Today's Topics in AgBioView.
* Beating Back The Forces of Nature
* U.S. Urges International Coalition Against Hunger
* UN food agency approves GM framework
* Cotton and Controversy
* India's Ag Minister Throws Weight Behind Use of GM Crops
* Let Bt Cotton Grow
* GMO Crops Here To Stay or Gone With The Wind?
* Information Systems For Biotechnology - Nov 2001 Issue
* The PR Battle For Democracy: What NGOs Are All About
* To Use Technology or Not To Use Technology - That Is The Question
* UK Scientists Are Among The Best - But Least Trusted
* Patents or Poverty? A New Debate Over Poor AIDS Care in Africa
Beating Back The Forces of Nature
- Gordon Mclauchlan, The New Zealand Herald, November 3, 2001
One of the most curious and spurious arguments mounted by those who are philosophically opposed to genetic engineering is that it is not natural. From the moment our forebears lifted their knuckles from the ground and had a look around, they thought the horizon looked pretty exciting. Since then, they have been using their hands and minds to expand the serious limitations imposed by nature.
Civilisation is a construct of humankind, an elaborate and comprehensive edifice that has grown inch by inch over millions of years as men and women - unlike the amoeba, the duck-billed platypus and the chimpanzee - refused to accept that eating, procreating and dying are enough to make this world worth the visit. And it's not only the Pakeha New-Agers and assorted nature worshippers who are ridiculously insisting that some incomprehensible natural way of living is healthier and more spiritual than the civilised.
I detect - and it's brave of me to say so - a strong whiff of sanctimony and phony superstition almost every time Maori leaders challenge science on the grounds of cultural and spiritual integrity. Like the Scots, the Poms et al, their forebears were using all their considerable practical and intellectual resources to beat back the forces of nature and make their lives longer, more comfortable and more fun.
I chuckle every time I read about the nudists, who call themselves naturists, getting their gear off for sun-worshipping good health, baring their backsides to the carcinogenic rays of the sun. Melanoma Incorporated.
I'm reminded of a visit 15 years ago to a remote village in Malaysia in which a pygmy jungle people had been resettled because loggers were destroying the forest. An American woman, taking copious notes, kept questioning them, through an interpreter, about their natural cures - the leaves they crushed, the saps they drank and the roots they ground and ingested for medicinal purposes. I'm sure they were making things up to keep her excitement high and, when she asked them what they took for headaches, I couldn't resist saying: "They send to town for some aspirin."
She looked at me with the withering contempt that is the defence unreasoning believers reserve for sceptics. The fact that these people lived a few brief years of vigour between puberty and about 25 before they shrank, withered and died in their 30s seemed irrelevant to this woman, who blindly pursued the wonders of the natural life.
The freedom to pursue knowledge is precious and has been impeded many times over the centuries by ignorance and superstition, fuelled by fear. The main cause for concern is not science, but the use society makes of its discoveries. If the world blows up in a nuclear holocaust, it won't be Ernest Rutherford or his successors who will be to blame, but ignorant sociopaths, blinded by hate.
The big GM danger is that commercial corporations are driven not so much by the curiosity that makes human beings so marvellous but by the profits that can make them so mean. Thus the job of the Government is not to curb the curiosity of scientists but to put in place mechanisms that will carefully monitor the direction and progress of research to ensure it does not have unintended side-effects. It seems to me that is what the royal commission sensibly aimed to achieve.
The Greens would be better advised to watch carefully the application of these rules, and to ensure widespread consideration of the ethical issues involved in progress, rather than blindly and unilaterally deciding on your behalf and mine what is good knowledge and what is bad by self-righteously disrupting experiments.
Let's proceed with common sense and in good order towards a world in which our grandchildren and their grandchildren will have pushed back further the boundaries imposed by nature, and live longer, fuller and healthier lives.
And remember that neat little verse?
Please, folks, don't grieve for Adam and Eve, Getting kicked out of the garden. It was their defiance, of God not of science, That made their ambition harden.
A garden for two, to just bill and coo, In boring, nay, stupefied joy, Could never have doused curiosity roused By an ardent young girl and her boy.
The lush knowledge tree that first set them free, Started them using their minds; Science was in, competing with sin, And enriching the world with its finds.
U.S. Urges International Coalition Against Hunger
- David Brough, Reuters, 05 Nov 2001
Rome, Nov 5 (Reuters) - U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman called on Monday for the international community to work together to eradicate hunger and said biotechnology could help.
"We need to wage a war to eliminate world poverty and hunger," Veneman said in prepared remarks at a conference organised by the United Nations world food body, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). The FAO says the international community is falling behind in its bid to halve world hunger by 2015 and estimates that more than 800 million people go to bed hungry. "As with the war on terrorism, success will require an international coalition united for collective action," she said.
Her remarks echoed similar proposals last month from Germany and Italy. U.N. officials said an international coalition against hunger signalled increased political will by world leaders to combat hunger and poverty, seen as fuelling violence. "The coalition would allow us to have at the highest level a mobilisation of political will in the war against hunger and poverty," FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf told a news conference on Monday.
FAO Assistant Director-General Louise Fresco told Reuters later that in the case of Afghanistan, where millions face starvation due to years of drought and conflict, a coalition against hunger could entail an international rescue plan involving unprecedented cooperation between governments and development agencies. In her conference remarks, Veneman underscored the importance of science and technology in the fight against hunger.
"New technologies, including biotechnology, will help meet the challenge of feeding a growing world population with a limited resource base," she said. Veneman also said trade liberalisation would be a key issue. The FAO conference, which is discussing themes such as hunger, biotechnology, livestock diseases and crop diversity runs until November 13.
UN food agency approves GM framework
- ABC News, Australia http://www.abc.net.au/news/science/environment/2001/11/item20011104090635_1.htm
The United Nations food agency has approved a framework for protecting the variety of the world's crops, seen as key to winning the war on hunger. The so-called International Convention on Plant Genetic Resources was originally agreed by member states of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) at a meeting at its Rome headquarters in July.
The convention, which aims to ensure that plant genetic resources can be preserved and made available for research and plant breeding, will come into force after it is ratified by at least 40 states. "This new legally binding international agreement ... provides a framework to ensure access to plant genetic resources, and to related knowledge, technologies, and internationally agreed funding," FAO, holding its biennial conference, said in a statement.
After years of anguished debate pitting poor countries and environmentalists against multinational corporations and wealthier nations, the United States agreed for the first time in July to mandatory payments by plant breeders developing new crop varieties in return for access to public seed banks. The seed banks lend out crop seeds, enabling research into new varieties of plants to increase resistance to disease and counter the impact of global warming In turn, this helps alleviate hunger in poorer nations.
FAO director general Jacques Diouf said the approval of the framework ended years of torturous negotiations and created an internationally accepted mechanism to protect agricultural biodiversity. "The approval by the FAO conference of this International Convention on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture is a milestone in international cooperation," Diouf said.
Agricultural biodiversity must be saved in order to guarantee global food security as the population grows and the planet warms up, plant geneticists say. Plant varieties are becoming extinct at an unprecedented rate, according to the Italy-based International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI).
IPGRI, an international body dedicated to the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, estimates that every year more than 15 million hectares of tropical forest are destroyed. It says 8 per cent of plant species run the risk of extinction in the next 25 years.
Over the past 50 years high-yielding uniform varieties of crops have taken the place of thousands of local varieties across large productive areas. Scientists will have to develop plant varieties resistant to drought, salinity and disease in order to increase the rate of food production to keep up with the expanding population, plant geneticists say.
Cotton and Controversy
- Editorial, The Hindu (India), Nov 6, 2001. http://www.hinduonnet.com/stories/05062511.htm
The controversy over the planting of illicitly-manufactured genetically-modified (GM) cotton in Gujarat seems unlikely to subside in a hurry. While the Centre has issued a clear directive to the Gujarat Government to the effect that it destroy the pest- resistant Bt Cotton seeds and burn the fields, this is easier said than done. Agitated farmers, unimpressed with the Centre's sop that the cotton lint could be stored separately until a final decision is taken, are unlikely to take this lying down.
A section of the Gujarat Government, which is apparently reluctant to displease the GM cotton farmers, is reluctant to obey the Central diktat. The controversy has taken an unexpected legal twist with Navbharat Seeds - the company which manufactured the contentious seeds - claiming in a petition that its seeds were not genetically modified, but merely a hybrid variety. The Centre, of course, has strongly contested this as tests conducted on the seeds have revealed the presence of Cry 1 Ac, a gene derived from a soil bacterium and patented by the multinational agro-business giant Monsanto.
Is the illegal planting a cause for environmental alarm? In one sense, no. Bt Cotton accounts for over 30 per cent of the cotton produced in the United States, is commercially grown in countries as far-flung as China, Mexico, South Africa and Argentina over a spread of over 2 million hectares. An Indian variety of the product - developed by the seed company Mahyco, in which Monsanto has a minority stake - is undergoing large-scale field trials and is pending approval for commercialisation. The need to adopt a tough and uncompromising line against the planting of illicit GM cotton in Gujarat stems not so much from the ecological risk it poses but the imperative of signalling that illegal genetic manipulation simply will not be tolerated. Bio-engineering can be put to extraordinarily dangerous uses and the regulatory authorities must demonstrate that they will come down hard on any form of unauthorised or unregulated genetic modification.
The decision of compensating, and to what extent, the farmers, many of whom purchased the seeds without knowing they were genetically altered, is one for the Gujarat Government to make. But there can be no excuse for sparing Navbharat Seeds, if it is conclusively established that the cotton seeds it sold were transgenic.
At a larger level, it is time that the country adopted a clear and unambiguous attitude with respect to the biotechnology sector - particularly in agriculture. Today, biotech crops are grown in 15 countries over a spread of over 100 million acres, a 30-fold increase since 1996. Many other countries are poised to join this list and take the acreage much further. The potential of biotechnology to contribute to food security and the alleviation of hunger, as even the UNDP recently acknowledged, is something that can no longer be ignored.
While the Indian Government repeatedly professes its commitment to biotechnology, which it ostensibly sees as a sunrise sector, its actions do not match its words. Earlier this year, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), which met to commercially approve Mahyco's Bt Cotton, asked the company to conduct large-scale trials for another year. Incomplete agronomic data was cited as the principal reason for deferment - an extremely odd explanation since the GEAC was supposed to decide whether (or not) Mahyco's Bt Cotton was environmentally safe and not re-examine questions about its agronomic value.
Over the next few years, decisions with respect to other GM crops will have to be taken - a transgenic variety of mustard is expected to come up for approval next year. While other countries have adopted relatively clear- cut and unambiguous attitudes towards bio-agriculture - either for or against - India continues to appear confused and uncertain about how to exploit this technology.
Singh Throws Weight Behind Use of GM Crops
- Asia Times, Nov 1, 2001, http://atimes.com/ind-pak/CK01Df03.html
New Delhi - Amid controversy sparked by cotton grown in the western Indian state of Gujarat, Federal Agriculture Minister Ajit Singh said he favors the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops to increase productivity, but only after careful trials are held to prevent any impact on the environment or health.
"Genetically modified crops and modern scientific methods can do wonders in stepping up productivity. However, they should only be introduced after proper testing, to ensure there is no harmful effect on the environment, biodiversity and human health," Singh said in New Delhi.
While developed countries such as the United States are reaping the rewards of cultivating genetically modified crops, the fate of cotton grown by farmers in Gujarat is now uncertain because trials are still continuing, he said while inaugurating a seminar on agricultural extension services.
"Other countries are already using BT cotton, but we are still testing it," he noted, adding that science and technology have to play a much greater role in raising productivity.
Singh also said the country's targeted 4 percent growth would be difficult to achieve without enhanced allocation to the country's farming sector in the 10th Plan. Agriculture had for long been paid "lip service" and "we are allocating less money for agriculture in the 10th Plan than that provided in the 9th Plan though we intend to achieve 4 percent growth", Singh said.
The minister said that to enhance productivity and promote crop diversification, funds have to be pumped in for creation of infrastructure such as roads, cold storage, refrigerated transportation and marketing networks. "The corporate sector has to play a big role in providing these physical and knowledge infrastructure," he said, stressing the need for encouraging farmers to diversify into horticulture, floriculture, fishery and poultry from such traditional crops as wheat, rice and cereals.
Singh said the government has fixed higher support prices for scarce crops such as pulses, oilseeds and coarse cereals to raise their level of cultivation. Favoring contract farming to enable farmers to undertake high-cost farming, he said cooperatives must play a key role in providing farm inputs and marketing the produce.
In his keynote address at the seminar, noted scientist M S Swaminathan said the private sector can play a major role in setting up of computer-aided market information system and giving marketing support to agri-clinics and business centers.
Let Bt Cotton Grow
- The Newspaper Today, 02 November 2001, http://www.biotechknowledge.com/showlib.php3?uid=5946&country=india
As the air becomes crisp all over the great northern plains, a tiny little insect called the bollworm goes about its destructive business of chomping away at the blooming cotton bolls all across Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat. This year, as you might know, some desperate farmers in Gujarat, decided to plant Bt Cotton, a genetically engineered cotton seed: in its genome resides a strip of DNA from a bacterium that kills the bollworm.
The results were spectacular. The bollworms died when they tried to eat the cotton and yields grew by more than 50 per cent. That's the good part. But the fields planted with Bt Cotton will be destroyed if the Union ministry of environment has its way. Bt cotton, you see, is not officially cleared for use, despite five years of testing in which another government arm, the department of biotechnology, found no evidence of toxicity to animals and migration of the alien DNA to weeds and other plant species. While a flummoxed Gujarat government battles farmer resentment and prepares to pay compensation, India's cotton competitors -- mainly the U.S. and China -- are laughing all the way to their stockyard. Vast swathes of cotton areas in these two countries are witnessing dramatic yield increases after being planted with Bt Cotton.
Agricultural scientists estimate that Punjab's cotton farmers alone may have spent Rs 750 crore since last year on dangerous pesticides to kill the bollworm, which is increasingly getting resistant to the poison showered on it. About 60 per cent of India's total insecticide spray is used on cotton; of that 75 per cent is targeted at the boll worm. Worse, the indiscriminate use of pesticides will harm the quality of seed cotton and then the next-generation of cotton.
Pests and pesticides used against them have badly shaken up Indian agriculture. Insects eat nearly Rs 6,800 crore worth of crops and that results in a 20 per cent shortfall in total agricultural production. Moreover, pesticide poisoning is rampant in India. Many export shipments are rejected because of an overdose of pesticides. Numerous studies show how more than 70 per cent of vegetables and crops are soaked in poison. But the consumption of chemicals only grows by the year. The result is a massive resistance to pesticides.
The pesticide apocalypse came home in horrific fashion when 200 farmers in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra committed suicide between December and June 1998, their fields literally eaten by armies of super pests. Against super pests like these, transgenic crops are a great hope.
Conscious of dangers of transgenics--and there are clear dangers--the DBT has instituted one of the world's most exhaustive regulatory procedures. Even a government agency like IARI in 1997 was forced to destroy a transgenic brinjal crop that did not conform to safety procedure. But the point is that the DBT itself has now cleared Bt Cotton. And even though the farmers in Gujarat did illegally plant the cotton--much of that has to do with the government's incredible sloth in finishing tests on Bt cotton--it now makes little sense to track down every cotton seed and burn every boll. To do so would be small-minded, vindictive-and plain stupid. If the government is serious about addressing farmers' concerns, it should rather encourage Bt crops in regions outside Gujarat. The shrill, and often uninformed, voices raised against biogenetics should not be allowed to impose a blanket ban on all such technology. A case by case approach is necessary -- and every case where the technology is tried, tested and proven t
GMO Crops Here To Stay or Gone With The Wind?
- Peter Bohan, Reuters, November 5, 2001 (via Agnet)
Chicago - Consumer pressure will not, according to this story, force North and South American farmers to abandon genetically modified crops but it could blight the development of a new generation promising many medical or nutritional benefits.
Gerald Nelson, professor of agricultural economics at the University of Illinois and editor of "GMOs in Agriculture: Economics and Politics," a 300-page survey of the issues published this year, was quoted as saying, "I don't think there's any question of GMOs being here to stay. The question is whether we get beyond the initial wave of products like Bt (pest resistant) cotton or corn. I wouldn't bet a whole lot of money on that happening real soon."
The story says that consumers in Europe and parts of Asia, angered by what they see as products being foisted upon them without their consent, remain unconvinced. They have pushed for more testing, regulation, labelling and segregating or total bans. In the corporate sector even Monsanto, the company most loathed by biotech opponents, has now acknowledged a public relations disaster and pledged to turn over a new leaf.
Edward Groth, senior scientist at Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports and a leading consumer group in the United States, was quoted as saying, "There's a significant risk that the industry could still lose the credibility battle. We are sort of at the same point with GMO crops that we were with pesticides 50 years ago. They were going to solve all the farmers' problems and pests were going to be a thing of the past." The story goes on to say that in the food industry, the consumer is king. So the vocal protests from consumer groups have prompted costly food recalls and a tangle of trade and intellectual property disputes.
Yet, despite the storm, GMO use has not actually stalled. The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) was cited as estimating that GMO plantings globally in 2001 would reach 50 million hectares (124 million acres), up 10 percent from the previous year, adding that, "Despite the ongoing debate about GMO crops, particularly in countries of the European Union, millions of large and small farmers in both industrial and developing countries continue to increase their plantings of GMO crops." In 2001, plantings of GMO corn in the United States accounted for 24 percent of all corn acreage against 25 percent a year earlier. GMO soybean acreage rose to 63 percent from 54 percent and GMO cotton acreage rose to 64 percent from 61 percent.
The reason for the success of GMOs is economic. GMO soybean growers in the U.S. claim savings of $5 to $20 per acre (0.447 hectares) from reduced fuel and herbicide costs. U.S. cotton growers report better yields and lower pesticide use from Bt cotton, which contains an insect-resistant soil bacterium.
Such lessons are not lost on the developing world. Jacques Diouf, Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, was quoted as saying in May that, "It is now widely recognised that we are at a post-Green Revolution standstill and that yield ceilings of the main food crops have already been reached in conventional breeding programme. We must look to genetic engineering to help to move beyond these plateaux."
The story says that GMO research is advanced on canola, sweetcorn, raspberries, citrus and other crops that have an impact on rich consumers, but analysts say opportunities abound for researchers to score a victory by concentrating on the problems of developing countries. Some work is being done, with notable advances in GMO plants that have thrived in salty or low-nutrient soils. But many high-impact solutions, such as controlling the striga weed that cuts corn yields by half in southern Africa, still await GMOs, they say. Bruce Chassy, associate director of the biotechnology centre at the University of Illinois, was quoted as saying, "The companies are struggling like mad...to solve a developing country food problem. But you're stuck in a seven to 10-year development cycle. And none of the countries want to make a major blunder."
Information Systems For Biotechnology
ISB News Report; November 2001, http://www.isb.vt.edu
In This Issue:
- Evaluation Of US Biotechnology Regulatory Process
- New Zealand Government Outlines Policy On Genetic Modification
- Engineering A Shared Pathway To Salt And Drought Tolerance In Plants
- Tandem Gene Orientation Reduces Transcription Interference
- Potential Environmental Risks And Hazards Of Biotechnology
- Life Sciences And BiotechnologyˆA Strategic Vision For The European Union
- Upcoming Meetings
The PR Battle For Democracy: What NGOs Are All About - 02
- "Ross S. Irvine"
The PR industry had made a 'startling' discovery: NGOs are here to stay and they're powerful. In their eagerness to address this 'new' reality, PR folks are encouraging employers and clients to engage NGOs constructively. But by doing so, PR folks are weakening and threatening democracy.
Read: "The PR battle for democracy: What NGOs are all about."
'Public relations practitioners are waking up to the power, influence and pervasiveness of non-governmental organization's (NGOs). And, as they do so, they're encouraging their clients and employers to engage NGOs while preparing and implementing business and communications strategic plans. But what are the implications of doing so?
As Hon. Gary Jones notes above, NGOs regard themselves "as a new form of democracy." If this is the case, what does engaging NGOs mean to the future of democracy? Does it confer upon them a credibility, legitimacy and even authority which NGOs don't deserve or warrant in a democratic society? To take the matter even further, does cozying up to NGOs threaten democracy?'
AgBioView.....Selection from the Past....
'To Use Technology or Not To Use Technology - That Is The Question'
Barry Hearn, , May 5, 1999
Economically Viable Alternative Green Coordinator
As we follow the GM foods debate we are treated to wildly conflicting views, hair-raising claims of risk and consequence, and promises of a golden age of plenty. Most of the risk claims are fairly extravagant and refer to extreme hypotheticals - possible but highly unlikely. Some of the claimed need is also based on a premise of exploding population - something that recent trends now show to be nonsense since the 'population explosion' is demonstrably over and peak human population will occur sooner and be much lower than previously anticipated.
Is there an element of risk involved in bio-engineering? Of course there is. There is no such thing as an action without consequence. This is not to say that the emotive labelling as 'Franken-foods' is either justified or even close to accurate. Regardless of the technique involved, all cultivated and husbanded species have been modified by deliberate human action and have been since the dawn of agriculture. It matters little whether this has been achieved by selective breeding or hybridisation, deliberate mutation by nuclear irradiation as in the UN's rice cultivar project in China or, as in the technique under discussion, by specific gene splicing, everything that we consume (other than harvested wild stocks such as fish) is 'modified food'. It does not seem that this is necessarily a problem since human lifespans are increasing while, at least in the First World, aging diseases such as cancer are either static or declining (with the exception of substance abuse induced incidence such as tobacco smoking o
Do we desperately need bio-engineered foodstuffs to feed the world? Well, no, we don't, there are always alternatives. The world's population will get larger yet and there are still a significant number of people who are below adequate daily calorie provision so we do need to increase food production. This can be done by 'conventional' means, we can use enough fertilisers and plough-down a bit more wildland and we can use enough chemicals to suppress insect predation to the point where we can provide sufficient calories for everyone regardless of human population. But is this the most desirable or even the most ethical solution? Given human nervousness over chemical exposure is it even the least risk course? Environmentally, is this a responsible or ethical course?
Can biotechnology deliver any of the promised gains? It can certainly deliver some of them. Humanity utilises about 4.5b hectares (6 million square miles) for agriculture. Two Mexican researchers have inserted a gene to let crop plants secrete citric acid from their roots. This allows them to tolerate the aluminium toxicity which currently cuts crop yields by up to 80 per cent on 30-40 per cent of the world's arable land. Suppose that just this one technique reduces crop losses by half (therefore trebling the production) on one-third of the world's agricultural land. Do we need that much additional food? No, we don't. So what will happen? More marginal areas, the least economically farmed, will be abandoned to return to wildlands - wildlife habitat in other words. This will involve some (significant) social disruption certainlybut it will also be the most significant conservation act in human history. This is the potential from just one bio-engineering feat, not counting myriad potential yield increases, la
There appears good potential for this technology to assist greatly in the provision of adequate, affordable nutrient to all of our world's human population. To do so while returning possibly 1.5b hectares (2m square miles) of agricultural land to wildland over the next 50-100 years and so greatly reducing pressure on habitat and biodiversity is a prize beyond the wildest dreams of conservationists.
There are risks and uncertainties in biotechnology. There is also potential for huge social and environmental gain. The decision to undertake any course of action is always a measured balance of perceived risk against potential gain. There is always a 'something' that might go wrong. Is the potential to return one-third or even more of the world's agricultural land to wildland worth risking an unknown 'something'?
We say it is.
Keeping The Faith: British Scientists Are Among The Best - But Least Trusted - In The World
- Joe Plomin The Guardian, November 06, 2001
The chancellor will feel uncomfortable about some of the messages coming from the government's new chief scientific adviser, Professor David King, particularly when he starts calling for more cash and more freedom for British scientists. Not only do researchers not get enough funding, scientists have become so tied into British business that basic scientific research is losing out, according to Professor King, who is charged with providing evidence-based advice on all ministerial decisions that involve science.
"Working with industry is important, but the danger is that we have strayed over that mark and have not got enough general research following scientists' own interests. The biggest industrial spin-offs are from blue skies research, from long-term research," he says. "For every Dollars 100 investment in research there is a perpetual return of Dollars 30 [a year]. A perpetual return. I would suggest that we need to think about that."
Although many other scientists share his concerns, Professor King's views conflict with those of the government he is serving. In the last month, the Department for Trade and Industry has announced tens of millions of pounds of investment to promote research that directly ties into the needs of business. The chancellor and the prime minister have both stressed that the "knowledge economy" depends on exploiting scientific research. Vice chancellors are stepping over each other in their eagerness to prove how useful their research is to society, to fit in with what the Treasury wants.
But Professor King is unrepentant. "I have been trying to demonstrate that I have an independent voice and am not just giving advice that is politically expedient. I would never take a decision on a political basis. If I ever did, I would instantly lose my credibility as a scientist," he said. His battle cry of "save blue-skies research" is hardly a new preoccupation. An old PhD student of his said that decades ago he was arguing the same case while working at Cambridge University.
Professor King does admit that his concern to maintain basic research stems from his time as Cambridge's head of chemistry. That department now leads the EU effort to monitor ozone depletion. The reason is that 40 years ago it was doing non-commercial studies into CFCs before anyone realised they had an impact on the atmosphere. It is a lesson that has clearly stuck with him. His call for basic research follows years that have not done the perception of British science much good - and recent months that have tarnished its image even more thoroughly. Although he insists science in Britain is still the best in the world, public trust has hardly been helped by the recent blunder over cow and sheep brains.
To compensate, Professor King is blunt about the scientists at the Scottish Institute of Animal Health, who spent five years trying to find out whether sheep can get BSE - only to realise they were testing cows' brains. "I am not going to make any excuses for what happened. It was a dreadful cock-up. I was the one that started the work on the genetic test of the research material. It seemed obvious that what we needed was a DNA test. But I could not believe their results, I saw a test saying that there is no bovine material. I cannot give another example of a scientific test that was negative to such an extent. I honestly cannot think of one," he said.
"I have spoken to scientists around Europe and in France and Germany. They have seen it as, 'what is British science up to?' I don't think it has done our credibility a lot of good." The brains blunder was just the latest in a series of crises that King has faced while starting his new job; they include BSE, foot and mouth, anthrax and a host of other concerns that he hints darkly we do not even know about. But the one time he refuses to agree that anything went wrong is over the moment in early summer when the government changed its policy on culling animals in contiguous fields during the foot and mouth epidemic.
He maintains that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food deliberately changed its policy early this summer so that animals on farms neighbouring those with foot and mouth outbreaks could survive - as long as they were more than 50 metres away. It was not, he emphasises, because of one sad-looking little calf called Phoenix.
Professor King said that he was upset when he got back to the hotel and discovered that the media were claiming the government had changed policy not because of good scientific evidence, but because they could not face up to killing another cow.
In retrospect, Phoenix will have been the first of a series of crises that always seem to punctuate a chief scientific adviser's time in office. But his main task, he says, is not just crisis management; public faith in science has to be rebuilt. People have to be able to trust clinical tests absolutely and believe what scientists tell them. Not unqualified trust, though. Professor King wants a cynical modern belief. He says that the only way that people are going to trust scientists again is if they feel that they are being told everything and that their opinion counts. "We have seen a transition from a time when a scientist would have been respected automatically. Now people are questioning that authority. We have to acknowledge that the lay person has a major part to play in the decision."
Genetic modification is a sign of things to come. People were right to ask why they should be eating new organisms, he believes, because perception of risk is still a real risk - one that scientists have to study and, if possible, disprove.
Which means that genetically modified foods will be back and will even be popular, as long as you accept that the public is rational and that science will one day prove that third- or fourth-generation GM products have been rigorously tested and are safe.
But his mantra is not all just about what scientists need to do. They need to talk to the public, but the average person also needs to remember that British scientists are some of the best in the world. "We have 1% of the world's population but get 9% of the world's citations in academic journals. We make a massive contribution and are second only to the United States. But our investment level is far too low, we need investment if this plant [British science] is going to grow in every way."
Patents or Poverty? A New Debate Over Poor AIDS Care in Africa
- Donald G. Mcneil Jr., The New York Times, Nov 5, 2001, http://www.nytimes.com
PARIS, Nov. 4: A new debate has erupted over the epidemic of AIDS in Africa, about whether it is patents or poverty that is primarily responsible for the widespread lack of treatment. The issue has become a major bone of contention as the World Trade Organization prepares to discuss new rules on patents at its summit in Qatar this week.
Professors of medicine, law and economics, who for the most part consider themselves advocates of the poor, are attacking each other over an issue raised by a study published Oct. 17 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study addresses a simple question: how many of the 15 recognized antiretroviral drugs for treating AIDS have been patented by their makers in how many of Africa's 53 countries?
It calculates that only 22 percent of the 795 patents theoretically available across Africa have been awarded, in most cases because the companies that own the patents have not bothered to apply. And yet, everyone acknowledges that anti-retroviral drugs are still too expensive to be widely obtainable in Africa at prices people can afford.
To the drug companies, this situation suggests that patents are not responsible for holding up prices. If it is not patents, they say, it must be poverty that stands in the way of treatment. The authors of the study are Dr. Amir Attaran, director of international health research at Harvard University's Center for International Development, and Lee Gillespie- White, the director of the International Intellectual Property Institute. In the study, Dr. Attaran draws the conclusion that poverty is the main deterrent to treatment.
It is that conclusion, more than the data, that has infuriated advocates of cheaper drugs, who say that Dr. Attaran, an immunologist and a lawyer, ignores the three-year fight that has driven the price of antiretroviral cocktails in Africa down to $350 a year from $10,000 a year.
His critics say he underplays two crucial facts in the drop in prices of patented drugs: that the drugs most aggressively patented are drug cocktails made by the makers of generic drugs in India; and that it is the richer African countries, or those in which many of the Indian companies have offices, that most of the patents have been taken out. Meanwhile, the study is being used by pharmaceutical companies to support the view that it is not their fault that millions of Africans are dying of AIDS.
The industry and sympathetic trade officials in the Bush administration are citing the study as they try to beat back efforts by 60 poor nations to get the World Trade Organization's permission to ignore patents during health crises. The World Trade Organization is under intense pressure as its Nov. 9 meeting in Doha, Qatar, approaches. A coalition of 60 nations calling itself the "Africa Group" wants new rules affirming that patents may be negated to protect public health, and that countries too poor to set up their own drug factories may import medicine. The leading drug companies and the United States, Japan and Switzerland oppose those proposals. The United States has instead suggested a moratorium on patent-enforcement suits in Africa's poorest countries.
AIDS activists accuse Dr. Attaran of tailoring and timing his study to serve the drug industry and say his co-author's institution is part of the drug lobby. Dr. Attaran, calling the tone of the attacks "sickening," said he published with Ms. Gillespie-White because she was doing an identical survey. He said he did not receive any money from drug companies and that his data was only "a narrow case study of one drug category in Africa in 2001."
Patents, he acknowledged, might have been a barrier two years ago, and still affect prices in some countries, like South Africa and Brazil. "If people go beyond my interpretations, what am I supposed to do?" he asked. Nowadays, he said, patents in Africa are generally not holding up prices because patentholders are offering cheap or free drugs or are choosing not to sue makers of generic rivals. Groups fighting for lower drug prices reply that the big companies routinely choose not to conduct research on tropical diseases, focusing instead on problems like obesity and impotence for which there is a more lucrative market.
They add that the companies lower their prices only when threatened, as happened in the case of Bayer's Cipro, used to treat anthrax. Dr. Attaran's boss, Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Center for International Development at Harvard, supports Dr. Attaran's study, and argues that the tight-fistedness of rich countries and the failure of governments like South Africa's to pursue antiretroviral drugs aggressively are the main reasons affordable AIDS drugs are not widely available in poor nations Mr. Sachs said that patentholders can be encouraged to offer discounts and to accept generic competition.
From: Tom DeGregori
I enjoyed the New York Times piece on your recent research. As someone who has been working with governments in Africa and Asia on issues of intellectual property rights and WTO, I wholeheartedly agree with your analysis that patents are not the major problem. I have been advising governments on the use of emergency provisions for compulsory licensing and indicating that the US has often used it including during World War I opening the German patents that laid the foundation for the US Chemical industry. As I point out to them, you can't open the patents for drugs that don't exist so research and development are critical and have to be paid for and science and technology have to be supported, one way or another.
As AgBioView has been stressing on issues of food production, poor countries need scientific and technological research on developing country problems. In a book that I edited, Poverty Policy in Developing Countries, I have an article by D.A. Hendderson and another by two health experts from USAID on the paucity of research on developing country health needs. Most of those who are criticizing your report are among those who are most vociferously anti-science and anti-technology and therefore opposed to the policies that could actually make a significant difference in the health of poorer people in the way that what little research that has been done (on heat stabile vaccines) has already contributed to Third World well being.
Keep up the good work!