Today in AgBioView: August 20, 2002:
* In a World of Hazards, Worries are Often Misplaced
* Pope Not Against Biotech!
* Bt Sunflower and Hybrid Weed
* Wild Bt sunflowers: better weeds from majestic flowers
* Seeds of Doubt - The real danger is not GM foods, but ignorance and fear
* Science and Sustainability
* More on Pew
* The Pros and Cons of Altering Nature
* Demon Seed or Saviour?
* Swiss Company Seeks Approval for GM Rice to Benefit Kidney Patients
* TechCentral from JoBurg
In a World of Hazards, Worries are Often Misplaced
- JANE E. BRODY, NY Times, August 20, 2002
Spared from worry about whether they will have enough to eat today or a
roof over their heads tomorrow, most Americans have the luxury of worrying
about the hazards that may be lurking in their air, water and food as a
result of all this progress and affluence.
We are healthier, live longer, have more sources of pleasure and
convenience and more regulations of industrial and agricultural production
than ever, but we are also more worried about the costs to our health of
This is not to say there is nothing to worry about. In an ideal world,
progress would result only in benefits, no risks. In an ideal world, we
would be able to produce, organically and inexpensively, all the food we
need and the food our importers rely on. In an ideal world, manufacturing
would leave no residues in air, water or soil, and people would be smart
and disciplined enough to resist exposure to health-robbing substances
like tobacco and consistent about using protective devices like seat
belts, helmets and condoms.
But this is not and never will be an ideal world, so bad things will
occasionally happen. Regulations cannot control every risk. Besides, every
regulation has a price. The millions or billions spent in compliance and
enforcement might be better used in ways that would save many more lives,
and sometimes the cost is not worth the potential benefit. I say
"potential" because in many cases, the risks involved are only
hypothetical, extrapolations from studies in laboratory animals that may
have little or no bearing on people.
For example, despite widespread belief and laboratory studies in rats that
link pollution to breast cancer on Long Island, this month an $8 million
federal study found no evidence that environmental contamination from
pesticides and industrial chemicals was responsible.
Why People Worry
"People are scared about environmental dangers," noted Dr. Glenn Swogger
Jr., a psychiatrist in Topeka, Kan. "Being scared affects their ability to
think realistically and use good judgment." Underlying these fears, he
believes, are uncertainty about the effects of exposures to certain
substances, a tendency to overreact and seek scapegoats in stressful
situations, guilt about our affluence and an unspoken wish to return to a
simpler and purer world.
Experts in risk perception say people who become agitated about real or
potential risks are influenced by a number of "outrage" factors. Prominent
among them is control. Is the risk voluntarily assumed or imposed by
others? A woman I know who eats only organically grown food enjoys rock
climbing, skiing and whitewater rafting, sports far riskier than all the
chemical fertilizers, pesticides and antibiotics combined. Likewise, does
it make sense for smokers to worry about pollution from a nearby factory?
In short, too often, the risks people worry most about are out of
proportion to the actual dangers involved.
Next is the fairness factor. Is there a benefit to the consumer, or are
consumers assuming risks resulting from benefits gained only by the
manufacturer? A classic example is toxic waste dumped on a community. Or,
if there are some consumer benefits, are they out of proportion to the
risks? One example is the use of antibiotics in animal production, a
process that has led to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Is the hazard natural or caused by people? Although there was a brief
flurry of concern about radon, which emanates naturally from soil and
rock, perpetual and far more intense concern arises over radioactivity
from mine tailings and nuclear power plants. Yet the known cost to lives
from other energy sources, including solar power, gas and oil, still far
exceeds that associated with nuclear power.
How new or familiar is the risk? People worry much more about possible
accidents caused by new technologies than about ones they have known about
all their lives. Traditional plant-breeding techniques have resulted in no
protests. But the introduction of genetically modified foods has prompted
some people to pay premium prices for foods said to be free of any genetic
manipulation, even if it results in more wholesome products.
Is there potential for a catastrophe? Consumers have repeatedly ranked
nuclear power as the No. 1 hazard among more than two dozen activities and
technologies, including smoking and handguns. Many people are far more
frightened of air travel, especially after a plane crash, than they are of
driving, which, mile for mile, presents a far greater risk.
Facts to Consider
It is not possible to anticipate, regulate and control every risk.
Priorities must be assigned for risk management, with time and money
devoted to those hazards best established and most likely to cause the
Not every regulation is a good investment. For example, for each premature
death averted, the regulation that lists petroleum refining sludge as a
hazardous waste costs $27.6 million while the rule that does the same for
wood preserving chemicals costs $5.7 trillion per death avoided, according
to estimates from the Office of Management and Budget.
The asbestos ban, at $110.7 million per life saved, was a bargain compared
with the exposure limits placed on formaldehyde, which cost an estimated
$86.2 billion per death averted.
Animal tests that result in cancer caused by a suspect substance do not
necessarily apply to people. Half of all chemicals that have been tested
have caused cancer in one or another experimental animal, but not always
in all species or strains tested or even in both sexes. Often animal
strains genetically susceptible to certain cancers are chosen for these
tests. When very large doses are used in animal tests, the result is often
toxicity and inflammation, which itself can cause cancer even if the
substance is not carcinogenic.
A cardinal rule in toxicology is "the dose makes the poison." You can eat
a dozen carrots at once with no ill effect, but 400 carrots could kill
you. Animal studies rarely reveal the possible effects, or safety, of
long-term exposure to the kinds of low doses people may experience.
Keep in mind that we all have livers, which accrue and detoxify small
amounts of hazardous substances. Another limitation of animal tests is
their usual failure to detect risks that may result from interactions
between two or more otherwise innocuous substances.
Remember, too, that "natural" is not necessarily safer, and just because
something is manufactured does not make it a potential hazard. Nature is
hardly benign. Arsenic, hemlock and, despite its current medical
applications, botulism toxin are wholly natural but also deadly.
For helpful, detailed discussions of how best to consider environmental
threats, consult the new book "How Much Risk? A Guide to Understanding
Environmental Health Hazards" (Oxford University Press) by Inge F.
Goldstein and Martin Goldstein, who explain how controversies are
investigated and why scientists sometimes disagree and fail to find
Pope Not Against Biotech!
- From: Jussi Tammisola
News story delivered by news agencies claims that the Pope strongly
condemned genetic engineering in his speech in Poland (18th Aug). The
piece is fallacious (not to say fraud), as habitually with biotechnology
"news" originating from Reuters. Innocent but unwary local media has
published it in Northern Europe at least.
Actually, catholic church has a fairly positive attitude for gene
technology in the service of mankind in food production. Its many recorded
or promised benefits for environment and food security have been stated in
its official documents. See e.g. the letter by Andrew Apel (AgBioView, May
16,2002) for details.
In his speech, the Pope only criticized the use of genetic engineering for
changing human genome and aspiring immortality. That is not unexpected
(and no news), regarding that the Pope has repeatedly expressed his
condemnation for actions directed at human beings such as contraception,
abortion, human cloning, even medical use of embryonal stem cells.
The relevant sentences in the speech(es) were as follows:Ý "Frequently man
lives as if God did not exist, and even puts himself in God's place. He
claims for himself the Creator's right to interfere in the mystery of
human life. He wishes to determine human life through genetic manipulation
and to establish the limit of death." The original text of his speeches
can be seen e.g. on the pages of the Vatican Press Office
On Bt Sunflower and Weed Issue...
From: Neal Stewart
These are my thoughts of the day on the subject of Bt sunflowers. More
systematic thoughts will be forthcoming in my book, Genetically Modified
Planet, the Environmental Impacts of Genetically Modified Plants to be
published by Oxford University Press (the manuscript goes to the
I think that nearly all of the discussion that has ensued about Snow et
al. and the results of a sunflower x wild sunflower hybrid study with a Bt
gene is premature. The main reason being is that I have not seen a
peer-reviewed paper or even a preprint yet. Particularly culpable in the
early hype is the science press writing about a meeting abstract. It is
not surprising that premium mainstream outlets, such as the Wall Street
Journal will cover the issue with few facts when New Scientist and Science
News publish articles based on an abstract. And I think that editors are
significantly more to blame than writers. I am curious as to what others
think about the science newsworthiness of a lone abstract and talk at a
Allison Snow and her group are one of the best in the biosafety business.
She and her team of scientists, I am sure, do not want their results to be
taken out of context. The proper context at this point is that they have
data on an experimental system-- but we have to start someplace.
That said however, the interested reader may want to take a look at
http://www.biosci.ohio-state.edu/~lspencer/gene_flow.htm which includes a
paper by Pilson et al. This is a conference proceedings that Allison Snow
hosted this year in Ohio. As far as I can tell from the ESA meeting
abstract, the Ohio State paper is as useful as any to better understand
more details about the Bt sunflower hybrid study.
At this point in the science, it is appropriate to ask about the effects
of a Bt gene on plant populations of crop x wild hybrids, and repeated
backcrosses to wild plants. My group is attempting to do the same kinds of
things in a canola x related wild plant system. We are, however, choosing
to focus on competitive ability of Bt-wild plant backcrosses (BC2, BC3) by
asseesing the biomass and yield of a crop they are competing with--
compared to isogenic lines and native wild relatives (but let's not talk
about this too much either until the paper is published!).
Isolating the effect of the transgene is difficult because of the shifting
genetics in hybridizations. An average effect can be determined, but how
important is that in the real world? Short of engineering the wild plant
directly, the mitigating effects of genetic backgrounds will always
confound.Ý Here is why: in sunflower or canola (or whatever crop), a Bt
transgene (or whatever transgene) must be residing in a background of crop
genes that, whenever transferred to a weed, will, a priori, make the weed
more "croppy" and less weedy (perhaps more crappy, even). This is
especially true at the F1 hybridization stage. So, while we and others run
all the appropriate controls, the transgene consequence experiments that
are being performed today and a year or two ago (all that I'm aware of)
have only experimental relevance to the real world.
I am convinced that we must do two kinds of experiments to have really
relevant answers. 1. Transform wild plants or weeds directly with the
transgene of interest to determine the transgenic effect (but this, too,
only tells about the transgenic effect, not the genetic background
effect). 2 Take the current route of starting with a transgenic crop and
moving it into a wild plant, but taking more of a systematic breeding and
selection tact to really look at the effects and variances background
genes provide. As someone has mentioned, genes are moving around
continuously between crops and weeds and have been since there were crops
and weeds, yet species and type barriers remain. I am becoming more
interested in knowing what are the effects of crop genes on wild plants
than transgenes on wild plants, because I think that the effects are
larger. All the evidence at this juncture indicates that weeds are adapted
as weeds and that transgenes when accompanied by crop genes (or vice versa
if you like to think that way) will have little effect in increasing
weediness of weeds. And I don't care what crop you are discussing. Of
course, herbicide tolerance is a special case for agriculture, and that is
an exception-- the herbicide tolerance gene is strongly selected for, no
Although transgenic crops are the most widely and thoroughly studied crops
ever, the ecological effects need to be elucidated. It still befuddles me
why we aren't compelled to study genetic movements between crops and weeds
sans transgenes. As far as I can tell, non-transgenic crops could be
equally dangerous. But compared to agriculture itself, with its tractors,
pesticides, economics, weather, and politics, genetics is about as safe
(and natural) as it gets.
But next time, folks, let's wait on a paper (or was it published when I
was on vacation?).
Neal Stewart, Racheff Chair and Professor, University of Tennessee
Wild Bt Sunflowers: better weeds from majestic flowers
- Rautenberg O, BioScope, August 19, 2002
Abstract: A study from Allison Snow shows that Bt-sunflowers easily pass
their new trait to weedy relatives. The hybrid generation produced one and
a half as many seeds as the parent plants and prospered like the wild ones
even under conditions of water and nutrient deprivation . Snow stated,
that "weeds are already hard plants and the addition of transgenes could
just make them tougher." However, the results of this study seem not to be
qualified to predict any scenario for environmental consequences.
A field of summer sunflowers is a heart-warming sight. The vivid yellow
ring of petals is a mirror of the inner self, and the radiant harmony of
the head of seeds touches the human soul. For the painter-genius Van Gogh,
the aesthetic potential of sunflowers became almost an artistic obsession.
Yet the plants are cultivated for entirely different reasons. Their seeds
contain a liquid gold that has been used for cooking for over 150 years
and is the basic ingredient in a wide range of industrial products,
including lubricants, paints and varnishes today. The groats left over
after pressing is used in feed consumed by hundreds of thousands of
ruminants. Thus it was not its heavenly visage but rather its oil that
catapulted the sunflower into the illustrious league of renewable raw
materials during the second half of the 20th century, motivating breeders
to develop varieties with improved qualities. Today, breeders are
concerned not only with improving yield and resistance to diseases but
also with enhancing the quality and quantity of fatty acids contained in
The goal of achieving variation in plant composition poses a exceeding
difficulty to conventional plant breeding, which is forced to rely more or
less on traits already present in the gene pool. Randomly produced
favourable combinations must be systematized - a complicated and
time-consuming process. On the basis of present knowledge about the
molecular principles underlying the complex enzymatic processes involved
in oil synthesis in plant cells, genetic engineering now offers a
complementary breeding method which can be used to apply modern insights
to the production of modern plant varieties with new traits. Although
field experiments with transgenic sunflowers are rare compared to those
involving corn, soy or potatoes and although a new variety suitable for
commercial use is unlikely to be available for some time, it is reasonable
to expect that varieties adapted to meet specific needs will reach soon
the end of the research and development pipeline.
Ever since the first transgenic plants were developed for commercial use,
the spread of new genes into wild populations has been a subject of heated
controversy. While some go so far as to declare the mere possibility an
environmental catastrophe waiting to happen, others deny that it
represents a qualitative change in the drift of genes between wild and
crop plants that has been going on for thousands of years. Assessing the
risks posed by transgenic plant varieties today means accepting
pollination and thus random crossbreeding as normal biological principles
and evaluating them specifically and comprehensively in each separate
case. Individual research findings on the environmental effects of
transgenic varieties cultivated on a large scale reflect only a small
piece of the complete puzzle and must always be examined with reference to
the whole. Otherwise, the danger of drawing hasty and faulty conclusions
The only wild relatives of the sunflower found in Europe are stray
cultivated varieties, whereas the wild sunflower (Helianthus annus) still
thrives in some regions of its native continent of North America and has
been exchanging genes with cultivated varieties (also Helianthus annus)
for hundreds of years. This process has not yet been described
scientifically with any degree of precision and elutes analysis even
today. At the recent annual meeting of the American Ecological Society,
Allison Snow of Ohio State University presented a study of the drift of a
gene for pest resistance from a transgenic "cultivated crop variety" of
sunflower to wild relatives under greenhouse conditions. Although she
gained several interesting insights, they pose new questions themselves.
They are difficult to integrate into a comprehensive picture and thus
leave considerable room for speculation. The study has not been published
yet, and the data are unknown for the most part, yet the presentation and
the press release (1) triggered worldwide media response.
Allison Snow crossed Bt insect-resistant sunflowers with wild relatives
and discovered that the hybrid generation planted in the field produced
one and a half as many seeds as the parent plants. Snow states that she
was "surprised that a single transgene could have such a big effect on
seed production." It is not known whether Snow also crossed the original
conventional variety with the wild plants for control purposes. In
greenhouse experiments, Snow also observed that the hybrid plants
prospered even under conditions of water and nutrient deprivation, which
indicates that the Bt gene did not diminish the hybrids' physical fitness
in this regard. How well the Bt cultivated variety compared and whether
Snow performed corresponding control experiments is also unclear. Snow
also states that the hybrid varieties suffer less insect damage under
field conditions. At this point, a complex world quickly emerges in the
form of a highly differentiated ecological network, and one soon finds
oneself in the realm of speculation; for these results cannot be evaluated
until the extent of insect damage to wild sunflowers in their natural
habitat is known. Snow takes quite a playful view of this new and
unfamiliar world and wonders whether wild Bt sunflowers could provide new
impulses to the dynamics of resistant and sensitive insect populations. If
we continue to proceed at this pace, we will soon find ourselves at the
brink of a collapse of the ecological balance but without ever having left
the theoretical sphere.
Ammunition for opposing speculation can be found in a publication that
appeared in 2001, to which Allison Snow also contributed (2): The crossing
of transgenic sunflowers with wild relatives produced hybrids with
astonishingly large seeds - double the normal size! However, this also
came as a positive surprise to those representatives of the animal kingdom
that feed on sunflower seeds. They fell upon the large fruits with a
gourmet's delight, prompting the authors to conclude that these hybrids
are not exactly blessed with an evolutionary advantage.
Confusion is always generated in cases where specific findings are
projected into larger contexts according to individual inclinations. One
easily drifts away from scientific discipline, encapsulating simple
insights in personal opinion. To opponents of the new breeding methods,
such results quickly take on the odour of the feared superweed, and Percy
Schmeisser exploited them for his own purposes in another public attack
against Monsanto. Allison Snow is right in saying that "weeds are already
hardy plants; the addition of transgenes could just make them tougher."
Yet she is wrong in concluding virtually in the next breath that these
"plants can spread in an uncontrolled manner and threaten populations of
harmless insects." Her findings simply do not support such a statement.
Serious risk assessments take into account the individual traits of
transgenic plants in relation to their local environment. Thus it is
clear, for example, that transgenic rape requires different monitoring
measures in Europe than transgenic corn, which has no wild relatives in
Europe and North America. Studies like those by Allison Snow promote a
better understanding of complex ecological relationships and provide
points of reference for new lines of inquiry. However, they cannot and
must not be overinterpreted, for one could then just as easily ask why a
flower as majestic as the sunflower, which brings joy to the hearts of
human observers, can be used for something as disdainful as the production
Seeds of doubt - The real danger is not GM foods, but ignorance and fear
-The Times (London), August 17, 2002
It matters little that just 2.6 per cent of genes in the genetically
modified crop trials in England and Scotland were rogue. It matters even
les s that the added chance of passing the gene, neomycin phospho
transferase (ptIII), to human beings through GM foods is negligible; it is
already naturally present in a wide variety of bacteria. And it matters
not at all that the antibiotics to which the gene is resistant, neomycin
and kanamycin, are rarely used in human medicine. But the error by the
biotechnology company Aventis has played into people's worst fears,
however ill-founded, about GM foods.
Concerns that antibiotic-resistant genes might be passed on to humans
through the food chain are common and generally misguided. No matter that
the risk is theoretical and unlikely, or that the seed mistakenly planted
in British test sites has been grown commercially in Canada for years with
no discernible detrimental impact upon human, animal, or environmental
health. The appalling achievement of Aventis has been to lend a veneer of
credibility to a suspicion which until now existed only in the dark
corners of people's minds and the furthest reaches of television fantasy.
The very fact that people do not understand the science behind GM foods
means that their fears cannot and should not lightly be dismissed.
Professor Vivian Moses, the chairman of CropGen, a body of scientists and
academics established to promote the benefits of GM technology, was wrong
to dismiss the error by Aventis as an irrelevant technicality. Most
ordinary seed is only produced at 98 per cent purity, the professor said.
"It's almost like saying, you've got a parking sticker for a blue car,
you've got a red car," he told the Today programme.
Except that few people fear that the wrong parking sticker might kill
them. Professor Moses's arrogance does neither CropGen nor the science of
biotechnology any favours. The seed may have been 97.4 per cent correct,
but Aventis is no less than 100 per cent at fault for planting the wrong
one. The fact that the company introduced the unapproved variety of
oilseed rape into the trials accidentally, rather than as part of a murky
corporate conspiracy to seize control of the food chain, does nothing to
lessen its responsibility. If the biotech companies researching and
developing GM foods cannot be trusted to manage and monitor their own
science, then they will rightly lose what little confidence the public
still has in them.
GM crop trials are carried out under the authorisation and scrutiny of the
Government, a regulatory regime which the public is expected to trust. Yet
for three years, despite numerous inspections, this batch of seed has been
sowed and grown, undetected, in test sites in Britain. The error was
eventually noticed, not by the Government or Aventis but by a Scottish
agricultural college which was carrying out a small-scale trial. The
system of "paper" inspections, under which the Government accepts
Aventis's word as to what has been planted, has been shown to be seriously
Some people do not trust GM technology, do not trust companies developing
it, and do not trust food containing it. The victims of this lack of
understanding will be the developing world. It is farmers in developing
countries for whom GM technology represents the biggest opportunity to
break out of a dismal cycle of failing crops and poverty. Unjustified
hysteria among wealthy nations about GM will deny farmers from poorer
countries the opportunity to export to them. The Environment Secretary,
Margaret Beckett, last month said that the Government would lead a
national debate on GM. The debate is happening without them. Once again it
is focusing not upon the potential benefits of GM technology, but upon the
worst fears of the scaremongers.
Science and Sustainability
- Alan Leshner, Science 297: 897, August 9, 2002
When the World Summit on Sustainable Development convenes in Johannesburg,
South Africa, at the end of August, it will serve as a powerful reminder
that science and technology are at the core of both the world's greatest
problems and its most promising opportunities. The summit also will
emphasize that countries lacking a vibrant science and technology
enterprise are doomed to lag behind in their evolution and in the quality
of life of their citizens. As the rich nations get richer, those with
little access to modern science make no progress or, worse, only get
poorer. The summit will challenge the developed world to help bring the
power of science to bear on bridging the ever-widening gap between rich
and poor countries.
Ismail Serageldin, director of the Library of Alexandria (Egypt),
eloquently articulated the extent of this disparity at the American
Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting last
February (see also Science, 5 April 2002, p. 54): One billion people
throughout the world have no access to clean water. Two billion people
have inadequate sanitation. Almost 1.5 billion people, mostly in cities in
the developing world, are breathing air below the standards deemed
acceptable by the World Health Organization. Hundreds of millions of poor
farmers struggle unsuccessfully to maintain the fertility of their soil.
Serageldin and other international leaders (see the essay by Raven on p.
954 of this issue) point out that these problems are not simply the result
of an absence of scientific or technological solutions. In many cases, the
solutions already exist. The problem stems from the failure to develop
adequate scientific and technological cooperation and the infrastructure
needed to ensure that poorer countries can sustain science- and
technology-based progress over time. A striking example is found in the
recently published rice genome (Science, 5 April 2002, p. 79 and p. 92),
with its enormous potential as a basis for enhancing the grain that is the
primary source of food for more than a billion people throughout the
world. But unless explicit efforts are undertaken to ensure that these
advances are translated and transferred to the developing world, and made
workable in local contexts, knowledge of the rice genome will principally
benefit the rich.
Decreasing the knowledge disparities is not only a humanitarian
imperative. Growing contrasts between rich and poor countries, made ever
more visible by advances in telecommunications and other technologies,
fuel tension, distrust, and danger. And it is by now a truism that what
happens in one part of the world can have dramatic environmental, health,
economic, social, and political ramifications for the rest of the planet.
Using science to address problems in poorer nations can lead to positive
returns on the investment for all of humanity. On the eve of the
Johannesburg summit, for example, ecologists, economists, and
policy-makers are weighing the benefits of habitat conversion for human
use versus the conservation of natural habitats and the "ecosystem
services" they provide. Balmford et al. (p. 950 in this issue) show that
conservation generates enormous economic benefits as compared to
conversion, and "the benefit:cost ratio of an effective global program for
the conservation of remaining wild nature is at least 100:1."
What is the right approach for science and sustainable development? We can
learn much from experience with public health issues such as AIDS and
malaria. Effective solutions require multidisciplinary, multidimensional
strategies. Speaking in February to a group of nongovernmental agencies
preparing for the World Summit, Norman Neureiter, science advisor to the
U.S. secretary of state, emphasized that modern science and technology are
best brought to developing countries through long-term international
collaborations involving local scientists. The citizens of poor countries
need preparation for the changes that will accompany technological
advances, and this will require new and broadened educational programs.
There is a payoff: Building indigenous science and technology capacity is
essential to maintaining progress.
The strength of our science and technology enterprise provides great
opportunity to enrich both international science and global public policy.
The AAAS has mounted initiatives, as have other societies and academies,
to help tackle the complexities of sustainable development. But to have
real impact, we need broader and deeper participation from people across
the entire domain of science and technology. Only then can we effectively
rise to the challenge the summit will put before us.
Alan Leshner is chief executive officer of AAAS and the executive
publisher of Science.
More on Pew
- The Scientist, Vol. 16, no. 16 . p14, Aug. 19, 2002
The opinion piece by Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko seriously
misrepresents my views and the product of my research in the area of
allergenicity of genetically modified food.1,2 It is absurd to equate the
shifts in protein composition that are possible with "conventional" plant
breeding with those that can occur via biotechnology. It has become
evident that biotechnology does confer a higher probability of introducing
novel traits into food than conventional plant breeding and, in fact, this
is how many of the potential benefits of biotechnology will be realized.
If there is a price to be paid in additional regulation, and I think that
there clearly is, then we need to make sure that such regulation is
The report I coauthored is intended to shed light on one area where the
federal research agenda needs to be strengthened to support this new
technology. Allergenicity is one of the traits that regulators at the US
Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration assess in
biotechnology foods. In fact, in 2000, the National Research Council
recommended that "priority should be given to the development of improved
methodology for identifying potential allergens in pest- protected plants,
specifically, the development of tests with human immune-system endpoints
and of more reliable animal models." Shortly after publication of this
report, StarlinkÆ corn, not intended for [human] consumption because EPA
was unable to assess its allergenicity, wound up in the US food supply and
in global commerce, creating enormous disruptions. Despite the NRC
recommendation and the lesson of Starlink, last year nine federal agencies
or institutes funded only 33 food allergy research projects totaling
between $4.2 and $7 million. These funds are spread thin, and only
recently has coordination among federal agencies begun.
The report in no way attempted to address the question of risks of
genetically modified food on the market. Moreover, it has never been my
position that the technology should be "stultified" in any way. In fact,
it is my opinion that rigorous government review and safety assessments
are the best guarantor that biotechnology will be accepted by the public
and will flourish in the market. During more than five years when I served
as assistant administrator for the EPA, I was responsible for so-called
Plant Incorporated Protectants, foods genetically modified to express
pesticidal proteins. As a regulator, I attempted to make decisions based
on evidence regarding safety. The proof is in the pudding; while at EPA, I
approved the first such products to come into commercial development
worldwide. The disruption that resulted from the Starlink episode
exemplifies why it is important to strengthen the basis for food allergy
assessment.4 Despite some speed bumps along the way, I continue to feel
that this technology is indeed a wonderful one that shows much promise.
Lynn R. Goldman, MD, MPH
Professor, Environmental Health Sciences, Johns Hopkins School of Public
Health; 615 N. Wolfe St., Room W8511, Baltimore, MD 20815
1. H.I. Miller, G. Conko "Pew on biotech? Pugh!" The Scientist, 16:12,
July 8, 2002. 2. L. Bucchini, L.R. Goldman, "A snapshot of federal
research on food allergy: Implications for genetically modified food,"
June 2002, available online at www.pewagbiotech.org/research/allergy.pdf.
3. National Research Council, Genetically Modified Pest-Protected Plants:
Science and Regulation, Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2000. 4.
L. Bucchini, L.R. Goldman, "Starlink corn: a risk analysis," Environmental
Health Perspectives, 110:5-13, 2002.
The Pros and Cons of Altering Nature
- The Guardian, August 17, 2002
* Higher yields for farmers
* Better resistance to virus and fungus attack so reducing the need to use
* Reduces the need for spraying herbicides. Because the crop is weedkiller
resistant the weeds need only be sprayed when they become a nuisance
* Genes could add beneficial food additives to plants to reduce heart
disease or vitamin deficiency
* Production of edible vaccines in tomatoes or bananas, such as hepatitis
B in developing countries
* Drought and salt resistant varieties for countries with poor land and/or
low rainfall, particularly where bad irrigation has damaged the soil
* GM trees would contain fewer contaminates and grow faster so paper
making would cause less pollution.
* Food safety is not guaranteed and not tested. Biotechnology could alter
characteristics of staple crops such as potatoes and wheat
* Antibiotic marker genes could add to problems of resistance of bacteria
to antibiotics in human and veterinary medicines.
* No benefit to the consumer in reduced prices.
* GM contamination of organic and conventional crops seen as inevitable in
* Farmers who grow and sell GM-free seeds or save their own seeds face
them being contaminated by cross pollination from GM crops
* Honey will be contaminated with GM pollen
* Superweeds with herbicide resistant genes - already a problem in Canada
* Weedkillers used on GM crops could kill all plants except the crop
leaving nothing for insects and birds to feed on, damaging biodiversity.
Demon Seed or Saviour?
- Anthony Browne, Times Online, August 20, 2002
You could walk by without even noticing. In a small office in Harpenden,
Hertfordshire, sits a transparent box, measuring just a few feet square,
with some electrodes and a few gold-coloured discs lying on the bottom.
But this innocuous-looking equipment is the modern worldís Pandoraís box,
unleashing on mankind and nature a science that has inflamed passions and
provoked a storm of controversy around the globe. The stakes could hardly
be higher: it is a science that could end starvation and malnutrition in
the Third World; or it may contaminate for ever the delicate fabric of
life on Earth.
It has led to mass consumer boycotts and to dozens of protests around the
country. It has provoked a Labour peer to destroy a farmerís crops, swayed
an election in New Zealand, and sparked an investment frenzy on the London
From village halls to Downing Street, the debate rages with no conclusion:
should Britain follow North America and allow the commercial farming of
genetically modified crops? The desire of Government and biotech companies
to push ahead with them suffered a setback last week when it emerged that
the regulations for controlling farm-scale trials of GM crops had been
breached and seeds with rogue genes had been accidentally planted on 14
sites across Britain. Since the Governmentís endorsement of GM trials was
based on the premise that it could ìcontrol the scienceî, this development
severely damaged its credibility. It followed another blow the week before
when a study suggested that genes from GM crops had escaped into weeds,
creating the possibility of genetically enhanced ìsuper weedsî that could
devastate the environment.
Britainís scientists and biotech companies are on trial ó accused of
playing God. But the issue also puts the British public on trial, who are
accused of being hysterically ìanti-scienceî. The real revolution takes
place inside the plastic box in Harpenden ó it is in this box that genes
are modified. It sits in the Wheat Transformation Laboratory of the
government-funded Rothamsted Research, the oldest agricultural research
centre in the world, and one of only a few that can modify the genes of
wheat. The method is deceptively simple: scientists extract scraps of DNA
from any living thing, and attach them to gold particles, which they then
bombard at specially grown wheat cells. In one of every 100 attempts the
gold particles and the bit of DNA they carry land in the right place, the
wheat cell thinks that the foreign DNA is a piece of its own and
incorporates it into its genes.
The genetically modified wheat cell is then grown into a whole plant in
steel-clad, artificially lit ìtransgenic cereal roomsî. A new wheat plant,
of a type never seen before in nature, has arrived in the world. Compared
with the high-profile stories of putting spider genes in sheep to make
bullet-proof wool, or bacterial genes in potatoes to produce vaccines for
hepatitis, the work at Harpenden is mundane. ìWhat we are trying to do is
improve end-use quality ó such as how good it is at making bread,î says Dr
Huw Jones, a senior research scientist. Dr Jones is trying to design a
wheat that can be grown in the UK and is good for making bread ó at the
moment most good-quality bread flour is imported. ìWeíre trying to
understand how wheat works ó which genes do what ó you can then use the
technology to improve wheat. We can make bread that is sourced more
locally, or we can make wheat without the part of the gluten that causes
allergies,î he enthuses.
But Dr Jones knows he is designing crops that, at the moment, consumers do
not want. It wasnít always like this. Dr Jones takes out of a drawer a can
of Safewayís double-concentrate tomato purÈe that has been ìProduced from
Genetically Modified Tomatoesî. It was a product of the heyday of GM foods
just a few years ago. ìEveryone liked it because it was cheaper and
tastier, until there was a knee-jerk reaction against Pusztai,î he said.
Arpad Pusztai, a food expert at the publicly funded Rowett Research
Institute, sparked off the backlash against GM foods in August 1998. In an
interview he said that he would not eat GM foods because they had not been
properly tested. He revealed unpublished research suggesting that the
immune systems of rats were damaged by eating genetically modified
potatoes. Within months Pusztai was sacked, many scientists denounced his
work as flawed, and a huge consumer backlash had started against GM foods.
Overnight the GM tide turned from a technology of almost unlimited
potential that was making quiet inroads into British farms and shops to a
ìFrankenstein foodî banned by the supermarkets. Apart from the biotech
firms and commercial farmers that hope to profit from it, GMís only
champion is the Government, which has insisted on continuing with around
70 farm-scale trials aimed at working out what impact GM has on wildlife.
To scientists such as Dr Jones it is a matter of great regret. ìThe public
has been misled and confused. GM isnít good or bad, itís just a technology
and itís up to people to decide how to use it. But now people are
frightened of the extreme reactions it generates. A lot of biotech firms
are leaving Europe because they see no obvious commercial application,î he
Professor Ian Crute, the director of Rothamsted Research, insists that the
work on GM is merely an extension of selectively breeding crops, something
man has been doing for 1,000 years. ìThis is just a substitute technology
for conventional breeding. Plant breeding works by chance, but genetic
manipulation gives you precision. You can now contemplate producing a
variety of crops that you cannot produce easily by conventional methods ó
such as herbicide tolerance or insect resistance,î he says. Professor
Cruteís team is trying to vary forms of life in a way never before seen on
Earth, but he insists that they are not being unethical. They are trying
to create crops that feed more people, help the environment because they
need fewer pesticides, or prevent famines by being more resistant to
droughts. GM-modified cotton and soya has already reduced usage of
pesticides and herbicides in North America. He insists that it is those
who oppose it who are unethical. ìI believe if you have an opportunity to
create something that helps someone, then it is ethically wrong not to do
What about the concern for human health? ìThe food in this country is
intrinsically safe ó there are so many other risks to life, such as
driving, and the probability of health problems as a consequence of GM is
so vanishingly small it gives me no anxiety,î he insists. The trouble for
Professor Crute is that the public has come to distrust assurances from
scientists, particularly government ones working with an industry that has
a vested interest in burying bad news. The risks from BSE in cows were
declared, to use Professor Cruteís words, ìvanishingly smallî, but dozens
of people have since died as a result. The revelations last week that the
Government cannot control GM trials underlines the fallibility of its
Many people simply do not see any need for GM. It might be an amazing
technology, but there are other ways of doing things. At the gardens of
the Henry Doubleday Research Association in Ryton, near Coventry, Dr Margi
Lennartsson looks at her fields of carrots, lettuce and potatoes. As head
of scientific research, it is her job to try to improve the yields and
varieties of crops that can be grown organically. Organic agriculture is a
rejection of conventional agriculture, with its dependence on fertilisers
and pesticides, and love of GM technology. ìGM is the ultimate development
of conventional agriculture, ploughing on without taking a step back and
looking at whatís wrong with the system as a whole,î says Dr Lennartsson.
For her, anything that GM can do, organic can do better. ìWe just donít
need GM. Many of the things they are trying to do, we can do organically
and with normal cross-breeding. Organic productivity is improving, and
itís far better at reducing use of pesticides and herbicides. Organic
systems work equally well in the developing world,î she insists.
For Lennartsson, and organic farmers in general, GM is not just
unnecessary, but a threat. To get officially certified as ìorganicî ó
which means that you can sell your produce at premium organic prices ó is
a prolonged process that takes several years. One of the criteria is that
the level of GM crops in the field should be 0 per cent. An organic farm
might miss that criteria if GM crops are planted nearby, and pollen or
seeds blow over, and so contaminate the organic crop. This almost happened
at the Ryton gardens.
Last year the local radio station phoned and asked how they felt about
having a GM trial site just 2.5km away ó less than the 3km official
minimum between GM sites and organic farms. ìWe had absolutely no idea
about it. That is what made us so angry ó the lack of consultation. We had
a field of sweetcorn, and if that had been pollinated by the GM maize, we
could have lost our organic licence. It would have been disastrous,î says
Lennartsson. The gardens contacted the biotech firm Aventis, which was
responsible for last weekís breach of GM regulations, and it confirmed the
plans. The organic researchers insisted on a public meeting: 99 per cent
of villagers voted against the GM trial. The campaign enlisted the support
of local MPs and the Minister for the Environment, Michael Meacher, put a
stop to the trial.
The prospect of GM contamination frightens anti-GM campaigners more than
any other issue: GM involves letting genes out of the box that may well be
impossible to put back in.
Lord Melchett is a former Labour government minister who became director
of the environment group Greenpeace. He is now head of policy at the Soil
Association, which sets organic standards. ìMy objection to GM is the
unpredictability and unknowability of it.î he says. ìItís alive, it
replicates and it moves. The DNA can move through pollen, or it can be
exuded through roots to microbes in the soil. When you eat it, it can be
transferred to microbes in your gut. When you speak to genetic engineers,
and you ask if they can be sure that they are not giving cancer to the
grandchildren of those who eat it, they admit they just donít know.î
Lord Melchett, the former lawmaker, turned into a law-breaker in 1999 when
a GM trial was announced not far from his farm. Unable to stop the trial,
Lord Melchett and other campaigners decided on direct action. Twenty-eight
people tried to cut down the entire field and were arrested. Prosecuted
for criminal damage and theft, the 28 campaigners did not contest the
facts of the case, but pleaded not guilty on the grounds of selfdefence:
the GM crops, they argued, presented a threat and they were defending
themselves. The jury agreed and they were acquitted.
Actions like this have become commonplace across the UK. There are around
60 local groups around the country who campaign against ó and occasionally
destroy ó GM trial sites. The groups have been co-ordinated by the Genetic
Engineering Network in London, founded soon after the first boatload of GM
crops arrived on British soil from America in 1996. One of the trials it
has campaigned against is run by Bob Fiddaman, a cereal farmer near Hemel
Hempstead in Hertfordshire, who has become one of the leading evangelists
of GM in the farming community. He was asked in 1994 by the National
Farmers Union to join a biotechnology working group, and then helped to
write the policy that committed the NFU to supporting GM crops. ìWe
decided we could not afford to lose the opportunity of this technology,
particularly if other parts of the world went ahead with it. It would put
us at a business disadvantage,î he says.
For the past three years on his own farm, Fiddaman has planted trial sites
of GM oil-seed rape, which has a gene from a soil bacteria implanted in it
to make it resistant to herbicides. He has 40 acres of GM crops, with each
field divided between GM and conventional so that comparisons can be made.
Government scientists regularly visit to look at the impact on other
plants, insects and birds. They have yet to conclude whether GM is good
for nature or not, but as Fiddaman scours his land, he cannot contain his
enthusiasm. ìLook, you can see the GM rape is bigger ó there are more
seeds, and the pods are longer. With the GM crops I can let the weeds grow
more and spray herbicide later ó that means I need to use only the amount
of herbicide I actually need,î he says. ìLast year I saw a real benefit ó
a 10 per cent lift in the yield. I get more income from the same field
with the same costs.î
Whether the Government lets farmers progress from GM crop trials to full
commercial production remains to be seen. With the public still deeply
hostile to GM it seems unlikely that we will venture to the high-tech
future that scientists like Huw Jones and farmers like Bob Fiddaman so
Swiss Company Seeks Approval for GM Rice To Benefit Kidney Patients
August 20, 2002
In a new tack for its controversial genetically modified products,
Syngenta, the world's largest agrochemicals group, is seeking marketing
approval for a genetically engineered rice designed to improve the diet of
kidney dialysis patients, reports the Financial Times of London.
The new strain of rice has been altered to remove a protein responsible
for allergic reactions. Aimed at the Asian market, it promises to improve
the lives of kidney dialysis patients, who cannot eat rice because of an
intolerance to the cereal's high protein content. Although the sales
potential is not significant, approval by Japanese regulators would mark a
new strategy for Syngenta - formed last year by the merger of
AstraZeneca's agrochemical concerns with those of its Swiss rival
Novartis. As with its US rival, Monsanto, it has been forced to scale back
its ambitions for GM crops in the face of widespread opposition in Europe
Syngenta has learned from Monsanto's climb-down after it failed to
persuade European consumers that crops altered to produce their own
insecticides, or to become resistant to weedkillers, were safe. The
company is spearheading its GM effort outside the US with crops that have
clear benefits to customers.
Michael Pragnell, Syngenta chief executive, believes such crops will force
regulators and customers to change the way they look at the GM issue,
focusing on the risk-benefit ratio of individual products rather than the
technology as a whole. "It's a niche market, but it's a latch-lifter, the
regulators either have to become less fastidious or deny benefits to
patients," Mr. Pragnell said in an interview with the Financial Times.
"We are pursuing these markets not because we will make a fortune, but
because it will introduce some regulatory tension." David Evans, head of
research, is under no illusion about the difficulty of winning over
European consumers to the benefits of GM.
"The challenge is convincing the consumer it's safe. The second rung of
the ladder is demonstrating real consumer benefits," he said. "But we
need to be able to do the trials and you can't do trials in Europe right
Syngenta's $2.5 billion in revenues from GM seeds are just a tenth of
those of Monsanto, but analysts say Syngenta has one of the most
impressive technology platforms in the industry.
Last year, Syngenta beat Monsanto and the public-sector International Rice
Sequencing Project in the race to decode the genome of rice, the world's
most important cereal crop. Larger than the human genome, and sharing much
in common with other cereal crops, rice will provide a map for altering
the genome of a wide variety of staple foods.
TechCentral from JoBurg
TechCentralStation has launched www.Joburg.TechCentralStation.com, a
special section of TCS devoted to daily coverage of the UN World Summit on
Sustainable Development (WSSD) with an optimistic, pro-development, high
tech agenda for humanity. The online portal will feature news and
commentary from a team of experts, on-site at the Summit, led by TCS Host
Jim Glassman. The site will offer up to the minute coverage and interviews
on issues ranging from climate change, water rights, AID vs. trade,
biotechnology, and corporate responsibility.