology, particularly biomedical research. Like many who have seen the petition, he and I were surprised to see this left-right alliance become so explicit. Clearly, these neoconservative intellectuals had decided that human genetic research was so threatening to their concept of human nature that it justified just about any political coalitions.
The specific bill supported by the Rifkin-Kristol petition would make cloning human cells a criminal offense, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and fines of $1 million. It would also make it a criminal offense to import and use any treatments developed through this technique in countries, such as the United Kingdom, where it is legal. The clones involved are not people but tissues, matches of donor cells. But, like reproductive clones, these cells "could," under just the right circumstances, be implanted to produce babies. So the bill has the political advantage of gathering votes from lawmakers afraid of cloned humans. Before the September 11 attacks, it had passed the House overwhelmingly. Under todayís changed circumstances, it may not reach the Senate for a vote this year. If so, it will almost surely return in next yearís session.
As the petitionís signers realize, there is more at stake here than just a specific piece of legislation or the question of cloning cells. The bill marks a nearly unprecedented attempt to make basic scientific procedures, which harm no one, not just illegal but criminal. It thus departs from the normal regulatory structure governing much biological research, a distinction many scientists still do not entirely grasp. Unlike, say, Food and Drug Administration regulations, these provisions could not be revised as more information became available or risks changed. As Lind was quick to note in his reply, this is not "regulation" but prohibition.
The fundamental issue is not whether there will be cloned cells but whether individuals will be allowed to change their bodies at the genetic level. This is what the petition means when it opposes "efforts to reduce human life and its various parts and processes to the status of mere research tools, manufactured products, commodities and utilities." For its signers, genetic medicine is interference with human nature. For individuals with genetic conditions they would like to change, genetic medicine is the hope for a better life.
In response to the petition, and as a way of educating scientists and the general public about the threat this coalition poses to basic medical research, I asked thoughtful individuals from a variety of disciplines for their responses. (In all cases, individuals speak for themselves, and affiliations are for identification purposes only.) Unlike a "counterpetition," this approach allows for diversity of political and philosophical views. And, unlike the original petition, this collection of responses is designed to clarify the questions involved, rather than simply sow fear of the future.
(Website http://reason.com/bioresearch/bioresearch.html has comments from many individuals below )
Walter Truett Anderson; Patricia Backlar, R. Alta Charo, James F. Childress, David R. Cox, Carol W. Greider, Steven H. Holtzman, Bette O. Kramer, and Lawrence H. Miike; Paul Berg; Arthur L. Caplan ; George E. Ehrlich, M.D. ; John C. Fletcher ; Ronald M. Green ; G.A. Keyworth II; Daniel B. Klein ; Noretta Koertge; Alan Charles Kors; Michael Lind; Kerry Lynn Macintosh; George M. Martin; Wendy McElroy; Henry I. Miller; Jeremy L. Peirce; Gregory Pence; C.S. Prakash; Glenn Reynolds and David Kopel; Randy Schekman; David Schmidtz; Lee M. Silver ; Harvey A. Silverglate; Frederick Turner; Ron Unz; Elizabeth Whelan)
Comments of Paul Berg
Criminalizing pure science is an absurd throwback to prohibitions on speaking out on scientific issues or new truths. I cannot understand anyone who would criminalize a scientific procedure, except insofar as it is to be applied. So you might prohibit the use of nuclear transfer operations for making a human being. But prohibiting that same procedure for scientific investigation makes no sense. The only reason such a prohibition is suggested is because of the fear that if a blastocyst has been created for research purposes, somebody will be tempted to sneak it into the womb of a woman.
The Weldon bill doesnít speak to the ethical issue of creating an embryo. Right now, federally funded science is prohibited from work on human embryos. But this bill goes beyond federally funded science. It says nobody in the United States can do it, commercial, private sector, or whatever. But it never justifies it on any grounds other than that youíre providing the material that could be misused for human cloning.
So instead of putting the prohibition on the actual procedure of cloning for implantation, it puts it back one step. That sets a precedent that says, when we conceive of an outcome of a certain line of science that we donít like, we head it off at the pass. We prevent the science from being done, for fear of what it might disclose or enable us to do -- which any thinking person would step back from. But thereís almost no science that couldnít be misapplied. Using that logic, anybody could sit down and determine how something could cause great harm and therefore prohibit a perfectly reasonable and valuable line of investigation.
Thereís an alternative way to apply the precautionary principle, which we devised at the time of recombinant DNA. Concerns were raised about public health or ecological damage. We realized that we couldnít rule out those problems, and asked how we could devise the research so that it minimizes those possibilities. Can we glean anything from the experience of Asilomar II, the major meeting held in 1975 to look at recombinant DNA, to apply to todayís debates?
One of the major criticisms, years afterwards, was that the Asilomar meeting did not consider some of the ethical issues raised by the development of genetic engineering. Thatís true, and deliberately so. The best thing that came out of Asilomar was the fact that we limited discussion to something that scientists could at least make an attempt to evaluate -- is there a danger, and to whom, and how can we contend with that danger? It didnít ask metaphysical questions like, "Oh my God, what are we opening the door to? Are we crossing the boundaries between species that God created?" Had we done so Iím sure the deliberations would have broken down into babble, and there would not be any chance to come out with a consensus view, or at least a strongly held majority view.
Today if you had a meeting about GM foods, none of the science would register. You have people out there that have a different agenda. You have your Rifkins. And those people do not want to listen. They want to disrupt. They are the terrorists of todayís biotechnology. You can say the same thing about gene therapy, about stem cells, about any contentious issue today. I went to a conference on stem cells in Washington -- you just have people talking past each other.
A paper just appeared in Lancet which shows that human embryonic stem cells can be induced to differentiate into cells that are producing dramatic results in people with Parkinsonís disease. But Americans wonít be eligible to have that because Congress passed a law that says that they disagreed with the procedures by which that therapy was developed. In England thatís legal. But the bill says that if you use therapeutic cloning to produce a therapy, that therapy would be illegal in this country. I want to confront each one of these people in Congress and say, Do you realize what you approved? You may have a concern about cloning a person, but do you also realize that what you approved prohibits a medical therapy that could be of value to tens of thousands of people?
If you could make stem cells of a particular genotype, you could begin to study processes for which we have no other means of study. For example, we know that cancer is a disease that results in progressive mutations, maybe requiring as many as five, six, seven mutations before you actually have a malignant cell. So the initial mutation predisposes that cell and puts it on a course that makes it more susceptible to the acquisition of new mutations. And the process selects for those cells that acquire more and more mutations that make them more and more invasive.
We donít know how to study that process. We do know that if you make an animal which has a mutation that renders it susceptible to breast cancer, it takes quite a while before the breast cancer emerges. If you look at the breasts of these mice, it isnít that the whole breast is now tumored. Small tumors appear in the breast tissue. If you look at each of them, they have different sets of mutations. The mutational progression is stochastic. There are many ways to get to be a cancer cell. We know that. But we donít know how to study that.
If you started out with a stem cell that had a mutation that we know predisposes it to cancer, you could study the progression in the kinds of mutations which occur and what the consequences are on those cells. Thatís a whole new world of experimentation to understand and ultimately to deal with cancer -- and the Weldon bill would prohibit it. You could not make those cells.
Paul Berg is Cahill professor of cancer research and biochemistry emeritus at the Stanford University School of Medicine. He received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1980 for his work on recombinant DNA.
Comments of Arthur L. Caplan
"Politics makes strange bedfellows." Never was a trite phrase more grounded in fact then in the bizarre alliance between Jeremy Rifkin, Francis Fukuyama, Judy Norsigian, and William Kristol to fight the menace of cloning. This odd quartet, who one imagines would find it very difficult to find any other topic about which they all agree, has launched a call to arms to do battle with the evil forces among us who, if not threatened with imprisonment, will soon have clones moving quietly into America's neighborhoods.
The vision of this particular Fearsome Foursome stalking the land dragging around a petition to criminalize cloning would be fit for parody if not for the fact that what is being proposed is not at all funny. If enacted a ban would set back science and could even wind up killing people.
Is human cloning imminent? Hardly. The only people who keep insisting that they will be cloning soon have close ties to UFO sects or cruise lines that they swear will house their efforts if no nation will permit them to undertake asexual reproduction in peace. Give me a break. The only people in a position to undertake human cloning are those who have done extensive work with animals. No such person has any interest in undertaking human cloning anytime soon because they have no incentive to do so and they know it probably would not work anyway.
Human cloning is not where the money is. Once individuals understand that cloning cannot bring back the dead, serve as a vehicle for immortality, be used as a way to create surplus body parts for the living, or provide a means to create armies of nasty mercenaries, cloning loses its allure. Those who want to make money cloning know that animals, plants, and cells are where the action is. Big Pharma and Big Biotech and the infertility industry could not give a damn about human cloning as a new source of revenue.
Not only is there no money to be made doing it, but it probably won't work. The experience with animals to date has been nothing short of a reproductive holocaust. No sensible person would undertake cloning knowing that the odds overwhelmingly favor making a dead, deformed, or sick human being. And if they are not sensible then they probably lack the ability to do anything as sophisticated as cloning or simply would ignore the kind of law the Rifkin-Kristol axis touts.
But, more importantly, what the Fab Four propose to outlaw is not just human cloning, but any cloning involving human cells. That would produce public policy both shortsighted and wrong-headed.
If a cloned cell using DNA from your nose, skin, or liver has no potential to become a person then why should scientists not be allowed to make such a cell? And if making such cells turns out to be a useful way to understand basic cell physiology and the development of diseases -- or even a source for stem cells to manipulate in the war against disease and disability -- then what is the sense of sending someone to jail for cloning cells?
If Kristol and Rifkin and their new-found fellow travelers feel compelled to do something to vent their anti-scientific and anti-technological impulses, then let them put a moratorium with tough penalties on any attempt to undertake human cloning for the next five years. Such a moratorium can be revisited when we really know more about cloning, will leave the door appropriately open for cellular research, and will allow those on the self-righteous right and Luddite left to feel that they have done what needs to be done to keep the bogeyman away from their closets for awhile.
Arthur L. Caplan is Trustee Professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and director of its Center for Bioethics. He is a columnist for MSNBC.com.