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March 15, 2002


Regulation, Science and Trust, Next Wave, Organic salicylic acid?


Today in AgBioView:

* Re: Why Regulate Genetically Engineered Crops?
* Science and trust
* Biotech's Next Wave: Soon You'll Be Wearing It
* Warning -- Organic Foods Contain Higher Levels Of Chemical Dangerous To
Infants And Pregnant Women

From: "Greg Conko"
Re: Why Regulate Genetically Engineered Crops?

Doug Sherman over-simplifies, and thus, mis-characterizes Henry Miller's
arguments on the appropriate regulation of genetically engineered crops. I
know of no case in which Henry has suggested that, because conventional
plant breeding is largely un-regulated, all bioengineered plants should
thus be un-regulated. Instead, Henry has repeated made clear (on several
occasions in works co-written with me) that he supports a regulatory
regime that would focus attention on the riskiest products of both
conventional breeding and bioengineering.

Henry's argument -- which I support -- is that the risk of a crop plant or
a food derived from it, has nothing to do with the method used for
modifying genotype, but rather the phenotype that results. No one would
seriously suggest regulating bioengineered crops altered with an
Agrobacterium tumefaciens vector in a radically different way than those
altered with micro-ballistics. Why then should we regulate bioengineered
crops of all types in a radically different way than we do "conventional"
crops altered with mutation breeding, protoplast fusion, somoclonal
variation, or even wide crosses? Instead of singling out a particular
process of modification, we should focus regulatory scrutiny, and
relatively scarce public resources, on products that are most likely to
cause harm -- including identified high-risk phenotypes resulting from
both conventional breeding and genetic engineering.

In the latest NRC report, referenced by Sherman (Environmental Effects of
Transgenic Plants, 2002), the panel makes clear that bioengineering poses
no unique risks, but that there is scientific justification for regulating
environmental introductions of bioengineered plants. When pressed on this
point (see, http://www.npr.org/ramfiles/atc/20020222.atc.04.ram) panel
chairman Fred Gould acknowledges that, in many cases, the environmental
introduction of both bioengineered plants AND conventional plants could be
justified scientifically, but that the panel couldn't propose such a
regulatory apparatus since (1) there aren't sufficient government
resources to do both, and (2) because many conventional plant breeders
simply couldn't pay the added costs of producing highly regulated
products. Leaving aside the relative merits of the second point,
regulating only bioengineered plants and ALL bioengineered plants
mis-allocates public resources in a way that over-regulates many low-risk
bioengineered plants and leaves some high-risk conventionally-bred plants
totally unregulated.

As for the public being reassured by strong regulatory regimes, I think
you'd have to say that the verdict is still out. Many supporters of
biotechnology have accepted the proposition that (a) the US public has
high confidence in regulatory agencies like the FDA and EPA; and (b) when
asked in surveys, majorities of the US public say they support greater
regulation over lower regulation; so (c) increasing the regulatory
scrutiny applied to bioengineered crops will therefore increase public
confidence in bioengineered crops and foods.

My concern with this proposition is that large majorities of the public
don't know how stringently bioengineered products are regulated currently.
So, what makes us think that they will know how stringently they would be
regulated under the system advocated by people like Doug Sherman -- who
are both advocates of the technology AND advocates of greater regulatory
scrutiny? Plus, the public expresses confidence in the current level of
regulation once it is explained to them. So, relying on the simple a+b=c
proposition described above seems an inadequate justification for
increasing regulatory scrutiny. If it can be justified scientifically,
then it may be worth doing, but expecting a public that is uninformed
today to be perfectly informed tomorrow is little more than wishful

-Greg Conko Director, Food Safety Policy, Competitive Enterprise Institute

>>Why Regulate Genetically Engineered Crops?
>>- Doug Gurian-Sherman ,
AgBioView, March >15,

From: Meredith Lloyd-Evans; mlloydevans@biobridge.co.uk
To: The Editor Independent
Subject: Science and trust

Dear Sir

Fay Weldon (Podium 7th March) put her finger on some of the issues to do
with why the public (and often the media) no longer seem to trust
scientists. She listed our likely candidates but completely missed the
most important one, the groups like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace,
who claim to represent the public and its concerns but have a vested
interest in finding a topic, any topic, that they can milk for its
alarmism and its ability to garner contributions to their cause.

She rightly says that winning trust is a long process - but propaganda
ensures that the deceits and outrages of anti-science groups (Brent Spar
and bombed babies in cars - remember those?) are quickly buried beneath a
general 'we're the only people who care' blanket. Both scientists and the
corporate world dedicated to using
science to produce useful products find it impossible to stand up to such
blanket propagandising. They need help, believe it or not, to rebalance
the situation in such a way that Society doesn't moralise science away


Meredith Lloyd-Evans

Mr Meredith Lloyd-Evans,
Managing Partner BioBridge Associates
45 St Barnabas Road, Cambridge
tel +44 1223 566850
fax +44 1223 470222


Biotech's Next Wave: Soon You'll Be Wearing It

- Charles C. Mann, Business 2.0, April 2002

'From spider-silk jackets to corn-based plastic, the future of biotech
will be as useful as it is weird.'

It sounds quite literally like the stuff of science fiction. In
mid-January, a Canadian startup called Nexia Biotechnologies announced
that its researchers had genetically engineered "dragline" spider silk in
the laboratory. An amazing material, dragline silk is used in nature in
the radiating spokes of a spiderweb, and is stronger than steel, lighter
than cotton, and harder to tear than Kevlar. For more than a century,
synthesizing it has been "the Holy Grail of materials science," says Nexia
CEO Jeffrey Turner. Working with military researchers -- the Pentagon
wants to create spider-silk body armor -- Nexia spliced a spider's
silk-producing genes into cells from the milk-producing glands of cows.
The genetically altered cow cells secreted a soupy fluid, from which Nexia
was able to extract spider silk that it later spun into fibers.

It's going to be a few years before soldiers -- or civilians -- wear
jackets made from transgenic spiderwebs. Nonetheless, the promise in
Nexia's breakthrough is striking. Bioengineered spider silk is just a
small element of what might be called the third wave of biotechnology --
one with the potential to revolutionize industrial processes and products
and to meld genetic engineering into the stuff of everyday life.

Biotech's first wave was genetically engineered medicine. The second
involved transgenic crops. Now companies are applying molecular biology to
the seemingly mundane sphere of manufacturing things for the home and
office. "When people hear 'biotech,' they think of cancer treatments and
transgenic soybeans," says Brent Erickson, an official of the
Biotechnology Industry Organization. "But it's spreading into places you
would never even think possible." Industrial biotech is still in its
infancy, but companies already involved range from petroleum giant BP
(BP), which is developing exotic bacterial products to clear oil-well
holes of drilling debris, to Novozymes, a Danish firm that sells Bi-Chem
BDO, a "patented environmentally friendly biological drain opener" -- a
kind of biotech Drano.

The biggest showcase for industrial biotech to date is the Cargill Dow
plant in Blair, Neb. A $360 million joint venture between Dow Chemical
(DOW) and Cargill, a big agricultural products manufacturer, the company
uses specially tailored yeast to convert corn sugar into lactic acid -- a
key step in the manufacture of NatureWorks PLA, a polymer that can be used
in everything from film packaging to fleece jackets. NatureWorks
biodegrades much more readily than the plastics typically used in those
products; Cargill Dow is already selling NatureWorks pellets to Autobar, a
British firm that uses them to make more environmentally friendly
disposable cups.

Eventually, Cargill Dow hopes to use bioengineered bacteria to transform
corn directly into plastic -- which would sound at least as sci-fi as
spiderweb armor if some biotech firms hadn't already accomplished it.
Metabolix, a startup in Cambridge, Mass., uses a microorganism
bioengineered at MIT to convert plant sugar directly into
polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), a group of eco-friendly polymers. More
startling still, the company controls U.S. and European patents on methods
of creating plants that grow PHAs in their own cells. Some day we may
cultivate plastic, rather than cook it up from toxic petrochemicals.

Industrial biotech is a testament to the astonishing power locked inside
some of life's lowliest -- and most numerous -- organisms, particularly
bacteria and fungi. These organisms can survive in some of the earth's
most extreme environments; indeed, "extremophiles," as such microbes are
known, have unusual properties that make them particularly prized. Palo
Alto-based biotech firm Genencor, for instance, pulled a bacillus from a
bitterly alkaline lake and modified it to create a laundry stain remover
called Puradax. One implication of the planet's microbial abundance is
that there are likely to be organisms that can be transformed for almost
any industrial use. As is well known, the mere thought of biotechnology
stirs controversy in some quarters. But industrial biotech may not provoke
the same angst as has cloning, or even genetically altered corn plants.

Bioengineered medicines haven't drawn much opposition because the benefits
to consumers are obvious and the transgenic organisms used to create them
aren't growing in farmers' fields. Similarly, the microbes common in
industrial biotech have potential societal benefits: Even as they lower
costs, they can replace polluting chemicals. In addition, companies can
develop many useful microorganisms without actually splicing in genes from
other species. In what is known as "directed evolution," researchers use
lab techniques to create multiple "mutations" in an organism's genes, then
rapidly select the ones that work best. San Diego-based Diversa (DVSA) is
using directed evolution to develop microbes that produce nontoxic enzymes
for use in making products ranging from paper to stonewashed jeans.
Because directed evolution resembles the way organisms change in nature --
albeit fast-forwarded -- it may not set off the alarms that ring when
scientists swap genes between, say, pigs and people.

To imagine the future course of industrial biotech, consider the digital
revolution. In just two decades, computers have grown far beyond the
mainframe and PC and invisibly woven themselves into daily life. A tiny
fraction of the world's microprocessors are in PCs; most chips hide in
such seemingly nondigital devices as automobiles, televisions, and heating
systems. Advocates see industrial biotech following a similar trajectory:
Companies will slip bioengineered organisms into appliances and other
household products. In the vision of technology boosters, the advance of
transgenic microorganisms into the home won't alarm consumers. By the time
it hits full stride, the thinking goes, they'll be too accustomed to
wearing spider-silk clothing to worry about it.


Warning -- Organic Foods Contain Higher Levels Of Chemical Dangerous To
Infants And Pregnant Women

- From: Tom DeGregori

On the news yesterday (Thursday, March 14) of the article in European
Journal of Nutrition touting the benefits of "organic vegetables" and the
postings on by the New Scientist
(http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99992033) and BBC
uncritically reporting these findings, there was an exchange of emails
between me (henceforth TOM), Alex Avery (henceforth ALEX) and an unnamed
scientist friend (henceforth ANON.) which we would like to share with you.

from ANON

Reports in the most recent edition of New Scientist show higher level of
salicylic acid (the active ingredient in aspirin) in organic vegetables.

WARNING, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (based on
extensive independent testing validated by such groups as the American
Medical Association) consuming salicylic acid (now found in higher levels
in organic vegetables) may cause: bleeding problems or gastric ulcers and
should be avoided by pregnant women, nursing women and children under 12.

It is especially important not to consume salicylic acid (now found in
higher levels in organic vegetables) during pregnancy or while nursing...
Salicylic acid (now found in higher levels in organic vegetables) should
be kept out of reach of all children and NOT given to infants, toddlers or
children under 12 unless directed by a physician... DO NOT INJEST THIS

Using the organic industry reasoning for other chemical contaminants found
in foods, we need warning labels on all organic vegetables (until
exhaustive testing can prove them safe) to protect the following people:

* Do not eat organic vegetables if you are allergic or sensitive to
* Do not eat organic vegetables if you have asthma.
* Do not eat organic vegetables if you have stomach problems (suchas
heartburn, upset stomach or stomach pain)
* Do not eat organic vegetables if you have gastric ulcers.
* Do not eat organic vegetables if you have bleeding disorders orrelated
* Do not eat organic vegetables if you are pregnant or think youmay be
* Do not eat organic vegetables if you are nursing.
* Do not eat organic vegetables while consuming alcohol.
* Do not eat organic vegetables for more than 3 days in a row without
consulting your physician.
* Do not serve organic vegetables to infants.
* Do not serve organic vegetables to children under 12 without consulting
your physicians.
* In case of an overdose of organic vegetables contact a poison control
center immediately.

All told, these new scientific findings -- showing higher levels of a
chemical proven to be dangerous for infants and proven to cause health
problems -- must be of great concern to the organic food industry and
those who promote the precautionary principle.

For example, the combination of more than three glasses of organic wine
with an all-vegan organic diet could be deadly for certain people at risk.
Prudent precaution would demand, using the existing standard dictated by
organic advocates asking for a ban on biotechnology production methods,
removal of these products pending absolute proof that they are safe.

from TOM

You should have added that the study itself is shoddy and should not have
passed peer review or even been sent out for peer review. As your summary
from the European Journal of Nutrition
shows, it was based on commercially canned soups. No mention is made of
this in the New Scientist posting
(http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99992033) or in a BBC
(http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/health/newsid_1871000/1871676.stm) which
is irresponsible. It is simply stated as "soup made from" and one would
assume that if the researchers were responsible, they would have made the
soups themselves using identical ingredients including the same vegetables
with the only difference being organic and conventiional vegetables. If
customers want asprin in their soup, it would be quite cheap for producers
to add all they wanted to their soups and still sell them for less than
the organic brand.

The dirty little secret of the manufacture of vitamins is how incredibly
cheap it is to do so and add them to food. For nutrition intervention
programs (such as Vitamin A) in poor countries, the cost is not in the
vitamins themselves but in creating a delivery mechanism. But of course,
these nutrients lack the mystic potency and life force of the high priced,
similarly manufactured vitamins in a bottle labeled "all-natural." Maybe
the next project of our intrepid researchers would be to compare the
nutritients in an box of Total (for those in places where it is not sold,
it is a cereal with 100% of the RDA of all nutrients thanks to modern
chemistry) to an "organic" box of cereal?

Needless to say, the BBC went to Patrick Holden of the Soil Association
and no one else for comment. I have frequently seen BBC postings with
Patrick Holden being the only person interviewed. I have never seen a
posting where only a critic of "organic agriculture" is quoted. I believe
that we should question BBC as to what it considers "balanced coverage" to

Salicylic acid is a secondary metabolite. The article correctly notes that
salicylic acid is produced by the plant as a defense mechanism as the
organic plants are less protected against micro-organisms than those of
mainstream agriculture. Since most secondary metaboilites are carcinogens,
maybe the same researchers ought to test for these also. I doubt if they
would do such tests nor would they get the same media attention. Further,
since the plants produced them, it is reasonable to conclude that they
experienced great infestation by fungi or other harmful organisms. A
responsible researcher would have tested for them and a quality journal
would have required it.

The lead researcher, John Patterson is quoted as follows: "I'm not an
evangelist for the organic food movement," A good scientist doing quality
peer reviewed research should not have to add such a disclaimer. Me thinks
that the gentleman doth protest too much!

Since we didn't raised the issue, he did, we have a right to ask that
since he is not "an evangelist for the organic food movement," what is his
personal position on organic food?

from ALEX

Did you catch the amounts of salicylic acid? 117 nanograms/gram is
1/10,000,000 of a gram or 0.00001% or (1/100,000 of 1%). Tiny amounts. For
a typical 400 gram serving of soup at 117 nanograms/gram = 50,000
nanograms of SA, which is 0.005% of a gram, or 0.05 milligrams of
salicylic acid, or 1/20th of one milligram. Reg strengh Bayer is 325mg --
piddling amount of salicylic acid.

I want to know why they looked at canned soup, not veggies
themselves.There would be huge ingredient differences in the soups, etc.
What was the purpose of looking at organic soups vs. non-organic (who
funded this?), rather than veggie soups vs. meat soups? Me thinks you're
on to something. The bowl of organic soup would provide roughly 1/6,000 of
a standard Bayer aspirin compared to conventional soup, which would
provide only 1/36,000 of an aspirin.

from TOM

Alex, you are always right on target. In other words, even if the research
itself was correctly done, the results are simply too trivial to warrant
comment let alone publication which leads to the question as to why it was
published and who published the earlier study on acid in the bloodstream
of vegetarian Buddhist monks and why was it published? Maybe some of the
nutritionists in this news group should ask the Journal, why they
published an article whose nutritional significance asymtotically
approached zero. Are journals finding it necessary to pander to the
"organic" crowd in order to maintain an appearance of being balanced or
simply because of the large number of vocal believers? Maybe astronomy and
physics journals should occasionally publish flat-earth articles and a
demand ought to be made to chemistry journals to publish an occasional
article touting phlogiston?

I think that we need to ask questions of a number of journals. The
activists don't even begin to understand the nature of scientific inquiry
and that contentious debate is the lifeblood of science and not an attempt
to suppress dissent. Issues of quality of research are almost relevant.
Nature now has had two "letters" on GM foods which the activists are
promoting as peer-reviewed articles and acting as if one article on
Monarch butterflies and Bt corn or on the allegation of Bt corn DNA in
teosinte, forever closes out inquiry.

We know that the Losey butterfly paper was submitted to both Science and
Nature, peer reviewed and rejected as an article but latter accepted as a
correspondence. Obviously, Nature has very different standards for
articles and letters. Since thse two letters have been the focus of much
activist noise, demands for public policies or even the justification of
terrorist activies destroying crops, Nature owes it to everyone to make
clear the difference in its standards for publication under various
categories and ought to make public that some people (including those
contributing to AgBioView showing the succes of activist propaganda) are
calling letters articles and attempting to use the well-deserved prestige
of Nature for their ideological causes and fund-raising.


Organic Veg Given Health Boost



Organic vegetables may contain higher levels of health-giving chemicals,
claim Scottish researchers.

Soup made using organic vegetables was found, in their experiments, to
contain six times the level of salicylic acid.This has been linked in
other studies with a protective effect against heart attacks, cancer and
strokes.The same team has already conducted research which claimed to find
higher levels of the acid in the blood of vegetarian Buddhist monks
compared to meat eaters.

Controversial theory Biochemist John Patterson, who led the research at
Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary, told New Scientist magazine: "I'm
not an evangelist for the organic food movement, but there was a fairly
substantial difference."Salicylic acid occurs naturally in plants,
although there is no firm explanation as to why organic plants should
produce or retain more of it.This adds to the body of evidence showing the
health benefits of organic food

Patrick Holden, Soil Association There is significant controversy in the
scientific community as to the nutritional value of organically grown
vegetables.These are grown without the assistance of many modern chemical
pesticides or fertilisers.

Many believe that they are no more nutritious than conventionally farmed
produce, despite the higher price tag.

Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, said: "This adds to the
body of evidence showing the health benefits of organic food. "Previously,
two independent studies have shown organic crops to contain higher levels
of vitamin C, magnesium and iron. "The organic food studied also showed
higher levels of other minerals. "The Food Standards Agency must look
seriously at all the available research."