Today in AgBioView - March 13, 2002
* Pharming into the Future: Becoming a Player in the Biotech Revolution
* Scientists Ensure That Any New Food Crop is Safe
* 150 million Children Suffer Malnutrition, says UNICEF
* Confidence in Biotech Rises
* Genetically Yours
* The IT Revolution Missed Punjab, We Won't Let Biotech Pass Us By..
* The U.N. Offers 'Swimming Lessons to People in the Sahara'
* Scientific Committee for The Lombardy County Council (Italy)
* Molecular Biology of Weed Control
* Biotechnology, Innovation and Development - William G. Padolina
Pharming into the Future: Becoming a Player in the Biotech Revolution
- Bill Horan, Truth About Trade and Tech (forwarded by Mary Boote
I've been a farmer for decades--but now I'm in the process of
becoming a pharmer. On the surface, there isn't much difference
between the two. Both live primarily in rural America and grow crops.
But where farmers want to feed the world, pharmers hope to heal it.
My brother Joe and I are involved in an ambitious project to grow
corn that will help people afflicted by cystic fibrosis. The clinical
tests are still underway, but we believe our product will help 30,000
people find relief from painful digestive disorders within three
years, and more in the future.
This may sound like science fiction, but it's quickly becoming
science fact. Before long, pharming may help treat diabetes and
cancer patients and also produce vaccines. I'm a former Marine, and
one of my fondest hopes is that the Department of Defense will work
with pharmers to produce an anthrax vaccine from corn--perhaps before
another terrorist launches a new killing spree against American
Organic chemists currently produce most of the drugs prescribed by
doctors, and they do it synthetically. Drug companies in search of
new and specialized medical treatments, however, look increasingly to
proteins, which can't be manufactured by traditional methods. They
need to be grown--and one of the most attractive methods for growing
them is in corn. This staple crop of the American heartland is much
more receptive than other plants to genetic manipulation, and it may
very well become the main vehicle through which the pharmaceutical
industry develops the next generation of wonder drugs.
Agricultural biotechnology is not without its detractors--usually
activists who don't understand basic science or appreciate the
enormous potential of genetically modified crops. The prospect that
innovative strains of corn might be used not only to increase yield
and resist disease but also to treat some of the worst diseases
afflicting mankind has caused at least one person in their ranks the
rethink his beliefs. "I have concerns about genetic engineering,"
said Paul Gilding, former executive director of Greenpeace
International, in an interview with Top Producer. "But genetically
engineered crops to treat cancer would be a maximum societal benefit."
Who could argue with that? Farmers already alleviate incredible
amounts of human suffering simply by growing crops that provide
nourishment to hungry people. Imagine if pharmers could join them by
growing crops that offer treatment to sick ones.
This is welcome news for everybody everywhere--and it's especially
welcome news for agricultural communities in rural America, which
will experience the economic benefits of the biotech revolution
firsthand. Pharming promises to free these regions from the problem
of low commodity prices and the trap of government subsidies. What's
more, high-tech companies will locate many of their offices and
plants near the pharms in the corn belt and anywhere people are
willing to experiment with cropland to create a new generation of
pharmaceutical products. On a fundamental level, that means jobs in
areas that haven't seen as much growth as other parts of the country
in recent years.
Like many farmers, my brother and I have experimented with crops over
the years. We've grown waxy corn that goes into salad dressing and
soybeans for Japanese consumers. But we've never been so excited as
we are now about the potential good that may come from our harvest.
I'm not exaggerating when I say that the oncoming biotech revolution
is going to be much bigger than the information revolution we've seen
in Silicon Valley--an enormously important event that is changing our
world. We' re on the threshold of improving quality of life all
around the planet, with the only limits coming from our own
imagination and willingness to seize scientific opportunities.
Bill Horan farms with his brother Joe near Rockwell City, IA and
serves on the Board of Directors for Truth About Trade and
Technology. Over 50% of the crops grown on this NW Iowa farm are
produced under contract for various end-users.
Scientists Ensure That Any New Food Crop is Safe
- Quentin Martin, Kitchener-Waterloo Record, Mar 11, 2002
Terri Reynolds raises important issues in her recent discussion of
biotechnology in the March 1 Insight page article, Don't Mess With
Mother Nature And Her Food. She has, however, missed the fact that
most of the precautions she advocates are already part of Canada's
regulatory process for the approval of genetically modified foods.
As a farmer who grows crops for seed, some of them genetically
modified or enhanced, I'm intrigued by the way people, especially
young people, view changes in food production. However, as a board
member of two organizations that attempt to provide balanced
information on modern food production, I've observed that some of the
most basic points are missed.
Before any new food crop is approved for use or sale in Canada, it is
assessed by scientists at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and
Health Canada to ensure its safety for human and animal health and
for the environment. The guidelines upon which these assessments are
based were developed in consultation with international scientific
Mandatory labelling is required for any new food that changes the
nutritional composition of the food or poses a safety risk such as
causing an allergic reaction. Two independent panels examining
genetically modified foods in Canada -- the Royal Society and the
Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee -- have both confirmed that
the GM foods currently on the market do not pose any higher degree of
risk than do their conventionally produced counterparts.
Adoption rates for GM crops continue to increase in Canada and all
other countries where such crops are available. In Ontario in 2001,
approximately 40 per cent of corn, 25 to 30 per cent of soybeans and
more than 80 per cent of canola were produced from genetically
I know farmers are choosing these varieties because of the advantages
they may offer, including improved food quality and safety, increased
yields, lower cost or simpler crop inputs and reduced need for
chemical pest control products. By applying this technology in a
sensible manner, along with the best of traditional methods, we are
also able to reduce tillage, thereby reducing soil erosion.
These are environmental as well as societal benefits. Reynolds'
concerns regarding the morality of "interfering with nature" could be
applied to most aspects of contemporary life: vaccines, antibiotics,
formal education, democracy, permanent shelter, even agriculture
itself could be described as "unnatural."
But few would choose to revert to the life of the hunter-gatherer,
where life could best be described, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, as
"nasty, brutish and short." The question is not whether we interfere
with nature -- we have for hundreds of years. The question is how to
do it in such a way as to ensure that the benefits are balanced and
the risks are responsibly managed. Indeed, each farmer may have a
different recipe for sustainable production.
There is no single right answer. There is room for intelligent debate
as we move ahead. Such debates are taking place. Recently, the
federal government hosted a conference on molecular farming.
There was broad representation from throughout the food production
and consumption spectrum. Wouldn't it be great if the folks in
Georgia developing the molecular map of the peanut were able to
genetically eliminate that allergen threat?
Finally, I would encourage people who are concerned about these
issues to look beyond the opinion pages. There is lots of information
available, especially electronically. Two sites that are dear to me
-- www.agcare.org and www.foodbiotech.org -- may be a good place to
Quentin Martin of RR 2, West Montrose, is co-owner of a family farm
and seed conditioning facility with four family members called
Wintermar Farms Ltd. and Cribit Seeds.
150 million Children Suffer Malnutrition, says UNICEF
Wednesday, March 13, 2002
LONDON - While "spectacular gains" have been made against some
nutritional deficiencies, one-third of children in the developing
world are malnourished, according to a report released Wednesday.
The report by the United Nations Children's Fund found that child
malnutrition in the developing world had fallen from 32 percent to 28
percent, or about 150 million children in all. But nearly half the
children in South Asia and less than one-third in sub-Saharan Africa
were malnourished, it said.
"The familiar symbol of the visibly starving child misrepresents the
problem. In reality, most malnutrition is totally invisible,"
according to the report "Malnutrition: The News."
Frequent illness, not a lack of food, is the major factor in
malnutrition, the report said. The overwhelming majority of
malnourished children live in homes with enough food, according to
the study. Illness can cause a lack of appetite, calories are used up
fighting infections, and vomiting and diarrhea drain away vital
The vast majority of malnourished children develop the condition in
the first three years of life - a critical period for brain and body
growth. "The greatest tragedy of malnutrition is that it prevents
children from reaching their full potential," said former James Bond
actor Roger Moore, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador.
On the up side, the report said 18 countries, including China,
Mexico, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Vietnam, reduced child
malnutrition by 25 percent or more.
More than 70 percent of the developing world's households now use
iodized salt - a rise of 50 percent - protecting an estimated 12
million children a year from suffering brain damage as a result of
iodine deficiency. Vitamin A supplements now reach half the world's
children, saving about 333,000 lives a year, the report said. And the
decline in breast-feeding - key to good nutrition - appears to have
The study was conducted in more than 100 countries. Its figures were
compiled from the largest-ever data collection on infant well-being
and the first released in a decade.
Confidence in Biotech Rises
Council for Biotechnology Information, http://www.whybiotech.com
According to a recent survey conducted by the Council for
Biotechnology Information, a majority of U.S. consumers, who are
aware of agricultural biotech and genetically modified foods, are
supportive of the technology.
A total of 2,010 interviews were conducted among a national random
sample of adults Nov. 1-17, 2001. The estimated margin of error is
plus or minus 2.2 percent at the 95 percent confidence level. The
council has been tracking consumer attitudes since March 2000.
For the first time, a majority of U.S. consumers (51 percent) are
aware that foods produced through biotechnology are in supermarkets,
a 9-point increase since the council first began tracking consumer
attitudes. Awareness that food is in stores also is at an all-time
high among the group identified as gatekeepers (41 percent in
November versus 30 percent in March 2000) and opinion leaders (71
percent in November and 57 percent in March 2000). Gatekeepers are
women under 50 who do not have a four-year college degree and opinion
leaders include men and women with a four-year college degree who pay
attention to news.
The survey shows that the public perceptions of the benefits of plant
biotechnology remain strong. Overall, consumers believe that
biotechnology can help feed the world (72 percent), produce hardier
crops (66 percent), produce healthier foods (57 percent) and allow
farmers to use fewer pesticides (51 percent).
For the first time, CBI surveying shows a majority of consumers (54
percent) feel the benefits of plant biotechnology outweigh the risks.
The survey shows the greatest shift in attitudes among gatekeepers.
In August 2001, only 38 percent of gatekeepers felt the benefits
outweigh the risks, while the number jumped to 51 percent in November.
A majority also believe that biotechnology in farming will be good
for society in the long run, including 60 percent of consumers in
general (up 10 points from March 2000), 55 percent of gatekeepers (up
13 points) and 65 percent of opinion leaders (a strong majority of
whom have always agreed with the statement).
The November survey shows no change among consumers' overall
willingness to buy genetically modified foods. Among gatekeepers, the
November survey shows an increasingly positive and steady trend. In
March 2000, gatekeepers preferred not to buy GM foods by a 17-point
margin (57 percent would not versus 40 percent would). The November
survey shows the margin narrowed (50 percent would not versus 47
"CBI's communication efforts reached out to the gatekeeper for the
first time in 2001 in an attempt to create more awareness about the
safety and benefits of biotech crops and foods in this critical
audience," said CBI Executive Director Linda Thrane. "Their positive
response to the information is consistent with what our research has
repeatedly demonstrated: That the more people know about
biotechnology, the more they support it."
- Editorial, Hindustan Times (India), March 12, 2002
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singhís call for quickly introducing
Bt cotton in the state will find echoes elsewhere in the country
where farmers are fighting a losing battle against the bollworm pest.
Bt cotton is genetically modified to resist the pest and has the
potential to dramatically improve crops while cutting down the use of
pesticides that has now become a grave economic and environmental
Chinese farmers have already taken the lead in the commercial use of
Bt cotton and their efforts prove the big role that GM crops can play
in both rich and poor countries in the days to come. Thus GM cotton
uses almost 90 per cent less insecticide than non-GM cotton in the
US, and that has meant almost 90 per cent less pesticide polluting
rivers, leaving residues in the soil and killing harmless insects.
Since the science of genetic manipulation is still Greek to the
Indian farmer, its complexity and newness leave room for legitimate
fears. The reality, however, is quite reassuring. Since the first
transgenic plant "a tobacco plant resistant to an antibiotic" was
created in 1983, nearly 30,000 closely monitored field trials on GM
plants have been conducted. These trials have involved billions of
individual plants and, remarkably, none of these trials indicated any
health or environmental hazards. It is unfortunate that green
activists fuel apprehensions by conjuring up images of
herbicide-resistant 'superweeds' and 'supercrops' that would need to
be eradicated by even more powerful chemicals.
One contention of the critics is that the use of such highly potent
herbicides negates the advantages of herbicide-resistant strains.
This is quite untrue, as there is enough scientific experience and
agricultural biotechnology available. Of course, if farmers were to
use herbicide-tolerant crops in isolation, it might engender tolerant
crops. But then farmers in any case usually rotate both crops and
herbicides to minimise the chances of tolerance. So genetic
modification can only help them protect their crops - with far fewer
chemicals, and without the added risk of the crop developing
The IT Revolution Missed Punjab, We Won't Let BT Pass Us By..
- Sonu Jain, Indian Express, March 8, 2002 (from: Amarjit S. Basra
'Punjab's chief minister says state is on the edge of an agricultural
crisis, its revival hinges on government's approval of Bt cotton
New Delhi: Ask Captain Amarinder Singh, Punjab's spanking new chief
minister, about the one thing that could turn around the state's
dismal economic condition around and the reply is instantaneous: Bt
cotton. "The infotech revolution missed Punjab. I will not let the
biotechnology revolution pass it by" says the three-day-old chief
On the day Amarinder took oath, a high-level committee was set up
under the chairmanship of S S Johal, former vice chancellor of Punjab
Agricultural University, to recommend a strategy for crop
diversification. Though the details haven't been worked out, he says,
the state will also make a pitch for clearance of Bt cotton to the
Genetic Engineering Approval Committee.
Amarinder joins the long list of those who are dismayed - and very
vocally - at the delay in approving Bt cotton for the country. Bt
cotton is a transgenic variety of cotton which has inbuilt resistance
to bollworm, its most common pest.
Amarinder's enthusiasm for Bt cotton is backed by some hard, harsh
facts: from a state which produced 27 lakh (2.7 million) bales of
cotton, production is down to seven lakh (0.7 million) this year.
This is the seventh consecutive cotton crop that has failed in the
state. Six hundred farmers committed suicide in Punjab this year. The
state has already produced 12 million tonnes of wheat in the present
season, adding to the ever-increasing stock.
He says he is leading a state which has 70 per cent of its population
living in villages, and is staring its worst agricultural crisis ever
in the eye. The challenge is to make that much-needed shift from
wheat and rice paradigm to high value cash crops like cotton. "The
low yields are because of the American bollworm attack, and Bt offers
the solution. It just does not make sense to me why it is being
opposed," he said. "It is not terminator technology but just a modern
technological innovation which has been tried and tested in other
countries," he added.
With normal cotton being widely accepted as "no longer economically
viable ", Bt cotton seems the only solution for some agricultural
experts. Punjab depends heavily on cotton, with the total acerage
under cotton being as much as 5.43 lakh hectares. "Increasing the
yield of cotton crop is the only solution and tests have shown that
Bt can do it. Then why is it being denied to the farmers?" he asked.
"The result is that farmers are spraying their cotton crops 27 times
instead of the permitted seven, leading to high pesticide level in
the soil and in the atmosphere" he pointed out. This is damaging the
very fabric of the environment. "The cattle that feed in this area
also have a high level of pesticide in their systems. Vultures are
disappearing after eating these carcasses."
Risk & Regulations: The U.N. Offers 'Swimming Lessons to People in the
- Henry I. Miller, National Review Online, March 12, 2002
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has announced a $38
million initiative to help developing countries set up infrastructure
for the testing and commercialization of products made with
recombinant-DNA technology. The three-year project will center on
"building capacity for assessing risks, establishing adequate
information systems and developing expert human resources in the
field of biosafety."
But the proposal is problematic. Many of the countries for which it
is intended have virtually no regulations in place for acknowledged
high-risk activities (such as public transport and occupational
hazards), and their expenditures on public health are woefully
inadequate. In poor tropical countries, for example, it's not unusual
to see preteens welding or using dangerous machinery with no
protective gear and wearing only a loincloth; and enteric illnesses,
malaria, schistosomiasis, and viral diseases that have been all but
eradicated from industrialized countries are still epidemic in many
Nonetheless, the U.N. reckons that what these countries really need
is bureaucracies to "enable scientists to test for transgenic crops."
This is "like offering swimming lessons to people in the Sahara,"
according to Calestous Juma, director of the Science, Technology and
Innovation Program at Harvard University, which focuses on the role
of R&D in developing countries.
The wrongheaded approach of the U.N. turns on its head a basic tenet
of regulation — that the amount of oversight accorded a product or
activity should be commensurate with risk. In fact, in UNEP's
approach there is actually an inverse proportionality between risk
and the amount of oversight. Only the more precisely crafted and more
predictable recombinant DNA-modified organisms are subjected to
extensive and expensive testing and monitoring (and perhaps,
labeling) regimes; by contrast, plants crafted using less precise and
predictable techniques, such as wide crosses (hybridizations in which
genes are moved across wide phylogenetic distances) and intensive
mutagenesis, are exempt.
Consider, for example, the relatively new manmade "species" Triticum
agropyrotriticum, made by combining the genomes of bread wheat and a
grass sometimes called quackgrass or couchgrass. Possessing all the
chromosomes of the wheat plus one extra whole genome from the
quackgrass, T. agropyrotriticum has been independently produced in
the former Soviet Union, Canada, the United States, France, Germany,
and China. It is grown for both animal feed and human food. At least
in theory, several kinds of problems could result from such a genetic
construction, which introduces tens of thousands of foreign genes
into an established plant variety. These concerns include the
potential for increased invasiveness of the plant in the field, and
the possibility that quackgrass-derived proteins could be toxic or
But U.N. regulators express no concern for these possibilities, and
plant varieties like these — which are certainly "genetically
modified" according to any reasonable definition — are subject to no
review prior to being field tested or introduced into the food chain.
If a single gene from couchgrass (or any other organism) were to be
introduced into wheat by means of recombinant-DNA techniques, by
contrast, the resulting variety would be subject to extraordinary and
hugely expensive regulatory regimes.
How can one explain such an illogical, improvident proposal? Only as
a cynical attempt by UNEP to "buy" recruits to the U.N.'s
unscientific and flawed Cartagena biosafety protocol. This regulatory
instrument is based on the so-called "precautionary principle," which
dictates that every new technology must be proven safe before it can
be used — or in the case of recombinant DNA, before it can even be
tested! An ounce of prevention is certainly desirable, but because
nothing can be proved totally safe — at least, not to the standard
demanded by anti-technology extremists — the precautionary principle
creates enormous obstacles to the development of new products.
Precaution, in this sense, shifts the burden of proof from the
regulator (who used to have to demonstrate that a new technology
would cause harm) to the innovator (who now must demonstrate that it
Thus, rather than creating a scientifically sound framework for
effectively managing genuine risks, the biosafety protocol offers an
ill-defined global regulatory process that permits overly
risk-averse, incompetent, or corrupt regulators to hide behind the
precautionary principle in delaying or deferring approvals. We have
already seen many examples of this — for example, the German
government's decision to block the commercial-scale cultivation of
gene-spliced, insect-resistant corn by the biotechnology company
Novartis. This action came one day before the product was expected to
be approved by the Ministry of Agriculture for commercial use;
regulators specifically cited the need to respect the precautionary
principle, and called for more research into the crop plant's
potential hazards. Italian regulators likewise have cited the
precautionary principle as their rationale for blocking the testing
or use of recombinant DNA-modified crops and food.
Under the biosafety protocol's standard of evidence, regulatory
bodies are free to arbitrarily require any amount and kind of testing
they may wish. Particularly in developing countries, this will be an
invitation to caprice, intrigue, and corruption.
The UNEP's cynical attempts to bribe recruits — that is, countries
that will ratify the Cartagena protocol — offer a Faustian bargain to
developing countries. They would receive small grants up front; in
the long term, however, unscientific, excessive regulation of this
promising new technology — and companies' resulting uncertainty as to
their ability to test and market products — will ensure that the
biotechnology revolution passes them by.
Ironically, the U.N. is pressing developing countries to enact the
same flawed, "precautionary" regulations that cause Europe to lag far
behind the United States in the quest for world markets of
biotechnology — markets that could exceed two trillion euros ($1.762
trillion) by the end of the decade, according to the European
It is as wrong for governments to create policies blocking the
dissemination of crucial technologies as it would be for them to
sanction the building of unsafe dams or the use of HIV-contaminated
blood. Government officials should be held as accountable.
Scientific Committee for The Lombardy County Council (Italy)
Milan (Italy), February 26. 2002 From: firstname.lastname@example.org
Lombardy's President R. Formigoni together with county councillors
for Agriculture (and Vice President V. Beccalossi) and for Health (C.
Borsani) has installed today the Scientific Committee for
AgBiotechnology. The scientific committee will be chaired by prof. F.
Salamini (Max Plank Institute for Plant breeding, Cologne, Germany).
The committee is the result of a collaboration with the Agricultural
faculty of the University of Milan and includes scientist from Europe
and USA. The committee will provide consultative advice and
information for the definition of Lombardy County policy in support
of the development of biotechnology and application thereof. The
committee activity should help to develop a local policy in favour of
a sustainable and eco-compatible development in the agri-food sector,
a primary sector in Lombardy's advanced economy.
Molecular Biology of Weed Control
This 'soon to be released' book contains critical discussions of
herbicide resistance and transgenic herbicide resistant crops, but
also extend way beyond it to areas that now may seem to be science
Author: Prof. Jonathan Gressel, Plant Sciences , Weizmann Institute
of Science, Rehovot IL76100, Israel; email:
Send your order to By post: Antonio Upali, Taylor & Francis Ltd, New
Fetter Lane, London EC4P 4EE Tel: +44 (0) 1264 343071 Fax: +44 (0) 20
7842 2300 Email: email@example.com
For US orders: Tel: 1-800-634-7064 Fax: 1-800-248-4724 Email:
Biotechnology, Innovation and Development
- William G. Padolina (Deputy Director General for Partnerships,
International Rice Research Institute, Phillipines)
Presented at the 'Int. Conf. on Biotechnology and Development:
Challenges and Opportunities', New Delhi, India, Feb 26 -27, 2002 ;
Organized by RIS in participation with UNESCO and Department of
Biotechnology, Govt. of India; Forwarded by Sachin Chaturvedi
In this day and age, it is the common desire of all nations to be
strong, prosperous and secure. The advent of new challenges related
to competition within a liberalized trade environment has given rise
to new stresses in national life. Recognizing the fact that
"technological backwardness is not usually a mere accident"
(Abramovitz, 1986), it is imperative that the developing countries
formulate strategies to achieve an adequate level of scientific and
technological competence especially in the emerging technologies.
Setting up a functional system of innovation in a country is going to
be a major determinant to their competitiveness in the agriculture,
industry and the service sectors.
One of these emerging technologies is biotechnology. Today. I would
like to share my thoughts on how biotechnology, innovation and
development interrelate, with the caveat that biotechnology is simply
one of the many technologies that need to be harnessed by any
national system of innovation and mainstreamed into the development
I am fully aware that biotechnology covers many techniques and it may
not be useful to lump them together in this discussion. However,
these techniques are interrelated and they have a cumulative impact.
But recombinant DNA technology is the hallmark of modern
biotechnology. I will therefore make references to both as
appropriate in this paper.
The Continuing Challenge
The development agenda now requires economically resilient,
prosperous rural communities which are at the same time able to
manage competitive industries and practice integrated and sustainable
practices especially with regard to land, air and water resources.
Many people live better lives now, but still many people have been
left out. With all the wealth in the world, we still have 1.2 billion
people living in extreme poverty, unable to gain access to even the
minimum basic needs of food, housing, education, health care, potable
water, and livelihood. In addition, the science and technology
capabilities of developing countries are far too limited to deal
adequately with the enormous problems of development. Only 4% of the
world expenditure on R&D and about 14% of the world's supply of
scientists and engineers are in developing countries, where more than
80% of the world's people live.
Let us take the case of agriculture. Today agriculture deals
increasingly with many tradeable items that must compete and contend
with the vagaries of the global market. While many still hold the
traditional view that agriculture is a low-technology activity and
that agriculture cannot and need not be competitive, it is becoming
increasingly clear that agriculture is a knowledge intensive activity
and must be managed as such if it were to be competitive. This
defeatist attitude has caused many farming operations to be
inefficient, with the farmer feeling helpless and losing control of
his operations. Government, on the other hand, fearful of social
unrest, persists in providing short-term rescue measures that
perpetuates the vicious cycle of inefficiency.
In the case of the environment, the effective management of the
relationship between sustainability and productivity is crucial if we
want to maintain adequate levels of productivity while preserving the
integrity of our environment. We need to understand the regenerative
capacity of natural ecosystems and the earth's capacity to absorb
waste. Recent developments show that the powerful tools of modern
science, including biotechnology and information technology could
provide vital information to serve the purposes of defining
sustainable productivity, especially at the farm level.
Be that as it may, we find that too little of the great power of
modern science and technology has been directed at development. We
hold these discussions at a time when the world demands new, creative
and fast solutions to the chronic ills of poverty and the
difficulties encountered in development. It is clear that there are
no silver bullets that will untangle the complexity of poverty and
environmental degradation. But here we are, facing a treasure trove
of new knowledge, so vast, and waiting to be applied to these
problems of mankind. There is no doubt that poverty elimination in
this knowledge intensive age, will require knowledge-intensive
Unfortunately, these discussions and debates in the modification of
genes especially in crops are so intense, widespread, complicated,
often emotional and frequently inconclusive. We have often run around
in circles and lost precious time. Given the vast amount of
knowledge now available in the field of gene technology and the rapid
pace at which new knowledge is being discovered, it is a shame that
very little of this new knowledge have found their way to the
solutions to combat poverty, hunger and want.
Biotechnology in the Context of Poverty Alleviation
There are now research tools available that may overcome many of the
technical roadblocks that limit the application conventional
biological techniques in agricultural research especially in the area
of varietal improvement (Persley and Lantin, 2000; Pinstrup-Andersen
and Schioler, 2000; Commission of the European Communities, 2001).
Since the discovery of recombinant DNA technology by Cohen and Boyer
in 1973 and many other advances in molecular biology, researchers
have used and improved on these techniques. The great strides
achieved in biological research attest to the precision and rapidity
of these techniques.
The goal of any research activity in agricultural biotechnology is a
product or a process robust enough so that farmers can use them.
Notwithstanding the sophisticated laboratories and the high level of
training required of researchers, the end products are similar to
those generated by conventional means such as a seeds, planting
materials, diagnostic kits or processes. These product forms hide the
tremendous amount of investment and testing to get to the point of
application in the farmers' fields( Charles, 2001).
Agriculture is an activity that does come at a cost to the
environment (Benbrook, 2002). In a recent forum, Peter Raven (2002)
observed that any form of agriculture is "extremely damaging to
biodiversity." In fact, Tilman et al. (2001) predict that agriculture
will be a major driver of global environmental change in the next 50
years. Minimizing harm to the environment will depend on man's
ability to anticipate and prepare for the consequences of his
activity. This is possible only if the best available information is
accessible so that planning and decision-making may be guided by
reliable forecasts (Clark et al. 2001).
Precise and timely information derived from new tools of gene
technology will allow the generation of high-quality information
needed to monitor agricultural activities to provide an on-line,
real-time early warning system to obviate negative effects on the
environmen. A detailed study of gene by environment interaction can
provide the scientific basis for sustainable development.
Robert Solow (1992), the 1987 Nobel Laureate in Economics, believes
that it is the well-being of future generations that will make the
concept of sustainability reasonable and useful. Solow maintains that
"technological knowledge" is a contributory component towards
Recent Progress in Biotechnology
Tools that allow us to improve life forms and understand how they
behave or react to the environment are now available. Genetic
material can be moved across unrelated species. The genome of
organisms can be decoded, mapped, and related to phenotype. This new
knowledge can then be applied to understand the interaction of crops
and its environment. The availability of precise tools that
significantly reduce uncertainties in the experiment, accelerate the
pace at which new data is generated and reduces the time to get to a
The tremendous power unleashed by the new tools in molecular biology
to rapidly decipher the genetic code of organisms, including that of
the human being, is expected to provide information whose depth and
breadth is still to be understood. The use of high throughput systems
such as DNA chips combined with the application of robotics and
computers to chemometrically process large numbers of samples has
caused the very rapid generation of information. The methods for the
rapid analysis of proteins and other biological molecules use the
latest chemometric techniques like pyrolysis mass spectrometry,
fourier transform infrared spectrophotometry, liquid
chromatography-electrospray, and many others. Bioinformatics has
improved the speed of data collection aided by high powered computers
matched by specially designed software.
As a consequence of the emergence of these powerful techniques, new
fields of science have emerged and among them are: genomics,
transcriptomics, proteomics, metabolomics and structural biology.
These new sciences have revolutionized not only breeding of improved
crops and animals but also provided quality information on how the
plant behaves within an ecosystem. For example, the integrative and
comprehensive nature of genomics and related sub-disciplines provides
information that will make it possible to understand the behaviour of
organisms and thus enable greater control of their action. Techniques
to characterize, manipulate, and model entire reaction systems and
metabolic pathways will yield useful information on specific products
and specific behavior related to certain environmental practices.
These pieces of information are of crucial importance as tools
towards the improvement of productivity in a manner that does minimal
harm to the environment.
Moreover, bioremediation, known as the use of biological agents,
usually microorganisms to treat agricultural and industrial wastes is
fast gaining ground. Microorganisms respond to environmental stimuli
and their responses are controlled by their genes. Thus a better
understanding of the interaction between genes and the environment
can lead us to more environmentally-friendly cultural management
schemes in crop and animal production.
The Challenge- Rough Road Ahead
Even as we gather momentum to apply this productivity enhancing
innovation, we face many hurdles that we have to overcome. There is a
perception that the world already produces enough food for all and
that food insecurity is not a result of global shortage of supply but
of a distribution and marketing problem. On the basis of this
observation many argue that we do not need productivity enhancing
New products, new life forms created by the application of the tools
of modern biotechnology are perceived to have yet unknown effects on
the environment and human health. Although, genetically modified
organisms (GMOs) are now subject to very rigid biosafety tests and
scrutiny before they are released to the environment, there is still
fear that they may still cause some harm which is yet to be
The high cost of research in modern biotechnology have caused the
application of intellectual property rights protection on most of the
discoveries, thus, limiting access to vital scientific information.
New technologies and products generated by are protected and released
only under certain conditions. Thus resource -poor farmers have
difficulty in gaining access to improved varieties of various crops,
some of which are transgenic which have been released for commercial
applications. To respond to this gap, institutions that have been set
up to produce public goods such as the international agricultural
research centers and publicly funded national research institutions
could attend to the research needs and provide new technologies to
resource poor farmers.
Capacity Building for Innovation
National programs aimed at poverty elimination need, among others,
highly trained people who can help assess the potentials of new
processes and technologies. Each country must have internal capacity,
a national system of innovation, to identify and absorb emerging
technologies that they consider most useful for their development
In striving towards a sustainable strategy for development, we must
face the reality that in poor countries where one is struggling to
keep body and soul together, it is not common to expect that its
citizens will come up with an innovative idea and have the energy to
pursue it. For developing countries, it is therefore under severe
constraints that sustainable development strategies have to be
In this era of expanding knowledge and faced with the challenges to
apply new tools towards the elimination of poverty, a strong
partnership is needed among all sectors involved in research and
development. To ensure the effective delivery of new technologies to
the resource-poor farmers, international agricultural research
organizations and other research institutions, public or private must
now work together and explore new modes of institutional governance.
These institutional arrangements should be transparent, flexible,
mutually beneficial and efficient.
However, as rapidly as new knowledge is generated by these new tools,
so is the conduct of science made more complex by transactions on
intellectual property rights and other regulatory protocols.
Hopefully, as more detailed knowledge on the genome is made public,
research will proceed without delay so that the fruits of modern
science and technology will be shared by all of mankind in a timely
Poverty elimination could only be possible if we can unleash the
innovative capacity of poor people. Unlocking this energy to create
new wealth requires governance, social engineering, and new rules of
trade and technology exchange.
Thus, I submit that all discussions in biotechnology, specifically
gene technology, be reckoned within the context of a new wave of
tools which form the arsenal of innovation. We must strive towards a
total approach, harnessing this innovative capacity towards a better
life for all.
As we engage in debates and discussions, it may be useful to just
look back into the mid-70s when a group of molecular biologists
sponsored by the US National Academy of Sciences called for a
temporary moratorium on certain experiments that involved the genetic
manipulation of living cells and viruses. The group was concerned
that these genetically modified organisms would be health hazard and
called for a voluntary moratorium, an unprecedented act by
scientists. However, in view of the disagreement among other
scientists that there would indeed be health hazards, an
international meeting was organized on 24-26 February 1975 at the
Asilomar Conference Center on California's Monterrey peninsula "to
review scientific progress in research on recombinant DNA molecules
and to discuss potential hazards of this work." Prominent in the
agenda was the issue on whether the moratorium in certain aspects of
research should be lifted and how experiments could continue with
minimal risks to workers, to the public and to the environment. (Berg
et al., 1975)
The participants at the conference agreed that recombinant DNA
research should proceed but under strict guidelines (Berg et al.
1975). However, they also recognized that "future research and
experience may show that many of the potential biohazards are less
serious and/or less probable than we now suspect."
Two years after the Asilomar Conference, Cohen (1977), one of the
signatories in the call for a moratorium in 1975, observed that:
"What began as an act of responsibility by scientists, including a
number of those involved in the development of the new techniques,
has become the breeding ground for a horde of publicists-mostly
poorly informed, some well-meaning, some self-servingäUnfortunately,
much of the speculation has been interpreted as fact."
Furthermore, Cohen (1977) states "whether we can afford to allow
preoccupation with and conjecture about hazards that are not known to
exist, to limit our ability to deal with hazards that do exist." He
urges us to "examine the 'benefit' side of the picture and weigh the
already realized benefits and the reasonable expectation of
additional benefits, against the vague fear of the unknown that has
in my opinion been the focal point of this controversy."
In a review 20 years after the Asilomar Conference, Berg and
Singer(1995) concluded that "no documented hazard to public health
has been attributable to the applications of recombinant DNA
technology." Furthermore, they noted that "the most profound
consequence of the recombinant DNA technology has been our increased
knowledge of fundamental life processes."
Berg was the chair of the group that called for the moratorium in 1975.
Dialogue and Decision
Although everyone admits that all technologies and activities involve
some degree of risk, the current debates about levels of risk in
biotechnology, especially gene technology, will undoubtedly continue
especially on the point of the acceptability of different levels of
risk. However, decisions have to be made soonest on which of these
menu of tools will be used and the acceptability of risks associated
with such tools.
I submit that science is a necessary but not sufficient basis for
making these difficult decisions. The issues cannot be handled by
scientists alone. Before us now is a complex set of considerations
influenced by our perceptions of risk as mankind increasingly moves
into a lifestyle that wants to minimizes risk. But we must remember
that an enlightened decision is only possible if there is quality
information. This is where science plays a vital role, for it
provides the rigor and objectivity that is often not observed in
The emergence of new sources of strain and tension pose a challenge
to the prevailing system of innovation. We are faced with lingering
poverty and suffering, new international conventions and agreements,
the impact of globalization and our desire to insure sustainability.
Whatever difficulties we experience are symptoms of the inadequacy of
our approaches and solutions. I am afraid that biotechnology has
become a focal point of a lot of tensions and in many instances
biotechnology issues have been exploited to serve other hidden
agenda. But based on the attention it has been receiving, there is no
doubt that modern biotechnology is even today a major force
influencing innovation and change globally.
It is for this reason that we must now arrest this looming impasse.
It is time to ask ourselves whether we will continue to be influenced
by reasonable analysis or increasing fear. While there is very
little debate on the use of GMOs for pharmaceutical purposes, there
is a disagreement on the use of GMOs for food. We must realize that
this prolonged discussion and debate is not without cost. The
transfer of technologies has been delayed, transaction costs are high
and the entry barriers to gain access to modern biotechnology have
been increasing each day. Also, there is the threat of the stifling
of discovery and new knowledge.
But the most serious effect that I hope will not flourish, is the
mounting distrust amongst ourselves. Unfortunately, in many cases,
the integrity of information is not upheld and there is selective
perception. This mounting distrust is intensified and aggravated by
the use of electronic media to rapidly convey all kinds of
information and misinformation to a very wide audience. This weakens
the fabric of cooperation and understanding and engenders suspicion
and confrontational politics.
This adversarial stance does not help us any. Many times these
activities can be willfully destructive, a kind of "low grade
terrorism." This growing intolerance is an indication that we can no
longer engage in reasoned debate and that science is no longer secure
because of laboratories set to fire and experiments physically
These are not healthy developments and we must strive to build trust
so we can engage in reasoned dialogue.
Fortunately, there are still those courageous souls who continue to
uphold reasoned discussion sans intolerance and bigotry.
In their book "Seeds of Contention," Pinstrup-Andersen and Schioler
(2000) focused on the potential benefits and costs of GM crops for
developing countries. They argue that increased agricultural
productivity is not going to be enough in addressing hunger but also
crops which are disease resistant and able to withstand other
In a recent public forum, Peter Raven (2002), head of the prestigious
Missouri Botanical Garden, observes that there are "thousands of
papers and analyses" that have been done on the subject of safety to
human health and the environment. The problem is that some sectors
prefer to ignore these information and then claim that nothing has
Prof. Sir Colin Berry (2001) observes that in public discussions of
risks, such as the one that is currently taking place regarding
safety of GMOs, "consistently overestimates dangers and undervalue
the benefits." He further avers that "information is probably the
answer, but it must be provided in a way that allows the requirements
of society to be reflected in the content." Prof. Sir Colin Berry
(2001) further suggests "We must seek agreement about the desirable
outcome we wish to achieve- which environment we protect, what birds
must be favoured, how long we should live. In all of these instances,
some will hold opposing views."
Discussion and debate based on uncritical belief does not speak well
of citizens who expect to thrive in a knowledge-based world. History
tells us that the damage inflicted by prejudice and bigotry is very
difficult to repair. Thus physical violence in the form of
destruction of experiments and burning of laboratories and offices
must be stopped. Legislation from all over the world to criminalize
field-testing of GMOs is a very counterproductive move.
Finally, I wish to join others raising the issue of accountability.
This applies to all parties in the debate. We need to accept
responsibility for the consequences of the positions we espouse. What
difference are we making in the lives of these poor farmers as we
engage in these debates?
If we believe that technology can add value to our development agenda
and deepen capital investments, why can we not work together in good
faith to assess, with all the rigor we can bring to bear, the vast
amount new information that is generated everyday. In good faith, let
us have reasoned and informed public discussion knowing fully well
that our understanding of genetics has deepened, thus challenging our
traditional ideas and values.
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