Today in AgBioView
* Europeans Slowly Accepting Biotech Food, Official Says
* Europe Optimistic About Biotech: Italian Survey
* Showcasing Bt Cotton: Just Can't Tell It From Non-Bt Type
* Security Pushes Greenpeace Protesters Outside Congress in Brazil
* Correspondence with David Suzuki
* The Bioethics Imperative
* Ecoagriculture - Nobel Laureate Arias Speaks Up
* Let's Cut The Talk
* GM Foods Far Safer Than Organic Plants
* Concerted Efforts at Communicating Biotech Highlighted in India
* Biotech & Development: A balance between IPR protection and benefit-sharing
* Genetic Pollution- Pollan Strikes Again
* Precautionary Principle - And Again!
Europeans Slowly Accepting Biotech Food, Official Says
- Sharon Schmickle , Star Tribune, Dec 8 2001
European consumers are likely to accept some of the biotech food products that they have vehemently rejected in recent years, but the change in attitude will come slowly, an administrator for the European Commission said Friday in Minneapolis. "I am sure there will be consumer interest in these products, particularly if they are cheaper," said Kim Madsen, administrator for the Commissions' health and consumer protection division.
Madsen and other Europeans were in Minneapolis for a workshop on agricultural biotechnology sponsored by the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Participants included farmers and representatives of interest groups from both sides of the Atlantic. Karl-Heinrich Niehoff, a farmer from Gutshof, Germany, said that most farmers in his country believe that genetically modified (GM) crops could help cut production costs and improve Europe's competitive standing in world agriculture markets. But they also worry that any gains could be quickly lost without consumer acceptance: "It could be that we would produce this and have no market."
The key to European acceptance -- and to ending the transatlantic food fight that has pitted U.S. agriculture against European biotech foes -- is labeling foods so that consumers will have a choice, said Europeans at the meeting. The European Commission proposed new rules this year for labeling foods and feed made from such crops as corn, soybeans, tomatos, potatoes, canola, sugar beets and squash. Officials also are moving to end a freeze imposed in 1998 on some genetically modified crop varieties.
The proposed rules call for genetically modified food and feed to be labeled as such: Labels would be required even in cases where tests cannot measure a difference from conventional fare such as oils in which the refining process breaks down the DNA and proteins associated with inserted genes.
To police the system, the proposal calls for tracing and documenting every ingredient from farm to supermarket. Madsen said that a good share of the tracing system already has been created because consumers demanded more information about the origins and safety of their food. No such labeling requirement exists in the United States. Farm groups, genetically modified seed makers and food processors have argued that because studies have found no unusual risks in the foods, there is no reason to warn consumers and no justification for sorting and labeling costs. The counter argument is that consumers have a right to choose whether to eat the foods regardless of the risk.
European consumers have been adamant in their demand for labels. Their resistance has been softening as studies find no evidence that the crops pose a threat to food safety or the environment. Still, consumer suspicion runs deep. Unless an "irrational fear" of the foods is calmed, "GM is dead in Europe," David Byrne, the European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection said in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in October.
Madsen said the European Parliament is expected to begin considering the proposed rules in January but it could be more than a year before final rules are adopted.
Europe Optimistic About Biotech: Italian Survey
Following are the results of a survey of professionals in 15 countries from Dr. G. Vittadello of Centro Studi l'Uomo e l'Ambiente Via delle Palme 13 - 35137 Padova in Italy. http://www.scienzaegoverno.com :
A mounting debate exists between those who believe that the European Union is on the verge of withdrawing its moratorium on planting of GM crops and those who anticipate yet another lengthy extension of the moratorium.
In your opinion: a) The political climate is more or less favourable than one year ago to the withdrawal of the moratorium?
More: 66% Less: 34%
If possible, cite an important political event that has influenced the field? Answer: Novel Directive and public debate.
b) The scientific evidence accumulated in this year has made withdrawal of the moratorium more or less likely?
More: 79% Less: 17% No answer: 4%
If possible, cite an important scientific event that has influenced the field? Answer: Lack of evidence for risk.
c) Overall, are you more or less favourable than a year ago to the possible withdrawal of the moratorium?
More: 71% Less: 17% No answer: 12%
d) Do you think withdrawal or maintenance of the European moratorium will have an impact:
Only in Europe: 0 In Europe and the US: 4% Worldwide: 96%
Any particular consequences you can foresee in one case or the other? Answer: Effects on Developing Countries ...
Showcasing Bt Cotton: Just Can't Tell It From Non-Bt Type
- Pallava Bagla, Indian Express, Dec 10, 2001
UTWAD (MAHARASHTRA): The private company conducting official trials of genetically-modified cotton decided to showcase their product, side-stepping the regulatory authority's mandate not to display the crop or reveal the data on this ultra variety before it gets government approval. This is for the very first time that either the government or the private company has ever allowed access to journalists to what many consider the most controversial agricultural technology being unleashed on the unsuspecting Indian farmer after the introduction of dwarf varieties.
For the last three years, the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Ltd (MAHYCO), Mumbai, has been conducting field trials of genetically-modified cotton and it claimed to have recorded 30-40 per cent increase in yield. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has asked MAHYCO to conduct large-scale trials all over the cotton growing areas of India. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, India annually loses over 1300 crore ($300 million) worth of cotton to the insect pests like the American Bollworm which have taken an undue liking for the cotton varieties being grown in India. The genetically-modified cotton variety has been transformed into being a mini pesticide factory itself. Whenever the Bollworm bites into the Bt cotton, it is literally committing suicide as the toxin produced by the plant instantly kills it.
Having conducted experiments on over 182 hectares all over India over 3 years, scientists from MAHYCO have concluded that ''on an average 70-80 per cent reduction in insecticide sprays was seen on the Bt cotton crop with there being no difference in the fibre quality'' and that farmers can accrue economic benefit of about Rs 4000-5000 (~ $100) per acre from it. Monsanto, which holds a patent on the Bt cotton, has a 27 per cent stake in MAHYCO, the largest seed company in India with an annual revenue of Rs 140 crore (~ $35 million). In 1996, MAHYCO officially imported 100 grams of this proprietary seed into India.
Dr. M. K. Sharma, general manager of MAHYCO, says: ''The experiment is coming to an end by the middle of December and early next year the data will be collated and taken to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee of the Ministry, hoping to win approval since the data has been generated exactly on the stipulated guidelines of the regulatory authority.'' MAHYCO claimed it has already invested about Rs 32 crores ($8 million) on researching and officially testing this Bt cotton variety. If the approval comes well in time in 2002, MAHYCO will be well placed to supply Bt cotton seeds for 6000 hectares.
From: "Andrew Apel"
Subject: When Activists Attack
Security Push Greenpeace Protesters Back Outside Congress in Brazil
Mon, Dec 10 09:57 AM
Congressional security officers push Greenpeace demonstrators back into the reflecting pool in front of the Congress in Brasilia, December 10, 2001. Greenpeace was protesting against legislation due to be voted upon by Congress that would allow genetically-modified foods into Brazil. Their sign, in the shape of a huge plate, reads: “No genetically-modified foods on my plate.” Photo at http://news.excite.com/photo/img/r/brazil/greenpeace/20011210/bsb02d
From: "Kevin Gellatly"
Subject: Correspondence with David Suzuki
AgBioView readers may be interested to read the correspondence between David Dennis, President of Performance Plants Inc., and David Suzuki at
- Cheers , Dr. Kevin Gellatly, Performance Plants Inc. Saskatoon, Canada
The Bioethics Imperative
- Dina Mandoli, ASPB News, September/October 2001 http://www.aspb.org/membersinaction/mandoli3.cfm
University of Washington, Seattle; firstname.lastname@example.org
Scenario: You meet a woman in a grocery store holding a new baby. You admire the baby. You chat a while and she asks what you do. She then confides that she is worried about the effects of genetically modified organisms on her child's health. She asks you, as a scientist, to remove all the food from her basket that has been genetically modified. Oh, and please take out anything that contains a mutation, too.
Unfortunately, this scenario happened to me. . . . My mind raced as I broke into a squirmy sweat, and I thought to myself: In which century did mankind begin to modify food? Do I subject this hapless woman to a long diatribe about the Fertile Crescent or the breeding of maize in pre-Incan civilization? Where do I myself draw the line between "genetically modified" a la the Greens and traditional breeding?
And oh boy, what do I tell her about mutations in her food sources, possible mutations in her own body and in that of her child?! I stood there looking at the corn in her basket, thinking that over half this genome are transposons, viruses that can cause mutations and cancer!
I talked to myself. "Okay, Dina, think out the options." Option 1: I initiate a long conversation that must not turn into a lecture lest I be dismissed as a snob and lose my audience. Option 2: I trivialize the process and say, "Trrrrust me, Hy'm a scientist." Where the perils of the former are evident, the ethics of the latter are dubious.
As I wove my way through the conversation about food and genes and mutations good-and-evil, it dawned on me that the real danger is that this could quickly become personal. Far from being remote and esoteric, as I once thought ethical issues were, issues such as this one touch our lives everyday if we think about them.
"So, you seen Ellen, these are not simple choices, even for me" I wound up saying. "Oh well, I trust you," she smiled. "You chose for me." Inwardly, I groaned. The clerk was waiting for me to choose what this woman and child are going to eat. In the end, the mother and baby left happy, and I scooted home with a sigh of relief.
Later on, I reflected on the core of the problem: Societal evolution has not kept pace with technological change. These things have been "mokita" for too long. The result? We have a long way to go before students in class no longer ask, "If I eat corn with all those transposons in it, will I get cancer?"
See http://www.aspb.org/membersinaction/bioethics.cfm for additional supporting materials and to read other issues of the Bioethics Imperative featured in issues of the ASPB News.
Oscar Arias, Future Harvest, 9 December 2001 Original article appeared in Folha de Sao Paulo, Brazil http://www.futureharvest.org.
'Oscar Arias Sanchez, 61, Nobel Peace Laureate 1987, is an ambassador for the organization Future Harvest. He is a former President of Costa Rica.'
'Instead of working against each other, farmers and environmentalists work together to find farming methods that both produce more food and preserve the environment.'
The environment ministers of the nations of the Caribbean and Latin America gathered in Rio de Janeiro recently to discuss an agenda for the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development. A major theme of next year's World Summit in Johannesburg-also known as Rio + 10-will be the critical issue of poverty in conjunction with conservation. Where poor and hungry people have few options other than to encroach on the environment for a day's pay, conservation efforts will be stymied. This issue must be as familiar to Brazilians as it is to Costa Ricans: the need for more food and better livelihoods continue to sidetrack conservation efforts worldwide.
There is another way. A recent report identifies a new approach emerging around the world, which scientists call "ecoagriculture." Instead of working against each other, farmers and environmentalists work together to find farming methods that both produce more food and preserve the environment. From grazing lands to coffee plantations to rice paddies, farmers and scientists are finding ways to preserve biodiversity within largely agricultural landscapes. As environment ministers continue to meet about Rio + 10, they would be wise to examine this groundbreaking approach to conservation.
The report-a joint effort by Future Harvest, a global nonprofit organization that promotes research in agriculture and the environment, and IUCN-The World Conservation Union-brought together agricultural and environmental scientists to provide for the first time a comprehensive summary of the interactions between wild biodiversity and agriculture around the world. Entitled Common Ground, Common Future, the report points out that the most popular approach to protecting wildlife has been to fence off large areas for preservation where farming is restricted. This approach makes sense at one level, and debt-for-nature swaps were a priority for my administration in Costa Rica.
However, research shows that nature reserves alone will not solve the problem, as endangered species and hungry humans often occupy the same land. The effectiveness of reserves depends greatly on whether the uses of surrounding lands support conservation objectives. Moreover, almost half the world's major nature reserves are now being heavily used for agriculture.
Indeed, the need for more food-and more farming-is urgent and growing in the developing world. More than 1.1 billion people live within the 25 most threatened, species-rich areas of the world-dubbed "biodiversity hotspots" by scientists. The majority of these hotspots are also areas with very high malnutrition rates. In many of them, the human population is growing more rapidly than in the world as a whole.
Clearly, the answer to biodiversity conservation cannot be to stop growing food. Nor is it to keep farming the old way. The Future Harvest report cites six ways in which farmers can change their agricultural practices.
These strategies include: establish networks of wildlife habitat in non-farmed areas and connect these with larger protected areas; integrate perennial plants into farming systems to mimic natural habitats such as forests and savannas; deploy farming methods that reduce pollution; increase agricultural productivity on lands already being farmed to reduce further conversion of land to agriculture; modify soil, water, and vegetation management in crop fields and other productive areas to enhance their value as wildlife habitat; and establish protected areas near farmlands, ranches, and fisheries that also benefit local people.
Case studies are found around the world, where these strategies are being used successfully to produce more food while also protecting endangered species. One example comes from Brazil's Mata Atlantica, home to lion tamarin monkeys found no where else in the world, as well as hundreds of bird species and rich flora. As a result of five centuries of population growth and land clearing, only seven percent of the original forest remains. Today, small-scale dairy farming is one of the most important economic activities in the area, but the practice has put farmers at odds with conservationists because the cattle require ever-expanding areas for pasture.
Since the mid-1990's, the non-governmental organization Pro-Natura has provided technical assistance to poor dairy farmers to improve farm productivity; in exchange, the farmers are helping to reforest and regenerate part of their land. Farmers saw their milk yields triple and their incomes double. With the increase in productivity, farmers have reduced the area devoted to pasture. More than 60 hectares of pasture on 16 farms have already been converted back to forest. In addition, more than 50,000 seedlings have been planted on farms and in rural communities.
Shifting to ecoagriculture on a large scale will require a change in mindset for many farmers, environmentalists, and policymakers who have often been at odds. However, the payoff is great. Environment ministers in Brazil and across South and Central America should examine this new approach to growing food to help solve an important dilemma that has dogged conservation efforts for decades. It offers hope that humans and wildlife can share common ground and prosper in a common future.
Let's Cut The Talk
- Raz Cohen, Financial Mail (South Africa), Dec 7, 2001
In a recent meeting supposed to discuss the promotion of this industry, the focus shifted to sociopolitical and other issues, such as the ethics of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Instead of concentrating on constructive suggestions on how to grow a truly competitive industry, it was reduced to a meaningless theoretical exercise. South Africa and the life science and biotech industry would be better served if role-players focused on finding competitive niches. South Africa does have scientific excellence in this field. Our life science industry should not be much different from Israel's. While SA may not match Israel's academic resources, it can find niches in which it can excel. Israel is managing to transform science fiction into science dollars and cents. In SA, it seems, there is greater propensity for fiction than for science and commercial sense. Let's talk less and do more for the industry.
GM Foods Far Safer Than Organic Plants
- Jasper Gerard , Sunday Times (UK), Dec 9 2001
As allergies sprout to ordinary plants - ranging from wheat to kiwi fruit to peanuts - a report suggests that elaborate tests applied to GM foods make them far safer than organic plants. The study, by Professor Vivian Moses of King's College, London, draws on the results of 150 research projects.
I'm sure the old boy is right, but it is going to take a lot more than facts to stop us heading straight for the supermarket organic range. Those nasty men from Monsanto were right and genetically modified food is safer for you after all.
Concerted Efforts at Communicating Biotech Highlighted in India
- AgBioView, http://www.agbioworld.org/
The Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group (CAG) in conjunction with the Consumers International - Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific (CI-ROAP), Malaysia organized a two day seminar in Chennai, India during December 7-8, 2001 which was well attended and had good coverage in the Indian press.
Dr. Gurumurti Natarajan of GREENTHUMB, Chennai, a plant breeder and trained in molecular biology, presented a talk on "Modern Technologies to Improve Food Production" and highlighted the case for r-DNA technology as a tool to aid and assist classical plant breeding in improving production and productivity at the farm. He made out a detailed case for adopting this modern technology which has proved to be a success in addressing four issues in the area of agricultural biotechnology, namely, reduction in the use of pesticides, increase in agricultural productivity, introduction of novel traits in plant products and promotion of environmental sustainability, in the backdrop of need for producing more food to an ever increasing population in the developing world.
Adverting to the fact that whereas any number of naturally occurring foods produce allergenic reactions among some people (popular examples being cow's milk, cheese and other products, fenugreek, asafoetida, etc. - all naturally occurring products) yet do not carry labels of their potential allergenicity and whereas every food derived from a genetically altered event was tested rigorously employing the best of science and further corroborated by national laboratories in several countries before being certified fit for human or animal consumption, Natarajan made out a case for a high level of confidence in these foods. Referring to the recent publication of the European Commission's study on safety of genetically modified organisms, he exhorted the 'fence sitters' to go home and sleep in peace that their world of GMO was a safe place to live in!
The lively debate that ensued brought out great clarity on a host of topics including questions on Pustzai's badly conducted experiment and the misleading communication that followed on the putative ill effects of Bt-corn pollen on the monarch butterfly; the poor science in the recent communication of escape of transgenes in to the native populations of Mexican corn, and the need to think through the implications of the demand for labelling by activist groups: the science and technology that needs to be developed to make the sampling and testing accurate, the capital and recurring investments needed to get the labs set up and going, the training of personnel to run them efficiently, the legal frame work to ensure that it works, the administrative set up required to monitor, evaluate and upgrade it as science progresses and eventually the issue on cost and who will bear it? The farmer can not be asked to foot the bill for he can ill-afford it; the purveyor will not touch it with a barge pole because it will
Natarajan also lamented the ignorance among the educated masses in the country despite the raging Bt-Cotton controversy in the popular press. It is the poor farmers that are left in the lurch torn between squabbles of administrators and lobby groups amidst the din in the popular press. The apathy among the common man for whom such issues of cutting edge science, increase in food grains, achieving food security and cleaner environment are debated needs to be addressed seriously, he cautioned. "Obviously, more needs to be done".
Natarajan also told the audience that for any one to reasonably succeed in the ongoing biotech debate, India as the largest consumer base of 500 million middle class population with a multi billion dollar purchasing power and an economy still governed by agriculture, has to be carried with the main street.
Any complacency or apathy in this regard will not only boomerang on all future prospects of success with this much needed technology within the country but also have a telling domino effect on other Asian economies that look to a large nation as India to be the trend setter.
In conclusion, he made a clarion call by saying "We owe it to ourselves and to our society to disseminate the science behind the technological innovations in small doses and equally respond to every opportunity at demystifying the malevolence being perpetuated by rhetoric and anti-technology campaigns of the extreme groups."
"India remains a Flash Point on this raging controversy of biotechnology and this situation needs to be addressed in every possible forum in a well chartered agenda. Everyone has a role to play ...especially the scientists, academics and the companies must remember that science has no value to the man on the street unless it gets transformed into a well accepted product no matter what its intrinsic worth might be". The extreme groups are working overtime churning out non-science and malevolent rhetoric because it pays to do so (for them). Alas humanity will be the loser if this trend is not seriously debated and duly reversed. "let science be the basis of all debates and yardstick of determining what is good for us", Natarajan exhorted the group.
Biotechnology and Development: A balance between IPR protection and benefit-sharing
- Jan Wendt and Juan Izquierdo, Electronic Journal of Biotechnology. Full Text at http://ejb.ucv.cl/content/vol4/issue3/issues/01/index.html
In the IVth Century B.C. Aristoteles presented moral and philosophical arguments to reward inventors for their innovations. Since then and until the industrial revolution in Europe, only Philosophers dealt with these issues. With the industrial boom in the 19th century in Europe the need arose to protect inventions from being copied and thus ensure that the investment in innovations would be rewarded. On the other hand, there is a need to disclose innovations to the public to promote/facilitate further development based on existing innovations (Tansey, 1999). To ensure the both aspects of innovation (protection and publication) a legal protection, an Industrial or Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) system was created. During that time, the legislations on IPRs were designed to protect only industrial products since agricultural innovations did not play such an important role.
In the beginning of the XXth agricultural innovation gained importance and consequently its protection but the mechanisms developed by then for this purpose (patents), were not appropriate to protect new plant varieties, basically for three reasons. First, one of the requisites to obtain a patent is, that the invention should really incorporate an inventive step (non-obviousness) what does not apply to new plant varieties created by selection and crossing of already existing varieties. Second, a patent requires an exact description of the innovation and the process to obtain it.
This resulted not only difficult but, in most cases impossible. However a pure publication of the description of the material, in contrast to industrial innovations, is of no use for further investigation – the protected variety must be physically available. Third, patent protection was considered to be too strong for new varieties and thus hinder a more dynamic development of the agricultural sector since there are traditional and accepted rights and habits of farmers as for instance the saving, re-use and exchange of seeds which are restricted under patent protection.
To overcome the above mentioned constraints, a new concept to protect plant varieties, the Plant Breeders Rights (PBRs) system, was designed. This concept proved to fulfill its purpose and was developed further resulting in the most advanced mechanism to protect new varieties nowadays - the 1991 Act of the UPOV Convention.
In the last 15 years, biotechnology applications in agriculture boomed enormously, which also looked for protection of IPRs for its innovations and did surely find it in the patent protection system. With the globalization and the aperture of the market new problems are arising in respect of the protection of innovations. Before the era of the globalization the flow and therefore the protection of new technologies was limited to industrialized countries, nowadays there is a strong need for a global and multilateral protection of those innovations. As the result in April 1994 the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) was signed and came into force January 1st , 1995. The most relevant article in respect to agricultural innovations of the mentioned agreement is the Article 27, which defines patentable subject matter and possible exclusions from patentability.
TRIPs oblige to provide patents to all products and processess that are new, involve an inventive step and are capable of industrial application. However, governments are allowed to exclude from patentability plants, animals and essentially biological processes for their production. In the case of plant varieties, however, governments are obliged to protect them by patents, "an effective sui generis system” or a combination thereof. Microorganisms and microbiological processes are explicitly not allowed for exclusion from patentability. Nevertheless, the lack of definitions leaves the interpretation of the terms used in this article to national legislation.
Apart from protecting innovations, the access to genetic resources is another basic aspect affecting biotechnology as new tool for the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. This topic came up on the international agenda in the early eighties, as it became clear that the (agro) biodiversity is rapidly decreasing and a strong need was felt for conservation and sustainable use. The FAO International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources (IU), approved in 1983, was the first important international intent to recognize the rights of farmers derived from their contribution to conserve and develop agrobiodiversity and the implementation of these rights.
It is expected that in November this year the IU will be approved, becoming a binding agreement and, for the first time the Farmer’s Rights and the need for fair and equitable benefit-sharing mechanisms for the use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture are recognized and granted (Reuters, 2001). Although respect to the access to plant genetic resources the IU is supposed to be a great success there are still some important points left for negotiation. So for instance the Article 13.3 (d) which refers to IPRs and the list of crops covered under the multilateral system for facilitated access. Particularly the EU member states are "very disappointed" about the fact "... that crops of mayor importance[i] to world food security... are not included on the list" (Statement by the EU member states at time of the adoption of the text of the IU).
In December 29, 1993 the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD) whose objectives are the protection, conservation and the sustainable use of genetic resources and related knowledge entered into force and since than 178 countries (not including the United states) have ratified the agreement. Both agreements (CBD and IU) assign to national governments the responsibility to regulate the access to genetic resources and to create mechanisms to reward those who traditionally use, conserve and develop these resources which are the source of all modern, mostly biotechnological products protected by already established IPR legislation.
After having described the international framework for IPR related to genetic resources and the access to these resources, difficult question arises: How governments apply these concepts at national level in Latin America and the Caribbean? How do they get the balance right between protection of IPRs of innovations, access to genetic resources and the fair distribution of benefits? Answering to these questions and at the same time, pointing out the main practical problems of the implementation of the mentioned concepts, require an analysis of the previous and on-going Latin American experiences. ......
See Full Text at http://ejb.ucv.cl/content/vol4/issue3/issues/01/index.html
- Michael Pollan, The New York Times, December 9, 2001
The way we think about and deal with pollution has, according to Pollan, always been governed by the straightforward rules of chemistry. You clean the stuff up or let it fade with time. But, asks Pollan, what do you do about a form of pollution that behaves instead according to the rules of biology? Such a pollutant would have the ability to copy itself over and over again, so that its impact on the environment would increase with time rather than diminish. Now you're talking about a problem with, quite literally, a life of its own.
This year, the idea of genetic pollution - the idea, that is, that the genes of genetically modified organisms might end up in places we didn't want them to go - became a reality. In September the Mexican government announced that genes engineered into corn had somehow found their way into ancient maize varieties grown there - this despite the fact that genetically modified corn seed has not been approved for sale in Mexico. The country where corn was probably first domesticated, Mexico is today the source of the crop's greatest genetic diversity. Now that diversity could well be threatened. Companies like Monsanto have long acknowledged that their engineered genes ("transgenes") might on rare occasions "flow" by means of cross-pollination from one of their crops into neighboring plants. But because sex in nature takes place only between closely related species, and because most crop plants don't have close relatives in North America, the risk that new genetic traits would contaminate the genome of the worl
So how did transgenes ever find their way into traditional Mexican corn varieties? Pollan says it's a mystery, but the leading theory is that some campesinos in remote mountainous fields outside Oaxaca bought some genetically modified corn as food - then planted the kernels as seed. No matter how it happened, Monsanto's genes have spread widely in the region. Why does this matter? The presence of transgenes in what some experts call "the cradle of corn" represents a threat to the crop's biodiversity. Should the traits introduced into Mexican fields confer an evolutionary advantage (for insect resistance, say) on certain plants, their offspring could crowd out older varieties, leading to the extinction of genes we may someday need. For whenever a food crop suffers a catastrophic failure - as when blights destroyed the potato crop in Ireland in the 1840's - breeders return to that crop's center of diversity to find genes for resistance. Next time around, those genes may be nowhere to be found, a casualty of g
Greenpeace has called on the Mexican government to halt imports of genetically modified corn, but the genie is already out of the bottle. Genes released into the environment can replicate themselves ad infinitum. Indeed, some studies suggest that transgenes are particularly "sticky" better at getting themselves around in nature than ordinary genes, possibly because of the viral and bacterial vectors used to engineer them. So far that's just a hypothesis; we don't really know how transgenes will behave once they've found their way into a crop's center of diversity. What we do know, now, says Pollan, is that we're about to find out.
- Michael Pollan, The New York Times Magazine, Dec 9, 2001
For the last several decades, American society has been guided by the "risk analysis" model, which assesses new technologies by trying to calculate the mathematical likelihood that they will harm the public. There are other ways, however, to think about this problem. Indeed, a rival idea from Europe, the "precautionary principle‚" has just begun making inroads in America.
The problem with risk analysis, which came out of the world of engineering and caught on during the late 70’s, is that it hasn’t done a very good job predicting the ecological and health effects of many new technologies. It is very good at measuring what we can know – say, the weight a suspension bridge can bear – but it has trouble calculating subtler, less quantifiable risks. (The effect of certain neurotoxins on a child’s neurological development, for example, appears to have more to do with the timing of exposure than with the amount.) Whatever can’t be quantified falls out of the risk analyst’s equations, and so in the absence of proven, measurable harms, technologies are simply allowed to go forward.
In Europe, a different approach has taken hold. When Germany, for example, discovered in the 70’s that its beloved forests were suddenly dying, there was not yet scientific proof that acid rain was the culprit. But the government acted to slash power-plant emissions anyway, citing the principle of Vorsorge, or "forecaring." Soon, Vorsorgeprinzip – the forecaring, or precautionary, principle – became an axiom in German environmental law. Even in the face of scientific uncertainty, the principle states, actions should be taken to prevent harms to the environment and public health.
Germany’s idea has since gone international. It has popped up in the preamble of the U.N. Treaty on Biodiversity and was written into a slew of protocols and rules issued by the European Union in the 90’s. It informs treaties like the 2000 Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which allows countries to bar genetically modified organisms on the basis of precaution. The idea has not prevailed over risk analysis, however, at least not yet. The E.U.’s ban on American beef treated with hormones, for example, is based on the precautionary principle. But since world-trade rules are based on risk analysis rather than precaution, and the health risk of eating hormone-treated beef has not been proved, the World Trade Organization has ruled that the ban is illegal.
What explains the W.T.O.'s resistance to the precautionary principle? It doesn’t sound like a revolutionary idea. Indeed, it sounds like common sense: better safe than sorry; look before you leap. But, in fact, the precautionary principle poses a radical challenge to business as usual in a modern, capitalist, technological civilization. As things stand, whenever questions are raised about the safety of, say, antibiotics in livestock feed, not until someone finds the smoking gun can anything be done about it. When President Bush earlier this year challenged the Clinton administration’s tougher standards for arsenic levels in drinking water, he did it on the grounds that "the science isn’t in yet." (He subsequently relented.) The problem very often is that long before the science does come in, the harm has already been done. And once a technology has entered the marketplace, the burden of bringing in that science typically falls on the public rather than on the companies selling it.
If introduced into American law, the precautionary principle would fundamentally shift the burden of proof. The presumptions that flow from the scientific uncertainty surrounding so many new technologies would no longer automatically operate in industry’s favor. Scientific uncertainty would no longer argue for freedom of action but for precaution and alternatives.
Just how revolutionary an idea this really is is just now dawning on thinkers tied to American industry. In April, a fellow at the Hoover Institution published an attack on the precautionary principle, calling it, quite rightly, "a wolf in sheep’s clothing." The Bush administration has adopted a hard line in international negotations. In the spring, its delegates to the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the world body that sets food safety standards for world trade, scuttled an agreement rather than allow precautionary language into a single footnote.
Critics argue that the precautionary principle is "antiscientific." No and yes. No, in the sense that it calls for more science in order to dispel the uncertainties surrounding new technologies and to develop less harmful alternatives. And yet there is a sense in which the idea is "antiscientific," if by scientific we mean leaving it to scientists to tell us what to do. For the precautionary principle recognizes the limitations of science – and the fact that scientific uncertainty is an unavoidable breach into which ordinary citizens sometimes must step and act.