Today in AgBioView:
* GM food could be a blessing
* Biotech Council says transgenics pose no threat to native plants
* Landmark Files Lawsuits Over Millions in Tax Dollars Paid to Environmental Activists
* Taxpayer Watchdog Says Some Protest Groups Get Grants
* The AIP and Greenpeace funding
* Central News Agency report on DuPont textiles in Taiwan
GM food could be a blessing
The Irish Times
BY DR WILLIAM REVILLE
January 3, 2002
An American scientific collaborator visited recently. While waiting for a train in England, he had a coffee in what he described as a greasy spoon. Each table in the cafe bore a notice reassuring customers that no food on the menu was genetically modified. Mike was amused by the contrast between this punctilious attitude to what he considers a remote theoretical risk and the blas attitude to hygiene.
Most people in the Republic are opposed to genetically modified, or GM, food, and the situation is similar throughout the EU. GM food is more acceptable in the United States, but about 50 per cent of people there also express grave misgivings. The reaction against GM food seems to be instinctive and deeply held. Why is this so? GM food is produced from plants and animals that have had their genetic make-up changed in the laboratory, by genetic engineering, in order to boost yields, make crops or animals resistant to disease, improve shelf life and so on. Plant and animal breeders have always worked to improve their products using conventional methods, such as selectively breeding animals that display desirable traits. Although slow and uncertain, these have been used successfully for many centuries.
The traditional plant or animal breeder can cross-breed only between closely related species, and the offspring display not only the desired traits but also a range of more or less unwanted characteristics, which must be slowly bred out by further cycles of breeding. Genetic engineering allows the scientist to take precise genetic information bearing a desirable trait from one organism and introduce it to another.
The first GM food to go on sale was the Flavr Savr tomato, which was genetically modified to retard softening during ripening, thereby enhancing flavour and extending shelf life. Monsanto, the food biotechnology company that engineered it, has also genetically modified soya beans to make them resistant to Roundup, a herbicide it manufactures, and so, it claims, significantly reduce usage of herbicide.
Humans have a deep love of nature. The American sociobiologist Edward Wilson argues that it was imprinted on us by natural selection as a protective mechanism. One can imagine how respect for nature and a suspicion of artificiality served useful functions over the long haul of human evolution. It can lead to erroneous conclusions today, however.
Not everything natural - such as toxic viruses and tornadoes - is good, and some artificial things - such as vaccines and bicycles - are good. Many would argue that properly tested GM food is also good and would disagree with the traditional attitude of Prince Charles, who recently said that genetic modification should be left to God.
Psychologists have identified several shorthand methods we use to assess situations. In many instances these lead to roughly accurate conclusions, and one can see how they were useful over our evolutionary history, but, again, in today's world they can sometimes mislead us.
Aversion to loss is instinctive. A loss is more worrisome than a forgone gain. When I plan to invest my savings, I am more swayed by a guarantee that my capital is secure than by large projected gains but no capital guarantee. Many people also think about GM food this way, asking whether it is possible to guarantee the safety of the technology. The probability of ill-effect is low, but there is no guarantee, and this is enough to cause most people to forgo the potential gains in food quality, quantity and resilience.
We also have an instinctive preference for the status quo, and normally place a higher value on what we have. We aren't keen on change, and GM food seems like a big change.
We have an inbuilt mechanism for quickly assessing whether something is safe. Again, it is easy to see how this was useful. One couldn't afford to take too long pondering whether to approach or avoid that rustling bush or wriggling thing on the ground. But this is a fallible guide in our technological world. It can lead us to conclude, for example, not only that there is no safe level of radiation, but also that any level, no matter how low, is very dangerous.
We also tend to think that something is more probable if it comes easily to mind. An air disaster causes a prolonged dip in numbers of airline passengers despite well-known statistics showing that the safest way to travel is by air. We can all easily visualise the disasters that ensue when we tinker with nature - Frankenstein's monster, the island of Dr Moreau and so on. It is therefore easy to see how contemplation of GM food arouses flimsily rationalised visions of horror.
Unjustified or exaggerated fears of GM food cannot be allayed without understanding the motivations behind the fears. It would indeed be dangerous to develop GM food without employing stringent precautions, but I am convinced that the benefits of cautious development greatly outweigh the risks. I would like to see the initial focus to be on developing hardy crops to feed the hungry Third World, however.
The Flavr Savr tomato and Roundup Ready Soya are easily portrayed as frivolous, or as the selfish machinations of greedy corporations. The genetic engineering of a miracle rice that can flourish in the poor soil of a famine-prone area would be another matter.
William Reville is a senior lecturer in biochemistry and director of microscopy at UCC
Biotech Council says transgenics pose no threat to native plants
[Intertec Publishing Corporation, A PRIMEDIA Company.
January 3, 2002
Delta Farm Press via NewsEdge Corporation : The Council for Biotechnology is taking exception to a letter published in the journal Nature that implies that transgenic material from corn is finding its way into native maize varieties in Mexico.
According to the letter written by two researchers at the University of California in Berkeley, published Nov. 29, 2001, transgenic material from corn developed through plant biotechnology was detected in native maize varieties grown in Sierra Norte de Oaxaca, Mexico.
The authors of the Nature article further allege that gene flow to native maize varieties poses a threat to the genetic diversity of those varieties.
The Council for Biotechnology and other scientists disagree, however, and question both the study methods and the exclusion of "key" data from the study. The Council also says the information was published without any type of peer review. Researchers traditionally seek out peer reviews before publishing any scientific data.
In a statement released Dec. 19, the Council said, "To test the native maize, they checked for the presence of a genetic sequence -- referred to as a promoter -- common to multiple plant biotechnology products developed and approved in the United States.
"The Nature letter states that their testing indicated that the 35S promoter was present in five of the seven Mexican maize samples tested. The 35S promoter is a common piece of DNA in nature, as well, however."
According to The Council for Biotechnology, the Mexican environmental ministry (SEMARNAT) and the agricultural ministry (SAGARPA) have both stated that the gene flow, if it did occur, would not pose a risk to human health or to the genetic diversity of the native strains.
The Council quotes Wayne Parrott with the University of Georgia as saying, "Crossing between transgenic hybrids and native varieties will probably occur sooner or later, if it hasn't happened already. After all, corns have crossed with each other since time immemorial.
"To imply that this age-old system will now be disrupted and that sustainable food production will be imperiled is indefensible, unduly alarmist, and irresponsible. U.S. hybrid corn has been imported for decades, and yet the native varieties have lost neither their identity nor their diversity."
Despite the fact that Mexico has a moratorium on planting transgenic corn varieties, Mexican news agencies have reported that some farmers in that country have experimented with planting the genetically enhanced seed.
More information about The Council for Biotechnology Information can be found at the organization's Website at http://www.whybiotech.com.
Landmark Files Lawsuits Over Millions in Tax Dollars Paid to Environmental Activists
December 5, 2001
CONTACT: Eric Christensen 703-689-2370 703-689-2373 (FAX) firstname.lastname@example.org
(HERNDON, VA) - Landmark Legal Foundation today filed three lawsuits against government agencies to force them to release information about hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds paid to the Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund, the World Wildlife Fund and other activist environmental groups.
The lawsuits, which have been filed against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Department of Agriculture's Forest Service (USDA), were brought because the agencies failed to respond to earlier Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by Landmark. The Foundation sought the information after a Sacramento Bee article in October detailed how more than $400 million in federal grants and other payments since 1998 may have been misused or used to advance the political agendas of environmental activists.
America's taxpayers have a right to know if their money is being used to feather the political nests of radical environmental groups, commented Landmark President Mark R. Levin. And the agencies of our government have a responsibility to ensure that the money it pays to private organizations is used appropriately, and not to lobby lawmakers or spin public perception to achieve the groups' political goals.
Landmark has an impressive record in FOIA litigation with the EPA. In a pending lawsuit against the agency over last-minute regulations imposed in the closing days of the previous administration, the Foundation found that the EPA was destroying information that Federal District Judge Royce Lamberth had ordered it to preserve. Judge Lamberth is currently considering a motion filed by Landmark to hold the EPA, several former EPA officials and the U.S. Attorney's Office in the District of Columbia in contempt over the destruction of the information at the EPA.
In addition to the lawsuits filed today, Landmark anticipates suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a few weeks, after administrative avenues in its FOIA request with that agency are exhausted.
Landmark Legal Foundation is a public interest law firm founded in 1976 with offices in Kansas City, Missouri and Herndon, Virginia. The complaints Landmark filed today against the EPA, the BLM and the USDA are available on Landmark's website at http://www.landmarklegal.org.
Taxpayer Watchdog Says Some Protest Groups Get Grants
By Stephen Dinan
April 18, 2000
At least a dozen groups participating in the protests against global capitalism over the last few days receive federal grant money, according to a study by a taxpayers watchdog group.
The Alexandria, Va.-based, nonpartisan National Taxpayers Union Foundation calculated that at least $15 million in federal grants goes to the groups, which include such divergent causes as the Rural Coalition and Friends of the Earth.
"Many Americans may be indifferent to this weekend's protest against economic globalization, but they now have more than 15 million reasons to care — and each one represents some taxpayer's hard-earned dollar," said Thomas E. McClusky, senior policy analyst for the taxpayers union and the study's author.
But some of the groups named in the study say they had nothing to do with the protests against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
"This is a complete lie," said Marty Algaze, manager of communications for Gay Men's Health Crisis, a New York-based group that accounted for $5 million of the taxpayer union's federal grant calculation. "We have nothing to do with this demonstration [and] we don't get anywhere near $5 million from the federal government for our programs."
A spokeswoman for the Environmental Alliance for Senior Involvement, also listed as part of the demonstrations in the study, said her group was not involved in the protests, adding that the $418,578 grant figure the taxpayers union used was from a previous fiscal year.
Four of the dozen organizations Mr. McClusky cited — Earth Action Coalition, the AFL-CIO, the Rural Coalition and Friends of the Earth — were listed as sponsors or endorsers of the protests on the "official" protest Web site, www.a16.org.
Mr. McClusky said he contacted the rest of the organizations and was told they were all going to be part of the demonstrations. The study is available at the group's Web site at www.ntu.org.
Some of the groups Mr. McClusky named in the study defended their involvement in the protests and their federal grants, saying the two are entirely unrelated.
"We were not a sponsor of this thing. It's not like we put any money in it or invested any staff time," said Lorette Picciano, executive director of the Rural Coalition, which Mr. McClusky said received almost $375,000 in federal grants.
Ms. Picciano said two staff members did take part in the demonstrations this weekend, but said their involvement is not related to the organization's federal grants. That money, she said, is used on programs to save small farms, for example.
Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth, said taxpayers also should question U.S. grants to the IMF and World Bank.
Despite denials from some of the groups, Mr. McClusky said his figures could be just a scratch on the surface, since it is tough to pin down some of the groups that sent protesters and to identify how much federal contract funds they receive, if any.
The group also estimates yesterday's protests, which shut down federal offices bounded by 12th and 23rd streets and Constitution Avenue and K Street, cost the federal government $20 million in holiday pay. Workers in that region were given the day off with pay. Other federal workers in the city were allowed to use a vacation day.
The District is seeking $5 million from the federal government to cover costs associated with the protesters. Congress has already approved some money for Seattle, to cover the costs of policing and cleaning up after the demonstrations there in December. More than 580 persons were arrested and more than $10 million in damage was reported when rioting erupted during protests against the World Trade Organization.
Date: Thursday, 3 Jan 2002
From: "Mary Murphy
Subject: The AIP and Greenpeace funding
After 9-11, certain charities have been questioned over how they distribute funds.
Here's a note on Greenpeace. The American Institute of Philanthropy, a watchdog
group (http://www.charitywatch.org) which rates charities, gave Greenpeace Inc. a grade of D (on the American grading scale, where A+ is
the best), and they noted that only about half the money sent to them is actually spent on programs (the
rest probably makes up salaries and rent for their luscious office space).
AIP also reports that Greenpeace spends between 59 and 69 dollars for every 100 dollars it raises.
But I guess they have to pay for buses like this one, not to mention the huge amount of gasoline it must cost to run it:
And they also own a fleet of six ships, a helicopter, and a hot air balloon:
Then there's the huge corporate salaries and office space GP and other "environmentalists" are accustomed to:
It really IS easy being green.
Date: Thu, 3 Jan 2002 05:56:48 EST
Subject: Central News Agency report on DuPont textiles in Taiwan
I'd just like to correct the information in this report, to make sure that this doesn't get misquoted in future.
3GT is used, together with terephthalic acid, to produce a novel, premium-grade polyester under the Sorona(TM) brand name. 3GT can be produced by conventional chemical synthesis, but DuPont has developed a fermentation process to replace this. Thus, Sorona will, when the process is fully implemented, be 50% made from fully renewable raw material.
The corn starch used is not genetically modified (although a proportion of it could be if sourced from the US, for example). It is just commodity starch: the most appropriate form of fermentable carbohydrate. However, the reason the process is commercially viable is that the microorganism used for the fermentation has been genetically modified (in conjunction with Genencor) to produced 3GT in high yield in a single step.
In my opinion, such uses of biotechnology to increase the use of renewable raw materials (and hence improve industrial sustainability) will be a major driver for future economic development. If this view is correct, use of GM for food crops could become a secondary issue, being increasingly driven by the necessity of making agricultural land more productive as we use it as a source of industrial raw materials.