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February 25, 2002


Scientists Sign On; CIMMYT Responds to Attack; Seed for


today in AgBioView - Feb 26, 2002

* Update on the AgBioWorld's 'Joint Statement in Support of Scientific Discourse ...
* CIMMYT Responds to "Joint Statement" on Genetically Modified Maize in Mexico
* The "Contamination" Issue
* And Now For Some Words of Wisdom From....
* Scientific American Threatens To Sue Bjorn Lomborg...
* Seed For Thought: Europeans Still Question Biotech's Safety
* Starbucks Protestors Spread False Fears About Safe Foods
* On "Barry Commoner article: UNRAVELING THE DNA MYTH"
* Bone To Pick With GM Label
* Tracking Gene-Altered Crops

Update on the AgBioWorld's 'Joint Statement in Support of Scientific Discourse in Mexican GM Maize Scandal'

Dear Friends:

We have 45 scientists who have signed on to this statement so far. I thank all of you who responded to this initiative. You can view the statement and the names of scientists at


- Prakash

p.s. Dr. Mathew Metz's title appears erroneously as 'Assistant Professor' but should have been 'Postdoctoral Scientist'. I regret the error on premature promotion of Matt.


CIMMYT Responds to "Joint Statement" on Genetically Modified Maize in Mexico

February 22, 2002, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center;
Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maz y Trigo


El Batan, Texcoco, Mexico-On 19 February 2002, a "Joint Statement," formulated primarily by the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC, formerly RAFI) and Food First, on behalf of a group of civil society organizations, was posted on various web sites and listservers. At issue is the possible introgression of transgenes into Mexican maize landraces or criollos, which is of particular concern because Mexico is the center of origin and domestication for maize. The issue is extremely contentious, as some believe that the introduction of a transformed gene into the landraces will decrease genetic diversity, whereas others maintain that it will not affect diversity at all, or indeed would enhance diversity. It also raises issues of intellectual property management.

CIMMYT welcomes active and informed debate on important food and agricultural issues, and certainly maintaining the genetic diversity of one of the world's staple cereals-maize-constitutes a critical issue. In fact, CIMMYT has worked hard during the 1990s to maintain such diversity, both in Mexican farmers' fields and in our gene bank, the Wellhausen-Anderson Plant Genetic Resources Center. We very much regret, however, that in trying to make its point, the Joint Statement at times resorts to inaccurate and/or unsubstantiated information. CIMMYT prefers to let science and facts speak for themselves, but because we are directly cited and sometimes misrepresented in the Joint Statement, we are compelled to respond.

The Joint Statement declares that the Director General of CIMMYT, Professor Timothy Reeves, "has stood by . . . two main points: there is contamination [sic] in a Center of Diversity, and it is only a matter of time before that contamination [sic] reaches into the gene bank-if it hasn't already occurred." The Statement goes on to accuse CIMMYT of being silent on this issue and "hiding behind a debate they themselves understand to be irrelevant on methodologies of GM detection."

On the introgression of transgenic DNA into Mexican landraces: Has it occurred? Possibly. CIMMYT has relied on information from others on this topic. Like the general public, CIMMYT researchers first learned of a promoter used for transgenic maize (cauliflower mosaic virus, CaMV 35S) being discovered in Mexican landraces from the "News" and "Letters to Nature" sections of Nature (issues 27 September and 29 November 2001, respectively), which referred to a study by David Quist and Ignacio Chapela. CIMMYT immediately began to review the study's implications for our own research and for genetic diversity in Mexico.

Since the Quist-Chapela study was reported in Nature, however, other scientists have raised serious questions about the study's methodologies, results, and conclusions (e.g., Transgenic Research 11:iii-v, 2002). Today, Mexican authorities are conducting rigorous experiments that look for the statement of a transgene rather than just the presence of the promoter, to get a clearer picture of whether transgenes have actually arrived and, if so, assess the extent of the introduction. CIMMYT scientists are actively involved with some of these efforts. We understand that a major report will be presented in the coming weeks.

The contention that CIMMYT is "hiding" behind arguments about methodology on this issue is false. Regardless of whether the conclusions of the Quist-Chapela study are accurate, and regardless of questions about their methodology, we have made it very clear that the issue they raise is important, and that careful research must be undertaken without undue delay to evaluate the situation in Mexico. Perhaps CIMMYT's adherence to science (and rigorous research methods) rather than sensational speculation has been misconstrued. "Reliable statements cannot be made about the status of transgenic maize in farmers' fields in Mexico or in gene banks unless a strong methodology is used to evaluate the genetic resources in question and produce reliable results," says CIMMYT Director General Reeves. "We believe such results are still lacking, although there seems to be no hesitancy on the part of others to use preliminary and sometimes unsubstantiated results to support their cause."

The accusation that CIMMYT has remained "silent" on this issue is simply not true. A scant seven days (4 October 2001) following the publication of the September 2001 Nature News item, CIMMYT posted the following statement on its public web site:

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), headquartered in Texcoco, Mexico, regards this as a serious development and offers its considerable expertise to the appropriate Mexican institutions to (1) help identify the type and source of the introduced gene(s), (2) assess potential impacts to biodiversity, the ecology, and the socioeconomic environment, and (3) to explore possible responses . . . . To date, details of the studies referred to in Nature (Vol. 413) about the discovery of transgenes in Mexican landraces have not been released to the public. CIMMYT looks forward to obtaining and reviewing the data and determining the implications both for Mexico and for CIMMYT's work. The Center is in a unique position to assist in such investigations, and, given our mandate to serve the resource poor of the developing world, to work on approaches to maize improvement that benefit poor farmers while protecting valuable genetic resources and the environment.

Following CIMMYT's initial response, results from ongoing screens of gene bank accessions for the CaMV 35S promoter were posted regularly on our web site. Public discourse and publications on this issue by CIMMYT over the years have been considerable. In 1995 (when others were silent on the topic), CIMMYT conducted a workshop on "Gene Flow Among Maize Landraces, Improved Maize Varieties, and Teosinte: Implications for Transgenic Maize." Proceedings of this workshop were published in early 1997 and were made available on the CIMMYT web site. In addition, CIMMYT scientists have regularly written journal articles and given conference presentations on related topics and in recent months spoken extensively to the local and international media on the subject. We have hardly been silent.

In regard to insinuations that transgenes have already found their way into the Wellhausen-Anderson Plant Genetic Resources Center, tests conducted by CIMMYT scientists have found no evidence that transgenic DNA is present in any of the CIMMYT gene bank material that has been tested to date-and the tests are continuing. We have a world-class biotechnology program at CIMMYT and maintain that the statements we make are based on solid scientific evidence.

Lastly, the Joint Statement asserts that CIMMYT Director General Reeves said "it would only be a matter of time before contamination reached the gene banks." Professor Reeves was quoted out of context and issued the following statement to clarify CIMMYT's position and avoid further misquotes or misunderstandings: I will once again state that given what we know about farmers' management of diversity in Mexico, and given what we know about gene flow in maize, if transgenic maize is being grown in farmers' fields as reported in January and again in February, then it is possible that material collected from nearby areas could contain transgenic DNA. It is imperative to learn more about the situation in the field through carefully designed studies and to implement procedures that ensure that the status of material is known before it is stored in gene banks. Only further testing using reliable methodology will determine whether landrace material with transgenic DNA has already been stored in one or more gene banks. As CIMMYT has done to date, we will continue to publish the results of our analyses of our gene bank accessions on our website.

CIMMYT continues to welcome dialogue and open scientific exchanges on the issue. We remain firmly committed to maintaining genetic diversity in both farmers' fields and in our gene bank, a commitment that long pre-dates the flamboyant and often misleading headlines that dominate today's debate. We have repeatedly emphasized that people and governments must determine for themselves, on the basis of their needs and values, whether and how they will use genetically modified food crops and other products of biotechnology. Most important, we remain focused on our primary objective: improving livelihoods of resource-poor farmers and their communities through the well-considered application of first-class science. CIMMYT February 2002


From: Bob MacGregor
Re: Mexican Maize Issue!

In my view, the whole debate hinges on the loaded word "contamination". As long as movement of genes is called contamination, the conclusion is preordained. No matter where maize is grown it accumulates natural variation. Sometimes the rate of natural mutation is accelerated via radiation or chemical treatment. When new varieties of maize are developed in the US, Europe or Africa they may have characteristics which did not exist in landraces at the Mexican center of origin for maize. Should all importation of non-native maize to Mexico be banned in order to protect the integrity of Mexican landraces? After all, incorporation of any new traits would be contamination by the criteria of those banging the drum the loudest in the current controversy.

I wonder what the growers of these landraces think of all this. Do they look favourably on the prospect of US and EU greens telling them their crop varieties must remain static and crop improvement must stagnate in the interests of protecting biodiversity?

Barring the introduction of reproductively-isolated varieties, as long as viable seeds move internationally, there will be "escape" of new characteristics. There may be legitimate concerns about the impact of this from the perspective of a marketer (given the current widespread hysteria about transgenes), but I have yet to see a convincing argument about, much less evidence for, environmental damage resulting from addition of a novel gene into center-of-origin landraces. Like nearly all the scare rhetoric of anti-GE activists, the purported harmful effects remain a remote theoretical risk rather than a proven reality.

Using the term "contamination" to describe a natural and ongoing process of crop improvement by campesinos is a calculated attempt to stir up fear and uncertainty about what is in reality a non-issue.



From: Andrew Apel
Subject: Contamination

As I recall, the use of the word "contamination" to denote the presence of GM off-types in seed was initated by a group with the unlikely name "Friends of the Earth" (FOE) in the course of the seed fiascoes that plagued Europe a while back. About the same time as the plague of mad cows, which some British scientists ascribed to interstellar organisms brought to Earth via comets.

Witness the success of coining terms in "the public debate," such as "Frankenfood," "biopiracy," "terminator technology," etc.

Why does no-one coin terms such as "ecopirates," "technology terminators," or "Frankenfoundations?" Here's my guess: on the "pro" side of "the debate," proponents are willing to be defeated in a noble cause on account of noble ideals. But this isn't a debate, it's war. The antis have abandoned all pretense of debate. And as Patton famously observed, being a hero doesn't mean dying for your country, it's making the other bastard die for his.

Defense only works for so long, then it turns to siege; and when it turns there, at best the end can be postponed. At the end of a siege, the walls fall and the invaders sack until their rapacity is satiated.

In the war of words (and, sometimes, deeds) the besieged seem to have no no sally port. It's not too late to make one.


And Now For Some Words of Wisdom From.....

"Economically Viable Alternative Green: Bridging the gap between environmental idealism and reality"


In the words of Thomas H. Huxley:

The improver of natural knowledge absolutely refuses to acknowledge authority, as such. For him, scepticism is the highest of duties; blind faith the one unpardonable sin.


Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.
Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumoured by many.

Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.

But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

-- Gautama Buddha


>From Klaus Ammann

As Karl Popper already said: "The most important character of scientific knowledge is its revisability..."


Scientific American Threatens To Sue Bjorn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist, For Daring To Defend Himself From Their Attack

'Call for scientists, citizens and organizations to support Lomborg by publishing his reply.'

- Media Release, GreenSpirit, Feb 25, 2002

Scientific American, after running an 11-page editorial in January attacking Bjorn Lomborg's book "The Skeptical Environmentalist", has threatened to sue the Danish scholar because he defended himself on his own Internet site. Fearing legal action from such a large institution (2.3 million readers) Lomborg took the offending copy off his site (www.lomborg.com), thus gutting the effectiveness of his rebuttal. Scientific American refused to give him any space to reply in the January edition and say they will give him one page in a future edition.

Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, now President of Greenspirit, has published the original rebuttal on his own site, www.greenspirit.com, and is calling on all people and organizations that want an open airing of Lomborg's ideas to publish the rebuttal on their own sites and to distribute it widely.

"This is a blatant attempt by Scientific American to stifle free debate and to avoid the embarrassment they deserve after publishing a personal attack in the guise of a science editorial," said Moore. "Anyone who reads Lomborg's reply will see that it is thoughtful and thorough, and that Scientific American is guilty of perpetuating bad science in the name of defending it."

In an e-mail to Moore, Executive Editor Mariette DiChristina states "This is an infringement of our copyright and interferes with our business of selling the article", referring to the fact that Lomborg included the text of the Scientific American article in his reply. Moore responds, "It is ridiculous for Scientific American to suggest that Bjorn Lomborg's website will compete with the January edition of their magazine which is already off the newsstands. If anything it will arouse interest in their publication. Therefore I have concluded that their motivation is political, to stifle debate and to defend their support for environmental extremists who preach that the world is coming to an end even though the facts do not support such a pessimist view."

Lomborg's original rebuttal can be viewed at www.greenspirit.com/lomborg.htm
"I hope that there will be a massive response to this repressive action by Scientific American," said Moore. "Science is supposed to be about the free exchange of ideas and the application of intellectual rigor to debate. Scientific American is behaving in a manner that is both unscientific and un-American."

Moore is urging everyone who publishes the rebuttal or distributes it to e-mail him at patrickmoore@greenspirit.com so he can publish a list of people who support Lomborg's right to defend his views. "You don't have to be in favor of every word Lomborg says to support his right to state his opinion," said Moore. "Lomborg is a breath of fresh air in opening up the discussion of the environment and how we can improve it."
For further information contact: Patrick Moore, Ph.D. ("The Optimistic Environmentalist")
604-221-1990; patrickmoore@greenspirit.com


Seed For Thought: Europeans Still Question Biotech's Safety

- Greg Lamp, Soybean Digest, Mar 1, 2002

The European Union is the No. 1 importer of U.S. beans. But if two proposals currently stuck in the European Commission (EC) Parliament and Council come to fruition, it's possible U.S. farmers could lose a big chunk -- if not all -- of that export market.

First, the EC "traceability and labeling" proposal calls for all farmers to record and pass on information about the genetically modified organisms in their crops, including the unique codes of all events in the shipment. Simply put, that's impossible, unless we're talking about the tightly controlled identity-preserved supply system that's successfully in place.

Your commodity beans, both biotech and non-biotech, are commingled and mixed before being shipped. In fact, a single ton can be made up of soybeans from as many as several thousand individual farms. "Proposing to trace individual supplies through such a system is incomprehensible," says Jerry Slocum, United Soybean Board.

Second, the "novel foods and feeds" proposal is almost as absurd. It promotes process-based labeling so that products derived from biotechnology would be labeled regardless of whether genetic modification can be found in the end product. For example, soybean oil derived from a biotech soybean would have to be labeled even though no DNA protein from the modification appears in the oil.

Both of these proposals only reinforce the confusion that European consumers have with biotech crops. These proposals imply that consumers should be concerned about already approved, and safe, soybeans.

Granted, European consumers are suspicious about food safety in the wake of mad cow and foot-and-mouth disease. But are these proposals going to provide clarity for consumers? It's perhaps a noble gesture on their behalf to clarify for Europeans whether food has a biotech source. But without the ability to successfully test and trace, consumers will likely be even more confused than they are now.

The proposals, which some call ridiculous, could be hung up in the European Union's decision-making process for up to two years. At a biotech meeting I attended in Germany last month, it was obvious just how stagnant the debate on biotechnology has become. In some respects, it appears that European consumer acceptance of biotech has actually slipped backward. What a shame.


Starbucks Protestors Spread False Fears About Safe Foods


Warning: Starbucks Protestors Spread False Fears About Safe Foods: Misleading attacks on milk and safe foods cause unnecessary concerns for parents and consumers

(Seattle/ New York-February 2002) Caveat Emptor. Consumers and journalists beware-Anti-biotechnology activists engaged in a week of "direct action" at Starbucks Coffee shops this week aim to target you over the next few days with false and misleading information about food safety, nutrition and the environment. The same people who brought you a long list of other false health and environmental scares-including the infamous Alar in apples scare, the Dow-Corning breast implant campaign-and dozens of other debunked fears are at it again. This time the scaremongers are targeting such safe foods as milk and other dairy products in your local Starbucks.

Like the misleading Alar in apples scare, activists often use products associated with children-like milk and ice cream-and falsely link these products with horrible ills such as cancer to evoke the greatest fear among parents and the consuming public. The harm and cost to consumers and farmers alike can be significant.

In 1989 environmental activists and their public relations firm Fenton Communications claimed that the use of the plant growth regulator Alar by apple growers was causing cancer in children who eat apples and drink apple juice. The claims made national headlines and were highlighted on news programs like 60 Minutes. They turned out to be false, but they cost apple farmers (particularly those in Washington State) hundreds of millions, increased consumer food costs, and caused a significant spike in consumer purchases of organic produce. Conveniently, this public relations firm also represented the benefiting organic food industry interests, who also conveniently funded the environmental activists.

When the science and health community responded and showed that the offending "cancer-causing" chemical was, in fact, less carcinogenic than bacon, tap water or peanut butter (Bruce Ames, University of California Berkeley), it was too late. The public relations firm had celebrated achieving their goal; "the PR campaign was designed so that revenue would flow back to the (client) from the public." (Source: Fenton Communications memo published in the Wall Street Journal, 10/3/1999). And when confronted over a decade later when the false 'cancer in children'

fears failed to materialise, the PR firm referred inquiries to their client, the Natural Resources Defence Council, which stated, "The message of that report might have been muddled by the media, and the public might have over-reacted, because we never said there was an immediate danger from Alar..." (Source: PR Central's Inside PR Monday, September 4, 2000)

Today, more than a decade later, the same public relations firm and the same activists are in Seattle and at local corner coffee shops across the country spreading false fears about the safety of milk from cows supplemented with bioengineered bovine growth hormones (rbST). This time Fenton Communications represents ice cream manufacturer Ben & Jerry's and a variety of other "organic" and "natural" products companies whose sales benefit from these scares. Fenton is also representing the activists coalition Genetically Engineered Food Alert attacking the safety of dairy products derived from cows that are supplemented with rbST. Once again, these activists are receiving funding from the benefiting organic industry interests.

These slick public relations professionals promote false claims by evolutionary ecologist Michael Hansen, Dr. Samuel Epstein (ranked by the American Association for Cancer Research as the least credible scientist on issues of environmental cancer), or fired Fox journalists turned activists Steve Wilson and Jane Akre. These supposed experts proclaim that such dairy products cause cancer, harm cows, and hurt small dairy farmers. But check the facts from the hundreds of real experts who have published and commented on these issues:

American Cancer Society: "There are no valid findings to indicate a risk of human carcinogenesis." * Health Canada (Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada expert panel): There is "no biologically plausible reason for concern about human safety."* Children's Nutrition Research Center (Baylor College of Medicine): There is "no scientific basis for claims regarding bovine somatotropin and IGF-1... if (these claims) were true, then human colostrum, human breast milk, and indeed, all milk would be incriminated as a cause of cancer... women and their children have nothing to fear regarding the nation's milk supply."* The American Medical Association: "BST is a protein hormone that is produced naturally by cows to help them make milk. Supplementing cows with small amounts of BST has been shown to increase their milk production by 10-40 percent per cow without harming the animal or altering the nutritional value of their milk."* National Institutes of Health (Journal of the American Medical Association): "rbST-treated cows experience no greater health problems than untreated cows." * Former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop: "Unfortunately, a few fringe groups are using misleading statements and blatant falsehoods as part of a long-running campaign to scare consumers about a perfectly safe food. Their long-range goal is to prevent the benefits of biotechnology from reaching the public. Because dairy foods are an important, widely consumed source of nutrition, it is necessary to condemn these attacks on the safety of milk for what they are: baseless, manipulative and completely irresponsible."

So, next time you look at a pint of eco-friendly Ben & Jerry's or the premium-priced organic milk option offered by Starbucks, remember, all milk contains bovine growth hormones-they are naturally produced by all dairy cows. Supplementing dairy cows to help them maintain their natural peak levels of this hormone does not change the milk in any way -but it does help protect our environment by enabling family dairy farmers to produce more milk with fewer cows. This results in significantly less water and fuel use, less grain and land under the plow, and less animal waste. This safe product - used by more small dairy farmers than large - also helps family farmers remain profitable and ensure they can afford to pass along their farms to future generations.

Biotechnology helps farmers produce more safe and nutritious food, using less land and less input. This is good for consumers, good for the environment and good for farmers-misleading fear campaigns, on the other hand, are not.


From: William Muir
Subject: Re: Barry Commoner article: UNRAVELING THE DNA MYTH The spurious
foundation of genetic engineering

This is the best example I have seen to date where a little knowledge is dangerous. The statement

>"The mistakes might be dismissed as the necessary errors that characterize scientific progress. But behind them lurks a more profound failure. The wonders of genetic science are all founded on the discovery of the DNA double helix-by Francis Crick and James Watson in 1953-and they proceed from the premise that this molecular structure is the exclusive agent of inheritance in all living things: in the kingdom of molecular genetics, the DNA gene is absolute monarch. Known to molecular biologists as the "central dogma," the premise assumes that an organism's genome-its total complement of DNA genes---should fully account for its characteristic assemblage of inherited traits. 7 The premise, unhappily, is false. Tested between 1990 and 2001 in one of the largest and most highly publicized scientific undertakings of our time, the Human Genome Project, the theory collapsed under the weight of fact. There are far too few human genes to account for the complexity of our inherited traits or for the vast inherited differences between plants, say, and people. By any reasonable measure, the finding (published last February) signaled the downfall of the central dogma"

has been totally misunderstood by the public and many scientists. What the human genome project has shown is that the one-gene one-trait concept is false. Quantitative geneticists have known this for over 80 years and is in fact the basis for quantitative genetic variation. Traits such as height, weight, etc. are the results of many, perhaps 1000's of genes acting together, and in conjunction with environmental influences, to form the phenotype (what we see or measure). It is also well known that epistasis exists. Epistasis is the nonlinear interaction among genes at different loci. With epistasis, it is the gene combinations which are important. Thus for example, 2 loci, each with 2 alleles, have 9 different combinations, not 4. With 3 locus interactions, 3 loci each with 2 alleles, there are 27 different combinations, not 9, etc. Thus what has been claimed to be a new result of the human genome project is something that we have always known, that epistasis is common. What we did not know was all the ways in which epistasis could be generated, alternative splicing is one explanation.

However, much of quantitative genetics, such as the concept of heritability, genetic correlation, and prediction of genetic response to selection in classic plant and animal breeding programs, is based on the additive infinitesimal model, which says that there are an infinite number of genes all of which act additivity (not epistatically). What is amazing is the accuracy with which an incorrect model has been able to predict response to selection in classic breeding program (see Dekkers and Hospital 2002 Nature Reviews Genetics 3:22-32) given that model was known to be incorrect.

This result demonstrates the principle of scale. Some levels of organization or irrelevant for understanding other levels. For example, understanding all the molecules in the metal of an airplane, and their interaction, would not help at all in understanding of how the plane flies. It is the shape of the wing, not the material that makes the wing, which makes the plane fly. The same analogy applies to predicting risk. Understanding all the molecules in the body and all their interactions will not help to predict risk. It is the phenotype, that which we can see and measure, that interacts with the environment which produces risk. While I would agree that we need to measure many aspects of the phenotype to determine risk, I disagree that a finer scale is needed or useful.


Bone To Pick With GM Label

- Anne Dawson, The Ottawa Sun, Feb 23, 2002

Slapping a label reading "genetically modified" on food is akin to putting a skull and bones stamp on the product, says a leading U.S. biotechnology expert. Dr. Channapatna Prakash says there's no need to label GM food products -- dubbed Frankenfoods by critics -- because they are as safe as their conventional counterparts.

In town to meet with Justice Department officials, the Alabama University (sic) genetics professor blamed environmental groups and the organic food industry for causing hysteria over GM foods. It's for their own political and ethical purposes, he said. "Labels (should not be) a platform for venting your social, political and ethical arguments," Prakash said. "If the product is the same (as conventional foods), why label it? You (label it) GM and you're simply going to deny a consumer a choice. It's like putting skull and bones (on the product)."

GM food is a term used for food that has had its genetic makeup altered to displace certain characteristics such as a dull colour, or to make it resistant to pests.

Prakash said GM goods have been stringently tested for up to eight years in both Canada and the U.S. and added that while U.S. testing is strict, standards are even tougher in Canada. Greenpeace experts disagree. Spokesman Pat Venditti said none of the testing is independent. It's all done by big corporations that have a financial interest at stake.


Tracking Gene-Altered Crops

- Editorial, St Louis Post-Dispatch, Feb 24, 2002

A National Academy of Sciences panel is urging the federal government to issue the equivalent of environmental impact statements before approving genetically altered plants. The goal is to shield the environment from unforeseen problems with crops before they are planted for commercial purposes. In some ways, this recommendation amounts to trying to stop the process after the genetically modified crops have been planted, watered and harvested. Consider this number: Some 88 million acres of genetically altered crops were put into U.S. soil last year. And the volume is certain to grow rapidly in future years.

The scientists found no evidence of environmental harm from these crops. But they made a prudent recommendation that the government continue to monitor fields even after genetically altered plants are being grown commercially. As the panel's report notes, "Without systematic monitoring, the lack of evidence of damage is not necessarily a lack of damage." This monitoring is essential because not even the best scientific minds in biology and agriculture can foresee all the potential harm these crops might pose to the environment.

The panel also called into question the boosterism for gene- altering technology among scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the lead agency overseeing safety studies and approving commercial use of most genetically engineered crops. The panel recommends that the agency bring in outside scientists to help it fulfill this important regulatory mission. That would improve the agency's objectivity.

In addition, the panel urged biotech companies to make crucial data public, including the complete DNA sequences spliced into plant genes. This information might help us learn much about the hidden potential for harm.

The biotechnology industry appears to embrace these recommendations. And for good reason. It made a colossal blunder, that backfired, in assuming that marketing its gene-altered crops to the world would be a no-brainer.

About all the industry has been able to do is get its products out of the gate. But it has yet to scale the border, which is to say the global agricultural market. In Europe, for example, rejection of genetically modified food is costing U.S. corn farmers about $600 million in lost exports.

By following the panel's recommendations, the government and industry stand to harvest a lot of credibility. Without it, they won't convince the world that these crops are safe for our dinner tables and our environment.