Today in AgBioView: June 4, 2002
* GM drama is `implausible'
* Dramatically modified truth
* Critic of GM drama denies conspiracy
* Is it King Kong? Is it Godzilla? No, it's a genetically modified editor
* Survey: Americans trust the science behind bioengineered foods
* European Delusion
* Do Research, Do Time?
* STATEMENT ON CROP BIOTECHNOLOGY
GM drama is `implausible'
The Western Mail
June 03, 2002
THE BBC has been accused by one of its own scientific advisers of
inflaming the hysteria surrounding genetically-modified crops in a new
Dr Mark Tester, a lecturer at Cambridge University's department of plant
sciences, disowned the drama claiming he had been ignored when he told the
makers the plot was implausible.
Fields of Gold, starring Anna Friel, follows two journalists investigating
a mystery illness threatening the world that turns out to have been spread
by GM wheat.
But the BBC said Dr Tester had changed his tune after originally telling
them that the central premise - the transfer of antibiotic resistant genes
from crops to a superbug - was a possibility.
The programme was written by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and Ronan
Bennett, who wrote the Irish republican drama Rebel Heart. It is to be
broadcast on June 8 and 9 on BBC1.
GM crop researcher Dr Tester said, The programme-makers have been blinded
by their political agenda. It presents ridiculous errors of fact that
inflame anti-GM hysteria.
Dr Tester claimed a scenario featuring movements of genes from crops to
other organisms was extremely rare and certainly not rampant. He said
there was no reason why an antibiotic-resistant bug would pose a
particular threat to a fox.
Dramatically modified truth
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH(LONDON)
June 01, 2002
Imagine a BBC television drama in which a disillusioned Green scientist
decides to help a famine-stricken country to feed itself with genetically
modified crops. An implausible scenario? Only because the BBC would never
show GM crops in a positive light.
Consider, instead, the GM drama which the BBC has, in fact, just made.
Fields of Gold, due to be broadcast next weekend, is an exercise in
paranoia. It depicts a scientist creating GM wheat with a food blender in
his bedroom, to which he adds a gene resistant to the antibiotic
Vancomycin, which just happens to turn up in hospital waste. During
trials, this gene somehow infects bacteria, creating an
antibiotic-resistant superbug that kills foxes, birds and old people.
Spread by harvest dust, it threatens all humanity. The trouble with this
scenario is that every scientific premise on which it is based is
demonstrably false. Genes have never been known to jump the species
barrier in this way. The dust-borne GM superbug is mere fantasy. The
improbability of discovering a Vancomycin-resistant gene outside a
laboratory is as great as that of GM wheat being created in a food
The BBC knew all this, because its scientific adviser, the Cambridge
biologist Mark Tester, told them so. Dr Tester is, as it happens, a
courageous convert who believes GM crops will one day feed the world's
poor - if environmental imperialists do not prevent them. He warned the
BBC against "ridiculous errors of fact that inflame anti-GM hysteria".
Why did the BBC ignore their own scientific adviser? Enter the two
scriptwriters: Alan Rusbridger and Ronan Bennett. One might expect the
able Mr Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, to have checked his facts.
But one would not expect an apologist for the IRA to have any interest in
them. Mr Bennett was convicted of killing a policeman near Belfast in
1974, but the conviction was quashed on appeal. He is best known for Rebel
Heart, another BBC drama widely criticised for inaccuracy and bias. He
told The Spectator he would never turn in the Omagh bombers to the
"discredited" RUC, even if he knew who they were. The BBC has allowed Mr
Bennett to contaminate the GM debate with the methods of Irish Republican
agitprop. As Lord May, president of the Royal Society, says: "The BBC will
be abdicating its responsibility to its viewers by broadcasting this
error-strewn piece of propaganda." Judging by what has emerged so far,
Fields of Gold is Guardian-modified obscurantism masquerading as science
Critic of GM drama denies conspiracy
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH(LONDON)
June 03, 2002
By Tom Leonard Media Editor
A SCIENTIFIC adviser on a BBC1 drama about genetically modified crops
rejected its creators' claims yesterday that he was part of a
multinational "conspiracy to undermine the truth".
Dr Mark Tester, a GM researcher at Cambridge University, was attacked
simultaneously yesterday by Alan Rusbridger and Ronan Bennett, co-writers
of Fields of Gold, after he said they had ignored his criticisms and
produced a programme "to inflame uninformed anti-GM hysteria". Dr Tester's
rubbishing of the scientific credibility of the thriller, in which a
lethal GM-created superbug runs rampant through the human and animal
population, was repeated by other senior scientists who were shown a
preview of the programme.
In a letter to The Daily Telegraph, Mr Rusbridger, the editor of the
Guardian, insisted that Dr Tester had changed his mind during the making
of the programme.
He had not been nearly so critical of the plot when he was shown a script
in July last year, claimed Mr Rusbridger.
Writing in the Observer, the Guardian's sister paper, Mr Bennett claimed
that the criticism of his drama - which will be shown over two nights next
weekend - was part of an "ugly little conspiracy".
However, Dr Tester insisted yesterday that he had not changed his mind.
"They [Rusbridger and Bennett] admit they're not scientists but if they
really do want a balanced debate they have to appreciate the scientific
difference between possibility and probability. Their programme is not
plausible - as I warned them, they went too far."
Is it King Kong? Is it Godzilla? No, it's a genetically modified editor
The Times (London)
June 3, 2002
By Mick Hume
The latest row in the genetically modified food saga confirms that, post
September 11, we have trouble distinguishing between the real world and
This week the BBC broadcasts the two-part drama Fields of Gold, which
revolves around a genetically modified superbug "jumping" from wheat into
wildlife and humans. If the corporation is looking for publicity quotes,
here are some snippets from previews by leading scientists: "ludicrous
piece of alarmist science fiction"; "ridiculous"; "fatuous"; "hysterically
inaccurate"; "error-strewn propaganda"; "a goad to violence". This from a
profession known for its cautious statements. In response, the authors of
Fields of Gold -Alan Rusbridger, Editor of The Guardian, and the novelist
Ronan Bennett -have alleged an orchestrated smear campaign by
establishment scientists backed by big biotech and pharmaceutical
companies. Bennett claims the programme is the victim of "an ugly
conspiracy by those with a vested interest in discrediting it and personal
grudges to settle".
Why are these defensive-sounding scientists and thin-skinned writers
getting so overexcited? After all, it is only a little drama film. Nobody
worried that horror epics like King Kong or Godzilla might raise serious
issues about the threat of giant apes and lizards. As drama, we can judge
Fields of Gold for ourselves next weekend; at least one person who has
seen the preview says it is "a good laugh".
There is, however, something more going on here. The way that a TV film
about GM crops can assume such importance and provoke such controversy is
a sign of our fearful times. These days we find it harder to know where to
draw the line between fantasy horrors and real-life risks.
The BBC now insists that Fields of Gold "is a fictional drama which does
not purport to be a documentary". Yet in the pre-publicity, the producer
said the film's aim was "to tap into a very real fear, to make people
think about what they eat", comparing GM food to "the way nuclear power
terrified people". One of the stars of Fields of Gold, Anna Friel, says it
is "inspired by facts that need public attention drawn to them".
Most tellingly, a BBC source defines the film as "a 'what-if?' drama",
raising risks that just might become fact in the future. That speculative
question "what if?" -captures the cultural mood.
Since September 11 speculation about "what if?" scenarios has been
rampant. What if a hijacked plane hit a nuclear power plant, what if
bioterrorists infected burger bars, what if we were flooded with smallpox?
In America, intelligence agencies have even asked Hollywood film-makers to
help them imagine more creative "what-if?" scenarios. And if people didn't
take Godzilla seriously in the past, they do now. The FBI recently put New
York's Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge on full alert, after being
tipped off that the 1998 movie contained clues to a new terrorist attack.
The "what if?" panics have spread so readily because our societies were
already anxious about our ability to handle uncertainty, increasingly
seeing risks as something to be hidden from rather than handled. It is not
only radical writers and eco-activists who have stoked up fears of unknown
risks. Nervous scientists and government agencies have often given succour
to the scaremongers.
In his recent big pro-science speech, the Prime Minister declared that he
could "find no serious evidence of health risks" in GM crops. Barely a
week later, it is reported that the Government has "buckled to pressure
from the green movement", and hedged its commitment to GM technologies
once more. When it comes to discussing a "what if?" scenario, however
fantastic, it seems that the emotion of an actress such as Anna Friel
declaring that she cares "passionately" about food safety will always win
out over the cold known facts offered by a scientist.
Environmentalists insist that they are not "anti-science". This is fair
enough; only a troglodyte could be in the 21st century. What makes them
uncomfortable is not science in general, but experimentation and dealing
with uncertainty. If we want to be certain of anything, however, we need
less speculation about hypothetical future disasters, and more discussion
about how to manage the real risks we face today.
One other area of interest is the genetic modification of The Guardian
into a new kind of newspaper. Before the general election, it published
its own manifesto for government. Last month it hosted its own version of
Middle East peace talks. Now its Editor is writing drama scripts for
public education -the heroes of which, coincidentally, are crusading
journalists. Some might just detect signs of a worrying new strain
Survey: Americans trust the science behind bioengineered foods
June 3, 2002
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. ñ The ongoing debate over the safety and
environmental impact of genetically modified foods is complex and
multifaceted, but new research shows that American consumers are able to
separate the wheat from the chaff when presented with science-based
Charles Santerre, an associate professor of foods and nutrition at Purdue
University, surveyed 576 people to see how their knowledge and attitudes
toward genetically enhanced foods changed after receiving an hour of
training on food biotechnology. His results, which will be published in
the June issue of the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, showed
that a positive, science-based message can be efficiently delivered in a
way the public understands.
"Consumer education is an important aspect in the adoption of any new
technology, and especially so when it comes to safe, economical food
production," Santerre said. "Without a fundamental understanding of the
science behind food biotechnology, it's very difficult for consumers to
discern between credible and false information."
The study participants were asked a series of questions about their
knowledge of, and attitude toward, genetically modified foods both before
and after attending an hour-long educational presentation on the subject.
The training included information on how bioengineered crops are created,
the environmental impact of growing them, the criteria used by federal
agencies to evaluate and approve them, which genetically enhanced foods
are currently sold in grocery stores, the safety of these foods for
consumers and the potential benefits to be gained as the technology
Santerre found that prior to the training, 31 percent of the participants
believed that genetically enhanced crops were properly regulated by
federal agencies, and 25 percent were confident that bioengineering was
unlikely to make existing food allergenic. But following training, 83
percent said these crops were properly regulated and 63 percent believed
that biotechnology was unlikely to add new allergens to the food supply.
"We also found that 90 percent of those who received the training would
eat and serve genetically modified foods to their families, and 90 percent
believed that their families would benefit from genetically modified foods
within the next five years," Santerre said. "This confirmed my belief that
consumers can understand complex issues when the concepts are properly
developed and delivered."
Europeans' attitudes toward genetically modified crops are much more
volatile than that of their American counterparts, he said, and suggests
that part of the reason for the disparity could be the sources of
"Americans, by and large, have much more trust and confidence in their
medical professionals and federal government agencies, such as the Food
and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S.
Department of Agriculture, to provide them with accurate, science-based
information on this technology," Santerre said. "Consumers in Europe do
not have that same level of trust or confidence and are more likely to
listen to Greenpeace and other environmental groups that often present a
very narrow view of the technology that supports a specific agenda.
"All consumers need accurate information on a wide range of issues in
order to properly interpret the latest headline they read in the
Santerre's research was funded by the USDA Cooperative State Research,
Education, and Extension Service, the Purdue Cooperative Extension Service
and an unrestricted grant to the university from Monsanto Inc.
Writer: Sharon A. Bowker, (765) 494-9723, email@example.com
Source: Charles Santerre, (765) 496-3443, firstname.lastname@example.org
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; email@example.com
Date: Tue, 04 Jun 2002 02:26:44 -0500
From: "Andrew Apel"
Subject: European Delusion
The latest imbroglio in Europe regarding the "contamination" of organic
food with a long-banned herbicide appears to have surprised many, and that
is unfortunate. It should have surprised no one. Europe believes that its
food regulation means food safety, and that more food regulation means
more food safety: an illusion. Putting laws on the books does nothing for
food safety, and putting more laws on the books only adds to the cost of
paper and ink.
Europe's food production system is criminally lax from top to bottom and
vice versa. Regulation without supervision is meaningless. Where I live,
there is a factory that makes pigs into food, at the rate of thousands of
pigs per day. The sort of "industrial food" operation so often derided by
"organic" food enthusiasts. But it has full-time government inspectors
prepared to shut down the entire operation at a moment's notice if there
is a breach of regulation. And they have done that thing.
Europe proclaims the "strength" of its food regulations, but all it does
is suffer from food scandals. Europe proclaims the "precautionary
principle" but cannot reduce it to practice. When human toilets flush into
cattle feed grinders, "fresh poultry" are sold in an advanced state of
decomposition, and ship bilge is fed to animals -- the litany could go
much longer -- it is obvious that Europe's "food regulation" is a complete
sham. What is worse, the latest "organic food" scandal only shows that
"organic" is merely another excuse for a crude, primitive food production
system that sickens and scares consumers.
Europe's politicians may entertain themselves with notions that their
regulations make a difference, and Europe's citizens might be thrilled
with the publication of new food laws, but as long as they believe that
crude, unsupervised food production (such as "organic") is appropriate,
delusion and scandal will continue.
If you live in a country that has "industrial food production," be glad.
If you do not, I wish you luck.
Do Research, Do Time?
31 May 2002
By CHARLES C. MANN
Imprison leading scientists for doing research? That could be the effect
of a sweeping new law in Mexico that could block researchers from working
with any transgenic organisms, even in the lab. Although Parliament passed
the law in February, many of the nation's molecular biologists are just
now learning of it, and they are up in arms.
Illegal action? A researcher obtaining DNA at a maize research lab,
CIMMYT, outside Mexico City.
CREDIT: PETER MENZEL PHOTOGRAPHY
The law, perhaps the worldís most sweeping biotech regulation, is part of
a larger initiative to reform biosafety rules in Mexico. Most of the law
deals with relatively uncontroversial matters: regulating the disposal of
hazardous wastes, controlling toxic chemicals in urban areas, and blocking
the introduction of exotic species. But the little-noted Article 420 of
the new law imposes an up to 9-year prison sentence on anyone who, "in
violation of the established applicable norms, imports, exports, traffics,
transports, stores or releases into the environment any genetically
modified organism that changes or can change negatively the components,
structure, or function of natural ecosystems." According to Article 420,
"genetically modified organism" means "any organism with a new combination
of genetic material that has been created by the techniques of
Although Article 420 is in effect, it is not yet being enforced, because
the relevant "established applicable norms" do not exist. SEMARNAT,
Mexico's environment ministry, has told researchers that it is developing
the "norms," which will be published in draft form, probably next month,
for a 60-day comment period. Scientists inside and outside SEMARNAT are
demanding that the norms be used to rein in the law.
But researchers in Mexico are far from complacent. "Nobody is sure how the
law will affect them, nor how it will be enforced," says one geneticist,
who asked for anonymity because of the "delicate" situation. "It is very
difficult to envision that the Mexican government is going to send some of
its best scientists to jail for following what were the laws before this
latest act was passed." But that, this researcher said, might end up being
STATEMENT ON CROP BIOTECHNOLOGY
American College of Nutrition (ACN)
(J. of the Am. College of Nutrition, Jun-2002)
The American College of Nutrition is committed to the worldwide
availability of a safe, adequate and nutritious food supply. Substantial
valid scientific evidence exists establishing the safety of crops
developed via biotechnology. Numerous national and international
scientific and regulatory organizations have reviewed this evidence and
concluded that crops developed via biotechnology pose no unique safety
concerns compared to crops developed via traditional breeding. Moreover,
since the introduction seven years ago of foods containing ingredients
from crops developed via biotechnology, these crops have been widely
adopted by farmers worldwide, and have an established history of safe use
The American College of Nutrition recognizes the potential of
biotechnology to improve the size and reliability of crop yields and
encourages its use to develop crops that benefit countries of the
developing world. Wherever possible, biotechnology should be applied
responsibly to improve crops that enhance dietary diversity and thus the
nutritional value of the diet for resource poor farmers and consumers who
currently have a limited food supply. The College further supports the
application of biotechnology to enhance the nutritional quality of foods.
Increasing the levels of desirable components and prolonging food
freshness are valuable approaches to ensuring a nutritious and wholesome
food supply. In addition, biotechnology offers the possibility of removing
some anti-nutrients and allergens present in conventional crops and foods.
Moreover, the College recognizes that crops enhanced via biotechnology may
benefit the environment by reducing reliance on agricultural chemicals and
by enabling the use of more sustainable agricultural practices. Therefore,
the College supports the use of biotechnology to develop food crops that
contribute to global food security and enhance the safety and nutritional
value of the food supply. At the same time, the College encourages the
maintenance of wild-type genetic varieties and the biodiversity they
provide. Finally, the College supports the continued application of sound
scientific principles to the evaluation of these products and encourages
the nutritional science community to participate in scientifically based
evaluations of food products. The College is committed to continuing
surveillance of the scientific and safety data of individual products
developed via crop biotechnology.
The American College of Nutrition is a not-for-profit society composed of
over 1,200 professional nutritionists drawn from academia, practice, and
industry, and committed to disseminating nutrition knowledge, fostering
nutrition education, and encouraging continued research in the broad area
of nutrition. According to Dr. Stanley Wallach, Executive Director of the
College, "The College is releasing this statement at this time to coincide
with publication of the June 2002 issue of the Journal of the American
College of Nutrition (JACN), which is devoted entirely to the subject of
crop biotechnology." Wallach continued, "As the papers published in the
supplement to JACN on this topic show, the technology is being applied in
the US, Europe, Australia, Kenya and SE Asia to make foods more
nutritious, more plentiful, and to reduce use of pesticides."