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November 2, 2001


Bt Safety; Euro Tide Turning; Biotech,


Today's Topics in AgBioView.

* Safety of Bt Proteins to Control Pests in Agri Crops
* Biotech Report is To Excitement as Anthrax is To Serenity
* Euro MP Claims Tide is Finally In Favour of GM Technologies
* Anthrax Risk from Bt Wildly Exaggerated, Groups Say
* Delay Inexcusable, We Can't Deny Bt to Our Farmers: India's Ag Minister
* How to Bombard Our Own Terrorists?
* Traders Seek Govt Nod for Bt Cotton
* Greenpeace - Bt Gene Cotton Can Affect TB Patients (!)
* Bruce Chassy - Safety of Antibiotic Marker Genes
* Science in a World of Anxiety
* Everything Gives You Cancer
* Risk, Science and Society
* FoE's 'Chemicals' Postcard Campaign is Criticised
* Farmers in Africa Can Benefit from The Use of Biotech
* Experts Say Biotech Can Stem Starvation In Africa

'Safety of Bacillus thuringiensis Proteins Used to Control Insect Pests in Agricultural Crops'

- AgBioWorld Foundation, www.agbioworld.org

This document reviews the safety assessment for Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) delta-endotoxin proteins that have been introduced into agricultural crops to provide protection against insect pests. Information is provided on the scientific basis for U.S. EPA approvals for the introduction of Bt proteins into agricultural crops. Relevant to these approvals is the extensive data base on Bt protein safety. These proteins are the insect control components of Bt microbial formulations that have a history of safety when used on agricultural crops for over 30 years. A summary of the extensive data base on Bt prote in safety is provided in tables at the end of this document.

Download the complete document at http://www.agbioworld.org/


Biotech Report is To Excitement as Anthrax is To Serenity

- Dan Murphy; www.meatingplace.com, 11/2/01 (Source: Katie Thrasher)

The Institute of Food Technologists just released a new "Expert Report on Biotechnology and Foods." Not to knock this group of undoubtedly super-well-educated scientists, but they could use a little marketing help. One is resigned to a certain lack of "juice" in a these kind of white papers on complex, technical subjects, but this effort is 14 pages of copy that's duller than a military briefing on the fine points of DOD procurement regs.

And about as informative.

Which is a shame, because the application of biotechnology is one of the key issues confronting the food industry as we enter this now-uncertain first decade of the new millennium. (How long has it been since you've heard that phrase?) And its optimum application in agriculture, livestock production and food processing may mark the dividing line between sufficient food and sustained starvation throughout much of the developing world.

If you believe all that fuzzy math about the earth's population doubling in the next 30 years or so, that is. Personally, I figure that even if it takes 50 years, the global challenge feeding another six billion people is going to require as much "focus" as our already stressful war on terrorism -- which admittedly, is dragging on into its second never-ending month.

But that's another column.

The point is that bio-engineered seeds, crops, livestock and food products could and should play huge role in meeting the challenge of feeding the world. But Sominex-approved reports like IFT's can't even provide the voyeuristic fun of watching both sides in the bio-debate polarize themselves into a rich, sudsy lather.

Here's a sampling of the all-too obvious "pronouncements" that the experts who produced this report felt compelled to include:
* "The use of modern biotechnology to produce foods and food ingredients is a subject of heightened interest among consumers, public policymakers and the scientific community. The media have reported a wide range of views on these foods." (Really? See, that's the sort of powerhouse analysis I might have missed reading something non-scientific, like say, a newspaper.)

* "Plant breeders have long used interspecies hybridization. Subsequently, plant geneticists found ways of performing even wider crosses between members of different genera using tissue culture techniques." (I'm guessing that's a "scientific" way of saying, biotechnology has been used by farmers and breeders for a really long time.)

* "Recombinant DNA techniques involve the introduction of one or a few defined genes into a plant. Similarly, microorganisms have been used in food technology for thousands of years. As early as 6000 B.C. Sumerians used yeast to brew beer." (Yeah, and it would take more than a few of those beers to convince anyone that alcoholic beverages are some kind of litmus test for the safety of genetically modified food products).

* "The first rDNA biotechnology-derived food plant marketed in the U.S. was the FlavrSavr tomato. It was expected that the fruits of the tomato would have an extended shelf life, but the FlavrSavr was not a commercial success as a retail product because of uncompetitive agronomic characteristics." (In other words, it didn't grow too well, so farmers lost money on it. Look, I love curling up with Webster's Unabridged Dictionary as much as the next guy, but it's not like monosyllabic diction is contra-indicated.)

* "Some critics of rDNA biotechnology take the view that it represents a fundamental change from traditional techniques for genetic modification of plants and microorganisms. (You think??) But in 1989, the National Research Council rejected that argument." (No offense to the good scientists on the NRC, but don't you think the political landscape has shifted "just a skosh" since Ronnie Reagan was sleeping in the White House?)

Okay, enough with the excerpts already.

The point is that for all its detailed examination of the scientific origins of biotechnology and the lengthy discussions of molecular processes underlying genetic evolution, this report fails to acknowledge the fundamental dilemma surrounding the use of GMOs: Its perception among those very same consumers and policy makers IFT duly noted were showing a "heightened interest" in the subject. In the last sentence of the report, the conclusion states that "In developing this report, it is IFT's intent to promote a meaningful public discussion."

Guys (and gals): I got news for you. The "discussion" is already on. Big time. We already know that millions of greenies and eco-nuts think that biotechnology belongs on the same list of heinous crimes against humanity as driving an SUV, or maybe donating to the Republican National Committee. Engaging them is not the problem. What we need is an examination of the key question that cuts through the rhetoric: Where can the application of bio-engineered crops or livestock make a significant difference in agricultural productivity and/or nutritional value?

Because all other questions surrounding biotechnology are really commercial issues. We don't need to convene a panel of top scientists to debate whether somebody deserves to pocket a few shekels patenting a square tomato or a skinless chicken.

The marketplace will take care of that question -- no problem. In fact, the lack of acceptance of biotechnology is due largely to its positioning as a money-maker for agri-business, with a distinct absence until very recently of any mention of consumer benefits. The biotech industry needs to get a grasp of where the battle lines fall. Who's in favor of sci-fi agriculture if all it does is line the corporate pockets of wealthy farmers?

However, if biotechnology can be shown to be the best (and safest) way to add nutritional value to the world's staple food crops, and/or deliver the exponentially larger harvest yields needed to feed a burgeoning population, then its proponents might actually find they have a few compadres willing to share the stage next time they face the harsh glare of the media.

For the experts from IFT and elsewhere who must help sculpt this re-positioning, it is imperative that they lose the attitude that "science has shown it's safe" and concentrate instead on separating the steel-skinned strawberries that can survive a forklift accident from the vitamin-enhanced strains of rice that might prevent millions of kids in Africa from going blind before they turn 20.

The former we don't want, don't need and won't buy. The latter might prove to be part of the solution to a whole lot of troubling issues we're just beginning to understand.


Euro MP Claims Tide is Finally In Favour of GM Technologies

- The Grocer, 27 Oct 2001

Clive Beddall, Aarhus Populist resistance against genetically modified foods is "backward-looking, hysterical and reactionary." That's the view of leading Euro politician Bertel Haarder, who is vice chairman of the Liberal Democrats group in the European Parliament. In Denmark this week he claimed that the tide of opposition against GM foods was "at last turning."

Talking to The Grocer after he had addressed the 100th anniversary banquet for the Danish Lurpak brand, he said: "Make no mistake, a few years from now it will be politically correct to to be in favour of GMOs. "The introduction of GMOs should not be seen as a problem, but a solution to a number of problems within the environment and the area of solving world hunger."

However, the Euro MP, who stressed that he would continue to campaign for a general acceptance of GMOs, believed that products which included GMO ingredients should be clearly marked to allow consumer choice. He added: "I always choose the GMO infected' product since it is probably more durable and better adapted to the environment. "But I believe consumer and political attitudes are changing. Politicians are starting to look at the positive side of the GMO story as they see great opportunities for developing countries in particular."

But as one of Scandinavia's biggest ever gathering of dairy industry executives celebrated Lurpak's centenary, it was the proposed union between Lurpak supplier Arla Foods and New Zealand Milk which dominated discussions. There was unanimous approval for the deal from farmers and leading Scandinavian agricultural figures have spoken in favour of it.


Anthrax Risk from Bacillus thuringiensis Wildly Exaggerated, Groups Say;
Organic Insecticide Safe, Biotech 'Bt Crops' Even Safer


Reports raising public health concerns about a common and safe soil bacterium used in organic farming and in some biotech crops are unwarranted, a coalition of non-profit organizations that research agriculture, food, and health issues said today.

According to researchers at the American Council on Science and Health, the Center for Global Food Issues, the Center for International Food and Agriculture Policy, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and Consumer Alert, the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, used as an organic insecticide and as the source for a pest-resistant gene for some biotech crops, has been misleadingly and inappropriately linked with the bacterium that causes anthrax by opponents of biotechnology and modern agricultural practices.

Bacillus anthracis, which causes anthrax, and Bacillus thuringiensis are closely related species. But while B. anthracis is a potentially deadly microbe, B. thuringiensis has been used for decades as a safe and effective organic insecticide. "The risks of anthrax-exposure from organic foods and other crops sprayed with Bt bacteria are infinitesimally small," said Alex Avery, director of research at the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues. "More importantly, an anthrax risk from biotech crops is non-existent. This is just an opportunistic attempt to mislead the public and falsely attack biotechnology with guilt by association."

Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria make proteins that are toxic to some insects but are harmless to birds, fish, mammals, and humans. Liquid preparations of B. thuringiensis bacteria, known as Bt sprays, have been applied to food crops as an insecticide for over 30 years, and the USDA has approved the use of Bt sprays under its new National Organic Standards. The gene responsible for generating the pest-resistant protein has also been used in some biotech crop varieties, including corn and cotton.

Anti-biotechnology activists are now calling for renewed caution in the use of Bt products and bans on biotech crops because of heightened awareness of anthrax and the close genetic relationship between the two microbes. Commentaries circulating among Internet discussion platforms run by the pro-organic and anti-biotechnology Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and Organic Consumers Association charge that, "Bt can easily take up an anthrax plasmid and create anthrax related disease," and "gene exchange could occur in the soil between (biotech) plant debris and bacteria."

Such a tactic in the anti-biotech campaign is likely to backfire, however, as it highlights important differences between Bt bacteria used in organic farming and the single Bt gene used in biotech crops. Although it is not theoretically impossible for the whole Bt bacteria to mutate into B. anthracis, biotech crops use only the single gene from Bt that produces the insecticidal protein. "While there is an extremely small chance that organic Bt bacteria could mutate and become dangerous, anthrax-like illnesses from biotech crops that use only the single Bt gene are just not plausible" said Ruth Kava, Ph.D., director of nutrition with the American Council on Science and Health. "With biotech Bt crops, you get the pest protection, without live bacteria," added Kava.

"If protest groups are so concerned about anthrax risk from Bt, you'd think they would turn their indignation against organic agriculture and rethink their opposition to biotechnology," said Gregory Conko, director of food safety policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "But in reality there is really no substance behind this scare."

The American Council on Science and Health, the Center for Global Food Issues, the Center for International Food and Agriculture Policy, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and Consumer Alert are members of a pro-science and pro-technology coalition on food and farming issues called the National Consumer Coalition.



'Delay Inexcusable, We Can't Deny Bt to Our Farmers: India's Agriculture Minister'

- Sonu Jain, Indian Express, Nov 3, 2001 http://www.indian-express.com/ie20011103/top2.html

'Burning the crop is no solution, we will release it in market after testing for two months'

"For growth in agriculture, biotechnology is the only answer. We have to aggressively pursue this dream."

New Delhi: In the first categorical endorsement of Bt Cotton by the Government, Union Agriculture Minister Ajit Singh today said that the delay in its introduction "even if it is for one year is inexcusable and burning the crop in Gujarat, as ordered by the Government two days ago, is not the solution."

Union Agriculture Minister Ajit Singh Speaking to The Indian Express, Singh said: "What has happened in Gujarat is unfortunate. That is why I have insisted that, at least, the lint has to be stored. The Cotton Corporation of India will procure the cotton, quarantine it and store it in their godowns. After testing it for a couple of months, they can release it in the market" said Singh.

The Minister admitted that all the results of the field trials conducted so far have been positive first reported in The Indian Express and yet a decision was taken this year to re-order trials. "Since our environment is different, extensive tests have to be carried out but my argument is that our scientists should have woken up earlier. They should have started testing earlier in a more organised manner" he said.

If the Minister himself is upbeat about Bt Cotton, then what prevents him from getting it cleared? He says he held a meeting in which the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) gave him the status of GM crops. "I was not here last year when the decision to conduct trials again was taken. Now I want to expedite the process. This year, I ensured that land for trials was given fast enough. I have told bureaucrats to cooperate fully and ensure that the testing process is completed as fast as possible" he said.

Days ago, the government woke up when a private company Navbharat Seeds sold these seeds illegally" to nearly 500 farmers in Gujarat who had a bumper crop this year. The GEAC decided to burn the crops and said that farmers should be compensated by the state government which should procure the crop. This comes at a time when the cotton crop in Punjab, Harayana and Rajasthan has been hit hard by bollworm this year. Singh says that the total losses run up to as much as Rs 400 crore in these three states.

"Genetically Modified crops have to come. There cannot be a blanket ban on it. There is clear evidence that it increases productivity, so then how can we deny our farmers the benefits of biotechnology?"‚ Singh said.

"For growth in agriculture, biotechnology is the only answer. We have to aggressively pursue this dream."

The biggest fear against genetically manipulated cotton expressed by critics is that the pests are likely to develop resistance to Bt Cotton. "Developing resistance is a natural process. Even for pesticides, pests develop resistance over time. What is science for? It is an evolutionary process. But at least for the next 10-15 years, our farmers should enjoy the benefits of Bt," said the Minister.


How to Bombard Our Own Terrorists?

- The Times of India, November 1, 2001

Gordhan Patel, a cotton-growing farmer from Khambha in Amreli district, told me he wondered whether there was any truth in the belated conclusion of New Delhi's 'babudom' (bureaucrat-dom) that bio-tech (Bt) cotton seed was destructive, and that all the bumper crop resulting from those seeds would have to be burnt down to save the land!

He said he had already grown plenty of crop from those seeds long before the officials panicked. He expected at least 2,000 kg of yield per hectare - more than he could produce anytime before with local varieties of selected or hybrid seeds. Bollworms had devoured all those crops even after being sprayed with millions of rupees worth pesticides. But this new seed did not need that intense and repeated spraying.

"I have seen the crop from selected seeds on my 80 bighas of land getting destroyed even after I spent Rs 3,50,000 ($8, 500) worth of pesticides, while the crop on just 20 bighas, adjoining to it sown with Bt cotton seeds, stands alive," corroborated Labhshankar Upadhyay, a progressive farmer and one of the leaders of Khedut Samaj based in south Gujarat. Thousands of hectares of land have used Bt seeds in Saurashtra, south Gujarat and in Mehsana district too. Khedut Samaj has challenged the government of India's 'fatwa' to destroy these crops produced with Bt seeds.

Bt cotton seed controversy has seized our farmers by throat -rightly or wrongly! Actually, it's like a twist of terrorism let loose by some business companies and related officials. Lots of tests and trials were done at Nagpur based agro-tech lab and they had also cleared the Bt seed as positive. But some of the other government officials declared that Bt seed was harmful. Poor farmer is now sandwiched between the two camps. Powerful pesticide lobby too plays its own negative role.

Against the normal yield of some 200-300 kg of cotton in India grown with selected and hybrid seeds, China has shown the yield of 943 kg with Bt seeds! In Saurashtra-Gujarat, each hectare of Bt cotton saved Rs 1,856 spent on pesticide alone! Benefit per hectare came to Rs 6,534. Farmers thought they would be called dumb if they did not take this advantage of Bt seeds. But they were told by some people that their land would lose all its fertility. "I am now determined to experiment that factor too," said Labhshankar. "I am sure this argument too may prove to be false."


India: Traders Seek Govt Nod for Bt Cotton

- G. Chandrashekhar, Asia Africa Intelligence Wire, October 29, 2001

Traders have jumped into the transgenic cotton controversy bandwagon. They want the country to rapidly adopt the latest science of agricultural biotechnology in order to reap benefits such as higher productivity and reduction in crop losses due to pest attacks.

Cotton merchants and trade organisations have rushed to the defence of farmers, who planted modified cotton (Bt Cotton, a variety known to fight bollworm) and are opposing destruction of the crop as recommended by the Department of Biotechnology. According to the president of East India Cotton Association (EICA), Mr. Suresh A. Kotak, the controversy over planting of Bt cotton in Gujarat is symptomatic and technical, and the moot point is whether the farmers have been deprived of a much-needed access to modern technology.

EICA has argued that China has stolen a march over India in cotton production and productivity by permitting planting of genetically modified seeds without much governmental fuss that our country generally faces. It has concluded that adoption of new technologies alone will lead the country out of the bane of dismally low productivity.

Mr. M. B. Lal, advisor to the Technology Mission on Cotton, Ministry of Textiles, points out that contrary to perception in some quarters, worldwide area devoted to transgenic cotton varieties has been increasing. The area in different countries stood at an estimated 5.3 million hectares in 2000-01, having expanded from less than one million hectares (mha) in 1996-97. Of this, the US accounts for 3.93 mha and China one mha. In 2001-02, up to 78 per cent of cotton area in the US will be under transgenic cotton. Other countries such as Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Mexico have very limited area devoted to transgenic cotton, which aggregates to less than 2.5 lakh hectares.

According to Mr. Lal, cotton growers have been getting a raw deal. They usually suffer low prices or get poor quality inputs (impure seeds, spurious agro-chemicals); and now, even planting of high quality cotton has turned out to be risky because of possible destruction of the crop. It may be interesting to note that three types of transgenic cotton varieties are planted in the US. While Bt varieties provide resistance to bollworm, herbicide-resistant varieties allow cotton fields to be sprayed with herbicides to control weeds; and stacked gene varieties include both characteristics.

The International Cotton Advisory Council has come out with some vital information. In the US, straight Bt varieties formed only 2 per cent of total transgenic varieties planted. Herbicide resistant varieties formed almost 37 per cent of the transgenic varieties, and stacked gene varieties (herbicide resistant plus boll worm resistant) were planted on over 39 per cent of the total US cotton area in 2000-01.


Greenpeace - Bt Gene Cotton Can Affect TB Patients

- November 2, 2001; Times of India

AHMEDABAD: The scientific advisor of the environmental organisation Greenpeace International, Doreen Stabinsky was cited as saying in her recent scientific presentation before the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the Union government that going by the claims of researchers, a seemingly harmless genetically-engineered cotton plant can build resistance against antibiotics like streptomycin and spectinomycin and make treatment of diseases like tuberculosis and gonorrhoea less effective because the 'aad' gene, which confers resistance to the antibiotics streptomycin and spectinomycin, is present in both Bollgard (insect-protected) and Roundup Ready (herbicide tolerant) transgenic cottons, adding, "Risk is a composite of probability of occurrence and consequences.

However, the potential consequences of such transfer are grave, particularly with respect to streptomycin and tuberculosis in India. It is for this reason that medical societies and governments around the world have called for the phase out of the use of antibiotic resistance genes." The story says that researchers believe that as these antibiotic marker genes are present in every cell of the engineered plant, when such food is ingested, the antibiotic resistance gene is also ingested. Such genes can be transferred to bacteria in the guts of animals or humans, or to bacteria in the environment, and diseases could become resistant to many important antibiotic drugs. In case of cotton; cotton-seed oil, cattle feed, clinical cotton, tampons, sanitary napkins, diapers, dressing bandage and other cotton can play the culprit. With one TB patient dying every minute in India, TB prevalence of 250 patients in one lakh (100,000) individuals _ and streptomycin one of the cheapest antibiotics being administered to over

>From Prakash:

Some 'scientific' advisor!

As if the antibiotic-marker gene (non-existent in lint) would jump out of tampons into the TB bacteria!

Greenpeace continues to indulge in irresponsible scare-mongering by spinning this yarn of irrelevant and insignificant risks, and trying exploit public ignorance. The benign nature of antibiotic marker genes in transgenic crops has been well established and is a non-issue now. To invoke the horizontal gene transfer scare with TB is low even by Greenpeace's standards. See an earlier posting to AgBioView by Bruce Chassy below.


From: Bruce Chassy
Posted to AgBioView: Oct 10, 2000

>From: Andrew Apel Subject: Gonorrhea
>Visit http://www.sustain.org/biotech/News/news.cfm?News_ID=2572 and read
it for yourself. (By the way, Mae Wan-Ho is in on this one, too.)


Let me take it seriously for a moment because the spread of antibiotic resistance is a serious challenge in medicine and agriculture.

It would be of use to have an infectious disease specialist comment on the frequency of occurrence of NG strains resistant to third generation cephalosporins. Data on occurrence of drug resistant strains of NG can be found on the CDC website. For example, it was reported in 1998

Susceptibility to Spectinomycin. All isolates were susceptible to spectinomycin in 1998. There have been five spectinomycin-resistant isolates in GISP; their locations and years were: St. Louis-1988, Honolulu-1989, San Francisco-1989, Long Beach-1990, and West Palm Beach-1994.

Susceptibility to Ceftriaxone The distribution of MICs to ceftriaxone in 1988 and 1998 are shown in Figure 16. Over this period, there has been a subtle shift towards higher ceftriaxone MICs. In 1998, all isolates were susceptible to ceftriaxone.

The fluoroquinolines are also recommended for treatment NG, although, once again, a low level of resistant strains have been reported:

The emergence of drug-resistant gonococci has limited the usefulness of previously recommended penicillin-, ampicillin-, and tetracycline-based regimens. Coexisting chlamydial infections are sufficiently common to require simultaneous presumptive treatment (see below). Thus, a single dose of ceftriaxone 125 mg IM for gonococci plus either doxycycline 100 mg po bid for 7 days or azithromycin 1 g po once for chlamydia is recommended as initial therapy for urethral, endocervical, pharyngeal, and rectal infections. Alternatives to ceftriaxone are a single dose of either spectinomycin 2 g IM, ciprofloxacin 500 mg po, ofloxacin 400 mg po, or cefixime 400 mg po. All regimens should be accompanied by azithromycin or doxycycline to treat possible chlamydial co-infection, except in pregnant women, for whom erythromycin 500 mg po qid for 7 days can be substituted. In patients known to harbor penicillin-sensitive gonococci, amoxicillin 3 g po with probenecid 1 g po once may be used instead of ceftriaxone.

(taken From the Merck Index at: http://www.merck.com/pubs/mmanual/section13/chapter164/164b.htm)

The take home messages are fairly simple here:

1. Strains of antibiotic resistant NG are on the rise and will continue to rise as long as the disease continues to infect subjects and antibiotics are used to treat infections.
2. Resistance to spectinomycin has already been described in NG and elsewhere in the microbial community.
3. Spectinomycin resistance is far more likely to spread from bacteria to bacteria than from plants to bacteria
4. Spectinomycin is no more the drug of choice than one of several other antibiotics; which is the drug of choice in a given case is dependent on the antibiotic sensitivity determined for the infecting strain.
5. One would be well advised to avoid infection in the first place...

And what makes me cry?

The posting on the Sustain webpage referred to above makes the following statement:
The bacterium responsible for gonorrhoea, Neisseria gonorrhoeae, could acquire the aad gene from transgenic plant materials during infection of the mouth and small and large intestine as well as the respiratory tract. N. gonorrhoeae could also acquire the gene indirectly from other bacteria in the internal and external environments of animals and human beings, which can take up the gene from transgenic plant materials. Those other bacteria can serve as a reservoir for antibiotic resistance genes.

As is well known to many of you:
1. Despite years of intense research designed to evaluate the possibility of antibiotic resistance gene transfer from plants to bacteria in soil and animals, gene transfer has not been demonstrated. Notice that the paragraph above says "could acquire." While lots of things "could" happen, this is one that nobody has been able to demonstrate. This suggests that the frequency at which this event occurs, if at all, must be extremely low.

2. To say something will never happen is also not acceptable. Since transformation is a plausible mechanism by which such a gene acquisition "could" take place, let's just suppose that acquisition of spectinomycin resistance occurred at a very very very low frequency. Of what consequence would the creation of a few spectinomycin resistant organisms be --and I emphasize very few because we know from research that the rate is so low as to have been heretofore undetectable? Essentially of no consequence because the genie is already out of the bottle. Spectinomycin resistance is already spreading throughout the world of pathogenic bacteria; the contribution made by the plant to bacteria mechanism of transfer, if any, would add negligibly to the problem.

3. The spread of antibiotic resistance relates to the already widespread distribution of resistance genes in nature that are simply waiting to be selected for, the relatively rapid mechanisms of gene evolution and transfer within microbes, and poor stewardship in the use of antibiotics both in medicine and agriculture. It is a serious problem that should not be trivialized by the suggestion that markers used in bioengineered plants will add to the spread of resistance. If anything, this is the one area where research has been done to evaluate the potential hazards that exists in order to avoid adding to the problem. The discussion of plant to bacteria transfer diverts attention from the need to develop new antibiotics and new and effective strategies for managing use of the both existing and future antibiotics.

4. The recent (May 2000) WHO/FAO Expert Consultation on Foods for Biotechnology assessed the rationale that has been applied in evaluation of the safety of antibiotic resistance markers. The analysis can be found at:


My final tear is shed wondering whether the people who write the sort of posting that we are talking about don't understand the underlying science, or if they understand it well but choose to post what they do in the hopes of scaring those who are not as well versed in these complex subjects. As has been observed many times by AgBioView readers, if we rejected processes and products on the basis of what "could" happen, we might as well close of shop on all further human invention for I'm sure that there is nothing that we set about to do for which some dire consequence cannot be imagined.

As I noted above, it would be interesting to have a second medical opinion on the posting and I'm sure that some of you can amplify on my comments on safety evaluation spelled out above.

- Bruce Chassy, Assistant Dean for Biotechnology Outreach, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Science in a World of Anxiety

- Dr. William Revill, The Irish Times, Nov 01, 2001, November 1, 2001

We live in an age of high public anxiety, currently at a peak following the terrorist attacks on the US in September. Much public anxiety relates to science-based technology. Some technologies are troublesome, but in many cases public fears greatly exaggerate the dangers involved. In general, science and science-based technology offer both physical and psychological comfort and reason for optimism about the future.

A brief list of topics will illustrate my point that some science-based technology induces public anxiety: nuclear and biological weapons, nuclear power, genetic engineering, genetically modified foods, global warming, depletion of the ozone layer, mad-cow disease, chemical pollution, to name but a few. We should feel concerned about these technologies in proportion to the objective risks they pose. Some are quite dangerous, others moderately so, and some pose very little risk. .....

Then there is a long list of anxiety-causing, science-based technologies that feature regularly in the media, such as genetically modified foods, genetic testing, radiation from mobile phones and chemical pollution of the environment.

The risks associated with many of these matters are low, easily avoided and well understood by the professional. However, the small risks involved are continually exaggerated by various pressure groups, and the media gives all voices, expert and amateur, equal weight. Since it is much easier to alarm than to reassure, public anxieties are readily inflamed.

Some people see science-based technologies are sharp double-edged swords. This is entirely untrue - most technologies enhance our lives and have little or no downside. As a result, the ordinary person today lives a life of convenience and opportunity unknown even to the most privileged of previous generations. Think of the benefits enjoyed from electricity, computers, telecommunications, radio/TV, antibiotics, vaccines, medical X-rays, surgery, washing machines, electric cookers . . .

Science has also shown that the world is a wonderful place. It began in a big bang in which the lightest elements, hydrogen and helium, were formed. The remaining 90 elements were later forged in the stars. Life spontaneously arose on earth four billion years ago as a simple form of bacteria, and the myriad forms of life that now inhabit the earth are descended from that original simple life. Who knows what wonderful developments will occur in the future.

The world has bootstrapped its way from hydrogen in the beginning to self-conscious beings who can reconstruct the whole story and wonder at it. This insight, produced by science, is most uplifting to the spirit. We are made of no mean stuff. Of course, in order to prosper, people must be wise as well as knowledgeable. Science produces knowledge, but not wisdom. The wonderful knowledge provided by science can be applied for good or for ill. If we are wise, we apply science only for good, so, let us learn to be wise.
William Reville is a senior lecturer in biochemistry and director of microscopy at UCC


Everything Gives You Cancer

- Tim Dowling, Sydney Morning Herald, Oct 29, 2001


If even broccoli and strawberries have been linked to the dreaded disease, what hope do we have, asks Tim Dowling.

I wouldn't say I've courted cancer exactly, but I have hitherto been pretty heedless of the warnings. Now, however, I have reached a stage in life where I think it may be time I stopped meeting cancer halfway. Fresh from a three-week holiday that combined lashings of alcohol, lashings of stress, plenty of sun, a good deal of red meat, a lot of passive smoking and a certain amount of aggressive smoking, I think perhaps I should try to be a little less helpful to cancer. At the very least I could avoid known carcinogens, even if for just one day. I resolved to give it a try.

My first mistake came shortly after waking up. Toothpaste, I have discovered, has several compounds (fluoride among them) that are at least suspected carcinogens, as do soap and shampoo. Breakfast, the most important meal of the day, is also a cocktail of cancer-causing substances. Heterocyclic amines - possibly carcinogenic - are created by cooking or burning foods, and are commonly found in coffee and toast.

Aflatoxins, produced by naturally occurring fungi, are found in small concentrations in milk and cereal. Aflatoxin B1, the most deadly of all the aflatoxins, has been shown to cause cancer in mice, rats, hamsters, rainbow trout, ducks, marmosets (this is a partial list, by the way), tree shrews, guinea pigs and monkeys.

It quickly becomes clear that total carcinogenic abstention is more difficult than it sounds. Going out in the midday sun presents an obvious risk, but thanks to the radon seeping into your home from the soil below, so does staying indoors. Taking to the air is no better: high-altitude flights routinely expose passengers and crew to radiation, and the free peanuts, with their traces of carcinogenic fungal toxic metabolites, aren't much help either.

I decided to retreat to my office at the very top of the house, the furthest I can get from cancer without getting cancer, where I read up on the 15 known carcinogenic substances commonly used in roofing material. Hunger eventually drove me back to the kitchen, with an eye towards whipping up a cancer-free salad, but here again there was no escape. While the risk of getting cancer from fruit and vegetables remains small, most of that risk is said to come from naturally occurring carcinogens, generally the organic pesticides produced by the plants themselves to keep predators at bay. Broccoli, apples, onions, oranges, strawberries, lemons and mushrooms all contain acetaldehyde, a known human carcinogen. If you close your eyes you can practically taste it.

Nitrates - which can be converted by the human body into carcinogenic nitrosamine compounds - are present in such seemingly inoffensive foods as celery, lettuce, kale and rhubarb. There are carcinogens specific to tap water, basil, beer and mustard. Cancer-causing PCBs are found in varying levels in all foods.

It's well known, of course, that certain foods have anti-carcinogenic properties: organosulphur compounds, flavonoids, tannins and carotenoids have been shown to inhibit some forms of cancer. Unfortunately, these anti-carcinogens tend to be in foods that also contain carcinogens - such as broccoli, onions, strawberries and cabbage. Even while these vegetables are preventing you from getting cancer, they are giving you cancer.

Ingesting carcinogens directly is now regarded as a rather old-fashioned way of getting cancer. These days, simply being exposed to one's environment for long periods - what used to be known as standing around minding your own business - is plenty carcinogenic enough. Diesel exhaust, asbestos, the formaldehyde in ordinary home air and crystalline silica of respirable size (ie, dust) have all been listed as carcinogens.

You can get cancer from the wax on your floors, the paint on your walls and the dyes in your shirt. We are all constantly exposed to vinyl chloride, a gas emitted by PVC plastic, which is sometimes known as new-car smell. Then there is isoprene, which the US National Toxicology Program describes as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen". Isoprene is emitted by rubber products (natural and synthetic), automobiles and trees, and is commonly found in exhaled human breath. When you breathe in you get cancer; when you breathe out, you give it to someone else.

Ultimately, however, this notion that all things are carcinogenic is misleading; risks vary wildly depending on dose, length of exposure and countless other factors. Most "known carcinogens" have only been tested on animals, in huge concentrations. Some of these substances cause tumours in mice, but not in rats or hamsters. In any case, most are unavoidable.

In short, one can do little to avoid cancer apart from the obvious: most preventable cancers are caused by smoking, drinking and poor diet, which also just happen to be the major causes of dying from things other than cancer. But because luck also appears to play a big part, cancer tends to inspire more superstition than any other disease. I realise I'm running a huge risk of contracting cancer just by writing about it. I think I'll stop here.


Risk, Science and Society

- Professor Sir Colin Berry, http://www.spiked-online.com/articles/00000002D29C.htm

One of the UK's top scientists explains why the 'precautionary principle' - the substitution of prejudice for data - leads to irrational convictions.


Letter in the Guardian


What an excellent piece of balanced investigative journalism Toxic Shock (October 20) wasn't. Guilt by association, accusations without evidence and selective reporting; it was all there. True, organophosphates were originally developed as nerve gases by the Nazis, but that's like saying that table salt may be dangerous because it is made from a highly flammable metal and a first world war toxic gas. Yet in all this, Joanna Blythman forgot to mention that she is a patron of the Soil Association - "the home of organic food". In the interests of balance, therefore, I look forward to a riposte from the British Crop Protection Council.

- Dr Peter Lapinskas, Dorking, Surrey


FoE's 'Chemicals' Postcard Campaign is Criticised


An MEP has criticised a Friends of the Earth campaign which involved sending thousands of postcards with the warning "Danger? - this sample may contain risky chemicals". Labour's European Environment spokesman, David Bowe, said in the current international climate of anthrax scares, the campaign was "unfortunate and inappropriate"......

Mr Bowe said: "If what Friends of the Earth wanted to achieve with the postcards was to make me aware of their supporters' views on the need for tighter controls on the chemicals industry and its products, then I will assure them that, after receiving several thousand cards, I have got the message. "However, I do believe that, with the widespread fear raised through the distribution of anthrax through the post in the United States - and the fact that post office workers and others have died or are desperately ill as a result - it is time for Friends of the Earth to recognise that enough is enough."


Farmers in Africa Can Benefit from The Use of Biotechnology

- John Wafula, East African Standard, November 2, 2001;
Exec. Dir & Secretary of the African Biotech Stakeholders forum (ABSF).

Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser recently toured Africa to speak out against agricultural companies and to cast doubt on the benefits of biotechnology. Schmeiser, apparently still smarting from a court's ruling earlier this year that he had infringed on Monsanto's patent rights by illegally replanting patented seed, appears determined to mislead African farmers.

As someone who has dedicated his livelihood to improving conditions for African farmers, I fear this rhetoric also threatens to deprive our continent and other developing regions of precious technologies that could help reduce poverty, malnutrition and hunger. Farmers everywhere have choices when purchasing seed - they can replant saved seed, buy hybrid seed, or buy patented seed that is genetically enhanced. If farmers purchase hybrid seed, they understand new seed must be purchased the next season because the yield and quality of the seed will decrease if replanted.

Similarly, if farmers choose to buy genetically enhanced seed, they agree not to replant that seed to ensure those who developed the seed are fairly compensated for their investment in the technology. Research universities, institutions and companies are continually investing in the research and development of new agricultural technologies in an effort to increase the profitability and productivity of farmers. The drive behind this work, which can span decades and cost hundreds of millions of dollars, is patent protection, which gives ownership of ideas to the people who develop them. These patents are an important tool to help protect and reimburse private and public investment in new technologies, and to encourage additional research and development for the new products of the future.

In Africa, farmers‚ investment in Biotechnology is already paying off in tangible economic and environmental benefits. For example, smallholder farmers in South Africa have greatly benefited from planting Monsanto's genetically enhanced cotton, which has increased yields by 33 per cent, reduced the number of pesticide sprays from an average of eight to two, and improved farmers‚ profitability by 27 per cent. In addition, biotechnology applications are being applied in Kenya to develop a sweet potato that protects itself against a virus that can destroy up to 80 percent of the crop. Ongoing sweet potato trials could in a few years provide farmers with disease-resistant sweet potato that could enhance food security and generate farm income for smallholder farmers in various African nations.

Even the more simple forms of biotechnology like tissue culture are revolutionising farming communities in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Ghana by providing disease free planting material, which results in higher yields. In addition, this biotechnology application is helping restore crops like bananas, cassava, pyrethrum, and citrus. These positive results give us all the hope that biotechnology will grow to serve as a powerful tool to improve the well being of our families, communities and economies. It is clear that, in Africa, biotechnology offers a great opportunity to enhance agriculture. Let's not let the misguided and personal opinions of an activist farmer from a developed country determine the direction of agriculture for our continent.


Experts Say Biotechnology Can Stem Starvation In Africa

- PanAfrican News Agency, October 31, 2001

Philadelphia, US (PANA) - A South African cotton farmer has tried it and can testify that bio-technology, the modification of living organisms to improve their yield and resistance to adverse factors, can transform a farmer's life. In 1996, when other members of his farmers Association in Kwazulu Natal province refused to grow biologically-improved cotton seeds introduced to them, T.J. Buthelezi and four others, took the risk and tried the new seeds on three acres of land.

That year, there was drought and the farmers who planted natural seeds did not have a harvest. But Buthelezi, chairman of the 4,000-member farmers Association, harvested 12 bales of cotton. His success encouraged more farmers to adopt the new technology.

Speaking at a workshop Wednesday on the opportunities of biotechnology for Africa organised as part of a three-day US-Africa Business Conference in the US City of Philadelphia, the South African said improved cotton seeds have not only increased yield but drastically cut the amount of effort and time farmers spend on their farms and the chemicals they apply to control weeds and insects. Speakers at the workshop all agreed that biotechnology could become a powerful tool to counteract the scourge of hunger, malnutrition and poverty, now ravaging Africa.

Carl Masters of Good Works International, US, said the number of malnourished Africans has doubled in the past three decades to more than 200 million. Africa, he said, is projected to be heading for major starvation that cannot be helped by the traditional farming methods. One solution to the problem is biotechnology which, he said, can improve health, nutrition and economic well-being of farmers who constitute up to 70 percent of Africa's population.

In his presentation, Kinyua M'bijjewe of Monsanto, a leading provider of improved seeds in the world, said Africa is the only continent where food production per capita has declined in the past 20 years. He pointed out that the consequence of the situation has been hunger, malnutrition, rural poverty, unemployment and environmental degradation. For any African country to take advantage of biotechnology products, M'bijjewe recommends a number of prior measures, including the adoption of biotechnology policy, establishment of bio-safety legislation and institutions, and collaborative research.

Other measures include creation of public awareness about the technology, working towards scientific capacity building and ensuring adequate intellectual property rights protection to encourage private investors. In this effort, the Monsanto official said, a number of African countries, including, Egypt, Uganda, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Nigeria, Malawi, Zambia, Namibia, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Cote d'Ivoire have either adopted bio-safety legislation or are in the processing of doing so.

Nigeria's Minister of State for Science and Technology, Pauline Tallen shared with workshop participants her country's efforts in adopting biotechnology to ensure national food security. Nigeria, she said, intends to use biotechnology to solve many problems such as hunger, malnutrition, poverty and environmental degradation. But instead of pursuing such efforts alone, the country wants to ensure that other African countries also participate in the biotechnology revolution, she said. Tallen said Nigeria was holding consultations towards establishing a West African biotechnology network.

An official of the US Agency for International Development, Dennis Weller said biotechnology is a promising part of efforts to improve agriculture in Africa. For this year, he said, USAID has increased its financial commitment to biotechnology in Africa to 10 million dollars. While the agency operates in 22 African countries, he said, its policy is to support biotechnology programmes in countries that have a biotechnology policy to guide the efforts.