Today's Topics in AgBioView.
* Dithering State
* India - Bt Cotton an MNC Ploy
* Comment on Greenpeace's ‘Of Maize and Men’
* Podium for the Opposition?
* Bitter Harvest: Canadian Wheat Board Should Reconsider Its Call To Ban GE Wheat
* Using Biotech to Speed Classical Breeding
* Organic (Double) Standards
* Genetically Engineered Foods, Are They Safe?
- Editorial, Economic Times (India), October 29, 2001
The controversy over the crop of genetically modified cotton in Gujarat epitomises the collapse of the state in India. The state has been unable to prevent a company from selling a seed that it is currently not permitted to sell. It has been unable to prevent farmers from using the seed and growing the crop on an area as large as 11,000 acres, if reports are to be believed. And now it finds itself dithering over what action must be taken.
The crux of the issue lies in the length of time it has taken the government to decide whether or not Bt cotton is a strain it is willing to allow into the country. Five years after the debate started in India, the government pleads that more field trials are required before a final decision can be taken on the issue. It is not our case that field trials are uncalled for where there is an apprehension that a particular seed may have harmful side effects. But surely, field trials cannot be extended for an indefinite period.
It can credibly be argued that the procrastination is responsible for the seed company and the farmers jumping the gun and adopting a technology that appears to be to their advantage without waiting for the government's experts to reach their conclusions. The same impotence of the state makes the suggestion that the standing crop be burnt a bit of a joke. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee may have ordered such a measure, but does any government in India have the gumption to actually put to the torch the standing crop in 11,000 acres? The fact that noises are being made about the farmers being paid a compensation gives the game away.
It is an admission by the state either of its culpability in the 'crime‚ (of using prohibited seeds) or of its inability to punish the crime. Either way, the signal is clear' the state cannot or will not punish those who violate its diktat. In fact, the more ingenuous among farmers may spot the opportunity here to make a quick buck by declaring even standard cotton crops as GM cotton and collecting on the compensation.
Under the circumstances, why have the pretence of an expert body that takes an informed view on what seeds should be allowed? After all, its views are of little relevance to what actually happens on the ground.
India - Bt Cotton an MNC Ploy: RSS Farmers' Wing
- Times of India, October 28, 2001
The Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, the powerful farmers' wing of the Sangh Parivar, has cautioned the state government on the Bt gene cotton seed controversy following the Centre's directive to burn the crop in Gujarat even as the BJP's political leadership here is convinced that the genetically-engineered seed is good for farmers. The BKS is in no mood to accept the state government's argument that the genetically-engineered seed is harmless or that India's pesticides' lobby is behind the campaign against the new seed.
The BKS leadership considers the seed an attempt by foreign multinational companies to impose on India farming techniques "that would make us subservient to the West". Speaking to the Times News Network here on Friday, the outfit's all-India secretary Jivanbhai Patel, state treasurer Bababhai Patel and north Gujarat secretary Mangalbhai Patel said the seed was an attack on swadeshi and was part of the WTO strategy to make farmers dependent on foreign seeds. "We have yet to know the results of the genetically-engineered cotton seed sown by farmers, but the fact is there is a clear attempt to impose on us what are called terminator seeds," Mangalbhai said. Added Jivanbhai, "We are not against foreign technology or seeds. But if the West is seeking to impose on us what are actually impotent seeds, making the farmers approach MNCs only to buy them before every season, then we are certainly against it. Its environmental impact needs to be examined thoroughly. If the Centre wants the crop to be burnt, then one ha
He said if the crop is burnt, the farmers must be paid full compensation by the company that provided them with the seeds. A BKS delegation would meet chief minister Narendra Modi on Sunday to give a memorandum on WTO which would also mention the cotton seed controversy. Stating that one should not forget the Andhra Pradesh experience, Mangalbhai said: ``Failure to get the proper price for a new variety of cotton crop made several cotton farmers commit suicide in that state. One hopes that situation does not arise here.''
State agriculture minister Purshottam Rupala and Union textile minister Kashiram Gujarat have already reacted sharply against the the Centre's directive to burn down the crop sown from the genetically-engineered seed on the ground that the farmers' production costs are down as they did not have to use pesticides. Former agriculture minister Bhupendrasinh Chudasma has also favoured cultivation of genetically-engineered cotton as its quality and yield are far better than the traditional cotton produced in Saurashtra and central and south Gujarat districts. Chudasma said: "There was nothing wrong in going ahead with cultivation of genetic cotton which has been accepted by several European countries and even countries like China."
Comment on (Greenpeace's) Stefan Flothmann and Jan van Aken’s Article ‘Of Maize and Men’
- Christopher J. Leaver & Anthony Trewavas, EMBO reports 2001, Vol. 2 | no. 9, © European Molecular Biology Organization
In EMBO reports, July 2001 Stefan Flothmann and Jan Van Aken, in a reply to our article in EMBO reports, 2, 455–459, raise issues about our objectivity and our concern for ensuring that sufficient food is available for an increasing population. We clearly cannot address those criticisms ‘objectively’. But their article contains a number of quite serious biological errors, and more seriously, provides a selective representation of the scientific information available on the benefit/risk assessment of GM crops.
Here we would like to address some of their allegations.
>Transgenic plants contain genes and traits that are completely
>new to the species and its environmental context.
In the case of GA21 corn—a GM crop resistant to Roundup herbicide—the modified EPSPS protein, which confers resistance to the herbicide, is only 3 amino acids different from EPSPS in normal corn. In fact, GA21EPSPS is closer to wildtype EPSPS than to EPSPS from other plants. On another note, is Bt protein really completely new to the human diet, considering that it has been used in farming for the last 40 years?
>The process of genetic engineering is neither targeted nor precise,
> but rather a crude intervention.
Current ‘traditional’ plant breeding actually uses adventitiously and randomly generated mutants to produce disease and insect resistance. According to the Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, 2252 types of crop plants have been artificially bombarded with radiation to induce mutations. Unlike genetic modification (GM), the effects of radiation are completely random and totally unpredictable.
This form of genetically engineering (GE) alters both chromosome structure and genome sequence alike, in ways no other technology can, but has been used by breeders for 50 years mainly to obtain pest-resistant crops. Ironically, organic farming specifically chooses to use pest-resistant varieties in order to reduce pesticide use without due regard to variety yield. Of all the forms of farm ing, the organic approach is the most dependent on varieties generated by radiation. Greenpeace espouse organic farming, and organic farmers reject standard GM crops. In so doing, they accept a form of GE that has never been assessed for safety, and is less predictable and more random than GM, which they claim to be hazardous. But Greenpeace clearly support these plants as ‘traditionally’ bred.
A conventional maize insect resistance— be it a toxin, a feed deterrent or a structural component—evolved together with maize and its environment. Maize is a domesticated plant and the only environment it has ever seen has been the cultivated field. The only evolution maize has experienced has been in the hands of plant breeders. If indeed Greenpeace has classified this ‘intervention’ as evolution, at what point does man’s intervention no longer represent their ‘classification’ of evolutionary progress? Teosinte, the wild plant from which maize may have been domesticated, is not a primary or even secondary source of genes for maize breeders. However, the original teosinte individuals that were evolved into maize represent only a tiny part of the genetic diversity in wild teosinte. For better or worse, the only pest resistance that came with them were the genes in those few individuals.
We did warn readers of our article that activist groups constantly confuse pollen movement with real pollination. The paper by Timmons et al.,1995, quoted by Flothmann and Van Aken as evidence of pollination at 1.5 km, actually used pollen traps—some others have used male sterile plants—and not measurements of pollination. Our figure of 99.9% purity maintenance for rape at distances of 100 m comes from a report prepared for the UK government, which examined all the assessments of pollen distribution but recognised the obvious flaws in confusing pollen detection with real fertilisation.
The senior author of Timmons et al., Mike Wilkinson, provides real estimates of introgression in a paper whose title ‘Transgene risk is low’ says it all. Extensive experience has been obtained over many decades in the production of highpurity seed samples and crop isolation distances have been laid down to achieve this. Long distance pollination or seed transfer is very rare but has undoubtedly occurred. However, Flothmann and Van Aken provide no evidence other than unreal possibilities that, somehow, an engineered crop will march across the countryside destroying everything in its wake. Declines in biodiversity or species number have resulted largely from habitat loss, change in land usage or hybridisation, and were rarely due to displacement from other species, especially domesticated ones. Such stories should be confined to the pages of science fiction.
Gene flow has always occurred and will continue until breeding results in complete separation of crop and weed. Some weed individuals may briefly benefit from gene flow but a weed population has to rely on enormous individual genomic variation to exploit its environments. A single transgene is far less likely to be beneficial than a trait from a traditionally bred crop. At the end of the day every farmer can resort to the plough to eliminate unwanted plants, and newer methods of soil UV and heat treatment can eliminate seed banks; that is in addition to the 100 or so herbicides.
Rhododendron ponticum, which we offered as an example of a nuisance plant, was not introduced but arose naturally as a result of unusual hybridisation. In fact, as our climate changes so will population numbers and species distributions. To try to set the world in aspic so that nothing can change is far more dangerous, as it means setting ourselves in opposition to the flow of nature. Mankind is part of this world, and as populations burgeon, he will continue to modify where he lives. He should do so with sensitivity. Human population numbers are the basic problem; not technology designed to react to common humanity.
We referred only briefly to the Monarch Bt corn experiments because they have been discussed at length, and their significance largely rejected by both ecologists and entomologists. Their conclusions can be quoted: ‘the effect on survival of butterfly populations of Bt corn pollen dusting their larval food appears to be relatively insignificant compared with other facts, insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, and habitat destruction’. The Hansen and Obrycki study quoted is again not a proper field study and is no more useful than the Losey study that started this particular discussion.
Bringing leaves with pollen on them into a laboratory and forcing larvae to feed on them is akin to forcing humans to consume 50 kg of popcorn. Death would result from salt stress. Flothmann and van Aken conceal the assessment already made by many researchers and contribute to the mistrust of scientists and science of all kinds.
Furthermore, they did not refer to the report on black swallowtail larvae, which showed no effect of Bt pollen. Claiming that GM crops induce some subtle change in field populations of insects is true, but Flothmann and van Aken compare GM crops to a scenario of no insect control and ignore the fact that very few data on current field insects are available. We agree that it is likely that Btcrops will impact insects differently than current agricultural practice. But of more importance is the positive balance of benefit/ detriment to various species when adopting a Bt crop. As any farmer will confirm, each different crop in a rotation changes the field balance of insects radically.
Finally Greenpeace do not like our disqualification of laboratory tests as relevant claiming that ‘risk assessment of hazardous chemicals is based on the concept of acute toxicity and that we (Trewavas and Leaver) would not argue for the safety of benzene or other carcinogens on the grounds that their hazardous nature was only tested in the laboratory and in worst case scenarios.’ There are about 10 000 natural substances in both organic and conventional fruits and vegetables which when extracted, concentrated and injected into rodents will induce cancer.
On this basis, should we stop eating fruits and vegetables because benzene is a natural constituent of many of them? The point illustrates the old adage ‘it is the dosage that makes the poison’. Laboratory data on carcinogenic effects of benzene indicates only that benzene is a carcinogen at extreme dosage, and so we will continue happily to eat fruits and vegetables.
The hallmark of scientific objectivity is to change your view when the science shows it to be wrong; the hallmark of politics is to save face by all means possible and pick up on any selected information that can be twisted into shape to maintain a predetermined position. If we find evidence that indicates GM crops to be dangerous, we will say so but we wait for Greenpeace to retract their requirement of absolute safety since there is no doubt that it is scientifically unsound.
The nub of the Greenpeace article is simple. Because some hypothesised difficulties with a new technology can be imagined, ban it forever. If we had taken this attitude throughout history we would never have developed farming— including fertilisers and crop protection with pesticides—electricity, computers, aeroplanes, drugs or even built houses. We would still be neolithic lumpen waving clubs at each other.
Some members of Greenpeace would actually prefer that scenario since they frequently elevate the environment above the survival of mankind rather than recognising the mutual interdependence. There will always be problems with any new technology; the key is not to reject the benefits but to improve safety, avoid difficulties and reap the rewards. We believe that every citizen has the right to benefit from the advances of science but that those rights also involve responsibilities.
Indeed, we have confidence in the ability of mankind to solve problems by the application of knowledge. We agree with the detailed testing of GM products as we previously stated but believe that other agricultural production systems, organic and conventional, should likewise receive the same rigorous degree of inspection so we can all make an informed comparison.
Anthony J. Trewavas is at the Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Edinburgh and Christopher J. Leaver is at the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Oxford. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Podium for the Opposition?
- Frank Gannon, EMBO reports, 2001 EMBO reports Vol. 2 | no. 6 453 © 2001, European Molecular Biology Organization
This is quite a paradoxical era. Scientific research is in its most productive phase and it continues to produce many beneficial technologies for mankind. For example, we rapidly progress towards a better understanding of many diseases and come up with multiple new approaches to cure them. At the same time, however, the voices against science and technology have never been more shrill. But unsubstantiated concern about new developments is a constant throughout time and, presumably, the more extensive the progress, the more robust the opposition to it.
Indeed, the Science & Society section of this journal is dedicated to debating the impact that both parties have on each other, because, as we all know, not every-thing is sweetness and light between the research community and society at large. But this section was never intended to be a unidirectional flow of information. It is fundamental to biology that every event is the outcome of an equilibrium between forward and back reactions, even if some reactions do not seem to be beneficial at first glance. So we constructed the Science & Society section in a similar way, although it may seem perverse to provide space for, and even to encourage, articles that oppose technological progress. Indeed, that was the initial reaction of some scientists we consulted about an article discussing the environmental threats of GM crops. This article, written by two Greenpeace activists, was scheduled to appear in this issue. Unfortunately, they withdrew it when they learned that we would print a parallel viewpoint to discus
This is regrettable since we think that scientists must listen to opposing views, and that these should be aired and debated in a scientific forum. We have published articles that, for instance, expressed viewpoints diametrically opposed to each other on the question of cloning. One reason for doing so is to ensure that scientists reading such ‘contra’ articles would thus learn about the arguments made by those who have a different opinion to the one with which they are familiar. Crucially, though, a balanced argument must also be presented, as we live in a world where the publicity machine attacking technology is so professional and so seductive that many citizens—including scientists—accept the basic messages that it promotes. As a consequence, it has become close to a social stigma to be associated with work that is related to GM organisms. Indeed, the way in which institutes sometimes rush to deny that they are involved in legitimate transgenic plant or animal research indicates how such research has be
Plant scientists are, of course, on the front line of such debates, and many of them detect a willingness of their colleagues in other areas, such as medical research, to distance themselves from the public discourse on GM plants. It has been suggested, for instance, that a referendum of the Swiss type, in which non-medical research is dissociated from medical research, would lead to a ban on any work that involves GM organisms which have no potential health benefits.
Those who are not working in plant research may quietly think: ‘So what?’ Well, I think that some further thought is needed as this could have far-reaching implications for all biological research. Many of those opposed to GM plants are opposed to all genetic manipulations. Their core philosophy is utterly conservative with a wish that the world would return to some imagined ‘good old days’. If society, and that includes scientists, is seduced by arguments about the possible disasters that could result from GM plants, then it will be very difficult in the long term to argue that genetic manipulations in other areas are without equivalent dangers. Highlighting the fundamentalist and essentially anti-scientific viewpoint of environmental organizations shows that we accept the reality that they are filling a need. Society is very concerned that the scientific train is travelling too fast and anticipates that some disaster is imminent.
Some would believe that it has already occurred in the case of BSE, HIV/AIDS and even foot-and-mouth disease, and attribute these to laboratory inventions. All evidence says otherwise, and we must ensure that careful safety measures maintain that any type of scientifically generated disaster does not occur. But we scientists must also inform and familiarize ourselves with the arguments of those who would use such problems as a starting point to delay any research. I found it very instructive to read the originally submitted Greenpeace article and the accompanying response, which is now being published alone. Having read them, I feel that I am better informed and able to understand the basis of those anti-GM conversations that inevitably arise at dinner tables when non-scientists, in particular, air their concerns. It is a great shame that we can only present the arguments of the ‘pro’ side in this current issue.
Nevertheless, we would like to present the counter-arguments as well and hope that we will be able to do so in one of the upcoming issues of EMBO reports. I hope that this will be your opinion too. For this reason we will continue to bring to your attention via the viewpoint section—a title that clearly separates the article from a dispassionate scientific contribution—views that are occasionally opposed to the mainstream of scientific thinking. Without such inputs there is no dialogue. And without a dialogue there can only be confrontation.
Bitter Harvest: Why The Canadian Wheat Board Should Reconsider Its Call To Ban Genetically Engineered Wheat
- Douglas Powell, Food Engineering, October 1, 2001 p.32-33 (Source: Agnet)
Should politicians make marketing decisions? Based on the track record, the answer is a resounding no. Yet that is exactly what the Canadian Wheat Board and the various social engineers at Greenpeace et al. were asking of Ottawa when they held a press conference this summer to ask for a ban on genetically modified wheat. No different than legislators in wheat producing states like North Dakota who contemplated similar moves before thinking better of it. The story shakes out something like this.
Canada grows wheat. Lots of it, some 17.5 million tonnes worth over $3 billion to Canada's export dependent economy. Canada and the U.S. sell a lot of wheat to Europe. Monsanto makes agricultural chemicals. Monsanto has some nifty science to farm in more sustainable ways, or, as some critics say, sell more herbicide. Europe hates Monsanto and everything American that Monsanto is perceived to represent. The EU has come up with some new labeling guidelines which, if approved, are supposed to help lessen trans-Atlantic trade and consumer tension but in reality will be absolutely unenforceable and increase the costs of already ridiculously high foodstuffs in the EU. The Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) wants to keep its customers, especially Europeans, happy. But by entering into a marriage of convenience with the likes of Greenpeace, the Council of Canadians, and others, the CWB is practicing political expedience, short-sighted marketing, and, above all, is jeapordizing Canada's $20 billion agricultural surplus by a
CWB as well as American counterparts, are worried that Monsanto's herbicide-tolerant, Roundup Ready wheat will make Europeans wary of Canadian wheat. Nevermind that the company has yet to file an application and has insisted it will not do so unless farmers and consumers are on side. Why would any farmer grow something that customers may protest against? Why would processors include an ingredient that may lead to some measure of consumer complaints, no matter how small?
It has to do with ecological imperialism. That is, Canada and the U.S. can grow food for export, but apparently only under the conditions set by imperialistic overlords, regardless of the environmental damage sustained. For example, according to research commissioned by the Canola Council of Canada, over 80 per cent of canola growers used genetically modified varieties in 2000, predominately Roundup Ready canola as part of a no- or minimal-till system in which seed is directly drilled into the soil rather than relying on plowing. This has helped reverse decades of soil erosion, but no-till requires a relatively benign, broad spectrum weed-killer like Roundup. So Roundup Ready crops, according to the farmers who buy them, allow for more sustainable farming.
Last year, the use of herbicide-tolerant canola was estimated to save 31.2 million litres of fuel, with the environmental savings as well as direct fuel costs of an estimated $13.1 million. Still, Roundup Ready wheat is something growers don't get excited about; but the CWB will almost certainly be singing a different tune when genetically engineered fusarium resistant wheat becomes available. Consumers don't get excited about either.
But they do get excited about whole foods. Last year, one of my farmer colleagues grew some genetically engineered sweet corn and table potatoes. Neither the Bt sweet corn nor the potatoes required any insecticides to manage the key pests. After harvest, the two crops were sold in his farm market in Hillsburgh, Ont., fully labelled, alongside their conventional counterparts. The genetically engineered Bt sweet corn outsold the conventional by a margin of 3-2. Same for the potatoes. The two products were sold for the same price, and while many consumers were more interested in taste, for others, the primary selling point was the reduction in pesticide sprays and worm damage.
So why not just label all GMOs (genetically modified organisms), as such foods are routinely, though mistakenly, called? Labelling is not about choice. Greenpeace and other activist groups state plainly in their literature that the products of genetic engineering may cause some unknown, theoretical health or environmental harm and should therefore be banned. However, in the absence of a ban, everything should be labelled to provide consumer choice -- and that will produce a de facto ban. The number one selling tomato paste in the U.K. in 1998 was made by Zeneca, sold in supermarkets at a slightly lower price, and labelled as derived from genetically modified tomatoes. But when a media frenzy arose in the U.K. in the fall of 1998, stores rushed to remove genetically engineered products, including the tomato paste. So the previous number one seller was no longer available. And still isn't.
Couldn't happen here? When two local Zehrs supermarkets asked us to provide genetically engineered sweet corn to their stores last fall, they were overruled by corporate headquarters in Toronto. Why? Too much controversy. The same reason that the big U.S. processors have said no to Bt potatoes. Yet we had shown that consumers preferred the genetically engineered product. Perhaps processors aren't so good at making consumer decisions either.
Douglas Powell is scientific director of the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph.
Using Biotech to Speed Classical Breeding
- Ben Hardin, USDA- ARS, September 12, 2001 http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr/2001/010912.htm
(sent by )
Biotechnology, somewhat like the proverbial hare in its contest with the tortoise, raced speedily to bring forth corn transformed with a bacterial protein to resist insects. But now the new science is set to help hasten traditionally slower classical plant breeding to develop insect-resistant corn breeding lines, without the foreign genes.
For example, through 15 years of work, researchers developed corn inbred line Mo47, which is renowned for its ability to resist both first and second generations of the European corn borer. On U.S. farms, European corn borers are responsible for annual damage and control costs exceeding $1 billion. Recently, Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists at Columbia, Mo., and their University of Missouri colleagues, in three years, used fast-paced biotechnological tools to find locations of DNA sequences that confer borer resistance to Mo47. Soon corn geneticists, in a process called marker-assisted selection, may use the information to quickly develop improved insect-resistant corn from diverse genetic resources.
Marker-assisted selection is a way of dealing with the fact that typically, multiple genes govern a single trait of economic importance. These genesí locations are called quantitative trait loci (QTLs). In DNA marker-assisted selection, researchers conduct DNA tests on corn breeding lines to find out whether they have the most desired QTLs. Lines that do are used for breeding. ARS geneticist Michael D. McMullen and collegaues in Missouri found, on six chromosomes, nine QTLs associated with Mo47's resistance to first-generation European corn borer leaf feeding damage. The researchers also found seven QTLs for resistance to second-generation borer stalk tunneling damage.
ARS is the chief scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The ARS scientists are based at the Plant Genetics Research Unit.
Organic (Double) Standards
- Social Issues Research Centre (UK), http://www.sirc.org/articles/double_standards.shtml
It was inevitable that when Sir John Krebs, Chairman of the Food Standards Agency, first punctured the myths surrounding organic food, he would become a target for both personal abuse and zealous attempts to prove him wrong. So has his 'comeuppance' now finally arrived? Has the Soil Association now triumphed over the government bureaucrats at the FSA? Less than careful reading of the British Press might lead us so to conclude.
Research 'could calm organic row' suggested James Meikle in the Guardian. The FT led with Evidence 'supports claim on organic safety'. (Note the inverted commas in the headlines). And in the Independent we find Research shows organically-grown food is safer and healthier, but adding 'Insists Soil Association' above an otherwise very balanced article by Steve Connor. Elsewhere the Mail insisted that 'Organics help in cancer fight', but again in quotes. No qualification, however, in the Express where we simply read Organic bites back.
Such is the way of the news media that the crucial elements of the story - e.g. those which determine whether we should it take seriously or not - are often relegated to later paragraphs, which are read only by those with a strong interest in the subject. Given the pyramid structure of journalistic style the majority of readers will have turned the page before then. This was particularly evident in the Guardian's coverage which began: "the government's food standards agency yesterday hinted it would commission new research to establish whether organic food is safer and better for consumers than other foods …"Not until the penultimate paragraph, however, do we read: "The food agency said the report 'taken overall, does not in our view make a convincing case that there is any significant difference between organic and conventionally produced food." The Express similarly relegated the FSA's view to the end of the article. Only the Scotsman got the balance right with Organic growers fail to convince on food qua
Behind all of this coverage lies a study published by the Soil Association Limited where they claim: "A comprehensive review of existing research reveals significant differences between organically and non-organically grown food. These differences relate to food safety, primary nutrients, secondary nutrients and health outcomes demonstrated by feeding trials."
Commenting on this 'breakthrough' research Patrick Holden, Director of the Soil Association, said: "This report contradicts Sir John Krebs, Head of the Food Standards Agency, who said last year that there was not enough information available to be able to say that organic food is nutritionally different from non-organic food … These findings … [suggest] increased government support for organic production could have significant health benefits in addition to the environmental benefits already proven."
The 'research' itself, however, is not quite what it seems. What is not made clear in either the Soil Association's press release or the executive summary of the report is the difficulty which the author, Shane Heaton, encountered in demonstrating even the weakest effects present in over 400 studies of the nutritional value of organic food. To provide even 'indicative evidence' - i.e. results which are not statistically significant - he was obliged to discount many sets of results which did not fit with his line of thinking on the basis that they were 'methodologically flawed'. Even then, the Soil Association is forced to concede that the results only suggest the need for further research.
In essence, then, we have a non-story - one which does nothing at all to challenge Krebs' view that there is no evidence for the health benefits of organic food compared with conventionally grown foodstuffs, despite the media coverage ranging from uncritical reporting to pure hype. No journalist, for example, seems to have explored the credentials of Shane Heaton. If they had bothered to do so they might have been rather more concerned about his so-called 'results'.
Mr Heaton obtained a degree in business administration and subsequently trained with the Institute for Optimum Nutrition in London. The founding patron of the ION was Linus Pauling - the man responsible for the now entirely discredited idea that massive doses of vitamin C are effective in preventing colds and other ailments, and even cancer. Heaton is also a member of the Complementary Medical Association - a body not noted for its application of scientific rigour. The association claims, rather worryingly, that "the CMA is a highly media friendly, dynamic organisation. We average around 10 media exposures per week (TV, radio, print). Our speakers contribute regularly to the international media and the CMA is first point of call for most journalists/researchers working in the medical/ healthcare fields." The CMA's website, however, seems to have received a mere 269 visitors in its lifetime. Heaton also has what is described as "a successful nutrition practice" in West London, and he just happens to be a veg
While it might be churlish to question Heaton's lack of 'detachment' in his research, his comments about methodology give rise to considerable unease. In an interview for Positive Health Shop he said: "There are numerous studies demonstrating no nutritional difference between organic and non-organic produce. However, closer examination of these studies often reveals fundamental flaws that either invalidate their results or do not allow conclusions to be drawn. The remaining valid comparisons demonstrate a strong trend toward organic foods having more nutrients than non-organic foods."
The criteria Heaton uses to detect 'flaws' in studies and to determine that others involve ' valid comparisons' are not provided. There is a clear danger that those studies yielding results which did not fit with his personal commitment to organics and complementary medicine might have been subjected to rather more scrutiny for 'flaws' than those which supported his beliefs. This lack of objectivity would certainly make it impossible for the results of his work to be published in any peer-reviewed journal.
So why did none or our newspapers tell us any of this? If an industry scientist had made similar claims for a company's product, he or she would undoubtedly have been subjected to all manner of accusations of vested interests and financial motives. However, a member of an organisation which largely rejects mainstream principles of scientific verification and falsification, and who lacks any track record of research in any field, is subject to no such scrutiny at all. Such manifest double standards in the reporting of food and health issues do nothing to provide the public with balanced information which they can rely on to make sensible decisions about what they eat.
In the way that many people have been cynically induced into thinking that organic food is both 'free of chemicals' and 'better for you and the environment', it now seems that the perpetrators of such myths are to be viewed as independent, gentle folk whose 'research' we should trust and accept uncritically. No wonder the Soil Association Limited and the highly profitable businesses that it supports feel that they have scored a victory over the FSA.
Genetically Engineered Foods, Are They Safe?
- David Schardt, Nutrition Action Health Letter, http://www.cspinet.org/nah/11_01/index.html#m1
(Select Excerpts/Questions Below. Please see Website for full text.....CSP)
Have you been vaccinated against hepatitis? Has anyone you know had a heart attack and been saved by a clot-busting drug? Genetic engineering has helped millions of people by turning gene-altered bacteria into microscopic factories that produce life-saving drugs. Nearly everyone welcomes those advances in medicine. But corn flakes, salad dressing, and other foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients have gotten a decidedly cooler reception.
Using biotechnology to produce food has enormous potential: safer pesticides and less harm to wildlife, more nutritious foods, and greater yields to help feed the world’s hungry nations. It’s the risks of dicing and splicing Mother Nature that are harder to get a handle on.
This month, we interview Doug Gurian-Sherman and Gregory Jaffe, co-directors of the Biotechnology Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, publisher of Nutrition Action Healthletter.
Q: Should we be nervous about eating food that contains genes from another organism?
GJ: No. In most cases, we aren’t eating those genes. For instance, by the time a genetically engineered corn plant has been processed into corn oil or high fructose corn syrup, virtually none of the genes—or the proteins they produce—are left in the food. But even if a food—like the cornmeal used to make many cereals—does contain new genes or proteins, that’s not necessarily a problem. We eat foods with new genes and proteins all the time. The tomatoes, potatoes, and wheat we buy in the supermarket have been genetically altered by breeding them with wild relatives. That kind of traditional cross-breeding, which we’ve been doing for decades, often produces foods that contain genes and proteins that people have never been exposed to before. And, like it or not, we’re constantly eating the genes and proteins of harmless bacteria that inadvertently end up on our food.
Q: But a gene from an animal would never end up in a corn plant naturally, because the two organisms are too different to breed.
GJ: That’s why we need to make sure that genetically engineered foods are safe before they reach the market. It’s not inherently risky to mix genes from different organisms, but to play it safe, we should carefully test genetically engineered foods to ensure that they are safe.
Q: What should genetically engineered foods be tested for?
DGS: Whenever you put a new gene into a food, either through traditional breeding or genetic engineering, there are at least two major concerns. One is whether the new genes or proteins might produce toxins—that is, anything that can cause harm in the short or long term. The other concern is whether the new gene might produce a protein that triggers an allergic reaction in a person who eats the food.
Q: Are genetically engineered foods less nutritious than conventional foods?
DGS: No. They typically have the same amounts of vitamins, minerals, protein, and other major nutrients as conventional foods. Companies don’t usually test for phytochemicals like lutein or lycopene because they’re not yet considered nutrients. But the FDA should consider changes in key phytochemicals when it decides whether to approve new foods.
Q: If a corn plant were engineered with a gene from a cow, could a vegetarian eat it in good conscience? Or could a steak from a cow that was given a gene from a pig be eaten by an observant Jew or Muslim?
GJ: Any genetic scientist would tell you that a corn plant with a gene from a cow hasn’t been tainted by meat, and a cow with a gene from a pig hasn’t been tainted by the pig. But when you’re talking about religious or ethical beliefs, the science doesn’t always rule. So I’d say that those are decisions that every person has to make for him or herself.
Q: Will U.S. consumers ever benefit directly from genetically engineered foods?
DGS: They’re already benefitting, at least indirectly, from the reduced use of pesticides. And as the techniques become more sophisticated, scientists may be able to introduce more complex changes that benefit consumers more directly. For instance, companies are working on developing fruit that can be picked ripe without becoming mushy, coffee that’s naturally caffeine-free, and soybeans that don’t trigger allergic reactions and that contain more healthful omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Foods like those won’t show up in stores for many years. On the other hand, scientists may be close to creating genetically engineered foods that could make a difference in the lives of people in developing countries.
Q: Foods like golden rice?
GJ: Yes. An estimated half-million children in the world go blind every year because their diets don’t contain enough vitamin A. Millions more die from infectious diseases that their immune systems might have been able to fight off with enough vitamin A. By inserting two genes from a daffodil and one from a bacterium into rice plants, scientists have created a rice with beta-carotene, which the body turns into vitamin A. Golden rice isn’t a miracle food. It still needs to be grown and tested, which could take years, and people used to white rice might not accept its yellow color. And certainly, one food can’t repair the damage caused by malnutrition and poverty. But it could be part of the solution.
Q: Are any genetically engineered crops close to helping developing countries?
DGS: Yes. Trials are under way in Kenya for virus-resistant sweet potatoes that may greatly increase yields. Sweet potatoes are a staple of the Kenyan diet. In China, more than a million acres are planted in insect-resistant cotton. And scientists are testing insect-resistant potatoes in Egypt. The potatoes may require less chemical pesticides in the field and in storage. That’s critical in countries that can’t afford pesticides or the equipment to protect field workers from pesticides.
Q: What about other types of genetically engineered crops?
DGS: Scientists are working on crops that resist droughts and that can grow in salty, marginal soil. The result could be higher yields, greater productivity, and less destruction of virgin forest. Eventually, we may even see fruits and vegetables that contain more nutrients or possibly even vaccines. The potential is enormous, but we’ll never realize it unless we make sure that farmers in developing countries have access to cheap—or free—genetically engineered seeds, that the crops don’t harm the local environment, and that the foods are safe.
Q: Are genetically engineered crops good or bad for the environment?
GJ: So far, they’re a plus. Last year, for example, thanks to genetically engineered cotton that produces its own insecticide, farmers reduced their use of highly toxic insecticides by several million pounds. That’s impressive, because the cotton crop has accounted for four out of every ten pounds of insecticides used in the U.S. each year. And farmers who grow the most popular genetically engineered food crop, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans, spray their crops less often. So even if that doesn’t reduce the amount of pesticides they apply, as some biotech critics have noted, they’re using a safer one. Roundup is much less toxic than many other herbicides. Farmers can also till the soil less often, which means less water pollution and soil erosion.
Q: What other genes are being genetically engineered into crops?
GJ: One of the most popular is Bt, which is extracted from a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis. Organic farmers have been spraying Bt bacteria on their crops for years, because it produces a protein that poisons certain insect pests but is harmless to animals, people, and most other insects. Scientists have transferred the gene that makes the insect-killing protein from Bt bacteria to corn, cotton, and potatoes. So those engineered plants can make their own environment-friendly pesticide, and farmers don’t need to use as much chemical pesticides, which are far more indiscriminate killers.
Q: Do genetically engineered plants kill Monarch butterflies?
DGS: Probably not. In 1999, a laboratory experiment showed that a heavy dose of pollen from Bt corn could kill caterpillars that develop into Monarch butterflies. Since then, however, studies in fields in Iowa, Nebraska, Maryland, and Ontario have found that the plants don’t produce pollen that’s toxic enough to kill the caterpillars. And don’t forget: conventional insecticides kill all kinds of insects, not just Monarchs.
Q: Could insects become resistant to the Bt pesticide that’s made by genetically engineered corn and other crops?
GJ: Eventually, insects can become resistant to almost any pesticide, genetically engineered or not. In the Philippines, for example, the Diamond- back moth became resistant to Bt due to conventional spraying, not to genetically engineered plants. To prevent insects from becoming resistant, the EPA requires that farmers who grow genetically engineered Bt crops also plant conventional crops nearby as “refuges” where insects aren’t exposed to Bt. In theory, that should allow non-resistant insects to flourish, though no one knows how long the refuge strategy will work.
Q: So if we’re not careful, the use of Bt to replace more-toxic pesticides will be lost?
GJ: That’s right. Bt illustrates that the way we use biotechnology will determine how helpful it will ultimately be. Seed companies and many farmers want smaller refuges, because that means more genetically engineered seed sold and more crops grown. That may be good for profits in the short term. But if it meant that a relatively benign pesticide like Bt became worthless and farmers had to resort to far more damaging chemical pesticides, it could be disastrous in the long term.
Q: Does the same balancing act apply to other genetically engineered crops?
DGS: Yes. For example, aluminum-tolerant crops could allow farmers in developing nations to plant on marginal lands. But if farmers plant those crops in the aluminum-rich soil of tropical forests, we’ll lose rain forest. And salt-tolerant tomatoes or a drought-tolerant crop could save precious water, but if they’re grown in semi-arid land that is currently not farmed, it could lead to further loss of natural habitats.
The Bottom Line
1. The genetically engineered foods that are currently on the market are safe. By increasing yields and reducing the use of pesticides, they benefit farmers and the environment. 2. To ensure that new genetically engineered plants and animals are safe for humans and the environment, Congress should institute a mandatory government approval process that is open to public participation and review. 3. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should monitor the environmental impact of genetically engineered crops. It should require more field testing, enforce insect refuges for Bt crops, and adopt other environmental safeguards. 4. The U.S. government should fund more research on genetic engineering, especially on fruits, vegetables, and other crops that are not of great commercial interest to the biotechnology companies. 5. To enable developing nations to benefit from biotechnology, the U.S. government should: * Fund research and the training of scientists, * Help countries develop regulations to ensure the s