Today in AgBioView:
* Busting Unions - Progressives can do it, too
* Anti-Christ of the Green Religion
* Green group gives $4000 to "biased research"
* Prison Time for French Farmer Upheld
* No health problem with GM food: watchdog
* Webcast Reminder: 'Environmental Savior or Saboteur?
* Organic Seed Productiion
* Microbial Safety of Fresh Fruits and Vegetables: E coli O157:H7 Infiltration
* USTR says weighing WTO case against EU on biotech
* Right direction on GM foods
* A Sad Case of Media Meddling not Reason
Busting Unions - Progressives can do it, too
February 8, 2002
by Ben Ehrenreich
Last March, Tamara Rettino answered a help-wanted ad for Greenpeace. “Hiring activists,” it read. “I thought I could work my way up to the Greenpeace office in Amsterdam,” Rettino recalls. Once hired, though, she learned she wasn’t working for Greenpeace at all, but for the Fund for Public Interest Research, which contracts out its staff at 10 offices nationwide to raise money for Greenpeace.
And, it seems, activist employees weren’t actually all that welcome: When the overworked and underpaid directors of the Fund’s L.A. Greenpeace Project lodged a complaint with the state labor board and informed their bosses they wanted to form a union, they quickly found themselves out of work. A week after the complaint was filed, the office was closed.
The work itself was difficult, with long hours in the sun at places like Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, struggling to convince passersby to pay to join Greenpeace, often working extra unpaid hours to get post cards signed to fight offshore oil drilling. Most of the staff, though, was idealistic enough not to mind. “I’ve got a master’s degree and I was earning eight to nine dollars an hour,” says Brande Jackson, the L.A. office’s former assistant director, “but wages weren’t even an issue.”
What was at issue was the Fund’s consistent failure to reimburse staffers for out-of-pocket expenses — Jackson says she was owed about $500 for gas and office supplies — and its denial of promised health benefits to most employees. Rettino says she began asking for health coverage after four months on the job. When she quit in mid-January, one week before the staff was locked out, she still hadn’t received coverage. “I had a really bad kidney infection,” Rettino says. “Because I had no health benefits, I couldn’t get health care. It just got worse and worse. Last week I ended up in the hospital on IV antibiotics.” (The Fund has since agreed to reimburse her for her hospital bills, Rettino says, but only after she threatened to take them to court.) Dan Binaei, the former office director, says he tried for months to get benefits for himself and his staff. “I was given vague answers, the runaround.”
Finally, on January 14, directors Binaei and Jackson requested a petition to unionize from the state labor board, e-mailed it to regional director Ben Flamm and Ed Johnson, the national canvass director for the Fund for Public Interest, and told them they intended to unionize. On the evening of January 22, as Binaei was closing the office, he says, Flamm and Johnson, who are based in Berkeley and Minneapolis, respectively, walked in. “I was totally shocked,” Binaei says. Johnson, he says, told him, “We no longer have trust in you to run this office. We feel you no longer trust the organization. You’re terminated as of right now.” Jackson was also fired, informed in a voice mail the next morning that her “employee status [had] changed.”
That night, Flamm and Johnson packed up the office. By morning it had been cleaned out. The locks had been changed and a note left on the door said simply that the office was closed. To date, Jackson says, she has not been given a reason for her firing.
Johnson and Flamm both refused to comment on the office closing, citing “confidential personnel matters.” According to Greenpeace spokesperson Kymberly Escobar, the environmentalist organization is “looking into the matter with the Fund for Public Research. We’re encouraging them to do the right thing.”
In the meantime, Binaei and Jackson have complained to the state labor board about the Fund for Public Interest’s union-busting, and intend to take the Fund to court for wrongful termination. “Nobody’s out to damage Greenpeace,” Jackson says. “It was our intention to make this organization run better through that union. They chose to bury their heads.”
Anti-Christ of the Green Religion
'Bjorn Lomborg found there is nothing like the fury of a spurned environmental movement.'
The Age, Melbourne
Feb 9, 2002
BJORN LOMBORG, a former member of Greenpeace, has been branded a traitor by the international environmental movement. His crime? He debunked almost all of its claims about the earth's perilous state. Now he is a marked man. David Thomas meets him
Bjorn Lomborg does not look like a dangerous revolutionary. When the 37-year-old political science professor from Aarhus University in Denmark slipped into London on Friday afternoon he was wearing trainers, jeans, a brightly-coloured cagoule and a knapsack, just like any other skinny, blond, blue-eyed Scandinavian backpacker.
But to the nabobs of the international environmental movement - the researchers, bureaucrats, politicians and protesters whose most passionate beliefs and professional livelihoods are staked on the near-religious conviction that the world is confronting imminent environmental catastrophe - Lomborg is the anti-Christ.
This former ecological activist and member of Greenpeace has had the temerity to suggest that the world is not coming to an end. And the result, as he revealed last week, is that he has become a marked man.
It all began in August when he published a book entitled The Sceptical Environmentalist which reported in painstaking statistical detail that the world's resources were not running out, its species were not rushing to extinction and global warming might not turn out to be quite so disastrous after all.
As Lomborg puts it: "It's unrealistic to say that everything is getting better. But we need to get a sense of priority. For example, the level of pollutants is dropping dramatically in the developed world. The air in London is cleaner today than at any time since 1585. The average person in London was much worse off in the past than today.
"It is worrying that the rainforest is shrinking. But the fact that people are cutting down trees doesn't mean that the world is coming to an end. Even by the most pessimistic scenarios, people in the developing world will be richer in 100 years time than we are now.
"So, by then, a Bangladeshi would also be concerned about the environment and able to afford to set aside land and re-grow forest. It's a temporary problem. We won't lose the rainforest forever."
For daring to utter such eco-heresies, Lomborg has received threats from enraged environmentalists and now opens mail with extreme care for fear of what parcels might contain. So far, however, his experience is marked more by farce than tragedy.
Last September, while preparing for a personal appearance at the Borders bookshop in Oxford, Lomborg was hit in the face with a baked Alaska pie by Mark Lynas, an environmentalist campaigning to save the Arctic wilderness. "I was arranging my slides and I was facing down, towards the projector," Lomborg recalls.
"Suddenly everything turned white. I was astonished. But I took some of the pie out of my eyes, tasted it and said: `At least it tastes good.' I'm surprised I had so much composure."
>From the moment that Lomborg first published his ideas as a series of articles in the Danish newspaper Politiken, campaigners have been lining up to assault him as an intellectual fraudster who is motivated by a fascistic desire to discredit the environmental Left.
The Danish environment minister even sent Lomborg's articles to 2,500 civil servants, instructing them to report any mistakes they could find.
Lomborg reports ruefully: "A lot of my Left-wing friends had a hard time with me being so 'immoral' as to say that the environment was actually getting better. There's a presumption that I'd be out there felling rainforests if I could."
The science magazine Nature went so far as to declare that Lomborg "employs the strategy of those who argue that gay men are not dying of Aids, that Jews weren't singled out by the Nazis and so on". The accusation was particularly tasteless since Lomborg happens to be gay. But then nothing infuriates ideologues more than a traitor to the cause. And, to ecologists, that is just what Lomborg is.
"I was a comfortable, Left-wing, worried kind of guy. If you'd asked me in 1980, I could not have imagined that we wouldn't be running out of resources by now. I'd go to rallies and marches, but nothing where I could get arrested. I'm way too suburban and academic for that."
But then, in 1997, he read an article about a renegade American professor called Julian Simon who had for decades been using official US Government statistics to disprove claims made by environmentalists.
In the late 1960s eco-evangelists such as the best-selling author Paul Erlich [sic] stated: "In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programmes embarked on now . . . Before 1985 mankind will enter an age of scarcity in which accessible supplies of many key minerals will be nearing depletion."
Simon argued the opposite: that resources would become more abundant and cheaper, and events proved him right. Even so, when Lomborg read about Simon's work, summed up in a 1995 book called The State of Humanity, he still held the orthodox ecological world view.
"I was totally sure Simon was wrong," he says. "I thought: `It should be easy to show that he's wrong, and it'll be fun debunking him.' So I got my students to go through a chapter of his book each to check his statistics. And to our surprise most of what he said was correct."
Lomborg gives one simple example of the deviance between theory and practice; the conservationists' claim that the world is losing up to 40,000 species of animals and plants to extinction every year and is heading towards the loss of 50 per cent of all species. This estimate is based, Lomborg claims, not on observation, but extrapolation from theoretical equations.
"The theory says that if you cut down 90 per cent of a forest, you lose 50 per cent of the species it contains. But that doesn't seem to be confirmed if you look at specific examples. The Brazilian Atlantic rainforest was almost entirely cut down, mainly in the 19th century.
"By now, many of its species should be extinct. But, as it turns out, the Brazilian Zoological Society and the World Conservation Union compiled a list of 300 species of [indigenous] mammals, birds and plants, and not one of them had become extinct.
"It would be OK for the theory if only 40 per cent or 45 per cent of species had become extinct. But if you find nought per cent extinct, that seriously questions the whole idea because it's dramatically not true."
Lomborg's essential thesis is not anti-environmental at all. He doesn't want to pillage the planet. He simply argues that environmental protection should be based on rational analysis and sensible risk-assessment rather than scare-mongering and ideology.
"The underlying belief behind a lot of recycling policy is that we're running out of resources," he says. "It's a spectacular example of a case where old-style environmentalists were simply wrong. But many people still believe it. Recycling makes sense to a certain extent, but we shouldn't do it religiously.
"We're not going to run out of resources and we're not going to run out of space to put our garbage. Even if the US increased the amount of garbage produced per head by 15 per cent a year, and doubled its population, the total amount of garbage produced by the US in the 21st century could be put in a 100ft high pile covering a 28 x 28 kilometre square.
"In the context of North America, it would be nothing. Garbage siting is a political problem - no one wants it in their backyard. But it's not a space problem."
Similarly, vast sums are due to be spent on combating global warming. But, says Lomborg: "We can help the developing world so much better by doing other things, like giving them clean drinking water and proper sanitation.
"For $200 billion - which is the cost of implementing the Kyoto Agreement [in which the industrial nations pledged to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases] for one year - you could permanently provide clean drinking water for everyone. That would save two million people dying and half a billion people becoming seriously ill every year."
For all our many problems, he says, the world's inhabitants are, on average, richer, healthier, longer-living and better-fed than at any time in the history of humanity. "In 20 years' time," says Lomborg, "we'll look back and wonder why we worried so much. Environmentalism won't be a religion any more, it'll just be good commonsense."
For all the demonisation he has faced, Lomborg still seems remarkably upbeat. His book has sold well on both sides of the Atlantic, although he insists that, "you don't make a lot of money, not compared to the hours you put in". And he has become a minor celebrity.
That, though, is not what gives him the most satisfaction. "It's not fun being famous," he says, and then grins, "but it is fun being right."
Speaking of which: on the morning after my interview with Lomborg, the Today programme on Radio 4 reported an interesting scientific finding. You know how the Antarctic ice is supposed to be melting, as part of the great catastrophe of global warming?
Well, the scientists have just taken another look at the ice. They've measured it very carefully. And it's getting thicker.
Date: 8 Feb 2002 20:09:04 -0000
From: "Andrew Apel"
Subject: Biased Research Funded
NZFGW gives $4000 to "biased research"
The NZ Federation of Graduate Women (NZFGW) has given a $4000 Postgraduate Fellowship to an anti-GM activist to prepare a critique of the work of the Royal Commission on GM.
Tee Rogers-Hayden, is enrolled in a PhD programme at Waikato University’s Department of Geography entitled ‘Deconstructing the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification’. She is widely known as an activist on food issues and against GM.
She was interviewed for the FGW’s newsletter and was asked whether she thought people might consider her work biased. She responded that she was coming from an “activist and academic” standpoint and asserted that the social sciences now “generally reject the notion of objective research”.
Other members of the NZFGW are understood to be concerned at the implication that the organisation is supporting work which will be subject to criticism for its lack of objectivity and academic independence.
Prison Time for French Farmer Upheld
The Associated Press
6 Feb 2002
PARIS (AP) — France's highest court on Wednesday upheld radical farmer Jose Bove's three-month prison sentence for ransacking a McDonald's restaurant more than two years ago in a protest against U.S.-driven globalization.
The Court of Cassation affirmed a lower court decision ordering Bove to prison for using farm equipment to tear down a McDonald's under construction in August 1999 — an act that shot him to international fame as head of the anti-globalization movement.
But the militant sheep farmer may get a reprieve, since he has already spent nearly three weeks in jail in the case. A lower court, in applying the high court's decision, could order Bove to spend time in a supervised work release program, for example.
However, Bove said he would refuse any type of punishment except prison.
``Either I'm guilty and I go back to prison, or I'm innocent and I shouldn't have been convicted,'' he said.
Bove became a hero within the anti-globalization movement after leading the attack on the fast food restaurant in the southern French town of Millau. One of his main targets has been what he calls ``foul food'' — including fast food and genetically modified crops.
In court, Bove's attorneys argued French farmers were pushed to radical action after a U.S. surtax was placed on European luxury products — including Roquefort cheese, a product of the Millau region, Bove's home.
The surtaxes, backed by the World Trade Organization, were a countermeasure to protest Europe's rejection of U.S. hormone-treated beef.
Bove, who awaited the ruling in Millau with about 200 members of his radical union, the Farmers' Confederation, said he believes the WTO was behind the decision.
``We just expressed our outrage legitimately,'' he told reporters after the ruling was announced.
Bove has compared the McDonald's trashing to the Boston Tea Party — when American colonists dumped tea into Boston's harbor in 1773 to protest a British-imposed tax — and the storming of the Bastille prison during the French Revolution.
The mustachioed farmer has said his main targets are the WTO, multinationals and governments that push scientifically engineered food. He says the organizations crush the small producers who insist on quality and taste.
No health problem with GM food: watchdog
February 9, 2002
Australia's food safety watchdog backed genetically modified foods yesterday, saying they were as good as their natural counterparts and free of danger.
The acting managing director of the Australia New Zealand Food Authority, Greg Roche, said countless scientific studies showed GM foods were safe and free of allergens.
The authority's backing came as the Royal Society of Great Britain issued its own study that found no scientific evidence to back claims that GM foods posed a consumer health threat.
The authority issued for public comment yesterday two new proposals to sell GM foods to the general public.
Monsanto has sought approval to release GM corn, while Aventis wants approval to sell GM canola oil.
Both products have been genetically modified to make them resistant to herbicides, while the corn is also resistant to a type of insect.
Both are grown overseas and would be contained in processed food.
The GM corn has been found to contain two new proteins. The authority said initial studies showed neither posed a health threat, nor increased the chance of an allergy threat.
Mr Roche said that despite concerns raised by GM opponents, no evidence had come to light showing any health concerns about genetically modified foods.
"I can say with some certainty that we know more about the genetic make-up of these GM foods than any other food in the food supply," he said.
"I can also say with certainty that the scientific evidence shows that the GM foods studied and recommended for approval are no more allergenic or toxic than their conventional counterparts, and are just as nutritious."
Mr Roche said the food authority had received 23 applications for GM food, of which 12 had been approved, four were pending ministerial approval, five were out for public consultation, and two had been withdrawn.
In its report, Britain's Royal Society said there was no evidence to back the claims of GM opponents.
Claims that the DNA of GM foods could pose a health threat did not stack up, especially as humans consumed a huge range of DNA material every day, the society said. It also found the risk of increased allergic reactions because of introduced DNA in GM foods was the same as that in natural plants.
"There is at present no evidence that GM foods cause allergic reactions...The allergenic risks posed by GM plants are in principle no greater than those posed by conventionally derived crops or by plants introduced from other areas of the world." The biggest benefits offered by GM products appeared to be in plants which were enhanced to offer better nutrition.
Webcast Reminder: 'Environmental Savior or Saboteur?
Debating the Impacts of Genetic Engineering' National Policy Forum to be Held in San Francisco;
Environmental Activists, Policymakers and Academics to Debate Ecological Effects of Genetic Engineering
The dialogue was presented via a live Internet webcast on
February 4, 2002 from 10 -11.30 am PST.
To watch or read the transcript go to http://www.connectlive.com/events/pewagbiotech020402/registered.html
From: "Kershen, Drew L"
Subject: Organic Seed Productiion
Date: Fri, 8 Feb 2002 15:17:45 -0600
ETC (formerly RAFI) and other anti-agbiotech organizations have
complalined bitterly about the increased seed costs for patented seeds.
While more expensive seeds is indeed a concern for farmers, farmers can
easily and quickly calculate whether they expect the return from
agricultural biotechnology crops (increased yield, decreased
pesticides/herbicides) to more than compensate for the higher prices of
the patentend seeds.
With the preceding as background, I was very interested in an
article in SEED & CROPS DIGEST (Jan. 2002) at pp 4-5 which stated:
"Bob Munger, sales director, Sakata Seed America, ...
estimates that producing organic seed costs at least five times more
than producing conventional seed ... The germination percentage for organic
seed can be 15-20 percent below standard."
Chris Miller, Rijk Zwaan USA ... sais that extra weedking,
pest management, organic fertilizer and quality control, for example,
add up and organic seed production costs can run 100 pecent more than those
for conventional seed."
Organic farmers must make the exact same calculation -- Is the
higher price of organic seeds offset by the higher prices earned by
selling organic produce?
Drew L. Kershen
Earl Sneed Centennial Professor of Law
University of Oklahoma College of Law
Norman, Oklahoma 73019-5081 U.S.A.
Microbial Safety of Fresh Fruits and Vegetables: E coli O157:H7 Infiltration
From: matthews@AESOP.RUTGERS.EDU; To: Jim Gorny
(Forwarded by Tom DeGregori )
Jim - As you can well imaging I have been contacted by folks
throughout the world. I have been trying to answer questions in the
order received, thus, the delay. You have presented questions that we
have also asked or that others have put forth. I have also attached a
document with the answers (may be easier to read that way).
> How could E coli O157H7 go around the Casparian strip in lettuce
> How could E coli O157:H7 puncture through these xylem perforation
> pits to move freely within a lettuce plant?
As a plant pathologist you are aware that certain plant pathogens gain
to internal regions of the plant and ultimately the vasculature by
entering (passively) through
the "branch root wound". One such pathogen is Pseudomonas solanacearum.
Ultimately, the vasculature is clogged and the plant dies. Microbes
may also enter through the root cap as cells are sloughed-off when
the root pushes through the soil. The microbe may not need to gain
access to the vasculature of the plant to migrate from the root to
the edible portion of the plant. Bacteria that have entered the
apoplast may migrate passively through the plant (similar to
capillary action). As stated in the article additional research is
required to address this issue fully. Clearly, we could debate this
for years, however, a better approach ( a scientific one) is to
conduct the research that will provide answers to the questions.v
> Why would E coli O157:H7 have a acquired the evolutionaryadaptation
> would allow it to run rampant in the vascular system of ahigher
> especially since plant pathogens which have co-evolved withplants
> acquired this characteristic?
> How and why would E coli O157:H7 be able to travel greatdistances
> the xylem tissue of lettuce plants?
As indicated, E. coli O157:H7 may enter through the branch root wound
and therefore would have no need to acquire mechanisms to actively
"invade" the plant. E. coli O157:H7 is not a plant pathogen.
> Is E coli O157:H7 really that different and a superbug based on the
> How then can one explain the results put forth in this
What evidence are you referring to? To the best of my knowledge and
upon review of the literature there is no data to suggest that E. coli
cannot enter a lettuce plant through the root system.
> 1) The innocula levels of E coli O157:H7 used in this research were
> excess of what is found in nature. Therefore the data presented is
> worst case scenario that would almost never happen naturally.
The level of inocula was not the real issue. The research was
conducted in part to determine whether E. coli O157:H7 could enter a
plant (lettuce) through the root system. We used high levels to
facilitate detection of the pathogen without having to use
microbiological enrichment procedures. Ultimately, only a few cells
may have entered the plant and multiplied (bacteria such as E. coli
O157:H7 and Salmonella grow very well in plant tissue. See reference
below for Salmonella). Recall, the infective dose of E. coli O157:H7
is extremely low, perhaps a few hundred cells. Therefore, even low
numbers in the edible portion of the plant may present a significant
human health risk. Gandhi, M., S. Golding, S. Yaron, and K.R.
Matthews. 2001. Use of green fluorescent protein expressing
Salmonella Stanley to investigate survival, spatial location, and
control on alfalfa sprouts.
J. Food Prot. 64:1891-1898
> 2) The microbial ecology of soil is complex. This study may have
> soil mixture which was devoid of normally present non pathogenic
> microbes. One cannot tell from the article itself whether or not
> soil medium was used. If so, this may have given the E coli O157:H7
> unnatural competitive ability to colonize within lettuce roots as
> being formed. It is also unlike that a commercial vegetable growers
> plant lettuce seeds in soil with freshly incorporated raw green
Equipment, soil, manure, and water were not sterilized prior to use.
We wanted to simulate field conditions as much as possible. This was
one of many reasons for using GFP expressing E. coli O157:H7.
> 3) From this study we do not know how far into the lettuce head as
> entire edible portion of the leaf lettuce head was homogenized. More
> is needed to determine how much of the edible portion of mature
> heads may be contaminated. Was only a small percentage of the head
> contaminated or just the core tissue which contains vast amounts of
> vascular tissue and is rarely eaten?
We did not investigate spatial location with respect to the entire
plant (i.e., end of leaf, core tissue, etc.). Many folks do eat the
core, regardless, if the pathogen was localized in the core and the
core was cut out, then the knife subsequently used to cut the lettuce
leaves or other vegetables then cross-contamination of the entire
salad or a salad bar may occur. Moreover, the core often 'weeps'
after the plant is harvested this too could result in
cross-contamination of other lettuce heads, workers hands, or wash
water. Out of scientific curiosity we have used a sterile swab to
sample the exudate from the stem/core of the lettuce. Indeed, we
found E. coli O157:H7 present.
> As you are well aware if this remarkable research report is
> it will have far reaching implications to the entire produce
> industry. This is because irrigation water is not necessarily
> it is used in drip irrigation systems, where irrigation lines are
> within crop furrows or under trees and vines. Since the edible
> the fruit or vegetable never comes in contact with potentially
> water by this means of irrigation, this system has provided a safe
> utilizing less than pristine water resources for agricultural
> purposes. The implications of this research paper are that scarce
> water resources for agricultural purposes may have just become a lot
> scarcer. Or treatments systems may now have to be installed to
> all water used in the production of fruits and vegetables is
> regardless of whether or not it touches the edible portion of the
> The data presented in this research article cannot be ignored or
> dismissed. As with many scientific investigations one question often
> to many more. One however must be cautious regarding these findings
> not over project the implications of the data presented based on
> limited scope of this work.
Agree! Implications of this research are enormous. We have a
follow-up paper scheduled for publication in April that focuses on
spray and surface irrigation, persistence in the plant, and efficacy
of surface treatment with chlorine. The target pathogen is E. coli
O157:H7. I have at every opportunity stressed that additional
research is required to determine fully the action(s), if any, that
needs to be taken to ensure the microbial safety of fresh fruits and
USTR says weighing WTO case against EU on biotech
- Reuters, February 7, 2002
WASHINGTON - U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick on Thursday
threatened to challenge the European Union before the World Trade
Organization for its continued moratorium on approving new varieties
of genetically modified (GMO) crops. (ref.2513)
In testimony before the House of Representatives Ways and Means
Committee, Zoellick said the EU's delay on the issue was "totally
unacceptable." "I'm very strongly considering bringing a WTO action,"
Zoellick said, adding that the United States would also consult with
other countries in the hopes of enlisting their support for such an
EU approvals of 13 genetically modified varieties have been delayed
since 1998, when six EU governments, led by France, said there would
have to be tougher rules in place on testing, labeling and tracing of
GMO products before product approvals could resume. The GMO products
awaiting approval range from agriculturals to pharmaceuticals.
"I want to put a real focus on this this year," Zoellick said. "Right
now, they're not approving a darn thing and on top of that, the
traceability and labeling rules ... we think are unworkable." The
EU's delay in approving new varieties has thwarted U.S. corn sales to
Europe, particularly to Spain and Portugal, which had been major
markets for U.S. producers.
Zoellick told the panel he pressed EU officials on the issue during
his last visit to Europe in December and was not optimistic about
progress on the issue in the near future. Last week, during a visit
to Washington, EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy said the best chance
for restarting the GMO crop approval process would be later this
year, when new legislation comes into force. Approvals have been on
hold in Europe primarily because of consumer suspicions there about
the safety of the new varieties, which contain genes borrowed from
other organisms in order to improve their resistance to pests and
Genetically modified varieties came on the market in the late 1990s,
about the same time that Europe was reeling from a number of food
scares, such as mad cow disease. U.S. officials have dismissed
European safety concerns about the new crop varieties as unjustified.
Zoellick told the panel biotech varieties have great potential to
improve the nutritional content of food as well as reduce the need
for pesticides and fertilizers.
Right direction on GM foods
ARE we getting any clarity in the great GM foods debate? Yes, thanks to yesterday’s report from the highly respected Royal Society, the first real independent "think tank" on matters scientific. The society says that current GM crops pose "negligible" risk to health but that there should still be tighter regulations to reassure consumers.
Professor Jim Smith, who chaired the working group, said: "We have looked at all of the available research, and found nothing to suggest that the process of genetic modification makes potential foodstuffs inherently unsafe." But he went on to note: "We fully support the public’s right to know that all new foods are subjected to rigorous safety and nutritional checks."
The Royal Society makes a number of common-sense points. First, there is no reason to doubt the safety of foods made from current GM ingredients. Second, there is no basis to believe that artificial genetic modification makes foods inherently less safe than the random genetic changes in nature that humankind has often harnessed. Third, we are entering uncharted scientific waters the longer we proceed with GM experiments, so there should be a precautionary tightening of regulations, particularly with respect to allergy testing.
This last point takes the GM debate out of the "Frankenstein foods" agenda and on to more concrete ground. GM safety assessments rely on a principle known as "substantial equivalence". A new GM crop is deemed safe if it is essentially the same as the unmodified equivalent. The Royal Society recommends this method should be standardised across the EU. The report also recommends the allergy screening of all new foodstuffs.
Last week, the Scottish executive licensed three more farms to plant GM crops as part of the UK-wide trial programme. Earlier experiments have met resistance - some lawful, some not. Some protesters will always reject GM crops on principle, but this is both irrational and closing the door to their potential benefits. The real issue is how to deploy sensible safeguards, during testing and in any subsequent use. The Royal Society report takes us in this direction.
Date: Sat, 09 Feb 2002 09:35:45 +0000
From: Professor Vivian Moses
An item for AgBioView? Very reminiscent of our GM controversy,
Britain is now being wracked by another "debate": how to vaccinate
children against childhood diseases. Should single vaccines be used
for measles, mumps and rubella or the compound MMR, even though the
latter, it has been suggested, might cause autism?
Here is an illuminating article which will ring certain bells.
A Sad Case of Media Meddling not Reason
- Simon Jenkins, The Times, February 8, 2002
The Health Minister, Yvette Cooper, told the nation this week on
radio that the triple vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella was
safe as safe could be. The medical advice was clear. Of course all
drugs were kept under review, but parents should use MMR. Well said,
Yvette, I thought, and returned to the Corn Flakes.
But Britain is now open house to psychoterrorism. Any troublemaker
can reduce the populace to gibbering panic by a simple stratagem. It
involves finding a dead or damaged child, splashing it across the
media as "human interest" and drumming up a scientist to blame the
Government. Then off we all go.
Since anything called a row must have two sides, Ms Cooper's advice
had, for some reason, to be balanced by a rebuttal. The BBC could not
find a reputable expert so it dragged in her Conservative opponent,
Liam Fox. His performance was as irresponsible as it was
opportunistic. Of course he was in favour of the MMR vaccine but he
felt that any "public disquiet" needed an airing. The political pot
had to be stirred. It was Ms Cooper's fault that MMR use was
declining, Parents were right to be worried. Vote Tory, he almost
cried, vote measles.
When I made my own MMR decision, I regarded it as just another item
of parental risk-management. It sat in the pantheon of terror, with
amniocentesis, post-natal jaundice, whooping cough vaccine, cot
death, babyfood salmonella and chewed Hong Kong toy. It remains a
wonder that any child reaches l2 months. But until Tony Blair turned
fatherhood into a battle between regal privacy and leadership by
example, I never regarded the MMR decision as an Abraham-and-lsaac
Panic attacks caused by Britain's scientific inadequacy have become
absurd. The latest scare arose from a return to some four-year-old
research by a doctor, Andrew Wakefield. He had found a coincidence of
child bowel disorder and autism. He "suggested" that this might be
triggered by the MMR vaccine. Drug safety agencies worldwide
understandably crawled all over his suggestion, but signally failed
to confirm it. Apart from other problems, the symptoms of autism tend
to emerge at l6 months, which happens to coincide with the time when
the MMR jab is normally given.
The media and Tory party are now demanding "single" vaccines for
measles, mumps and rubella. These are not banned and are available
privately. But they are regarded by public health authorities
worldwide as unnecessary and less effective because they require six
separate treatments. MMR is better, a phenomenally successful vaccine
that has all but wiped out these diseases in Britain, France,
Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and most states in America. In some
countries the triple vaccine is even compulsory.
Of course no parent can see television footage of an autistic child
without feeling the stab of fear. It is pure terror, inducing the
protective instinct, however irrational, in all of us. Hence
newspapers love to exploit it. Small wonder 1,000 parents of autistic
children are planning a class action against the five vaccine
In 1988 a similar case was fought on behalf of children suffering
brain damage after taking the whooping cough vaccine. Scientists
representing drugs companies and research institutes came to blows in
television studios. The case before Lord Justice Stuart-Smith was
instructive. He agreed that "at first sight to the untutored and
inexperienced eye" the brain-damaged children made an impact. But his
job was to weigh "the balance of probabilities".
He sifted the evidence and decided that any causal link between
whooping cough jabs and brain damage remained hypothetical. Despite
the fog of research, a sensible person could not say that the vaccine
was dangerous or that its maker, Wellcome, was negligent. The
advantage to public health was clearly in its favour. As a result,
parents continue to vaccinate against whooping cough. Children who
would once have died of it no longer do so.
From everything I have heard and read, the same applies to MMR. Yet
the publicity given to Dr Wakefield's research has had a stark
effect. It has led to MMR cover in Britain falling from 92 per cent
to 84 per cent. Before MMR was introduced in 1988, there were between
10 and 30 child deaths a year from measles. There has been none for
the past decade. Now measles is back, in the North East and in two
separate areas of London. The odds must be on children dying once
more. Already one unvaccinated child has been admitted to intensive
The campaign to encourage parental choice for a single vaccine is the
classic scare twist, the proffering of a safe alternative. Single
vaccines are not free on the NHS for the good reason that there is no
public health case for them. Indeed, if Dr Wakefield's hypothesis
held and autism did result from a measles virus induced in the bowel,
I cannot see why a single measles jab is appreciably less risky than
an MMR one.
No right is as treasured by the British as the right to be scared
witless by the press. Long may that freedom last. But I cannot see
why the State should subsidise the consequence. I cannot see why it
should encourage more costly and less effective MMR prevention than
in the past merely because the press and Opposition are inducing the
public to demand it.
Britain seems likely to find itself isolated in Europe in the paucity
of its cover against epidemics once thought obsolete. The prospect is
bizarre. When I was a child, bouts of measles, mumps and scarlet
fever visited communities as regularly as swallows in summer. Many
died and thousands were scarred or disabled for life. Advances in
public health have stopped this. Children may be pumped full of
vaccines, but the price is surely worth it. We are better and live
longer as a result. l am happy to blame the Government for anything,
but this panic is in no way of the Government's making. Apart from Mr
Blair's attention-grabbing refusal to say whether or not he has given
his son an MMR jab. I cannot see any ministerial fault. The Lancet
has not thundered. The Medical Research Council is solid. The
evidence has not altered and expert advice has not changed. A
thousand parents may be suing a drugs company for millions of pounds,
but that is their business. I am sorry for their plight but I hope
the judge sends them packing.
Scientific convention should always be questioned. especially when
its practitioners are in the pay of drugs companies or government.
There are plenty of wonder drugs that have not worked. The shroud of
thalidomide still hovers over this debate. But in matters of epidemic
control I would rather trust the Chief Medical Officer than the
ranting tribunes of the mob. It is his job to assess risk. He must
punch out the statistics and sustain the general good above a flurry
of individual misfortunes.
The campaign against the MMR vaccine plainly endangers public health.
It is using easily publicised personal tragedies to fuel public fear
and distort policy. I believe any parent has the right to choose
what, if any, vaccine to adopt. They have that choice in Britain.
Although I sympathise with nations that make vaccination compulsory
and ban unvaccinated children from school I admire the fact that it
is still voluntary in this country.
There is a price. What no country does is centralise its health
service as ruthlessly as does Britain. The result is that, when
confidence starts to collapse, in a matter as simple as a vaccination
programme, it collapses nationwide. When every facet of the service,
from a Thai chicken dinner to a washing routine in the Whittington
Hospital, is ordained from Whitehall and becomes a matter for
ministerial accountability in Parliament, chaos is bound to ensue. If
the Government insists on nationalising every bedpan, small wonder it
falls victim to nationalised hysteria.
At the same time, the State has a clear obligation to prescribe the
vaccine which it has decided is the safest and most effective in
warding off epidemic. In the present state of knowledge. that vaccine
is plainly MMR. There can be no public interest in undermining its