Today in AgBioView - December 17, 2002
* Greenpeace's Scare Tactics Didn't Work
* Brazil's Farms Minister Supports Gene-modified Crops
* An Idea Is Planted: Firm Uses Tobacco to Grow Cancer Drugs
* Tragedy of the Africans on Brink of Famine
* Corrected Website Address for Downloading 'Golden Rice' Slides
* French Docs Nod on Biotech Food: Info Needed!
* Response to 'GM Plants Cause Cancer Nonsense'
* No Small Matter
* Phony War Over Biotechnology - Part II: Open Letter to the Activists
* Biotech's Yin and Yang: Chinese Biotechnology
Greenpeace's Scare Tactics Didn't Work
- Alvin Capino ABS-CBN News, December 15, 2002 (Courtesy: Andrew Apel)
The (Filipino) government's approval of the commercial planting of the
biotechnology-developed corn variety that would yield more with little or
no application of toxic and highly polluting chemical pesticides is a
triumph of sobriety and reason over blind fear and scare tactic espoused
by the environmental group Greenpeace.
The government' approval of the commercial planting of the
biotechnology-developed corn variety that would yield more with little or
no application of toxic and highly polluting chemical pesticides is a
triumph of sobriety and reason over blind fear and scare tactic espoused
by the environmental group Greenpeace.
Greenpeace has been raising so many bogeys about this new corn variety
including the myth that biotech corn would cause homosexuality or that if
the corn were widely propagated butterflies would disappear.
The corn variety that Greenpeace spent so much time (and money?) to deny
to our farmers is called Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt corn. With its
high-yield and high-insect resistant qualities, which were made possible
through advances in agricultural biotechnology with the government's nod,
the market and local corn farmers would have a choice: to plant
traditional corn or go for the biotech variety. Greenpeace didn't want the
farmers to have such a choice.
The government decision to allow commercial planting of Bt corn was
preceded by a long highly passionate high-profile debate between
Europe-based Greenpeace and its nongovernment organization allies and the
country's foremost agricultural scientists most of them women. Greenpeace
reportedly had millions of dollars in its war chest to make sure that the
government is cowed in submission and that it backs out of its
But the Filipino scientific community fought back against the bully
tactics of Greenpeace. In a rare show of unity, agricultural scientists
were steadfast in their support of biotechnology convinced that
biotechnology, which has revolutionized farming in the US and in other
parts of the world that has accepted its advantages in agricultural
applications, would make a big difference for the Philippines.
Filipino scientists challenged Greenpeace to back up its scare stories
with facts. It had none. Nonetheless, even in the absence of facts,
Greenpeace continued to foment antibiotechnology hysteria and talking
about "millions of dead bodies and sick children, cancer clusters and
deformities." Its NGO allies told farmers in the province that Bt corn
causes homosexuality, impotence and mental retardation.
In the end the government favored the sober empirical exposition of the
Filipino agricultural scientists against the myths and fallacies advanced
by Greenpeace. It is interesting to note that the final review and
scrutiny made on Bt corn was done by the scientific and technical review
committee, which is made up not by political bureaucrats but by
independent-minded scientists. Earlier Bt corn also went through a rigid
and thorough tests by the National Committee on Biosafety of the
Philippines also composed of scientists.
We hope Greenpeace has learned an important lesson in this exercise. For
one, it should realize that scare tactics don't work anymore if you have
nothing to support your allegations. The Philippines might be third world
in term of its economics but this does not mean that our thinking is third
world, too. For a country desperately in search of answers to food
shortage and the mounting burden of importing basic food items Greenpeace
would have to present at least some evidence that what it is saying is
based on some verifiable facts.
Greenpeace tried to stop commercial use of Bt corn that promises to
dramatically increase the yield of our farmers but it did not offer any
viable alternatives. Greenpeace is advocating organic farming but everyone
knows that organic food is expensive to raise and its price is beyond the
reach of even the middle class. This is the reason why organic produce is
sold only during weekends in rich Makati.
Greenpeace's "Go Organic" campaign suffered some credibility problem after
Reuters reported that Greenpeace has already licensed its own organic
product line in South America.
Another mistake of Greenpeace is its patronizing attitude toward our
farmers who they thought need not be given any facts since they could be
swayed with some specious arguments. They know that our corn farmers are
among the most organized in the country. They speak with a solid and
strong voice through the Philippine Maize Federation. They are educated
and they are amused that Greenpeace would even think of trying to convince
them to reject Bt corn by using the myth that this variety can be a cause
It is clear that our farmers simply want to have choices. For them the
commercialization of Bt corn is just an expansion of the range of their
We hope that Greenpeace would apply the lessons learned form this debacle
to their legitimate advocacies such as that for clean energy sources.
Greenpeace is scoring points in its war against the highly polluting
coal-fired power plants. They can win that war. Unless, of course, they
resort once more to hysterics.
Brazil's Farms Minister Supports Gene-modified Crops
- Financial Times (London), December 17, 2002 (Courtesy: Katie Thrasher)
The minister of agriculture designated by Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva,
Brazil's leftwing president-elect, argued yesterday in favour of
legalising genetically-modified crops in Brazil, one of the world's
leading agricultural exporters.
The statement by Roberto Rodrigues, appointed to the cabinet last Friday,
contrasts with the opposition of many members in Mr Lula da Silva's
leftwing Workers' party (PT) to GM crops.
"We need to give Brazilian farmers the chance to use GM crops, as long as
there is absolute control, labelling, and scientific assurances that there
is no impact on public health and the environment," Mr Rodrigues told
Globo television. GM crops could help combat famine by reducing food
prices, added Mr Rodrigues, who heads an agricultural business association
that represents several multinational commodity groups. He acknowledged,
however, that it was a controversial issue and that reforms would be
adopted only gradually and with a scientific foundation.
Brazil is among the world's last large agricultural producers to prohibit
GM crops. Billions of dollars in sales rest on the decision. Agriculture
is one of the country's most competitive exports and has been one of the
few fast-growth sectors in the economy. The government forecast yet
another record grain harvest of 106m tonnes next year.
Monsanto, the international agriculture and biotechnology group, has been
locked in a legal battle for years in an attempt to permit the sale of its
GM Roundup Ready soya seeds. Environmental and consumer defence groups
have led the battle against GM crops. "We are surprised by Mr Rodrigues'
statement. Lula won on a platform of extreme responsibility regarding GM
crops," said Mariana Paoli, a campaign co-ordinator with Greenpeace.
Last year Brazil's landless movement (MST), which is closely linked to the
PT, destroyed an experimental GM soya plantation on the sidelines of the
World Social Forum attended by Mr Lula da Silva. The appointment late last
week of a market-friendly economic team, including Mr Rodrigues, fuelled a
rally in Brazil's financial markets yesterday.
An Idea Is Planted: Firm Uses Tobacco to Grow Cancer Drugs
- Los Angeles Times, December 16, 2002 (Courtesy: Katie Thrasher)
The tobacco seedlings reaching toward the bright sunlamps in an indoor
greenhouse look fairly ordinary. But the young plants growing in this
rural nursery aren't destined to become cigarettes.
Inside their broad, green leaves, the plants are pumping out bits of
cancer tumor as they spread upward in the 80-degree warmth. In a
laboratory nearby, the tumor fragments will be wrung from harvested plants
and used to make an experimental biotechnology vaccine.
So far, 16 people with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, an incurable cancer of the
lymphatic system, have received this vaccine produced by Large Scale
Biology Corp. One patient was a 29-year-old mother of two; another was a
12-year-old boy. Each received a vaccine that was not mass-produced but
customized to attack his or her specific tumor, a step toward the
long-promised era of "personalized medicine." Lymphoma spreads slowly, so
it will be years before anyone can be sure that the vaccine works. But the
early signs are encouraging. At a medical conference in Philadelphia last
week, Large Scale Biology reported that 10 of the 16 patients made
tumor-fighting white blood cells after getting the shots, a large
percentage for a cancer drug.
Much is riding on Large Scale's vaccines -- both for cancer patients and
for the company. After raising $89 million from an initial public stock
offering in 2000, Large Scale has 12 to 18 months of cash remaining. The
cancer vaccine is one of two drugs the company is feverishly developing.
And with its shares hovering in penny-stock territory, time is running out
for the company -- though it wouldn't be the first biotech firm to roar
back from the edge.
All current biotechnology drugs approved by the Food and Drug
Administration are made by gene-splicing bits of DNA with live cells --
usually hamster cells -- and turning them into mini-cell factories to
produce a specific drug. But Large Scale's scientists believe that a
vaccine created through plants might be purer and avoid copying defects
found in mammals. Large Scale chose tobacco because it is cheap and grows
rapidly, a promising vehicle for producing many small batches of vaccine
at an acceptable price.
Next month, Large Scale hopes to persuade the FDA to approve a more
elaborate human test of its lymphoma vaccine on 280 patients. Yet even if
the company gets that go-ahead, it must raise an additional $50 million to
fund the trials, which could take four years to complete.
The founder of Large Scale is 48-year-old Robert L. Erwin, an earnest,
rail-thin biologist with a very personal grudge against cancer: It killed
his first wife in 1994 after agonizing surgeries, radiation treatments and
chemotherapy. From the window of his Vacaville office at Large Scale,
Erwin can see the sprawling $500-million factory where South San
Francisco-based Genentech Inc., the world's second-largest biotechnology
company, makes its breast cancer drug Herceptin. The drug combats breast
cancer cells and might have saved his wife, Marti, but she died while it
was in development.
The loss of his wife drove Erwin to find a way to slash development times
for cancer medications to weeks instead of years. Large Scale says it now
can develop a vaccine for a patient in six weeks and hopes to eventually
produce enough custom vaccine to treat 10,000 patients each year.
"One thing I've learned," said Erwin, "is that speed is important for some
patients.The vaccines produced by Large Scale differ from shots given to
healthy children to protect them from measles or chicken pox. People who
get a lymphoma vaccine already are sick, in part because their immune
systems failed to notice or sufficiently fight their tumors.
There are more than 50 biotech vaccines in development against various
types of cancers, but none has reached the market and few are custom-made
for individual patients. Typical is a melanoma vaccine being tested by
CancerVax Corp. of Carlsbad, Calif., that contains 30 different tumor
fragments commonly present in skin cancer.
Many scientists believe that lymphoma requires a personalized approach
because it has substances on the surfaces of its deadly cells that vary
from patient to patient. A vaccine made from these so-called surface
antigens could train a patient's immune system to recognize and fight the
cancer, researchers believe.
Large Scale teamed up with Stanford University scientist Ronald Levy, who
started work on lymphoma vaccines in the late 1980s and who now runs the
firm's first round of drug trials. Levy and his students have treated
hundreds of patients in his Stanford laboratory over the last two decades.
A former student, Larry W. Kwak of the National Cancer Institute, is now a
rival and is preparing to test a personalized vaccine on hundreds of
patients in a clinical trial that could lead to FDA approval.
To this point, Large Scale, in keeping with standard practices, is
providing its cancer vaccine for free as the company conducts its testing,
and no one knows what this kind of treatment might really cost in the end.
Kwak figures it could be as much as $50,000 for a series of five or six
shots. That would be half the $100,000 cost of a bone-marrow transplant --
a last resort for lymphoma patients -- but 10 times the expense of
standard chemotherapy. Still, insurers may be willing to cover vaccines if
the shots allow patients to avoid years of expensive medical care, Kwak
said. Large Scale believes that it can shave costs by producing drugs in
tobacco, an innovative counterpoint to Kwak's complicated but time-honored
technique that involves fusing a patient's tumor cell with a mouse
antibody. Large Scale's president, John D. Fowler, said the company's
production expenses could be 30% lower than those of biotech firms that
use the routine method of making drugs in rodent cells.
Large Scale uses a natural enemy of tobacco, the tobacco mosaic virus, to
produce its vaccine. The company slips genes from a patient's tumor into
copies of the virus, a virulent bug that is a scourge to farmers. As the
altered virus infects plants, it produces tiny tumor fragments that build
up in the tobacco leaves and stems. Six weeks later, the plants are
harvested, washed and spun in a centrifuge to extract plant juices. The
solution is purified and reduced to an amount of vaccine that wouldn't
fill a Coke can. Patients receive six shots spread over as many months
along with other injections to boost the immune system.
In the company's greenhouse, young plants with yellowing, mottled leaves
grow in neat rows on long, wooden tables. The plants are a cousin of the
tobacco strain grown for commercial use. A team of horticulturists tends
the plants, which are grown from seeds no larger than a pinhead in
temperatures that never dip below 72 degrees.
Lab assistants painstakingly infect the plants by hand, gently scratching
the leaves with a solution containing the virus, which can be transmitted
only by direct contact. It takes 1,000 plants grown to a height of 6
inches or so to make enough vaccine for a single patient, an amount equal
to half a teaspoon.
Catherine Gallegos, a school administrator in Monterrey County, became one
of the first patients to receive Large Scale's vaccine in May 2001. By
then, a harsh chemotherapy regimen had forced her neck and abdominal
tumors into remission, but doctors warned that the cancer probably would
Gallegos' shots ended a year ago, but her immune system continues to make
anti-tumor white blood cells. To Gallegos, the vaccine offers a chance to
break the inevitable cycle of chemotherapy treatments followed by shorter
and shorter remissions, the deadly hallmark of lymphoma. "It gives me
peace of mind to know that my system is responding," said Gallegos, 57,
who lives near Santa Cruz. "I feel like I have my life back."
Erwin didn't have cancer vaccines in mind in 1986 when he founded the
predecessor of Large Scale. But his first wife's illness sharpened his
business focus. After the standard artillery of surgery, chemotherapy and
radiation failed Marti, Erwin became convinced that a different approach
Marti's inability to obtain Genentech's experimental drug also transformed
Erwin into a crusader, an unlikely role for a biotech CEO. With his
blessing, fellow activists stormed Genentech's campus after her death in a
mock funeral procession. Since then, Erwin has quietly lobbied
pharmaceutical companies to provide experimental medications to patients
whose cancer defies treatment.
Erwin acknowledges that it can be difficult to balance his zeal with his
responsibilities as Large Scale's CEO. His company recently was ready to
provide the cancer vaccine to an additional patient, who didn't
technically qualify for the drug trial, but she did not survive a bone
marrow transplant. However, Large Scale's financial condition doesn't
allow it to routinely offer treatment to others.
In the next few months, if the firm does not find a partner to fund
another round of cancer vaccine trials, the vaccine could be set aside.
But it probably wouldn't sit on a shelf permanently. The company hopes it
license its technology or possibly try to develop it again later.
"It isn't just about making money," Erwin said. "We're giving patients
something that really matters."
Tragedy of the Africans on Brink of Famine
- The Express on Sunday (UK), December 16, 2002
Do they know it's Christmas time at all?
Everyone remembers the Ethiopian crisis of the mid-Eighties: the power of
the Live Aid concert, Bob Geldof's impassioned "Give us your f***ing
money" and the heart-stopping pictures of malnourished children clinging
to mothers with nothing more to offer.
This time it could be worse. Six countries in southern Africa are
trembling on the edge of devastating famine. In Zambia alone, more than
2.9million people are in immediate need of food. The crop failed last year
due to drought while a plague of east coast fever has wiped out most of
Even if there was enough seed for the planting season, the labour force
has been decimated by Aids. Robinson Medendea is a village elder in Nalube
Centre, a cluster of nine settlements near Choma in the south of the
country. Aged 71, he has far exceeded the current life expectancy of just
38. "We have been through times of need but never have we been as
desperate as right now, " he says.
On August 31, the charity World Vision and the World Food Programme
delivered the first food aid to the area for years. It arrived just in
time for many of the 5,000 who received it. They were lucky. Too many
others in equal need have yet to be visited. There was joy as the first
bags of maize were carried from a makeshift storehouse to the
well-mannered crowd gathered outside. Children smiled and played with
slingshots in the barren cornfield nearby. The promise of food can do
Chipo Mochanga, 59, and his wife Margaret received just over 50kg of
maize, enough to keep their family of five alive for another month. Old
and frail, they are having to raise three of their grandchildren. Luke,
nine, Mona, seven, and six-year-old Leundo lost their mother (Chipo and
Margaret's only daughter) and father just months apart two years ago.
Asked if they had Aids, Chipo looks puzzled. "They both died of a cough, "
One in five people in Zambia is HIV positive, related deaths have left one
million orphans and 70 per cent of the population under 18 - but awareness
has not penetrated to some of the remote villages.
Unbelievably, while far too many warehouses contain a last few solitary
packages, others are piled high with untouched grain. In May, President
Levy Mwanawasa declared a national emergency for food but he refuses to
distribute this supply from the US.
It is genetically modified and he considers it "poison". There is anger
that America is using a desperate situation to introduce technology to
countries which would otherwise reject it. There are rumours, too, that
maize dealers and millers are hoarding in the hope of higher prices as the
Meanwhile, many schools stand half empty as children don't have the energy
to walk there. With water levels dropping, weakened adults can spend an
entire day travelling to rivers often seven to 10 miles away. So far, no
one believes that anybody has died from hunger in Nalube this year but
there are 20 children in the medical clinic suffering the effects of
malnutrition. It is only a matter of time.
What you can do. . .
WORLD Vision cannot put a figure on the resources needed to combat the
disaster in Zambia. Put simply, the more money this international charity
receives, the more lives will be saved through providing not only food but
the means to help these people better provide for themselves.
GBP4 pays for a week's food for an orphan GBP16.58 buys a set of five
gardening tools GBP30 is enough for an emergency survival pack For further
information or to make a donation, please call 0800 088 088, log on to
www. worldvision. org. uk or write to World Vision UK, 599 Avebury
Boulevard, Milton Keynes MK9 3PG.
Corrected Website Address for Downloading 'Golden Rice' Slides
- From: Louis Bennett
I received several reports of visitors unable to find Prof. Ingo Potrykus'
presentation about golden rice on our site - looks like the link from your
newsletter might be out-dated or otherwise incorrect. whatever the case,
I've created a work-around that makes the link in the newsletter work just
If it's standard procedure to note errata in subsequent editions of your
newsletter, we'd appreciate it if you pointed out the correct address:
- Many thanks! Louis
French Docs Nod on Biotech Food: Info Needed!
- From: Drew Kershen
Last week (Dec. 8-14), the French Medical Academy and the French National
Science Academy both issued reports on agricultural biotechnology. I have
read short news articles about these two reports. Does anyone know a URL
for these reports in an English-language translation? Thank you, Drew
More Scientific Response to 'GM Plants Cause Cancer - Nonsense'
To: The Editor, Sunday Herald (UK) Sir: I presume that Dr. Stanley Ewen, a
consultant histopathologist at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, supports the
consumption of sprouts, cabbages and cauliflowers for their cancer
reducing properties. Yet he is quoted as being "very concerned about GM
foods because they contain a fragment of cauliflower mosaic virus" (Sunday
Herald, 8 December) which he suggests could increase the risk of certain
cancers. What he appears not to recognise is that cauliflower mosaic virus
commonly infects sprouts, cabbages and cauliflowers but will not infect
humans and other animals. Furthermore, people consume infected sprouts and
cabbages, which contain tens of thousand times more virus than does any GM
food but there is no evidence of the virus causing cancers.
In view of the current national debate on the uptake of GM crops I feel
that it is irresponsible for a public figure to put forward such views for
which there is no evidence.
Although he says "he does not want to be scare-mongering", this is exactly
what he is doing.
- Yours faithfully, Professor Roger Hull, (Roger.firstname.lastname@example.org) John
Innes Centre, Norwich, UK
No Small Matter
- Stephan Herrera, Red Herring, Dec 2002. p 40. http://www.redherring.com
(Thanks to Eric Pfeiffer of Red Herring for forwarding this at my
A backlash against nanotechnology-and the small science's unintended
consequences-will gather steam and slow the pace of commercialization. The
backlash will spawn a new discipline: nanoethics.
Why It Will Happen. Nanotech is all about building things using
little-understood nanoscale materials-stuff that is measured in the
billionths of a meter-that possess powerful and unprecedented electrical,
physical, and chemical properties and that behave differently than
anything ever seen in a laboratory. Nanotech is like nuclear physics a
half-century ago-nobody is entirely sure what to make of it, but they are
fascinated and fearful all the same.
At a conference in October at Rice University's Center for Biological and
Environmental Nanotechnology, the first three prominent research papers
delving into nanotech's dark side were aired. One of those papers, which
was published in Nature in the fall, was prepared by the National
Aeronautics & Space Administration. All three look at the toxic effects of
nanotubes and nanoparticles, two of the hottest branches of nanoscience.
All three are preliminary and inconclusive, but they present the notion
that, at the very least, nanoparticles and nanotubes pose a potential
What happens, for instance, when nanomaterials like carbon nanotubes-some
varieties of which share the "whiskered" features of asbestos but, unlike
asbestos, are invisible to the naked eye-are accidentally released into
the environment? Where do they go? How far? How fast? And what near- and
long-term harm might they cause? The research just happened to coincide
with the release of Michael Crichton's new book on nanotech, Prey. The
movie version will come out next summer. Those in the nanotech community
who have read excerpts of Prey say the book and movie will do to nanotech
what Jurassic Park did to genetic engineering: foster fear.
A few years ago, similarly inconclusive studies on monarch butterflies
raised concern and helped pave the way for a European backlash against
genetically modified food, which ultimately cost the U.S. agricultural
biotechnology industry billions of dollars in product recalls and lost
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is scrutinizing nanoparticles,
too, as are Luddite activists: the Canada-based ETC group, which stands
for Erosion, Technology, and Concentration (a.k.a. Rural Advancement
Foundation International, or RAFI), is an antitechnology, anti-big
business organization that, in the fall, persuaded the distinguished
Swedish nonprofit research organization Dag Hammarskjľld Foundation to
help promote a white paper on what could happen to the planet if
nanotechnology is not stopped.
The author of that report is none other than Pat Roy Mooney, a longtime
antibiotech activist and the head of RAFI. What Mr. Mooney lacks in
scientific evidence, he gets the popular press to fill in with what-ifs.
He says that Nobel laureate and Rice chemistry professor Rick Smalley and
other leading nanotech researchers are trying to sneak nanotech into
science, industry, and society before it's fully vetted. ETC is demanding
a moratorium on the production of all nanomaterials. "Extreme care should
be taken," Mr. Mooney writes, "that, unlike with biotech, society does not
lose control of this technology."
The backlash fomented by both science-based and hysterical suppositions
about nanotech will provide fodder for ethicists much in the same way that
agricultural biotechnology and gene patenting spawned bioethics. (Today,
nearly every drug and medical device maker has a bioethicist on its board
of directors. The White House has its own bioethics advisory panel.) In
September, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee voted in support of the 21st
Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, which, if approved,
will create a National Nanotechnology Research Program. The act has
provisions that fund the study of the ethical and societal implications of
nanotechnology. The full Senate is expected to vote the measure into law
What It Will Mean. Like biotech in 1999, the nanotech industry no doubt
will be bewildered, blindsided, and then bogged down by ethical quandaries
(see "History Repeats Itself," right). The biotech industry learned the
hard way that ignoring the ethical considerations of genetically modified
food, stem cells, and gene therapy cut profits, hampered investment, and
slowed innovation. Odds are the same will happen to nanotech, despite some
efforts to head off the backlash. Why would nanotech be any different?
Advances in science and technology have always been tripped up by fear and
loathing. Already, ethicists are starting to ask hard questions about the
consequences of nanotechnology, like how nanoparticles can be contained,
and what special regulations and insurance should be put in place sooner,
rather than later.
Ask members of the nanotechnology community if there are any obvious or
potential controversies that they should be watching for, and they will
say no. When Red Herring posed the question to a panel of
scientists-including Mihail Roco, head of nanotechnology programs at the
National Science Foundation-assembled at the National Press Club in
Washington, D.C., last spring, the answer was no.
"Scientists think about things like ethics, but they don't let it
interfere with their work," says Emmanuelle Boubour, one of the leading
authorities on nanoethics. Ms. Boubour is doing her post-doctorate studies
at Rice with Dr. Smalley and Neil Lane (former Clinton science advisor and
one of the architects of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, a
broad-reaching basic research project). "Businesses and venture
capitalists tend to think that the science will speak for itself and that
society will just accept the idea that the benefits of nanotechnology
outweigh the risks."
In other words, nanotech is a sitting duck, just as biotech was, until the
industry realizes it must take ethics seriously and quickly educates the
public on the risk/reward proposition. In 2003, that seems unlikely.
In the late '90s, it was common to see Greenpeace activists railing
against an agricultural biotech company like Monsanto for producing and
shipping food made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Next year,
we could see the same thing in nanotech. In agricultural biotech, profit
margins that weren't destroyed by the consumer and political backlash were
finished off when companies were forced to purchase liability insurance.
"I know the signs. This could easily be GMO all over again,"says Simon
Waddington, a VC who worked at Monsanto during the GMO brouhaha.
'Phony War Over Biotechnology - Part II': A Collection of Open Letters to
- Mark Mansour, AgBioView, December 17, 2002. http://www.agbioworld.org
Part II: To Those of You Who Visited this Misfortune on All of Us, Some
Random Observations on Civic Responsibility:
To: Those of you in the activist community who helped foster this
environment of distortion and confusion (and you know who you are) along
with a jab at the media:
It may shock you to learn that many who despise your methods admire your
energy. Despite your misapprehensions, the overwhelming majority of those
who work in corporate America have consciences and deeply held feelings
about what is right and wrong. Some of your more most virulent detractors
are people who feel betrayed by your unprincipled and cynical manipulation
of the facts. Many of these people were and are passionate about the
environment, good health, and the future of generations to come: all of
the things you hold dear. And, despite your inability to the grasp the
fact, many of them are passionate about the promise of biotechnology.
It wasn't the fact that you questioned the safety of the technology, for
that is what scientists in the biotech industry do every day. They
research probe, try and discard new ideas, and in general engage in the
stimulating empirical process from which true genius springs. Most of the
questions you purported to raise, de novo, were asked and answered by
people far more qualified than you.
Although you have dodged and weaved in your dialogue with the public,
going back and forth from professed concern over food safety and then,
when even your staunchest allies weren't buying that anymore, back to
environmental concerns, the fact is that you used the novel aspects of the
technology to tremendous public relations advantage. The "weird factor"
was irresistible: the myth could fit easily onto a headline or a bumper
sticker, while printing the truth required the clearing of several old
And, as sincere as many in the corporate world are in their convictions,
the public seems forever inclined to give credence to the fervor of the
true believer over the measured words of the corporate man or woman who
receives a paycheck in return for speaking his or her mind. People can lie
for free, and others tell the truth for money, but this seems to have
eluded the intellectual grasp of millions of intelligent people. The media
has thoroughly botched the job of transforming this into a real debate,
allowing itself instead (with a few notable exceptions) to be the willing
accomplice of people with an appallingly transparent agenda. But that
dynamic will never change as long as people pay money for an entertaining
Greenpeace told the world that it wanted labeling. Its 1999 tax returns
tell a different story: one of its annexes boasts that their objective is
to discredit the technology. This story was made available to a number of
individuals in the media, all of whom took a pass on it. Greenpeace, after
all, provides great quotes and terrific raw material when one is on
deadline. Certainly, they are more quotable than a scientist or an
executive, who must worry about being ridiculed, fired or sued, for having
said the wrong thing to the wrong person, because he or she is under
orders to behave responsibly and depict the facts in context.
Facts and context seldom make for good copy. While it may be that many of
you actually believe what you profess, many more of your compatriots base
their convictions on the thinnest reed: the exhortations and the
self-professed expertise of the people who began the movement. Too many of
your best educated and thoughtful compatriots have split off in disgust
for that fact to be concealed from the discerning reader.
It would behoove those of you who remain to ask yourselves honestly
whether this is a cause with which you will in the years to come be proud
at having been a part of. If the truth be told, many of you will answer in
the negative. And if that is the case, and if you shrug and persist in
this cause, you will have much for which to answer. You will have company,
for you will be joined at the proverbial hip with those who have used your
success to try (in vain, as we will see) to solve their own parochial
The unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Zambia is in part your
responsibility. The headlines are now imprinted in memory, what with the
government of Zambia so public in its refusal to accept grain to feed its
staving many, on the flimsy and shameful pretext that their future health
might be jeopardized, even though you know and the world knows that not a
shred of evidence exists to support these assertions. At least there was
some vindication in watching those same people, smart enough to realize
that prospective well-being is irrelevant if one is about to die of
starvation, raided the grain stores after the furor died down a week
later. It was interesting that this heartbreaking turn of events barely
saw the light of day, either in the media or in the streams of
congratulatory e-mails that were seen in your Internet newsgroups, after
your stunning victory in turning biotech grain out of Africa.
The irony of it all is that there are far nobler causes out there, crying
for your energy. One of them has poignancy here, in fact. You might wish
to take on the cause of the millions of AIDS victims in Africa. It turns
out that, if the famine situation in sub-Saharan Africa is not resolved
soon, the continent can kiss goodbye the potential of effective
antiretroviral therapy (ART). There are numerous credible accounts of
HIV-infected people in Africa who receive ART (amazing in and of itself,
given how expensive and scarce these drugs are ) but who, one month later,
return with nearly full containers of pills. When their doctors ask why
they haven't taken their pills, the patients point to the drug usage label
that says "take with food."
There are far nobler causes. Do the world and humanity a favor, and go and
find one of them. Devote your energy and passion to it, and make a
difference. Were half of you to take this advice, no further memoranda
need be written.
(Mark Mansour is an attorney with Keller and Heckman
Llp in Washington
DC and an expert on trade and biotechnology issues. This is the second of
his three-part series commentary in AgBioView)
Chinese Biotechnology: Biotech's Yin and Yang
- The Economist, December 12, 2002, www.economist.com
'China's biotechnology industry is growing fast, but faces several
In a vast room in one of Beijing's new industrial parks, legions of
white-coated workers mill around machines, pushing samples through a
well-oiled assembly line. One wall is adorned with a banner reading "The
first step of the great long march". The original Long March, in the
1930s, is fabled in Chinese communism. This time round a more commercial
revolution is in the works.
The factory is not turning out television sets or low-cost clothing, but
information: 50m units of genetic sequence a day. It is part of the
Beijing Genomics Institute. The institute's industrial-scale sequencing
operations played a key role in the international Human Genome Project,
making China the only country in the developing world to have joined in.
Today, China's economy may be booming on the back of manufacturing. But
the government wants future growth to come more from high technology and
knowledge-based industries. So, between 1996 and 2000, the central
government invested over 1.5 billion yuan ($180m) in biotechnology, as
part of its main programme to kickstart the sector. Between 2000 and 2005,
it plans to invest another 5 billion yuan. As a result, reckons the Boston
Consulting Group, biotechnology is flowering in 300 publicly funded
laboratories and around 50 start-up companies, mainly in and around
Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. The science ministry claims that as many
as 20,000 researchers work in the life sciences in China.
The science ministry claims that as many as 20,000 researchers work in the
life sciences in China
This is small beer compared with the $15.7 billion invested in research
and development last year alone by America's biotechnology industry, which
employs 191,000 people. But the speed with which China's industry is
growing provokes both wonder and anxiety in the outside world. Some worry
that a lack of public debate over biotechnology, and different
philosophical traditions, mean that China will head off in directions that
are morally unacceptable in the West. Francis Fukuyama, an American
political scientist, predicts in The World in 2003 (a sister publication
of The Economist) that next year "the Chinese will announce the successful
cloning of human embryos, causing moral mayhem in the United States and
Those at the forefront of Chinese biotechnology greet such suggestions
with a mixture of amusement and frustration. For the forward march of
Chinese biotech is balanced by several opposing forces, including a lack
of some of the basic building-blocks of a modern, knowledge-driven
industry, ever-shifting regulation, particularly for genetically modified
(GM) crops, and the first stirrings of protest by activist groups. This
balance of opposites, the yin and the yang, is as familiar a feature of
the country's modern technological development as it is of ancient Chinese
philosophy. Only if it can surmount these challenges will China's biotech
industry be able to rival its more established peers in Europe and
Americaˇand even then it is likely to take a decade.
Limits to growth
Step into the dispensary of one of Beijing's top hospitals, and you will
find many of the fruits of biotechnology, such as genetically engineered
insulin to treat diabetes or interferon-alpha to fight cancer. In fact,
there are now roughly 20 genetically engineered medicines approved for
sale in China, earning a tidy 7.6 billion yuan in 2000. Yet although they
were made in China, such products are little more than high-tech
knock-offs of rich-country inventions, introduced when China had little
interest in intellectual-property rights.
"Originality is still a problem for many of China's scientists"
Between 1966 and 1976, the Cultural Revolution did its best to erase all
forms of scientific innovation in China. Wang Hongguang, director of the
National Centre for Biotechnology Development, admits that originality is
still a problem for many of China's scientists. He hopes the return of
some of the 20,000 Chinese researchers now working abroad will add a spark
of creativity. Last month, Beijing announced a recruitment drive to
attract 200 scientists from abroad with the promise of western-style
There are already several bright spots in Chinese biotechnology, often
centred on returning scientists. One such is Yang Huanming, who trained in
Europe and America before returning to start the Beijing Genomics
Institute, which he now directs, in 1999. As well as leading China's
contribution to the human genome sequence and working with Danish partners
on the pig genome, this week the institute announced completion of a
detailed map of the rice genome. It is also involved in the International
HapMap Project, a five-country initiative launched in October, to follow
up the Human Genome Project with a large-scale study of human genetic
variation and its relation to disease.
Similarly, the National Engineering Research Centre for Beijing Biochip
Technology is headed by Cheng Jing, an engineer and molecular biologist
trained in Britain and America. Dr Cheng is one of China's most
entrepreneurial academics, having already spun out some of the centre's
technology to Chinese and American start-ups. He now has two diagnostic
chips, for infectious disease and tissue transplantation, in trials at
Beijing hospitals, and is spearheading a drive to link most of China's
biochip expertise under one roof in a Beijing science park next year.
Another hotspot is the Chinese National Human Genome Centre in Shanghai.
Here, the focus is on studying the genetics of diseases that particularly
afflict the Chinese population, such as hepatocellular carcinoma, a form
of liver cancer.
China is beginning to fortify traditional Chinese medicine with a dose of
biotech as well
China is beginning to fortify traditional Chinese medicine with a dose of
biotech as well. In Hong Kong, the Biotechnology Research Institute is
screening molecules isolated from traditional Chinese remedies to see if
they have any effect on receptors known to be involved in
neurodegenerative disease, a technique that is common in western-style
drug discovery. The Shanghai Traditional Chinese Medicine Innovation
Centre has been working with PhytoCeutica, an American biotechnology firm,
to create a database of 9,000 traditional herbs and 150,000 recipes.
Stem-cell research is in the works at a handful of centres. Most of
China's stem-cell scientists are focused on adult cells, and half a dozen
stem-cell banks have already sprung up. But some researchers are working
in the more controversial area of embryonic stem cells. Among them is
Sheng Huizhen, at Shanghai Second Medical University, who is trying to
generate stem cells by transferring nuclei from human skin cells into
Dr Sheng's experiments are strictly academic; she wants to understand
better the early stages of cellular reprogramming, work that requires
thousands of eggs that are unavailable from human sources. After more than
a decade at America's National Institutes of Health, she decided to return
to China, as increasing restrictions made this line of research difficult.
These are interesting times indeed, with academics returning to China for
the intellectual freedom they cannot find in the West.
At the moment, most Chinese biotechnology is bankrolled by the government
For all these scientific strengths, the expansion of Chinese biotechnology
is held back by several problems. One is funding. Biotechnology is not
cheap: long development times and scientific uncertainty mean that it
takes lots of money to develop a successful product. At the moment, most
Chinese biotechnology is bankrolled by the government, although private
money is beginning to trickle in.
On the whole, biotech entrepreneurs such as Dr Cheng would rather have
private money than deal with the strings that inevitably come with public
funds. So far, private investors in China are far less sophisticated than
their foreign counterparts. Zhao Guoping, director of Shanghai's genomics
centre, has seen plenty of millionaires beat a path to his door, only to
turn back when they hear how risky biotechnology can be. Some investors
from Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong have taken the plunge. But
venture-capital groups from Europe and America are holding off until they
can be assured of a way to recoup their investment, preferably by floating
any resultant company on the stockmarket, or selling it to a larger firm.
A second problem is management. As in the early days of European biotech,
China's emerging industry lacks people who combine scientific nous with
good business sense. Another shortcoming is intellectual-property
protection. Although China moved last year to strengthen its patent laws
for drugs and other biotech products, it is still a hard, expensive slog
to get a patentˇand even harder to exercise it, thanks to weak enforcement
China's patchy record in such bioethical minefields as abortion and organ
donation leads many in the West to fear the worst
Lastly, there is the question of regulation. China's patchy record in such
bioethical minefields as abortion and organ donation leads many in the
West to fear the worst when they hear that the country is branching into
genetic engineering or high-tech reproduction. But Ole Doering, a
bioethicist at Bochum University in Germany, argues that China's move into
biotechnology has been accompanied by the introduction of a modern
bioethical framework. For example, the Chinese government issued a
declaration in 1998 explicitly banning reproductive cloning; America is
still waiting to pass national legislation. Similarly, China's
human-genome projects are governed by strict rules on sample collection
and informed consent. Ironically, the only people to get into bioethical
hot water recently were visiting gene-hunters from Harvard.
The central government is now working to establish national guidelines
governing stem-cell research. Two proposals have been put forward, both
loosely modelled on British regulations, allowing so-called therapeutic
cloning. Dr Doering cautions that, even with such laws in place,
enforcement and monitoring will also need improvement. In the meantime,
Chinese researchers are playing it safe. Li Lingsong, head of the Peking
University Stem Cell Research Centre, observes that, if Chinese scientists
want to collaborate with foreign research groups, publish in international
journals or attract overseas investment, they have to abide by
international rules. Practicality, if not morality, will help to keep most
scientists in line with international notions of acceptable biological
When it comes to the regulation of genetically modified crops, however,
things are rather less harmonious. Du Suocheng is a small-scale farmer,
raising ducks, corn and cotton in a village near Beijing. Sitting in the
concrete shell of his new house, and pointing to his new second-hand
truck, Mr Du says he is pleased with the extra income generated by his
tiny, 0.3-hectare plot of Bt cotton. It is engineered to produce a protein
normally found in a bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, that is lethal to
one of China's main agricultural pests, the cotton boll-worm. Although it
costs five times more than unmodified cotton seed, Mr Du has found that
the expense has been more than offset in lower insecticide costs and
higher yields. He plans to expand his Bt-cotton field next year; his wife
wishes he had done so earlier.
Mr Du's experience is echoed all round China. According to Huang Jikun and
Wang Qin Fang, specialists in agricultural policy at the Chinese Academy
of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing,
some 5m Chinese farmers grew Bt cotton on 2m hectares last year (see chart
1). A survey by Dr Huang and his colleagues, along with Carl Pray at
Rutgers University and Scott Rozelle at the University of California,
Davis, in America, showed that farmers growing Bt cotton earned roughly
$500 more per hectare than those sticking to conventional varieties and
used 80% less insecticide. Dr Rozelle says this challenges the view that
GM crops have little to offer farmers in developing countries.
Bt cotton is one of four cropsˇalong with late-ripening tomatoes,
virus-resistant sweet peppers and colour-altered petuniasˇto have been
approved for commercial cultivation in China. There are various GM animals
and another 60 GM plants at various stages of development, including
virus-resistant wheat, moth-resistant poplars and high-tech tomatoes
producing hepatitis-B vaccine.
The Chinese government spent 322m yuan on plant-biotechnology research in
2000, sustaining one of the biggest public-sector agricultural-science
programmes in the world. One of China's leading centres for plant
biotechnology is Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan, where Zhang
Qifa and his team specialise in rice, the country's main staple crop. Last
month, the central government announced that it was giving the university
15m yuan, along with 65m yuan from other government sources and a private
developer, to set up a research centre to develop new GM crops.
The government is sending mixed signals
Yet the government is sending mixed signals. Dr Zhang's Bt rice has been
tested in field trials and with farmers, with positive results. The
government's national GM biosafety committee readily gave approval for the
rice to be tested outside the laboratory. But for the past two years it
has refused to allow it to be sold. Dr Zhang is not the only one waiting
for the green light. Although several new varieties of Bt cotton have been
approved by the committee since 1999, no new GM crops have made it to the
market (see chart 2). Even Dr Zhang admits to some confusion. Why would
the government invest heavily in research, and push crops into further
development with environmental testing, but not allow the results to go on
The official reason is tight new regulations, announced last year,
governing food labelling, environmental testing, commercial release, and
the import and export of GM crops. The new import rules include
requirements for field testing and a food safety evaluation. Some
scientists argue that this more cautious stance is justified, given that
China's next generation of GM crops includes such staple foods as rice,
which could be adopted by billions of people around the world, and whose
safety now rests in China's hands.
Others are less complimentary. American companies, such as Monsanto and
Cargill, were furious earlier this year when they were given only three
months to comply with the new requirements. As a result, America halted
almost all its soyabean exports to China, which provide nearly half of
China's annual consumption of 25m tonnes. Domestic producers thrived as
local soyabean prices rose, at least until stocks ran low in June. The
shortage, along with soyabean-talk between George Bush and Jiang Zemin, at
least got shipments flowing again until September 2003, while the
government processes the exporters' new applications for approval.
In fact it is trade, as much as safety, that seems to have dictated
China's new stand on GM crops. The opening-up of China through its World
Trade Organisation membership is likely to cause problems for
uncompetitive domestic producers. So it is hardly surprising if China
threatens to use its biotechnology rules to stave off competition from
China has already had a taste of genetic discrimination
But it may be that exports, rather than imports, are the real problem.
Chen Zhangliang, president of the Chinese Agricultural University, puts
the blame squarely on European fear of GM foods. China has already had a
taste of genetic discrimination: it was the first country to commercialise
a GM crop, virus-resistant tobacco, in the early 1990s, but quickly
abandoned it when American cigarette firms shunned it. More recently,
Chinese exporters have run into trouble from Europeans refusing to accept
soy sauce containing American GM-beans, and questioning the genetic purity
of everything from honey to mushrooms.
Sowing seeds of doubt
Even though the recent soyabean storm received considerable media
attention, coverage of GM foods in China is still more muted than in
Britain or America. As Dr Huang points out, the "public" debate over
biotechnology in China still means exchanges among scientists and
government officials, rather than society at large. For the past year, for
example, Greenpeace, an environmental group opposed to GM crops, has sent
a monthly newsletter to 600 researchers and government officials in
mainland China. It is full of such cheery stories on agricultural
biotechnology as "Starving Africans leery of GM food".
Greenpeace has now extended its presence in China from its headquarters in
Hong Kong to an office in Beijing. That it is expanding into mainland
China is remarkable enough. Even more surprising is that it seems to have
the quiet support of at least part of the Chinese government. Its
newsletter, for example, is co-sponsored by the Nanjing Institute of
Environmental Sciences, which falls under the authority of the State
Environmental Protection Administration. Meanwhile, other ministries
continue to pour money into transgenic research. Even in as open a society
as Britain, it is hard to imagine the government tolerating one of its own
research institutes throwing in its lot with Greenpeace and publicly
challenging official policy.
Some might applaud this as a sign of China's new culture of freer speech,
but others point to more old-fashioned forces at work, namely political
in-fighting. The environmental agency wants to exert more control over the
regulation of GM crops, which now comes under the umbrella of the
agriculture ministry. Some believe it would be a sensible move to hand GM
approvals to a ministry not also charged with promoting farm productivity,
a conflict of interest in which ecological considerations could lose out.
Over half of respondents approve of GM crops, and two-fifths even say yes
to genetically modified animals
As the political wrangle continues, Greenpeace is trying to broaden the
public debate. A public education drive is planned in Guangzhou and
Shanghai early next year. Public awareness is low: preliminary results
from a new household survey by Dr Huang, looking at the attitudes of 1,000
consumers in 20 cities, suggest that more than a third have never heard of
GM foods. Certainly some devout Taoists and Buddhists hold strong
religious objections to transgenic crops, particularly if they have had
genes introduced from non-plant species. In broad terms, however, Dr
Huang's survey shows that more than half of respondents approve of GM
crops, and two-fifths even say yes to genetically modified animals.
That still leaves roughly a third without strong views either way. They
may well prove fertile ground for Greenpeace's seeds of doubt. But Sze
Pang Cheung, a Greenpeace campaigner, notes that raising awareness about
the potential risks of GM foods will require different tactics in China
from those in Europe. Negative advertising may not work in a country
unaccustomed to strident debate on scientific issues.
So the striking red "X", an anti-GM protest symbol that Greenpeace has
used in Hong Kong, is unsuitable. Nor are field raids to tear up
transgenic plots, so popular in Europe, an option in China. Roughly 70% of
the population are farmers, and poor ones at that. Mr Sze says Greenpeace
will have to consider their interests too, and the possibility that some
GM crops could help to relieve their poverty.
Opponents of biotechnology face a long battle. Unlike Europe, China will
surely not turn its back on transgenic crops. Nor will it reject stem-cell
research, as America might do. But in the future more such questionsˇand
more cautionˇseem likely to hamper China's great biotechnological leap