Home Page Link AgBioWorld Home Page
About AgBioWorld Donations Ag-Biotech News Declaration Supporting Agricultural Biotechnology Ag-biotech Info Experts on Agricultural Biotechnology Contact Links Subscribe to AgBioView Home Page

AgBioView Archives

A daily collection of news and commentaries on

Subscribe AgBioView Subscribe

Search AgBioWorld Search

AgBioView Archives





March 24, 2002


Hot Mexican Debate; Set the Indian Farmer Free!; Playing God; Jun


Today in AgBioView: March 25, 2002

* The Biotech Corn Debate Grows Hot in Mexico
* Set The Indian Farmer Free
* Playing God On The Field
* GM Vital for Hungry World
* USAID Call for Grant Proposals on AgBiotech
* Beijing Conf - Crop Protection, Biotechnology and Food Safety
* Junk Science Permeating the Media
* House of Commons Inquiry into the UK Biotechnology Industry
* An Instant Diagnosis for Our Neurotic Nation
* Blinded by Fear
* Horizontal Gene Transfer Seminar
* Risks and Benefits of Genetically Engineered Trees

The Biotech Corn Debate Grows Hot in Mexico

- Marc Kaufman, Washington Post, March 25, 2002

The origins of modern corn can be traced to the remote valleys of Central
A merica, where it was first cultivated 10,000 years ago from the
wild teosinte plant. What is grown today in the vast cornfields of
Iowa and on small local farms may have only limited genetic
resemblance to those agricultural ancestors, but southern Mexico in
particular remains the center of corn genetic diversity around the

That's why the international scientific battle now raging over the
reported presence of genetic material from genetically engineered
plants in Mexican corn is so bitter and emotional. The Mexican
government banned the planting of modified corn in 1998 precisely
because it didn't want its native stock to be mixed with the
sometimes controversial creations of crop biotechnology. But new -
and hotly contested - research suggests that the commingling has
happened anyway.

The Mexican corn drama began last fall, after two researchers from
the University of California at Berkeley prepared to report that they
had found telltale sequences of genetically altered corn in the
genome of corn from the hills of southern Mexico. The results were
first published in a letter in the journal Nature, and then in a full
article. They were decried by the Mexican government but widely
disseminated by groups generally opposed to genetically engineered

The two researchers wrote that they had conclusively found traces of
the cauliflower mosaic virus - widely used as a "promoter" to drive
the activity of newly inserted genes - as well as other samples of
genetically modified DNA in ears of corn from two locations around
Oaxaca. "I had believed for some time that it was possible for
transgenic DNA moving out into Mexican farmers' fields, and nobody
seemed interested in monitoring that," said Ignacio Chapela, who
conducted the study with David Quist. "We did the monitoring, we
found the transgenes that were not supposed to be there, and then we
got viciously attacked by people who didn't like our answers."

There indeed was an immediate response from scientists, especially
those who support crop biotechnology, who attacked the researchers'
conclusions and methodology. In particular, critics said the
researchers relied on a testing method that is known to produce false
positives for the presence of genetically modified DNA - the commonly
used polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method - and that their research
was not broad enough to support the conclusions they drew.

"Their work was mysticism masquerading as science," said Matthew
Metz, a post-doctoral fellow in microbiology at the University of
Washington. Metz, who was a graduate student in Chapela's department
at Berkeley, is one of four who have submitted critical letters to
Nature. "There are a lot of political issues in the background here,
but the primary concern for many of us is that science is being
abused, that the scientific process is being taken advantage of for
ideological reasons," Metz said.

The dispute quickly escalated, with charges made by both sides that
central players had damaging conflicts of interest, and that
scientists were essentially acting from political and commercial
motives. Chapela said he was personally intimidated and threatened by
fellow scientists and Mexican officials; critics said that at
Berkeley, he had a track record of opposition to biotechnology that
made his science highly suspect. The charges and countercharges are
difficult to disentangle, but the stakes are plainly high. As
producers of genetically modified crops seek to sell their products
around the world, opponents of the technology (who worry it could
have as-yet undetected environmental and health consequences) are
eager to find examples of biotechnology that have caused regulatory
and financial disruptions.

The most prominent case involved StarLink corn, which had been
approved in the United States only for use in animal feed but was
found in hundreds of corn products from tacos to grits. But there are
a growing list of others: Thousands of acres of genetically modified
cotton have been found in India, although it was never approved for
use there. A class action suit was filed recently by organic farmers
in Canada, who said their canola crop was being tainted with
genetically modified canola blowing in from neighboring fields. And
now there is the possibility that the cradle of corn has been forever

Some initial tests by the deeply worried Mexican government seemed to
confirm the conclusions of the Nature article, but subsequent testing
has raised new questions about the PCR process.

Timothy Reeves, executive director of the International Maize and
Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico, an international nonprofit group
that has collected a germ bank of corn species, said that none of its
extensive testing has found genetic material from modified plants in
Mexican corn. He also said that a recent set of tests by the Mexican
government demonstrated how unreliable PCR testing can be. The
government, he said, performed PCR testing on kernels of corn from
the center's germ bank and found that many were tainted. But some of
those kernels had been in storage for 20 or 30 years, Reeves said,
and so could not have been affected by recently engineered varieties.

Nonetheless, Reeves also said the Nature article turned what his
organization always knew was a theoretical threat into a real and
pressing problem. He said it is quite possible that corn with some
products of genetic engineering is growing now in Mexico, or will
soon be growing there, despite its ban. That is just how corn, and
people, behave. "The corn that people think of as native Mexican
varieties have actually been evolving over centuries, and still are
changing all the time," Reeves said. "It's a dynamic process, and new
genetic material is being introduced through cross-pollination in
every new crop."

The winds, however, may not have been responsible for the reported
transgenic material in Oaxaca corn. Since the North American Free
Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed, millions of tons of American and
Canadian corn have flooded the Mexican market, and between 30 percent
and 40 percent of that corn is grown from genetically engineered
kernels. Although those seeds may not be planted under Mexican law,
researchers theorize that farmers may well have planted them anyway -
either to try their possible benefits or through ignorance.

The inevitability of the spread of engineered genes into some
conventional Mexican corn raises what Reeves said is the key question
in the debate that is just now beginning: Does it matter? Advocates
of biotechnology say that it does not, that natural selection will
ensure that only useful traits are kept and that others will simply
disappear. Critics say the possibility of harm from those genes is
too great to risk their indiscriminate and unplanned spread.

"We don't want to fall into the trap of saying [the possible presence
of modified DNA in Mexican corn] is a disaster without real
evidence," said Reeves. "But we also don't want to fall into the trap
of saying it's no problem, either. This is a serious issue that has
to be addressed with rigorous science."


Set The Indian Farmer Free

- Petition submitted by Indian farm leader Sharad Joshi to T.R. Balu,
Minister of Environment and Forest. Forwarded by Barun Mitra

In his Budget speech, finance minister Yashwant Sinha promised kisan
ki azaadi (freedom for farmers). As the Genetic Engineering Approval
Committee (GEAC) prepares to meet on March 26, 2002, to decide on the
commercialisation of Bt Cotton, we, the cotton farmers of India, hope
it heeds these words of the honourable finance minister.

It has been four years now that field trials of Bt Cotton began.
Though the trials showed no harmful effect on the environment,
animals or, indeed, humans, the government has still not given the
green signal for commercial cultivation.

Meanwhile, the American bollworm continues to devour acres upon acres
of white gold, which is what the crop is for the one million cotton
farmers in the country. In the 2000-01 kharif season, 13 per cent of
the country's cotton crop was damaged. In many states of northern
India, farmers were forced to spray insecticides nearly 20 times.
Insecticides are expensive and often also spurious. Increasing costs
combined with lower returns because of crop failures pushed farmers
deeper and deeper into debt and probably drove a few to even end
their lives.

Bt Cotton, a variety of cotton seed containing a soil-borne
bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), that kills the bollworm, is
important for India because: * India has 9 million hectares under
cotton - 25 per cent of global cotton area * Yet India accounts for
only 12.3 per cent of global production, third after China and the
United States * The average yield is 200-300 kg/hectare against 580
kg/hectare world-wide * The fortunes of one million farmers and six
million people employed across the cotton value chain are dependent
on the crop. * Field trials showed yield increase by 300 kg/hectare
with the use of Bt Cotton Bt technology could help save about Rs
1800/- per hectare on pesticides Bt has been widely used since the
1950s in the form of an aerial insecticidal spray. It was introduced
into the cotton seed only in the mid-1990s to provide a more
biologically sustainable method of managing insect pests.

The benefits are: * Reduced use of conventional insecticides * Lower
loses due to pest, and in effect increase yields * Lower farming risks

The benefits of Bt Cotton have not only been proved in the United
States, China, Mexico, South Africa, Australia and Indonesia but also
in Gujarat where farmers unknowingly planted the seed on 11,000
acres. While the bollworm attacks destroyed large swathes of
conventional cotton crop, the fields sown with Bt Cotton flourished.
Farmers did pay more for the seed, but benefited in terms of lower
spending on insecticides and higher and better yields of cotton.
Understandably, they were jubilant and could not understand why the
government asked them to destroy their crops.

Bt Cotton harms no one except the dreaded bollworm. In fact, everyone
stands to gain the farmers who are assured of a healthy crop and
hence profits and the consumers who get better quality cotton.

We hope the GEAC keeps all these factors in mind when it sits down to
decide on the fate of the seed of hope for one million farmers.


Playing God On The Field

- S.L. Rao, Telegraph (India), March 25, 2002.

Technological change has many times in the past not received an
immediate welcome by many groups in society. The Luddite movement at
the beginning of the industrial revolution destroyed machinery. A few
years ago, we had major industrial disputes about the use of
computers. Apart from the fear of change itself, the benefits are not
always uniformly available to all. Those that are displaced or
otherwise adversely affected, try to prevent it from happening.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance vividly brought out the
dimensions of this conflict and adjustment. Society is entering into
another major conflict because of biotechnology. Questions of ethics
have entered the debate because it is now possible to make
fundamental changes to life itself, starting with simple organisms
but moving quickly to complex ones, including man. Such a conflict
surfaced in agriculture when, some years ago, the leader of a farmers
movement in Karnataka tried to prevent Cargil, then the world's
largest seed company, from continuing their operations in Bellary.
Cargil remained despite violence to their property and are now a
major supplier of seeds which farmers are keen to purchase because of
the improved yields that they are able to get.

The new conflict about seeds raises fundamental issues. In the past,
searching for desirable variants and propagating them selectively
helped in the development of new varieties of plants or animals. The
intention was to augment the good characteristics and breed out the
bad ones. But this can only be done between closely related
organisms. Modern genetic engineering goes beyond this. It extracts
the DNA corresponding to a particular gene from a donor and inserts
it into the cells of a recipient so that it becomes a part of its

When this is done between species that cannot be intercrossed, the
result is a transgenic organism. The donor and recipient need not be
like each other. Instead of the laborious process of the past, of
grafting and transplantation to build the best characteristics,
genetic modification in the laboratory has now become possible. The
difference is that entirely disparate organisms can now have genes
transferred from one into the other. Since domestication of plants
and animals began, the human race has been genetically modifying
organisms. The results have been dramatically different from the
original organism. But what we have with genetic engineering is
something quite different, the creation of new forms of life.

Indian agriculture suffers from extremely low levels of productivity
in almost all its produce. Significant increases are possible by
reducing wastage caused mainly by poor storage and transport, rodent
and pest damage, distortions in cropping patterns caused by
government controlled pricing and tariff mechanisms, and the decline
in use of soil and water to produce agricultural products best suited
to them. In addition, better quality of farm equipment, more
efficient motors and pump sets, reliable pesticides, balanced use of
fertilizers, are measures that could improve production as well as

But these measures have their limits. Global interdependence could
also help by maximizing creation of products in which we have
advantage, and importing those where we do not. But with a great part
of our population being grossly undernourished and with low levels of
consumption generally, we need substantial increases in the
availability of agricultural produce.

There is practically no new land available for agriculture, one way
of quickly increasing production. We must have substantial increases
in productivity. Many argue that such increases are only possible if
we have seeds that have been genetically modified so that they have
built-in resistance to pests, have greater nourishment capability,
and can offer substantial increases in production.

Opinion in the world is divided on the use of genetically modified
organisms. In the last six years, their use has spread in the United
States of America to cover over 20 per cent of the maize acreage.
Over 100 million acres are planted in the world today with transgenic
crops. On the other hand, Europe has been firmly resisting their use.
India has yet to take a firm decision, though it has been reported
that genetically modified cotton seeds that are resistant to the boll
weevil have gone into fairly widespread use in parts of Gujarat, even
though the tests are not completed.

What are the objections to the use of GMOs? The first is the threat
to human health. Here, the objection seems not so much about the
product as about the process and its unknown ramifications. So far,
no adverse consequences have taken place due to GMOs, and when they
were anticipated, the GMO was not pursued. One issue is that the
companies that want to distribute such genetically modified products
give the data on which safety assessment is based even in the US.
Also, an inherent problem with GMOs is that they are more likely to
produce unpredictable results. Clearly, this is a threat that must
get thorough consideration in each case.

The second threat is to the natural environment with the production
of 'superweeds' that will spread rapidly and dominate other growth.
This could be a real threat but only after the GMO is propagated on a
large scale. That will also enable such growth to be identified well
in time to prevent further use of the GMO.

The third threat is to agricultural production because of the more
rapid evolution of resistant pests. This is also a threat that can be
identified through proper testing, and the use of such GMOs can be

The other fear is that our traditional, idyllic pastoral economy will
be disrupted by the introduction of GMOs. This harking back to a
non-existent pastoral idyll must be weighed against the prosperity
that will accrue from more and higher quality of agricultural produce
with the use of GMOs.

There is, finally, the moral objection. With GMOs, we are said to be
playing at being god. God created organisms in a certain form and it
is not for us to meddle with their structure. This is a genuinely
held but sad charge that does not recognize that humans have played
at being god for a long time. We all try to change our 'fate'. Plant,
animal and even human breeding through arranged marriages amount to
the same thing. One could equally justifiably argue that if god did
not want us to meddle with his creatures, he would not have given us
the capability to do so.

Underlying the objections to GMOs is a more fundamental one
especially when it comes to agriculture. Manufactured, factory-made
goods from industry are playing an increasing role in agriculture.
With processed foods, agricultural has entered into a marriage with
industry. With the GMO, industry enters into the process of
agriculture itself by giving the farmer the seeds that he shall sow.
The fear is probably that of the consequences. As big money enters
agriculture, giant corporations could displace the farmer and he will
become another employee.

This fear has to be tackled by social scientists and politicians. It
should not come in the way of using GMOs if the genuine threats can
be identified and controlled. Too much is at stake, both for our
relatively static

agricultural production and the future of humanity, for casual
decisions. The Indian capability for independent data generation and
testing must be greatly augmented if we are not to lose an
opportunity nor to subject ourselves to avoidable risks.

This article draws for its understanding of genetic engineering on
the article by Richard Lewontin in the New York Review of Books of
June 21, 2001, that reviews four major books on the subject.
The author is former director general, National Council for Applied
Economic Research. rao_l@vsnl.net


GM Vital for Hungry World

- Simon Collins, NZ Herald, March 23, 2002

A New Zealander who is science editor of Britain's Guardian newspaper
is home with a grim message: the good times are over.

Hokianga-born Tim Radford, who is here for a British Council media
seminar, believes that genetic research will be needed to improve
plant productivity to help a deteriorating environment. "It's about
feeding as many people as you can," he says.

"The number of people who will be hungrier in the decades ahead is
going to increase for all sorts of reasons, including global warming
and because land is going out of production because it's been
degraded and desiccated. "It's obvious that probably the good times
are over, even for America, where the amount of land available to
feed the world is going to start falling."

Radford, a former New Zealand Herald journalist who went to Britain
in 1961, says genetic modification became unpopular in Britain when
officials decided in 1996 not to require genetically modified
soybeans to be labelled as such on the grounds that they were used in
60 per cent of all supermarket products.

"That was the decision not to be up-front that put the fat in the
fire. "Most of the dissatisfaction in Britain over nuclear power,
nuclear waste, the handling of the BSE crisis, and most of all
genetically modified foods, is because people had not known what was
being done until it was too late."

Radford believes the public is entitled to be suspicious of GM food
manufacturers which have been the main beneficiaries of the new
products so far. He cites Monsanto as an example. But he also
believes the world needs the latest genetic techniques to accelerate
traditional plant-breeding programmes to cope with a global
population that is growing by 10,000 people every hour.

"There are now 23 countries which are facing an acute water
shortage," he said. "Supposing the essence of science was not to
make Monsanto richer, supposing it was to make people's lives better,
what would we want most?

"What about millet that can withstand drought? "Why not a wheat that
can grow in ground that is too salty for wheat at the moment? "So
inside the genetic engineering laboratories in Cambridge and Cornell
and places like that, there are people working on really useful crops
that might not actually need transgenic [cross-species] engineering -
there will be the gene for drought resistance in the wheat family

"It might be that if newspapers had done their job more aggressively
- and in that I have to include me - then we might have persuaded
people to be more interested in the direction of genetic engineering
... "They might have put pressure on Governments, laboratories and
biotech firms at the beginning of the process and not at the end."


USAID Call for Grant Proposals on AgBiotech

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) would like to
announce Requests for Applications for two new programs in
agricultural biotechnology:

1) The Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project (ABSP) II, which
will integrate collaborative technology development with creating an
enabling policy environment, particularly in intellectual property
rights and technology transfer, to promote biotechnology product
development and use.

2) The Program for Biosafety Systems (PBS), which will address
biosafety training and policies to promote development, access and
use of biotechnology applications in developing countries in a
sustainable manner.

Both RFAs can be viewed and downloaded at:

The closing date for applications on both programs is May 31, 2002.


Beijing Conference on Crop Protection, Biotechnology and Food Safety,
April 24-25
From: "Andrew D. Powell"

Given the continued confusion on GM in China this may be of interest
to members of the AgBioView group. Contact organizers CMT in
Singapore for more details.


Junk Science Permeating the Media

- From: Prof. T Michael A Wilson, UK

Bates & Hunt Petroleum Ltd. - Spring 2002 Brochure

Farming Today article - "Original Organics" ; An interview with David
Wilson, Farm Manager, Duchy Home Farm, Highgrove Estate, Gloucester

".....If any cows need veterinary care, Paul, the herdsman applies
herbal or homeopathic treatments, like peppermint lotion to ease
mastitis. Being organic means very restricted [but not zero] use of
antibiotics for all the animals." [What are the welfare issues here?]

".....Adding nitrogen to wheat, for example, increases the water in
the crop and so reduces the strength of the cell walls making them
more prone to disease and bugs. Weeds love the extra nitrogen,
especially goose grass, which grows like triffids on a diet of
herbicides. Obsession with yields led to overuse of ammonium nitrates
and it's all gone too far', says David. 'Now they are beginning to
learn about organic farming at agricultural colleges."


Dear AgBioViewers:

For me, this is yet another example of the extent to which
pro-organic messages and junk-science overtly or subliminally
permeate almost all of today's UK radio/TV media item, as well as
most magazines, newspapers etc. (even from a Company that sells
CO2-generating fossil fuels!)

Would anyone on AgBioWorld like to comment on the veracity of the
"science" underpinning these pieces of PC propaganda?

Of course, I realize that it would create full-time jobs for many
scientific professionals to deal with and respond to this endless
(and even at times amusing) litany/cacophony of nonsense - albeit to
little avail for those who want to "believe" and don't let facts get
in the way ......"The Emperor's New Clothes-like" status of organics,
and those who promote, exploit and benefit commercially from it
without challenge or scrutiny will, I fear, continue for a while

Hopefully, one day, we can look back on all this and find it amusing
- like the antics and propaganda of those who railed against
electricity, vaccination, traveling faster than 15 mph, etc.

Small wonder the knowledge-based biotechnology economy of the UK (and
EU) is struggling, with many key scientists, major biotechnology
companies and investors departing to more rational, science-based and
realistic regulatory environments.

The Trade and Industry Committee of the UK Parliament is shortly to
launch an Inquiry into "The Future of the UK Biotechnology Industry".
There is an open call for written or oral submissions of evidence and
views. This could be the last chance...... (see attached Press
Notice, below)

-- Prof. T Michael A Wilson FRSE, Chief Executive, Horticulture
Research International
Wellesbourne, Warwick, UK; michael.wilson@hri.ac.uk


Trade And Industry Committee
House of Commons, 7 Millbank, London; Tel: +00 44 20 7219 5779/5777

PRESS NOTICE: Inquiry into the UK Biotechnology Industry

The Trade and Industry Committee will undertake an inquiry to examine
the current and future prospects for the UK biotechnology industry,
including genomics and related aspects of the pharmaceutical
industry, including:

1) the contribution which biotechnology industries can make to
relative GDP growth and the performance of the UK as a
knowledge-based economy;
2) the relationship between industry, higher education and research,
including the effectiveness of the Government's Science and
Technology programmes in creating a positive environment for the
3) the relative competitiveness of the UK as a location for R&D,
exploitation of research and for manufacturing;

4) the importance of "clusters", the characteristics of successful
clusters and locational factors for the industry;
5) sources of finance and the means of securing soundly-based risk
finance in high-technology exploitations;
6) the role of incubators and other means of growing businesses from
a research base; and
7) the impact of the legislative and regulatory framework for science
on industrial investment and location decisions.

The Committee invites written submissions to this inquiry to be sent
to the Clerk at the address above by 5.00 pm on Monday, 15 April.
For other information please contact the Committee on +00 44 20 7219


An Instant Diagnosis for Our Neurotic Nation

Independent (UK), March 20, 2002

Just in case anyone was worrying that we were not a nation of
hypochondriacs (The author here is referring to Britain....CSP), we
have now been given some interesting news. While one in three of us
think we have a food allergy, in reality only 2 per cent of us
suffers from such a complaint. It is a telling statistic and one that
confirms the image of a slightly neurotic Britain endlessly fretting
about its health.

Why we should be so prone to health concerns is puzzling. After all,
we now live longer, have better diets than ever before (or at least
we eat more than ever), are better cared for than before, with access
to wonderdrugs once undreamt of, and today we have much better access
to medical information than an old copy of The Household Doctor,
every hypochondriac's bible.

Yet perhaps this very access to such a wealth of information is part
of the problem. Every newspaper now has its health section, there are
television programmes and digital channels devoted to wellbeing, and
the internet provides instant aids to self-diagnosis. We can find any
number of ways of convincing ourselves that we are ill, and we often
do. This epidemic of heightened psychological sensitivity to food
places an unwelcome burden on the National Heath Service.

It has certainly proved a lucrative phenomenon for the manufacturers
of vitamin supplements and other pills and potions. It has also
fuelled the boom in homeopathy and other "alternative medicines"
which, for the most part, are only useful in so far as their
practitioners provide a sort of human placebo effect - counselling
for those who feel they have no one left to turn to, substitutes for
friends and family.

Homeopaths and quacks also serve as useful outlets for anxieties when
our other troubles are settled. As Professor Tom Sanders of Kings
College London says: "The less people have got to worry about, the
more they worry about things in their food." Perhaps we should have
our heads examined.


Blinded by Fear

- Frank Furedi, The Scotsman, March 22, 2002

Fear has become an ever-expanding part of our life in the 21st
century (Britain again....CSP). We live in terror of disease,
environmental devastation, crime, abuse, stranger danger and
terrorist onslaught. We are bombarded with reports of new risks to
our health and safety and that of our children, and urged to take
greater precautions and seek more protection. Just in case parents
don't have enough to worry about, the government issued a warning
this week: "Keep Your Kids Out Of Hot Water". The aim of the new
campaign is to provide parents with such blindingly obvious
information as "always check the temperature of water before bathing
children". It is not surprising that government is now in the
business of issuing health warnings; they requently serve as a
substitute for making political statements.

Our deep sense of powerlessness has encouraged an atmosphere where
competing claims about dangers vie for the allegiance of the public.
Take the debate around the risks associated with the MMR vaccine.
Anti-vaccination crusaders have successfully preyed on parents'
anxiety about their children's well-being. In turn, health officials
have reacted by adopting their own version of the fear game, warning
of the danger of an outbreak of an epidemic of measles if parents do
not vaccinate their children. Competing claims about food safety are
invariably promoted through scare stories. Opponents of genetically
modified food have struck a chord with their "Frankenstein food"
concept. But the pro-GM lobby have also adopted the politics of fear
by promoting the idea that eating organic food is more dangerous than
consuming the conventional variety.

Almost every week we are subjected to campaigns geared towards making
us insecure and anxious. Have you seen the recent NSPCC television
ads, showing an out-of-control father battering his child? No doubt
the NSPCC will claim that it is raising "awareness". In reality, this
publicity campaign can only lead to consolidating the already
powerful climate of suspicion and mistrust. Media organisations too
find it difficult to avoid the temptation of mounting their own panic
campaign. Since the News of the World's "name and shame" crusade
against paedophiles, a variety of other papers have launched
campaigns promoting panic about the MMR vaccine, longdistance flying,
asthma, the contraceptive pill, mobile phones and various food
products. Recent coverage of the compensation claim mounted against
contraceptive pill manufacturers reflects the temper of our times.
Headlines like "Is the Pill killing us?" and "Killer Pill" turns
contraception into a dangerous territory.

Is it any surprise that many of us are talking ourselves into
believing that we are ill? Just this week a survey was published
indicating that one in three people now believe they have a food
allergy. Medical research suggests that in fact less than 2 per cent
suffer from food allergies as defined by doctors. Since virtually
every aspect of life comes with a health warning it is inevitable
that obsessions with illness will flourish. Special diets, detoxing
and personal trainers are all symbols of a culture that regards life
with apprehension.

It is ironic that our imagination is so intensely haunted by fear.
Compared with the past, people have less familiarity with pain,
suffering, debilitating disease and death than ever before. But
although we enjoy an unprecedented level of safety, we now take the
view that we can never be safe enough. Indeed, safety is fast
becoming an end in itself. That is why contemporary culture regards
the word "accident" as politically incorrect. In Britain and the US,
public health organisations want to phase the word out - claiming
that most injuries are preventable.

Last year, the British Medical Journal declared that it had banned
the word accident from its pages, arguing that even hurricanes,
earthquakes and avalanches are often predictable events that the
authorities could warn us to avoid. Some child professionals insist
that we should refer to a youngster's bruised knee as a "preventable
injury", rather than an accident. Predictably, some schools have
banned children playing with skipping ropes in order to prevent such
injuries. Such changes in medical terminology often reflect new
cultural attitudes.

Safety has become one of Western society's fundamental values, and
people find it difficult to accept that some injuries cannot be
prevented. An injury caused by an accident is an affront to a culture
that believes safety is its own reward. We find it hard to deal with
uncertainty, partly due to the great progress made by medicine and
science. Because we have so much knowledge, a chance occurrence is
hard to accept - especially if it causes injury. So if two or three
people who live near each other seem to suffer a similar illness, we
demand an explanation. Local campaigns against mobile phone masts are
often driven by a conviction that inexplicable illnesses in the area
must have been caused by this new technology.

The idea that we should be immunised from accidents is reaching
pathological proportions. Soldiers are currently suing the UK
Ministry of Defence for failing to prepare them for the horrors of
war. How long before the fire service is sued for failing to tell its
employees that fire is hot?

A culture that finds it difficult to accept that misfortune is part
of the human condition inadvertently reveals a desperate desire to
find meaning in life. We explore our illnesses and injuries to
uncover their hidden meaning. People wear their illness on their
sleeves - they are encouraged to write books about it and explore its
meaning on television. Every time someone is afflicted with a
terrible injury or dies tragically we search for lessons that help
illuminate the experience. Even a single unexpected accident is
sufficient to provoke calls for more regulation and preventative
measures. It only takes the tragic accidental death of a pupil on a
school trip to call such initiatives into question. The phrase "this
must not be allowed to happen again" reflects a desire for absolute
safety. The notion that the person we love just happened to be in the
wrong place at the wrong time is antithetical to a society that
worships safety.

In today's culture of safety, the line that used to delineate reality
from science fiction has become increasingly blurred. In recent
times, government officials have looked into the risk that asteroids
pose for human survival. Some scientists have warned that a global
influenza is around the corner. "The end is nigh" is no longer a
warning issued by religious fanatics. Scaremongering is increasingly
represented as the act of a concerned and responsible citizen. Risk
management is continually driven towards engaging with all kinds of
theoretical risks. That is why, last summer, scholars at the British
Association Science Festival in Glasgow raised concerns about how a
bizarre subatomic particle created through an atom-smashing
experiment could potentially fall into the centre of the earth and
start eating the planet from inside out.

Since 11 September, all these trends have acquired an unprecedented
momentum. In the post-11 September era, it often feels as though the
world has been transformed into one big Hollywood blockbuster. Almost
every area of life has been transformed into a potential terrorist
target - with scare stories about the threat of a smallpox outbreak,
and bioterrorists infecting food and water supplies . Leading US
consumer activist Ralph Nader warns that if an aeroplane was to hit a
nuclear power station, the meltdown could contaminate an area "the
size of Pennsylvania". The prize for the best storyline goes to the
Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, which raised the alarm about
the "Bioterror in your burger". The Institute claims that
meat-processing plants are especially vulnerable , warning that
terrorists could contaminate store-ready meat with E coli, salmonella
or listeria.

Diffuse government warnings sound as if they are also lifted from a
film. "I want to encourage all law enforcement officials, and frankly
all Americans, to be on the highest state of alert," stated US
Attorney General John Ashcroft last month. Ashcroft warned that
terrorists led by a Yemeni may be planning an attack against the US
or US interests overseas on or around 12 February. Such unspecific
communiques do little to improve the security situation but they have
the effect of scaring a lot of people. In an environment where almost
anything can come with a terrorist health warning, rumours inevitably
flourish and acquire a life of their own. One rumour told of a large
number of lorries stolen by people of Arab descent, presumably to be
used in a repeat terrorist attack. The company involved issued an
immediate denial, but the rumour received such widespread publicity
that it became an urban legend.

Most readers will not be surprised to hear that Hollywood producers
are busy commissioning scripts with a terrorism storyline. But what
is astonishing is that the US army has turned to Hollywood for help.
Since 11 September, some of the top military brass have met with
film-makers to brainstorm about possible future terrorist attacks. US
intelligence specialists have also sought advice on how to manage
attacks. Steven de Souza, who wrote Die Hard, and Joseph Zito,
director of Delta Force One and Missing in Action, were among those
reported to have taken part. According to Robert Lindheim of the
Institute of Creative Technologies , the US military "wants to think
outside the box".

The preoccupation with "thinking outside the box" continually leads
to the "What if ...?" question. What if a chemical factory becomes a
terrorist target? What if a train carrying nuclear fuel is hijacked?
What if a toxic biological substance infects the water supply?

Even the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the UK has been linked
to potential terrorist attacks. In September 2001, Sir William
Stewart, a former government chief scientific adviser, warned that
the difficulty the New Labour government had in dealing with the
foot-and-mouth outbreak showed just how vulnerable Britain was to
future threats from biological warfare. The ease with which Sir
William made the conceptual jump from the crisis of British farming
to the spectre of biological warfare highlights how our sense of
vulnerability helps transform problems into potential terrorist risks.

UK politicians were quick to agree with Sir William. A report
published by the Select Committee on Defence stated that the "recent
foot-and-mouth epidemic has demonstrated "that "controlling the
spread of some viruses is very difficult", which "may suggest that
the threat of biological attack is more serious". According to one US
commentator, "unleashing the foot-and-mouth virus" could be as
"simple as walking around on a US hog farm in boots worn on an
infected British farm".

Since 11 September, speculating about risk is represented as sound
risk management. The aftermath of 11 September has given legitimacy
to the principle of precaution, with risk increasingly seen as
something you suffer from, rather than something you manage. Of
course, taking sensible precautions makes a lot of sense. But
continually imagining the worst possible outcome is not an effective
way to deal with problems.

Allowing speculation to dominate how we think about risks may even
distract us from tackling the everyday problems and hazards that
confront society.

We don't need any more Hollywood-style brainstorming. We need a
grown-up discussion about our post-11 September world, based on a
reasoned evaluation of all the available evidence rather than on
irrational fears for the future.

Professor Frank Furedi is a sociologist at the University of Kent in
Canterbury. His book, The Culture of Fear, is published by Continuum
Books, price oe14.99.


Horizontal Gene Transfer Seminar


The Environmental Risk management Authority (ERMA) held a horizontal
gene transfer (HGT) seminar in Wellington on Wednesday 20 March. The
big questions of the day were; does horizontal gene transfer happen
and if it does happen does it matter? The speakers concentrated on
the first question and we learnt about the mechanisms of horizontal
gene transfer, particularly between bacteria. Unfortunately there was
little light thrown on the second question and the audience was left
to form its own opinions what the consequences of horizontal gene
transfer might be.

On the face of it horizontal gene transfer seems to happen fairly
frequently in that bacteria can, at times, take up genes from their
surroundings or from other bacteria. The speakers emphasized the big
difference, however, between a bacteria taking up a piece of DNA and
that DNA ending up permanently in that bacteria's genome.

Dr Kaare Nielsen from the Department of Microbiology in the Norwegian
University of Tromso in Norway explained that DNA is more likely to
be taken up (by recipient bacteria) if: a) the transferred DNA comes
from a closely related bacteria; b) the recipient bacteria has
complementary sections of homology with the donor bacteria's own DNA
and c) the fragment of DNA is the right length.

And then, even if a new piece of DNA is taken into a bacteria and
incorporated into its genome the protein-product it encodes has to
survive transcriptional processing and produce a complete protein.

Both Dr Kaare and Dr Val Orchard from Environmental and Scientific
Research (NZ) emphasised that even the production of a complete
protein is not enough to guarantee permanent incorporation of the new
gene into a bacteria's genome. The new protein has to he useful to
the bacteria because genes coding proteins that were neutral or
disadvantageous would be lost from the genome over time. Selection
pressure (population genetics) would determine the utility of the new
sequence and therefore its incorporation would ultimately depend on
selective advantage.

Dr Orchard and Dr Neil Macgregor, a biological scientist at Massey
University, highlighted the ubiquitous nature of bacteria and the
multitude of environments and large numbers in which they live. These
factors make horizontal gene transfer, even if it happens very
rarely, a near-certain event. Any gene that gave bacteria an
advantage could be quickly passed on to multiple offspring.

Dr Kaare said horizontal gene transfer was not a new phenomenon and
since natural reservoirs of DNA already exist in the environment
there was little risk in shifting these genes around with genetic
engineering. (Most transgenes at present come from soil bacteria.) He
was concerned, however, about incorporating completely novel genes
into organisms in the future.

Francis Wevers (LSN) reminded the audience that the risks of any new
technology need be considered in the context of any risks associated
with existing technology. While the audience was left with a better
understanding of the process and likelihood of horizontal gene
transfer there was no discussion on the consequences or magnitude of
any risks.

Ironically Bas walker, the Chief Executive of ERMA, closed the day by
talking about the need to ask questions in the right order. "If this
does happen what would be the effects? Then we can go back and ask
the more detailed questions." Unfortunately the seminar addressed the
detailed questions but not the most important question from a safety
point of view - if horizontal gene transfer does happen what will be
the effects.


Looking at the Risks and Benefits of Genetically Engineered Trees

Forestry Leaders Identify Risks and Benefits of Developing
Genetically Engineered Trees, Consider Broader Historical and
Sociological Issues Questions Raised: Are GE forests different than
crops? Are genetically engineered trees inevitable? How will
consumers react? Does forest biotechnology pose unique regulatory

Washington, DC (March 25, 2002) -- Many in the forestry industry, as
well as academic researchers, are interested in genetically
engineering trees but are proceeding cautiously as they evaluate the
technology's environmental consequences and gauge how consumers will
react to products made from genetically modified trees, according to
some of the nation's top forestry experts who spoke at a conference
sponsored by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, the
Society of American Foresters and the Ecological Society of America.

Representatives from industry, academia, and environmental groups
gathered in December to ask critical questions such as whether the
benefits of developing genetically engineered trees outweigh any
potential environmental risks, how broader historical and
sociological factors play into the debate, whether current forestry
practices will meet or exceed market demand for wood and paper
products, and whether there should be changes in the regulatory
process specific to the introduction of genetically engineered trees.
The proceedings of the conference, "Biotech Branches Out: A Look at
the Opportunities and Impacts of Forest Biotechnology," were released
today by the three co-sponsoring organizations.

"Forestry researchers are working on ways to create trees to resist
pests, to make it easier to process pulp and paper products, and to
assist in the restoration of endangered tree species," said Michael
Rodemeyer, executive director of the Initiative. "Some are looking to
biotechnology to meet these goals. For others, however, questions
about the potential ecological risks of introducing genetically
engineered trees into the environment have tempered the urge to
proceed. For these reasons, we thought it was important to create a
constructive dialogue among a wide variety of interests and
representatives from various scientific disciplines within the forest
community -- to share opinions, explore differences and identify
areas for a future dialogue on these issues."

The proceedings from "Biotech Branches Out" capture the many views
that emerged during the meeting in Atlanta when more than 100
scientists, environmentalists, foresters (representing both the
public and private sector), industry representatives, lawyers,
government regulatory officials and members of various
non-governmental organizations (NGOs) assembled to discuss the issues
surrounding forest biotechnology. In addition to examining the
potential benefits and risks associated with genetically engineered
trees, conference attendees also examined the current laws and
regulatory practices that apply to the technology. Some of the key
points that emerged from the conference included:

a. Evaluating genetically engineered trees may require additional
methods of analyzing benefits and risks, given some of the scientific
uncertainties involved as well as the cultural values attached to
natural forests. b. The technology holds promise for the forestry and
forest products industries and potentially for environmental
conservation. c. The potential environmental impacts of genetically
engineered trees must be weighed against the costs of not pursuing
the technology. d. Genetically engineered trees could avoid some of
the controversy associated with GE crops if the first products that
hit the market have a clear value to the end consumer, rather than
chiefly benefiting technology providers and growers. e..Potential
environmental risks and need for public participation in decisions
about the application of biotechnology in forestry may require a
different regulatory process for genetically engineered trees. A PDF
version of the report as well as a program are available on the Pew
Initiative's website at http://www.pewagbiotech.org.