Today in AgBioView - Feb 7, 2002
* Solving GM Food Labeling Controversy
* A Brief Summary of Pew Forum Webcast from SFO
* Genes for Africa - GM Crops In The Developing World
* GM Grass Eliminates Maintenance and Mowing
* China Surges Ahead of India In Biotech Race
* Scientists Focus on the Tobacco Plant as Possible Cancer-fighter
* GM Crop Trials: Ask The Experts - BBC Debate
* Purple Rice
* Information Systems For Biotechnology
* David Baulcombe Wins Award
* Defending Science
* Why Has Bjorn Lomborg Created Such A Stir Among Environmentalists?
Email Woes....Part II: Our IT chief at Tuskegee University informs
me that my email address will not work any
more (!) and thus my address reverts back to .
Can you please thus change my email address in your records back to
address? If there is a bounce, please send it to
where surely I would get it. - Prakash
From: "Andrew Apel"
Subject: Food Labeling
The GM food labeling "controversy" can be easily solved. First of
all, "organic" food is not allowed to be GM, so there's a non-GM
label right there.
When food regulators tire of their interminable deliberations, they
will approve voluntary "non-GM" food labels for food companies that
wish to become vulnerable to Greenpeace, Genetic ID, food recalls and
false claims of allergies.
This of course means there won't be any voluntary "non-GM" labeling,
because it's even impossible to buy GOLD guaranteed 100% pure. But
there are folks willing to lay out extra dollars for this and that,
and food companies willing to take the risk can factor the cost of
activist lawsuits into their food prices and charge accordingly. So
Let the market decide! The government is not mommy, and is not
anyone's favorite god. If a food company wants to go non-GM, let them
do it, and let them bear the cost if a consumer accidentally eats
food with fewer carcinogens and phytotoxins or sues because their
liver (its function is to filter poisons) has become "lazy" for lack
of challenges. Or whatever.
In spite of what many learneds say, the market can decide, so let it.
A recent survey found that consumers would pay up to 300 percent more
for "gene-free" tomatoes, but that will take a serious amount of work
to develop and may well be impossible.
Consumers are not stupid, in spite of what Greenpeace says. Consumers
ride bicycles and airplanes and survive these experiences in
remarkable quantities, though many perish. Meanwhile billions have
eaten foods with GM ingredients without so much as a sneeze or a rash.
If you give consumers a choice between GM tofu and riding a bicycle,
what will they choose? The bicycle ride is far more likely to be
fatal--so much more likely that it can't be quantified, unless one
factors in choking deaths from tofu.
I'm looking forward to an anti-bicycle campaign by Greenpeace. That
failing, I'm looking forward to Greenpeace finding someone who got so
much as a hangnail from GM crops (has to be on the order of one in 4
billion by now--bad odds. Guys, I'd go for the anti-bicycle thing).
Credible, non-perjorative GM labeling approved by governments is the
way to go on this whole deal. Any food company that thinks they can
clear a profit above and beyond the costs of frivolous recalls of
food proven to be substantially equivalent, and the costs of
defending false claims of allergies should be allowed to do so.
It's all costs and liabilities and profits and risks, so why don't
you activists go after bicycles? Be real.
A Brief Summary of the PEW Web cast
"Environmental Savior or Saboteur? Debating the Impacts of
Genetically Modified Food and Biotechnology" The Pew Initiative on
Food and Biotechnology hosted a policy dialogue, "Environmental
Savior or Saboteur? Debating the Impacts of Genetically Modified Food
and Biotechnology" on February 4, 2002 at San Francisco. Moderator:
Margaret Warner of PBS
"Much has been researched and written about whether genetically
modified crops are good or bad for the environment," said Michael
Rodemeyer, executive director of the Initiative. "We hope, through
this policy dialogue, to stimulate an informative discussion about
the present and expected impacts of agricultural biotechnology on the
environment and to help examine the science as well as the passions
for why people feel so strongly -- one way or another -- about this
The debate (as it was billed) was by and large balanced, with Charles
Benbrook and Carl Pope generally representing the opponents of food
biotechnology and Martina McGloughlin and peter Raven defending not
only the technology but also its current practices as well as the
current regulatory framework supervising the technology.
Pope spoke most forcefully against food biotech, arguing for a much
greater body of supporting research before proceeding; arguing in
favor of a stricter regulatory framework ("What we've got is a system
of regulation that's been cobbled together, a system derived from a
much earlier technological environment for agriculture - we need a
new system of regulation for this inherently more risky technology.")
Benbrook cited what he considers a lack of testing for the new
genetic pathways created by gene insertion, argued the farmers who
are using the new technology are not considering the truly long range
environmental impact and that there, in general, hasn't been enough
testing and that genetic engineering is not specifically focused and
can yield dangerous consequences.
McGloughlin rejoined that the technology is extremely focused, is
well studied, and is improving so that in the near future will be
able to avoid the tendency to breed pest resistance, while at the
same time, increasing its benefit to consumers. She cited a quote by
Kenyan officials that European Union concerns about small safety
concerns are at odds with their country's need to be fed at all.
Raven called Benbrook's continued insistence that there's been a lack
of proper scientific testing preposterous in the wake of the
thousands of papers written on the issue in peer-reviewed journals.
Raven argued that just because Benbrook says over and over again that
there's not enough science behind biotechnology doesn't make that
true - he invited listeners to check the literature for themselves,
decide for themselves whether the science supports the safety and
efficacy of food biotechnology.
At the end, in summing up, although Pope called for scientists to
wait until the technology has been perfected, even he offered the
view that food biotechnology is here to stay, that it will be
improved, probably dramatically, in the future and that it holds
promise. He seemed to come down more in support of greater regulatory
intervention in retarding the speed at which the technology
progresses through experimentation. And he seemed to support a public
ownership of the technology. Other participants agreed food
biotechnology is here to stay and will improve.
Issues brought up in Q&A: golden rice - is it sufficient to alleviate
vitamin A deficiency; gene spread and the threat to biodiversity; The
session was cordial, without raised voices - an impartial observer
would probably say that no one won the debate.
Genes for Africa - Genetically Modified Crops In The Developing World
Book: In Genes for Africa, Jennifer Thomson separates fact from
fiction and explains why and how GM crops can help us combat poverty,
starvation and disease in the developing world, in a safe and
In the first part of the book the author explains the technology and
looks at the differences and similarities between genetic
modification, conventional plant breeding, and natural processes such
as cross pollination and mutations. Subsequent chapters are devoted
to controversial issues such as food safety (for GM crops and
organically grown food), patents, labelling, regulations and
controls, and there is a question-and-answer section where the author
addresses oft-repeated concerns and fears. The book ends with a focus
on Africa and possible future developments in GM technology.
Quotes from the foreword:
We have reassurances from those with a financial stake in GM
technology that all is well and allegations from the anti-GM lobby
that these organisms present a clear danger to the environment and
human health. The truth, of course, is somewhere in between these two
positions, and the public deserves a more factual and reliable source
of information on this issue. - Michael Shelby, National Institute of
Environmental Health Sciences USA
True environmentalism recognises the need for development, for
growing food and making livelihoods available to the poor, and aims
to minimise the risks and damage that are entailed. You will find the
real facts discussed here and placed before you in an enthusiastic
but always scientifically controlled way. - George Ellis, Department
of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics, UCT
Jennifer Thomson is Professor of Microbiology at the University of
Cape Town. She has run laboratories at the forefront of GM research
in southern Africa since 1978, and has been a popular speaker at
conferences on the topic throughout the world. Email:
Book is available by contacting the publisher at
Researchers Create GM Grass Eliminating Maintenance and Mowing
- St. Louis Dispatch, Feb 4, 2002
Researchers at the Scotts Co. in Marysville, Mo are creating
genetically altered grass that grows slowly and withstands repeated
doses of weed killers. Scotts, the nation's largest producer of lawn
and garden products, is convinced that homeowners and golf course
operators are eager to pay for carpets of grass that require less
maintenance. The company also is developing genetically modified (GM)
petunias and other flowers that bloom longer.
"We are excited about it because our customers are excited about it,"
Mark Schwartz, senior vice president for strategic planning at
Scotts, said of the company's emerging line of products. "Instead of
spending two hours every Saturday mowing your lawn, you could be out
playing golf or spending time with your kids." Scientists have
crossbred plants for years to create desirable traits, such as
greater crop yields, drought tolerance or insect resistance.
Environmental activists and some ethicists contend the products have
no redeeming social value but could fundamentally alter nature. They
fear the pollen could contaminate other plants and create
herbicide-resistant weeds. Or stunt the growth of grasses that
livestock and wildlife depend upon for food.
"There hasn't been enough long-term testing of the potential effects
these plants could have on the environment," said John Harrington, a
Napa, Calif., money manager who wants Scotts to delay its bid to sell
GM grass. At the Scotts annual shareholders meeting last month,
Harrington pushed unsuccessfully for a resolution demanding more
study of potential environmental and financial risks posed by the new
The American Society of Landscape Architects, meanwhile, has
petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for independent
research into the new grasses that Scotts and rival companies are
testing. Companies involved in biotechnology must ask the department
for permission to plant, transport or sell their experimental plants.
"We think the public would benefit from oversight by people who don't
have a financial stake in this," said Len Hopper, chief landscape
architect for the New York City Housing Authority and the society's
past president. "We're talking about grass here, not something
they're trying to develop to feed starving people."
Scotts officials counter that their new grasses will benefit the
environment by reducing the need for chemical treatments and curbing
air pollution from lawn mowers. Scotts formed a partnership with
Monsanto in 1998 to develop the new grass and flower varieties. In
addition to the "low mow" and herbicide- resistant plants, the
companies are researching grasses that require less water and boast
built-in bug killers.
Researchers also are developing flowers that bloom in unusual colors
and resist pests. The bioengineered plants are a potentially
lucrative addition to a product lineup that already includes leading
brands such as Turf Builder lawn fertilizers, Ortho pesticides and
Miracle-Gro plant foods. "When our customers are asked if they want a
grass they can water less or mow less, the answer is a resounding
'yes,' " Bob Harriman, vice president for biotechnology at Scotts,
said recently while holding up small pots of the experimental plants
in the company's greenhouse.
The first variety Scotts wants to sell is a creeping bentgrass for
golf courses. The grass, altered by a gene already added to corn,
cotton and soybeans, can survive being sprayed with Roundup, the
popular weed killer manufactured by Monsanto and marketed to
consumers by Scotts.
Planted on putting greens throughout the world, creeping bentgrass is
prone to weed infestations and doesn't hold up well when sprayed with
herbicides. It requires frequent, and expensive, maintenance.
"Except for that new gene, the plants are the same as what's already
on the market," Harriman said of the company's Roundup-Ready grass.
Asked about the potential for the new grass to spread its herbicide-
resistant gene to its wild cousins or to weeds, Harriman noted that
grass on putting greens is kept short and not allowed to flower. Even
if the pollen did spread, Schwartz said, the rogue plants could be
killed with other herbicides. "I don't remember weeds taking over the
world before Roundup was invented," he said.
Scotts executives say their own research shows the GM grasses are
safe. They're confident that government regulators will agree. "The
bottom line is these products will add value to our customers without
creating issues for the environment," Schwartz said. "We are not
about to endanger the trust we have with the American consumer."
China Surges Ahead of India In Biotech Race
- Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Hindustan Times (India), Feb 4, 2002
New Delhi: China is the world's number two superpower in plant
biotech, says a study published in a recent issue of Science. "China
is developing the largest plant biotechnology capacity outside of
North America," conclude a team from the University of California at
Davis. Figures indicate China's investment and accomplishments in the
field exceed India's by a factor of 10.
India and China began research in biotech in agriculture at the same
time in the mid-1980s. But Beijing has surged ahead of India. By 2000
China had genetically modified 141 agricultural plants, approved 45
for field trials and 31 for commercialization, says the survey. The
comparable figures for India: 16, 10 and four.
Consider the story of Bt cotton, genetically altered to resist a pest
called the bollworm. In India, environmentalists and the pesticide
industry lobbied to delay the seeds' release. It still awaits
official sanction. China has already planted 700,000 hectares of Bt
cotton. Desperate Gujarati farmers began stealing the seeds last
P. Chengal Reddy of the Federation of Andhra Pradesh Farmers
Associations says, "India and China both started work on Bt cotton at
the same time. We're nowhere. Chinese cotton is cheaper and better
quality cotton and kills us in the market." He discounted the fact
such seeds are five times more expensive. Bt cotton seeds, he says,
cost Rs 1000 per hectare but save Rs 8000 a hectare in pesticide
China has three reasons for its success.
One, China has put money where its biotech mouth is. The Davis study
estimates Beijing's research spending was $ 112 million in 1999.
India's was $ 22 million. It says China has 2000 personnel doing
research. An Ernst & Young study says India has about 800.
Two, says K.C. Bansal, principal scientist, National Research Centre
on Plant Biotechnology, is China's "liberalized" regulatory system.
India tests for both environmental and consumer safety. In China,
admits Scott Rozelle, part of the Davis study, "less has been done on
Beijing jumpstarts tests by using US clearances as a starting point.
For example, by using a Bt cotton seed widely used in the US, China
shortened trials to 18 months. India tests for four to five years as
it starts from scratch. Reddy supports the Chinese method.
Genetically modified soya, he notes, has been grown by others for
seven years. "It should be released immediately in India. Why
reinvent the wheel?" he says.
Finally, China has shown more political will. Indian leaders ranging
from Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Agriculture Minister Ajit Singh
rhetorically praise biotech. But the industry complains of endless
red tape and bureaucrats with no grasp of science. Beijing's leaders
have a goal: Sow half China's farmland with genetically improved
Bansal argues India is technically on par with China. "We lag only in
commercializing such crops," he says. Science magazine says biotech
research programmes in India and Brazil "fall short of China's." It
says "China accounts for more than half of the developing world's
expenditure in plant biotechnology" and, say analysts, looks set to
keep the lead.
Scientists Focus on the Tobacco Plant as Possible Cancer-fighter
- M.E. Malone, Boston Globe Feb 5, 2002 http://www.boston.com/
'Genetically altered crops may someday produce drugs to combat many
Tobacco may be the most maligned crop growing on Earth, a plant
blamed for millions of deaths around the globe. But today, in a
greenhouse in Giles County, Va., a scruffy patch of tobacco is being
cultivated for a singular, ironic purpose - to see if it holds the
key to treating certain cancers.
In its most familiar state, cigarettes, tobacco has proved to be
deadly. But scientists are learning that, once genetically altered,
tobacco has the potential to produce vast quantities of crucial drugs
to combat a range of human ailments that could well include cancer.
''The possibilities are exciting,'' said David T. MacLaughlin, a
researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, whose group is working
with CropTech, an 8-year-old biotechnology company in Virginia, to
harvest potential medicine from the tobacco. ''But there is a great
deal of work to be done before we know more.''
The Virginia greenhouse is just one of dozens of locales in the
United States in which medical and agricultural know-how have
combined to try to find faster, safer, and cheaper ways to produce
drugs and vaccines to combat anemia, herpes, hepatitis B, E. coli and
nearly a dozen other afflictions. For consumers, that could translate
into lower prices for the resulting drug treatments and greater
worldwide availability for drugs now produced by fermentation systems
in expensive laboratories.
The crop of Asian xanthi tobacco in the Virginia greenhouse has been
scarred so it can absorb a cloned and altered human gene. When the
plant correctly follows the instructions of that gene, it secretes a
protein that occurs naturally in a human body called Mullerian
Inhibiting Substance, or MIS.
MacLaughlin, along with Dr. Patricia K. Donohoe and Shyamala
Maheswaran at Mass. General's Pediatric Surgical Research Laboratory,
is amassing data about the substance because it may inhibit the
growth of ovarian, breast, prostate and other reproductive cancers.
Until now, MIS, which is also a protein, has been difficult for
researchers to reproduce using more conventional methods.
''We're asking plants to do something they normally wouldn't do,''
MacLaughlin said. ''We know the tobacco is making proteins and
secreting it in a place where we can get at it. What we don't know is
if it works well enough to produce the quality and quantity we will
In the last decade, 14 companies and universities have applied for
permits from the US Department of Agriculture for field trials in 24
different states to use plants to manufacture pharmaceuticals,
industrial enzymes and other nonfood proteins. Genetically
manipulated corn, tomato, tobacco, rice, barley, wheat, and soybean
all have been planted in the hope of solving human health problems.
Similar experiments are also taking place in animals. Genetically
altered cows and goats can produce milk containing human proteins
that can then be separated from the milk and used for therapeutics.
But proponents of ''biopharming,'' as the plants-to-drugs experiments
are commonly called, note that it is faster and less expensive to
plant additional acres of modified tobacco than to produce an
additional herd of cows. In addition, drugs made from mammalian cells
and animal milk might carry viruses that could affect humans, while
plant viruses pose no known risk to people.
So far, only a handful of antibodies potentially useful to humans
have been successfully grown in plants, according to Dr. Henry
Daniell, a professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and
Microbiology at the University of Central Florida. The most
clinically advanced is a product from genetically modified tobacco
called CaroRX, an antibody against streptococcus mutans, which causes
A tasteless, colorless gel containing the antibody was applied to the
teeth of 84 human volunteers at Guy Hospital in London three years
ago and was found to keep the tooth-decaying bacteria at bay for four
months after treatment. Keith Wycoff, research director at Planet
Biotechnology, producer of CaroRX, said the drug is now in
second-phase trials at the University of California at San
Francisco's School of Dentistry and results of that study should be
published in the next month. It is still more than a year away from
Tobacco, it turns out, has unique properties that make it an
especially welcoming host to human genes that have been cloned in a
lab. Because it can be grown like grass, with several cuttings each
season, those who work with tobacco say they can see the results of
their experiments much more quickly. In addition, unlike corn, it can
be grown separately in a greenhouse, isolated from other plantings.
That message has not been lost in tobacco country. The Virginia Farm
Bureau established its own small biotechnology company, ToBio, in
1999 to work with tobacco-growing farmers and medical researchers.
''This is a major cash crop,'' said Chris Cook, chief executive
officer of ToBio. And while the quantities being grown today for drug
experiments are small, ''We really like the idea of using tobacco for
medicinal purposes. ... It certainly wouldn't hurt [tobacco's]
Rob Gustines, vice president of corporate development at CropTech,
said he is excited by the possibilities tobacco offers to drug
producers. He is also mindful of the hurdles, including acceptance by
the drug industry and the public, but hopes that people will react
positively to the concept of altering plants when the goal is human
health. In addition, Gustines noted that tobacco is not used to feed
humans or animals, lessening the likelihood that a modified tobacco
plant will accidentally end up on someone's dinner table.
Just such a mistake has already cost the genetically altered-foods
industry dearly. In 2000, StarLink, a corn product genetically
altered for pest resistance and approved for use only in animal feed,
was found in a series of snack products that had to be recalled from
the market. Many consumer groups and others worry that crops planted
for medicinal purposes might contaminate the nation's food supply as
For example, what happens when pollens from the genetically modified
plants intermingle with weeds, insects or other crops? Can the same
farm safely grow genetically altered lettuce as well as lettuce for
salad? ''They are dealing with compounds that you know are
biologically active,'' said Michael Hansen, research associate with
Consumer Policy Institute, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.
''What do they do to ecosystems? What do they do to the crops around
them? Nobody knows.''
Academics and consultants who study biopharmaceuticals are reluctant
to predict whether fields of genetically altered plants will become
as much a part of the American health care landscape as HMOs, but
they agree that market forces are compelling researchers and drug
manufacturers to give it a try.
A recent study by the consulting firm Arthur D. Little noted that
demands for drugs containing human proteins will dramatically
increase in the coming years. In addition, today's cell manufacturing
plants eventually will be taxed by the need to produce more
monoclonal antibodies that may be useful for the treatment of many
long-term illnesses such as HIV, asthma and arthritis. But growing
plants to produce drugs to fight diseases is only a small part of a
larger effort to manipulate plants for human health gains.
A vaccine against E. coli has been successfully grown in both tobacco
and potatoes. Epicyte, a small company in San Diego, is using corn to
try to grow a contraceptive. And giant Monsanto Corp. last year
released its rice genome sequence to aid in the development of
vitamin-A enriched rice worldwide.
What's next? A cure for the common cold? Well, maybe. Wycoff of
Planet Biotechnology said his company has just received a small grant
from the National Institutes of Health to study the possibility of
growing an antibody that would inhibit human rhinovirus - the common
cold - in transgenic tobacco. Already, it's been dubbed RhinoRX by
Wycoff's team. Wycoff said: ''We'll have to see how that one goes.''
GM Crop Trials: Ask The Experts
BBC News Online, Jan 31, 2002
Greenpeace's Chief Scientist, Doug Parr, and CropGen chairman, Vivian
Moses joined BBC for an interview.
The UK's Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)
has announced the 44 new sites that will be used for GM crop trials.
The field trials of genetically modified (GM) crops are now in the
last year of a three-year programme. The government has promised the
crops will not be grown commercially until the trials are completed.
Even then, it will allow them only if it expects no unacceptable
effects on the environment.
But the level of opposition from protestors looks likely to grow
Several times trial fields have been taken over by protestors who
have uprooted the experimental plants in order to prevent what they
describe as contamination of other crops and wild species.
Are crop trials a good idea? How do you feel about GM products?
Highlights of the interview:
Newshost: Dave, Portsmouth, UK: How can the Government approve GM
trials when it has been proved they can spread on the wind over 50
Doug Parr: That's a good question. The issue here is about the pollen
spread of the genes when some of the really key issues haven't been
sorted out. Those would include the contamination of conventional
crops, contamination of organic farming and of course if these crops
are in the open air, then the pollen genes can spread into the
organic crops or into nearby conventional crops - that hasn't been
resolved. There are significant uncertainties about the impact of
these things on the environment and on food and yet these trials are
being allowed to take place in the open air.
Newshost: There is an NB on this message which says - see maize
trials in South America. What is
CropGen's view on this?
Vivian Moses: We take, not surprisingly, a rather different view from
Doug Parr. I think one has to recognise that in biology things move
around a great deal and you cannot isolate one thing from another.
However far you go away, you will find sooner or later that you'll
get that mixture in biology - that's been the case for millions of
years. So the idea of absolute protection between two sites is really
not an option.
The critical thing however is to what extent these effects may in any
sense be dangerous. We know they're not dangerous in the food sense
because there have been ample trials and ample experience of that. We
have no evidence that they're dangerous in an environmental sense and
cause any harm. What they do do is the possibility of
cross-pollinating with other plantations and the ones which are the
most sensitive ones are of course the organic ones and those are
sensitive because the organic movement has, for its own reasons, put
an absolute bar on any GM content. Therefore, they are very sensitive
about the possibility of any cross-pollination - not that it will do
them any harm, but that's their attitude.
Newshost: Weren't you concerned to hear that in these maize trials in
South America that there was cross pollination over 50 miles?
Vivian Moses: If you refer to the event in Mexico where it was
claimed that some of GM variety genes had been found in landraces of
Mexican maize. These landraces are crops which have been bred and
used for the Mexican agricultural scene - they are not the original
plants and of course we don't know where they come from. We know that
the nearest recorded plantation is said to be 60 miles away. But we
also know that Mexican farmers are illegally planting maize which
they import as a food crop from the US.
Vivian Moses: And so its very possible that it was next door - we
simply don't know where it came from.
Doug Parr: The precise source of the contamination there, we don't
know, I think it is still fair to say. What is very worrying is that
this is a remote rural part of Mexico. We wouldn't expect
industrialised crop genes to by cropping up there a considerable
distance away from where one would expect it. In particular about the
case in Mexico is that, in technical terms, it is the centre of
origin of maize. In other words it is where maize originated. There
were wild plants there which became maize as they were cultivated
over time and which crop geneticists still rely on as a source of
genes for conventional breeding programmes. If you look at the wild
relatives, there is usually a plethora of possibilities for finding
new sources of resistance to the pathogens that are very common -
things like fungi, blight etc. in every day crop cultivation.
The worry is that if you've got things like these that found their
way into the wild relatives, there's a possibility that that will
influence the evolution of these things and some of them will die
out, some will become more prevalent - you will lose that
bio-diversity which is so important for the protection of our
long-term well-being in respect of continued cultivation of maize
which of course is a major crop all around the world - in Africa, in
Asia, in Europe, in North America etc. So I think this is very
worrying - it is important to take on board what Vivian just said -
once they're out you can't contain them - they get everywhere. We
don't know how this one happened whether it was pollination on the
wind, whether it was transport across borders - but once its out,
it's out. So that's why you need to be very, very careful before you
let it out - in fact we say, we shouldn't do it at all because we
don't know where it's going to end up and what it's going to do.
Newshost: Text message from Sharron in London, UK: Is it safe.
Vivian Moses: A brief simple answer is that it's as safe as anything
can be and we know very well that nothing is absolutely 100% safe
because in order to say that about anything at all you'd have to know
the future and you can't know the future. So all you can say is that
thus far something is safe - not just these plants, about anything.
Thus far our experience is that something is safe and so we expect it
to go on being safe - that's the case with these foods. They are the
only ones that have been extensively tested - other foods have not
been - you can't say that about other foods.
Newshost: The biotech industries have a vested obviously so how can
you independently really give the consumer the confidence that this
Vivian Moses: We'll it's very difficult to do things, as you say,
independently because everybody who is involved in involved in some
sense and once you know something and you are party to information,
inevitably you take some sort of view of what that information means.
So that you cannot say that somebody is totally independent and
totally naïve - Doug would agree that he has a point of view, I have
a point of view and I think that's the case with everybody. It's a
very difficult question for members of the public to make this sort
of decision on the basis of my saying one thing and Doug will no
doubt put a different point of view and that's very tricky.
Newshost: Let's try and narrow it down to this issue announced today
with the farm trials also known as farm-scale evaluations. Crops on
Trial - that was a report out last year - that was quite critical of
the way the Government was handling the farm-scale evaluations. It
said that it was being too secretive on the matter, there should be
more consultation involved. What's Greenpeace's stance on this?
Doug Parr: Our position is that they should be taking place. We
believe, for the reasons that I outlined earlier, that these things
simply shouldn't be released into the environment because we don't
know what the consequences are going to be. What that particular
report did reveal was the number of immediate issues that follow on
from the fact that you've released these things into the environment.
What about people's right to uncontaminated food - food that does not
have residues of GM in it? What about the right of the organic
farming movement to keep their crops protected? What about the right
of local people to be able to say no because currently they can't say
no. They can be given information, they can be told it's happening,
they can be given the PR spin that everything is fine and there's
going to be no problems. Can they say no - no actually the only thing
they can do is go and dig them up - that's the only veto that they've
got over the possibility of there being a farm-scale trial in their
area if they don't want it. There is a certain amount of local
legitimacy and democracy involved in this issue which that particular
report very much did point out.
Newshost: Ellie, UK: Don't all scientific advances carry a risk?
Vivian Moses: Everything in life carries a risk in the sense that you
can't predict the future. You can extrapolate from the experience
that you already have - you can say we done this over the years and
we've had this response and therefore it's likely to continue but you
can't be sure. That's the very nature of experience and evidence. You
cannot predict anything about anything.
Newshost: Do you think the risks are necessary in this sphere?
Doug Parr: I think there's two aspect to it: is it necessary - do we
need it, do we want it? The other side to it is do we have a
distinguished track record in using scientific evidence to assess the
risks from complex environmental systems. The answer to the latter, I
am afraid is no. If you look at PCBs, asbestos, Thalidomide - these
are a number of examples documented recently by the European
Environment Agency, saying we should have learnt lessons, earlier and
quicker and stopped things sooner. We don't have a distinguished
record there. We know that scientific evaluation can miss out the
unexpected and so you have factor that in as well as part of the risk
that you're likely to be experiencing, not just the ones that we can
Newshost: Tests have been carried in the US over a much longer period
of time than in the UK. What can we learn from those?
Vivian Moses: A great deal obviously. Three hundred million North
Americans have been eating these foods in all sorts of guises for six
years or more. There is no requirement to label in the United States
so people do not know whether they're eating them or not and yet we
know that some 60% of processed foods, for example, contain soy in
various varieties and that's now 78% GM in the US and continuing to
grow - it will soon get to be 100%. That means that these people have
been eating these foods for years and years and there is no evidence
of any harm having come to anybody from it. Now there could be a
number of reasons for that - nothing has happened is one obvious
thing; or it hasn't been recognised is another obvious thing; or
people have not reported the effect. But whatever the reason, there
has been not a single recorded case of anything having gone wrong.
That means therefore that over six years approximately nothing
terrible is going to happen - whether something bad will happen in
seven years, I couldn't tell you.
A need is not to be decided by Greenpeace. This is a question of
people making up their own minds. It's essentially a commercial
matter and not a religion as to whether one chooses to use these
materials or not and people have the right to make choices exactly in
Doug Parr: Would that Greenpeace could make up everybody's mind for
them - it just doesn't happen. People will make up their own minds
and they're entitled to do so.
Vivian Moses: You try and stop them.
Doug Parr: No we did not try to stop them. We carry out direct action
which has a long and distinguished tradition of righting wrongs that
were taking place. In terms of the GM food in the US, yes Vivian is
right, there is no recorded incidence of any problems arising and as
he said that might be because nobody is looking and because nobody
has found anything rather than nothing has actually happened.
However, it has never been Greenpeace's contention that every GM crop
and every GM food is going to be dangerous - that isn't what we're
saying. We saying there are uncertainties and there are risks and
that means that just because one GM food has turned out to be safe,
doesn't mean the next one will be and the next and the next.
Subject: Purple Rice
Anti-biotech activists say that consumers in developing nations will
reject Golden Rice because it is unfamiliar to them, regardless of
health benefits. The developers of purple rice seem to know better.
'Purple Rice' Hits The Market
- Achara Pongvutitham, The Nation (Thailand); Feb 5, 2002, Tuesday
Rice exporter and distributor Soon Hua Seng Marketing has launched a
new high-quality rice strain, "Khao Hom Nil" (purple rice), for sale
in the local market. Kal Suwanna-adth, assistant marketing director,
said demand for the rice, aimed at health-conscious consumers, is
expected to be limited to around 10 tonnes a year.
The rice has been shown to have a higher protein and lower
carbohydrate content than standard rice breeds. Most Thai rice
exporters are looking to the domestic market in a bid to strengthen
their business. The domestic market for five-kilo rice bags is
expected to show only slight growth, staying near the Bt7
The high quality of the purple rice was achieved by breeding Thai
jasmine rice with Chinese black rice. The company owns the rights to
the breed, for which it has already registered a trademark. The rice
grows well in cold temperatures, making it ideal for cultivation in
northern Thailand. Farmers in Chiang Mai province have planted a
total of 300 rai, yielding an average of 500 kilograms per rai, which
is supplied to the company under a contract farming agreement.
Information Systems For Biotechnology
ISB News Report February 2002
Web version at http://www.isb.vt.edu/news/2002/news02.feb.html
.pdf version at http://www.isb.vt.edu/news/2002/feb02.pdf
In This Issue: Potential Environmental Risks and Hazards of
Biotechnology; Transgenes—By No Easy Means; Phytoremediation of TNT;
David Baulcombe Wins Award
Congratulations to Dr. David Baulcombe (John Innes Centre, UK) for
winning the 2002 Kumho Award from The International Society of Plant
Molecular Biology (http://www.uga.edu/ispmb) for his pioneering
research in the area of gene silencing in plants.
- The Economist, Feb 2, 2002
Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish statistician, no doubt hoped to spark
controversy with his book, "The Skeptical Environmentalist"--an
attack on "the litany", as he calls it, of bogus doom and gloom about
the state of the planet. He has not been ignored, which is probably
an author's worst fate, but he may be wishing he had been. The
response to the book in many quarters has been apoplectic. Mr Lomborg
is being called a liar, a fraud and worse. People are refusing to
share a platform with him. He turns up in Oxford to talk about his
book, and the author (it is claimed) of a forthcoming study on
climate change throws a pie in his face.
The Economist is not a neutral in all this. Before Mr Lomborg
published "The Skeptical Environmentalist", we ran a signed essay by
him which gave a summary. Later we reviewed his book in glowing
terms. What has inspired the subsequent fury? Mr Lomborg argues that
the environment is not in nearly such bad shape as green activists
and their dupes in the media would have the public believe; that
technology is improving lives across most of the planet; that western
civilisation is environmentally sustainable; and that the Kyoto
agreement on carbon emissions is bad policy as it stands. How dare he
say that? Mr Lomborg defends these positions on the basis of official
data and published science. Environmentalists typically use the same
sources, but, as Mr Lomborg lays bare, are much less scrupulous about
setting short runs of data in their long-term context, for instance,
or about quoting ranges of data, where that is appropriate, rather
than whatever extreme of any given range best suits their case. Mr
Lomborg diligently piles on the footnotes (2,930 of them) so there is
no dispute about where his numbers have come from. His claims, of
course, could still be true or false. They are largely true, in our
opinion. But what is strangest in all this fuss is the idea that
simply by making them he has put himself far beyond the pale of
respectable discourse, as so many of his critics appear to believe.
Mr Lomborg, it is important to note, does not say that all is well
with the world. And The Economist for that matter does not say that
Mr Lomborg is right about every issue he addresses. Environmental
policy involves uncertainty, as Mr Lomborg emphasises; now and then
this raises doubts that deserve more attention than he gives them
(see page 83; this article also provides web links to Mr Lomborg's
essay for us, and to other relevant material). We do believe,
however, that he is right on his main points, that his critique of
much green activism and its reporting in the media is just, and,
above all, that where there is room for disagreement, Mr Lomborg
invites and facilitates discussion, rather than seeking to silence
it. The same cannot be said for many of his critics.
The January issue of Scientific American devoted many pages to a
series of articles trashing "The Skeptical Environmentalist". The
authors, all supporters of the green movement, were strong on
contempt and sneering, but weak on substance. The arresting thing
about Scientific American's coverage, however, was not this barrage
of ineffective rejoinders but the editor's notion of what was going
on: "Science defends itself against the Skeptical Environmentalist,"
That is amazing. Mr Lomborg's targets are green scare-mongers and
their credulous servants in the media. He uses the findings of
scientists to press his case. How can using science to criticise the
Kyoto agreement, to show that the world's forests are not
disappearing, to demonstrate that the planet's supplies of energy and
food will suffice indefinitely, and the rest, constitute an attack on
science? If that is so, the scholars whose work supports those
positions are presumably attacking science too, and had better stand
in line for a pie in the face.
More is at stake here than a row about a book or the judgment of a
magazine editor. Many of Mr Lomborg's critics are respected
scientists. Some seem to think that Mr Lomborg's lack of training in
their fields disqualifies him from debating environmental policy.
E.O. Wilson, one of the world's most distinguished scientists, and a
dedicated green, deplores "the Lomborg scam" because of "the
extraordinary amount of scientific talent that has to be expended to
combat [him] in the media...[Mr Lomborg and his kind] are the
parasite load on scholars who earn success through the slow process
of peer review and approval." That would be wrong even if all
scientists shared Mr Wilson's fear that the world will become a
"hellish place to exist", which they do not. Environmental policy
involves politics and economics, compromises and trade-offs, a
division of burdens geographically and over time. It could not be
left to scientists, even if they agreed on the science. We parasites
would even then be right to insist on having our say. Leeches of the
Mr Wilson's insufferable arrogance is bad enough, but there's worse.
The fuss over Mr Lomborg highlights an attitude among some
media-conscious scientists that militates not just against good
policy but against the truth. Stephen Schneider, one of Scientific
American's anti-Lomborgians, spoke we suspect not just for himself
when he told Discover in 1989: "[We] are not just scientists but
human beings as well. And like most people we'd like to see the world
a better place...To do that we need to get some broad-based support,
to capture the public's imagination. That, of course, entails getting
loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make
simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any
doubts we might have...Each of us has to decide what the right
balance is between being effective and being honest." In other words,
save science for other scientists, in peer-reviewed journals and
other sanctified places. In public, strike a balance between telling
the truth and telling necessary lies.
Science needs no defending from Mr Lomborg. It may very well need
defending from champions like Mr Schneider
Why Has Bjorn Lomborg Created Such A Stir Among Environmentalists?
The Skeptical Environmentalist: The Litany And The Heretic
- The Economist Feb 2 2002 (Forwarded by "David Tribe"
"I'm Afraid there isn't much scientific controversy about Mr Lomborg.
He occupies a very junior position in Denmark (an 'associate
professor' does not exactly mean the same thing that it does in the
United States), he has one possibly very flawed paper in an
international journal on game theory, no publications on
environmental issues, and yet manages to dismiss the science of
dozens of the world's best scientists, including Nobel laureates,
Japan and Crawford prize-winners and the like. As any sensible person
would expect, his facts are usually fallacies and his analysis is
Those contemptuous words from Stuart Pimm, a professor of
conservation biology at Columbia University, are fairly
representative of the response from many environmental scientists and
activists to Bjorn Lomborg's recent book, "The Skeptical
Environmentalist". In the weeks since the book's release, virtually
every large environmental group has weighed in with a denunciation.
Numerous heavyweights of science have penned damning articles and
reviews in leading journals. Dr Pimm, for one, railed against Dr
Lomborg in Nature, while Scientific American recently devoted 11
pages to attacks from scientists known for their environmental
Dr Lomborg's critics protest too much. They are rattled not because,
as they endlessly insist, Dr Lomborg lacks credentials as an
environmental scientist and is of no account, but because his book is
such a powerful and persuasive assault on the central tenets of the
modern environmental movement.
Just the facts Curious about the true state of the planet, the
author-who makes no claims to expertise in environmental science,
only to statistical expertise-has scrutinised reams of official data
on everything from air pollution to energy availability to climate
change. As an instinctive green and a former member of Greenpeace, he
was surprised to find that the world's environment is not, in fact,
getting ever worse. Rather, he shows, most environmental indicators
are stable or improving.
One by one, he goes through the "litany", as he calls it, of four big
* Natural resources are running out.
* The population is ever growing, leaving less and less to eat.
* Species are becoming rapidly extinct, forests are vanishing and
fish stocks are collapsing.
* Air and water are becoming ever more polluted.
In each case, he demonstrated that the doom and gloom is wildly
exaggerated. Known reserves of fossil fuels and most metals have
risen. Agricultural production per head has risen; the numbers facing
starvation have declined. The threat of biodiversity loss is real but
exaggerated, as is the problem of tropical deforestation. And
pollution diminishes as countries grow richer and tackle it
In other words, the planet is not in peril. There are problems, and
they deserve attention, but nothing remotely so dire as most of the
green movement keeps saying.
Nor is that all he shows. The book exposes-through hundreds of
detailed, meticulously footnoted examples-a pattern of exaggeration
and statistical manipulation, used by green groups to advance their
pet causes, and obligingly echoed through the media. Bizarrely, one
of Dr Lomborg's critics in Scientific American criticises as an
affectation the book's insistence on documenting every statistic and
every quotation with a reference to a published source. But the
complaint is not so bizarre when one works through the references,
because they so frequently expose careless reporting and
environmentalists' abuse of scientific research.
The replies to Dr Lomborg in Scientific American and elsewhere score
remarkably few points of substance*. His large factual claims about
the current state of the world do not appear to be under
challenge-which is unsurprising since they draw on official data.
What is under challenge, chiefly, is his outrageous presumption in
starting a much-needed debate.
Some argue that scientists who favour stronger policies to improve
the environment must use the same tactics as any other political
lobby-from steel companies fighting for tariffs on imports to farmers
demanding more subsidies. The aim, after all, is to win public favour
and government support. Whether such a view is consistent with the
obligation science owes to the truth is debatable, at best. If
scientists want their views to be accorded the respect due to
science, then they must speak as scientists, not as lobbyists.
Dr Lomborg's work has its flaws. He has made some errors in his
statistical analysis, as he acknowledges on his website. And there
are broader issues, especially to do with the aggregation of data and
the handling of uncertainty, where his book is open to challenge. For
instance, his approach of examining data at a global level, while
statistically sound, tends to mask local environmental trends. Global
marine productivity has indeed risen, as he says-but this disguises
collapses in particular species in particular places. Dr Lomborg
argues that such losses, seen in a long-term perspective, do not
matter much. Many would disagree, not least the fishermen in the
Allen Hammond of the World Resources Institute (WRI) makes a related
point. He accepts Dr Lomborg's optimistic assessment of the
environment, but says it holds only for the developed world. The
aggregate figures offered in the book mask worsening pollution in the
mega-cities of the poor world. Dr Lomborg agrees that there are local
and regional environmental pressures, and that these matter a lot,
but it is fair to point out that the book has little to say about
them, except to argue that rising incomes will help.
The book gives little credit to environmental policy as a cause of
environmental improvement. That is a defensible position, in fact,
but the book does not trouble to make the case. And another important
question is somewhat skated over: the possibility that some
environmental processes involve irreversible "triggers", which, once
pulled, lead to sudden and disastrous deterioration. Climate
scientists believe, and Dr Lomborg does not deny, that too much
warming could lead to irreversible bad outcomes such as the collapse
of the mid-Atlantic "conveyor belt" (an ocean current that warms
Europe). The science here is thin: nobody knows what level of
greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would trigger such a calamity. But
the risk argues for caution.
Dr Lomborg's assessment of the science in this area leads him to
venture that warming is more likely to be at the low end of the range
expected by leading experts than at the high end. He argues that the
most-cited climate models misjudge factors such as the effects of
clouds, aerosols and the solar cycle. That is plausible, and there is
science to support it, but the conclusion is far from certain. Again,
it is reasonable to argue that such uncertainty makes it better to
err on the side of caution.
Sensible people will disagree about the course that policy should
take. Dr Lomborg-a courteous fellow-seems willing to talk calmly to
his opponents. For the most part, while claiming in some cases to be
men of science, his opponents do not return the compliment.
Homo ecologicus Despite its limitations, "The Skeptical
Environmentalist" delivers a salutary warning to conventional
thinking. Dr Lomborg reminds militant greens, and the media that hang
on their every exaggerated word about environmental calamity, that
environmental policy should be judged against the same criteria as
other kinds of policy. Is there a problem? How bad is it? What will
it cost to fix? Is that the best way to spend those resources?
This is exactly what Tom Burke, a leading British environmentalist,
denied in a debate he had with Dr Lomborg in Prospect, a British
magazine. "What I find most egregious [in] your climate-change
argument, however, is the proposition that the world faces a choice
between spending money on mitigating climate change, and providing
access to clean drinking water and sanitation in the developing
world. We must and can do both. Such artificial choices may be
possible in an academic ivory tower where ideas can be arranged to
suit the prejudices of the occupant, but they are not available in
the real world and it is dishonest to suggest that they are."
On the contrary, Mr Burke. Only in an ivory tower could choices such
as these be called "artificial". Democratic politics is about nothing
but choices of that sort. Green politics needs to learn that
resources are not.