Today in AgBioView: January 29, 2003:
* Zambia's GM Food Fear Traced to UK
* African Scientists Call for Acceptance of Biotechnology
* Environmentalism, Science Must Soon Come To Terms
* UK: Commercial Production of GM Crops by Next Year
* Mixed Messages from Scientists on GM crops
* Brits: Doctors "Trusted Most" on Public Health Issues
* Ricin Solution Is On The Way
* Substantial Equivalence -Appropriate Paradigm for the Safety Assessment
of GM Foods
* Children and GE Food: Potentials and Problems
* ActivistCash Profiles 'Union of Concerned Scientists'
* India to Host 2004 World Social Forum of Anti-Everything Activists
* Agricultural Biotechnology - The Emerging Trends
* Earth Liberation Front
Zambia's GM Food Fear Traced to UK
- Andy Coghlan, New Scientist, January 29, 2003
Doubts over the safety of genetically modified foods voiced by the British
Medical Association were the main reason behind Zambia's decision to
reject food aid in 2002, says a Zambian scientist who visited Europe this
week. Famine still threatens 2.4 million people in Zambia today.
The revelation is significant because a trade war is looming between the
US and Europe over GM crops. After Zambia refused the World Food
Programme's shipments of American maize, on the grounds that they
contained traces of GM strains, the US accused European governments and
non-governmental organisations of "poisoning" opinion in Africa by
exaggerating the risks to health and the environment.
New Scientist has now been told that Zambia was influenced predominantly
by negative advice about GM foods from the BMA. The claim comes from Luke
Mumba, a senior molecular biologist at the University of Zambia in Lusaka
who is attending a summit on farming in Brussels.
In its policy document on GM foods, written in 1999, the BMA says: "We
cannot at present know whether there are serious risks to the environment
or to human health involved in producing GM crops or consuming GM food
products ... and adverse effects are likely to be irreversible."
In particular, the BMA fears antibiotic-resistance genes, which act as
"markers" in GM crops, could spread to bacteria, making them resistant to
antibiotics. The report also says some GM foods might cause allergies.
Neither fear has been substantiated so far.
Mumba says that before the Zambian government made its decision on the
American maize it asked a group of prominent scientists to compile a
report on the pros and cons of accepting it. And although the scientists
interviewed 150 organisations and researchers around the world, they
seemed to have been most heavily influenced by the BMA.
"In Zambia, they are always citing the BMA as the reason [for the
decision]. They say that the BMA has no confidence in the safety of GM
foods." The association is considered an authoritative body because of
Zambia's historical links with Britain, Mumba says.
Delegates at the summit from other African nations want Zambia to review
its position, saying the BMA is at odds with other bodies. "The American
Medical Association backs GM food, as does the Royal Society in Britain,
the Third World Academy of Sciences and the Food and Agriculture
Organization," says Jocelyn Webster, the South African head of AfricaBio,
an organisation promoting African biotechnology.
Vivienne Nathanson, director of professional activities at the BMA, denies
the association has said that GM crops are harmful. "It's a
misrepresentation of our policy to say that countries should not use these
things," she says. "I don't see any reason why Zambia shouldn't accept the
maize, but it's up to them." She says the BMA will be holding "round
table" talks to decide whether its policy on GM foods needs updating.
African Scientists Call for Acceptance of Biotechnology
- CropGen, January 26, 2003; V.Moses@qmul.ac.uk
London - -Today, three scientists from sub-Saharan Africa highlighted the
need for biotechnology for their continent. They were speaking at a press
conference organised in London by CropGen on Jan 26, 2003.
Professor James Ochanda, of the University of Nairobi, Kenya and chairman
of the African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum said, "While Europe is
debating about GM, this is a technology that Africa needs to address some
of our most pressing problems. The stand-off in Europe could have
far-reaching effects on trade in Africa." However, the African scientists
emphasised that priority should be given to the immediate need for food
security. Professor Ochanda discussed the contribution that low
agricultural outputs and drought make to hunger and poverty in Africa.
Current estimate of the African 2001 maize crop production losses to pest
is approximately 84 million tons.
Dr Luke Mumba, of the University of Zambia, argued that biotechnology,
though not a panacea to Zambia's agricultural woes, has a role to play in
increasing food production. "Biotechnology has a role to play in Zambia in
developing crops with desired properties. These include pest resistance,
drought tolerance and improved nutritional profiles," he said.
They were supported in their claims by Professor Jocelyn Webster of
AfricaBio and Mr T J Buthelezi, one of South Africa's small-scale farmers
growing genetically modified cotton. "On my own farm I have seen the real
benefits of GM cotton. I now need one third less pesticide and have
increased yield. Farmers in Africa should not be denied the choice to use
this technology to lift them out of the bondage of poverty." The Hon.
Bintony Kutsaira, a member of the Malawi National Assembly, also discussed
the recent biosafety legislation passed in Malawi.
Environmentalism, Science Must Soon Come To Terms
- Terry Daynard Guelph Mercury January 28, 2003 (From Agnet)
Terry Daynard, who farms near Guelph and is an adjunct professor of
agriculture at the University of Guelph, writes in this op-ed that Canada
is a rich country and our affluence allows us the luxury of focusing on
'quality of life' issues, like the environment, in a way not possible for
most global citizens.
Virtually every Canadian wants a healthier, more-aesthetically pleasing,
and biologically diverse natural environment. Differences of opinion
reflect only the extent to which we are prepared to make personal
sacrifices, or to demand them from others, to achieve this goal. It's no
different for those who work in science and technology. Their commitment
and contribution to environmental improvement matches or exceeds that of
Take agriculture, with which I am most familiar, for example. Thanks to
science and new science-based technology, farmers now manage soils in ways
that better preserve organic matter, reduce soil erosion, and curb the
loss of soil nutrients into streams and lakes. They manage insects using
science-based genetic improvements and new biochemical and biological
products which are generally less environmentally damaging, and safer to
humans than techniques used before. In the process, farmers have grown
increasing amounts of safer food ingredients, at ever decreasing costs.
Sure, there is the need to do better. As farm productivity grows,
pressures for environmental improvements will also increase because
farmers will be responding to the needs of an ever-growing human
population, with no increase in the amount of farmland. My point is not to
glorify the improvements themselves or to compare past accomplishments
with future needs, but to demonstrate that science and technology have
been key contributors to environmental improvement. We could use
equivalent examples from other areas. Science and technology have meant
higher productivity, lower real costs and higher standards of living,
while commonly reducing environmental impacts. And, like agriculture,
there is scope for further improvement.
It is with deep disappointment and frustration, then, that I see a growing
trend for editorialists, environmental advocates and others to reject
science as a basis for environmental improvement. Their rationale goes
something like this: "Although there is little or no scientific evidence
that practice X or product Y represents a significant environmental or
health hazard, or that a ban will mean notable improvement, there still
might be some unknown risk.
Therefore a ban is needed to eliminate this risk, and we must act
immediately. There is no time to wait for scientific evidence of harm."
Instead of science, these folk often cite the 'precautionary principle' as
a basis for their position The 'precautionary principle, coined by the
Worldwide Commission of Environment and Development in the 1980s, states
that one must be careful in introducing new products/technology when the
risks are largely unknown. The principle makes good sense. Be very
cautious in introducing a new product or technology until adequate testing
has been done. Err on the side of caution.
But the 'precautionary principle' is now widely being used to justify
actions, such as the banning of both traditional and new products and
technologies, when there has been a huge amount of research done on
Those attempting to use the 'precautionary principle' to secure blanket
bans on usage of all pesticides, or products of biotechnology, or food
irradiation, despite lots of research and government-regulated testing,
and little evidence of significant damage to environment or human health
after years of wide-spread usage, have badly distorted the original
Equally harmful is the eagerness of those seeking to curtail usage on the
basis of 'precaution' without considering risks associated with the
increased usage of alternatives. The expected increased use of power
mowers and trimmers -- or of largely untested 'natural' products -- with
the discontinued usage of registered pesticides, is an example. More usage
of pesticides, organic or synthetic, as an alternative to biotechnology
for pest control in farm crops is another. The statement is often made
that "product X (or technology X) should not be used unless it is proven
to be 100 per cent safe." But science can never prove anything perfectly
Scientific testing may show an absence of problems after the feeding or
application of very high dosages of potential new products to test animals
for their entire lives (and often the lives of their offspring, too).
Regulators may apply safety factors of 100, or 1000, including special
factors for children, in defining maximum tolerances for humans. But
despite that, there is always some minute risk. That's science. Scientists
don't always agree, even scientists who are experts in the field.
And, unfortunately, some scientists are ready to comment "as scientists"
on issues where they have no professional expertise. It's like having an
agricultural researcher providing 'scientific' advice on human toxicology.
All of this can be confusing for the majority of people with no scientific
training, and looking for simple answers. But to reject science because it
cannot provide unanimity or absolute guarantees -- or worse, that
scientific investigation/testing has failed to provide rationale for
decisions which activist forces want to occur -- makes no sense.
Without science, what other guidelines can you use? Decisions based on
whims, personal biases or politics? Bans for everything -- or at least for
those products and processes which determined individuals or activist
groups want banned? It's a bit like travellers rejecting the use of maps
because they are not always 100 per cent correct, or they don't show
places to be where you want them to be. A wealthy society can afford some
mistakes. We can ban effective insecticides and no one in this country
will die of malaria as a result. We can ban modern biotechnology and
future food shortages will not likely occur in Canada.
We can ban weed killers and ignore air-borne carcinogens from weed
trimmers and mowers, and life expectancy will probably still continue to
improve, thanks to improved nutrition and health science.
But if our real goal is environmental improvement, it's absurd to reject
science which has been responsible for much environmentally improvement
and offers the potential for much more tomorrow, while still allowing
Canadians to be among the most richest people in the world.
Affluence, science and environment are all tightly linked.
UK: Commercial Production of GM Crops Expected by Next Year
- Fordyce Maxwell, The Scotsman, January 29, 2003
Genetically modified crops could be grown commercially in Britain next
year, said one of the government's advisers on biotechnology this week.
Professor Philip Dale, speaking before a debate on GM crops in Edinburgh,
said: "I have no doubt that GM crops will be vital to the future of
European farming and my hope is that they will be grown commercially next
year." He added: "But whatever we decide to do on this little island will
have little effect on the rest of the world, which is developing GM
rapidly for their own uses."
Latest figures show that almost 60 million hectares (150 million acres) of
GM crops are being grown commercially in the world this year - more than
one-fifth of all soya, cotton, maize and oilseed rape. But there has been
strong resistance to GM in most of Europe, especially France and the UK,
with farm-scale crop trials attacked and a petition of more than 4,000
signatures against modified crops has been presented to the Scottish
Parliament. However, biotechnology companies - as reported in The Scotsman
on Saturday - and many scientists believe that GM crops will be growing
commercially in the UK well within a decade.
Andrew George, MP, Liberal Democrat shadow secretary of state for food and
rural affairs, confirmed that yesterday, from the opposite angle, by
expressing concern that the EU moratorium on the commercialisation of GM
crops may be about to end. He said there could be no justification for
that before UK farm trials were complete and a public debate and
consultation had taken place.
Mixed Messages from Scientists on GM crops
- Fordyce Maxwell, The Scotsman, January 29, 2003
There is a journalistic phenomenon which, I claim no copyright, I refer to
mentally as the exploding press conference. This happens when an
organisation invites journalists to hear its views because it hopes to put
over a particular version of the truth and instead journalists fasten on
to some unsuspected, unwelcome development or, best of all, those holding
the press conference fall out.
It didn't quite reach that stage at a Royal Society of Edinburgh press
conference this week, but a panel of several scientists became
increasingly tight-lipped with each other about whether genetically
modified crops were a good thing or a bad thing.
No harm in that, a sign of independent scientific thinking and equally a
sign that scientists differ in their views as much as the public. But it
was fun for all that and best exemplified by Professor Philip Dale saying
that we might see commercial GM crops in Britain by next year and Dr Brian
Johnson saying that there was still an enormous amount of public confusion
- so no chance. Dr Ricarda Steinbrecher weighed in with her belief that we
are jumping to too many conclusions about GM and that she felt uneasy
about those reached so far, while Professor Tony Trewavas argued, as he
has done consistently, that the biotechnology of genetic modification
poses no greater risk than is associated with conventional plant breeding.
After beating each other up for our benefit, they were going in to debate
before an audience of other scientists and as many of the public as cared
to come along. But I suspect, especially after the press conference, that
scientists who believe that GM is a bad thing, full stop, will be every
bit as hard to convince otherwise as those protesters in white suits and
silly masks who have tried to make their point by digging up crop trials.
Okay, that's it, I've had enough of the arguments and polarised debates.
Doctors "Trusted Most" on Public Health Issues
- Health Newswire, Jan 29, 2003 http://www.health-news.co.uk/
London - People trust doctors most and the government least when it comes
to telling the truth about public health issues, according to a major
A MORI poll, carried out for the University of East Anglia (UEA), asked
more than 1,500 people who they trusted to tell the truth about health
risks from genetically modified (GM) food, radioactive waste, genetic
testing, climate change and radiation from mobile phones.
The researchers say their study is one of the largest and most
comprehensive surveys of UK attitudes to public health risks in recent
years. The results showed that, in all but the risks from environmental
change, doctors were the most trusted source of information, while the
government fared poorly on all five issues. Consumer organisations were
generally well trusted, while the level of trust accorded to scientists
depended on whom they worked for.
Only about a third of people said they trusted the government "a lot or a
little" to tell the truth about radioactive waste and GM foods. Fewer
than 10 per cent believed the government "provides all relevant
information to the public" on GM foods or radioactive waste and over half
felt it "distorts facts in its favour" on both issues.
In addition, fewer than 20 per cent of respondents thought the government
listened to what "ordinary people" thought about the five issues. The
survey results are due to be debated later today at a parliamentary
workshop for MPs, peers and other policy makers.
Professor Nick Pidgeon, director of UEA's centre for environmental risk,
said the survey findings were a "clear wake-up call" to ministers. He
said, "Trust is the key issue in how we view many technological risks ?
whether it's GM food, mobile phones or radioactive waste. What is clear is
that few of us trust government or industry to tell us the truth about
these issues. "We are far more inclined to trust doctors, environmental
groups or consumer organisations than government to tell the truth about
each of the five risk areas examined in the survey," he said.
The survey also revealed that 41 per cent of people were either "very" or
"fairly" concerned about the risks posed by radiation from mobile phones;
65 per cent were worried about the effects of radioactive waste; and 44
per cent thought GM foods were a bad thing.
However, people were more positive about genetic testing, with 52 per cent
of respondents saying they felt it was "very" or "fairly" acceptable. More
than half said they would be happy to have a genetic test to find out if
they had any inherited medical conditions.
Ricin Solution Is On The Way
- Sydney Young, Checkbiotech.org, January 29, 2003
Pheonix -- Arcadia Biosciences, founded in 2002 in Phoenix, Arizona, is
carving out a niche in the agricultural industry by utilizing
biotechnology to develop ricin-free castor bean plants to increase the
plant's profitability while minimizing its impact on the environment.
In partnership with Anawah, Inc. of Seattle, WA, Arcadia Biosciences is
working on developing a ricin-free castor bean plant. Castor beans are the
plant source for castor oil, a product that is used in several commercial
products including nylon, plastics, paints, cosmetics, and lubricants. Due
to the unique nature of the castor bean oil, there are no substitutes,
natural or synthetic, that can be used in its place.
After extracting the oil from the seeds during processing, a toxic
byproduct, ricin, is left behind in the castor meal. The oil itself is
free of ricin but the castor meal has to be destroyed or detoxified since
it has little value and if handled can result in death or serious illness.
According to Roy Hodges, president of Arcadia Biosciences, "Ricin is
considered a potential weapon of mass destruction and its use by
terrorists could have dire and far reaching consequences." Likewise,
processing and handling of ricin-containing castor meal is potentially
dangerous and has resulted in numerous deaths and illnesses. Elimination
of the toxin will render the castor seed and castor meal harmless,
enabling its use as an animal feed and thus increasing the economic value
of the crop.
"Additionally, improving the economics and safety of processing and
handling will make the crop more profitable for farmers and processors and
may encourage castor production in the United States, which is a large
consumer of castor oil."
The deactivation of the genes responsible for ricin production is
accomplished by using a non-transgenic method known as "directed mutation"
along with a screening process known as "TILLING." Increasing the safety
and profitability of castor bean plant production could make it possible
to produce the crop in the United States and Europe where the demand and
use of castor oil is high but for safety and economic reasons it is not
Regarding castor plant production in the US, Hodges said, "In the past, it
has been produced in Arizona, Texas, and California. The reintroduction of
castor production into these former growing regions will provide a new
economic alternative to growers." "We believe that improved economics will
be a catalyst for new castor oil demand, while improved safety will
encourage castor production in the US. We also believe that our varieties
will ultimately become the new standard for castor production as socially
responsible castor oil users will demand that ricin-free varieties be the
source of their castor oil."
With hopes of commercial varieties of ricin-free castor crops as early as
2005/2006, the vision for the future is a new crop alternative that will
drive down the costs of castor oil, possibly creating additional demand.
By using ricin-free varieties, countries currently producing castor bean
crops would see significant increases in the safety and economics
associated with castor oil production. Increased demand would have
positive impacts on all countries involved in castor oil production.
Hodges stated, "Support for this project from both the private sector and
federal agencies has been overwhelmingly positive. End-users are also
quite excited about the prospect of sourcing castor oil from a nontoxic
source, eliminating the potential dangers to those involved in processing
and handling current ricin-containing varieties."
Hodges feels that the recent raids in the UK have only strengthened
Arcadia Biosciences' commitment to this project, reinforcing the need and
urgency to provide growers with the ricin-free alternative. "Like anthrax
and small pox, ricin is considered by the federal government to be a
potential biological weapon of mass destruction." "The purification of
ricin involves rather unsophisticated techniques. This, in combination
with the fact that more than 500,000 metric tons of ricin-containing
castor meal is produced throughout the world each year means that ricin
has very significant terrorist potential."
As Hodges reflected on recent events involving ricin, he suggested that
while terrorists could still grow castor specifically for the ricin,
producing a ricin-free crop could decrease the likelihood that ricin will
be used by terrorists as it would be more difficult to obtain. "Ricin has
been used as a biological weapon on several occasions and its potential
for future acts of terrorism remains very real. It is extremely potent,
requiring only a few milligrams to cause death. There is no antidote for
ricin poisoning and it can be a horribly painful death."
Another research project Arcadia Biosciences is currently pursuing is
developing crops with increased salt tolerance. By developing plants that
can tolerate salty soil conditions, land that is not currently being
utilized for farming can be brought back into production. Making crops
such as canola, tomatoes, alfalfa, corn, rice, and wheat more salt
tolerant would increase production and reduce the demand for new farming
In addition, Arcadia Biosciences is developing plants with more efficient
nitrogen utilization. Such plants would need less fertilizer, resulting in
crops that can be produced at a lower cost with less impact on the
environment. Arcadia Biosciences has found its niche by focusing on the
environment, while looking to improve the economics of growing sustainable
crops through agricultural biotechnology.
Sydney Young is a writer for Checkbiotech, who studied Conservation
Biology and Biology Education, and received an M.S. in Botany from BYU.
Her major area of interest is pollen and pollination strategies.
Substantial Equivalence - An Appropriate Paradigm for the Safety
Assessment of Genetically Modified Foods
- Kuiper, H., Kleter, G., Noteborn, H., Kok, E. 2002. Toxicology. vol.
Safety assessment of genetically modified food crops is based on the
concept of substantial equivalence, developed by OECD and further
elaborated by FAO/WHO. The concept embraces a comparative approach to
identify possible differences between the genetically modified food and
its traditional comparator, which is considered to be safe. The concept is
not a safety assessment in itself, it identifies hazards but does not
The outcome of the comparative exercise will further guide the safety
assessment, which may include (immuno) toxicological and biochemical
testing. Application of the concept of substantial equivalence may
encounter practical difficulties: (i) the availability of near-isogenic
parental lines to compare the genetically modified food with; (ii) limited
availability of methods for the detection of (un) intended effects
resulting from the genetic modification; and (iii) limited information on
natural variations in levels of relevant crop constituents.
In order to further improve the methodology for identification of
unintended effects, new 'profiling' methods are recommended. Such methods
will allow for the screening of potential changes in the modified host
organism at different integration levels, i.e. at the genome level, during
gene expression and protein translation, and at the level of cellular
Children and Genetically Engineered Food: Potentials and Problems
- Perr, H. 2002. Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition.
35(4): 475 - 486.
Changes in food production and dietary practices are occurring faster than
our understanding of their potential impact on children's health.
Traditionally, pediatric gastroenterologists have studied food with
respect to its nutritive value and digestibility, its influence on
metabolism, its growth-promoting characteristics, and its relationship to
risk and severity of disease.
Biotechnology is now expanding the science of food to include disease
prevention and treatment, as well as the feeding of children on a global
scale. Bioengineered ("genetically modified", or "transgenic") plants were
initially developed to enhance the food supply by increasing crop yields.
Such previously developed transgenic plants are now prevalent worldwide
and appear in many processed food products. The implementation of the
technology of genetic modulation of food plants has led to considerable
fear, controversy, and confusion as the understanding of the technology is
poor in the general population.
This review presents an overview of genetically modified food crops and
their potential unique benefits and risks to children's health. Political,
economical, and ecological issues related to transgenic crops are not
Union of Concerned Scientists
"Confused Scientists." - S. Fred Singer, George Mason University
professor and president of the Science & Environmental Policy Project, in
The Washington Times, August 11, 2000
"The Union of Perturbed Scientists." - Syndicated columnist Jonah
Goldberg, March 9, 1999
"It's more like the Union of Concerned Lawyers." - Steven Milloy,
"Aptly named because they can find concerns about anything." - Bruce
Boller, Virginia Military Institute Department of Physics and Astronomy,
The Washington Times, July 7, 2002
Background: Committed to an "open-minded search for truth," and armed with
"unrivaled scientific expertise," the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)
"doesn't say anything [it] can't back up with solid evidence." At least,
that's what its fund-raising letters say. The reality is quite different.
UCS embraces an environmental agenda that often stands at odds with the
"rigorous scientific analysis" it claims to employ. A radical green wolf
in sheep's clothing, UCS tries to distinguish itself from the Greenpeaces
of the world by convincing the media that its recommendations reflect a
consensus among the scientific community. And that's what makes it so
dangerous. Whether it's energy policy or agricultural issues, UCS's
"experts" are routinely given a free pass from newspaper reporters and
television producers when they claim that mainstream science endorses
their radical agenda.
Here's how it works: UCS conducts an opinion poll of scientists or
organizes a petition that scientists sign. Then they manipulate or
misconstrue the results in order to pronounce that science has spoken. In
1986 UCS asked 549 of the American Physical Society's 37,000 members if
Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was "a step in the
wrong direction for America's national security policy." Despite the
biased wording of the push-poll question, only 54 percent disapproved of
SDI. Even so, UCS declared that the poll proved "profound and pervasive
skepticism toward SDI in the scientific community."
Like many environmental activist groups, UCS uses the twin motivators of
cheer and fear. A giggly Gwenyth Paltrow and a catty Cameron Diaz
headlined a series of short appeals about energy conservation that UCS
produced. The two mega-stars crow that they turn the water off while
brushing their teeth, switch off the light when they leave their bedrooms,
and keep the thermostat at 65 degrees. "Its time for us to band together
and really make every effort to conserve our natural resources," chirps
Diaz. That's the sunny side.
But UCS is more adept at producing horror stories than chick flicks. They
are fear-mongers of the first order -- turning the sober science of health
and environmental safety into high drama for public consumption. For
example, UCS recently warned that by 2100 the U.S. might suffer 50-80
million more cases of malaria every year if the Senate fails to ratify the
Kyoto treaty. Such racy statistics are based on clumsy modeling of
worst-case scenarios, and assume -- against all evidence of human behavior
-- that no countermeasures whatsoever would be employed. "Not considering
factors such as local control measures or health services," in their own
words. Of course, you won't find those caveats in the press release.
Genetically Modified Science
Among UCS's many concerns, "the food you eat" is at the top of the list.
More than a million dollars went to its food program in 2001. Genetically
enhanced foods -- dubbed "Frankenfoods" by opponents -- have caused
worldwide hysteria even though no reputable scientific institution can
find anything to be afraid of. But that doesn't stop UCS's "experts" from
playing cheerleader to these unfounded fears.
They warn that biotech foods could result in the "squandering of valuable
pest susceptibility genes," "enhancement of the environment for toxic
fungi," and the "creation of new or worse viruses." They scream about
"Poisoned wildlife" and "new allergens in the food supply." Biotech foods,
they claim, might "increase the levels of toxic substances within plants,"
"reduce the effectiveness of antibiotics to fight disease," "contaminate
foods with high levels of toxic metals," "intensify weedy properties" and
cause the "rapid evolution of resistance to herbicides in weeds," leading
Rigorous scientific analysis led UCS to this list of horrors, right?
Wrong. That was merely a "?brainstorming' of potential harms." So how
likely are any of these to occur? "Risk assessments can be complicated,"
UCS says, and pretty much leaves it at that. In other words, they have
absolutely no idea.
In contrast, more reputable authorities have a very good grasp of the
potential risks of genetically enhanced foods. The U.S. Environmental
protection Agency says that genetically enhanced corn "does not pose risks
to human health or to the environment." The World Health Organization says
that biotech foods "are not likely to present risks for human health" and
observes that "no effects on human health have been shown as a result of
the consumption of such foods by the general population." Even the
European Union, which has gone out of its way to stifle food technology
for political reasons, notes: "The use of more precise technology [in
genetically enhanced crops] and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably
make them even safer than conventional plants and foods."
The Food and Environment Program at UCS is headed up by Margaret Mellon
and her deputy Jane Rissler, both of whom hold Ph.Ds and have held
positions at prestigious universities. So what do a couple of highly
trained research scientists, armed with nothing but guesswork, ideology
and a million dollar budget, do? They fight biotech food every step of the
Although UCS claims that it "does not support or oppose genetic
engineering per se," Mellon and Rissler in fact have never met a GM food
they didn't mistrust. That's because they hold biotech foods to an
impossibly high standard.
In 1999, UCS joined the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, the
Natural Resources Defense Council, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and
the Defenders of Wildlife, in petitioning the EPA for strict regulation of
corn modified to produce large amounts of the bacillus thuringiensis (Bt)
toxin. Bt is a naturally occurring insect poison that protects plants from
pests like the European corn borer. UCS's letter was part of a major scare
campaign to convince the public that Bt corn posed a risk to the Monarch
Both the USDA and the EPA later concluded that Bt corn caused no harm to
the Monarch. This reinforced the findings of federal regulators who had
performed a comprehensive safety review of Bt corn before it was allowed
into the marketplace. UCS remains unconvinced, even though the safest
place for a Monarch larva to be is in a Bt cornfield. Rissler argued there
was "insufficient data" to make such a conclusion.
Of course, "sufficient" data can never exist for zealots like Rissler. She
continued: "Do we assume the technology is safe? or do we prove it? The
scientist in me wants to prove it's safe." It's impossible to prove a
negative, to absolutely demonstrate that there are no dangers whatsoever
for any given product. The scientist in her knows that too, but she and
her colleagues at UCS continue to be guided by the "Precautionary
Principle." This misguided maxim argues that, based on the fear that
something harmful may possibly arise, we should opt for technological
The Wall Street Journal editorialized in 2000 that The Precautionary
Principle "is an environmentalist neologism, invoked to trump scientific
evidence and move directly to banning things they don't like." It's a big
hit among anti-technology activists because it justifies their paranoia
and serves to bludgeon technological progress.
Martin Teitel, who runs another misnamed activist group called the Council
for Responsible Genetics, admitted as much in 2001. "Politically," Teitel
said, "it's difficult for me to go around saying that I want to shut this
science down, so it's safer for me to say something like, ?It needs to be
done safely before releasing it.'" Requiring scientists to satisfy the
Principle by proving a negative, Teitel added, means that "they don't get
to do it period."
It should come as no surprise that UCS joined Teitel's organization and
other die-hard opponents of biotech foods in an activist coalition called
the Genetic Engineering Action Network. While acknowledging that "we know
of no generic harms associated with genetically engineered organisms," UCS
consistently opposes their introduction to the market on the basis of
purely hypothetical risk.
Confronted with the real-world benefits of biotech foods, UCS simply
changes the subject to its anti-corporate, socialist leanings. Rissler's
appearance on the PBS show Nova ? on a program called "Harvest of Fear" --
is a case in point. When the interviewer suggested that "genetically
modified crops are arguably much less harmful to the environment" Rissler
responded: "It depends on where you want to compromise. There's another
issue here with corporate control of the food supply."
UCS's knee-jerk reaction to biotech foods is matched only by its animus
towards agribusiness. A 1994 press release condemning FDA approval of
biotech foods complained that some of the data used by the oversight
agency was provided by private enterprises.
In her zeal to decry increased food production from the corporate adoption
of biotechnology, Mellon has argued that it's "not clear that more milk or
pork is good." And UCS supports a radical vision of "sustainable
agriculture." That means no pesticides or herbicides; no fertilizer (other
than E.coli-rich manure); and eating only "locally grown" produce. If it's
not clear under this plan where New York City would get its rice or how
Chicago would scrounge up any bananas, there's a reason for it. They
Pigs, Chickens and Cows, Oh My!
Hogging It, a UCS report published in 2001, argues that the use of
antibiotics in farm animals could result in human diseases that are
resistant to conventional treatments. The report received a great deal of
press attention, and UCS is not afraid to brag about it. "We developed the
numbers that everyone uses when talking about? overuse of antibiotics,"
trumpets a fund-raising letter. But how did they go about developing those
numbers? "Rigorous scientific analysis"? Hardly. While the livestock
industry actually calculates the amounts of antibiotics administered to
farm animals using hard sales figures, UCS guesses at average drug dosages
and then multiplies by the total number of animals. That's
"brainstorming." Not science.
The real experts, like David Bell, coordinator of the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention's anti-microbial resistance programs, aren't
impressed by Hogging It. Interestingly, UCS admits the weakness of its
evidence. The executive summary of Hogging It complains about a "gaping
chasm" in the data. Nevertheless, the authors are proud to produce the
"first transparent estimate" of livestock antibiotic use in America.
Estimate? That's right. "The numbers everyone uses" are just estimates.
Moreover, UCS measures antibiotic usage in total tonnage. But is that
relevant in any way? UCS concedes that it's not. The activist group wants
the FDA to track antibiotic usage by "type," since most antibiotics used
in animals are unlike those used in humans.
Consumer Reports quotes Margaret Mellon saying, "We know nothing. We are
flying blind." No wonder the American Veterinary Medical Association and
the Coalition for Animal Health also reject Hogging It's findings. But
none of that stops UCS from scaring the wits out of the public. Mellon
warns of an "era where untreatable infectious diseases are regrettably
commonplace." That might be worth getting "Concerned" about, if only it
were based on good science.
India to Host 2004 World Social Forum
- Kyodo, via NewsEdge January 28, 2003
Porto Alegre, Brazil, - The World Social Forum, a parallel movement to the
World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort Davos, ended its third annual
session in Porto Alegre, southern Brazil on Tuesday with a decision to
hold the 2004 forum in India as part of a strategy to globalize its
We have to conquer other minds and hearts and show to the whole world it
is possible to build a better world, said Candido Grzybowsky, a member of
the World Social Forum's international committee. Francisco Whitaker,
another committee member, said holding the forum in India will bring
additional quality to the event because it will cover the culture of the
Organizers expect the forum in India will build closer links with Asia and
Africa where regional social forums already have taken place. The
committee also decided the forum will return to Porto Alegre in 2005 after
the 2004 meeting in India.
Parbir Purkayastha, leader of People's Science Network, an Indian group
which promote sustainable development and literacy in India, said he
believes the forum in India will add new topics to the agenda apart from
globalization, war, freedom, land reform and genetically modified
organisms, the key items taken up in Porto Alegre.
We will enclose themes like fundamentalism, religious fanaticism and
sectarianism, he said. Non-governmental organizations and other groups of
India will meet Feb. 14-16 in New Delhi to draft the global organization
for the next forum, expected to be held in January, 2004
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has said he plans to attend
the forum in India. More than 5,100 groups from 156 countries attended the
Porto Alegre meeting. U.N. General Secretary Kofi Annan was represented by
U.N. Under Secretary for Economic and Social Affairs Nitin Desai.
Agricultural Biotechnology - The Emerging Trends
- John Purcell & Jill Montgomery, Analyst, December 2002
Agricultural biotechnology is having a major impact on agricultural
productivity on a global basis. Crops with protection against insect
attack (corn and cotton) and tolerance to herbicides (corn, cotton,
soybean, canola) are the two major trait classes found in the marketplace
today. Crops with these two classes of traits have been rapidly adopted
(52.6 mn hectares in 16 countries in 2001James, 2001) and provide
substantial benefits by reducing pesticide use, increasing yields and
having a significant economic impact on agriculture.
In 2001, the eight biotech crops grown in the US alone increased crop
yields by 4 bn pounds, provided a net value of US$1.5 bn and reduced
pesticide use by 46 mn lbs (Gianessi et al. 2002). Over three quarters of
the 5.5 mn farmers who benefitted from biotechnology crops in 2001 were
resource-poor farmers (James, 2001). Significant benefits flow to these
smallholder farmers in countries such as China where economic,
environmental and social advantages are being realized by the use of
insect protected cotton (Pray et al., 2002). A number of additional input
traits are currently in development that will reach the marketplace in the
next five years. Successful commercialization and future adoption of these
new products has great potential to further increase yields, reduce
pesticide usage and lower production costs.
New products: he next generations of biotechnology crops will feature
traits well beyond the current pest protection and herbicide tolerance.
Stress tolerances, for example, are actively being pursued as a means of
preserving yield under diverse environmental conditions. Among the targets
being pursued are tolerances to cold, heat and salinity. A number of
products with improved feed or food quality or nutritional enhancements
are also being developed. Vitamin and mineral enhancement is a prime
target with particular importance to the developing world.
Plant biotechnology can also be used to create crop plants that can serve
as natural `bioreactors'. One potential market opportunity is the
production of enzymes that are used in detergent formulations, industrial
processes or in food processing. Plant-based biopolymer production is
another area being pursued in the laboratory. Significant progress has
also been made in the use of plants for pharmaceutical purposes. While
commercial introduction of these traits is certainly several years away,
the promising results already being seen in the laboratory give great hope
for the future applications of biotechnology to use plants as a modern,
efficient way of molecular farming. Additional efforts are focused on
using plants or plant-based products for efficient production of ethanol
and other replacements for petroleum-based products. Such applications
would reduce dependence on non-renewable sources of energy and encourage
more environmentally accepted sources of these products.
Challenges in reaching global markets: One major challenge in reaching
global markets is the lack of functioning biosafety processes in many
countries. This can delay access to the technology for these countries. In
terms of safety assessments, some current and proposed regulations
(national and international) for plant biotechnology crops will require
substantial resources and capacity and may in fact deter adoption.
International public policy makers should ensure that any and all
regulations for plant biotechnology are aimed at making truly necessary
determinations on health and environmental safety, taking advantage of
existing safety information as appropriate, and allowing international
market access for all safe agriculture products.
Global trade barriers can also affect the adoption of agricultural
biotechnology. As the recent food aid crisis in southern Africa has
highlighted, the trade policies of the European Union can be a
consideration for countries trying to take advantage of the benefits that
agricultural biotechnology can deliver.
Additional issues, especially in the developing world, are the
fragmentation of farming and the poor rural infrastructure. This leads to
difficulties in delivering any kind of solution to the farmers and their
communities. Cooperative efforts among public sector, NGO, private sector,
and national organizations have led to the development of models where
these difficulties may be addressed for the benefit of farmers and their
communities. However, biotechnological improvements themselves are
independent of scale and thus benefit the smallest farmers as much as or
more than they benefit large-scale farmers. Other processing, storage, and
transport needs for crops with biotechnological improvements are not
greatly different than the infrastructure needed to handle conventional
crops. It is the case in many developing countries that improving this
infrastructure would be extremely beneficial to human health and
Earth Liberation Front
The Earth Liberation Front is an international underground movement
consisting of autonomous groups of people who carry out direct action
according to the E.L.F. guidelines. Since 1997, E.L.F. cells have carried
out dozens of actions resulting in over $30 million in damages.
Modeled after the Animal Liberation Front, the E.L.F. is structured in
such a way as to to maximize effectiveness. By operating in cells (small
groups that consist of one to several people), the security of group
members is maintained. Each cell is anonymous not only to the public but
also to one another. This decentralized structure helps keep activists out
of jail and free to continue conducting actions.
As the E.L.F. structure is non-hierarchical, individuals involved control
their own activities. There is no a centralized organization or leadership
tying the anonymous cells together. Likewise, there is no official
"membership". Individuals who choose to do actions under the banner of the
E.L.F are driven only by their personal conscience or decisions taken by
their cell while adhering to the stated guidelines.
Who are the people carrying out these activities? Because involved
individuals are anonymous, they could be anyone from any community.
Parents, teachers, church volunteers, your neighbor, or even your partner
could be involved. The exploitation and destruction of the environment
affects all of us - some people enough to take direct action in defense of
Any direct action to halt the destruction of the environment and adhering
to the strict nonviolence guidelines, listed below, can be considered an
E.L.F. action. Economic sabotage and property destruction fall within
Earth Liberation Front Guidelines:
* To inflict economic damage on those profitting from the destruction and
exploitation of the natural environment.
* To reveal and educate the public on the atrocities committed against the
earth and all species that populate it.
* To take all necessary precautions against harming any animal, human and
There is no way to contact the E.L.F. in your area. It is up to each
committed person to take responsibility for stopping the exploitation of
the natural world. No longer can it be assumed that someone else is going
to do it. If not you who, if not now when?