Today in AgBioView - July 11, 2002
* Mexican Maize Madness - Part II - The Devil in the Detail
* Agribiotech and Big Business
* On DDT
* New witchweed-fighting method could dramatically diminish hunger in
* Zambia changes stance, seeks GM maize for food aid
* Fueling the Fears of Science
* Science and the transition to Sustainability
Mexican Maize Madness - Part II
The Devil in the Detail: the Technical Argument Behind the Retraction
- Ann Salleh, ABC Science Online
Last year, Nature published a paper claiming transgenes had been found in
native Mexican maize. Four months later the paper was retracted. In Part 1
of Mexican Maize Madness, Anna Salleh explores the issues behind the
retraction. In Part 2, she delves into the murky world of technical
argument behind the retraction and the broader issues it raises. Much has
been said about the commercial and other interests of the players involved
in the debate, but what about the science?
Part I - The War on Words explores the issues behind the retraction.
Part II - The Devil in the Detail delves into the murky world of technical
argument behind the retraction and the broader issues it raises.
Quist and Chapela's original paper in Nature reported two findings.
Firstly, they used a technique called Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) to
amplify the presence of transgenic DNA in the genome of Mexican landrace
varieties of maize. Secondly, they used a technique called inverse
Polymerase Chain Reaction (i-PCR) to amplify sequences on either side of
the transgenic DNA. This was to try and work out where it had positioned
itself in the native maize genome.
They reported finding transgenic DNA in multiple locations of the genome.
In some cases the transgenic DNA was fragmented and Quist and Chapela
argued that it could have been fragmented prior to crossing with the
Mexican maize, but also that it could have become fragmented after it had
The idea of transgenic DNA fragmenting as it moves from one generation to
the next implies that it is not stable - a concept which is quite alien to
genetic engineers. "The attitude of most people is that the initial
transgene insertion is a random event but once it's in it's stable," said
former research director of biotechnology company Calgene, Robert Goodman.
The referees opinion
Traditionally when a paper is peer reviewed there are several 'referees'.
One of the three referees who studied the exchanges between Quist and
Chapela and their critics stated that none of the data was sufficient to
warrant any of the conclusions and demanded retraction of the manuscript
unless further data was supplied. As Nature's editorial note suggests,
even after the further data was provided, disagreements persisted.
The other two referees, however, said that Quist and Chapela's first
conclusion - that transgenic corn is growing in Mexico and crossing with
local varieties - remained unchallenged. These referees did accept that
there were legitimate criticisms in the letters relating to Quist and
Chapela's second conclusion - that transgenes were moving around in the
Mexican maize genome - and one recommended that Quist and Chapela publish
For the prosecutionÖ
Kaplinsky and colleagues argued the findings were most likely artefacts of
the technique used. They argued that the i-PCR primer (short stretches of
DNA which pair up with parts of the longer sequence to be amplified) used
could easily pair up in the wrong place and amplify the wrong bit of DNA.
They said the bits of DNA amplified were more likely to be "junk DNA"
present elsewhere in the maize genome, rather than sequences adjacent to
the transgenic DNA. Matthew Metz's letter also argued the results were
artefacts of a careless application of the i-PCR method.
Fragmentation, said the critics, went against all previous evidence that
showed transgenes were stable entities and not in the habit of splitting
up and moving around as they pass through generations. The idea was
"unprecedented", "revolutionary", "totally ludicrous" and "more mysticism
For the defenceÖ
In their rebuttal, Quist and Chapela acknowledged two of their sequences
could have been artefacts, but not the others, which they described as
have a "revealing pattern of discontinuity...indicating the integration
junction between the transonic DNA and the native host genome." They also
cited four references to show transgenic construct fragmentation is "not
such a mind boggling idea".
However, Quist and Chapela were accused of mis-citing the references,
which actually refer to fragmentation during transformation (insertion of
the transgenic DNA into the original genetically modified organism), not
further fragmentation once the GMO has been established.
UC Davis plant geneticist, Paul Gepts, comments that although Quist and
Chapela's evidence is consistent with fragmentation during insertion, it
is insufficient to really demonstrate it. And as for their claim about
further fragmentation, he said they really should have provided
significantly more evidence and explanation before jumping to such a novel
and significant conclusion.
"The acknowledgement by Quist and Chapela that two of their sequences
might be artifacts does not inspire confidence in their methodology," said
Quist and Chapela's idea that transgenes are fragmenting and moving around
in the host genome may go against the beliefs of most working genetic
engineers, however Gepts stresses these are important questions to
investigate and yet the idea has never been tested in a systematic way.
"Again, we just don't know. There is little research done on the stability
of transgenic DNA," he said.
He says it has been known since the days of Barbara McClintock, that the
plant genome has elements in it that move around. One concern is that the
transgenic DNA, or parts of it, may end up in such "transposable elements"
and affect the expression of proteins other than that encoded for by the
Gepts said genetic engineers usually require several attempts before they
are successful at inserting transgenic DNA to create a GMO. It is the
successful inserts that are then selected for. In particular, genetic
engineers look for a GMO that will have a stable phenotypic trait. He
suggests that taking a closer look at why transformation events fail may
provide useful information in understanding genetic stability.
Former Calgene research head Robert Goodman concurs. Although the idea of
transgenes moving around freely in a host genome is not generally
accepted, he says a lot is not understood about what happens to transgenes
once they are inserted. "It is not surgically precise," he said. "It's a
bit of a fling at the genome. Odd things happen." "Why some lines don't
continue to perform are not understood," he said. "There are so few people
who have looked at those kinds of questions."
Goodman says the fact that plant's appear to have a "plastic genome"
complicates the question of whether transgenes could be moving around in
the host genome, "Separating out the behaviour of transgenes against the
background of how plant genes behave is an area that is in its infancy,"
Some scientists, such as Mae-Wan Ho of the UK's Open University, argue
that transgenes can disrupt the plant's own regulation of its "fluid
genome". For her, this is a warning sign against the wisdom of genetic
However, while Goodman says concerns about the possible unpredictable
effects of the Cauliflower Mosaic Virus (CaMV) promoter in transgenic
constructs may be legitimate, he believes that with more understanding it
will be possible to predict and control negative impacts of transgenes.
"I'm not trying to be scary. I'm just saying there is a background of this
and we don't really understand it much," he said. "We don't know all the
rules yet and we could do something that could have unexpected
consequences. I think we should proceed with appropriate caution."
What exactly is meant by "appropriate caution" is of course a matter of
judgment. For example, while scientists such as Mae-Wan Ho argue it's too
dangerous to proceed at this point, University of Queensland molecular
biologist John Mattick argues such concerns are unwarranted.
"DNA is dynamic, so I would accept that in principle DNA in cells may get
rearranged from time to time, although in reality this is a very rare
event. In any case the odds that this is going to produce anything that is
going to have any ability to compete with wild populations is effectively
nil," he said.
Meanwhile, the yet-to-be implemented Cartagena Biosafety Protocol refers
to the stability of inserted genes in its section on "potential risks" of
GMOs. And a new European directive on the deliberate release of GMOs will
require companies to prove the genes in the GMO they wish to release are
stable over successive generations.
According to Mae-Wan Ho, it is the prospect of having to prove genetic
stability that most worries the biotechnology industry.
So where does all this leave Nature's retraction? Papers are usually only
retracted when the author acknowledges there are mistakes or serious fraud
has been shown to occur. So what line did Quist and Chapela cross to
deserve the treatment they got?
Scientists who support Quist and Chapela claim Nature should have let the
normal scientific process of contestation proceed, using Quist and
Chapela's claims and data to repeat, verify or refute their findings
without additional editorial comment. Quist and Chapela's detractors, on
the other hand, claim the journal should not have reprinted the article
and expected the public to decide for themselves whether this was good
science, but should have retracted the paper properly and apologised for
Early this month BBC Newsnight accused Nature of ignoring the advice of
most of its advisers when it decided to retract the Quist and Chapela
Editor Philip Campbell was asked why he retracted the whole paper when the
focus of concerns was on the "secondary" findings about fragmentation of
the transgenes, and when only one referee had recommended retraction of
the whole paper. "What we were doing was giving our judgement based on a
variety of pieces of advice we'd received," he told the program. "The
paper as a whole shouldn't have been published."
Doubts linger, however, to the extent Nature could have been immune to the
powerful forces at work and the influence such forces could have had on
the "variety of pieces of advice" received by the journal. Negotiation
over acceptable methods and interpretation are a normal part of scientific
discourse although except for controversies like this they don't usually
happen in public.
Donald Kennedy Editor in Chief of Nature's rival, Science, recently gave
some insight into backstage negotiations over a controversial paper on
cold fusion. He described the pressure on his journal from distinguished
scientists and others not to publish and comments the case is not unique.
The motivations of those who try to stop publication, he said, sometimes
rest on "serious legitimate scientific differences of opinion, although
sometimes that is no so clear". Professional pride, policy implications
and financial matters are just some of the contexts that can surround such
negotiation. "The peer review process is like democracy, it's the least
imperfect system," comments Paul Gepts.
There has been much discussion about improving the system of scientific
publication by disclosing the conflicts of interest of authors. Italian
clinical psychologist and medical journal editor Giovanni Fava thinks the
system could be improved further if this requirement was extended to
referees themselves: "Disclosure of conflict of interest becomes crucial
when data are interpreted," he said.
Certaintly there have been claims that Nature's failure to reveal the
interests of players in the drama, including the one referee which
demanded a retraction of Quist and Chapela's article, and the journal's
own reliance on advertising from biotechnology companies, has done little
to engender trust in the peer review system.
Perhaps it's time for a wholesale overhaul of the process of peer review
and scientific publication to ensure the necessary transparency where
commercial pressures threaten the independence of science?
From: Klaus Ammann
Debate 2002'0710 a: Mexican Madness, a summary from ABC's Anna Salleh
here a summary of the Mexican Oaxaca case about the public debate (which I
saw on Agbioworld, thanks), at the end also some basic remarks about
safety assessment, which are often forgotten in the heat of the debate.
But its just not correct to say that those studies asked for by the Union
of Concerned Scientists should have been done before things happen. There
are at least two extensive workshops and publications which dealt with
maize gene flow in Mexico. Still, it is certainly wise to follow up the
case and to monitor very carefully what happens. here just two links:
Anna Sallehs study: go to the original ABC site
or also to our server:
In this study Anna Salleh does not mention the details about the cobs
which have (from the very same Chapela sample) have been studied in Bern,
Switzerland in the Lab of Dr. Urs Pauli (Federal Office of Health) for
several days, and the outcome was doubtful, and Pauli suggested to Chapela
to not consider the samples to be positive. Chapela never responded to
this and also did not quote the work. Comments unnecessary.
here again the correspondence from the side of Urs Pauli with Ignazio
Chapela In this study Anna Salleh does not mention the details about the
cobs which have (from the very same Chapela sample) have been studied in
Bern, Switzerland in the Lab of Dr. Urs Pauli (Federal Office of Health)
for several days, and the outcome was doubtful, and Pauli suggested to
Chapela to not consider the samples to be positive. Chapela never
responded to this
and also did not quote the work. Comments unnecessary.
here again the correspondence from the side of Urs Pauli with Ignazio
From: "Amit Basole" Ý
Subject: Agribiotech and big business
As a person who hasn't yet made up his mind on the GM foods issue but who
is wary of all big business, including Agri biotech companies I found the
article by The Lab Online ("Mexican Maiza Madness") very balanced and
helpful. Conveniently labelling people as anti-progress or pro-biotech
manages to skirt all the important shades of gray. And while sound science
is necessary to resolve several issues it is in this case by no means
sufficient. Policy has an equally important role to play.
Which brings me to an issue that I don't see addressed much in AgBioWorld.
Due to the current capital intensive nature of research in agricultural
biotechnology it is undertaken mostly by existing big companies
(pharmaceutical and chemical industry giants). In order to recover
research and development costs strong patent rights are granted. Sometimes
one or two multinationals end up controlling a large percentage of a
country's seed market. Farmers are often barred from replanting their
seeds. Does this not create a situation ripe for further exploitation of
poor farmers in the name of increasing their yields? Further, what are
likely to be the consequences of the huge knowledge divide that exists
between often illiterate poor farmers and biotech company scientists and
executives even if the later be completely honest and noble in their
intentions? Is not the farmer almost completely at the intellectual and
economic mercy of the seed companies?
Our responsibility does not end with establishing that huge increases in
food yields can come with GM seeds. Hand-in-hand must come efforts to
ensure that this does not become just one more in the long line of
undemocratic enterprises which survive by keeping poor, illiterate and
marginalized people in darkness. The 'trust us we are the experts' dictum
has let us down too often in the past to suffice by itself. As long as
knowledge and resources remain the property of a select few, interests of
democracy will not be served.
Amit Basole, Dept. of Neurobiology, Box 3209, Duke University Medical
Durham, 27710; Make a difference - Association for India's Development
From: "Gordon Couger"
>>- Allan S. Felsot wrote
>> snip a lot of very good history on DDT>
>>Use of DDT started during 1942 strictly for
>>military purposes to ward off medically important arthropods.
DDT is still of the safest most effective pesticides for this use. It is
certainly the least expensive and in the third world that can easily mean
the difference between life and death. Stopping it use of DDT in malaria
control program to save the environment and general decline in malaria
control world wide probably has directly resulted in more deaths than
Hitter and Stalin combined.
It is amazing how much better malaria control programs work when the
inside of houses are sprayed twice a year with DDT. This protects people
from mosquitoes much better and causes much less damage to the environment
that many programs that try to eradicate the mosquitoes in the wild.
Were DDT discovered today without all its baggage it would be heralded a
silver bullet in war against malaria.
DDT was never the problem it was our misuse of DDT that was the problem. I
can remember trucks fogging DDT running up and down ever street in town
twice a week all summer long in the 1950s. We used the logic if some was
good more was better. We have learned a great deal since then about pest
control. Such as scouting fields and only spraying when it is needed and
spraying when it will be most effective, learning to accept a reasonable
level of bugs below the economic level of controlling them and finding
practices and varieties that are resistant to insects. We have develop
pesticides that are less persistent in the environment and less toxic to
non target animals. We need to extend this knowledge to the third world
where some are still using the products and principles that we used many
But more important yet with the advent of BT crops we have insecticides
that only the target the pest that ingests it and non of the rest of the
environment is not harmfully exposed in any way we can measure to the
pesticide. We can put that in the hands of the third world with very
little education and expense. The market will do most of the education and
it will stand or fall on it's performance for the individual farmer. It
requires no leap of faith in using a new system of pest control on the
farmers part. He plants the seed and if it work he believes it.
It is criminal how the first world after wiping out malaria at home
abandoned the rest of the world as they moved their colonies home. But
looking at the problems we have maintaining our own childhood vaccination
programs it shouldn't be surprising that the public no longer considers
public health a serious consideration. When a school in the UK can have
25% of it enrollment down with whooping cough at the same time and the
burning health concern is if you can get vCJD from chicken breast that
have beef protein in them it is obvious that people no longer have any
concept of the real risks of disease.
New witchweed-fighting method, developed by CIMMYT and Weizmann Institute
Scientist, to become public in July; Technique could dramatically diminish
hunger in Africa
(Forwarded by From: "Debbie Weiss" )
- Nofit Milstein, Nofit.Milstein@weizmann.ac.il,
Corn harvests on experimental plots and in farmersí fields in four East
and Southern African countries have yielded striking results in long-term
trials of an innovative witchweed-fighting technology developed by a
Weizmann Institute scientist in collaboration with researchers at CIMMYT
(the Spanish acronym for The International Maize and Wheat Improvement
Center). The new technology will be presented to seed producers,
government representatives, regional scientists and regulatory agencies at
a CIMMYT-sponsored meeting in Kisumu, Kenya on July 4ñ6, 2002.
The meeting, entitled ìA Herbicide-Resistant Maize Method for Striga
Control: A Meeting to Explore the Commercial Possibilities,î will
demonstrate the results of the new technology in the field, present the
current status of this herbicide-resistant maize technology, assess its
commercial and regulatory aspects, and evaluate its future. The meeting is
designed to expose interested parties in the public and private sectors to
a powerful new weapon that could dramatically alleviate the Striga
At the UN-sponsored World Food Summit in Rome (June 10-13), UN Secretary
General Kofi Annan stated that ìas many as 24,000 people a day dieî of
starvation around the world. This devastation is substantially
concentrated in Africa. A major contributor to the problem is Striga
hermonthica, or witchweed, a parasitic weed that ravages grain crops in
several parts of the worldóparticularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where the
weed infests approximately 20ñ40 million hectares of farmland cultivated
by poor farmers and is responsible for lost yields valued at approximately
$1 billion annually. An estimated 100 million farmers lose from 20% to 80%
of their yields to this parasite. In Kenya alone it severely infests
150,000 hectares of land (76% of the farmland in Western Kenya), causing
an estimated annual crop loss valued at $38 million.
The weed thrives by attaching itself, hypodermic-like, to the roots of a
suitable host crop. It sends up a signal that says "feed me," and not only
sucks up the crop's energy but also competes for much of its nutrients and
water, while poisoning the crop with toxins and stunting its growth.
Until now, other methods to control this parasitic weed have been
long-term and often impractical and, hence, have not been widely adopted
by farmers. African farmers commonly remove the witchweed by hand, but by
the time it emerges above-ground, it has already drained the crop and done
its damage. Herbicides, applied during that same post-emergence period,
are also ineffective for the same reason.
Prof. Jonathan Gressel of the Weizmann Institute's Department of Plant
Sciences proposed an innovative solution to the parasitic weed problem
that relies on a new use for a certain type of corn that was developed,
using biotechnology, in the United States. The corn carries a mutant gene
that confers resistance to a specific herbicide, leaving the corn plant
unharmed when treated with this herbicide. As an alternative to spraying
entire fields, Prof. Gressel suggested that herbicide-resistant seeds be
coated with the herbicide before planting. Once the cropís plants sprout
from the seeds, the parasites unwittingly devour the weed-killing chemical
from the crop roots or surrounding soil and die. By the time a crop
ripens, the herbicide, applied in this way at less than 1/10th the normal
rate, has disappeared, leaving the food product unaffected.
Dr. Fred Kanampiu, a CIMMYT scientist based in Kenya, has tested this
approach for more than ten crop seasons while CIMMYT breeders crossed the
gene into African corn to produce high-yielding varieties that are
resistant to major African diseases, as well as to the herbicide.
Witchweed was virtually eliminated in plots planted with herbicide-coated
seeds, as will be shown at the Kisumu meeting. The experiments indicate
that a low-dose herbicide seed coating on resistant corn can increase
yields up to four-fold in fields highly infested with witchweed. The
herbicide is coated on the seed together with the fungicide-insecticide
mix that is normally used in Africa to provide healthy plants. With this
technology the farmer does not have to purchase spray equipment and can
continue interplanting legumes between the corn plants ñ a common practice
among smallholder African farmers.
This research was supported in part by the Canadian International
Development Agency (CIDA) through the CIMMYT East Africa Cereals Program
and by the Rockefeller Foundation. Initial herbicide-resistant corn seeds
for breeding into CIMMYT varieties were provided by Pioneer International,
USA. Prof. Gressel holds the Gilbert de Botton Chair of Plant Sciences at
the Weizmann Institute. Ý
The Weizmann Institute of Science, in Rehovot, Israel, is one of the
worldís foremost centers of scientific research and graduate study. Its
2,500 scientists, students, technicians, and engineers pursue basic
research in the quest for knowledge and the enhancement of humanity. New
ways of fighting disease and hunger, protecting the environment, and
harnessing alternative sources of energy are high priorities at Weizmann.
Zambia changes stance, seeks GM maize for food aid
- Shapi Shacinda, Reuters, July 11, 2002
LUSAKA - Zambia, which initially rejected genetically modified (GM) maize
in food aid, has now asked the World Food Programme to buy the cheaper GM
corn to feed about 2.3 million people, the U.N. food body said yesterday.
"The government informed us that we can now buy GM maize for purposes of
feeding people who are hungry. I spoke to the vice president (Enoch
Kavindele) who confirmed the new government position," World Food
Programme (WFP) country representative in Zambia Richard Ragan told
Agriculture Minister Mundia Sikatana in June banned imports of GM maize,
arguing that its safety was not known and Zambia could not risk the lives
of its people. The WFP and its sister body, the U.N. Food and Agriculture
Organisation, estimate some 13 million people in Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia,
Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland need about 1.2 million tonnes of food up
to March next year after bad weather and political mismanagement slashed
Some 2.3 million Zambians will need about 174,000 tonnes of food between
now and March, the two organisations estimate. Ragan said the WFP could
buy maize from Canada, Argentina, China or the United States, adding the
WFP would settle for a cheapest source.
"GM maize in the U.S. costs about $90 per tonne and shipment is around
$100 per tonne from the U.S. to Zambia. White maize in South Africa (the
nearest market for Zambia) will cost around $260 per tonne, so we have to
settle for the cheapest," he said.
South Africa produces limited quantities of genetically altered maize and
nearly all its white maize, a staple in many southern African diets, is GM
free. The Zambia National Farmers' Union (ZNFU) Chairman Ajay Vashee told
Reuters that Zambian farmers required 40,000 tonnes of yellow maize to
feed livestock and would be prepared to use GM maize even though it could
harm meat exports.
"We have no option as a country but to use GM maize. We neither know the
dangers nor the safety of GMO (genetically modified organism) foods, but
people in the United States are eating the GMO foods and no one has died,"
Vashee said. Vashee said Zambia's poultry and dairy exports to the United
Kingdom, which does not import GMO foods, would slump. He did not have
export figures. "Since not all farmers will use GM maize for their
livestock, we have to label our products to indicate if GM maize was used
to feed them or ordinary stock feed was used," he said.
Fueling the Fears of Science
- Arlene Judith Klotzko The Scientist 16:10, Jun. 24, 2002
In so many ways, it is hard to remember what life was like before the
carnage of Sept. 11. What it felt like to be safe from unknown horrors.
What seemed so important and now does not. What was top of the national
policy agenda and now is not. All through last spring into the summer it
was stem cells, but the events of that terrible day in September sent the
whole subject into more or less oblivion, only for it to reappear more
recently in the even more contentious discussion of therapeutic cloning.
Fears of science-focusing specifically on the consequences of genetic
manipulation-are being stoked on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United
States, worries tend to center on the human applications of biotechnology,
most notably cloning and a future in which genetic engineering of the
human germ line will be possible. These largely neoconservative
critics-including their intellectual big gun, Francis Fukuyama-see cloning
as the thin end of the wedge. In their doleful view, therapeutic cloning
will lead to reproductive cloning, which will lead to germ line
interventions and, in Fukuyama's particular nightmare vision, a class of
genetic aristocrats lording it over a genetic underclass, who may well
turn violent unless the government offers them a eugenic way out of their
sorry lot in life. For anyone who knows about science, this vision is
preposterous. For the rest, it is very, very scary.
In a brazen attempt to link science with feelings of terror and menace,
Eric Cohen of The Weekly Standard wrote an article with an extraordinary
title, "Dr. West and Mr. Bin Laden." With the evocation of Stevenson's
"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," the title was cynically chosen to achieve
maximum impact. And insult. Dr. West is, of course, Mike West, CEO of
Advanced Cell Technology, very much the public face of therapeutic cloning
in the United States.
Meanwhile, in Britain, visions of science and scientists running amok are
also causing fear and trembling. While no one seems particularly bothered
about therapeutic cloning, periodic updates about Severino Antinori's
alleged efforts at reproductive cloning (most recently, we have been told,
his work is taking place in an unnamed Middle Eastern country) are always
good for a headline. But, in the United Kingdom, it's not visions of
irresponsible human applications of biotechnology that get people cowering
in the corner. The subject is the ever popular and ever sinister one of
genetically modified (GM) foods.
Distrust of the food supply-especially when it is manipulated in ways that
nature never intended-predate current GM food concerns. They are traceable
directly to the catastrophe of BSE (colloquially and evocatively known as
mad cow disease). It is impossible to erase the memory of years of
assurance that BSE in cows could not be transmitted to humans who ate
infected beef. Of course, it was not scientists who decided to turn cows
from herbivores into carnivores. As Prime Minister Tony Blair has rightly
said, BSE represented a failure of practice, rather than a failure of
science. Still it is science that has inherited a legacy of suspicion that
it has yet to shake off.
Last month, Blair gave a major speech at Britain's national science
academy, the Royal Society, on the theme of science as a vehicle for human
progress. He expressed great concern that terrorism on the part of some
animal welfare campaigners along with virulent feelings about GM foods
would deprive Britain of its competitive edge, not just with respect to
developed countries including the United States, but also developing
countries, especially in Asia. As he said, Britain has great reason to
take pride in its scientists. With 1% of the world's population, Britain
produces 8% of its scientific papers and earns 9% of citations in learned
Anti-science is putting science at risk
When recombinant DNA technology appeared on the scene about 30 years ago,
it was clear that there were two sets of concerns apart from intrinsically
scientific questions. The first was risk and the second was ethics. While
science has made enormous strides and the landscape of genetics has
changed beyond recognition, the twin concerns of those early days are
still with us now in the public's wariness over GM food. There are also
attempts to severely circumscribe research involving GM animals,
potentially jeopardizing the use of mice as models for human disease
research. And now, with an increasingly bitter dispute about a two-part
"GM thriller" shown on the BBC June 8 and 9, things have turned really
Fields of Gold is a drama written by two writers, one of whom is Alan
Rusbridger, the editor of the liberal Guardian newspaper. Since
information about the program started filtering into the press, editors
and writers of competing papers, in particular the conservative Times of
London and The Daily Telegraph, have launched a vitriolic attack on the
writers and on the BBC. In the sort of play on words that the British do
so well, an editorial in the June 2 issue of the Telegraph referred to the
program as "dramatically modified truth."
Lord Robert May, president of the Royal Society, has joined the fray, and
was quoted in the same editorial decrying Fields of Gold as "an error
strewn piece of propaganda." He said that the BBC would be abdicating its
responsibility to the public by broadcasting it. The editorial went on to
summarize the plot: A scientist, it reports, uses a food blender to create
GM wheat in his bedroom, and he adds a gene resistant to the powerful
antibiotic, vancomycin HCl, which turns up in hospital waste. The next
thing we know, the editorial says, a superbug infects foxes and birds and
old people and threatens humanity. To make matters worse, viewers were
referred to a map of GM field trials through a BBC Web link-this
immediately following the last image of the program, which was of GM wheat
on fire. Lord May has since accused the BBC of inciting ecoterrorism.
The scientific adviser to the program, Mark Tester, has told one and all
that although he told the writers and the BBC "there was a theoretical
possibility of genes transferring from a crop to bacteria, they have
confused this with a probability." Certainly an easy mistake for a
nonscientist to make.
Ideology gap feed distrust
In the June 7 issue of the Guardian, coauthor Alan Rusbridger replied to
his critics, accusing them of a "concerted effort to destroy the
credibility" of the drama even before it was put on air. An effort that he
claims serves "the interests of biotech industry." There is an ideology
gap between Britain and the United States that feeds into the distrust
here and explains why people seem receptive to conspiracy theories about
nefarious American companies sneaking their noxious substances into the
food and the environment and making money on it all. The combination of
science and business does not feel as comfortable to the British as it
does to Americans. Indeed, Blair's speech was attacked by several
newspapers for being pro-business.
The anticapitalist argument is often raised in conjunction with a rather
old-fashioned earnest belief that we would all be better off in a state of
nature devoid of human interference. Of course, nostalgia for an Eden that
never was is patently illogical; our ancestral hunter-gatherers were
certainly not like the 18th-century philosopher Rouseau's noble savages,
although they certainly were savage.
To the chagrin of those championing the public understanding of science,
several polls in Britain have shown that the more people know or think
they know about it, the more distrustful they are. In the aftermath of
this program-seen by six million viewers-most of the audience will be left
frightened and confused.
While many people have seen Fields of Gold and many others have heard
about it, how the larger debate on GM food will turn out is still very
much a tale without an ending.
Arlene Judith Klotzko is a contributing editor. She is writer in residence
at the Science Museum and Adviser on Science and Society at the MRC
Clinical Sciences Centre. She is also the Visiting Scholar in Bioethics at
the Windeyer Institute of Medical Sciences, University College, London.
Science and the transition to sustainability
- Jane Lubchenco, Opinion/Editorial, http://www.scidev.net/
It is no exaggeration to say that the transition to sustainability is the
most important challenge of our times. For if we cannot work out how to do
that, nothing else will matter. And science has a key role to play in this
This represents a new role for science in society. Until now, the usual
reason given by governments for supporting science is that it can improve
human lives, a role that covers not only protecting human health but also
areas such as improving communication, raising levels of education and
satisfying our intellectual curiosity.
In addition, science has performed a range of social and political
functions, such as boosting national defence, enhancing national prestige
ó the race to get to the moon is an example of that ó and, more recently,
enhancing economic growth.
But science is now emerging in a new role that is equally as important as
those it has played up to now. That is the way that it can increase our
understanding of the national and the social worlds, and of the way that
these two worlds interact.
In this role, science can help to map out the choices that society faces,
show the consequences of these choices, and provide solutions to the
problems that may arise.
This does not mean that scientists should try to dictate policy. Rather,
science should ëinformí policy by increasing our understanding of the
impacts and consequences of human behaviour, and, based on that
understanding, showing that the choices we face are societal choices, not
scientific or technical ones.
If we stand back to look at the current state of the Earth, it is possible
to argue that we have made very little progress since the Earth Summit in
Rio in 1992. One way of recognising this is through the changes that are
taking place on a global scale as a result of human activity.
Take, for example, the transformation of the land. Humans have always
transformed the land; indeed more than half of the land surface of the
Earth has been transformed by human activity in one way or another. But
both the rate at which we are transforming the landscape, and the amount
that is transformed, are currently increasing at a rapid rate. In doing
so, we are damaging ecological systems that provide us with essential
services, such as clean air and water.
The second global-scale transformation is the way that we have increased
carbon emissions by 30 per cent since the beginning of the Industrial
Revolution. We know that the planet is now warming as a result of human
activities, and in some regions the changes are already quite dramatic.
The third change is the way that anthropogenic activities have doubled the
annual amount of nitrogen that is fixed. As a result, there are now for
example about 50 ëdead zonesí around the world, such as the mouths of
large rivers where run-off from agricultural areas has resulted in harmful
algal blooms that are increasing in frequency, intensity and duration.
The fourth global-scale change relates to the use of water. Humans
currently use more than half the amount of the worldís available surface
water, and agriculture alone accounts for more than 70 per cent of this.
The challenge of providing enough water to meet human needs is
Fifthly, there is the loss of biodiversity. It is no exaggeration to say
that we have entered the sixth mass extinction event. Unlike such events
in the past, however, this one has been driven by human activity, which is
creating a loss of biodiversity through habitat degradations and
Finally, there is the fact that two-thirds of the worldís fisheries are
either fully exploited, overexploited or depleted. This has happened in a
relatively short period of time; 40 years ago, in contrast, the figure was
only five per cent. And technical responses such as aquaculture will not
help unless they themselves become more environmentally sensitive than
they are at present.
We have made very poor progress since Rio in making a dent in any of these
changes. Indeed, we should not take a lot of pride in what has happened
over the past decade; the changes listed above are accelerating,
disrupting the ecological systems that provide the support systems for all
But the picture is not all gloomy. While the problems we face may be
increasing in intensity, it is also true to say that we have learned a
tremendous amount since Rio.
Firstly, there is an increasing awareness, both in the public and private
sectors, of the seriousness of the environmental challenges that we face.
Secondly, we have made progress in understanding that we need to do a
better job of integrating the natural sciences of biology and physics with
a socio-economic approach; we have learned to look at the Earth as a
We are increasingly recognising the importance of both traditional
knowledge and local knowledge in providing solutions to the issues that we
face, and accepting that there are no ëone size fits allí solutions to
managing the environment in a sustainable fashion.
Another important change has been a growing awareness of the moral and
ethical aspects of sustainability. Finally, we have made progress on the
engagement front, as an increasing number of scientists have come to
realise that they have a responsibility not only to carry out science but
also to communicate it to the general public.
In addition to all this, I believe that we are witnessing the emergence of
a new field of science, namely what is called ësustainability scienceí.
This is a science that is dedicated to bringing together the natural,
social and economic sciences in the interests of promoting sustainable
patterns of development.
The message in all this for the World Summit on Sustainable Development is
that we need to recognise that science is a key player in this process of
the transition to sustainability. As I indicated above, we are beginning
to learn how to do this, and scientists are becoming more aware and more
committed partners in the process of transition. But we are not yet making
sufficient progress in achieving our goals.
Jane Lubchenco is professor of zoology at Oregon State University, and
president-elect of the International Council for Science (ICSU). This
article is based on a presentation to ëState of the Planet 2002: Science
and Sustainabilityí, held at the Earth Institute, Columbia University, New
York, on 13 May 2002